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This essay considers fantasies of human settlement in terms of political philosophy and literature and considers writings by Martin Heidegger, J. G. Fichte, Alexis de Tocqueville, and William Faulkner. Issues of race and place are examined.

Whereas we may think of human settlement as a simple fact of life, it is in many respects a far more imaginary conception than not. In his meticulous analysis of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Jacques Derrida never raises the question of whether the marooned man has settled the land, though much is said about Crusoe as a sovereign.1 Can one be a sovereign and not be settled? Can one build a permanent shelter, work the land, and stake out territory for hunting over considerable time without being settled? Or is settlement an impossibility for someone expecting rescue at any given moment and whose existence is therefore predicated on leaving a place where one doesn't want to be? The word “settlement” implies a decided intention to dwell somewhere permanently, usually arrived at by a group. When Vikings, Jutes, Saxons, Celts, Slavs, and Helveticans settled lands, among their intentions was to appropriate enough space for generations to flourish. Later this would develop into a sense of belonging, a natal relationship to the land. Do settlement and natality go together? Can settling be separated from settlement or being settled? There is no univocal answer to this question, as will become evident in this discussion of Martin Heidegger, Alexis de Tocqueville, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and William Faulkner, for whom the politics of political ontology is mediated by what I will be calling fantasies of settlement. Inevitably such fantasies concern, among [End Page 9] other things, various understandings of legitimations and rights in relation to place. Among these are biopolitical (for example, racialized and nationalized) fantasies of settlement presupposing superiority. Hence the prioritization of one group's rights to the land over others, as Fichte is keen to list in all its particulars. Already in Defoe, the sovereign right of Crusoe to set up house on a far-flung island is presumed until he becomes aware that there are others: native peoples more originary, or natal, to the place than him. Does that make him a squatter? His foreignness, alien status, and isolated vulnerability are suddenly made palpable the moment he sees a footprint in the sand. That he will colonize the man he calls Friday, as if the other existed only in order to serve him, speaks to the sort of fantasy of settlement we will see later in Faulkner, whereby someone who has been dispossessed settles by means of a certain will to power that presumes one's inherent superiority and in the process ambiguates the limit where brutality leaves off and civilization begins. In what follows, I will consider fantasies of settlement in both philosophical and literary texts in order to show how the two share certain sorts of fantastical thinking that have had a direct effect on human affairs. Nowhere is that more self-evident than in Heidegger's writings during the National Socialist period.


In 1934, just after he stepped down as rector of the University of Freiburg, Heidegger gave seminars that aligned his thinking with the political ontology of National Socialism, albeit in ways that were intended to put National Socialist thinking on a more respectable philosophical footing. Oft-cited from this period is Heidegger's lecture course Being and Truth, in which, just after intoning the greatness of Heraclitus's remarks on war, Heidegger calls for the elimination of German Jews:

The enemy [the Jews] can have attached itself to the innermost roots of the Dasein of a people and can set itself against this people's own essence and act against it. The struggle is all the fiercer and harder and tougher, for the least of it consists in coming to blows with one another; it is often far more difficult and wearisome to catch sight of the enemy as such, to bring the enemy into the open. . . to cultivate and intensify a constant readiness and to prepare the attack, looking far ahead with the goal of total annihilation.

(73) [End Page 10]

Heidegger was apparently careful not to mention the Jews explicitly, nor did he have to because the National Socialist plotline was so explicit. In the seminar “On the Essence and Concept of Nature, History, and State,” Heidegger speaks of “Semitic nomads” (Nature 56) for whom the idea that a people and a space might “mutually belong to each other” is entirely foreign: “for a Slavic people, the nature of our German space would definitely be revealed differently from the way it is revealed to us; to Semitic nomads, it will perhaps never be revealed at all.” In Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language, Heidegger spoke of “Rasse” (race) in terms of “heredity blood connection” and the “drive to live” and “Volk” (folk or people) as a “connection of lineages—the Volk as body of the Volk” (57). “In a census,” he writes, “the Volk is counted in the sense of the population, the population, insofar as it constitutes the body of the Volk, the inhabitants of a land.” Heidegger specifies that there are those within the Volk (that is, as a general population) “who, taken racially, are of alien breed [and] do not belong to the Volk.” By this he means the Jews and Gypsies, almost certainly. He also speaks of those who are part of the Volk but live outside the general population and are therefore not included in its count: namely, those Germanic peoples living outside of Germany's borders such as the Sudetendeutsch.

Conspicuously missing from Heidegger's seminars of this time is the word “society,” a term that one would think ought to be of central interest. According to Max Weber, Heidegger's contemporary who taught at the University of Heidelberg, a society (Gesellschaft) is the organization of various peoples on a superstructural level that rationalizes human activity in such a way as to make lives coherent, meaningful, manageable, and humanly fulfilling. In Weber's 1925 Economy and Society, relations of significance are said to be established less on the basis of blood relations than through social actions that connect individuals to all members of society in some respect or other. A true social action, Weber says, is not merely imitative or performed under duress but is initiated for the sake of rational ends, values, and affects (Zweckrational, Wertrational, and Affektuel). It may also be undertaken for reasons of tradition or custom, as together these aims give meaning and hence motivate individuals to behave in ways that are socially constructive in that they contribute to forging social bonds and cooperative relationships.

