ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"H",  by Ricardo L. Nirenberg 

In the course of a notorious interview with the magazine Der Spiegel, Heidegger asserted that the German language has an inner relation with Greek language and that, furthermore, as soon as Frenchmen start thinking they must turn to German, for they are unable to think in their own tongue. Jacques Derrida took up the challenge in his book De l'esprit, subtitled Heidegger et la question (1987) (See also Derrida's interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, November 6-12, 1987, titled L'enfer des philosophes). Roughly speaking, what Heidegger claims that German and Greek have in common, and French lacks, is a special "spirituality." But this, Derrida assures us, is partly a mistake, partly a tautology. First, as regards the mistake: it consists in identifying the German Geist with the Greek pneûma, for they refer to different concepts. Although they are both usually translated as "spirit," Geist harks to fire and pneûma to air, as Heidegger himself came to realize in his late work on the poet Georg Trakl.

We may observe that, long before and more famously, Goethe's Mephistopheles introduced himself as "der Geist, der stets verneint" (the spirit that negates) and, a few lines later, claimed the flame as his own element. We may add, too, that for the French poet Paul Claudel (Cinq Grandes Odes), esprit is closer to water, and that many Argentine writers, children of the Pampas, find espíritu in the earth. Imagine then an extended research project on nations and their dominant spiritual element: with a little help from alchemy and astrology, it might finally be explained why nationalisms bloodily clash, and we may even learn how to avoid future massacres. Those in power ought to read the poets.

But to return to earth and to the point where Derrida plays his trademark relativizing gambit, it is a tautology to say that a French speaking person cannot think of Geist, geistig, geistlich, etc. in French. Of course not. These words (rigorously speaking, any words, but especially these) are untranslatable. By the same token, one wouldn't be able to think l'esprit in German: it can be properly thought only in French. Similarly, wit, no doubt, can only be fittingly exercised in English. There used to be an inscription on the main building at the University of Heidelberg: "To the Universal Spirit." Derrida and fellow relativists will no doubt wield quotation marks and pronounce, "To us, this cannot mean a truly universal spirit, but just `a German "Universal" Geist'." Curiously, and no doubt by different byroads, the Nazis arrived at the same conclusion, so the inscription was changed in 1933: "To the German Spirit."

Heidegger's declaration is a tautology, hence nothing to take umbrage at; no one in his right mind can be provoked or angered by tautology. Derrida thinks it comical rather, and goes on to affirm in a footnote that to be able to laugh at manoeuvres such as Heidegger's may emerge as an ethical or political duty.

The emergence of such a duty - till now laughing was at most a right, never a moral or political duty - makes us start in surprise. G. B. Shaw said somewhere that all intellectual labor is humorous, but tickle me to death if I can see what might be meant by it, and anyway Derrida doesn't always laugh at intellectual labor, only sometimes. At the end of Plato's Symposium Socrates is said to have tried to persuade his drunken friends that one who has mastered the technique of writing tragedies should also be able to do comedies. Since Heidegger is arguably a modern Master of the tragic technique, maybe Derrida plays Socrates here, trying to persuade us that the author of Sein und Zeit is also a comic writer. Still, is it a duty for us to laugh, say, at Aristophanes, Ionesco, or Chaplin? Well, an esthetic duty, perhaps... but a moral or political one?

There is more. In another extended footnote, Derrida urges us to weigh on our moral scales a pronouncement by Husserl to the effect that Eskimos and Gypsies are not part of Europe in a spiritual sense, against Heidegger's recalcitrant Nazism - for there may hinge, he writes, "la question de l'esprit." Derrida finds the outcome of such weighing undecided: he is unable to tell of the two attitudes which is worse, Husserl's or Heidegger's.

The issues involved in this double moral and political duty, weighing and laughing — weighing the moral necessity of laughter, laughing at the inconclusiveness of weighing —  should we go into them, could easily occupy us for years, but my intention is a much briefer one. I mean simply to show that Derrida's relativism, when it comes to the question of the Spirit, is misapplied; I shall argue that Heidegger was essentially right in saying that German and Greek are superior (more spiritual, closer to the origins) than French. And this, neither subjectively (as when Coleridge placed the Spanish language for beauty immediately after the Greek), nor in some vague fiery-airy-versus-watery sense, but on a rather precise and quantitative scale.


