Dwelling and Hospitality: Heidegger and Hölderlin

In: Research in Phenomenology
Author: Rafael Winkler1
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  • 1 University of Johannesburg
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In this article, I focus on Heidegger’s conception of hospitality in his first and final lectures on Hölderlin’s Germania (1934/5), Remembrance (1941/2), and The Ister (1942). I argue that the hospitality of the foreigner for Heidegger is the condition of possibility of dwelling understood as the happening of history.

In the first section I analyze the notions of hospitality in Levinas and Derrida. The second section unpacks some of the senses of the earth in Heidegger as the site of man’s historical dwelling, whereas in the third section I focus on holy mourning as the disposition that reveals the earth as the uncanny ground of history. In the final section, I spell out Heidegger’s conception of hospitality, the greeting, and the foreign guest.


In this article, I focus on Heidegger’s conception of hospitality in his first and final lectures on Hölderlin’s Germania (1934/5), Remembrance (1941/2), and The Ister (1942). I argue that the hospitality of the foreigner for Heidegger is the condition of possibility of dwelling understood as the happening of history.

In the first section I analyze the notions of hospitality in Levinas and Derrida. The second section unpacks some of the senses of the earth in Heidegger as the site of man’s historical dwelling, whereas in the third section I focus on holy mourning as the disposition that reveals the earth as the uncanny ground of history. In the final section, I spell out Heidegger’s conception of hospitality, the greeting, and the foreign guest.

As though the foreigner were being-in-question, the very question of being-in-question.

Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality

[D]iese Befremdung des Seyns ist nicht eine Erscheinungsweise desselben, sondern es selbst.

Martin Heidegger, Beiträge Zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis)

You’ll learn that in this house it’s hard to be a stranger. You’ll also learn that it’s not easy to stop being one.

Maurice Blanchot, The Idyll

1 Ethics and History

“Man inhabits the earth more radically than the plant, which merely takes nourishment from it,” Levinas writes in an essay in Difficult Freedom, “Heidegger, Gagarin, and Us.” The links between the human and the earth “are more subtle, numerous and profound.” They are more profound than use, aesthetic contemplation and pleasure, knowledge and truth. There is no technics, art, or science without inhabitation. They presuppose man’s enrootedness in a material basis. The dwelling, in other words, is the most profound link between the human being and the earth. However, technology, in what amounts to a reversal of this state of things, “does away with the privileges of this enrootedness and the related sense of exile. It goes beyond this alternative.” It “wrenches us out of the Heideggerian world and the superstitions surrounding Place”:

From this point on, an opportunity appears to us: to perceive men outside the situation in which they are placed, and let the human face shine in all its nudity.

Levinas, 1997: 232–3

Modern technology uproots man from his implantation in a landscape, from his attachment to a place, from his embeddedness in a context, a tradition or history. It anticipates the interruption that the ethical relation to the other introduces in life. The face of the other speaks to me from the defencelessness of its eyes, its vulnerability, which summons me to an infinite responsibility. This summons or call is not merely a “signification without a context” (Levinas, 1979: 23), that is, the trace of the uniqueness of the other. It suspends my self-interest, it produces a subjectivity that is absolutely disinterested, a being-for-the-other that is lived “as welcoming the Other, as hospitality” (Levinas, 1979: 27).

We might wonder whether Levinas’ dismissal of Heidegger’s notion of inhabitation is a little too hasty. Too hasty, less for being mistaken in the detail of his presentation of it, than for foreclosing a productive dialogue with it. Isn’t Heideggerian inhabitation no less uprooting? Doesn’t it equally introduce a discontinuity in life—not, to be sure, between the being-for-self of enjoyment and the being-for-the-other of ethical responsibility but, rather, between a forgetting of being that is the mark and threshold of modern technology and, on the other, an authentic dwelling that is also a being-for-the-other? Not an ethical being-for-the-other, a welcoming of the other as the event of the ethical, but a hospitality that accomplishes history, as the event of history.

After all, Levinas teaches us in Totality and Infinity that not every gesture of hospitality takes the form of the ethical. This is true precisely of the hospitality that founds the home. The home, he insists, is not a possession of the same kind as the goods it collects and keeps. That is because it presupposes a hospitality. It is hospitable to its proprietor owing to the welcome of the feminine being, which produces the intimacy of the home:

This refers us to its essential interiority, and to the inhabitant that inhabits it before every inhabitant, the welcoming one par excellence, welcome in itself—the feminine being.

Levinas, 1979: 157

There is no home that is not already hospitable to the host and master of the house, where he has not already been received (as guest?) by the feminine other. By the same token, there is no thinking of the home that is not at once and by necessity a thinking of hospitality, of the greeting as a relation between host and guest, of the intimacy of Gastfreundschaft, as Heidegger says in The Ister lecture (see below).

