Category Archives: Heidegger

Gift and threat

A being happens as a given composition or arrangement, something simply there, but not inertly there. ‘There’ as a saying, as coming forth, as a claim, as an event with which I am immediately in the possibilities that it occasions. The immediate complement of ‘claim’ is ‘answer.’ Human existence says itself. That means that it is present always as someone. To be someone is to be a state of giving heed in the presence of beings. Even when I refuse a claim and turn away from it, I am attending to it, and I am in conformity with it in the sense that I respond with it, hear it, and answer.
[…]
The vulnerability of human existence is frequently remarked, and man’s fear of his own state of being is frequently discussed. We are remarkably undefended in the immediacy of our being. We are constituted by givennesses which have at once the character of gift and threat because immediacy is neither deserved nor avoidable. When we answer by backing away from our own state of givenness, from what is given, and from the inevitability of answering, we literally refuse our own being, a refusal that immediately countenances what we refuse. This deep contradiction is lived as injury and misery, self-encroachment in the most profound sense, because in this case we are open in the disclosure of what is present by denying both our responsiveness and the meaningful presences.

– Charles E. Scott, ‘Heidegger, Madness and Well-Being’

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The sudden flash

And yet – in all the disguising belonging to enframing, the bright open-space of world lights up, the truth of being flashes. At the instant, that is, when enframing lights up, in its coming to presence, as the danger, i.e., as the saving power. In enframing, moreover, as a destining of the coming to presence of being, there comes to presence a light from the flashing of being. Enframing is, though veiled, still glance, and no blind destiny in the sense of a completely ordained fate.
   Insight into that which is – thus do we name the sudden flash of the truth of being into truthless being.
   When insight comes disclosingly to pass, then men are the ones who are struck in their essence by the flashing of being. In insight, men are the ones who are caught sight of.

– Heidegger, ‘The Turning’ (tr. Lovitt)

The sudden

The handy representation of history as the temporal actualization of the supratemporal makes more difficult any effort to bring into view what is unique, the unique concealed in the enigmatic constancy which at times erupts and is assembled into the suddenness of what is genuinely Geschick-like. The sudden is the abrupt that only apparently contradicts that which is constant, which means, that which endures. What is endured is what lasts. But what already lasts and until now was concealed is first vouchsafed and becomes visible in what is abrupt. We must calmly confess that we never reach the vicinity of the historicity that is to be thought with a view to the Geschick of being so long as we remain ensnared in the web of representations which, all in all, blindly take refuge in the distinction between the absolute and the relative without ever going on to sufficiently determine that solely upon which this distinction can be determined, limited.

– Heidegger, The Principle of Reason (tr. Lilly)

Machinations

Heidegger: ‘The unfittingness of mere beings, of nonbeings as a whole, and the rarity of being, for which reason the gods are sought within beings. If someone seeks and does not find and therefore is compelled into forced machinations, then no freedom for the restrained waiting of an encounter and an intimation…’

Machinations… We see ourselves in animals, nature, other people, in God, cunningly remake them in our own images for our own ends. We diminish and master them, reduce them to almost nothing. Isn’t the path then cleared to replace the whole world with a mirror of ourselves, to a total communication network and a total, false immediacy? We’re forced into machinations that empty our lives of meaning. Many we enable because they feel good. This isn’t only an age of exploitation, but also of fun; the two have become linked. ‘Have fun!’ we shout to each other, ‘enjoy!’ When you’re not busy earning money – exploiting or being exploited – you’re supposed to have fun, do something exciting, be exciting: above all fill your time to the brink with activity. What they used to call idolatry is now almost life in its entirety. We reflect ourselves in the things we buy, eat and wear, our homes, jobs, interests, politics, friends, children and lovers. We stress over critical targets that mean little to anyone outside our workplaces. We claim more and more fraught identities, manage our social media profiles on platforms that manipulate us, and create personal brands (something that’s now being taught in British schools). We try to define ourselves using the tools that dispersed us in the first place.

