My interview with Heidegger’s son

By far the most memorable experience I have had whilst conducting research for Lovers of Philosophy has been meeting Hermann Heidegger, the 93-year-old son of Martin Heidegger.

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My hotel in Freiburg

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Freiburg

Martin Heidegger, one of the seven philosophers whose love life I explore in my book Lovers of Philosophy, was one of the most influential and controversial philosophers of the twentieth century.

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The Freiburg Münster Cathedral

My meeting with Heidegger’s elderly son came about totally by accident. I say that, but one thing I have noticed is that ever since I have followed my dreams in researching and writing this book, strange coincidences keep favouring me.

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The Black Forest

This is how the meeting occurred…

In January 2013, I went to the inaugural meeting of a discussion group in my home town of Brisbane for psychiatrists interested in philosophy. When I arrived, there was only one other person there. I introduced myself and it turned out this gentleman was German. I told him I was writing about the love lives of seven European philosophers, including four Germans – Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger. His response at that point staggered me.

He said, ‘My mother knows Heidegger’s son.’

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A Freiburg Street

My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe it. I had been reading about Heidegger’s life for the last three years – about his philosophy that anticipated existentialism, about his controversial joining of the Nazi Party during the war. And about his extramarital love affair with his Jewish philosophy student Hannah Arendt, who went on to become one of the twentieth century’s most articulate critics of  totalitarianism.

‘Did you say your mother knows Heidegger’s son?’ I said, still incredulous.

The psychiatrist explained that he was from Freiburg, where the Heideggers lived. And yes, he thought his mother might be able to arrange an introduction.

Two months later I was on a twenty-seven-hour flight from Brisbane to Frankfurt. From there I caught the train south to Freiburg, where I checked into a quaint but very welcoming hotel. I explained to the very friendly reception staff that I only wanted to speak German for the week I was there. They good-naturedly agreed to grant my request, even though my very limited vocabulary and mangled grammar must have grated on them. I also mentioned that I was in town to visit Heidegger’s son, and they knew immediately of which family I was speaking. The receptionist even knew where the Heideggers lived.

Freiburg turned out to be an incredibly picturesque university town, its cobblestone streets teeming with students, bicycles and bookshops. The towering gothic spire of the town’s central cathedral, known as the Münster, dominated the modest skyline of the town, which itself was nestled at the very edge of the Schwarzwald (Black Forest). Before leaving Brisbane, I had booked a German language teacher to meet with me every day in Freiburg to improve my rudimentary acquaintance with the local language. I had also booked an interpreter for the upcoming interview with the great philosopher’s son.

When the day for the interview came, I put on my suit and caught a taxi to the Heideggers’ home, a small and modest but welcoming cottage on the outskirts of Freiburg. There were quite a few green farm fields scattered here and there around the sparsely developed settlement known as Attental, in which they lived. There was a thick layer of grey fog in the air that day, and everything felt a little surreal as the taxi pulled up outside the address I had been given. But the interpreter Katherina and I were immediately put at ease by the warm reception granted to us by the spritely 93-year-old who greeted us. Hermann Heidegger introduced himself, his wife Jutta and his son Arnulf.

In Hermann Heidegger’s modest lounge-room I got to hear about his childhood memories. Memories of his father insisting on quiet whilst he worked away at his desk. Memories of attending a Hitler rally when he was only twelve years old. This was on the 29th July, 1932, when Hitler addressed a crowd of 50,000 people in Freiburg’s local football stadium. Hermann’s mother, Elfride, had dressed him and his brother Jörg up in their best slacks, white shirt and tie before taking them to the rally. Hermann explained to me that his father, Martin, didn’t attend the rally because, unlike his mother, he wasn’t that interested in politics. He preferred to work on his philosophy.

Hermann also shared with me his memories of how, after the Nazis had taken power, his father got caught up in the stressful to-and-fro of politics regarding the local university’s administration. It was then that Martin Heidegger took an action that would see him come under heavy criticism for decades to come – he joined the Nazi Party.

In that lounge-room I also saw Heidegger’s 93-year-old son going soft in the face, as if he were a child again, as he recalled some of the more tender and personal memories from his childhood days.  Memories such as boating down the Rhineland’s famous rivers with his father. And playing in the snow with his brother outside Die Hütte, the forest hut that the family regularly retreated to during their holidays.