This is something to which Derrida has also made us sensitive in some of his final texts, where he distinguishes between conditional and unconditional hospitality, invitation and visitation (law and justice). Conditional hospitality is hospitality given to a stranger on the basis of several conditions, for instance, that the host keeps his authority as host, as master of the house, “and thereby affirms the law of hospitality as the law of his household.” It depends on the principle of identity, the self-identity of the host, “the being oneself at home with oneself.” I cannot offer you hospitality without saying: “this is mine, I am at home” (Derrida, 2000: 4, 14). Unconditional hospitality, by contrast, transcends the laws of hospitality. It is an intentional experience that carries itself, beyond knowing, “toward the other as absolute stranger, as unknown, where I know that I know nothing of him,” whether he is a friend or an enemy, an animal, a human or a god, or indeed the Messiah (Derrida, 2000: 8). As Derrida puts it elsewhere, unlike sending someone an invitation, where I expect and am prepared to receive the other, where there is no surprise, a visitation implies the arrival of someone who is not expected, “who can show up at any time.” It is a relation with the future in its imminence. To be unconditionally hospitable is to welcome the visitation, not the invited guest. “I must be unprepared, or prepared to be unprepared, for the unexpected arrival of any other” (Derrida, 1999: 70). This experience, which unsettles the identity of the host qua host, as if he suffered a symbolic death and became the guest received in his own home by the other, is the impossible event of justice. We will have to ask whether this unconditional hospitality has as one of its conceptual antecedents the unconditional awaiting (unbedingte Erharren) of the divine that Heidegger speaks of in his lecture on Hölderlin’s Germania.

Let me briefly return to the feminine welcome in Levinas. This welcome is pre-ethical. The other who welcomes “is not the you (vous) of the face that reveals itself in a dimension of height, but precisely the thou (tu) of familiarity.” This is not to say that the feminine welcome is a fall, a lapse or a modification of the ethical encounter with the other. It is originary or non-derivable. It “nowise represents a truncated, stammering, still elementary language.” On the contrary, the feminine welcome “includes all the possibilities of the transcendent relationship with the Other” (Levinas, 1979: 155). It both envelops ethics and exceeds it. As Derrida remarks in Adieu, it is the pre-ethical origin of ethics (Derrida, 1999: 44). Feminine alterity is a presence in discretion, conspicuous “in its withdrawal and in its absence.” She relates to the host in “a silent language, an understanding without words, an expression in secret.” Levinas’s description of the feminine being is highly suggestive. It’s as if he was thinking of it as a modality of being in Heidegger’s sense of that term, that is, as a modality of disclosure. Does it not disclose the dwelling place as the zero-point in the orientation of the world? Levinas says of the “silent comings and goings of the feminine being” that her “footsteps reverberate the secret depths of being.” (Levinas, 1979: 155–6) Is this to say that the pre-ethical origin of ethics resides in ontology, in the event of being?

If being (the event of disclosure) is distinct from entities, if the distinction between being and entities is not a distinction between entities, and if, as a result, to think of being is to think of nothing, of nothing determinable or identifiable as an entity, but also of nothing outside of or beyond entities, then it is perhaps not possible to think of being in its distinctness from entities except as the figuration of someone or something—as a figure, precisely, in which the force of the distinction between the “someone” and the “something,” the “who” and the “what” is suspended: perhaps feminine alterity in Levinas, perhaps too the visitor (or absolute arrivant) in Derrida, but doubtless the foreign guest in Heidegger (see below).

What I intend to show in what follows is that Heidegger’s reflections on dwelling in his first and final lectures on Hölderlin, the lectures on Germania (1934/5), Remembrance (1941/2) and The Ister (1942), constitute a profound meditation on hospitality, the greeting and the foreign guest. In Heidegger’s eyes, the hospitality of the foreigner, the greeting that welcomes the Hesperian poet-host into his essence, is the condition of possibility of dwelling understood as the happening of history.

2 The Earth

Let me begin with Heidegger’s commentary in Part i of the lecture on The Ister.

For rivers make arable
The land
The rock, however, has need of cuts
And of furrows the earth,
Inhospitable (Unwirthbar) it would be, without while (ohne Weile).
Cited in Heidegger, 1996: 5–6

How are the poetic images of The Ister to be read? And, more particularly, the images of the river and the while? We know that “the river” and “the while” are images of the poet. But are they metaphors, as is sometimes suggested (Young, 2002: 83)? Are they sensuous forms that represent a nonsensuous content, a meaning, essence or idea, namely the idea of the poet?

Heidegger spends some time in Part i of the lecture arguing that the representational view of art is based on the dominance of Platonism in Western thought and that it takes a particular turn in modernity with the unqualified authority accorded to the scientific view of the world. In other words, to the question “What is the river in The Ister?” our immediate answer is likely to be this: “the river is, in the final analysis, a geographical and historical reality. It is in truth what the sciences of geography and history tell us about it. However, this reality can, in addition, serve the poet as a metaphor or symbol for something else: he can project a nonsensuous meaning on it.” What this answer suggests is the extent to which we take it for granted that what counts as real, the distinction between reality and non-reality, is something that the sciences alone have the prerogative to establish.

Now what if this customary way of thinking was in error? What if poetry, its language, first put in play a measure of reality?

[T]he very reality of what is real—not itself real—is the first matter and source of poems.

Heidegger, 2000: 114

It would then be mistaken—indeed, it would be a category error—to view the river as a geographical and historical reality over which the poet projects a symbolic meaning. Rather, the scientific determination of the river would be founded in its poetic experience.

At any rate, this implies that, instead of being a playful and innocent activity opposed to the seriousness of practical life and the responsibility of action, poetry performs the labour of ontology. It sets truth to work in language. The river in The Ister is not a thing in the world. It is a mode of disclosure of world and earth, of what there is.