In Heidegger's 1934 seminars there is no mention of society but rather talk of Being, the Volk, nation, and the state: “We established formally that the people is the being that is in the manner of a state, the being that is or can be a state. We then asked the further formal question: what character and form does the people give itself in the state, and what character and form does the state give to the people?” [End Page 11] (Nature 38). By “state” Heidegger primarily means “status” (41), the “condition” or “mode of Being of a people.” The state as totalitarian government doesn't seem to be what Heidegger had in mind. When Heidegger must inevitably resort to mentioning the social he invokes the Roman status rei publicae, which substitutes Weber's notion of Gesellschaft with “Gemeinschaft”: the state as a community of familiars, or “polis,” as Heidegger calls it in Ancient Greek. The polis is essentially a community of kinfolk (one thinks of Homer's Iliad) wherein one carries “in oneself the possibility and the necessity of giving form to and fulfilling one's own Being and the Being of the community.” In Homer, as in ancient Germanic cultures, this occurs through the exemplarity of heroes who synecdochically instantiate the fulfillment of an essential Being of a folk. This being of the community (polis) is always already political, but not in some instrumentalized legislative or governmental sense; rather, the political refers, first, to being an inherent part of community on account of one's blood relation to others in the community, and, second, to standing out in some way as an exemplary member of that community, hence possessing a position of respect and leadership.

For Heidegger, Weber's sociological notion of social action would merely have to do with machinations in the service of personality and the concept of “the great individual” (42) within a society of mass men: “Everything, and therefore politics too, now gets shifted into a sphere within which the human being is willing and able to live to the fullest. Thus politics, art, science and all the others degenerate into domains of the individual will to development.” As such, domains of activity become increasingly detached from one another: “the domains of culture . . . could not be kept in view as a whole, up to our own day, where the danger of such behavior displayed itself with elemental clarity in the collapse of our state.” Heidegger is referring to the Weimar Republic, but he is also repeating a line of conservative thinking familiar at the time, shared by José Ortega y Gasset and others, regarding individualization, atomization, estrangement, and sociohistorical collapse in the form of collapse of the state, which to Heidegger references the collapse of the Volk. This is more serious than the breakdown of government and social order per se, given that the collapse of the Volk suggests the annihilation of a people and not just the downfall of a regime. “In the most comprehensive sense,” he says, “we use the term Volk when we speak of something like 'the people in arms': with this we mean . . . something even more strongly binding than race and a community of the same stock: namely, the nation, and that means a kind of Being that has grown under a common fate and taken distinctive shape within a single state” (43). By common fate Heidegger is referring to history [End Page 12] whereby the Volk collectively has to make decisions upon which its longevity as a national people depends. That is, it is through history that a national people is ontologically determined. However, all of this requires an abandonment of Gesellschaft as a model of human being in the aggregate, given that a Weberian conception of society precludes the political ontology whereby humans can participate in the disclosure of a primordial Being essential to their existence as people whose lives make existential sense.

Undoubtedly, the problematic consequence of rejecting Gesellschaft as a conceptual option is that nothing will be said about state apparatuses, class formations, economic systems and the disparities they produce, civic virtues (that is, social constructions of morality), or juridical principles of right, let alone what Michel Foucault has called the heterogeneous layers where discipline (philosophy, for example) and sovereignty (power) meet. This is not even to mention the sociohistorical constructions of race, ethnicity, and national identity. Whereas Heidegger easily identifies race with the Volk, Foucault exposes a far more vexed and complicated nexus of social, cultural, and historical relations concerning race. Racism, he explains in Society Must Be Defended, is the means by which combat with elements considered alien to society (foreigners, for example) undergoes a transformation whereby instead of fighting the outsider, the State sees itself as protecting the integrity of its population (that is, itself) in terms of the purity of the race:

Racism is, quite literally, revolutionary discourse in an inverted form. Alternatively, we could put it this way: Whereas the discourse of races, of the struggle between races, was a weapon to be used against the historico-political discourse of Roman sovereignty, the discourse of race (in the singular) was a way of turning that weapon against those who had forged it, of using it to preserve the sovereignty of the State, a sovereignty whose luster and vigor were no longer guaranteed by magico-juridical rituals, but by medico-normalizing techniques. Thanks to the shift from law to norm, from races in the plural to race in the singular, from the emancipatory project to a concern with purity, sovereignty was able to invest or take over the discourse of race struggle and reutilize it for its own strategy.


