Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bonus Book Saturday! Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank

I got this book for two reasons, first because I have a (quickly) passing interest in Heideggerian philosophy, and secondly because it was free in the Kindle store. I needed something to test the Kindle app on my new iPad (bow before my powah! (also Zod!)), having tried out the iBooks reader already, because I plan to use my iPad to knock about 40 pounds of books and computer off my commuting backpack as I head in to Boston during the semester. My husband totally won Christmas with this iPad, you guys. I’ll probably do an article on iBooks vs. the Kindle app in the near future, because it tends to be one of the first questions people ask.

I’d classify Heidegger’s Glasses as a good beach or travel read for the nerdy set. Some of it is kind of heavy handed and it’s a gloss of Heideggerian thought, but it’s also a fairly well written, interesting story that explores the way relationships changed during and after the Shoah. I’d actually recommend this for younger college-level philosophy students confronted with Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics, which can be a challengng text. It’s a quick read that hammers on a couple key concepts from Heidegger’s phenomenological approach, ex. “falling out of the world” and seeing things anew so you can understand them as phenomena presenting themselves to you, separate from what additional utility or interpretation you pile on top of them. There’s also a mildly cute reference to and reversal of Plato’s Cave that I appreciated. [NB: I'd also recommend to those delving into phenomenology the excellent Introduction to Phenomenology by Robert Sokolowski, who has a gift for translating complex philosophical contexts into unpackable English. I took a course on Phenomenology at Assumption without knowing anything about it, and Sokolowski's book is one of the only reasons I got through it. The other reason was a brief guest appearance from Prof. Molly Flynn, who studied under Sokolowski, is a genius, and is worth going to Assumption College for all by herself.]

The story focuses on a community known as the Scribes, a group of people spared from the concentration camps by their proficiency in languages. Frank pings the occult undertones of the Third Reich here, explaining that a clairvoyant had told the Reich that the dead demanded answers to the letters they were forced to write before they were killed, encouraging their family and friends to come to the camps. These letters had simply been accumulating after a certain point, and the Compound of the Scribes was established within an old mine to answer them in the language they were written. All that said, not much responding went on in the Compound, because there was disagreement in the ranks about the validity of the project. It was semi-abandoned, and left to police and fend for itself.

Early on, one of the ostensible Nazi guards, Lodenstein, is summoned to Goebbels’ office to receive an order. A letter had been received from Martin Heidegger to his optometrist, Asher Englehardt, with whom he had taught at Freiburg before the Reich came to power, talking about philosophy and requesting his pair of glasses. Lodenstein is presented with a box of glasses seized from the shop and the letter, and tasked with making Heidegger feel like all was well with his friend, who had in fact been sent to Auschwitz. When Lodenstein returns to the Compound, he and Elie Schacten, his lover and Den Mother of the Scribes, are torn on how to answer this letter. It is eventually answered, but due to a series of chaotic events, it is released incorrectly and prematurely by the bumbling other guard at the Compound, and arouses the suspicions of Heidegger and his wife, who demand to see Englehardt in person.

I don’t want to spoil the rest of the story by detailing too much more of it, but I will say that the Frank provides a wonderful assortment of ways to understand the changed perception that is integral to Heidegger’s philosophy. The story is full of shifting understanding, either of surroundings or objects or people, and this only develops the somewhat heavy-handed references to Heidegger’s “falling out of the world.” (People are always falling out of places and things are falling and everything is just falling all the time.) There’s a lot to be found in this book, though I wish that Frank had a better editor and had delved a little deeper; this had the potential to be a great book. There are letters “from” the people going to their deaths interspersed throughout the book, and as far as I am concerned, I think they could have been axed entirely. Though they do show a progression that mirrors both the breakdown of the Nazi powerhouse and the changes in the Compound and its citizens, the emphasis placed throughout the book on how little responding the Scribes actually do removes a lot of their emotional heft and value to the story.

Definitely worth your time, particularly if you’re travelling or on winter break and want to keep your mind kind of sharp but not too sharp. I’ve toyed with the idea of starring these reviews instead of giving the vague “heyyyyy yeah this is kind of neat but I don’t like stories about birds” type summaries I tend to leave, but I’m actually kind of terrible at perspective. My friend Erin called me a “person relativist” this semester and though she’s not ALL the way right, she is a little bit right. I tend to give everything a fourteen day pass or something, so everything that isn’t actively horrible gets a base level of like and then it takes me a month and a half to adjust it. Basically, everything that wasn’t written by Linda Bruckheimer would get 5 stars, and then someone would be like “hey, how did you like _________?” and I’d be all “Eh.” and then they’d show me the review where I was handing out five stars left, right and center, and I’d feel like a jackass, so now I just write about my feelings. It’s lame but more honest.

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