Why no one has ever hit on this evident idea is a mystery I will not attempt to explain: as far as I can tell, only 19th century comparative grammarians have come anywhere close, with their famous thesis on the decline of languages. For it leaps to any reader's eyes: indeed, Greek and German are more spiritual than French, Italian, Spanish, or any of the Romance languages; more spiritual simply because they contain more spirit, more genuine spirit, that is, more of the letter H. This may sound arbitrary at first, or worse, inordinately literal —  a strong case of heeding the letter over the spirit —  until we recall that the aspirate h-sound was called pneûma in Greek and spiritus in Latin, and this at least as early as those words acquired their Christian and, today, more popular meanings.

Let us start, then, with the Greek H. The sign H at the beginning of a word was replaced, in the eastern Greek scripts, and in the Attic alphabet after 300 B.C., by the sign ' on top of the initial vowel; "H" itself changed roles and came to represent the long open e, "eta." Grammarians called ‘ the rough spirit, pneûma dasú, in other words, the hairy, haggard, or hoarse spirit. But they did more. On those initial vowels which required no aspiration and therefore no rough spirit, they established another sign, ’, symmetrical pendant to the former, which was called the soft spirit, pneûma psilón. A sort of Hellenic Jacob and Esau. According to Greek grammars, ‘ and ’ derive from the two halves of the original H, from I- and - I respectively. That's a nice bit of information, but since no one bothers to explain why the soft spirit, which stands for no sound, should be necessary at all, it doesn't appear to have much theoretical import. I will therefore contribute my own thoughts. In spite of the notorious obscurity of Hegel's works, after no more than scratching them it clearly appears that the basic tendency of the Spirit or Geist is to negate, like Mephistopheles, and to negate Itself first of all. Every time Geist is institutionalized or pinned down, this negative tendency stirs forth, causing it to split straight away into two opposing camps. In the Church, these were the true but few rough, bearded ascetics, versus the soft, clean shaved and perfumed, versifying abbés; correspondingly, in our own case, it's ‘ versus ’.

There was a time, a dim, mythological past, when the Spirit (or rather, what later came to be known as "the Spirit," but should perhaps be called the Sacred, the Holy, or the Numinous) sounded in the K's of crackling fire, in the furious F's of raging storms, the R's of thunder, and in the serpent's sibilant S's or Z's. With the onset of civilization, though, and our increasing control over Nature, our tongue became slacker, the sound gradually tamer: we evolved an aspiration, a breathing, something inner, almost intangible. The Greek rough spirit, like the aspirate sound in other Indo-European languages, is often the trace of something else, of another, more solid consonant now forgotten. Thus, we frequently have initial s's turning into h's, as in Greek hals, Latin salis, English salt; or Greek hékuros, Latin socer, English father-in-law. Or an old w turns into an h: hístór = one who knows law & right, witness, learned (whence "history," "historian," etc.), was originally wid-tôr, from *wid- = to see, as in Latin video or English witness. The turning of intial s into h, in particular, was put to mystical uses by any number of mythographers and Gnostics in late antiquity who identified Selene, the moon, with Helene, the Helen of Homeric fame.

From unbridled, overpowering natural forces to a mere exhalation: the taming, dematerializing trajectory doesn't end just here; the next and second step for the Spirit is to become a thoroughly undetectable ghost. Such a possibility existed always in pneûma no less than in Geist or in spiritus, all of which could denote, among other things, phantoms, revenants or apparitions, but this destiny, this parallel fate shared by the Spirit and the letter H, became fully realized in Latin, where H is but a soundless ghost.

