The Nonbiodegradable

Still from `The Ister`.

At the beginning of the The Ister, the camera makes a long take of the setting sun and the riverbed of the Danube. As the ship on which the camera is perched is overtaken by another, faster one, the ship gently sways in the wake of the other, and the gaze, captured by the camera, sways with it.

Still from `The Ister`. Still from `The Ister`.

Thus, the beginning of the film sets up a divided frame of the division within that will carry throughout the filming: the interrupted single take shot, the thematic and rhetoric fluidity of the gaze that is cast on the flow of European history, the history of the “West” (the setting sun, das Abendland) at its Greek “origin,” interrupted by the dizziness caused by the gentle swaying due to the interference of technology (one ship, faster than the other). One technological device, devoted to commemoration and uninterrupted gazing, is interrupted by another, the speeding and thus forgetting of the faster ship overtaking it. The two types of techno-political “speed” thus inscribed in the opening shot of the film will have marked the interpretation that the film gives, or allows to be seen, of Martin Heidegger’s writing about the Danube and Hoelderlin in 1942.

The philosophical enterprise that serves as the guiding premise of the film is the series of lectures given by Martin Heidegger in 1942 under the title of Hoeldrelin’s Hymn “The Ister”. In the film, the major tenets of Heidegger’s philosophizing are given a thorough philosophical examination by four philosophers: Werner Hamacher (in the extra material available, unfortunately, only in the Australian version of the DVD), Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and Bernard Stiegler. The construction of the geo-onto-philosophical space known as the West proceeds from the Greeks, and flows back, as if towards the new origin, towards Germany. It flows backwards, “rueckwertz,” says Hoelderlin in his “Ister.” Thus the riverbed where the “West” meets its foreign, “Unheimlich” other is also the site and sight of the finding or discovery of its own most intimate or extimate, originary “self.” However, the flow of the camera gaze and the river, interrupted at the beginning of the movie, suggest that the fluidity of this grand onto-philosophical narrative may not be as linear as it may seem. In fact, in Hoelderlin and Heidegger as well, the flow of the river proceeds in two opposed, contradictory directions: from the origin in Germany towards the origin in Greece, and in reverse, at the same time. We are not in for a smooth ride.

Also at the beginning of the movie, just as Bernard Stiegler introduces the topic of the origin of tekhne in the Prometheus myth, the camera focuses on the refuse, the non-biodegradable flotsam of plastic garbage, carried by the river. The location of this accumulation of garbage is not immediately clear. As the film progresses, the non-biodegradable techno-refuge carried by the river towards its divided, phantasmatic “origin,” repeats itself several times without geographical designation. The plastic garbage thus becomes the non-locatable, silent, pre-symbolic, uncanny, visual “other” dispersed through the narrative about the river and about the “West.” Only later on in the movie will it become clear that this accumulation of garbage, a “leitmotiv” of the film, is an effect of the destruction of the bridges of Novi Sad, in the former Yugoslavia. And indeed, at the site of collection of this fluvial refuge, we are explicitly told in the inter-title that “the first replacement bridges consisted of barges, blocking river traffic.” The “replacement” barges that block the river traffic are the effect of bombing of Novi Sad by the NATO forces in the Spring of 1999.

Still from `The Ister`. Novi Sad (German Neusatz, Hungarian Ujvidek) lies 1585 kilometers from the source of the Danube. The city was built and given the status of a township by Maria Theresia in the first half of the eighteenth century. The Neusatz, the new beginning, the new space, the Neoplanta, is the city which will become known, due to its population of highly cultured Serbs who carried the torch of Serbian culture in the Austro-Hungarian empire, as the “Serbian Athens.” Its Athenaum, Matica srpska, publishes to this day the oldest active journal in the world, “Letopis Matice srpske.” It also has a gymnasium, Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj, and in general has been the site of both the commemoration of the Serbian cultural past, and the site of the Serbian enlightenment and cultural renaissance. From the beginning, under the aegis of the more famous German Athenaum, Novi Sad has represented and formed itself as the new beginning of Serbian culture by means of the Greco-Germanic trajectory at its foundation. Its Setzung (the new-setting, Neu-satz), its setting, is an Uebersetzung, a translation of the primordial Greek (Greco-European) origin, and is thus emblematic of Heideggerian speculation on Europe. To use Lacou-Labarthe’s terminology, the site of Novi Sad bears the typographical inscription of the formation of European history that preceded it, Neusatz as the new Ab-satz, a paragraph, of European cultural and political history, that originated with the Greeks and keeps emanating the formative force of this origin.