I heard about Heidegger’s friendship with the philosopher Edmund Husserl, who was Jewish and therefore excluded from Freiburg University by the Nazis at the time that Heidegger was Rector (or Dean). Hermann showed me a letter that his mother  wrote to Husserl’s wife, Malvine, on the 29th April, 1933, expressing sympathy and concern about how the war was affecting them. Despite their political differences, the two families were still on friendly terms, at least according to the account Hermann Heidegger provided to me on that day.

I feel very privileged to have been able to conduct this interview, extracts of which I plan to include in my upcoming book Lovers of Philosophy.

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Lovers of Philosophy accepted into 2015 HARDCOPY program

HARDCOPY+tag_CMYK_workingI’ve just heard some wonderful news. I am one of 30 lucky writers to be selected into the HARDCOPY professional development program for Australian writers.

As a result I will soon be getting some precious feedback on my Lovers of Philosophy project from the HARDCOPY selection panel, which includes Australian nonfiction authors Paul Daley, Dr Jen Webb, Dr Frank Bongiorno and Biff Ward.

But that’s not all! Along with the other winners I will be heading to Canberra later this month for a three-day project/manuscript development intensive masterclass with professional freelance editor Nadine Davidoff.

In September, I’ll be invited back to the nation’s capital for ‘Intro2industry’, a three-day seminar on all facets of the publishing industry.

Ten of the 30 applicants will proceed in November to Round 2 of the program, which involves one-on-one consultations with publishers.

I’m very grateful for this wonderful opportunity to further develop my manuscript and writing skills. And of course, I can’t wait to meet the other emerging writers and hear about their projects. I’ve already found one of my fellow winners on the blogosphere – Michelle Scott Tucker.

Thank you to the ACT Writers Centre who run the HARDCOPY program. My thanks also to The ACT Government and the Australia Council who support this program.

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First public reading of Lovers of Philosophy

It’s my pleasure to announce that on Saturday the 7th February I’ll be doing my first public reading from my work-in-progress Lovers of Philosophy.

This will be at a free salon event hosted by the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC). Thank you Aimeé Lindorf and all the crew at QWC for supporting emerging writers such as myself, and giving us an opportunity to share our work.

There will also be a reading by poet and short fiction writer Carmen Leigh Keates, and a Q&A with special author guest fiction writer Inga Simpson. The afternoon, set in The Fox Hotel in South Brisbane, will be topped off with a musical set by O’ Little Sister.

If you’re in Briz Vegas on that day and are able to come along, I’d love to meet you. All writers and readers welcome!

Details are as below:

What: Whispers is a reading salon hosted by QWC throughout Queensland.

Date and time: 3:00–6:00pm on Saturday 7 February 2015.

Venue: The Fox Hotel, 73 Melbourne Street, South Brisbane.

Transport and parking information is available on the SLQ website.

Price: Free.

Full details: On the Facebook event page, https://www.facebook.com/events/602930773140737/.

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The Sorbonne – Simone de Beauvoir’s university

IMG_1967The last stop of my visit to Paris exploring the old haunts of the French philosophers is the Sorbonne. A beautiful and ancient large sandstone building, it dominates the Latin Quarter’s bustling urban terrain of cafés, bookshops and boutiques.

My daughter Alex and I first spot it while riding northwards towards the Seine on the wide arterial of St Michel Boulevard, along with Paris’s other peak hour traffic of motor scooters, bicycles, Citroens, Peugeots and pedestrians. We gasp at the sight of it rising up to our right, its majestic features brought into spectacular contrast by the rays of the setting sun.

Simone de Beauvoir was a student at this venerable institution in 1929 when she met Jean-Paul Sartre. It was here that she studied for and passed the agrégation, the highly competitive national examinations in philosophy. Passing this entitled her to lifelong tenure teaching philosophy in France’s high schools. By 1943, however, she had managed to lose this privilege in scandalous circumstances when a parent complained she and her partner Jean-Paul Sartre had both seduced their teenage daughter while she was Beauvoir’s student. Beauvoir and Sartre had got away with such behaviour previously with other students, but on this occasion it led to Beauvoir having her teaching licence permanently revoked. This sanction didn’t have much of a negative impact on Beauvoir’s life, however, as by this time she had had developed a considerable reputation as a writer and as Jean-Paul Sartre’s celebrity partner and co-spokesperson for the new philosophy of existentialism.

The Sorbonne, founded in the mid-12th century, was one of the very first universities to be established in Europe, and has been a centre of intellectual activity in Paris ever since.