In what sense does the river in the poem perform the labour of ontology? It discloses itself, in the first place, as the essence of place, the locality of the locale (Ortschaft des Ort), and, in the second, as the essence of temporality understood as migration, wandering or journeying (Wanderschaft) (Heidegger, 1996: 30). It is the essence of place in that it names the human dwelling. The dwelling here is not a geographical site, a territory or settlement. It is also not the zero-point in the orientation of the world, what Levinas calls the dwelling (see Levinas, 1979: 153). The dwelling place of man is the place of history, the site of the happening of history (Geschichte). It is the site where history happens because to dwell is to become-at-home on the earth and this becoming-at-home is what fulfils the vocation of man as a historical being. The dwelling place is thus more precisely the site of a journey or migration, indeed, as we shall see, of a wandering abroad in the foreign and a being underway to the proper.

The river ‘is’ the locality that pervades the abode of human beings upon the earth, determines them to where they belong and where they are homely (heimisch). The river thus brings human beings into their own (das Eigene) and maintains them in what is their own. Whatever is their own is that to which human beings belong and must belong if they are to fulfil whatever is destined to them, and whatever is fitting (Schickliche), as their specific way of being.

Heidegger, 1996: 21

The destiny of man as a historical being, Heidegger remarks in a later passage, is to win “the earth as the ‘ground’ of the homely” (Heidegger, 1996: 30). In The Origin of the Work of Art, he writes that upon “the earth and in it, historical man grounds his dwelling in the world” (Heidegger, 1971: 46). In what sense is the earth the ground of the homely? The earth is not itself the homely. It is the foreign element in the home.

The Origin of the Work of Art describes the earth as the self-concealing one. To be self-concealing is not to be invisible to the eye but to be impenetrable to the understanding. The earth, in its distinctness from world, is the immeasurable one. It is the site of unmeasure (Unmass), we are told, the place of a démesure, of an excess or loss of thought (Heidegger, 1971: 70). As an example, Heidegger gives the heaviness of a stone. Its heaviness is felt but it resists penetration. Suppose I put the stone on a scale. This gives me the measure of its weight but not the burden of its heaviness. Colour shines, but its shining vanishes the moment I analyse it in terms of wavelengths. This is to say that it is not the understanding that institutes an authentic relation to the earth. Its refusal to give itself to the understanding is felt before being understood. Heidegger speaks of the earth at one point as a “silent call” in his description of Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of peasant shoes (Heidegger, 1971: 34). The earth affectively disposes the peasant woman towards her world.

A slightly different description of the earth appears in his first lecture on Hölderlin, Hölderlin’s Hymns ‘Germania’ and ‘The Rhine’, delivered in 1934–35, the year before he composed The Origin of the Work of Art (1935–6). The earth in the lecture on Germania is not approached in the context of a meditation on art. The lecture deals with the becoming-at-home of the poet, that is, the way the poem recounts how the poet learnt his vocation as poet. Heidegger says at one point in the lecture that the home or homeland (Heimat) designates neither the place of birth nor the landscape we are familiar with. The Heimat is the power of the earth (die Macht der Erde) upon which the human being “dwells poetically” in each case in accordance with his historical Dasein (Heidegger, 2014: 80). The earth here is understood neither as a site of technological use and exploitation nor as a site of aesthetic contemplation and pleasure. It is understood in relation to the historical vocation of a people. The earth in this context, the ground of the homely, is described as the place where gods are nurtured (die Götter erzogen) (Heidegger, 2014: 94).

What does that mean? What is it to nurture the earth for the gods? I don’t believe it means to build churches or temples. What I think Heidegger has in mind is a disclosure of the earth in poetry as the uncanny one, as a site that is self-secluding or impenetrable. The uncanny is not the exception to the rule. What is uncanny is the revelation of the ordinary, its becoming-apparent, the becoming-conspicuous of the world as such, which is effectively what the earth achieves.

Heidegger dissociates two senses of δαιµόνια in his 1942–3 lecture Parmenides, the uncanny (das Ungeheure) in the sense described and the gods. The gods are described in the lecture as a silent look that attunes the human being to awe, terror, or respect. What accomplishes the revelation of the ordinary is the feeling of having been addressed in the irreplaceability of one’s existence by a look that cannot be crossed and whose author remains unidentifiable. The δαιµόνιον, the disclosure of the ordinary, is also the mode of presence of the divine (δαῖον, Gotthafte). The divine is present as an anonymous look and saying (das Blicken und das Sagen), “saying” understood not as vocal utterance or speech but as a voice (Stimme) whose silence attunes (Stimmende) man to his essence, brings him back to his “historical destiny in its way of being the ‘there’ ” (Heidegger, 1992: 114).1

Heidegger’s commentary on Sophocles’ Antigone in Part ii of The Ister lecture further specifies the sense in which the earth, the uncanny one, is the site of the nurturing of the gods. He remarks that what determines Antigone in her being is her belonging to the fire of the home, the hearth, Έστία. Έστία is the glow of the fire that illuminates what there is but that remains inconspicuous since it transcends the world as the site of history, visibility, and meaning. Having chosen to bury her dead brother Polyneices against Creon’s law, Antigone has taken upon herself the impossible (τἀµήχανα) (Sophocles, 2009: 90). This is to become at home with what can never be overridden by human wit:

[T]he ancient, unwritten, immutable laws of the gods,
Which are not for the present alone, but have always
Been—and no one knows when they began.
Sophocles, 2009: 540–59

The hearth is the home. It is both sacred and immemorial. Sacred because it is beyond the higher gods (Zeus) and the lower gods (Dike). It is the site of the upsurge of the divine (Göttlichkeit; see below). It is what gives meaning and “necessity upon the distinction of the dead and the priority of blood.” The home is also, like the earth, the immemorial site of the birth and origin of history, of the πόλις. Heidegger associates the home with death and blood, that is, with embodied life (leibhaftes Leben), as the ultimate or extreme domains (äusserste Bereiche) of the human being.2 He insists that to properly think the home to which Antigone claims to belong, we must think beyond the cult of the dead, kinship and blood-relatedness. In naming the hearth as her own she names being itself (das Sein selbst). Hence the counterplay (Gegenspiel) that the tragedy initiates is not that between the values of religion and the values of the state. It does not stage a conflict between the duties of family and the duties of the city-state. Rather, Antigone and Creon represent, respectively, a belonging to being and a belonging to beings. The tragedy stages a counterplay between a proper and an improper way of belonging to the event of disclosure (Heidegger, 1996: 117–18).

