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Anti-Modernism and Discourses of Melancholy


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1This paper explores anti-modernism, a conservative reaction to Europe’s spiritual disintegration in the period between the World Wars. Most specifically, this anti-modernism will be analyzed in the work of Martin Heidegger, but attention will also be paid to a number of other sources. Because it reflected a longing for the traditions and certainties which held true before the advent of modernity,just as itsoughta futile return to a lost world, the anti-modernist movement will be analyzed in this essay particularly as a discourse of melancholy. Aspects of this anti-modernist critique will also be seen to be relevant in today’s post-modern world.

Modernism and Melancholy

  • 1  This paper is indebted to Griffin’s essay for a number of themes relating to this particular readi (...)

2Although World War II resulted in mass atrocities and a scale of death unmatched in human history, from a cultural point of view World War I had implications that were equally far-reaching. Modernism was a multi-faceted phenomenon arising in the aftermath of World War I, which denied the adequacy of longstanding presuppositions of European culture. In fact, Heidegger’s philosophy has been read by some scholars as reflecting a search for solid ground in a European world that lost its footing in the chaos following World War I, and perhaps never regained it1 (Griffin 3).

3Modernism rejected a number of optimistic Enlightenment assumptions regarding the rationality of the universe and human nature; modernist artists and thinkers thus began to represent the world and human nature as fragmented and chaotic, characterized not by order and reason, but by darker, more irrational forces. This sense of spiritual dislocation found expression all across the artistic and cultural spectrum. Freud’s new science of psychoanalysis, with its theories concerning the unconscious mind, emphasized the irrational side of human nature, while Kafka’s twisted tales of alienation represented a world turned upside-down. In music, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck exhibited an atonality that was at once brilliant and disturbing as it radically called into question basic presuppositions about the nature of melody, harmony and scale. In modern art, the breakdown of the representative image was reflected in movements such as Cubism and Dada, with an increased tendency towards abstraction, fragmentation and distortion. Perhaps the most famous expression of this theme is to be found in Yeats’ famous poem “Second Coming”:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is unleashed upon the world
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned… (Yeats, in Rosenthal, ed. 89)

4The aftermath of World War I has been described by many critics and historians as a loss of innocence. As The Great War unfolded over time, it became increasingly clear to thoughtful people on all sides of the conflict that this was a war unprecedented both in its brutality and its futility. This realization reflected a stark truth- that the European world prior to The Great War simply no longer existed, and one could never go back. Hence Paul Fussell, in his classic study The Great War and Modern Memory, writes in connection with the British war poets, that “for the modern imagination, that last summer (“our summer of 1914”) has assumed the status of a permanent symbol for anything innocently but irrevocably lost.” (24)

5The anti-modernist strain in Heidegger’s thought can similarly be read as a form of “homesickness”. Heidegger discussed this concept himself, writing approvingly of the romantic poet Novalis’ interpretation of the philosophical impulse as homesickness (Heidegger Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics 5). In his later work, he also discussed the concept of “homelessness” especially in connection with the proliferation of technology as a fundamental characteristic of modernity. But what exactly does the discussion about “home” signify? When one is homesick, one yearns for a place to which one cannot return. But how can we clarify the feeling of loss experienced when one returns “home” when “home” no longer exists? (See Read) Consider the loss experienced by a tsunami survivor returning to a now leveled house and only the memory of dead or missing relatives. The survivor can only mourn a lost family, a lost world, and a lost innocence. In what follows, I will discuss the concept of “homesickness” on a larger cultural level. I will specifically analyze anti-modernist discourses of melancholy as reactions to the perceived disintegration of values in the aftermath of World War I. In Heidegger’s case, fundamental themes in his philosophy (and his life) partly reflect an attempted retreat into a world before the dislocations of modernity. Heidegger rejected modernity as nihilistic and was critical of what he took to be a rootless, technology-obsessed, conformist society, out of touch with the fundamental rhythms of Being.

Anxiety and Existential Homelessness

6Heidegger inquired into the nature of “Being” itself, without regard to time and place. Therefore his masterwork Being and Time has traditionally and fruitfully been read as an inquiry into the fundamental structures of the human condition as such, not relating to any specific set of cultural conditions. However, every work is a product of a historical context. This is an issue that has become increasingly acute in the field of Heidegger studies, since Heidegger’s Nazism became a matter of public record in the late l980’s. Heidegger’s magnum opus can be read both as an analysis of the structure of the human condition itself, and (though he would vigorously protest against this reading) as a work which subtly reflects a profound cultural crisis.