Political ontology, in other words, is just a discursive ruse used by the State in order to procure a form of sovereignty (medico-normalizing) whose control over a population is far more centralized, thorough, and lethal on account of a certain bureaucratic-scientific machinery. [End Page 13] Nazism, Foucault explains, enacted such State racism while retrieving “a whole popular, almost medieval, mythology that allowed State racism to function” (82). Such racism “would be accompanied by a whole set of elements and connotations such as, for example, the struggle of a Germanic race which had, temporarily, been enslaved by the European powers, the Slavs, the Treaty of Versailles, and so on.” It was accompanied, he continues, by “the theme of the return of the hero . . . and of all the nation's other guides and Führers.” “We have then,” he concludes, “a Nazi reinscription or reinsertion of State racism in the legend of warring races.” That warring groups have to be seen in ontological political terms more or less requires notions such as race. In fact, Heidegger's political ontology is part of what Foucault calls the accompaniment of “elements and connotations” having to do with a fundamental struggle of races in which the Germans are put in a position to fight for their Being as a Volk, a fight to the death in which survival is a zero-sum game. Heidegger's well-known aversion to biological racism speaks precisely to Foucault's description of a parting of the ways between an older and a newer model of racism; predictably, Heidegger doesn't abet the State's turn to a more centralized, bureaucratized technology of racial purification (genocide) but opts for the older, premodern idea of a clash between the races in which peoples confront each other head to head in outright warfare with the aim of total conquest. In place of the death camp, Heidegger would prefer to see the Homeric Schlachtfeld, the battlefield upon which the destiny of a people is determined. Here the determination of a people is associated with place, something that in the context of a war as vast as the Second World War undergoes decentering, displacement, and deregionalization. That globalization (that is, technological mastery of the earth) would intensify this shattering of place was a view Heidegger expressed in the postwar period. What he sought was a conception of political ontology that repudiated typical pragmatic conceptions of governmental management and politics concerning legislation and its implementation, such as the conceptions found in John Locke. The political, for Heidegger, should incline more toward the side of ontology, in which “being-with” others assumes a primordial connection with the coming about of beings out of Being.2


In the time leading up to war, Heidegger wrote that in folk songs, festivals, and customs the emotional life of a people is revealed allegorically as the form of its Dasein: [End Page 14]

The Volk is here no longer an arbitrary population and residents, but a certain vicinity of human beings, adapted to grown settlements. It is not established in an arbitrary, unrelated region, but with the settlement, the Volk first of all constitutes itself with its customs, it gives the land also its characteristics, for example, through the use of the water power, and so on; and even the animal- and plant-world are also molded by the settlement, if also often in the negative sense of extermination.

This observation is relevant to American settlement, since it was molded in the negative sense of an elimination. The settlers cleared away land as well as the originary peoples who had resided for centuries in that land. The European view that native peoples were nomadic and primitive presumed that such peoples had never chosen to actually settle the land and were therefore without a legitimate relation to the land as settlers. Of course, native peoples had often thought of land in communal terms and of the relation between people and the land as fluid, mobile, and adaptive. Yet, in Heideggarian terms, they would not constitute a Volk because they do not give the land its characteristics; that is, they do not dwell on the land as a Volk. Nomads for Heidegger, from what we can deduce, are merely an arbitrary population with no essential vicinity, since vicinity implies the establishment of a permanent infrastructure, such as the Roman aqueducts or Greek temples. “We attain to dwelling,” Heidegger writes, “so it seems, only by means of building” (“Building” 143). Moreover, “The Old English and High German word for building, buan, means to dwell. This signifies: to remain, to stay in place,” which implies the preservation of something (146). However, he writes, the word “bauen” also means “to cherish and protect, to preserve and care for, specifically to till the soil, to cultivate the vine.”

Of course, from Heidegger's European frame of reference, the settlement of the German people as such had taken place many centuries in the past, long before there was a written record to describe precisely what happened, though archaeological findings do give us an idea of how people migrated and came to dwell in certain areas. By contrast, we do have historical records of settlement in the New World, records that legitimize what amounts to the conquest of native peoples and an arrogation of land by European settlers who quickly established themselves in certain regions as a folk with distinct identities, for which the community's relation to place was important. Though one can talk about this in abstract factual terms—as historians do when they trace ancestry, cultural traditions, and linguistic carryovers from such places as Scotland and France—it is [End Page 15] also true that, as in the case of Heidegger (and Fichte, much earlier), a certain imaginative projection was required in order to narrate how the settlement (the arrival and emplacement) of peoples expands into communities considered to be of the land and hence wedded to it as owner-dwellers existentially determined by place.

What one might call fantasies of settlement and nonsettlement crisscross not only Heidegger's writings, but writings by Americans and foreign visitors to America. Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, Thomas Jefferson, Olaudah Equiano, Tocqueville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville are just a few of the early figures worth considering in this context. For example, Melville's “Bartleby, the Scrivener” can be read as a tortured parable about settlement in a displaced urban context, and much can be said about the settlement and unsettlement of Americans in Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi, in which Twain encounters drifters, gamblers, speculators, and riverboat men and takes aim at the pretenses of Southern exceptionalism and the settlement it presupposes. Whitman, too, seems quite on the move throughout his writings, not having settled anywhere in particular so much as everywhere in general. Still, Leaves of Grass conveys a strong sense of rootedness and collective being among those he encounters. Douglass, to the contrary, speaks to the impossibility of settlement when one is merely another person's property to be held and disposed of at will. Margaret Mitchell attempts to hide this from view in Gone with the Wind, wherein the existence of slaves is reappropriated as a natural social condition of Southern settlement required to make the case for its economic legitimacy and longevity, particularly in terms of what Twain had contemptuously seen as the South's medieval fantasy of itself as mediated through the popularity of Sir Walter Scott's novels.

