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Encyclopedia > Erich Heller

Erich Heller (March 27, 1911November 5, 1990); British essayist; one of the most important twentieth-century thinkers on the human condition. March 27 is the 86th day of the year in the Gregorian Calendar (87th in Leap years). ... 1911 (MCMXI) was a common year starting on Sunday (click on link for calendar). ... November 5 is the 309th day of the year (310th in leap years) in the Gregorian Calendar, with 56 days remaining. ... This article is about the year. ...

Heller was born at Komotau in the Sudetenland, Bohemia, then within the administrative boundaries of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary (now Chomutov, in the westernmost okres, or district, of the Northern Bohemia region (Severoceský kraj) of the Czech Republic), to the family of a Jewish physician. He graduated a doctor of law from the German University in Prague (Deutsche Universität in Prag, Juridische Fakultät) on February 11, 1935, at the age of 23. In 1939 he emigrated to the United Kingdom, where he began his professional career as a Germanist, being active at Cambridge and London (England) and at Swansea (Wales). Heller became a British subject in 1947. From 1960 onwards he was based in the United States, primarily at Northwestern University of Evanston, Illinois (where he was Avalon Professor of the Humanities until his retirement in 1979). Parts of Czech lands with significant German speaking population (first half of 20th century) Sudetenland (German: Sudetenland; Czech: Sudety) was the name used from 1938–45 for the region inhabited mostly by Sudeten Germans (German: Sudetendeutsche, Czech: SudetÅ¡tí NÄ›mci) in the various places of Bohemia, Moravia, and parts... Bohemia. ... Germanistics is the science dealing with Germanic languages and literature, particularly the study of German, which it is often used synonymous with. ... For other schools named Northwestern please see Northwestern College. ...


Main Currents of His Thought: anima naturaliter religiosa

Although not a religious philosopher (and an agnostic by personal persuasion) he often had insights which gave evidence of deep religious sensibility, as when he wrote, in an essay on Heinrich von Kleist which bridges Heideggerian and Biblical idioms, that Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist (October 18, 1777 - November 21, 1811) was a German poet, dramatist and novelist. ...

according to Plato the human mind has been in the dark ever since it lost its place in the community of Truth, in the realm, that is, of the Ideas, the eternal and eternally perfect forms, those now unattainable models which man in his exile is able to see and recognize only as shadows or imperfect copies. And this Platonic parable of the damage suffered by man’s soul and consciousness is not unlike the Fall as it is narrated in Genesis. The Fall was the consequence and punishment of man’s free will that for the first time had asserted itself against the universal God and rejoiced in a consciousness and pleasure entirely its own –– tragically its own; for man had to forsake the indwelling in the supreme Intelligence and thus the harmony between himself and Being as such...

Such insights never displaced his critical acumen, however. Writing elsewhere about Friedrich von Schiller Heller does not hesitate to state point-blank that Schiller presented ‘a striking instance of a European catastrophe of the spirit: the invasion and partial disruption of the aesthetic faculty by unemployed religious impulses. He [Schiller] is one of the most conspicuous and most impressive figures among the host of theologically displaced persons who found a precarious refuge in the emergency camp of Art.’ Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (November 10, 1759 - May 9, 1805), usually known as Friedrich Schiller, was a German poet, philosopher, historian, and dramatist. ...

Disinherited Mind; or the Creed of Ontological Invalidity

Heller’s The Disinherited Mind, a seminal work published in 1952 (U.S. ed., expanded, 1957), earned him something of a cult following among certain strata of Western intellectuals. The project of The Disinherited Mind was to analyze the disappearance of Truth from the immediate environment of man, and the ensuing compulsions of Art to fill the void. Such an intervention on the part of Art, in the circumstances, results in the impoverishment of the world, not in its enrichment.[1] It entails the loss of ‘significant external reality’.[2]


It is fair to say that, for Heller, Truth could be defined in the terms proposed by Paul Roubiczek in Thinking in Opposites, a book that appeared in the same year as did The Disinherited Mind: Truth must be embodied in external reality.[3] Roubiczek’s grasp of the meaning of Truth is more philosophical than Goethe’s, according to whom Truth is ‘a revelation emerging at the point where the inner world of man meets external reality...’[4]

