Sharr, Adam: Heidegger's Hut. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
Sharr's insightful book offers many complex facets. The book adds the rich dimension of philosophy and thought to time, space, and what another writer calls "Heidegger's topology." In the midst of these dimensions is the archetypal hut, which prologue contributor Andrew Benjamin calls: "as much a philosophical event as it is an architectural one."
The foreword by Simon Sadler notes of author Sharr's book that it "contains no explicit philosophical treatise ... nor any overt statement of theoretical position, but instead invites architects to do some thinking induced by philosophy, and philosophers to some thinking prompted by architecture."
But one needs no grounding in architecture to understand the ramifications of the hut, as dwelling-place, context, symbol, and self-projection. What Sharr does is bring to bear these converging notions and our inklings about the nature of dwelling-places on one specific hut, that of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Sharr's book is on first glance simple but intriguing. Ultimately he presents a juxtaposition of geography and creativity, of space and thought, of temporality and body versus the primordiality of time and being.
What is at stake in this pursuit is far more than a contrast of urban versus provincial, the latter being Heidegger's own term. It seems that Heidegger himself was conscious of this tradition of provincialism, aware of the special and solitary workplaces of the poet Holderlin, the philosopher Nietzsche, and perhaps the Asian hermits. Heidegger wrote essays on the significance of building and dwelling and the special kind of thinking that the sense of place fosters. So it is extremely useful to have this study of this particular hut.
And for all the nuances, the book is entirely readable as a descriptive evocation of a thinker's preferred dwelling place in the mountains, how it looked and functioned, what it would be like to have lived there. This complementary function of simplicity of description at one level and fullness of ramification at another make Sharr's book especially attractive.
Aspects of the Heidegger's hut
The hut lies in the mountainous Black Forest of southern Germany, near the village of Todtnauberg, about 18 km. or about 12 miles from Freiberg. It sits on a slope overlooking a valley and within view of the Alps. Because of elevation and microclimates, the area represents a "meteorological drama," as Sharr puts it, with mists and storms and seasonal patterns always at play.
The hut is 6x7 meters, about 236 by 278 feet or just over 600 square feet. It is built entirely of timber, including timber shingles on the gabled roof. The windows and doors are flush with the walls. The exterior is painted gray, with bright yellow, blue, and green shutters and door. Inside are three rooms: from the storm porch one enters the dining and kitchen area with its heating stove, cooking stove, and bed. Beyond is an earth closet and a drying room for wood. The second room is a bedroom, taken up by beds and a wash table. From the bedroom is a third room, Heidegger's study, with a table, bed, and a desk looking out over the valley. Outside was a running stream and well. Until later in the occupant's life, the hut had no electricity or running water.
Sharr has assembled very useful photographs and charts that give the reader a thorough sense of what the hut looked like. Photographs depict Heidegger himself, his wife Elfride, and occasional visitors. Sharr also includes a chapter on Heidegger's "city" house in Freiberg, with photographs, contrasting the two.
For five decades, the philosopher lived in the hut as often as he could, often alone. The hut was built in 1922 and visited during summers when Heidegger and his family lived in Marburg, where he taught. After appointment to the University of Freiberg in 1927, Heidegger often went to the hut on weekends, walking the distance. He was an avid cross-country skier and hiker, and paths to and from the hut lead into forests and trails. He participated in village life, too, especially the wood-cutting and hauling routines, none of it light work. During the summer, Heidegger was enjoyed setting table outdoors for writing and reading in the open air. The author quotes one authority:
Was it the slopes, which in winter were covered with deep snow, that initially attracted Heidegger the avid skier? Or was it the magnificent solitude pregnant with though that provided him with the breathing space he needed.
Sharr notes how Heidegger considered this a "providential landscape" and enjoyed the "resonant simplicity" of the hut, which was his "refuge of solitary contemplation." Heidegger himself extolled the "strong mountain air" in contrast to the "soft light stuff" in the city. He wrote to philosopher Karl Jaspers: "Sometimes I no longer understand that down there one can play such strange roles," referring to Freiberg and cities in general.
In a 1934 article, Heidegger wrote:
People in the city often wonder whether one gets lonely up in the mountains among the peasants for such long and monotonous periods of time. But it isn't loneliness, it is solitude. ... Solitude has the peculiar and original power of not isolating us but projecting our whole existence out into the vast nearness of the presence of all things.
Sharr elaborates on Heidegger's contrast of urban self-preoccupation versus natural forces, creative forces, and the peasants' conformity to natural cycles as a form of honesty and ethics.
The philosopher valorized his encounters with the landscape. The real debate for him was not human conversation at the academy below, no Socratic dialogue. It was to be had in solitary confrontation between his mind, language, and the raw physical authority he perceived in the terrain and its climate. This was an uncompromising morality. ... His Todtnauberg was no aesthete's romance: it was an arena for solitary sparring. ...
He considered the philosophy of Todtnauberg to be that of forests, brooks, rocks, mist, meadows, and minds. For Heidegger, these were elemental motions -- the core of philosophy "up there," a palpable verity that outreached irrelevances he perceived in life "below."
Sharr keeps the hut in perspective in reviewing Heidegger's life and motives. Much revolves around the polarity of cosmopolitanism versus provincialism, with the latter identified by many as "delusional, invidious, inbred, prone to exclusion, and reliant upon romantic myth." On the other hand, cosmopolitanism was considered abstract, fashion-driven, and ascending false pedestals. Heidegger himself understood that the provincialism he extolled was lost and of a bygone era, but this tension is at the heart of his work, especially in his later essays, where he adopts a broader philosophical perspective.
Always haunting Heidegger the subject is, of course, his appointment as rector of the University of Freiberg in 1933 and his cooperation with the ascendant Nazi party. In the fall of that year Heidegger even hosted a "summer camp" of students and university personnel at his hut, where discussions about incorporating Nazi curricula and ideas were held outdoors in the presence of a bonfire. Just a year after his appointment, though, Heidegger resigned, disillusioned with the path that Nazism was taking, and returned to teaching and research. The post-war de-Nazification movement forced his resignation altogether in 1946, though restoring his functions in 1950 as professor emeritus.
Sharr judiciously avoids discussing this complex issue, which is larger than just the context of the hut. But he does recount the visit to the hut by Jewish poet Paul Celan, himself a death camp survivor, and reproduces the poignant poem Celan subsequently sent to Heidegger. The incident is recounted appropriately. It is a quiet and thoughtful conclusion to the book and to the complex man who was Heidegger.
Sharr's book is an intriguing account of the role of the hut and the ramifications of the meaning of the hut, in the life of Heidegger. He takes Heidegger's case as the beginning of an examination of the relationship of dwelling and thinking. Readers will enjoy the author's details and his observant eye with regards to the hut, details not addressed so thoroughly in any previous source. At the same time, Sharr has assembled the tools for the investigation of larger topics concerning Heidegger, huts, dwellings, and space. Sharr's sense of balance offers reflective insight with regard to Heidegger and with regard to what was the setting for written works that have had a profound effect on the whole world.