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Konstantin Kolenda IMMORTALITY REVISITED In his essay, "Poets and Thinkers: Their Kindred Roles in the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger," J. Glenn Gray points out that Heidegger "does not treat imaginative literature and other works of art qua literature and art but as aspects of philosophy or meditative thought." To Heidegger's question, "How long are we going to prevent ourselves from experiencing the actual as actual?", Gray is inclined to answer as follows: "Until we have become aware that the poetic eye is capable of seeing as deeply into nature and man as the scientific eye," and he adds that "there is hope that philosophers may once again take seriously the discoveries of creative writers who are not consciously seeking to 'do' philosophy."2 There is little evidence that Gray's hope has materialized to any great extent; few philosophers are paying much attention to discoveries of creative writers, thus bearing out Heidegger's contention that "at this moment in the world's history we have first to learn that the making of poetry, too, is a matter of thinking."3 But it should not surprise us that when philosophers turn to the thinking of poets they will not necessarily agree in their interpretations. Although it has been remarked that Rilke translated Nietzsche into poetry and then in turn Heidegger translated Rilke into prose, when we look at what Heidegger actually says about Rilke's ideas, we may find that these ideas allow alternative interpretations.4 Nevertheless, the fact that alternative interpretations are possible bears out the soundness of Heidegger's and Gray's claim that at least some poetic thought is worth taking seriously. In this article we shall examine Rilke's view of the relationship between life and death, as expressed in his Duino Elegies. Since this is a theme which figures prominently in Heidegger's philosophy, it is only proper to begin by pointing out certain basic correspondences between the views of the two thinkers on this topic. But as we pursue the matter further it soon becomes apparent that Rilke has set forth an intriguing and original, albeit unorthodox, notion of immortality, a notion that 167 1 68Philosophy and Literature does not need to be tied down to Heidegger's philosophy as a whole but can be defended in its own right. This article constitutes such a defense. In Being and Time, Heidegger suggests that death "belongs" to Dasein. "In Dasein there is undeniably a constant 'lack of totality' which finds an end with death. This 'not-yet' 'belongs' to Dasein as long as it is; this is how things stand phenomenally." Rilke's way of expressing a similar thought is to say, in the First Elegy, that "all of the living make the mistake of drawing too sharp distinctions." The contrast he speaks of is that between life and death. Like Heidegger, Rilke calls attention to phenomena that seem to go against the ingrained tendency to view life and death as belonging to two separate realms. Both manage to break the hold of pictures which for so long have led our thinking on this topic into dead ends. The radical temporality of human existence, its inevitable mortality, leads Heidegger to include the resolute acceptance of "being-toward-death" as a necessary condition of authentic existence. The "not-yet" of eventual death is always with us; since we cannot escape it, we must not keep denying our mortality by self-deception or by resigned waiting but should take it up into a resolute anticipation. The factor of death must be included in the consciousness of our vital decisions. In other words, death is to be taken up into human life and is to be viewed, paradoxically perhaps, as its essential component. Thus, the radical contrast between life and death is undermined. The taming of death is one of the central themes in Rilke's poem. Like Novalis before him, Rilke thought of death as the night-side of life. "Death is the side of life that is turned away from us and is unillumined for us."7 But he made use of still another notion to break down a distinction which, in his opinion, we the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 167-179
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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