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Words

Heidegger delivered this lecture on different occasions in 1958 and 1959. It is a meditation on deepest recesses of language by way of an interpretation of Stefan George’s poem “Words.” The starting point of Heidegger’s interpretation is Friedrich Hölderlin’s experience of the fugitive gods. Since the gods have fled, the word as it once was is withheld. In the saying of the poets, the gods no longer approach. This saying is the place of the conflict between human beings and the gods. Since the Greeks, the saying of these poetic words has long since lapsed into silence. This kind of saying must remain an enigma to us. Heidegger does not dare to attempt to bid the gods to return. He limits himself to an explication of the enigma of the word as it is told by poetry—in the poem “Words” by Stefan George.

In this poem, George is saying that where words are lacking, no thing may be. It is only the word at our disposal that endows the thing with being. In his interpretation of the poem, Heidegger tries to answer three questions: (1) What are words that they have such power? (2) What are things that they need words in order to be? (3) What does being mean, that it appears as an endowment, which is dedicated to the thing from the word?

The poet names entities in his poetry. Names are words that portray. They present what already is to representational thought. The word first bestows presence, that is, being in which things can appear as things. In this sense, the world allows a thing to be as a thing. Heidegger therefore names the word the bethinging (Bedingnis) of a thing. This bethinging power of the word is a mystery. The mysterious coming to presence of the word explains why the poet must renounce explaining what bethinging is. He may only name it in his poetic saying. As mystery, the word remains remote, but as experienced mystery, it dwells in nearness.

Heidegger next discovers that there is no word for the mystery of the word. Hence, it must remain a mystery. The poet is not granted a word for the being of the word. There is no saying that could bring the being of language to language. The poet teaches us what is worthy of the thinking of poetic being. When we let ourselves be told what is worthy of thought, we are thinking. Poetry and thinking belong together. The saying of words is the gathering that first brings what comes to presence to its presencing. The Greek word for saying is λόγος, which is also the name of being, that is, the coming to presencing of entities. Saying and presencing, word and thing, thinking and being, belong together. This belonging together is what is worthy of thought and what is named as mystery in poetry.