7Heidegger’s analytic of anxiety is discussed in connection with the contingency of human life and its inevitable confrontation with death. How is such anxiety in itself part of a larger discourse of melancholy? According to Heidegger, anxiety is not something that can be overcome — contrary to the teachings of many therapeutic and religious systems offering freedom from anxiety, or inner peace. This is because it is a fundamental structure of the human condition. Man is the only creature on Earth (as far as we know) who must live with and come to grips with his finitude. Anxiety is not “fear” (which has as its object a specific concrete threat), but rather is characterized as a free-floating “uncanny-ness”. This anxiety has as its object no specific thing in the world; rather its object is being-in-the world as such. I have been thrown into the world, certain only of my own finitude. Heidegger uses the German term “unheimlich”, to describe the feeling of anxiety, which literally means “unhomelike” or a sense of “not-being- at-home” (Heidegger Being & Time 237). Authentic being can only come out of a process of confronting and accepting my death as my “ownmost” possibility (that can belong only to me alone) and my “uttermost” possibility (for there may in fact be nothing whatsoever after death).

8Anxiety was discussed extensively by Kierkegaard, Freud and others; the focus on analyses of anxiety in European thought during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was implicitly engendered by the subversive nature of philosophy itself, from the early modern period onwards. How does a society properly function when, in John Donne’s words, “a new philosophy calls all in doubt”?

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
“Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone…
(John Donne An Anatomy of the World; The First Anniversary).

9Paradoxically, the philosopher whose method consisted primarily of “calling all into doubt” was the founder of modern philosophy, Descartes. Although much of Heidegger’s Being and Time constitutes a refutation of Descartes’ rationalism, the two philosophers share commonalities regarding the original impetus for their respective lines of questioning. Descartes’ quest for certainty and his methodological process of “calling all into doubt” seem pathological to the contemporary reader if studied (as it often is) divorced from cultural context. It becomes fully intelligible only when one considers the scientific revolution’s radical questioning of many of Europe’s basic assumptions. Descartes’ philosophical methodology “called all into doubt” because he was delineating exactly what he could know for certain in a world which now seemed uncertain indeed.

10Heidegger’s emphasis on “not-being-at-home” can also be read as a reaction to the spiritual dislocation of Europe reflected in nineteenth century philosophy and letters, culminating in the period between the World Wars. Heidegger also wrote extensively on Nietzsche and European nihilism, the horrible implications of which Nietzsche so presciently foresaw (Lowith l98ff). But I will argue that even in Being and Time, awork thatimplicitly reflects the cultural crisis which Nietzsche diagnosed, Heidegger is searching for solidity in an increasingly fragmented world. When basic cultural presuppositions are suddenly revealed to be inadequate, anxiety and melancholy may be the only possible authentic responses. The upheavals of interwar Germany reflected the loss of the solidity of many traditional cultural presuppositions. Heidegger’s conservatism may be explainable, at least in part, as a reaction to this loss. Heidegger’s attachment to the land and to the lifestyle of the peasantry also needs to be considered in this context. His nationalism and even his involvement with National Socialism can be better understood (though certainly not morally justified in the latter case) by viewing his philosophical project at least partly as an attempt to find “roots” and “ground” in the face of the profoundly felt loss of yesterday’s world (See Bambach. Also see Griffin 3 and Herf 109).

Authenticity and Heidegger’s Search for Solid Ground

11A discourse of melancholy also figures into the way Heidegger describes his central notions of authenticity and inauthenticity. Heidegger believes that we exist fundamentally with others and therefore that the consciousness of the other is part and parcel of my own being and consciousness. We are born into a complicated previously existing social nexus with its own rules, assumptions and conceptual framework. Thus, as a necessary and fundamental structure of the human condition, being with others is neither good nor bad. Of course, positive relations such as love and friendship can only arise out of social being. But Heidegger also speaks disapprovingly of an anonymous “they” consisting of “everyone and no-one”:

  • 2  “Dasein” (roughly translated from the German as “being there”) is Heidegger’s generic term for “hu (...)

12“This being with one another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into the kind of being of “the Others”, in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of “the they” is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see and judge about literature and art as they see and judge… we find “shocking” what they find shocking. The “they”, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of being of everydayness…” (Heidegger Being and Time 164).2

We all at times somehow lose ourselves in the “public” mentality (fads, gossip, “idle- talk”). By participating in this process, we are to neutralize or cover over the anxiety naturally arising out of our consciousness of other deeper, more disturbing structures of the human condition, most specifically the radical finitude of each of our own lives. Being lost in the banal attitudes of the public “they” allows us to flee from what is (and what must essentially be) the solitary nature of our confrontation with our own mortality.