I remember being humiliated when in a high school report on the Gobi desert I spelled the Spanish word arena with an initial h. My Geography professor (may his soul wander, without repose, ever thirsty) laughed, gave me an F, and called me "a little César Bruto." This was the pseudonymous author of popular articles whose comic effect was mostly achieved by gross misspellings and misplaced h's. Later, in the sixties, when Julio Cortázar used one of those texts as an epigraph for his novel Hopscotch, César Bruto acquired a certain literary cachet, but by that time I had grown up and was at the University. As for St. Augustine's account in his Confessions of the letter H as an instrument of pedagogical torture, I read it too late in life to be of help. What I mean to emphasize, though, is the inexplicable cruelty that could be elicited by a soundless curlicue, the misery caused by a mere written sign.

Once, at the Buenos Aires docks, I saw, I swear I saw, written, black on yellow, on a sand bin: "Harenas del Plata y de Ultramar." After my high school humiliation I went back to the port and looked for the sign but couldn't find it; either the sand company had crumbled, gone broke, or I had dreamt it; still, the impression was vivid in my mind: the word "Harenas" had resonance hard to account for, the H seemed to lend it a depth of horizon I could not even start to scan. Many years later I looked it up in the Latin Dictionary of Lewis and Short: even though both are documented, harena is a better spelling than arena, those authorities state, since the word comes from the Sabine fas-ena, and so the H would be, as usual, the trace of a forgotten sound, in this case an F.

I felt vindicated. Professor Daus, old cretin! It is always out of his own ignorance that an old fool derides a child. So far as I knew then, their women, raped by the Romans, were the only Sabine contribution to the history of civilization (the painting by David in the Louvre was in my mind; I still wasn't aware of the Sabine origin of those illustrious names, Mme. de Sévigné and Alberto Savinio), but here was another, perhaps more important, and in a way more lasting legacy: the Latin word for sand. Further research revealed that fas-ena comes from the Indo-European root *fa or *fe, which gave Sanscrit bhâs = to shine, and Greek pháos/phôs = light, as well as Greek phaíno = Sanskrit bhâmi = to appear, and Greek phemí = Sanskrit bhâsh = Latin for, fatus = to speak. We can already descry Heidegger's horizons of Being, where shining, appearing and being-said are, as it were, aspects of the same verb, where origins don veils the better to haunt us. Each of the following related Latin words: fatum = that which is said, an oracle, fate; fastus = day in which it is allowed to speak and pass judgments; festus =festive, merry, joyful; fatuus = garrulous, fatuous; favere = to be favorable; fas = divine law; facies = figure, shape, appearance, face; facetus = fine, elegant, witty (whence "facetious"); focus = fire-place, hearth — and many others yet, could be the origin of rich, revealing Heideggerian meditations.

We cannot start on any of those paths now; we can only try to evoke, briefly, an original moment of naming and encounter. The inland horde, riding horse drawn chariots, wielding shields and bronze spears, arrive for the first time at the sea shore; the sun is low on the horizon; the warriors are struck dumb at the new and glorious spectacle — the timeless ebb and flow, the deep-resounding sea. Until one of them, pointing to the sand where the waves leave their foamy lace, shouts, "Hey, look, glittering stuff!" or, in his native tongue, "Fas-ena!" Then all come down from their chariots, take off their sandals, and, joyful as children who are taken to the beach for the first time, they cry, "Fas-ena! Fas-ena!" The name stuck.

Those rare moments where the truth of Being shines forth in all its splendor and a nation is suddenly confronted by its destiny are often veiled and covered — verborgen — by phonetic changes, from F to the aspirate sound, from Fas-ena to Harena. There is justification for this: Dasein cannot stand too much sun or too much truth. But such rare moments are completely forgotten when the H stops sounding, and finally, every trace has disappeared as soon as the H, the sign itself, is dropped. I am convinced that the sign at the docks, "Harenas del Plata y de Ultramar," was not a figment of my imagination, far from that, but the very call from Being, Heidegger's Zuspruch des Seins. And I trust I will not be thought immodest or pretentious if I say that Being calls not just on ancient wise Milesians or Ephesians, or famous modern Germans, but, sometimes, on a poor Spanish speaking kid with nothing better to do than to wander idly through his native port.

