Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 5, 2008
Adam Sharr Heidegger's Hut Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006. 139 pp.; 53 ills. Cloth $24.95 (9780262195515)

Heidegger’s Hut offers a full architectural analysis of a very simple structure, the philosopher’s retreat in Todtnauberg. As Simon Sadler says in his foreword, “This is the most thorough architectural ‘crit’ of a hut ever set down” (ix). Of course the hut would never have attracted such attention were it not Heidegger’s. The oral tradition that accompanied Heidegger’s reception in the Anglophone world (and perhaps elsewhere) involved rumors of the philosopher working at a remote mountain hut. Well before the 1980s, when the question of Heidegger’s Nazism became unavoidable for scholars, the legend that accompanied him was that of the reclusive, solitary thinker, alone with his thoughts of Being (a word we eventually learned not to capitalize, and which in the end Heidegger defaced or erased, writing it as Sein crossed out by an X). In the 1960s and 1970s, as the first great wave of English translations of Heidegger’s works were appearing, readers found resonances of this legend in essays like “Building Dwelling Thinking” with its thick description of a simple peasant hut as it would have been built two hundred years ago, including the wind-sheltered placement on the mountainside, proximity to a spring, pitched roof to protect from storms, an alter corner, and a place for a coffin. (Heidegger had to translate the Schwabian expression Totenbaum [tree of the dead] even for his German readers.) “Here,” he writes, “the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house” (“Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, New York: Harper & Row, 1971, 157; emphasis in original). Heidegger quickly pointed out a few lines later that he was not imagining that we could or should go back to building such houses, but that he was using it as a model of what building and dwelling could be. Hofstadter’s set of translations collected in Poetry, Language, Thought opens with twelve brief poetic statements about dwelling, all situated in a rural mountain setting with a hut and marking the seasons and weather. Another celebrated (and debunked) poetic riff on simple dwelling occurs in a passage from “The Origin of the Work of Art” describing the peasant woman who might wear the shoes painted by Van Gogh, and Adam Sharr provides references to a number of analogous texts.

As Sharr’s rigorous monograph and the thoughtful foreword and prologue by Sandler and Andrew Benjamin, respectively, make clear, it is the immense presence of Heidegger in architectural theory and philosophical thought on place of the last forty years or so that renders inevitable a study of the way in which Heidegger situated and grounded his own thought. The book comes with fifty-three photographs, maps, and diagrams, including a number of Heidegger, his wife Elfride, and a few visitors in and around the hut; this last group was made in 1967–68 and first published in 1985. There are also a few photographs of Heidegger’s suburban house in Freiburg, just ten miles away. One of the book’s strengths is that it helps us to critically examine how Heidegger lived the tension between provincial and urban dwelling that he thought through in his writing.

Much of Heidegger’s thinking revolves around the nature of the question and questioning. This text in its various dimensions (monograph, photographs, foreword, and prologue) helps the reader to engage in a multivalent way with Heidegger’s ideas, including what has been made of it in architectural theory, and it allows for the formulation of inquiries concerning how he positioned himself as a thinker, his relations to family, colleagues, and students, and of course his involvements in university and national politics.

We learn that Heidegger had the hut built in 1922, when he accepted an appointment at Marburg University, about four hundred kilometers from the area of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest) where he had been born and raised, and from Freiburg where he had studied. Apparently wanting a base in an area to which he was deeply attached and seeking a philosophical retreat, Heidegger commissioned the hut (Sharr does not know to what extent others, notably Elfride, may have been involved in the process). Heidegger was able to use the hut on breaks from Marburg; and in 1928, when he returned to Freiburg as professor, he regularly used it on weekends, sometimes making the strenuous ten-mile uphill hike from his suburban house. Colleagues and students visited occasionally, where they typically joined Heidegger on long walks (however, we still do not know whether Hannah Arendt ever visited). He acknowledged, though, that the hut had great value as a refuge from the unpleasant society of university professors (50). After the Nazi seizure of power, the hut was the focus of an “academic summer camp,” in which Heidegger and select students discussed the possibilities of the new situation. After the war and Heidegger’s suspension from teaching because of the denazification process, the hut seemed to become a welcome retreat. Paul Celan, who wrote an important poem on “Todtenauberg,” is one of several notable postwar visitors to have left records of their—sometimes conflicted—experience.