13Consider the forms of inauthenticity discussed by Heidegger;he first discusses “idle-talk” – the preoccupation with gossip and superficialities which functions to divert our attention. It is also worth noting that his characterization of “idle-talk”, a means by which the “they-self” operates in its fleeing from authentic understanding, is described specifically in terms of the phenomenon of “groundlessness”:

What is said in the talk as such, spreads in wider circles and takes on an authoritative character… Idle talk is constituted by… gossiping and passing the word along – a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on becomes aggravated to complete groundlessness… (Heidegger Being & Time 212).

14Why is it important to understand that Heidegger was preoccupied with providing an analysis of the human condition which is “rooted” and “grounded”? And why was he so often extolling the virtues of the agrarian lifestyle? Because, as Rudiger Safranski writes: “the collapse of yesterday’s world in a world war … persuaded Heidegger that the ground was shaking and that new beginning had to be made” (Safranski 146).

15Echoing Yeats’ depiction above of how “things fall apart”, the sense of dislocation and unsettledness is also evident in many cultural products of Germany’s interwar years. Hence Brecht’s Man Equals Man:

Hopes you’ll feel the ground on which you stand
Slither between your toes like shifting sand
So that (the story) makes you aware
Life on this Earth is a hazardous affair. (Brecht, as quoted and discussed in Willett, 9).

16The artist Georg Grosz also notes, “I felt the ground shaking beneath my feet, and the shaking was visible in my work.”(see Willett 9). Consider also the following interpretation of Ernst Bloch’s 1932 essay “Berlin, as Viewed from the Landscape”, by David Durst:

Similar to the uprooted and mobile modern individual, Berlin is a city rising up out of an empty space, without apparent historical origins or firm foundation: sitting “upon ground that is still undeveloped, unstable and perpetually in need of improvement”, it is literally a city built on sand where the dust never settles. Like its restless dwellers, Berlin “always becomes and never is”, it is a city of unrest and perpetual becoming with all its resident themes of instability and unmet potential. (quoted in Durst  xvi).

17This perceived backdrop of a shifting, unstable, and restless world provides the context which now renders Heidegger’s entire philosophical project more intelligible – insofar as it involves an analysis of the human condition as essentially grounded and bound to the earth. Modernist artists like Brecht and Grosz may have been willing to embrace and/or artistically depict Europe’s spiritual dislocation, but Heidegger’s anti-modernism sought a return to a more solid, grounded reality. This is why his analysis can be considered on some level as a discourse of melancholy. In fact, Heidegger also wrote a number of pieces (“On the Essence of Ground” and others) explicitly addressing the meaning of “ground”. In these works, the German term “grund” has often been translated as “reason”, but perhaps this issue is also implicitly and more fundamentally about the search for “grounding” in a more existential sense. Certainly, as a society begins to lose its grounding, it requires a new set of values or guiding conceptual frameworks. But what happens when these are not forthcoming in an immediate or obvious sense? This cultural crisis formed the backdrop for Heidegger’s entire philosophical career and it is evident even in the “objective” categories of his earliest and most important work Being andTime.

18In Being and Time, Heidegger also discusses “curiosity” – the continuous search for the new and novel as a distractive technique. In Heidegger’s words, “When curiosity has become free, however, it concerns itself with seeing, not in order to understand what is seen, but just in order to see it. It seeks novelty only in order to leap from it anew to another novelty. In this kind of seeing… lies… in the possibilities of abandoning itself to the world.” (Heidegger Being & Time 216) David Durst discusses precisely this formof “distraction” through an analysis of Siegfried Kracauer’s writings on Weimar cinema. Kracauer explained the fascination with the glamour and lights of the picture palaces where “distraction is raised to the level of culture.” (Kracauer’s The Mass Ornament, as quoted and discussed in Durst 95) Phenomenologically, distracted curiosity is drawn by the rapid fire pace of consecutive images, a “fragmented sequence of sense impressions” (See Durst 96), in which: “the stimulations of the senses succeed one another with such rapidity that there is no room left between them for even the slightest contemplation… The penchant for distraction demands and finds an answer in the display of pure externality… ” (Durst 96) Heidegger would use the term “groundlessness” to capture a similarexperience: “This movement of Dasein… we call its “downward plunge”. Dasein plunges out of itself into itself, into the groundlessness and nullity of inauthentic existence.” (Heidegger Being & Time 223). In place of this restless search for diversion, Heidegger prescribes instead only the difficult process of consciously confronting and accepting our own finitude. “Authenticity” thus involves another, slightly different melancholy than the mourning of lost innocence. This latter sense involves the acceptance of one’s own mortality, and the contingency of all life. But confronting this condition makes us uncomfortable. Heidegger acknowledges that the superficial gossip of the “they” steadfastly refuses to allow each of us as individuals a silent space in which to reflect. It refuses to allow us the “courage for anxiety” in the face of death. This different melancholy is thus a threat to the “they”, and when it asserts itself, inauthentic forms of public discourse make sure to “change the subject” and suppress it as quickly as possible.