Heller saw Truth as the first casualty of that mechanistic theory of nature, set on its course of inexorable progress by Darwin & Co., which in alliance with applied sciences routes out the intrinsic meaning of things in favour of the ‘how?’ of their causal interrelatedness. The thing in itself is forgotten, and with it the meaning of Reality as such. Darwin’s and similar theories succeed merely in feeding ‘the body of superstitious beliefs that had grown rampant ever since medieval scholasticism suffered its final defeat at the hands of Francis Bacon’.[5]

This process of Reality’s being eviscerated of deeper meaning in the course of being ‘explained’ by modern science constitutes the main charge that Heller laid at the door of the latter-day votaries of what he opprobriously called the Creed of Ontological Invalidity, the practical result of whose implementation is that nothing can exist in and of itself as things’ scientific explanation deprives them of their individual being as entities and reduces them to the position of mere links in a much more broadly conceived chain. (One cannot fail to detect here echoes –– and indeed a defence –– of Heidegger’s das Sein des Seinden, although Heller would probably reject such analogies.) This state of affairs leads to spiritual perdition, he felt, whereby man’s own true significance as a higher being (his ‘ontological mystery’) is obscured, and whereby any attempt at a meaningful response to the world is stymied: for such a response can only take place vis-à-vis the question of what the world fundamentally is, not simply how it works.[6]

The meaningful response that the fully realized human being makes to the world differs from the attitude of the frog-in-the-well scientist in the most fundamental of ways: the former –– through his theorizing, which is the ‘highest intellectual achievement’ –– actually shapes the Reality, rather than passively ‘recording’ it in the manner of the latter whose mere ‘looking at a thing is of no use whatsoever’.[7] It is in this context that Heller’s best-known quotation must be understood, the injunction which he bequeathed to posterity: ‘Be careful how you interpret the world; it is like that.’[8] The admonition is not addressed to those who ‘find and accept’ (as he put it), but to those who through the ‘intuitive, visionary faculty of... [their] genius’ essentially create the world we know.

The book is one of the most profound contributions to the theory of man, with significant theological implications that are lent by its theanthropic point of reference.


The one objection levelled against The Disinherited Mind (and registered in the epilogue, entitled ‘The Hazard of Modern Poetry’, which the author appended to the U.S. edition of 1957[9]) was that the Weltanschauung at the heart of its critique was in some aspects excessively Holocaust-centric –– if it is appropriate to employ here a term which Heller had always taken exception to (preferring the English word ‘genocide’, or the Semitic words sho'ah and hurban (Hebrew, ‘annihilation’), to the term ‘Holocaust’, a curious malapropism laden with irrelevant or misleading connotations of a fideistic nature). A world view, also spelled as worldview is a term calqued from the German word Weltanschauung (look onto the world). The German word is also in wide use in English, as well as the translated form world outlook. ...

Heller chose not to contest this charge.

A perceptive reader, however, will find some light thrown on the question in point in the main body of the book itself. In the chapter entitled (pregnantly) ‘Goethe and the Avoidance of Tragedy’ a non-Jewish philosopher of the stature of Karl Jaspers’s is quoted on Goethe’s having become –– in an important sense –– obsolete in the aftermath of the Second World War on account of his inadequate grasp of the problems of theodicy, that is, chiefly, of the problem of the existence of Evil. Thus the question is not whether the Holocaust was central to Erich Heller, as it was to all the Jews who survived, but whether any human being, qua human, can avoid its centrality’s erupting on to his own consciousness. Karl Jaspers Karl Theodor Jaspers (February 23, 1883 – February 26, 1969), a German psychiatrist and philosopher, had a strong influence on modern theology, psychiatry and philosophy. ...

If there was a parti pris, a vested interest (so to speak) that actuated Heller’s mind, it did not lie in his Jewishness or in the fact that Holocaust was a genocide of his people. Rather it lay elsewhere. For Heller, the Body was central to human identity. The Body was the principium individuationis (in the sense in which Nietzsche understood or misunderstood that expression, which sense, being ‘Nietzschean’, was good enough for Heller). He once confessed privately that it is precisely because religions like Christianity offered a redemption that, for him, entailed the greatest sacrilege –– a divestiture of the Body in Paradise in favour of some ‘transfigured’ entity that seemed to merge the individual personhood, eschatologically speaking, into a single collective state of all the blessed –– it is for this reason that he was not interested in those religions. It is also for this reason that the Holocaust had a theological dimension for him: with its mass destruction of bodies it violated the principle of the sacred, of the spiritual, as manifested in the world. For Heller, the spiritual was never just a tissue of ‘vague abstractions’: it was always incarnate.[10] ‘Genius’ alone, he once wrote, ‘is never the whole man’.[11] And, he may well have added, the mere idea of God is not the whole God.