Sharr places the hut architecturally and geographically, providing detailed floor plans, maps, and photographs. Only six by seven meters, it is neatly divided into four basic spaces: reception room, kitchen, bedroom, and study. Ornament is minimal, and Sharr gives a precise and detailed account of living arrangements—details like the pictures of Hebel and Schelling, and Heidegger’s bare study. He notes dryly that the hut is not as secluded as the legend had led us to believe, and provides other information useful for demystifying the site. One can easily walk to Todtnauberg, which has gradually expanded as a tourist site since Heidegger established himself in the 1920s. Eventually the hut was electrified and a telephone was installed, but the residents continued to use the spring for water. Bringing the dossier up to the present, Sharr notes that there is now a “Heidegger Way” that invites visitors to walk in the footsteps of the thinker, while steering them away from too-close contact with the hut itself, which remains the property of the Heidegger family.

If the hut was never quite the hidden redoubt of the hermit sage, Sharr does explore in revealing detail the relation between Heidegger’s suburban life and its alternative. The Freiburg house is “effectively a suburban house in Black Forest clothing,” its conventional interior lying under a shingled roof rather like the hut’s. Elfride Heidegger saw the house as a showplace for her ornamented and heavy Biedermeier family furniture. While she zealously guarded her husband’s working time, she also saw the house as a setting for the master’s occasional audiences with students and scholars, in which she played the role of gatekeeper. Sharr suggests toward the end of his analysis that the hut and the house can be read as representing two positions, provincial and cosmopolitan, whose play constitutes a basic structure in Heidegger’s career. He reminds us of Albert Borgmann’s construal of Heidegger’s career along an axis involving his early emergence from provincialism; “radical metacosmopolitanism” associated with the composition of Being and Time; the crisis period of the 1930s with the failure of his rectorship at Freiburg and his attack on the cosmopolitanism supposedly represented by the United States, the Soviet Union, and modernism generally; and his “articulation of a critical and affirmative provincialism” with his turn toward Contributions to Philosophy in the late 1930s. Sharr complicates this schema, arguing deconstructively that there are aspects of the provincial in Heidegger’s cosmopolitanism and of cosmopolitanism in his provincialism. He succinctly poses all the right questions about the dangers of romantic nostalgia, while not challenging the force of Heidegger’s critique of technological modernity; thus, he wisely does not attempt to resolve the issues within the compass of a monograph.

It would be illuminating, I think, to read Heidegger and this book alongside a whole body of philosophical meditations on city and country, and more generally on philosophy’s relation to the earth. A short reading list would include: Plato’s Phaedrus, the only dialogue set in the country outside Athens, where Socrates’ musing is open to the spirit of the place; the chapter of Nietzsche’s “Peoples and Fatherlands” in Beyond Good and Evil, which gives a meteorological and geographical account of English, French, and German thinking, and finds the Germans to be victims of their damp and foggy climate as reflected in their thought; and Deleuze and Guattari’s sketch of a geophilosophy (in What is Philosophy?) that speaks of the German obsession with grounding and foundations. This could sharpen and further situate Sharr’s attempt to provide a framework for understanding Heidegger’s posing of the question of dwelling.

Heidegger readers may already be familiar with Digne Melle-Marcovitz’s photographs of Heidegger, Elfride, and visitors at the hut. Sharr points out that these were posed, with the rather obvious intent of promulgating an image of the wise man. Nevertheless, the pictures do have some power to evoke the mysterious thinker of the Black Forest, especially if seen in conjunction with his writings. As Roland Barthes observes in Camera Lucida, it is typically the detail, the punctum, that provokes thought in a photograph. For this reader it is the chairs in the front reception room, which are also the dining chairs (fig. 20). These (handcarved?) wooden chairs bear the smiling face of the sun, surmounted by a dove. So in this rather spare, minimalist setting, there is a combination, it seems, of a natural, even pagan, imagery of sun and seasons with one of Christian transcendence (recall that the peasant farm house of “Building Dwelling Thinking” opens itself up to the divinities through its altar corner). Sharr does not comment, but for me the symbolism raises questions about both the Biedermeier furniture of the suburban house and the religious sense of the hut.

Gary Shapiro
Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, University of Richmond

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