One of the half-dozen or so books I’m in the middle of at the moment is Charles Bambach’s Heidegger’s Roots: Nietzsche, National Socialism, and the Greeks. So far, at least, it’s really terrific. Bambach addresses with care and specificity a question that has too often been answered in self-satisfied generalities: what is the relationship between Heidegger’s philosophical thought (especially in the years between 1933 and 1945) and National Socialism? Bambach closely compares Heidegger’s thought to more orthodox National Socialist philosophers, noting both commonalities and differences. It’s the kind of heavy-lifting, philosophically dense intellectual history that, fairly or not, I associate more with Europeanist intellectual historians than Americanists. Moreover, it’s clearly written, which is no small feat, given the subject matter (writing clearly about Heidegger being a little like summarizing Proust).
I wanted to mention Bambach’s generally clear writing because the starting point of my post today is a stylistic habit of Bambach’s that I find incredibly annoying. Throughout the beginning of the book, Bambach often refers to Heidegger’s writings and thoughts in the future tense. One example, from p. 5, will suffice:
Heidegger will consistently oppose the Nazi discourse of biological racism on philosophical grounds, since Nazi scientific-ethnological categories of blood and genetic inheritance are wholly at odds with the existential categories of Being and Time and the early Freiburg lectures. More simply, Heidegger saw that the Nazi metaphysics of blood denied the essential historicity of a Volk by maintaining a positivist metaphysics of scientism and anthropologism in its place.
I’ve never been a fan of the true historical present. Talking about the past in the present tense can often be like shooting a scene through a telephoto lens. Just as telephoto lenses tend to collapse the distance between objects in the foreground and background, the historical present tends to interfere with a clear sense of temporal difference.
On the other hand, we all refer to the content of texts in the present tense. I have no problem with the present tense in the dependent clause of the first sentence I quoted from Bambach. Nazi racial categories and Being and Time‘s existential categories still exist as categories. Juggling this sort of use of the present tense with the historical past tense is one of the challenges of writing history, especially when one is working closely with texts as we intellectual historians tend to.
But what’s Bambach doing with the future tense? He’s not expressing futurity from within his narrative, as he might be if he wrote something like “Only six short years after the publication of Being and Time, Heidegger would deliver his infamous Rektoratsrede.” My best guess is that the first sentence I quoted is in the future tense to avoid writing “I will show that…” or “We will see that…” The futurity thus would be of Bambach’s own book. But that’s just a guess. “Heidegger will consistently oppose…” is just incredibly awkward.
All of this got me thinking more broadly about writing and how much I do, and don’t, think about it.* I’m very conscious of working at my writing (and one of the differences between a blog post and an academic paper is that I tend to leave blog posts more raw). But while I work at my writing, I don’t actually spend a lot of time actively thinking about how to write. I study the art of writing, but I do so by reading other books and thinking about what works and what doesn’t in them.
Ari Kelman, my former colleague–and co-founder of the on-apparently-permanent-hiatus history blog Edge of the American West–used to actively study writing. I always admired his doing so and even bought a couple books he recommended on the subject. But I have to admit I never got around to reading them.
How self-conscious are the readers of this blog about their writing? What have you done over the years to actively improve it? And, God help you, would you ever dream of employing the future tense when writing about events in the past?
* A good thing, too, as this post would otherwise be little more than a cranky complaint about a tiny aspect of a book that I like a lot!