Unquestionably, many of the book’s other theses stand the test of time as well. Thus for example, Heller points out that Nietzsche’s and Rilke’s opposition to valid distinctions –– in particular Nietzsche’s relativization of Good and Evil –– was merely an overreaction against what both writers rightly diagnosed as the ‘barbarism of concepts’ of a ‘crudely interpreted world’ (the expression is Nietzsche’s), whereby the dual aspects of immanence and transcendence –– in reality much closer to each other than human thought has been prepared to allow over the centuries –– open the floodgates to an unchecked series of specious distinctions. Pre-eminent among the latter is the false distinction between thought and feeling. But, in their zeal to uncover the fraud of such bifurcations, the two thinkers carry their denunciation too far: Nietzsche, in particular, overstates his case when he links Good with Evil.[12]


In an excellent critique of T.S. Eliot’s views on Shakespeare –– who allegedly modelled himself on Montaigne in formulating the character of Hamlet –– Heller took an eminently commonsensical approach to the question of literary borrowing, staking out a position that has broader applications within the republic of letters. T.S. Eliot –– Heller writes –– Thomas Stearns Eliot (September 26, 1888 - January 4, 1965), was a major Modernist Anglo-American poet, dramatist, and literary critic. ... William Shakespeare—born April 1564; baptised April 26, 1564; died April 23, 1616 (O.S.), May 3, 1616 (N.S.)—has a reputation as the greatest of all writers in English. ... Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (February 28, 1533 - September 13, 1592) was an influential French Renaissance writer, generally considered to be the inventor of the personal essay. ... A detail of the engraving of Daniel Maclises 1842 painting The Play-scene in Hamlet, portraying the moment when the guilt of Claudius is revealed. ...

suggests that Shakespeare, in making Hamlet think in the manner of Montaigne, did not think himself, but merely ‘used’ thought for dramatic ends. This sounds true enough, and would be even truer if it were possible to ‘use’ thought without thinking in the process of using it. For thought is not an object, but an activity, and it is impossible to ‘use’ an activity without becoming active. One can use a table without contributing to its manufacture; but one cannot use thinking or feeling without thinking or feeling. Of course, one can use the results of thought in a thoughtless fashion. In this case, however, one does not use thought, but merely words which will, more likely than not, fail to make sense.[13]

Heller adduces by way of illustration another case in point: ‘If Dante’s thought is Thomas Aquinas’s, it is yet Dante’s: not only by virtue of imaginative sympathy and assimilation, and certainly not as a reward for the supply of an “emotional equivalent” [sc. in its unique capacity as poetry]. It is Dante’s property by birthright. He has reborn it within himself –– poetically.’[14] The argument serves, incidentally, as an answer to any future critic of Heller’s philosophy who might be tempted to point out that the roots of its salient points lie in the thought of Nietzsche and Rilke; it is all indirectly affirmed here as Heller’s tout court.


The Disinherited Mind saw the light of day in Germany two years after its original publication in Britain, when it was issued under the title Enterbter Geist by Suhrkamp in Frankfurt in 1954. An Italian translation followed in 1965,[15] and a Japanese rendering in 1969.

Other Works; or the Last Days of Mankind

Bibliographies are a dull business (as Erich Heller remarks in his ‘The Last Days of Mankind’[16]): the general reader may therefore wish to skip this section and go directly to Life in Letters below.

The Disinherited Mind was followed by another collection of essays, The Artist’s Journey into the Interior (1965; German ed., Die Reise der Kunst ins Innere und andere Essays, 1966; Japanese translation, 1972); then by The Poet’s Self and the Poem: Essays on Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke and Thomas Mann (1976); and finally by Im Zeitalter der Prosa: literarische und philosophische Essays, published simultaneously in German and in English editions (the latter under the title In the Age of Prose: Literary and Philosophical Essays) in 1984.[17]

Heller’s early article on Karl Kraus, ‘The Last Days of Mankind’, was originally published in the Cambridge Journal in 1948, its title taken from one of Kraus’s plays, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (1919). Karl Kraus (April 28, 1874 - June 12, 1936) was an eminent Austrian writer and journalist, known as a satirist, essayist, aphorist, playwright, and poet. ...