Tocqueville, perhaps more studiously than anyone else in the early 1800s, paid careful attention to the meaning of settlement in early nineteenth-century America. He tells us that “present-day Indians” (35) don't know their origins and that no one can ever advance a theory, though it is assumed that hundreds of years in the past a superior race of men and women inhabited the United States, of whom the present-day Indians are the impoverished and depleted descendants: “What a strange thing! There are races which have so utterly disappeared from the earth that even the memory of their name has been blotted out; their languages have gone, their reputation has faded away like a sound without an echo.” Moreover, “although the vast country we have just described was inhabited by countless native tribes, it is justifiable to assert that, at the time of [End Page 16] its discovery, it formed only a desert” (36). And, most crucially, “the Indians took up residence there but did not possess it.” Tocqueville's present-day Indians are racial inferiors, occupying the ruins of a once-great race of people. Characteristic of their supposed inferiority was their inability or refusal to take possession of the land by means of transforming its resources into the material out of which actual civilization, as opposed to mere habitation, comes about.

This refusal to take possession contrasts with New England settlers who had “belonged to the comfortably off classes of the mother country” (42) and who were, on the whole, better educated than most Europeans. Not only had the settlers of New England brought with them the laudable virtues of order and morality but they had come to satisfy a purely intellectual need: “the triumph of an idea,” democracy (43). The English, in other words, had esprit. The Puritans came not only for religious freedom but wanted to establish democratic and republican theories in the context of a national project. Quoting from Nathanial Morton's New England's Memorial (1836), Tocqueville recounts that God “planted them [the Puritans] in the mountain of his inheritance” (44). Here the settlers are viewed as having been planted (or rooted) as stock (really, as a race) in a place predestined by God. Hence Being has elected the immigrants, given their superiority as beings, to be rooted in the holy soil of Being. Their destiny is made manifest because they possess a spirit and mind capable of intuiting a political idea, the creation of a democratic republic. Yet, as Tocqueville states elsewhere in Democracy in America, “What strikes the European traveler in the United States is the absence of what we call government or administration. In America, written laws exist and one sees that they are executed daily; although everything is in motion the engine behind it is not visible. The hand which controls the social machine is nowhere on view” (84). The reason, we learn, is that the hand itself doesn't exist. Rather, authority is dispersed and decentralized: “power exists but its representative is nowhere to be seen” (85). This coincides with Heidegger's political-ontological aversion to Gesellschaft: authority is unnecessary because it's inherent in the being of the people.

Democracy in America stresses Gemeinschaft over Gesellschaft, the communal duties of the individual that others have come to expect over centralized apparatuses of law that operate independently of interpersonal relationships. “The Anglo-Americans,” Tocqueville writes, “have been lucky enough to escape absolute power” largely because of customary relationships that are based in close-knit societies, relationships that are loosely configured and forgiving (67). Sovereignty, we learn, is “acknowledged in custom, celebrated by law,” although the administrators of law are dispersed and often invisible. [End Page 17] This didn't mean that power didn't accumulate in some form or other, as represented in the case of the church and its flock in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter or as related in the case of the slave master whipping Aunt Hester in Douglass's autobiography. Authoritarianism is everywhere to be found; however, it is found sporadically and, in many cases, inconspicuously. Judging from slave narratives, Douglass's Narrative among them, even on plantations in the antebellum South the exercise of power, though structurally centralized, didn't necessarily express itself regularly, consistently, or evenly, as slaves were often subject to arbitrary treatment. As Tocqueville notes, the Southern plantation owners had only a pseudoaristocratic order given that in reality they “possessed no privileges and slave labor denied them tenant farmers,” which meant the plantation owners “had no patronage” (60). All they had was a sense of superiority as a class “having ideas and tastes of its own and, in general, encompassing all political action in its center.” But these ideas and tastes, too, were dispersed and inconsistent because the large, developed plantations were only one social dimension of the South. This relation between a dispersion of power and dispersion of settlement is perhaps no better represented than in the novels of Faulkner, which depict the settlement of northern Mississippi starting in the 1830s when it was first opened up for agrarian development.


In Addresses to the German Nation, Fichte writes that the task of “cultivating a new race of men” must “first be applied by Germans to Germans,” as it is a task that “pertains to our nation” (47). That this new race of men, the Germans, is identified according to an “essential character” has to do with its coming into existence as a people receptive to a particular kind of culture that distinguishes itself from other European cultures. “The Germans are first and foremost one of the Teutonic tribes,” he writes, meaning that while Germans know the Stammvolk, or originary stock, from whence they came, present-day Germans also represent an improvement over this originary stock. They are not merely a degraded remnant of it, for the Germans reflect in their character a distinct “portrait” of what was exceptional and superior within the Teutonic race:

As to the [Teutons] it will suffice here to define them as those whose task it was to unite the social order established in ancient Europe with the true religion preserved in ancient Asia, and thus to develop out of themselves a new age in opposition to the antiquity that had perished. [End Page 18] Furthermore, it is enough to describe the Germans as such in contrast only with the other Teutonic peoples. While some modern European nations, such as those of Slavic descent, seem not to have developed so clearly from the rest of Europe that a definite portrait of them would be possible, others of the same Teutonic stock, to whom the ground of distinction that I shall presently adduce does not apply, like the Scandinavians, are here taken undoubtedly for Germans and included in all the general conclusions of our meditations.