The Ister, the movie, stops in Novi Sad along its way North or South, as it were, in this geo-politico-poetic reversal, to find the ruins of the latest casualty of European (that is, also Serbian, and also in the name of a certain authentic national origin) warmongering: the NATO bombing of the bridges in Novi Sad in the Spring of 1999. The recurrent shot of the effluvia of Europe, the garbage collecting on the temporary pontoon bridge in Novi Sad, is a motif repeated several times throughout the movie.

Still from `The Ister`. The bridges are emblematic of the constitution of European space, since the European Union paid, after a lot of negotiations, the cleaning of the international river way and the rebuilding of the bridges destroyed by the NATO. The interruption of Europe, the West of the river flow by means of the destroyed bridges, marks the epoch by means of which Western modernity interrupted the flow of history, by a rupture or, to use the notion of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, a caesura: a moment that singularizes the passage of history by creating an irreversible, non-biodegradable ruin.

Europe interrupts itself within itself and its own epochal destining. It closes in on itself in order to purge itself or to block the Danube/Ister river from its unhampered historical flow by interrupting the flow of the Danube. Europe, in a word, enters into a dehiscence and a war with itself. We are still, very much, within the classical metaphysical epochality of Europe, the West, in its self-forgetfulness of being.

However, this episode in the film marks by glossing over it an older, and more profound interruption; this caesura designates the river and Novi Sad as the site of a different geopolitical emblem.

In January 1942, right around the time Heidegger writes lectures on The Ister, the German occupying forces through their Hungarian collaborative military arm, rounded up and slaughtered some two thousand Serbs and Jews, but mostly Jews, right at the site of the “Liberty” bridge, the reconstruction of which the movie elaborates. That is, the movie narrates the cleaning of the river of the effluvia of Europe, and the rebuilding of the bridges, but does not mention the event that this very site endured now 65 years ago, and the purification and cleansing on that very site. This event, known in Novi Sad as the “Racija” of the 1942, saw the Jews rounded up, lined up on the local beach “Strand,” and downed with machine guns. It was a bitterly cold winter, and the Danube, Heidegger’s Ister, was frozen solid. Dynamite, another technical device, was used, to make holes in the ice into which the shot bodies were thrown, sometimes still alive, to die of asphyxiation and drowning. The bloody wounds in the ice marked the site of this German-Jewish encounter right there in the Neusatz, the new space for and of the New Europe, this time cleansed of the effluvia of Europe, of the European “other.” And it is that “irreversible whiteness” that may be the most poignant moment in this history of European purification, which has accompanied the Racija of 1942 in Novi Sad. In Aleksandar Tisma’s The Book of Blam, it is the silence that is introduced in the novel as the most deafening sound of the pogrom: “Nase novine [Our newspaper, the local daily] did not come out on 21, 22, and 23 January 1942, the days of the Novi Sad raid (the general curfew prevented both reporters and typesetters from leaving their houses), but neither the next issue (25 January) nor the one that followed made any mention of the event. As if on January 25 there were not more than a thousand frozen corpses lying in the streets, as if the snow were not red from blood, the walls not spattered with brains, as if a whisper of horrorwere not making its way through ten thousand houses” (Tisma 1998, 95).