What, then, is the earth as the destination of man’s becoming-at-home? It is, in the first place, the material basis on which a historical world or our historical existence finds itself thrown: birth and death, embodiment, kinship or relations of blood. The earth is uncanny because it is resistant to meaning, discourse or the understanding, because it constitutes the limit of the world as the site of history, and because it as such discloses the world:

The earth appears openly cleared as itself only when it is perceived and preserved as that which is by nature undisclosable, that which shrinks from every disclosure and constantly keeps itself closed up.

Heidegger, 1971: 47

Why is it resistant to meaning or the understanding? Birth, death, or embodiment name singular or irreplaceable happenings, since they are in each case mine (je meine). It is not possible to understand them, which is to say to contextualise them in history or discourse, without reducing them to instances of a kind, and hence to instances that are replaceable by other instances of the same kind. The earth, death are embodied life are manifest just as they are only in the way they attune a people to its world. The disposition that reveals the earth as the uncanny basis of a historical world is holy mourning.

3 Holy Mourning

In the lecture on Germania, Heidegger explains that the earth is opened up as an abyss, a site of undecidability that calls for a historical decision, in the tragic pathos of holy mourning. Hölderlin’s poetry, in its telling of the holy, or rather, in its telling of the failure or lack of holy names (“es fehlen heilige Nahmen” [Hölderlin, Homecoming]), institutes a beckoning of the gods. What is it to beckon or give a sign, winken? When departing, Heidegger explains, to beckon is to retain “a proximity as the distance increases, and conversely, when arriving, [it] is a making manifest the distance that still prevails in this felicitous proximity” (Heidegger, 2014: 31). Hölderlin’s hymnal poetry founds the relation between man and god as a relation of distance in proximity and of proximity in distance. This is not the mystical unification of man with God (or Nature) yearned for by the early Romantics and by Hölderlin himself in Hyperion (the holy pathos as the foreign of Hesperia). Nor is it the coupling of man with the god as Hölderlin describes it in his Remarks on ‘Oedipus’ and ‘Antigone, a unification that is accomplished by the tragic hero’s act of transgression and impiety (the holy pathos as the proper of the Greeks). It is a relation of separation, of suffering and exile, of mourning and remembrance (sobriety as the proper of Hesperia). Hölderlin’s poetry is not a symbolic projection of lived experiences of the divine. It grounds the possibility of another beginning of history in the distress of a non-knowing, the impossibility of knowing whether the gods have irrevocably gone or whether they are still to come. If the gods for Heidegger-Hölderlin are figures of absence—and not, as they are commonly interpreted, charismatic figures that ground community life (Young, 2002: 32) or objects of worship (Crowe, 2007: 238)—Hölderlin’s poetry makes this absence manifest in the mode of the undecidable: the flight or arrival of the gods.

Heidegger compares holy mourning with mourning one’s beloved:

No longer being allowed to call upon the gods (Götter) of old, this will to acquiesce in abandonment (Verzicht), what else is it?—It is nothing else than the sole possible, resolute readiness for awaiting (Erharren) the divine (Göttlichen); for the gods as such can be relinquished in such abandonment only if they are retained in their divinity … Where the most beloved (das Liebste) has left, love (die Liebe) remains behind, for otherwise the former could not have left at all.

Heidegger, 2014: 85–6

Heidegger’s argument seems to turn on the difference between what is signified by the concrete and abstract noun, das Liebste, die Liebe, der Götter, das Göttlichen. The abstract noun—love, the divine—does not designate an abstract entity, a universal. What remains when I have been abandoned by my beloved, in the necessity of having to renounce her or let her go, is love as an empty or unfilled possibility. If in mourning my beloved I am constrained to let her go, I find myself before love as a failed or empty possibility. I find myself awaiting its fulfilment—its impossible fulfilment, to be sure, since not only is my beloved irrevocably gone, there is also no other who could possibly replace her. To mourn my beloved is in a sense to endure and suffer the impossible fulfilment of love; it is to await the impossible.

To mourn the gods of old is thus to be affected by the divine as a failed or unfilled possibility; it is to manifest the lack of sacred names. It is to open the time-space of history, the dwelling place of man, since the failure of the divine brings to light both what has been and what is to come.

That the gods (Götter) have fled does not mean that divinity (Göttlichkeit) too has vanished from the Dasein of human beings. Here it means that such divinity precisely prevails, yet as something no longer fulfilled, as becoming dark and overcast, yet still powerful.