Fichte is of the belief that various peoples in Europe derived from the Teutons, the Slavs and the Scandinavians among them. Whereas the Slavs didn't evolve to the point of developing a distinct character, according to Fichte, the Scandinavians can be allowed to pass for Germans. The same is not true, however, for German nationals who are different on account of what Fichte calls an “event” of “differentiation” (48). According to Fichte, “The first difference between the fate of the Germans and that of the other tribes produced from the same stock to present itself directly to our notice is this: the former remained in the original homelands of the ancestral race, whereas the latter migrated to other territories.” Moreover, the Germans, who occupied Germany per se, “retained and developed the original language of the ancestral race,” whereas those who wandered off “adopted a foreign language” they subsequently modified. There is also this difference: Fichte's Germans existed as a “confederation of states under a ruler with limited powers,” whereas those who wandered off adapted to a Roman system that “passed over into monarchies” (that is, centralized governments). The Germans inclined toward Gemeinschaft, while the émigrés inclined toward Gesellschaft. The former is reminiscent of Tocqueville's characterization of America as a relatively decentralized country.

It is also worth noting that for Fichte the issue of native soil is insignificant in comparison to the issue of retaining the originary language of the Teutons, “for men are formed by language far more than language is by men” (49). Moreover, speech is not arbitrary or conventional because “there exists . . . a fundamental law according to which each concept is expressed by this sound and no other through the human speech organs.” Language is not a tool but a medium that mediates the apprehension of things as the things that they are: “It is not really man who speaks; human nature speaks through him and announces itself to others of his kind. And thus one would have to say: there is but one language and this language is absolutely necessary” (50). Fichte's conception of the German language [End Page 19] had nationalistic and cosmopolitan dimensions that attempt to account for its status as a hegemonically dominant language that absorbs regional dialects and, internationally, posits itself as a major world language with significant linguistic and conceptual influence on other cultures.

Of course, whether regional German dialects are truly subsumable is doubtful, given that some of these dialects aren't comprehensible to people who haven't grown up with them. A more extreme case of such linguistic diversity occurs in the British Isles, where although a standard form of English exists today, there is considerable variation in pronunciation and slang—if not different languages entirely, as in the cases of Gaelic, Welsh, and Manx, not to mention Scots, Scottish Gaelic, and Scottish English. Philologically, it's well known that English reflects a confluence of languages including French, German, and Latin. English, in its uneven dispersion across the globe, speaks to the sense that not only is English an unsettled issue in the British Isles but that it is even more unsettled in the distant lands to which it has spread.

The question of the settlement of English, hither and yon, naturally raises the question of how we inhabit language or dwell in it. In other words, how is this matter of settlement reflected in how we actually use language? In the US we naturally turn to American literature for answers, since literature reflects the ways in which communication is an intimate expression of American experience whose attitudes are drawn from what one might call the attitudinal expressions of language. Kurt Vonnegut's refrain of “so it goes” in Slaughterhouse-Five and Arthur Miller's of “it goes with the territory” in Death of a Salesman are attitudinal, as are present-day commonplace expressions such as “whatever” or “I'm just saying.” An attitude reflects how we have settled into our life-world as individuals who take a certain perspective on it. That is, an attitude concerns expectation. It tells us what people think the world is like and how they should respond to it in advance as inhabitants. Expressions such as “can't help it” or “nothing to be done” convey resignation and a sense of helplessness characterizing the existential condition of one's expected or presupposed relation to a world in whose existence—and stakes: culturally, historically, politically, economically—one shares as someone who dwells or resides. Fichte's point is that such language also attitudinally creates this existential condition, given that the people are actually expressed (posited, shaped, determined) by the language that performs and represents their world. Nowhere is that more evident than in Faulkner's literary style that as a medium posits attitudinally if not structurally (chaotically, at times) how people are settled and unsettled in the world they inhabit. [End Page 20]


In Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, the settlement of native peoples, slaves, former slaves, poor Southern whites (tenant farmers, hill people), the middle class, and the well-to-do is never something entirely settled. This is not surprising because settlement might best be defined in America as resettlement, given the immigrant experience. But let us also consider the history of groups such as the Mormons who were also forced to resettle more than once, if not the wave of migrants in covered wagons, pioneers, who were headed for the promised lands of Oregon and California. In cities, as well, the situation was largely one of people getting settled rather than of being settled. Out west, settlers feared being unsettled by hostile Indians, though clearly the weather too was a force, one far more persistent and threatening to the settler's survival on the land. Would the land sustain settlement? This question was on the minds of colonists and pioneers since the early landings in America in the 1600s.