Returning to the destiny of the letter H, which, as I said above, follows the fate of the Spirit: first, from strong consonants, F's, S's, K's, to an aspirate sound (in Florentine Italian, to give a modern example, Coca-Cola is pronounced Hoha-Hola); then, second step in this Vergessenheit des Seins, this oblivion of Being, the aspirate sound disappears and only its ghost, the silent H, is left. The second step, which had not yet occurred in Ancient Greek, was taken and already completed in Classical Latin. Moreover, Classical Latin was well on its way to the third step: the dropping of the written sign H altogether. Quite a few Latin proper names were indifferently written with or without H: (H)Adrianus, (H)Adriaticus, (H)Annibal. So it is not without melancholy that Quintilian, a rhetorician of the first century A.D., writes, "If indeed H is a letter, and not a mere sign;" and then, too, Aulus Gellius, a Latin writer of the 2nd. century A.D., devoted to the letter H a whole chapter of his Attic Nights: "H is a letter," he writes, "but it would be more proper to call it spiritum." Noticing that old spellings with H had become obsolete, Gellius thought that his forebears added the sign to certain words (he quotes lachrumae [tears], sepulchrumvehemens [violent], hallucinari [to dream]) as one would spice a stew, "to make them fresher and livelier, and to give their sounds more vigor." A mere sign, a dollop of oriental spice! Gellius' decadent frivolity, his negligence of Being, seems pathetic but excusable, since he lived long before the era of wissenschaftlich Historical Linguistics.

I am mindful of not writing for eternity, but, most probably, for readers living, like me, at the end of this brilliant century and, indeed, at the end of this on the whole rather successful millenium; readers likely to say, "What's in a name anyway?"; readers too scientific to assign any type of importance to the presence or absence of a little h. Today, as Heidegger well knew, forgetfulness of Being has reached proportions which could not have been imagined only two thousand years ago. Would it help my case to quote from the Old Testament, even though it falls outside of my present ken of Greek, Latin and German? Let us remember then that (1) Abram had to change his name to Abraham as part of the deal which assured his place as Father of the Chosen People; (2) not until Sarai became Sarah did she conceive Isaac; whereas (3) Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, was of course already blessed with the immensely important H as well as with a son by Abram. This three pronged proof ought to convince, I think, those who give any serious credence to the Bible. I shall limit myself to remind the rest of my readers that Bern(h)ard Berenson did the exact opposite of Abram and Sarai: he dropped his Germanic h as a French patriotic gesture during World War I, and did pretty well after that, keyn ayn-hore, dying at 94, filled with years, fame and million dollar artworks.

So now all should be persuaded of the enormous importance of the letter H, but I can still hear someone interrupting, "Fine, but what has the letter H to do with the history/destiny of the spirit? Merely the fact that Greeks and Romans called the two by the same name? What's in a name anyway?" It always comes down to the same question. To which I reply that the above quotes from Genesis should prove that h's are, at the very least, intimately associated with the Spirit, if Spirit be taken in the Judaeo-Christian sense. If, instead, you are thinking of the Germanic Geist, what better authority for it than Messrs. Hegel and Heidegger? The latter philosopher says of Geist that it is a heeding of the origins, while Hegel (quoted by Alexandre Koyré in his article, "Hegel à Iéna") defined it as what is always finding itself again, what only exists in and by the act of finding itself again. He adds: in order for Geist to find itself and find itself again, it is necessary that, before and simultaneously, it loses itself and scatters itself away. Closer to home, George Santayana (Platonism and the spiritual life, 1927) defined Spirit a bit more succinctly as "the disenchanting and re-enchanting faculty of seeing this world in its simple truth."

Without bringing up further examples, like Kurylowicz's mysterious Hittite laryngeal, I think I have said enough about phonetic changes and the gradual fading of the bright original consonants to show that H and Geist function in ways that are, to say the least, similar. Being lost, forgotten, and being found again. Hiding the origins, and discovering them. Disenchanting and re-enchanting. Admittedly, the finding again, the spiritual retrieval, enchanting, discovering or remembering, is achieved, generally speaking, in one case by philosophers, in the other by philologists; but that's a trifling difference.

