Heidegger begins: "...and what are poets for in a destitute time?" asks Hölderlin's elegy "Bread and Wine." We hardly understand the question today. How, then, shall we grasp the answer that Hölderlin gives?"
So, what is the nature of this 'destitution' Heidegger is quoting? The Gods (not only Christ but the Classical Gods) have defaulted, have 'died' as an organising principle, and with them our civilisation has been decentred. This is a common enough theme in modernist literature. Most famously in the English speaking world, William Butler Yeats explored this in the first verse of his celebrated poem, The Second Coming (1920).
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?In beginning with Holderlin's view of our age as one of God-bereft desolation, we have to also be mindful that this work was written in 1946, following the final collapse of Germany. Heidegger himself was called to account for his early engagement with National Socialism, and was banned from teaching by the occupying French authorities. Germany was divided and in ruins, Europe was in ruins, and the terrible truth of German atrocities and genocide was being shown to Germans, that "blood-dimmed tide" more awful even than the first world war Yeats was alluding to. Not surprising that Heidegger laments that "The world's night is spreading its darkness" (p. 89). The "passionate intensity" of the old regime was over. In its wake the default of the Gods is clearer than ever. Where does that leave us? “Because of this default, there fails to appear to the world the ground that grounds it” (p. 90). The loss of 'ground' leaves us on the edge of an abyss [Abgrund]. Now "The age for which the ground fails to come, hangs in the abyss."
Will it however be possible to come back from that brink. that desolation which has been developing for centuries, and which might now be entering into its final crisis? We find ourselves in a wasteland with no clear way out, with no single guiding narrative. Born only a few months before Heidegger, T. S. Eliot would be a suitable companion for English speakers, to Heidegger's exploration of this desolation. The Wasteland is perhaps the most celebrated poem of the early 20th Century in English:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
In both Heidegger and Eliot's visons of human desolation we cannot expect a deus ex machina, no rescue from the gods. If we are to be saved from the darkening age, we will have to do it ourselves. But how? Through the advent of some monstrous second coming, as in Yeats? That is too close to the false 'messianic' regime of the Nazis, the solution cannot be a political system. The 'organising principles' of our world need to be put back in place, in short, these 'gods' must return in some form or other. But
So, the way out is through the possibility that we mortals, because we are mortal, are "touched by presence" which can counter the current absence. Mortals are able to "reach... into the abyss" to prepare the ground for the possibility of these powers returning to us. They are gone but not wholly gone, they have left traces for us, if we can but read them. But what kind of mortal is able to reach into the fearful abyss, to follow the traces and prepare the way for the return of cosmic order?
Those of us who are not the great poets must "learn to listen", we must help sustain their word and thereby do our part. For Heidegger, Holderlin is particularly powerful in articulating this desolation and the way out of it. His "thinking poetry" (p.93). But there are still dangers in this path:
We must avoid being charmed by the aesthetic, misusing poetry by mining it for philosophical or other uses. Think of the use of poetry among politicians. And Heidegger does not consider himself to be using Holderlin's poetry, rather to be thinking through the lens of Holderlin's poetry, so that Holderlin comes to exert an ever greater influence on Heidegger's thought and terminology from the mid-1930s onwards. So, if we can avoid these dangers, what will we gain from following Holderlin? By being preservers and listeners of his poetry?
So we are following the poets who are able to read and articulate the traces. Holderlin is one, now Heidegger introduces another whom he considers to have that power, Rilke. For Heidegger,
We have a way out of this wasteland. While "song still lingers over their desolate land," there is still the possibility of hearing and heading this call.
Meanwhile, even the trace of the holy has become unrecognizable. It remains undecided whether we still experience the holy as the track leading to the godhead of the divine, or whether we now encounter no more than a trace of the holy. It remains unclear what the track leading to the trace might be. It remains in question how such a track might show itself to us. The time is destitute because it lacks the unconcealedness of the nature of pain, death, and love. This destitution is itself destitute because that realm of being withdraws within which pain and death and love belong together. Concealedness exists inasmuch as the realm in which they belong together is the abyss of Being. But the song still remains which names the land over which it sings. What is the song itself? How is a mortal capable of it? Whence does it sing? How far does it reach into the abyss?