With all this emphasis on mobility, it is perhaps odd that the Fichtean idea of cultivating a new race of men autochthonously would emerge in American culture. In fact, it appears to cross Faulkner's mind in Absalom, Absalom! when Quentin claims that, according to his father, Thomas Sutpen's children reflected “the entire fecundity of dragons' teeth” (214), a remark that recalls the Greek myth of Cadmus, concerning the sowing of dragons' teeth into the soil from which men sprout up.3 Sutpen is something more than just a settler, though settlement is his purpose in life. Recalling Rosa Coldfield's words: “It seems that this demon—his name was Sutpen—(Colonel Stupen)—Colonel Sutpen. Who came out of nowhere and without warning upon the land with a band of strange niggers and built a plantation—(Tore violently a plantation, Miss Rosa Coldfield says)—tore violently. And married her sister Ellen and begot a son and a daughter which—(Without gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Coldfield says)—without gentleness” (5). Both Ellen and the land are more or less raped by a man who descends on Yoknapatawpha seemingly out of nowhere, having dubiously acquired a plantation of one hundred acres of land from the Chickasaws and bringing with him a number of slaves from Haiti who will raise a plantation out of virgin territory. The taming of the land and the procreation of family are closely identified, as if they are kin, both being considered types of cultivation. That this comes “without warning” and “out of nowhere” speaks to a seeming act of God or of some infernal being whose intent is to bring something into existence that carries the traits of a hero's or founder's “essential character,” distinguishing itself from others as exceptional, superior, and omnipotent. Or, as Wash Jones (Sutpen's tenant) puts it, “If [End Page 21] God Himself was to come down and ride the natural earth, that's what He would aim to look like” (226). To put it in Fichtean terms, Sutpen's arrival is an event of differentiation through self-assertion, productivity, and creation (genesis), an event primordially violent and determinative. Unlike the self-made speculator or tycoon who constructs a world by bureaucratically manipulating the levers of social and economic power, Sutpen descends as a sudden, brutal force that operates by means of personal, direct action in order to tear away violently what he wants for the sake of accomplishing settlement or, as he calls it, his “design” (209).

Sutpen's history includes several attempts to bring about such a design, wherein he becomes the master of a plantation and the Old-Testament-style father of a dynastic family only to find himself thwarted by people and events. In fact, the settlement of Sutpen's Hundred in northern Mississippi is actually a second settlement, a repetition of what he had attempted in Haiti by marrying a planter's daughter of “misrepresent[ed]” racial ancestry (211). Her mixed-race ancestry becomes obvious when she gives birth to their son, Charles Bon. As it happens, the marriage conveys property to Sutpen, some of it as chattel, which we discover Sutpen subdued in a slave revolt.

What complicates and dooms settlement for Sutpen in both the Caribbean and later in Mississippi is race, what in Faulkner's time was known as miscegenation, though at issue more generally is nature, which Sutpen wants to control absolutely (15). That racial segregation is, strictly speaking, impossible and unrealistic is the supposed mistake Sutpen looks for in his thinking but cannot locate. The natural world runs against him from start to finish, including his white daughter's falling in love with her racially mixed half-brother. Nature's resistance to culture is a major theme in Faulkner. When men set out to settle down, form dynasties, or establish families they first must struggle to prepare the way by clearing land, which is what Sutpen does when he first arrives in Yoknapatawpha.

In Faulkner's The Hamlet, we encounter a farmer called Mink Snopes who is clearly at war with nature:

He had eaten no breakfast yet, and at home there was that work waiting, the constant and unflagging round of repetitive nerve-and-flesh wearing labor by which alone that piece of earth which was his mortal enemy could fight him with, which he had performed yesterday and must perform again today and again tomorrow and tomorrow, alone and unassisted or else knock under to that very defeat which had been his barren victory over his children.

(181) [End Page 22]

Snopes, “a man past middle age, who with nothing to start with but sound health and a certain grim and puritanical affinity for abstinence and endurance, had made a fair farm out of the barren scrap of hill land which he had bought at less than a dollar an acre” (180). The land is recalcitrant and Mink Snopes is forever angry and enraged at it. Like Sutpen, Snopes sees the land (the natural world) as a stranger and as an enemy recalcitrant to the will of men, which fills him with “furious and blazing wrath.” Faulkner's language conveys this anger attitudinally by means of allowing phrases to cascade in long, flowing, not-quite-syntactically-well-formed sentences in which emotion overpowers the breaking down of experience into contained declarative statements that abstract one from lived experience for the sake of objectification and perspective.

In The Hamlet, and elsewhere in Faulkner, the frustrating relation to the natural world (that is, to existence) is projected onto women, who are seen as a corollary to the land and as the natural enemy of men. Young Eula Varner's rejection of the schoolteacher, Labove, has the effect on him of “something furious and cold, of repudiation and bereavement both” (114), not that this discourages him from trying to force himself upon her: “Then [her] body gathered itself into furious and silent resistance. . . . She was strong.” Labove thinks, “That's what it is: a man and a woman fighting each other. The hating” (115). In Faulkner's world the land and women are both resistant, strong, silent, and hateful. Labove's immediate response to Eula's rejection is not only “the hating,” but the bizarre thought that

“to kill [is] only to do it in such a way that the other will have to know for ever afterward he or she is dead. Not even to lie quiet dead because forever afterward there will have to be two in that grave and those two can never again lie quiet anywhere together and neither can ever lie anywhere alone and be quiet until he or she is dead.” He held her loosely, the better to feel the fierce resistance of bones and muscles.


