Poetic Truth in a Post-Truth World

A Heideggerian Take.

Rachel Coventry

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It is challenging to talk about Heidegger’s poetics outside academia for a number of reasons. First of all, the texts are famously difficult and the work on poetry comes in the later period, which is generally considered even more difficult than the earlier period. Secondly, Heidegger is ultimately responding to the entire history of Western philosophy from the Greeks to Husserl. His poetics are not separate to this response but rather central to it. Heidegger does not talk about poetry to just say something about poetry; but rather he is saying something about reality and how we understand it. To fully comprehend what he is saying about poetry it is necessary to understand the history he is responding to and we cannot do that work in a few thousand words. Despite this, the challenge is one worth taking up because Heidegger says a lot that is of interest to poets and those interested in poetry, especially in this ‘post-truth’ era.

One thing worth noting is that later work focuses on language and its importance. Heidegger’s own language, is in this period, is densely poetic because Heidegger thinks that it is poetic language that gets us to the heart of the matter. He attempts to do something remarkable with language; he tries to wake us from a metaphysical trance that, he claims, we fell into around the time of Plato (we’ll come back to this). For Heidegger, it is only poetic language that can accomplish this feat. However, we cannot talk about any of this without doing some violence to Heidegger’s thought and it is important to be mindful of this as we stamp around on it.

In the much-admired essay “On the Origin of the Work of Art” Heidegger tells us that art, but especially poetry, is truth. So we can begin with the rather controversial idea that poetry is truth. Immediately, we have to ask what is meant by poetry and perhaps more importantly what is meant by truth. It is worth noting that Heidegger is talking about “great” poetry. In fact, it can be said that one way to tell great poetry from not so great poetry is in terms of truth so we can clarify by saying that great poetry is truth. What is meant by truth, however, is a more difficult question. When Heidegger tells us that poetry is truth he is suggesting that truth is something quite different from what most philosophers suggest truth is. In our post-enlightenment world, truth has increasingly become linked to science, with scientific truth as the gold standard of truth. While in our everyday speech we may still say things like “she speaks her truth” or “it has a ring of truth to it,” philosophically speaking, truth has increasingly become a question of facts especially scientific facts. But for Heidegger, it is poetry rather than science that gets to the truth of the matter. How can this be? Heidegger understands truth as ‘aletheia’ or unconcealment. This means that truth is what is shown to us as opposed to that which is concealed from us. We can illustrate this with an example. Consider the sun; from the perspective of science the sun is the star at the centre of the Solar System. It is an almost perfect sphere of hot plasma with a mass of about 330,000 times the Earth’s. This is a fact, it is true and it represents a part of our overall scientific knowledge. Poets, however, give very different descriptions of the sun and we don’t need to look very far to find one. Consider this stanza from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Summer Sun,”


     Though closer still the blinds we pull
     To keep the shady parlour cool,
     Yet he will find a chink or two
     To slip his golden fingers through.


Or this more recent example from Louis De Paor’s poem “Apples and Pears,”


                                                                        As though a superstitious sun

                                                                            had thrown a pinch of salt

                                                                                     over its shoulder

                                                                                       -flitters of light

                                                                                              falling


For Heidegger poetic description is truth whereas the scientific description actually moves away from this truth. When I describe the sun as a sphere of hot plasma I move away from the sun and say something that is completely divorced from my experience. The poem on the other hand gives us a recognizable encounter; we see the sun’s fingers slipping through a chink in the blinds. Of course, by our normal way of understanding truth, the lines of the poem are figurative or metaphoric and thus not true in the way that the scientific description is (although, once you try to philosophically untangle this distinction you find yourself in fairly murky territory). But when I look at the sun I do not experience a perfect sphere of hot plasma I experience something like the poets say. For Heidegger, truth is rooted first and foremost in our experience and when our experience of the sun is transformed into an objective scientific fact it becomes entirely dislodged from its connection to us. In scientific theory, the sun becomes, first and foremost, a representation. My actual experience of the sun becomes secondary or subjective. The real sun is the sun of theory; the poet’s sun is just the imaginary musings of the poetic mind. For Heidegger, this is the wrong way around. Truth starts with us, where else could it start? When we prioritize scientific objectification over our own encounter with the world we lose something essential. Very simply put, for Heidegger, poetry is so important because it puts us back into the centre of our own lives.  If we could accomplish this reversal we would be shaking off the metaphysical trance we mentioned above.

So for Heidegger our initial encounter with things is truth. The statements we make about things subsequent to these encounters are always a movement away from this truth. This doesn’t mean that they are not useful or wrong or incorrect but rather that our in our obsession with these sorts of facts we have our connection with the things and therefore with ourselves. Heidegger’s critique of scientific truth is in many ways a critique of its destructive effects on humanity and this effect is ongoing and, he claims, intensifying. The problem begins with Plato, who let’s not forget wanted to banish the poet from the Polis, and it continues throughout Western History, reaching its destructive apex in this technological age. According to Heidegger, the problems we face in the information age can also be understood in terms of truth. As he puts it, we live in an age where the truth has withdrawn.