More recently, the Sorbonne was the central stage for the notorious uprisings that brought Paris to a standstill in May 1968. These protests, which began with students occupying the Sorbonne’s buildings in response to government policies about university administration, spread like wildfire amongst other students, teachers and workers throughout France culminating in a general strike of a staggering ten million workers. Throughout the weeks of civil disorder that took France to the brink of collapse, the Sorbonne became a battleground for bitter hand-to-hand fighting between students and riot police. Makeshift barricades of furniture, cars and street debris were erected by the Left Bank’s protesting students just as they had been in the French Revolution two hundred years earlier. For several days, the whole country held its breath, fearful of a another revolution, until eventually a very rattled President de Gaulle accepted the resignation of his Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and called for a general election, finally diffusing the mutinous mood in the streets.

Today, my hopes of exploring the interior of this venerable institution are frustrated by a uniformed security officer guarding the entrance. So I resign myself to taking in the view from the outside as a steady stream of students and teachers come in and out. In front of the building, the Place de la Sorbonne — a large busy square open to the public — is abuzz with young students milling among its sidewalk cafés and bookshops.IMG_1959 A sign that says Libraire Philosophie announces a bookshop devoted solely to philosophical texts, a sight I have seen more than once on this trip to Paris but never in my home country of Australia. The bookstore appears to be connected with the university, as it has a poster announcing the Sorbonne’s philosophical courses and the associated recommended reading. The philosophy of Sartre and his philosophical predecessor Martin Heidegger feature heavily. Phenomenology and existentialism still appear to be fashionable in this part of town.

As I bask in the beauty of this glorious building and its changing colours in the fading sunset, it occurs to me that all the places in which Sartre and Beauvoir studied, wrote, dined, drank, conversed and made love during their years as Paris’s favourite intellectuals are within walking distance of this square. They were even buried only a stroll away in the Cimetière Montparnasse.

In front of the aforementioned bookshop, I catch sight of two young lovers deep in an embrace.IMG_1956 I imagine that Sartre and Beauvoir would have sometimes met in this exact place during the heady early days of their lifelong love affair.

I grab my camera, thinking the scene before me might just be a perfect cover for the book I have recently finished writing – Lovers of Philosophy – about the love lives of Sartre and other influential European thinkers.

I wonder, as I capture these two paramours on film outside the philosophy bookshop, could they be a Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir of the future?

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Why are adverbs considered to be evil?

Great advice below from K.M.Weiland (with a little bit of help from Mark Twain) about how the best writing shows rather than tells by avoiding adverbs (and adjectives)

Answer by K.M. Weiland:

Amongst writers, one of the ever-quotable Mark Twain’s most quoted witticisms is the succinct bit of advice (which could just as easily have referred to adverbs) found in Pudd’nhead Wilson: “As to the Adjective: When in doubt, strike it out.”

Ah, modifiers! What writer hasn’t had a joyous fling or two with that most seductive of all parts of speech? In an effort to convey the brilliance and vividness of our prose, we hand out modifiers like candy at a Fourth of July parade. After all, it’s imperative that the reader understand that the barn in question is big, red, and rundown. That the kid on the playground is fighting wildly and ferociously. That the ship’s white canvas sails are billowing in the wind. That’s all need-to-know information, right?

Well, maybe. No one will argue that modifiers clarify mental images. At least, that’s the message we absorbed during all those grade school years of diagramming sentence after sentence chocked full of adjectives and adverbs. What we probably didn’t learn from all those years of diagramming is that modifiers are the sign of a lazy writer. Modifiers break the cardinal rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell.

In the three sentences mentioned above, never once did I show you what the barn looked like, or the kid who was fighting, or the ship’s sails. With the help of my modifiers, you probably got the general idea, but how much more vivid would those sentences have been had I taken the time to show you? What if I had allowed you to see the dust swirling in the shadows of the barn, the pigeons roosting in the patches of sunlight that spill through the holes in the roof? What if you had seen the kid on the playground smacking his fists into someone’s face, blood splattering from his opponent’s nose? What if the wind had whipped the ship’s sails, filling them to bursting and churning the waves to froth at the prow?

See the difference? By deleting my modifiers, I was forced to dig deeper for specific nouns (pigeons, fists, nose, froth, prow) and vibrant verbs (swirling, roosting, spill, smacking, splattering, whipped, bursting, churning). These are words the reader can sink his teeth into. Suddenly, we can hear the flutter and coo of the pigeons in the rafters, we can feel the warmth of blood against our skin, we can smell the salt and seaweed of an ocean voyage.