Writings on Nietzsche

Heller’s German-language Nietzsche: 3 Essays appeared in 1964, establishing his as an authority on Friedrich Nietzsche.[18] An English-language collection of –– chiefly cross-cultural –– essays on the subject was brought out by the University of Chicago Press as The Importance of Nietzsche in 1988 to wide acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. The collection was posthumously published in Germany four years later.[19] His essay on ‘Wittgenstein and Nietzsche’ appears in Portraits of Wittgenstein (1999).[20] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (IPA:) (October 15, 1844 – August 25, 1900), a German philologist and philosopher, produced critiques of contemporary culture, religion, and philosophy centered around a basic question regarding the positive and negative attitudes toward life of various systems of morality. ...

Heller also contributed an introduction to Reginald John Hollingdale’s (1930–2001) translation of Nietzsche’s Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, published by Cambridge University Press in 1986.

Writings on Thomas Mann

Already in 1940, soon after his arrival at Cambridge, the 29-year-old Heller annotated a collection of Thomas Mann’s short stories for a British publisher.[21] Thomas Mann’s writings were collectively the subject of Heller’s doctoral dissertation, written under the supervision of Edwin Keppel Bennett (1887–1958), which was presented to the University of Cambridge (where, it may be noted, he was a member of Peterhouse and the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages) in February 1949: in this work he considered Mann’s corpus in relation to the main currents of thought in nineteenth-century Germany. Thomas Mann Paul Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875 – August 12, 1955) was a German novelist, social critic, philanthropist, and essayist, lauded principally for a series of highly symbolic and often ironic epic novels and mid-length stories, noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and intellectual. ...

Heller’s well-known biography of Thomas Mann (The Ironic German, 1958; German ed., Thomas Mann, der ironische Deutsche, 1959) is based on information derived from his personal acquaintance of the subject. (A Japanese translation from the revised German appeared in 1975 as Tômasu Man: hangoteki doitsu-jin.)

He later also wrote an introduction to the 1972 reissue of Kenneth Burke’s translation of Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig (originally published in 1925),[22] and to the American translation of Mann’s Wagner und unsere Zeit (ed. Erika Mann).[23]

Writings on Kafka

The essay on Franz Kafka (Kafka, London, 1974; U.S. ed., Franz Kafka, New York, 1975) is still valuable for its author’s synthetic grasp of his subject’s multifaceted, cross-pollinated mindset and unique cultural heritage –– the latter of which was also of course intimately his own. (Heller also studied law at the same university, in the same department, where Kafka did, and he took the same degree that Kafka did 29 years before him.) Kafka redirects here. ...

Erich Heller had earlier been, famously, the co-editor of Kafka’s love-letters addressed to Felice Bauer (1887–1960), the revealing 782-page Briefe an Felice..., published in 1967, to which he wrote an introduction which became something of a classic in itself, being retained for the French translation of the correspondence in question.[24] Subsequently Heller also contributed an introduction to an English translation of Der Prozess,[25] and edited Kafka’s Der Dichter über sein Werk,[26] and his Über das Schreiben.[27]

German Writings

A selection of his essays on Nietzsche, Thomas Mann, T.S. Eliot, and Karl Kraus appeared in Germany in 1977 under the title Die Wiederkehr der Unschuld,[28] following upon his essays on Rilke, Nirgends wird Welt sein als innen (1975),[29] and Essays über Goethe, which saw the light of day in 1970.[30] These were preceded by his Studien zur modernen Literatur of 1963.[31] His article ‘Karl Kraus und die schwarze Magie der Sprache’ appeared in Der Monat (VI/64) in 1954; while his paper on Rilke, ‘Improvisationen zur ersten der Duineser Elegien’, presented at a congress in Italy in 1982, is published in a collective volume.[32] Rainer Maria Rilke (born 4 December 1875 in Prague; died 29 December 1926 in Val-Mont (Switzerland)) was an important poet in the German language. ...

Life in Letters

Heller corresponded with a number of thinkers of his day, whose names include (in the chronological order of the date of birth, not necessarily in the order of the correspondents’ importance) the following.

