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On Prefaces

Let me do here something that I rarely--because I do not like to--do. I'd like to explain my work Heidegger and the Destruction of the History of the Metaphysics of the Will in Modern Philosophy from Descartes to Nietzsche: A Prolegomena to Gelassenheit.

As the title says, it was a prolegomena or a praefatio or a preface; and this is the key word in any attempt to understand what the work tried to say. In a word, the work as a word before the proper saying of the word Gelassenheit.

To be sure, a preface only makes sense when it fulfills its "function" in preparing for that to which it is an introduction. Logically, a preface, unlike the main text, cannot stand on its own: a preface is only preparatory, a first step, as it were. Or to put it ontologically, the being of the preface derives only from the being of what is said after it; on its own, its status will not only be vague but also negligible, or what comes to the same, it amounts to nothing.

What we usually look into when we read a work is the "body" itself, the matter, the main text where what may perhaps have been hinted upon in the preface is fully worked out. In this sense, one can bypass the preface of any work and go straight to the text; this is usually done, and at times even advised.

But what is it in prefaces which makes it possible to be disregarded or put aside or even, perhaps worst of all, makes it vulnerable to misinterpretation?

Is it because the writer delights too much in her own work, seeing it finished and whole, and thus still riding on a terrible high that only she can feel? Sometimes we do see prefaces where the writer tells us how difficult and long and gruesome the whole experience of writing was; but only to tell us at the same time that look, it's finished, that it was all worth it, and that, hey, I succeeded. There may be some sense in this; and perhaps, we readers can at least give her that --given that she does not repeat her monologue the rest of the way. Nietzsche, after all, said that it was acceptable for a writer to speak about himself in a preface, to assume the voice of the "I." Kant, in contrast to the mad thinker, dryly and snobbishly wrote in his preface to Critique of Pure Reason: "Of myself, I speak nothing."

Or perhaps, we consciously do not give prefaces any value because, as prefaces are usually written last, they tend to summarize too much what will eventually be said in the work; they already narrow the horizon or field of meaning which some of us wish to discover on our own; or in plain words, prefaces can be real spoilers. Imagine a novel which has a preface; or a movie which tells you beforehand what to expect. Some of us do want the reading experience to be a lot easier so we ask for clues and guides--something like a cheat book. But some, still, want to go it alone; because in the act of writing, the writer already lost all claims as to how she should be read and understood--she now falls listlessly into the waiting hands of the reader. The writer dies when the text is born: so the reader couldn't care less about the writer's own thoughts, reflections, insights, which all necessarily come ex post facto and are written in the preface.

Hegel himself, arguably the master of prefaces, said that one should not take a writer seriously in the preface as she--inevitably--will have to say a lot of generalizations which when read alone will not make sense, look silly, and seem pretentious. In his preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, he says
In the case of a philosophical work it seems not only superfluous, but, in view of the nature of philosophy, even inappropriate and misleading to begin, as writers usually do in a preface, by explaining the end the author had in mind, the circumstances which gave rise to the work, and the relation in which the writer takes it to stand to other treatises on the same subject, written by his predecessors or his contemporaries. For whatever it might be suitable to state about philosophy in a preface--say, an historical sketch of the main drift and point of view, the general content and results, a string of desultory assertions and assurances about the truth--this cannot be accepted as the form and manner in which to expound philosophical truth.
And Hegel has a point. Because in order to "set up" what follows it, the preface has to set the locus, the direction, the tone and mood. Now the writer's choice of these elements, however clear they may be to her mind, can only be arbitrary to the dear reader. Perhaps there is no other way: any beginning, any first step--even if the writer already traveled the whole way and got to the end--will always seem arbitrary: why this and not that? whereas, again, the writer earnestly hopes that if the reader goes along with her and give her a chance to lead the way up to the end she already knows exists (the one true hope of writers), everything will make sense--especially the awkward preface.

True, I did not make it clear in the work itself that it was a only preface; it was only hinted upon. Or that my work was "unfinished"; that was obvious. I confess that the "real" body or the content was missing--and still is. And I have no other excuse than to say what happened, that it was not possible to write it, write on Gelassenheit and what it means at that time. "Not possible" in the practical sense that to do so would require another year and a thousand pages to add to the 250 pages I wrote; but, more importantly, also "impossible" because the time to write it has not yet come. Now I cannot give these as reasons without sounding funny or (again) seeming insane. So I left the work speak for itself--even if it was "lacking." I let it fight for its own without helping it. Because it stands on its own.

It's not that I did or do not know what Gelassenheit is or what the preface was a preface to. The sad part about it is that I knew it all along. But writing it--explaining it, showing it--is an altogether different story. I can tell you the story over coffee. (Pascal said that any two philosophers can tell each other all that they know and believe in in just two hours.)

"Have I been understood?" asked Nietzsche after everyone seemed to at the same time love and hate what he wrote. All prefaces can never be understood. But mad Nietzsche has this frequently misunderstood book which nevertheless survives to this day: his Prefaces to Unwritten Works.

Comments

  1. This, perhaps,may be the most flat out request anybody has done to somebody. Anyway, here goes. Is it possible for you to post your work (Heidegger and the Destruction of the History of the Metaphysics of the Will in Modern Philosophy from Descartes to Nietzsche: A Prolegomena to Gelassenheit) on this blog? If it's not possible, would you mind emailing it? (And, in the sheer risk of my dignity shattered into pieces, here's my email address: bluezoe4@gmail.com)

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