Heidegger lays the blame for this withdrawal at the feet of science and technology. His critique of technology is not a critique of the actual devices technological advances furnish us with but rather a critique of how we actually see and understand the world. Technology is a way in which things show themselves or move into presence. So, like poetry, science and technology are ‘ways of seeing’ but this way reduces everything to objective facts, which in turn makes everything into a resource for human manipulation. The sun ceases to be the sun and becomes a source of solar energy. A river stops being a river and becomes a channel of transportation or is dammed to generate power. The Irish landscape ceases to be a landscape and becomes a resource to attract tourists. Everything is ‘rebranded’ so as to squeeze ever drop of utility out. In addition, we have become so accustomed to viewing the world in terms of objective facts that we ourselves have become objects. We display ourselves as a product among others on the virtual shop window that is Tinder. Even words themselves have become commodities; stripped of their meaning and monetized in terms of their ability to channel Google searches. Nowadays, words are written for algorithms. Everything including language and humanity becomes a resource to be manipulated for some further end.

Heidegger calls this an age of ‘enframing’ in which everything is understood simply as stock, a resource or as ‘standing reserve’ including the environment and humanity. We see the world and everything in it as objects of representation and we no longer understand the significance of anything. We know the price of everything but the value of nothing. One consequence of living in such a world is that art becomes a mystery, one that is difficult to account for in philosophical terms. If truth is a correct correspondence or a representation then what is a poem? More and more art is replaced with entertainment. We have lost the truth of our engagement with our world and instead art, like everything else, is stock being processed one way or another. In the rush of information the poem is lost and along with it a vital source of human truth.

On the face of it, the idea that truth is somehow lost seems to chime with the current talk of post-truth. In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary announced post-truth as its word of the year. They defined the term as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion or personal belief.” The word is not new but its use became widespread in the year of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. It captures the idea that truth is less important in political decision-making than it was. Instead, feeling and fantasy become the life-blood of politics. So in the post-truth era Donald Trump can make outrageous statements such as there is no global warming or Barack Obama founded Isis and derive political benefit from it. The controversy surrounding attendance figures at the inauguration is a case in point. Now there are facts and ‘alternative facts.’

When Heidegger tells us that truth is withdrawn he means something very different to what political pundits mean by post-truth. Post-truth implies that it is not our notion of truth that is at fault but rather that we no longer pay attention to it. The post-truth problem would be solved if everyone just started to heed the ‘real’ facts rather than whatever rubbish they read on their Facebook newsfeed. For Heidegger the question of truth’s withdrawal is very different. He tells us that in the age of enframing things actually lose their presence. We fail to see the truth of anything. In typical Heideggerian terms things become ‘thingless’. In our need to know what is correct we loose what is true. His warning is dire; enframing is the supreme danger facing humanity, more dangerous even than the atomic bomb. Luckily, there is a solution.

What is needed, according to Heidegger, is a return to truth as unconcealment or aletheia, but this is not a simple matter. Truth has withdrawn and we can’t just charm it back. We cannot just decide to go back to Heidegger’s more originary account of truth; we are bewitched by technology and it’s not simply a case of deleting your Facebook page. In Heidegger’s language this time is destitute and yet, he claims, poetry offers the possibility of a way out. By paying attention to language and by recovering the true nature of things the poet can save us from the destitution of the age. But this is no easy task. He tells that we “must look with yet clearer eyes into the danger” and to do this we must engage art and poetry. We must be attuned to the poetic. It is the poet that can bring us back to the truth of things and this is what the poet must attempt to do.

In the face of Trump’s election and the populism that afforded it, isn’t this just wishful thinking at best and dangerous nonsense at worst? It can and has been argued that Heidegger’s non-correspondence account of truth could, in fact, sanction this post-truth situation. Indeed, given Heidegger’s own involvement with the Nazi party shouldn’t we consign his account of truth to the philosophical dustbin as some commentators have suggested we do? Does Heidegger’s account of truth as unconcealment simply open the floodgates to whatever nonsense the gullible masses will buy? In this post-truth world aren’t the facts more important than they have ever been? It is important to note that Heidegger’s account of poetic truth is not a relativistic notion. While Heidegger acknowledges a historical element of truth, he does not suggest that ‘anything goes’. In fact, the truth must be ‘wrested.’ It is fought for and sometimes won. Many artists and poets know what this means as they have experienced the fight. The truth is not simply a case of truth conditions or banal truths such as it is either raining outside or it is not. The truth is something deeper; something the poet aims for and something that, when the reader sees she immediately recognises it. While the recent controversy about the inauguration has focused on the fact about how many people were actually present on the day. The truth of the situation is something else, something that a poet will express, and something that we desperately need a poet to express.

So we can say that we are living in a post-truth world in the sense that facts have become optional but we are also in a world where the truth, in Heidegger’s poetic sense, has withdrawn. I don’t think the two notions are entirely unrelated. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we should replace cold hard facts with poetry but I think it is fair to say the facts alone are not enough to rescue us from the situation we find ourselves in. We are losing the context in which the facts have meaning. I don’t think that Heidegger would be surprised to know that facts have become a yet another commodity to be used for some outcome or another. Truth (as correspondence) has become just more Internet content competing with fake news and alternative facts for hits. It’s the numbers that decide the issue in the end. But while the facts in themselves are almost indistinguishable from alternative facts or fake news there cannot be fake truth in this Heideggerian sense of poetic truth. Those of us who read poetry know what it is like to encounter the truth in a poem. We have all had that ‘ahh’ moment when we hear someone tell the truth. We all know it when we see it, it cannot be faked. It is not a coincidence that no poet read at Trump’s inauguration and yet there has been a very healthy poetic response to his election. In the wake of recent events people have turned to poetry. For Heidegger, art is truth because it shows us something essential; it opens up our world for us. Poetry is especially important because it uses language and language is important. Today’s rampant populism has co-opted language and now more than ever we need a poetic response. It is the poet’s job to respond.