  • Thomas Mann
  • E.M. Forster
  • T.S. Eliot –– who is repeatedly taken to task in The Disinherited Mind for what Heller considers to be egregious lapses of literary judgement
  • Conrad Aiken
  • Carl Zuckmayer, the German playwright
  • Werner Heisenberg of the uncertainty principle fame –– who is quoted approvingly in The Disinherited Mind on the wrongheadedness of modern science[33]
  • Rudolf Arnheim
  • Lionel Trilling
  • Dolf Sternberger, the German political scientist and moral philosopher (1907–1989) –– who had one of his books introduced by Heller[34]
  • Victor Lange, the American-based German literary scholar (1908–1996)
  • Friedrich Torberg, the Austrian writer with whom Heller shared a Bohemian-Jewish background
  • Stephen Spender, whom at one time he persuaded to deliver lectures at Northwestern
  • Oskar Seidlin, the Silesian-born Jewish literary scholar
  • Hans Egon Holthusen, the German poet and littérateur –– who stands accused in the pages of The Disinherited Mind of that ‘spiritual timidity’ whose ‘coarser symbols are the fig-leaves of the Vatican Museum’
  • Noel Annan
  • Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the celebrated Polish-born German literary critic

Perhaps his most notable correspondent had been Hannah Arendt. Thomas Mann Paul Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875 – August 12, 1955) was a German novelist, social critic, philanthropist, and essayist, lauded principally for a series of highly symbolic and often ironic epic novels and mid-length stories, noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and intellectual. ... Edward Morgan Forster (January 1, 1879 - June 7, 1970) was an English novelist. ... Thomas Stearns Eliot (September 26, 1888 - January 4, 1965), was a major Modernist Anglo-American poet, dramatist, and literary critic. ... Conrad Potter Aiken (August 5, 1889 – August 17, 1973) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, born in Savannah, Georgia, whose work includes poetry, short stories and novels. ... Carl Zuckmayer (December 27, 1896 – January 18, 1977) was a German writer. ... Werner Heisenberg Werner Karl Heisenberg (December 5, 1901 – February 1, 1976) was a celebrated German physicist and Nobel laureate, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. ... Rudolf Arnheim (born July 15, 1904) is a German-born author, art and film theorist, and perceptual psychologist. ... Lionel Trilling (July 4, 1905 – November 5, 1975) was an American literary critic, author, and teacher. ... Friedrich Torberg (September 16, 1908 - November 10, 1979) is the pen-name of Friedrich Kantor-Berg, an Austrian writer. ... Sir Stephen Harold Spender (February 28, 1909 – July 16, 1995) was an English poet and essayist who concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work. ... Oskar Seidlin (February 17, 1911 — December 11, 1984); German-born American poet, writer of children’s stories, and literary scholar. ... Hans Egon Holthusen (April 15, 1913 - January 21, 1997) was a German lyric poet, essayist, and literary scholar. ... Noel Gilroy Annan (December 25, 1916 – March 2000) was a British military intelligence officer, author, and academic. ... Marcel Reich-Ranicki (born 2 June 1920, at WÅ‚ocÅ‚awek, Poland) is a famous German literary critic, and a member of the literary group Gruppe 47. ... Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906 – December 4, 1975) was a German political theorist. ...

Much of that correspondence (often written in German and sometimes in English) is apt to hold invaluable material for the future researcher in the field of literary studies; for Heller was not given to small-talk and chitchat, and his engagement with other minds was guided by the fundamental preoccupations of his own. It is a fact too that many important biographical details shared with him by other writers could only with the greatest difficulty, if at all, find their way into conventional studies and biographies and remain hidden from public view (such as, for example, Thomas Mann’s verbal confession, made to Heller, concerning the circumstances attending upon the destruction, by his own hand, of Mann’s early diaries (their homosexual content was the immediate cause), or another concerning Mann’s reading and re-reading of Xenophon’s Symposium ‘nine times’ before writing his own narrative on love’s vicissitudes, Der Tod in Venedig). The novel Death in Venice was written in German by Thomas Mann, and was first published in 1912 as Der Tod in Venedig. ...