Melancholy and Pastorale

19In the aftermath of a destructive and ultimately pointless world war, modernism reflected the realization that the traditional ideals of European culture could no longer hold. Yet Heidegger wrote much of his work at his hut in Todnauberg, deep in the Black Forest. He never felt comfortable in urban environments, nor among “the intelligentsia”, preferring instead to dwell among the peasants near the wood paths, fields and forests. After declining teaching offers in cosmopolitan Berlin, the cultural epicenter of Weimar modernism, he defended his decision with Why we Remain in the Provinces, a text which may itself be read as a classic artefact of anti-modernism (See Safranski 278).

  • 3  Of course there is also a paradoxical sense in which, in spite of these anti-modernist tendencies, (...)

20How do we interpret Heidegger’s agrarian, earth-bound ontology? Peasant life, as it is more closely connected with the earth and its cycles, is more fundamentally rooted than urban life in the basic rhythms of life and death, less preoccupied with the faddish and the fashionable. But was Heidegger essentially escaping from the abyss of modernity into a romanticized “pastorale”? Heidegger’s retreat to his Todtnauberg hut in the Black Forest perhaps represented Heidegger’s inability to reconcile his search for solidity in an unstable world with the shifts of modernity. A number of scholars, however, have argued that Heidegger’s “ruralism” is not just a benign form of quaint nostalgia, but rather central to a widespread reactionary movement among prominent German intellectuals of this time towards an ideology of rootedness in “blood and soil”, a dangerous movement whose rhetoric was fundamentally tied up with Nazism (See Bambach3). But while this may be true, it begs other questions. Exactly what was the original impetus for Heidegger’s gravitation towards this reactionary outlook? It was an anti-modernism that saw all around a collapsing world and sought a return to a more fundamental truth (see Herf 109ff; also Lowith 173ff). Of course, to seek such a truth in Nazism was a tragic mistake, because Nazism was probably the most evil regime ever to grace this planet, much more nihilistic (as Heidegger eventually discovered) than the very nihilism Heidegger sought to overcome. (Stackelberg 4) Heidegger should have known better what could happen in desperate times when “things fall apart”. In the words of Yeats, again, “twenty centuries of stony sleep / were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, / And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (Yeats, in Rosenthal, 90).

Technos and Pathos

21Heidegger’s critique of the modern ethos concerning technology can perhaps also be read as lamenting the loss of roots and community, mourning the loss of a direct, non-exploitative relationship between man and nature. Certainly, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the omnipresent threat of nuclear war today have vindicated Heidegger’s argument that technological man has appropriated, converted and exploited the majesty of nature into mere “standing reserve” for his own purposes (see Heidegger The Question Concerning Technology 12). But there are other aspects of Heidegger’s critique that also involve the discourses of melancholy, especially in terms of the overarching theme of cultural mourning. For example, although Heidegger never witnessed the rise of the computer and the internet in the post-modern age, I believe that he would have diagnosed the proliferation of this technology as contributing to the overall impoverishment of human community (“being-with-others”).The following section of this essay to some degree draws upon the work of Hubert Dreyfus, who has written a number of important works on philosophical questions concerning computer technology, and has also astutely explicated Heidegger’s critique of Cartesianism and its implications for the philosophy of technology. I will emphasize these themes explicitly in the context of “discourses of melancholy”, as further examples of Heidegger’s critique of the rootlessness and disconnectedness afflicting modern (and by extension, postmodern) existence.

22In order to understand Heidegger here, we need to isolate some of the basic assumptions of his critique of Descartes’ epistemology. The Cartesian separation of the subject from the world (mind / body) constitutes, for Heidegger, a basic misconception. It defines a person as a self-enclosed conscious mind, epistemologically disconnected from the world. Cartesian thought has thus led to a number of philosophical pseudo-problems, e.g., the “problem of other minds”, orthe “problem of the external world”. These are pseudo-problems because human beings do not first exist and then somehow have to “find the world”. Human being is essentially and from the outset being-in-the-world. Being-in-the world and being-with-others are not contingent facts that somehow could be otherwise, or propositions that are in any ways in need of proof, but rather are our starting assumptions, necessary structures of the human condition itself.