In Latin, we have seen, oblivion of the origins and decadence of the H had gone much farther than in Ancient Greek (incidentally, in Modern Greek both the sound and the sign have entirely disappeared) - to the point where, in the Latin Bible, Eve is everywhere spelled Heva; that is the case, a fortiori, of the Romance tongues, descended from Latin. The Russians are the worst: they cannot even pronounce an h, and when they encounter it in a foreign word, they make it into a g. Germans, needless to say, don't have that problem: the German H resounds in splendor, as a cursory hearing of the words wehen (to blow) and Hauch (breath, that is, spirit) should be enough to convince us. In 1773, however, a rationalistic theologian, C.T.Damm, advocated the suppression of the letter h in German words such as Thal or Ruhe, and J.G. Hamann, the Magus of the North, replied with a New Apology of the Letter H, where he argued against rationalistic simplification and for human, historical caprice. In 1901 a special conference was held in Berlin, attended by representatives of the German Reich and of the Austrian Empire: they dropped the dumb "h"s in words such as Thal (valley), and kept only the spiritual ones.

But the French h-muet and h-aspiré, like Spanish soundless h, are little more than ghosts to frighten school children with. As far as I know, of Romance speakers, only Italians and Romanians have been clear-headed enough to clean their house of such ghosts and do away, officially, save for a few words, with the fearful paraphernalia of dumb "h"s.

English speakers are fortunate to have kept much of the spiritual force in the letter H. Look it up in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, III, iv, 53-56:  "Beatrice: By my troth, I am exceedingly ill. Heigh ho!" / "Margaret: For a hawk, a horse, or a husband? /" "Beatrice: For the letter that begins them all, H."

Shakespeare, as well as other Renaissance English writers, sometimes abused the H. The word "abomination," for example, which clearly comes from the Latin ab-omen, they took to come from ab-homo, meaning "inhuman," and so spelled it abhomination. It does look more abominable that way. As for more modern English writers, Swift has the disgusting but minimally reasonable Yahoos bear one right at the center, while the superiorly virtuous and spiritual Houyhnhnms are allowed three, no less. If you think that's carrying things too far, consider the language of the Hrossa, C.S. Lewis' spiritual and poetic inhabitants of Mars, in which every single word starts with H. But nowhere is the importance of our letter better urged than at the beginning of Moby Dick, where Melville offers some etymology, and quotes from Hackluyt:

"While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue [Dutch], leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true."

Yet, we should note, even in the Romance languages with their soundless H, a poet's sensitivity can still hear something of a forgotten past, and feel something of the elemental forces that have been left behind. Victor Hugo, regretting the passing of the H in French trône (throne), says, "C'est comme lui ôter le fauteuil," and more than once, when in his correspondence he wants to express the most profound outrage, Flaubert throws in an extraneous capital H: "Je suis Hindigné!, " mannerism which was mimicked in Spanish by Julio Cortázar. Rimbaud named one of his most abstruse and erotic prose poems "H," like the present text, and one of Roland Barthes' autobiographical fragments is titled "The Goddess H.," by which apparently he meant (closeted) homosexuality. Finally, let me transcribe a whole paragraph from Proust's La Prisonnière, in the translation of Scott Moncrieff & Kilmartin:

"To revert to the pronunciation and vocabulary of Mme de Guermantes, it is in this aspect that the nobility shows itself truly conservative, with everything that the word implies in the sense of being at once slightly puerile, slightly dangerous, stubborn in its resistance to change, but at the same time diverting to an artist [mais aussi d'amusant pour l'artiste]. I wanted to know the original spelling of the name Jean. I learned it when I received a letter from a nephew of Mme de Villeparisis who signs himself - as he was christened, as he figures in the Almanach de Gotha - Jehan de Villeparisis, with the same handsome, superfluous, heraldic H that we admire, illuminated in vermilion or ultramarine, in a Book of Hours or in a stained-glass window."