Erich Heller's vivid intellect made him on occasion a principled controversialist, as evidenced by his long-running –– and sometimes acrimonious –– public exchanges with another prominent British Germanist, T.J. Reed,[35] in the weekly pages of the Times Literary Supplement. The Times Literary Supplement (or TLS) is a weekly literary review published in London by News International, a subsidiary of News Corporation. ...

Private Life

Heller was a life-long bachelor who cultivated several meaningful intellectual friendships, including with the Chicago writer Joseph Epstein (b. 1937).[36]

Little is known of his early relationships (doubtless all male), although the remaining correspondence (see below, s.v. Nachlaß) may hold vital clues in this regard (his letters to Graham Story, in particular, promise to reward study). His own reticence on the subject had a reason behind it. For, if there was a certain weakness underlying his close interpersonal liaisons, it had to do with the fact that Heller never learnt from the relationship of Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt (of which he wrote so eloquently) the lesson that personal affection can survive an intellectual rift between two people. His own rifts tended to be total, involving the severance of all bonds. He wrote somewhere in The Disinherited Mind that ‘differences of opinion are more worrying between lovers than between superficial acquaintances’ because they uncover ‘flaws in mutual understanding’: without the latter, apparently, love was not possible, and in its absence the only alternative was to expunge the individual from one’s memory... This state of affairs seemed to entail an understanding of love that stands at odds with his avowal of it (in a different passage of the same book) as ‘the only truly unfathomable faculty of man’. Jakob Burckhardt (May 25, 1818 - August 8, 1897) was a Swiss historian of art and culture. ...

Although he apparently never sought to become a citizen of the United States, a country where he spent upwards of a third of his life, Heller nevertheless had a deep respect –– nay, reverence –– for American democracy, which appeared to him to embody values directly opposed to those which informed the political realities of the Central Europe that he fled in 1939. This pietistic stance however never prevented him from espousing views considered by the mainstream opinion in America to be outdated or otherwise ‘politically incorrect’ whenever he thought them valid on objective grounds; nor did he shrink from considering America an intellectual desert.

The Heidegger Question

Much interested in the thought of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein (he contributed a ‘Vorwort zum Tractatus logico-philosophicus[37]), Heller had also a natural attraction for the basilar issues raised by Martin Heidegger in his works on Being, which were directly relevant to his own reflections on the nature of Reality. An obstacle to a deeper analysis of Heidegger’s œuvre was presented by that writer’s questionable but imperfectly explored association with National Socialism. At an early stage in his life Heller, in a bid to ‘absolve’ Heidegger in his own mind, went so far as to undertake a special trip to post-war Germany to meet the renowned philosopher in person; but his ‘Why?’ was met by stony silence. The encounter seemed to convince Heller that there was little one could add, by way of moral comment on Heidegger, that has not been expressed in Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todtnauberg’, written later but in similar circumstances,[38] with its well-known topos of suffocation at what Celan calls Krudes (an instance of smuttiness). Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), pictured here in 1930, made influential contributions to Logic and the philosophy of language, critically examining the task of conventional philosophy and its relation to the nature of language. ... Martin Heidegger (September 26, 1889 – May 26, 1976) was a German philosopher. ... This article needs to be cleaned up to conform to a higher standard of quality. ...

This turn of events must needs be adjudged a most unfortunate one, given that much of Heller’s best thought can be viewed as a continuation in one sense or another of Heidegger’s preoccupation with Being; certainly Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, in its original edition, was a prized possession and remained part of Heller’s personal library to his last day (surviving the substantial paring down of his collection upon his moving into a retirement home in the final stages of his life). It is possible, and indeed probable, that if the outcome of his meeting with Heidegger, which might have taken place c.1947, had been more positive in providing answers to some of the burning questions, the final shape of The Disinherited Mind, Heller’s first book, would have been substantially different, and that we would have been presented therein with manifold instances of direct engagement with Heidegger’s propositions. As things stand, there are just a couple of perfunctory references to Heidegger in this, nolens volens, most ‘Heideggerian’ of books. (Those references do nevertheless reveal intimate acquaintance with his thought.) Just as Heidegger had not a single word for Heller during their meeting, so also he has barely a word to spare for Heidegger. Being and Time (German title: Sein und Zeit) was the German philosopher Heideggers major and most influential work. ...