But does this mean that the modifier is dead? Should we avoid them completely? Of course not. Modifiers, like all parts of speech, serve their purpose. Another quote from Twain:

“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.” ( Letter to D. W. Bowser, 3/20/1880)

Adjectives and adverbs exist in the English language for the sole purpose of refining it. We cannot show the reader every detail, both due to time and space constraints and the simple fact that some things—such as colors—are impossible to show on the written page without a bit of telling. When added to an already strong scene, modifiers can boost the description into precision and vibrancy.

Take, for instance, one of our example sentences. The new description of the ship doesn’t indicate that the sails are white canvas. I didn’t include those details because most readers will assume this to be the case unless told differently. But what if my ship belonged to the Dread Pirate Roberts who always lofted black sails when he went into battle? Suddenly, we have a vital detail that could only be conveyed with a modifier:

The wind whipped the ship’s ash-black sails, filling them to bursting and churning the waves to froth at the prow.

Notice that this sentence conveys everything the original version did (and more), yet it contains only one modifier.

Even when modifiers are necessary, economy is vital. It’s ridiculously easy to get carried away with modifiers. When we write phrases about “the remarkably, incandescently, breathtakingly gorgeous woman,” we not only smother our reader in repetition, we also drown out the already strong modifier “gorgeous.”
So, in short, while we probably need not go to Mark Twain’s suggested extreme of extermination, our writing can only be better for a careful pruning of adjectives and adverbs. Modifiers do their job best when used sparingly.

Why are adverbs considered to be evil?

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16 Things I Wish I’d Known as a Beginner Novelist

Some great tips below from Jackie Lea Sommers for anyone considering writing a novel or long work of narrative nonfiction. If you want to comment go to jackieleasommers.com or click on Jackie’s link. Thanks Jackie.

JACKIE LEA SOMMERS

16 things1. This journey is probably going to take longer than you think.
In fact, you might bust your butt on something that never sees the light of day.  It’s okay.  You become a better writer by writing.  I had to write a novel to prove I could write a novel before I could write a good novel, if you follow me.

2. Write because you love it, not because you want to be published.
You might never have your work published.  If you write because you have to write, because you’re a writer in your bones, then this won’t matter.  (Or at least it won’t matter enough to stop you!)

3. Write every day …
Establish a writing routine, even if some days you only get ten minutes to write.

4. … but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t.
I’m still learning this.  GRACE.

5. If…

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Breaking into the École Normale Supérieure

photoFor as long as I can remember, I have had a fascination with the École Normale Supérieure. So many French philosophers I have read about have studied there. Sartre, Foucault, Derrida, Hyppolite, Althusser, Beauvoir. In fact, Sartre and Beauvoir first met here in 1929, when both were studying for the agrégation, France’s toughest exam for want-to-be-philosophers. Throughout the twentieth century, this most elite of Paris’s educational institutions has been a breeding ground for new bold new ideas, a hotbed of -isms, including existentialism, humanism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism and more recently, postmodernism.

Naturally, when I was in recently in Paris doing research on the lives of French philosophers for my book Lovers of Philosophy, I wanted to visit the place where so many prominent continental philosophers developed their initial ideas. So, along with my 14-year-old daughter Alex who was travelling with me, I found myself cycling through the Latin Quarter in search of this esteemed institution. It’s usually more fun looking for places that are off the tourist track when travelling, and this journey was no exception. Before long, we found ourselves on the Rue d’Ulm, a narrow tree-lined backstreet with cheap and battered bicycles chained up along the railings of its wide pavements, a clear sign we were close to a place frequented by poor and struggling scholars. Sure enough, we soon saw increasing numbers of young people in that universal student uniform, jeans and T-shirts, walking along singly or in twos and threes, books and bags in hand. Then we came across what we were looking for, an old nondescript sandstone building with a faded sign across the top of its entrance. The sign said École Normale Supérieure.photo 1

I had travelled 26,000 km, all the way from Brisbane on the other side of the world, to visit the place where Sartre and Beauvoir had met ninety years ago, but now I faced an unexpected obstacle. There was a boom gate and security guard at the university’s entrance, with access only allowed to authorised students and staff. I thought about just trying to discreetly walk in as a student let himself out, but my conscientious, rule-abiding and embarrassment-averse daughter got visibly nervous when I mentioned this idea, and I had to admit I didn’t fancy the prospect of being handed over to French authorities for trespassing in a school of philosophy.