There is no faulting the film for not commemorating this event along the way and elaborating on the destining of Europe under the shadow of the Shoah without mentioning the episode in Novi Sad in 1942. It was a small, almost insignificant event compared to the industrial extermination of European Jewry in which instruments of much higher efficacy were found. The stop in Mauthausen and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s analysis are probably the most profound and moving of the film’s moments. During the interview in which the camera enters the gas chambers of Mauthausen, the filming becomes completely interrupted, as if suffocating in the unbearable and yet un-representable vision that haunts these chambers. The breathing of Europe, its very pneuma, soul, becomes asphyxiated. It is at the end of that sequence during which Lacoue-Labarthe is shown chain smoking as he speaks of this spiritual asphyxiation, that a poem from Paul Celan’s The Atemwende, The Breathturn, is produced as the closing and punctuating intertitle: “Tief in der Zeitenschrunde, beim Wabeneis wartet, ein Atemkristall, dein unumstoelisches Zeugnis” [Deep in Time’s crevasse by the alveolate ice waits, a crystal of breath, your irreversible whiteness] (Celan 2002, 215). The Racija in Novi Sad of 1942 ruptured the frozen flow of the Danube by precisely such “alveolate ice,” the bloodied wounds on the frozen surface of the river, cutting the breath of European history and producing a site of irreversible whiteness. The irreversible is therefore what cannot be forgotten, the non-biodegradable, the caesura that ruptures the flow of European history. But the caesura remains silent and silenced by the grand narrative of Europe qua Greece and the Danube qua Ister in the interpretation of Martin Heidegger.

If I give a privilege to Novi Sad, the “Serbian Athens,” it is because, as one may have guessed, it is my hometown. It is there that I went to the gymnasium and learned German, published my first book in the Serbian Athenaum, “Matica srpska,” and where I first learned of that wound on the white ice of Danube, which has been with me from time immemorial. Before Novi Sad constituted itself in my Bildung as the Serbian Athens, there had been an unspeakable horror, a silence, which surrounded any mention of the “Racija” of 1942 in my family. Greece and the Jews stand or dwell, in me, in Novi Sad, like doubles, like twins, in this chiasmatic encounter or agon, clash. But a clash almost without a sound.

Novi Sad forever remains, in its marginal but emblematic configuration, the site of this new European beginning, the Neusatz, irreversibly marked by the caesura of the extermination of the Jews.

If The Ister gives us to think something, it seems to me, it is the irreducible twinning at the beginning of the West, Europe: in the pre-ontological origins of thought marked by the origins of tekhne (Epimetheus and Prometheus), Romulus and Remus of Romania and the Traianus bridge, all the way to the origin of the Danube which, as it turns out, is not one but two, Brigach and Brug. Along the way stands Heidegger’s magisterial reading and thinking of the self-forgetfulness of being with which Europe runs away from its authentic Da-sein, and the attempt to begin, via Hölderlin, a new Germany and Europe by ways of a new Greece, a Greece that itself has never happened.

But that enterprise is not without a deafness which is equally colossal, given that it reveals the deaf ontological ear of the greatest twentieth-century thinker. I will give the shortest, telegraphic listing of places that allow us to hear this catastrophic deafness of Heidegger’s: Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Heidegger and “the Jews,” which allows us to read, together with the film Ister, the fact that all philosophy is also a geopolitics and that this particular one, Heidegger’s thought of Germany and Greece, “has lent to the extermination not his hand and not even his thought, but his silence and non-thought” (Lyotard 1990, 82). This film gives us to think, as Lacoue-Labarthe points out, the caesura, that the West and Europe imagined by National Socialism have irreversibly put on the agenda (Lacoue Labarthe, Heidegger, Art and politics, [La fiction du politique] 1990, 50). It allows us to think the arche-political in the name of which Heidegger imagined a better National Socialism, a more authentic destiny for Germany, which in Heidegger’s thought, as Lacoue-Labarthe writes in his Heidegger, La politique du poeme, “lead to a certain national aestheticism” and “that, in itself, should indicate its ‘inadequacy’” (Lacoue-Labarthe 2002, 163). In the same book, Lacoue-Labarthe will point out what is probably the most poignant contradiction that paralyzes Heidegger’s philosophy (a contradiction that may explain, but not justify his silence on the question of the extermination of the Jews): the “accomplishment of the history of the West as tekhne in National socialism,” to which the greatest critic of the alienation brought on to the world by tekhne, himself fell prey. In his other two essays, by now classics of writing on Heidegger and Hölderlin from his Typographies, “The Caesura of the Speculative,” and “Hölderlin and the Greeks,” Lacoue-Labarthe will teach us how the tragedy of the Greeks aspired to by Hölderlin and Heidegger, “begins with the ruin of the imitable and the disappearance of models,” that is within the epoch of nihilism. And thus put at the arche-tragic origins of tragedy a need for the purification of tragedy itself which should bring about the distilled, new spiritual beginning of Germany. In a word: German destiny is to be achieved and arrived at by an erasure of the inessential, the refuse in its history.