Handsome, superfluous, heraldic: doesn't this remind us of Gellius' vigor and spicing? But Proust, a far greater writer than the 2nd century Roman, notes, ever so faintly, that there is something "at once slightly puerile, slightly dangerous" in the clinging to the original Hebrew aspirate in the name Yochanan. In that finding-itself-again, in the heeding of the origins, the novelist detects something ominous, an abyssal breeze as it were. It can hardly be a coincidence that in the same episode, a little later, the Duke of Guermantes rails against Dreyfus and wallows in his anti-Semitism of grand-seigneur. Yet the French esprit, that is, the insouciance that comes with the forgetfulness of Being, retains the upper hand, and so Proust ends up by saying, "mais aussi d'amusant pour l'artiste." Here we find, most emphatically, the spiritual difference between French and German; we might say, the quantitative difference in spirituality between the world of esprit and that of Geist. To gauge it, to compare the two, after Proust let us hear what Heidegger has to say in a text where he assiduously refers to Geist, quoted by Derrida. In it, as Derrida notes, Heidegger writes the word Geist (the second one in the text below) for the first time without quotation marks. This is from his Rectoral Speech of May 1933, when he was made Führer of the University of Freiburg. I quote from Victor Farias' book, Heidegger et le nazisme (1987, English translation 1989).

"For Geist is neither empty analysis, nor the noncommittal game of wits, nor the boundless activity of producing rational analyses, nor world reason. Geist is originally in tune with a knowing decisiveness regarding the essence of Being. The spiritual world [geistige Welt] of a people is not the superstructure of a culture, nor is it merely an arsenal for usable knowledge and values; it is the force of the deepest preservation of its powers of earth and blood, the power of the innermost excitement [Erregung] and most profound shock [Erschütterung] of its existence [Dasein]. A spiritual world alone bestows greatness to a nation, for it forces it to the ultimate decision as to whether the will to greatness or a tolerance for decline [Verfall] will become the law of our nation's future history."

No frivolous h's here. Nothing artistically amusant. Rather, the rigorous teaching of a Rector and Führer, Germany's most prestigious philosopher, telling his young students that something, Geist, will force them to the ultimate decision, the laying down of their lives in war. This decisive Geist, as Heidegger defines it, is the force that makes a people preserve most deeply its powers of blood and earth, Blut und Boden, which, in the Nazi lingo, meant "Volk" and "racial purity." In both cases, in the conservatism of the French aristocracy and in the Freiburg Führer's Geist, we have a clinging to, a preservation of, something harking back to some origin. In both cases the thing to be preserved is a character; only the codes are different: one is linguistic, the other genetic. Speaking German, a language where the H, the rough spirit, shines forth as clearly as in Ancient Greek, Heidegger didn't have to worry much about it, unlike M. de Villeparisis: what Heidegger cared for, what worried him, was the German race, the "Aryan" genes, which he thought were in danger.

And still we must be fair to Heidegger, who soon abandoned those muddled categories, earth and blood, and stood carefully away from Nazi genetics. By 1942 the basic question, for him, was definitely not related to the genetic code, and had become once more - what else? - the letter H. In his Parmenides, section 3, commenting on the German word Befehl (command), he notes that originally the word meant the same as befelh, to cover, to commit the dead to the earth or to the fire, to entrust them to a cover: it is the misplacement of that h, from after to before the l, that has obscured the meaning of "command" and thereby has contributed to the most significant event in the history of Western thought, the forgetting of the essence of falseness and truth.

Is there an occult affinity between the H and Parmenides? I raise the question, and offer it to future researchers, because Plato too dealt with the H-theme in his Parmenides. There, in 398 C-D, the word hero is deduced etymologically from eros, for heroes were the fruit of the love between god, or goddess, and mortal, and the H is added to eros, he asserts, "to produce the fruit."   


Should we leave it at that, in suspense, with a smile? Or with a laugh, since laughing is emerging as a moral and political duty? For who will dare decide, of two codes, which is the more fundamental, of two characters, which the less trivial, of two linguistic manoeuvres, which the more lethal?