For Sutpen it is Eulalia Bon's imperceptible black ancestry (her nature that was to be assumed, not represented, contrary to what Sutpen thought) that resists his design. His plan was to become properly settled in terms of founding a lineage free of racial taint, or “brutehood” (Absalom 210). As Rosa puts it, “Sutpen had started and had doomed all his blood to, black and white both” (216). Quentin comments that Sutpen then “saw that there was no help for it, that Judith was in love with Bon and whether Bon wanted revenge or was just caught and sunk and doomed too, it was all the same.” This amounts to a sort of settlement that Sutpen accepts momentarily because at issue is the fatalism of the nature of things: [End Page 23]

and Father said that even then, even though he knew that Bon and Judith had never laid eyes on one another, he must have felt and heard the design—house, position, posterity and all—come down like it had been built out of smoke, making no sound, creating no rush of displaced air and not even leaving any debris. And he not calling it retribution, no sins of the father come home to roost; not even calling it bad luck, but just a mistake: that mistake which he could not discover himself.


Here nothing is settled, which is why Quentin goes over and over this history and the blindspot around which it fails to complete itself. In The Sound and the Fury, Quentin commits suicide as a result of not being able to live in the unsettled existential state symbolized by the revenants of destruction of the South. That destruction is itself a catastrophic event of unsettling that in Faulkner goes so far as to break the levees of language, namely that unit of containment known as the sentence.


If Sutpen attains mythic proportions in Quentin's imagination, could the same be said, however asymmetrically, for Heidegger in the imaginings of philosophers, historians, and cultural critics? Both could be considered either heroes or demons; in fact, Rosa and Shreve both repeatedly call Sutpen a demon. Already recognized as a major thinker by the 1930s, it has to be said that Heidegger has been demonized since the end of World War II as successive waves of researchers have acquired increasing access to historical records. Others have elevated him to the status of a major philosopher, largely on the basis of French reinterpretations of his work.4 For the demonizers, the crucial question has never been whether Heidegger sympathized or participated in National Socialism; his complicity has always been apparent. Rather, the question is whether Heidegger willingly and enthusiastically embraced Nazism, the extent to which this affected his thinking from a crude ideological point of view, and whether or not he engaged in anti-Semitism.

In 1959, David E. Roberts's Existentialism and Religious Belief could still speak of Heidegger as a singular, dark, powerful thinker of dangerous thoughts, as a man of a highly complex and subtle nature who lived in relative isolation in a cabin in the Schwarzwald and over whose reputation there hung the cloud of his actions during the Nazi period.5 As a pioneer of existentialist thought—in Roberts's mind, but too in much of the German reception of Heidegger as far back as the [End Page 24] 1930s—the great thinker's person was couched very much in terms of place (pastoral, national, intellectual, and historical) and man's spiritual condition (theologically speaking). Above all, Heidegger was seen as an advanced thinker, someone in the philosophical avant-garde whose work still required publication and examination in order to be engaged and debated. In fact, Heidegger's Being and Time appeared in English translation some five years later and, as Roberts predicted, it shook up the academic philosophical landscape in English-speaking universities long before it was entirely comprehended.

Even if, in the years since, Heidegger's reputation has undergone revision as more and more evidence of his Nazi sympathies has surfaced, Roberts's view still holds: one must appreciate the conflict between good and evil in someone who nevertheless has admirable traits. Faulkner's fictional Sutpen is a similar figure. The contrast of the heroic and admirable with the demonic and despicable is most interesting when it is historically embedded in times of world importance that involve us as historical inheritors. In Faulkner, Quentin puts himself forward as someone willing to inherit the past, to carry it on his shoulders, although this is something he is ultimately unfit to do since he isn't a brazen man like Sutpen, who is willing to behave unconscionably to get what he wants, not that Sutpen doesn't reflect upon this later. Of course, it is really Faulkner himself who is diving into the wreck that was the Civil War, and not for amusement but for the truth, hard as it might be to handle. Part of that truth is that there are larger-than-life figures who escape the satisfactory explanation or accountability that we in fact need psychologically as historical inheritors.

There were times when Heidegger behaved opportunistically, when he donned the Nazi persona, imitated Hitler's stern look for the photographer, and promoted work-service to his students. Self-assertion was the existential attitude in those times. Of course, one can look at this reductively from the demonic point of view in which adoring crowds gave the Nazi salute: an act of collective differentiation, determination, and belonging. But Heidegger was a man of many reservations, someone who didn't accept the fascist ideology of simple will to power. In his analysis of Hölderlin he came around to viewing self-assertion as a withdrawal into Dasein, the phenomenologically transcendental aspect of oneself that reneges the utilitarian sense of self and with it all instrumentalized conceptions of society and politics: that is to say, all those bureaucratized seats of power and social arrangement of interest to Foucault. In one of the Black Notebooks, Heidegger writes: “we don't need political ideals, least of all moralistic paternalism [Bevormundung] or political teachings. . . . We only need that for which our hidden Essence . . . is called, it being [End Page 25] determined from out of Seyn [primordial Being] itself” (Gesamtausgabe 44).6 This suggests that in the overcoming of political ontology as a socially determined set of assumptions based on practices of exclusion and inclusion—moral paternalism, or Fichte's notion of social differentiation—a more primordial ontological politics comes to pass as the disappearance of the political into Seyn where it is preserved as primordial being-with (Mit-Sein). The question concerns whether, if one can settle down into nature, one can also settle down into the eventfulness of Being with all its protentions and retentions. Another Black Notebook entry from 1942 reads, “In me the sense always becomes clearer that our Heimat [homeland], the heart of the lands of the German southwest, will turn out to be the historical birthplace of the Occident's most essential being” (44). Here, of course, one can settle. However, as Heidegger wrote in one of his elucidations of Hölderlin in 1943, “The nearness to the origin is a nearness which still holds something back in reserve. It withholds the most joyful” (Elucidations 43).7 Only those who are to come in the future might enjoy what the origin has kept back in the place of its inception. But that joy can only come to those who learn to become at home in the Heimat. This seems predictable enough, but surprisingly, we are also told that those who will be at home in this way are not the countrymen. According to Heidegger, Hölderlin believes that the poet must call “a mysterious call to the 'others' in the fatherland, to become listeners, so that for the first time they may learn to know the essence of the homeland” (47). These others, Heidegger refrains from telling us, are the readers or listeners; in other words, it's not the countrymen, the Einheimische (the homies), who will have fantasies of settlement and know the essence of homeland, but we the readers and hearers, we to whom the homeland is foreign.