23Given this radically concrete, context-bound premise, Heidegger might well have viewed some variations of the current proliferation of computer technology as symptomatic of a deeper cultural dislocation. Consider children playing computer games in a “virtual” playground, staring at screens for hours instead of climbing on actual trees outside. What happens when people begin to spend more and more time online, slowly starting to live lives that are more “virtual” than “real”? At what point do virtual contexts become impoverished versions of (or inadequate substitutes for) face-to-face, physical interactions? What might Heidegger have said about other post-modern, technologically mediated phenomena such as distance education, where entire courses of academic study are offered online, rather than in a traditional classroom, not to mention even more curious developments such as online dating, or “cybersex”? Postmodernist thinkers like Baudrillard have famously described the “reductio ad absurdum” occurring when reality itself becomes indistinguishable from the simulations (or “simulacra”) generated by image-based media. What will come next?

24Contemporary developments in computer technology reflect advances in terms of efficiency and accessibility, but what has been lost? These experiences, as they are mediated through computer screens, involve a loss of immediacy and direct, face-to-face human connection/interaction. Computer mediated contexts involve a paradoxical kind of interaction in which one is simultaneously “being-with” and “not-being-with” others, as the other is somehow present in cyberspace but not physically “here”. In this sense, they somehow are “uprooted”, existing on one or more levels abstracted from physical reality. Just as cyberspace is “everywhere and nowhere”, Heidegger would probably have viewed these new technologies as offering “everything and nothing”, another symptom of a scientifically-advanced but increasingly rootless, disconnected and alienated post-modern world (see Dreyfus The Internet 50-72). This is thus another example of how Heidegger’s thought can be read through anti-modernist lenses as a discourse of melancholy.

25The discourses of melancholy explored in this paper therefore all implicate mourning and loss as reactions to modernist culture. These discourses of melancholy can be also seen as relevant to postmodern developments. They thus constitute an important aspect of our cultural inheritance, a theme which recurs universally whenever a society loses its foundations, whenever “a new philosophy calls all in doubt”.

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Bambach, Charles. Heidegger’s Roots: Nietzsche, National Socialism and the Greeks (Ithaca, NewYork: Cornell University Press, 2003).

Donne, John. An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary,

Dreyfus, Hubert. The Internet (New York: Routledge, 2001).

Durst, David. Weimar Modernism (Lenham, MD: Lexington, 2004).

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Griffin, Roger. “Rebirthing the West: Time, Modernity and Fascism”;

Heidegger, Martin. “On the Essence of Ground”, in Pathmarks, trans. W. McNeill. (Cambridge: Cambridge: University Press, l998).

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Heidegger, Martin. Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, trans. W. McNeill, N. Walker. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001).

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Herf, Jeffrey. Reactionary Modernism (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984).

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Stackelberg, Roderick. “The Politics of Bodenstaendigkeit: Heidegger’s National Socialism”. H-Net (October 2004),

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming” in Rosenthal, M.L. (ed.), Selected Poems of William Butler Yeats (New York: MacMillan, l986).

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1  This paper is indebted to Griffin’s essay for a number of themes relating to this particular reading of Heidegger’s work. In this paper, I try to explore Griffin’s interpretation in greater depth and detail, analyzing some of Heidegger’s central philosophical categories in thelight of this reading,in order to illustrate how Heidegger’s philosophical worldview can be generally understood as an anti-modernist discourse of melancholy.

2  “Dasein” (roughly translated from the German as “being there”) is Heidegger’s generic term for “human being”.

3  Of course there is also a paradoxical sense in which, in spite of these anti-modernist tendencies, Beingand Time is also a modernist work. Perhaps the most obvious exemplification of this is the absence of God from Dasein’s entire landscape. However, this matter is complicated, as Heidegger also sometimes described himself (and was originally trained) as a “theologian”, and certainly many central themes in Being and Time reflect the influence of a number of Christian thinkers, e.g., Augustine, Luther and Kierkegaard. This influence has been painstakingly researched in the work of Theodore Kisiel.

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David J. ROSNER, « Anti-Modernism and Discourses of Melancholy », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 14, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.596

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Metropolitan College of New York
David J. Rosner teaches philosophy at Metropolitan College of New York.  He has published a number of essays on philosophy as a therapeutic enterprise, and has also written on the philosophy of education.  He is currently working on a book about the paradoxes of happiness.

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