At the end of the movie, we learn that the source of the Danube is indeed two, and that those who wish to enjoy the hospitality of the local dwellers in two villages at war with each other over the origin of the river, should keep to strict neutrality: at the beginning, at the spring, not the oneness of Being, but the war of origins, the origin split in two: the arche-trace. And the burning question of hospitality: “Now come, fire!”

In Aleksander Tisma’s The Book About Blam, a chance Jewish survivor of the Racija, Miroslav Blam, goes to the local synagogue to listen to concerts, after the second world war: “Blam is listening to the music. He is leaning back in his seat in one of the middle rows of the Novi Sad synagogue.” The synagogue (built in 1906) is a place of perfect acoustics since it is a temple without congregation, stripped of religious paraphernalia, completely and irreversibly white, since there is no more Jewish congregation in Novi Sad. That whiteness in its “ghostlike remodeling,” in Tisma’s rendering, welcomes the sound, and gives this absence an ear (Tisma 1998, 222).

In the end, there is a beginning of the “new Europe,” remodeling, refashioning, music. But the music heard in the synagogue bereft of its congregation, which gives us another ear to listen to the destining of Europe: the ear of the Other. The space in which the music is heard, the chora, requires another thinking of being which is not Greek, but pre-ontological, the one which introduces the ethics of hospitality (which is a tautology), at the very origin of Europe. Not the war of origins over the Ister/Danube, at the origin, but a chora, a space of passivity and receiving, the choral works which, as Jacques Derrida says of the chora, “anachronizes being.”

That is what The Ister, the film, lets us hear in the grand thunder of Wagnerian music or in Heidegger’s reading of Hölderlin’s “The Ister” at the end of the movie. And that is what Heidegger could not hear and would not hear, that is the thought to which the greatest philosopher had no ear. Let us listen to him, this time from his reflections of technology, also written in 1942, precisely at the moment when he was reflecting on the “death of God”: “And the ear of thinking, does it still not hear the cry? It will refuse to hear it so long as it does not begin to think.” (Heidegger 1977, 112).

The choral work, the echo in the empty synagogue bereft of its religious signs, the temple of God whitewashed in his disappearance, giving place to the music, in the irreversible whiteness of the caesura and absence of its congregation, requires and invokes, conjures another ear, the ear of the other. And that is what Martin Heidegger refused to hear and think, from the very beginning. And who can say that this refusal stops now and today? But that thought of Europe via Germany and Greece certainly found, in the greatest thinker of being, its most spectacular philosophical limit. The Ister traces the setting of this limitation.

Works Cited

Celan, Paul. Poems. Bilingual edition. Translated by Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea Books, 2002.

Derrida, Jacques. On the Name. Translated by David Wood, John P. Leavey Jr. and Ian MacLeod. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Heidegger, Martin. Hoeldrelin’s Hymn “The Ister”. Translated by William McNeill and Julia Davis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
———————. The Question Concerning Technology. Translated by William Lovitt. New York: Harper, 1977.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe. Heidegger. La politique du poeme. Paris: Galilee, 2002.
——————–.Typography. Translated by Christopher Finsk. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
——————–. Heidegger, Arts and Politics. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Lyotard, Francois. Heidegger and “the jews” . Translated by Andreas Michel and Mark Roberts. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

Tisma, Aleksander. The Book of Blam. Translated by Michael Henry Heim. New York: Harcourt, 1998.

Related texts:

The Danube: Hölderlin, Heidegger, ‘the jews,’ and the Destiny of Europe by Dragan Kujundzic

Against the Stream: Remarks on the Film The Ister by Galili Shahar

From Scardanelli to Orfée by Scott Nygren