Yes, we should try and make an effort to leave it at that, since pointing a self-righteous, unsmiling finger at the Freiburg philosopher, telling him, "Your Geist stinks," would entail unacceptable risks. That way lie phallocentrism (at least dactylocentrism, implied in pointing), ethnocentrism (treating Heidegger's anti-Semitism more severely than Husserl's spiritual exclusion from Europe of Eskimos and Gypsies), conformism and dogmatism (giving our own wits authority over Heidegger's Geist), and, worst of all, naiveté (thinking a moral issue can be as easily decided as that). We should make a serious effort, try to follow Derrida's advice and smile. To help us with it, Derrida provides in a footnote (the most interesting bits of his book seem to inhabit the footnotes) an aide-sourire, an anecdote of Matthew Arnold about a Prussian professor who, like Heidegger, was an enthusiastic proponent of the German Geist. That's nice of Derrida, but unhelpful. Smiling comes easily when I think of the hide-and-seek adventures of the letter H, but Geistleaves me cheerless, and I wonder if the reason Arnold was able to smile at Geist while I am not has anything to do with his not having lived through this century.

Be that as it may, we are left in a quandary. We'd like to smile at Heidegger's Geist, but cannot. In such cases, it helps to consult a dictionary. We know the etymological senses of pneûma and spiritus, but how about the German Geist? Somewhere Heidegger wrote something about it, but should we trust him? Let's look it up in Kluge's Etymologisches Wörterbuch, 22. Ausgabe, 1989.

Geist. m. Old and Middle High German geist, Old Saxon gêst from West Germanic *gaista- m.: "supernatural character or being, emotional state;" also in Old English gâst, Old Frisian jêst. From the Indo-European root *gheis-d- : "to be out of one's mind" [außer sich sein], also in Sanskrit híd-: "to be angry" [zürnen]; unexpanded in Avestan zaêsa-: "terrible, dreadful" [schauderhaft], Gothic usgeinan: "to be frightened" and usgaisjan: "to frighten" [erschrecken], Old Norse geiskafullr: "completely frightened." To the extensive family of *ghe/ghei- : "yawn" [gähnen], belongs also the sense "to open wide one's mouth", hence probably a derived root *gheies-: "Wide opening of the mouth"; the -d- is probably a short grade of *-: "to give." Therefore *gheis-d- would mean: "to bring about a wide opening of the mouth" [Mundaufsperrung herbeiführen]; "to make someone open his mouth wide." Thus, etymologically, i.e. originally, Geist was not meant to be smiled at; quite the contrary, it left one agape, fright stricken. The word is cognate to our English ghastly. And that is likely how Heidegger intended it, especially when we read that in the winter of the 1929-30 academic year he had taught: "We must again call him who is able to cast terror over our Dasein..." Germany's philosophical Führer was the Herbeiführer of our Mundaufsperrung, the bringer-about of our opening our mouth in horror, at the spectacle of two thousand and five hundred years of Western philosophy crashing down in the Heil Hitler! which ended his Rectoral Speech of 1933.

Kluge's dictionary solves our quandary, but leaves us agape, aghast. In such condition - even at this long remove, even now that hard-headed Professionalism and the empire of Television have pushed "spirit," "Geist," "esprit" and all those moth-eaten bugbears to either the museum or the dust bin - is it appropriate to smile or laugh? Quite apart from the question as to how could genuine laughter possibly be a duty (moral, political or otherwise), to laugh at catastrophes, at the Untergang of heroes, seems a confusion of the tragic and the comic, suggesting not esprit but rather faux esprit. An argument could be erected that Derrida is perfectly normal, that ever since antiquity the wont of relativizing philosophers has been to laugh, laugh at no matter what, so the traditional saw about Heraclitus and Democritus wouldn't lose anything in translation: "Flet Heidegger et ridet Derrida." In my own tentative, non-professional opinion, though, Derrida's derangement seems to be a grave but not rare disease of the brain, caused by excessive reading. Akin to Don Quixote's, but of opposite sign: the Don took his fiction books for real, whereas the French critic looks at reality as just books. 


(This is a slightly updated version of the essay which, under the same title, appeared in the journal Exquisite Corpse, #44, 1993.)




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Ricardo Nirenberg is editor of Offcourse