Herman Rapaport

HERMAN RAPAPORT <> is author of Milton and the Postmodern (1983), Heidegger and Derrida (1989), Between the Sign and the Gaze (1993), Is There Truth in Art? (1996), The Theory Mess (2001), Later Derrida (2004), and The Literary Theory Toolkit (2011). “Transference Love in the Age of Isms” appeared in Desire in Ashes (2015) and “The Humanists Strike Back: An Episode from the Cold War on Theory” appeared in Dead Theory (2016). He teaches at Wake Forest University and directs the Program in Medieval and Early Modern Studies.


1. According to Derrida, “Everything happens as though, on this fictional island, Robinson Crusoe were reinventing sovereignty, technology, tools, the machine, the becoming-machine of the tool, and prayer, God, true religion” (79). This “insular experience,” as Derrida calls it, is not related to settlement but to “origination” and “universalization.”

2. Heidegger, in fact, made all sorts of comments about politics. Among them was his stated belief, in a letter to Kurt Bauch in 1942, that the only viable form of political organization in Germany was the one it was experiencing under National Socialism and that anything else would be “chaos” (Thomä 558). But this is Heidegger the ordinary, [End Page 26] terrified citizen writing haphazard opinions in a time of war, not Heidegger the thinker who is consistently developing a philosophy of Ereignis (Being as event). Of course, this raises issues about whether Heidegger could be reconstructed as a consistent political thinker. Criminalizing him as a Nazi forecloses this discussion.

3. Sophocles refers to dragon's teeth in Antigone, where the cultural reference is to the Thebans. Patricide, fratricide, and incest are, of course, associated with Thebes.

4. Janicaud traces this trajectory.

5. In fact, a précis of Being and Time was published as early as 1949 by Brock, who was a student at Freiburg in the 1930s and wrote a Habilitation thesis there that Heidegger mentions in passing in his correspondence with his wife.

6. Seyn is Hölderlin's spelling for Sein (Being). In Heidegger Seyn and Zeyt (time) are transcendental markers, transcendental in the phenomenological sense of most archaic. Jacques Derrida's concept of the arche-trace comes quite close in spirit to what Heidegger had in mind in his writings of the late 1930s.

7. Hoeller doesn't disclose the history of Heidegger's essays on Hölderlin. In the Heidegger Handbuch, we're told that Heidegger delivered the essay on Hölderlin's “Heimkunft” at the University of Freiburg in June 1943 in honor of Hölderlin's hundredth birthday (Thomä 558). The poem itself speaks of a birthplace (stanza 4), which may be in part why Heidegger gave this lecture. Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung was actually published in 1944, presumably by Vittorio Klostermann; the bibliographical reference indicates only the place of publication, Frankfurt am Main, and Klostermann republished subsequent editions.

Works Cited

Brock, Werner. Introduction. Existence and Being. New York: Regnery, 1949. 13–15.
Derrida, Jacques. The Beast and the Sovereign. Ed. Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Ginette Michaud. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Vol. 2. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011.
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! 1936. New York: Vintage, 1986.
———. The Hamlet. Snopes. New York: Modern, 2012. 1–344.
Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Addresses to the German Nation. 1808. Trans. Gregory Moore. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Truth. Trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010. [End Page 27]
———. “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Poetry, Language, Thought. New York: Harper, 1971. 141–59.
———. Elucidations of Hölderlin's Poetry. Trans. Keith Hoeller. Amherst: Humanity, 2000.
———. Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language. Trans. Wanda Torres Gregory and Yvonne Unna. Albany: State U of New York P, 2007.
———. Nature, History, State: 1933–1944. Trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
———. Schwarze Hefte (Anmerkungen I–V) 1942–1948. Gesamtausgabe IV, Band 97. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2015.
Janicaud, Dominique. Heidegger en France. 2 vols. Paris: Albin Michel, 2001.
Roberts, David E. Existentialism and Religious Belief. Oxford: Galaxy, 1957.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Trans. Gerald E. Bevan. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Thomä, Dieter, ed. Heidegger Handbuch. 2nd ed. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2013.
Weber, Max. Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Economy and Society]. 1925. Tübingen: Mohr, 1956. [End Page 28]

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