The Limbo of War: Heidegger’s Glasses

Summer is the best time of year for rifling through the local library for great, but as yet, personally undiscovered reads.  Heidegger’s Glasses by Thaisa Frank has just the sort of cover to grab my attention–rumpled envelope with the Third Reich eagles, faded letter peeking out behind and a shadowed women venturing out across a no man’s land expanse of meadow.

Having never been in a war, I don’t know what they’re like, but my impression from reading about World War Two is that is was a lot of violence and a lot of waiting.  People were in limbo and waiting for their lives to start again.  Heidegger’s Glasses catalogs wonderfully this “falling out of the world” that happens when ordinary things are turned upside down.  In this case is it the Nazi regime that is ludicrously obsessed with making things what they are not, an old mine shaft transforms into a street of dreams and letters written to the dead.  The writers or “Scribes” barely escaped the gas chambers and wear the fur coats of those who didn’t.  These people live lives of waiting for something to happen, for Goebbels to come and shoot them all, or for a miracle to end the war.  Only Elie, the leader of this group, seems to understand the urgency at stake as she tries to save one person after another.

Heidegger’s Glasses is simultaneously heartwrenching and uplifting.  It has the same odd sense of limbo I got while reading another masterpiece about World War Two, Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard (this is my all time favorite novel).  The characters are stuck in a pretend world that is a quarter what they left behind, a quarter of what’s ahead and the rest a strange dreamland where glasses aren’t glasses but are something on which the entire future of the Nazi regime hangs.  Parts of the story seem like something out of Indiana Jones (he always liked fighting Nazis) with a street underground, along with a house and a painted on sky, a man who lives in a “shoebox” and mulls over his crystal balls, a woman who is never quite herself, and letter after letter written to the dead.  The philosopher Heidegger, once he appears, is infuriating, a character who shows best just by being himself, that philosophy and other “theoretical” university pursuits have little or no value in a real world where real people who are dying need real answers and real fighters, not someone who will theorize them into their graves.

My favorite aspect of the novel is that it shows what a thorough sham the Third Reich became.  They were beyond ridiculous in trying to justify their actions and to pretend that they were the least bit civilized.  A cell is not a cell, no it’s a waiting room you have to reside in forever.  It’s perfectly acceptable to have seances while Russia is beating down our door.  There is a certain stupidness about evil that will never allow it to fully triumph.  Mostly its stupidness in not knowing that good is where it’s at.  Heidegger’s Glasses is a pleasantly paced read that will get you thinking of the merits of philosophy, power, and humanity in general.  It shows that sometimes even good people have to fight fire with fire in order to win.  It shows just how human we all are, and how helpless we can be when faced with a great political mechanism we cannot control.

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