Book Review: Heimat als Utopie

Bernhard Schlink, professor of public law and legal philosophy at Humboldt University in Berlin, judge on the high court of the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia, and visiting professor at Cardozo Law School in New York, is also an acclaimed novelist, having burst onto the international scene in 1997 with the English translation of his The Reader. In the present work, an expanded version of a lecture delivered at the American Academy in Berlin in December 1999, Schlink probes and peers into the manifold of the meanings and associations of “Heimat,” the notoriously untranslatable German noun that evokes notions of “home,” “homeland,” “village,” and “countryside”—it is telling that the closest German cognate of the English adjective “uncanny” is “unheimlich”—and a certain soupcon of the numinous. (Perhaps the only comparable noun is that to which the Irish poet Seamus Heaney eternally returns: the ancient Greek “omphalos”: literally, “navel,” or “center-point,” but, through metonymic borrowing, used of sacred and mystical places associated with generative power.) Needless to say, “Heimat” is one of the keystones of the discourse of German nationalism.

Among the essay’s central concerns is “die Frage, wo die zum Exil gehörige Heimat ist…Exil ist das leben in der Fremde, das nicht selbst-, sondern fremdbestimmte, das entfremdete Leben. Exil ist eine Metapher für die Erfahrung der Entfremdung, die so existenziell und universell ist daß sie keine Ort braucht und auch keine Heimat als Gegenort” (“the question, where the exile’s proper Heimat is…Exile is life as a foreigner, as a “not self,” separate, heteronomous, alien and alienated. Exile is a metaphor for the conscious experience of alienation; so existential and universal is it that it needs no lived place as such, nor even a Heimat as an imaginary home.” 11)

One of the interesting features of the essay is Schlink’s discussion of the theories of alienation expounded by Marxism and existentialism. He draws attention to the “placelessness” they posited in the face, respectively, of the universalizing proletariat and of God and Nothingness. “Place, Heimat, civil society, nation, religious and cultural institutions, family and marriage, were,” Schlink avers, “held by Marxists and existentialists to be illusions that blocked the road to self-knowledge and emancipation” (13). As we shall see, this positing of placelessness is, in Schlink’s view, crucial to the utopian vision.

Schlink goes on to examine the complicated effects the Second World War had on the German intelligentsia and elites, when to live in exile, paradoxically, was freedom, while to remain in the Heimat was to live a sort of spiritual banishment.

Schlink cites statistics from a recent poll in the weekly magazine Der Spiegel, in which “Heimat” was held by 31 percent of respondents to be one’s current dwelling, by 27 percent to be one’s birthplace, by 25 percent to be one’s family, by 6 percent to be one’s friends, and by 11 percent to be one’s region (23).

Schlink surveys the images Germany’s great poets and writers had of Heimat: for Friedrich Hölderlin, he contends, Heimat was the Fatherland and hope; for August Schlegel, human speech and the magnificence of Nature; for Hermann Hesse, the Black Forest; and for Heinrich Heine, the oak forests and the violets and young maidens.

But in the end, he claims, “The very relationship between Heimat and Place— birthplace and childhood home, places of happy memories, places in which people live, dwell, work, enjoy the company of family and friends—the complexity of this very relationship ensures that Heimat can never be assigned a proper place. It is neither one place nor another. Heimat is No-place, ou topos. Heimat is Utopia” (32).

Finally, Schlink argues that the Heimat-concept holds dangers for the exile: “Just as the universal yearning after redemption, to which the universal experience of alienation corresponds, can give rise to the most horrifying ideologies, so the yearning after Heimat which arises from the experience of exile and the loss of Heimat can also give rise to similarly frightful ideologies” (37-8).

In my view, Schlink’s analysis of the complex articulations of Heimat is astute and properly provocative. It raises important questions: What, for instance, is the exact nature of the relationship between those ideologies and schools of thought that spurn Heimat (Marxism, and existentialism in some of its forms) and those that laud it (Romanticism, certain varieties of fascism, Nazism)? Is an ideology still utopian if it spurns Heimat-Utopia? Do all forms of existentialism (i.e., Sartrean humanist existentialism and Heideggerian anti-humanist existentialism) spurn Heimat? As regards the last question, some of the salient events of the Denkweg of Martin Heidegger (a keen admirer of the Heimat-celebrant Hölderlin) would lead one to think not. [Tom Donahue]