Writing at a time of uncertainty in the world — perhaps even more uncertain than our own time — Heidegger wrote much on what we humans have left after Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of god. Heidegger writes, “Not only have the gods and the god fled, but the divine radiance has become extinguished in the world’s history.” Heidegger is explicit as to what has extinguished divine radiance in the world: the technological mindset, based on the Greek logos, which he traces to mean “to bring forward into appearance.” Through the technological mindset, humans view the world explicitly, as already revealed. Through this, humans place their own structures (language, ordering) on something that is not necessarily structured in itself. The world is nothing but an direct object for human action; all becomes instrumental. Heidegger sees a way out of this bleak, meaningless point of view. He writes, “Poetically, dwells man on this earth.”
Heidegger believes humans are primarily caretakers of meaning in the world. Heidegger argues that the true varies with language and therefore time while the essence of the true remains constant. It is through original speech acts that language develops and moves closer to the essence of truth, while necessarily never arriving. Over time, as the originality of a speech act becomes fixed, the meaning of that speech act begins to weaken. Heidegger writes, “The presence of gods and the appearance of the world are not merely a consequence of the actualisation of language, they are contemporaneous with it.” The poet is a sort of priest or prophet of meaning: “The speech of the poet is the intercepting of these signs [from the gods], in order to pass them on to his own people…The poet catches sight already of the completed message and in his word boldly presents what he has glimpsed, so as to tell in advance of the not-yet-fulfilled.”
What was once implicit — as understood through that crucial second definition, “Contained in the nature of something though not readily apparent” — becomes explicit over time. The language used to originally call forth the implicit becomes common, expected, and “readily apparent.” Once something becomes readily apparent, it loses its power as a god, as meaning, as something that can shape human lives in however small or large way. The task of the poet is to use language to point out these traces of the gods, meaning, that is always running away from us. This, I believe, is where the “Wow, I know that feeling, but I’ve never heard it expressed in words before; it really captures that feeling” of poetry comes from. I don’t meant to be exclusionary (even if Heidegger did?): of course, meaning is the domain of all arts (and humans more generally, but that’s a slightly different essay). Rainer Maria Rilke, describing a statue, sums up this moment famously in his “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
“You must change your life.” It is through poetry and art that we understand meaning is not fixed, that other modes of being, other modes of interpretation, are possible. A new use of a word elicits a unique response. Poetry is a liberation from convention. A liberation from the conventional uses of language that creates fresh meaning and shapes experience.