Eventually I decided to just ask the security guard. I explained that I was interested in visiting as I was writing a book on Jean-Paul Sartre and other philosophers who had studied here. His English was nonexistent, and the little of the French language I knew departed me at this crucial moment. Consequently, I made no headway at all in trying to communicate an idea clearly beyond my limited linguistic capacities. So I resorted to the age-old technique of tourists, especially of the American variety, of repeating myself, getting louder each time. ‘Sartre! Sartre!’ I boomed, gesticulating meaninglessly and unhelpfully at the young and bewildered security guard. Clearly he had never heard of the esteemed philosopher, but he started looking up his computer database to see if he could find a student or staff member by that name. Knowing he was unlikely find the name of a student who hadn’t been there since the 1930s, I shook my head, waved my hands, and tried another tack:

‘Can we just go in for 5 minutes?’

‘Sure’, he nodded, and opened the gate.

Easy as that, after all.

Somewhat exhilarated, we walked through the security gate and up the stone stairs into the institution’s front building. Inside we found several highly intelligent-looking impossibly young philosophers of the future going about their business. ‘Try to look like a student’, I whispered to my daughter, who was thoroughly enjoying our adventure by now. Posters of upcoming philosophical events graced the walls.photo 4 One poster featuring a large full-length photo of Jacques Derrida looking wistful on a beach announced a talk that day about the recently deceased father of deconstruction.

The foyer then opened up into a beautiful garden, in which students with laptops, papers and books sat here and there on park benches and tables. It was a beautiful sunny day, and a lovely light breeze rustled through the trees and shrubs in the garden as students murmured softly and earnestly to each other. I couldn’t make out whether they were talking about philosophy or their social lives, but I did notice one attractive-looking young female student looking at her paper with a middle-aged man, presumably her professor, sitting very close to her as he pointed at the unwieldy manuscript on the table before them. I instantly recognised what appeared to me to be an example of a notorious and age-old pattern in university teacher-student relations.

photo 5I sat with my daughter on the edge of the garden, in a stone recess in one of the four walls that bordered the garden. Both of us tried our best, with a spectacular lack of success I suspected, to look inconspicuous.

I then realised that this was probably the very garden in which Beauvoir had first met Sartre many years ago. I recalled reading an account of her visiting the École Normale Supérieure one day from the nearby Sorbonne University where she was studying, whereupon she saw a student pouring a bucket of water from a second storey window on to his fellow students below, whilst shouting ‘Thus Pissed Zarathustra!’ The twenty-one-year-old Beauvoir was most impressed with this young man’s mischievousness, not to mention his knowledge of the philosophical work Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher whom she was familiar with and greatly admired. The water-pouring prankster was, of course, the future existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Within weeks he and Beauvoir would team up to become the most renowned philosophical couple in history.

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Nizan’s name is a third-way down the centre column

I wandered out of the garden into an exit on its far side, which led into another foyer. On one of the walls of this large sandstone room I found a large memorial board of the type that sadly one sees frequently throughout Europe. This board listed the names of previous students of the École Normale Supérieure who had perished in the Holocaust. Amongst this list I recognised the name Paul Nizan. I remembered from my reading that Nizan was one of the students whom Sartre had poured water on in that fateful prank in 1929. He was one of Sartre’s closest friends at the École, and became a close friend of Beauvoir’s, too. He, along with Beauvoir, was part of a small group of students that met regularly at Sartre’s place to discuss philosophy. It was at this group’s meetings that Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship blossomed. It came back to me on seeing Nizan’s name on that board, that I had read how he had been detained during World War Two and transported to a concentration camp, never to be seen again.

In her autobiography, Beauvoir would later write of the shock and despair she and many others experienced in the wake of World War Two:

‘It was a ravaged world… No blade of grass in any meadow, however I looked at it, would ever again be what it had been.’

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The start of a love affair at the ENS in 2014? Sartre and Beauvoir started theirs here in 1929

It was into this ravaged world, in which people had lost faith in institutions such as the church, the state, and even science and technology to guide them, that the existentialist philosophy of Sartre and Beauvoir, based on the idea that each of us must create our own meaning in life, would later flourish and become the philosophy de rigueur on the streets of post-war Paris.

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