Heidegger, 2014: 86

The divine as a failed possibility signifies both death and promise. It discloses the disappearance of the gods of old and the promise of another encounter with the gods. This is not a promise whose content is determinable in advance, as if Heidegger is saying that the gods of old will one day return in the flesh. The renouncing of the gods of old in holy mourning is at once an “unconditional awaiting (unbedingte Erharren)” (Heidegger, 2014: 106) of the divine. This awaiting is conditioned neither by the gods of the past, nor by whatever gods or God may be worshiped in the present or may be expected to come in the future. What it awaits, the divine, exceeds all determinable ends, projects, or gods—in short, the totality of history. What it awaits, therefore, is the earth as the hidden ground of history, the “holy earth.” This unconditional awaiting resembles somewhat Derrida’s messianism without religion, as he himself acknowledges in Rogues (Derrida, 2005: 110; see also 1994: 74). It names a relationship with the imminent future, an openness to what is to come at any moment, a waiting without horizon, a waiting that doesn’t know “who” or “what” is to come and when. If the poet’s unconditional awaiting of the divine founds the possibility of a historical community in Heidegger’s eyes, Derrida’s messianism without religion mobilizes the thought of a democracy to come.

Holy mourning transports the Dasein of a historical people into the having-been and the to-come of the gods. It discloses the divine as an unfilled possibility into which a Hesperian people has always already been thrown. This thrown possibility is the time-space of history, the moment of a crisis and decision. Holy mourning is what causes the earth, the self-secluding one (verschwiegener Erde [Hölderlin, To Mother Earth]), to rise up as the abyss of the undecidable, as the site of departure or arrival of the gods. This exposure to the earth is what makes possible the becoming-at-home of a people.

The great, pivotal times of the peoples always emerge from the abyss, and, in each case, in accordance with the extent to which a people reaches into it—which is to say, into its earth—and possesses homeland.

Heidegger, 2014: 97

To become-at-home on the earth is not to establish a settlement, to belong to a territory and exercise sovereign power over it. It is to mourn and be in exile like Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus.

Sedentarization, the establishment of a settlement, the phantasm of national rootedness, borders, or sovereign power, result in Heidegger’s eyes from the unconditional priority of the political in modernity, from the comprehension of the state as the form in which the self-consciousness of man orders what there is (Heidegger, 1996: 95). Moreover, sedentarization goes hand in hand with the tendency to reduce world and earth to the homogeneity of space and time as its counter-tendency (Heidegger, 1996: 49). The figure of the adventurer typifies this will to total transparency. The adventurer is someone who finds himself at home everywhere in the world and who in consequence is always in search of the exotic and the alien. He is oblivious to the distinction between the homely and the unhomely, the familiar and the uncanny (Heidegger, 1996: 75). The adventurer does not dwell. He does not take up residence in the uncanny. He is captivated by the indigenous, which he finds exotic or alien. If what is uncanny for the dweller is the disclosure of the familiar, what is exotic for the adventurer is the presence of the autochthonous.

Becoming-at-home on the earth is neither an experience of being uprooted in the face of the devastation of the lived world, its reduction to the uniformity of space and time, nor an experience of establishing roots in a soil and tradition. It is an experience of passage or transition from what has been to what is to come, and vice versa, in remembrance and awaiting (or intimation, Ahnung, as Heidegger says in The Ister lecture). Or to use a geographical image (which is less problematically Eurocentric than what it suggests at first sight, as we shall see), it is a migration from East to West, from India through Greece to Hesperia, from the heavenly fire of the eastern (or southern) lands to the sobriety or clarity of presentation that is proper to the western (or northern) lands.

The migration proceeds from the Indus, thus from the East, via Greece, here to the upper Donau toward the West.

Heidegger, 1996: 37

The dwelling place of man is bounded on one side by what has been (the Orient) and, on the other, by what is to come (the Occident). Hölderlin describes the rivers as vanishing and being full of intimation in Voice of the People. Heidegger comments:

As vanishing, the river is underway into what has been (unterwegs in das Gewesene). As full of intimation, it proceeds into what is coming (das Kommende). The river is a singular kind of migration, insofar as it simultaneously proceeds into what has been and what is to come.

Heidegger, 1996: 29

Migration is not in the first instance tied to the memory of a population displaced from its native soil. The poetic experience of the native soil is prior in meaning to its political determination as a territory over which a people exercises sovereign power and from which it can be displaced. The native soil is the earth experienced as the hidden ground of history. Since a historical humanity has always already projected its throwness on the earth as a possibility, the origin of history is hidden not because it resides in a pre-historic past but because it is to come. To dwell is to mourn and remember that which has been (the gods of old) and await the condition of possibility of that which has been (the divine). It is to suffer the divine as an unfilled possibility. It is to endure its non-appearance in the present.

This experience of remembrance and awaiting, of what Jean Beaufret describes as l’immensité vide du ciel sans fond, the vast emptiness of the bottomless sky (Beaufret, 2000: 28), is what Hölderlin’s hymnal poetry attempts to enact. Instituting a sober relation with the divine, it marks out the proper of a Hesperian Volk.

4 The Proper and the Foreign

This interpretation of becoming-at-home on the earth is deepened in Part iii of The Ister lecture (which was not delivered), which recalls some of the key moments of the lecture course on Hölderlin’s Remembrance of the previous year (1941/2). This is no accident. Remembrance and The Ister were written on the same page at about the same time in 1803/4. Heidegger (2000: 107) claims that the former tells us something about the apparent backward flow of the Ister, its return to its origin in the East.

He appears, however, almost
To go backwards and
I presume he must come from the East.
There would be much to tell of this.
Cited in Heidegger, 1996: 5

Part iii of the lecture on The Ister and the lecture course on Remembrance raise the notion of dwelling to a new level of interpretation. They show that the greeting “of” the foreigner (in both the subjective and objective genitive) sets the poet on his journey from the Orient to the Occident, in other words, that the hospitality “of” the foreigner is the necessary condition of possibility of dwelling.