On his 65th birthday in 1976 (the year of Heidegger’s death) Erich Heller was presented with a commemorative volume of Goethe studies written in his honour, entitled Versuche zu Goethe (ed. Volker Dürr and Géza von Molnár), which includes an extensive bibliography of his own works.[39]

Another tribute from an unexpected quarter came five years later from the aforementioned Hans Egon Holthusen (see Life in Letters, above), who also taught at Northwestern between 1968 and 1981, and who, despite the criticisms meted out to him in The Disinherited Mind, delivered himself of a ‘Geburtstagsgruß an Erich Heller’ in Merkur (35, 1981; pp. 340–342) on the occasion of Heller’s 70th birthday.

The End; and the Nachlaß

Erich Heller died largely forgotten on November 5, 1990, in the institutional surroundings of a retirement home in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago; he was 79. His body was subsequently cremated (it is unclear whether this was done in accordance with his last will; whatever the circumstances, this is certainly the strangest fate that a philosopher to whom the Body was so critically important could possibly suffer). His library, including the complete set of the Musarion-Ausgabe of Nietzsche’s works with which he never parted during his lifetime, became dispersed among second-hand bookshops. Incorporated City in 1872. ...

Heller’s personal papers, including private correspondence and manuscripts, are preserved in parts at the Northwestern University Archives in Evanston, and in parts at the Deutsche Literaturarchiv in the southwestern German city of Marbach am Neckar (Baden-Württemberg). The Northwestern University Archives’ files contain some photographs. The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., for its part, holds facsimiles of some of his letters (in particular those addressed to Hannah Arendt and Bob Silvers), in addition to the sound recordings of two of his lectures, the one on ‘The Modern German Mind: The Legacy of Nietzsche’, which he delivered in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress on February 8, 1960,[40] the other on ‘The Works of Nietzsche’, recorded in 1974. Marbach am Neckar (pop. ...

Inexplicably, he lacks an entry in the Encyclopædia Britannica, as he does in Bautz’ Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon, although he finds a mention in the Brockhaus Enzyklopädie.


  1. ^ Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1961), p. 149.
  2. ^ Op. cit., p. 151.
  3. ^ Paul Roubiczek, Thinking in Opposites: An Investigation of the Nature of Man as revealed by the Nature of Thinking (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952); ch. 9. The present writer feels encouraged in bringing in this reference by the fact that Erich Heller wrote an introduction to Roubiczek’s diaries when those were posthumously issued in English translation in 1982, thereby affirming more than simply ethnic kinship with the Cambridge thinker.
  4. ^ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethes sämtliche Werke. Jubiläums-Ausgabe in 40 Bänden... (Stuttgart, Berlin, etc., 1902–1907); vol. 39, p. 70; quoted in Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1961); p. 27.
  5. ^ Erich Heller, ‘Goethe and the Idea of Scientific Truth’; in id., The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1961); p. 14. This important essay first appeared separately as: id., Goethe and the Idea of Scientific Truth: Inaugural and Goethe Bicentenary Lecture of the Head of the Department of German delivered at the College on 17 November 1949 (Swansea, University College of Swansea, 1949).
  6. ^ Ibid.; cf. id., The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1961), pp. 164–165.
  7. ^ Op. cit., p. 22.
  8. ^ Op. cit., p. 23. The italics are Heller’s.
  9. ^ The Hazard of Modern Poetry was originally published as a separate volume: Cambridge, Bowes & Bowes, 1953.
  10. ^ Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1961); p. 46.
  11. ^ Op. cit., p. 44.
  12. ^ Erich Heller, ‘Rilke and Nietzsche, with a Discourse on Thought, Belief, and Poetry’; in id., The Disinherited Mind; passim.
  13. ^ Erich Heller, The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1961); p. 133.
  14. ^ Op. cit., p. 134.
  15. ^ Erich Heller, Lo spirito diseredato, transl. Giuseppina Gozzini Calzecchi Onesti (Milan, Adelphi, 1965).
  16. ^ Erich Heller, ‘Karl Kraus: The Last Days of Mankind’; in id., The Disinherited Mind (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1961), p. 206.
  17. ^ The book was posthumously issued in Italian as Nell’età della prosa, transl. from the English by Vittorio Ricci (Parma, Pratiche editrice, 1991).
  18. ^ Nietzsche: 3 Essays (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1964).
  19. ^ Erich Heller, Die Bedeutung Friedrich Nietzsches: zehn Essays (Hamburg, Luchterhand, 1992).
  20. ^ Portraits of Wittgenstein, ed. F.A. Flowers III (Bristol, Thoemmes, 1999).
  21. ^ Thomas Mann, Thomas Mann’s Stories and Episodes, introduction by Erich Heller (London, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1940).
  22. ^ Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, transl. Kenneth Burke; with an introd. by Erich Heller; illustrated with wood-engravings by Felix Hoffmann (New York, Stinehour Press, 1972).
  23. ^ Thomas Mann, Pro and contra Wagner, transl. Allan Blunden; with an introduction by Erich Heller (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1985).
  24. ^ Franz Kafka, Briefe an Felice und andere Korrespondenz aus der Verlobungszeit, ed. Erich Heller and Jürgen Born; with an introduction by Erich Heller (Frankfurt am Main, Fischer, 1967). An English translation by James Stern and Elizabeth Duckworth, without Heller’s introduction, was issued in New York by Schocken Books in 1973. Cf. Id., Lettres à Felice, traduit de l’allemand par Marthe Robert; préface d’Erich Heller; traduite de l’anglais par Yvonne Davet (Paris, Gallimard, 1972).
  25. ^ Franz Kafka, The Trial, transl. Willa and Edwin Muir; with an introduction by Erich Heller and illustrations by Alan E. Cober (Avon, Connecticut, Limited Editions Club, 1975).
  26. ^ Franz Kafka, Der Dichter über sein Werk, ed. Erich Heller and Joachim Beug (Munich, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1977).
  27. ^ Franz Kafka, Über das Schreiben, ed. Erich Heller and Joachim Beug (unabridged ed.; Frankfurt am Main, Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1983).
  28. ^ Erich Heller, Die Wiederkehr der Unschuld und andere Essays (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1977).
  29. ^ Erich Heller, Nirgends wird Welt sein als innen: Versuche über Rilke (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1975).
  30. ^ Erich Heller, Essays über Goethe (Frankfurt am Main, Insel-Verlag, 1970).
  31. ^ Erich Heller, Studien zur modernen Literatur (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1963).
  32. ^ Atti del decimo Convegno, 8 ottobre 1982, ed. Claudio Magris and Wolfgang Kaempfer (Duino, Centro studi ‘Rainer Maria Rilke e il suo tempo’, 1982).
  33. ^ He (Heisenberg) a non-Jewish scientist commended in a book by a Jewish thinker that makes no mention of Einstein.
  34. ^ Dolf Sternberger, Panorama of the 19th Century, introd. Erich Heller; transl. Joachim Neugroschel (New York, Urizen Books, 1977).
  35. ^ Terence James Reed (b. 1937).
  36. ^ Vide Joseph Epstein (writer).
  37. ^ Erich Heller, ‘Vorwort zum Tractatus logico-philosophicus’; in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Schriften: Beiheft; mit Beiträgen von Ingeborg Bachmann... (Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, 1960).
  38. ^ Paul Celan, who also esteemed the writings of Martin Heidegger, met the philosopher in the 1960s at Todtnauberg (in the Black Forest), the locale of Heidegger’s holiday bungalow (the Hütte of the poem). Like Heller before him, Celan hoped for a word of explanation... but returned empty-handed. (Many members of Heller’s family, as in the case of Celan’s family, perished in Nazi concentration camps.)
  39. ^ Versuche zu Goethe: Festschrift für Erich Heller. Zum 65. Geburtstag am 27.3.1976, ed. Volker Dürr and Géza von Molnár (Heidelberg, Lothar Stiehm Verlag, 1976).
  40. ^ This lecture was published in printed form by the Reference Department of the Library of Congress in: French and German Letters Today: Four Lectures; by Pierre Emmanuel, Alain Bosquet, Erich Heller, and Hans Egon Holthusen... (Washington, D.C., 1960).

  Results from FactBites:
Erich Heller Biography / Profile (121 words)
Erich Heller was arguably the best-known literary critic and historian of Austrian and German literature in the English language during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
He was born in Komotau, Czechoslovakia (formerly Bohemia, which was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), on March 27, 1911.
When Czechoslovakia was invaded by the armed forces of Nazi Germany in March of 1939, Heller emigrated to England, where he received his Ph.D. degree from the...
  More results at FactBites »



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