How does a thinking of hospitality arise in Heidegger? It arises largely owing to his use of Hölderlin’s famous letter to Böhlendorff from December the 4th 1801 in his reading of The Ister and Remembrance. This letter introduces a thinking of alterity into Heidegger’s reflection on dwelling. The alterity of being in relation to beings appears in the guise of the alterity of the foreign (das Fremde) in relation to the proper (das Eigene). The idea is that the Hesperian poet learns to dwell in what is proper to him, he appropriates what is “natural” to him as his appointed task, to the extent that the foreigner, the Greek poet of the heavenly fire, greets him into this dwelling. The foreigner is the unhomely one in the home. He does not simply point the Hesperian poet in the direction of the homely. In greeting the Hesperian poet, the foreigner calls him to his vocation as the sayer of the holy.

Hölderlin’s first letter to Böhlendorff is usually interpreted as yielding an account of the difference between Greek and modern art against Winckelmann’s neo-classicism and more generally against the way the issue is framed in the “quarrel of the ancients and the moderns.” Should modern art imitate the superior and inimitable art of the Greeks and Romans? Is that the best the modern artist can hope for? Or has modern art far surpassed the art of the Classical Age? Hölderlin displaces this whole debate by contesting its basic premises. He argues that the Greeks and moderns have nothing in common except for the “living relationship and destiny (Geschick).” (Hölderlin, 1988: 150) The law of destiny is the formal principle that any culture or people, that is, any community of language and memory that is to appropriate what is proper to it must also learn what is foreign to it; it must be expropriated. Aside from that, the Greeks and moderns have nothing in common. Their art and culture (clarity of presentation) is a response to a nature (the holy pathos) that is foreign to ours, just as our art and culture (holy pathos) is a response to a nature (clarity of presentation) that is foreign to theirs. This invites the thought that history, far from being causal or linear, has a chiasmic structure (see Warminski, 1987; Lacoue-Labarthe, 1989).

Heidegger is not unaware of Hölderlin’s unique relation to the Greeks. The Greek world is not a model to be imitated. It does not represent a naïvety and innocence, as Schiller argues in On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, a proximity to nature we should yearn for or aspire to return to. It is also not of the same essence and historical determination as ours. Hölderlin’s relation to the Greeks is “neither classical, nor romantic, nor metaphysical” (Heidegger, 1996: 54). Yet Heidegger’s use of the letter in his reading of the later hymns departs from the usual reading in at least two ways. Against the interpretation of the letter that sees it as offering an account of the difference between Greek and modern art, Heidegger sees it as a reflection on the content of what is poetized in the later hymns. This is the becoming homely of Hesperia (Heidegger, 1996: 124). More significantly perhaps, the foreign of Hesperia, the “heavenly fire” or “holy pathos,” is not, as Hölderlin seems to suggest, what finds expression in the nostalgic longing for the mystical unification with nature, the “transgression of finitude” in Lacoue-Labarthe’s words, characteristic of early romanticism (see de Man, 2012). On Heidegger’s reading, the foreign that makes possible the free use of the Hesperian proper is the confrontation with being understood as the disclosure of beings as a whole, which he variously describes as “the overwhelming,” “the uncanny” or “the ungraspable.”

What is thus ‘inborn’ cannot properly become what is their own for the Germans so long as this ability to grasp (Fassenkönnen) has not been made to confront the necessity of grasping the ungraspable (das Unfassliche zu fassen) and of grasping themselves in the face of what is ungraspable.

Heidegger, 1996: 136

Thought flourishes, it learns to dwell in its element, when it is made to confront the limit of thought, the unthinkable, the trauma of its eventual collapse. This is the withdrawal of worldhood, the collapse of sense, which discloses entities in their radical strangeness, in the sheer fact that they are at all. This encounter with the foreign of thought is the necessary condition of possibility for a Hesperian people, “the Germans”—a word whose nominal unity Heidegger does not take for granted, I believe, inasmuch as it denotes not the Germans of 1942 but a non-extant people, a community to come—to appropriate what is “natural” to it as its historical vocation.

5 Guestfriendship

What is the nature of this encounter between the proper and the foreign? The Ister presents it as a relation of hospitality and friendship, of guestfriendship.

Thus it surprises
Me not, that he [the Ister]
Invited Hercules as guest (zu Gaste geladen)
cited in Heidegger, 1996: 5

What is a guest?

A guest is that foreigner who for a time becomes homely in a foreign home and who brings what is homely for him in the foreign home and who is received in the foreign home (Gast ist derjenige Fremde, der in einem ihm fremden Heimischen zeitweise heimisch wird und damit selbst sein Heimisches in das fremde Heimische bringt und von diesem aufgenommen wird).

Heidegger, 1996: 140–1

The guest is a foreigner who brings what is proper to him in the home that has given him hospitality. Heidegger continues:

In this hospitality on the part of the Ister there lies the readiness to acknowledge the foreigner and his foreignness (des Fremden und seiner Fremde), that is, the fire from heaven that the Germans lack. But in guestfriendship there also lies the resolve not to mix the proper qua proper with the foreign but to let the foreigner be such as he is (das Eigene als das Eigene nicht mit der Fremde zu mischen, sondern den Fremden sein zu lassen, der er ist). Only so is a learning possible in guestfriendship, namely a learning of what the calling and essence of the German poet is.

Heidegger, 1996: 141

Let us recall that these sentences, which emphatically stress the priority of the foreigner and his foreignness over the proper and the homely—indeed, as the very condition of possibility of the revelation of the proper for the Germans—were written in 1942, at the time when the extermination camps in Poland had just opened. Of course, the foreigners invited as guests by the Hesperian poet are not the expelled, the converted, the assimilated or the exterminated. It is the Greek poet of the heavenly fire. Yet in what sense is the foreigner foreign, fremd? Is he foreign or strange, a stranger, because he has a different nationality, race or gender than the Hesperian poet—because, say, one is Greek and the other German? No. What makes the foreigner foreign?

Being as the event of disclosure, the foreign fire or the holy is cast in the figure of the foreign guest, the stranger, in The Ister lecture. What is proper to this stranger? His Wesen is to bear alterity as its very determination. The stranger is ungraspable (Unfassliche) because he exceeds the field of phenomenality. He is already there in the remembrance of the Hesperian poet as a foreign guest and also ready to return at any moment. The stranger is a Wesen, a being—or a Wesung, an event—for which there is no concept or context. He is not an instance of a kind, and his coming or return cannot be anticipated in the horizon of a knowledge. Being other than the totality of what there is, he is without precedent, without common measure, absolutely singular.

But is that not what is proper to the stranger as such? What constitutes the strangeness of the stranger if not the fact that, being already there as a guest in my world, he incarnates its eventual collapse, the failure of sense, the limit of self-appropriation, of the becoming-mine of Dasein? Doesn’t the stranger introduce an absolute disorientation, a certain frenzy or madness in reason, an excess or démesure? And is that not why he sometimes passes for a god or a monster, for something uncanny and monstrous, unheimlich and ungeheuer? And why a sacrificial logic—the logic of the scapegoat, as Richard Kearney analyses it in Strangers, Gods and Monsters—is most often deployed against him?3 It is in any case what authorises Jean-Francois Lyotard to ask how Heidegger’s thought, “a thought so devoted to remembering that a forgetting (of Being) takes place in all thought,” could possibly “have ignored the thought of ‘the jews’, which, in a certain sense, thinks, tries to think, nothing but that very fact” (Lyotard, 1997: 4).

In der Gastfreundshaft liegt aber zugleich die Entschiedenheit, das Eigene als das Eigene nicht mit der Fremde zu mischen, sondern den Fremden sein zu lassen, der er ist. In guestfriendship, the host seeks neither to protect what is proper to him nor to appropriate the proper or property of the foreigner. Hospitality is a being-open to the foreigner in his foreignness without reservation. Perhaps we might say following Derrida that it is a being-open to the foreigner without conditions imposed on him, such as that the foreigner declare his name or identity, speak the local language, and so on, before entering the home or homeland. It is a resolute being-open to the abyss that separates the self and the other in his alterity. The relation to the foreigner, Heidegger adds, is never a mere taking-over, an assumption or appropriation of the other (blosse Übernehmen des Anderen). The relation to the proper is never a self-assured affirmation of the so-called “natural” or “organic” (selbstsichere Bejahung des sogenannten ‘Natürlichen’ und ‘Organischen’) (Heidegger, 1996: 143). Hospitality is a letting-be of the stranger in his strangeness. It resembles the greeting described in the lecture on Remembrance:

This letting-be of a being in its being is the originary greeting (das ursprüngliche Grüssen).

Heidegger, 2000: 128

Heidegger remarks in The Ister lecture that the guest, “the presence of the unhomely in the home (die Gegenwart des Unheimischen im Heimischen),” makes the thinking of the homely into a steadfast remembrance (ständigen Andenken) of the journey to the foreign:

The appropriation of the proper is only as the encounter and guest-like conversation with the foreign (Die Aneignung des Eigenen ist nur als die Auseinandersetzung und gastliche Zwiesprache mit dem Fremden).

Heidegger, 1996: 142

The foreigner does not cease to be foreign in this conversation, as if he was becoming less and less strange to the Hesperian poet in the course of it. Nor does this conversation reach a terminus ad quem—as if, having appropriated what is proper to him, the Hesperian poet would have turned away and forgotten about his foreign guest. The Hesperian poet comes to appropriate his vocation in and through the continued conversation with the foreign guest. The foreign guest is not a means for the Hesperian poet to arrive at what is proper to him. The foreigner is already there as guest at the source; he is the origin of the proper (schon an der Quelle das Fremde zu Gast und gegenwärtig ist) (Heidegger, 1996: 146). To be affected by the greeting of the foreigner, to be the recipient of his greeting, and thus enter in dialogue with him, is constitutive of the free use of the proper. The Hesperian host does not first possess a home, a chez soi, in which to greet the foreigner. The greeting of the foreigner is what first sets the Hesperian poet on the way home.

What are we to make of this greeting? In what sense does the greeting of the foreigner come first? And yet, have we not, in a sense, always already been greeted into our essence, in the non-replaceability of our being-in-the-world? And is that not why the first gesture of thought is not to question but to respond with thanks, with a “thank you,” for this “highest and most lasting gift given to us” (Heidegger, 1968: 142)?

There is a certain semantic affinity between remembrance and greeting in the ordinary use of Andenken current in Hölderlin’s time. Dieter Henrich explains:

[T]he word Andenken was commonly used in the sense of abiding thoughts and warm regards for a person or an event, though this sense soon became archaic. In letters one assured friends of one’s remembrance and entrusted oneself to theirs in greetings and best wishes.

Henrich, 1997: 213

Ordinarily we greet someone whom we don’t know or haven’t seen in a while and in whose presence we are now standing. We are rejoiced at seeing them or at seeing them again. But we also send our greetings and best wishes—as we do in a letter or email—to someone in whose presence we are no longer or not yet standing, someone we met in the past or hope to meet in the future. We entrust ourselves to them as their friend and well-wisher. A greeting in this sense is a token of affection that is sent and received and that highlights the distance that separates the sender and receiver. It also founds a proximity in the distance. It does not annul the distance. A greeting does not breed familiarity or ingratiation (Anbiederung). It institutes a friendship. Der echt Gruss schenkt dem Gegrüssten den Anklang seines Wesens (Heidegger, 2000: 120). As the recipient and addressee of a greeting, I have been singled out in the irreplaceability of my being. In what sense? In the sense that I find myself under the obligation to respond. I am charged with the responsibility to answer, a responsibility that is non-transferrable. What is the proper response to a greeting? To return the greeting as someone greeted, as someone welcomed into his essence.

The greeting is a remembrance or thinking-of whose mysterious strength shelters again the recipient and sender of the greeting in the distance of their proper essence (das Gegrüsste und den Grüssenden in die Ferne ihres eigenen Wesens).

Heidegger, 2000: 120

A true greeting is a pure gift. It is an absolutely disinterested gesture that wants nothing for itself. Der Gruss will nichts für sich. It is a relation to the other in his uniqueness. That is why the other, the recipient of the greeting, receives everything that helps him return to his essence.

This friendship founded by the greeting is not to be thought of as a relation that extends between individuals who are already familiar with one another or who are contemporaries. It is a relation that extends between the Hesperian poet and the foreign guest (the holy). The foreign guest, the holy, is present to the poet in his greeting and remembrance of that which has been, his journey abroad. Yet it becomes a destiny for the poet insofar as he maintains a sober relation with it. It is necessary, that is, to preserve the foreign guest, the holy, in its distance as a possibility to come. To appropriate his vocation, the poet must project that which has been as what is futural in the extreme. He must open the historical humanity of Hesperia against the possibility of the coming of the foreign fire, the holy. This is “sobriety for the sublime.” (Heidegger, 2000: 142)

What is the holy, das Heilige, for Heidegger? It is not the name for the fusion of opposites, as it is for Hölderlin, the unity of man with the divine. Nor is it the demonic, the confusion of the limits between the animal, the human and the gods, as it is for Jan Patočka (see Derrida, 1995: 2). The sacred names the collapse of sense that reveals entities in their naked presence. This event—for which there is in truth no name, for which names are lacking, since it marks the limit of language, sense or world—is the originary greeting that affects the poet as a silent voice, die lautlose Stimme des Grusses (Heidegger, 2000: 146). It welcomes the poet into his poet-hood. It calls him to his vocation as the sayer of the holy. It summons the poet to build a house (Haus)—a poem—for the heavenly ones who are to come as guests (Gast).

For only when this third element, the guesthouse (das Gasthaus), stands between the heavenly ones and men, is there a place of mortal preparedness for the nearness of the heavenly ones, so that the heavenly ones can be for us the ones who they are.

Heidegger, 2000: 142

The home that the poet is to found and in which he is to recollect himself—that is, recollect his journey abroad under the foreign fire on his way to his proper vocation—is the guesthouse, a guesthouse built for the gods as guests.

The gods to which the poet wishes to extend his hospitality do not denote a “who” or “what,” a person or thing. Instead of being objects of worship and belief, of devotion and prayer, of a religious institution, cult or dogma, they are figures of epochal time, of the coming of the holy as a possibility suspended between arrival and flight (Ankunft und Flucht), approach and withdrawal (Anfall und Ausbleib). This hesitation and suspense of what is to come—which, in the final analysis, is the very nature of the future, its imminence—calls for decisiveness and endurance. If the gods are the look of the moment, the Blick of the Augenblick, as Heidegger suggests in the Parmenides lecture (see Heidegger, 1998: 107), this is because they are intensifications of the moment, as if the past that had become manifest in the moment bore the promise of a future that is through and through undecidable (Heidegger, 2012: 30).

In the end, we have to ask whether, instead of thinking of the gods as guests of a particular kind, Heidegger is invariably rethinking the very notion of the guest, of guest-hood. If the guest is a foreigner in my home who has something of the uncanny about him, if he is the index of an arrival and departure, of the limit that opens my home to the outside, then he is someone who belongs and yet does not belong to the home, both inside and outside, already present at the source and still to come. The foreign guest, a figure of passage and transition, of passing away (Vorbeigehen), both familiar and foreign, near and remote, the very figure of the threshold, the presence of the uncanny in the at-home of the host.


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See on this also Heidegger’s reading of the story of Heraclitus in the Letter on Humanism (Heidegger, 1993: 257–8).


Heidegger argued early on that Dasein is embodied, that is, its relation to the world is mediated by a bodily experience, not because it is appended with a corporeal thing, but in virtue of its throwness (Heidegger, 1984: 138).


Kearney’s explanation of this phenomenon is different than the one proposed here. On his account, the stranger incarnates the monstrous or divine owing to our fractured psyche: instead of acknowledging that there is an inner alterity that haunts us, we repudiate it by projecting it onto others (Kearney, 2003: 4). This psychological account does not seem to me to be sufficient, since what calls for an explanation is the strangeness of the other, not the strangeness that is internal to the self. The former is not reducible to the latter.

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