No freedom for the restrained waiting… For meaningful idleness, a gathering up of your time on earth: what they used to call prayer. Everything seems to conspire against it. Yet everyone knows the unease that comes over you when you’ve spent long enough doing nothing meaningful, at work or in your ‘spare time’. What do we do to hold it at bay? Work harder, have more fun; devise clever therapies and health and fitness fads to administrate it out of our minds and bodies.

Of an encounter or intimation… An intimation of something more, something wholly Other that can take us out of our everyday machinations and show them for what they are. A hint of God in the moment, passing through the innermost heart of time.

Denmark

My mother calls to talk about my father. He’s been having trouble walking for years and is now bedridden and losing weight. The doctors say the nerves in his legs are damaged from blood clots: a rare condition. She asks us to visit. I cup the phone with my hand, call S. over and ask her if she wants to go to Denmark. She says yes. After I hang up, we buy train and flight tickets for next week. I’ve been feeling a nostalgic urge to see my old places in Denmark for a few weeks anyway; it occurs to me now that it must be to do with all this talk about returning and repetition.

*

The week passes with work, housework (we clean the pantry and take the fruit and veg sign off the road), gardening, cooking, doing the dishes, making love, watching films and lazing about with Rookie. I’m comfortable, too comfortable maybe, but it’s a good change. I sense the power of the moment and the eternal God in the backdrop of our everyday life.

*

Arriving at the airport in Copenhagen, it always strikes me how much cleaner and well-made everything is. (Danes tend to be flatly practical, Brits to abstract from the practical. Is there a middle ground?) We buy trays of sushi on the way to my parents. My father eats with shaking hands.

In the morning we fix their bikes, which they’re too old to use now. S. cycles to the library to work while I cycle to the central station and take the coastal train up to my old hometown. I’ve wanted to retrace the little groove of my life that I left there. I told S. it would bore her and that we can do something fun for her the other days, find some museums.

Everything’s more or less the same, except that the vegetation has grown and as a result the place seems to have matured, come into its own, as a proper neighbourhood. It’s lovely. When I lived here as a child it was a rather sterile, newly built suburb. Later, when we came back after our years in Canada, I spent so much empty time here waiting to grow up, imagining my future self looking back on me with mixed feelings.

I thought returning might be a fantasy, but I feel the past now gathering up in me. It’s the same, this place, and so am I: essentially the same as I was then. I go into the library where I used to sit and read, then cycle down the old paths. The hills seem smaller, as I thought they might. I cycle through the old beech forest where we used to play as kids, and down to the harbour where I eat a crab sandwich, which tastes just like it used to. This kind of thing used to give me what Burroughs, when he was stuck in villages during his travels in South America, called the ‘fear of stasis’, of being ‘just where I am and nowhere else’, under the ‘dead weight of time’. Today it’s deeply satisfying.

It’s common to sniff at nostalgia. We’re taught – indoctrinated – to look forward, be proactive and innovative, shape our own futures, never stand still. But don’t nostalgia and the fear of stasis have their places as feelings to be undergone, as ways into the Open?

Heidegger says our origin always comes to meet us from the future. Strange saying. What does it mean? Perhaps that time, rather than moving in a straight line from past to future, or from here to the afterlife, describes a kind of circle that always completes itself in the moment and whispers to us of our silent origin.

The next day we go to Lejre, near Roskilde, where there’s a Viking museum. I’ve never been and know next to nothing about it. We take the bikes on the train and cycle through the countryside to the museum, stopping to pick apples from trees along the way. It’s the landscape that impresses most, with its glacier-formed hills and valleys, prehistoric passage graves and the stone remains of Viking longhouses and gravesites in the shape of large ships, designed to carry the dead to Hel. It doesn’t look very Danish but it turns out this is in a sense the mythical and historical centre of Denmark, the seat of the legendary Skjöldung dynasty mentioned in Beowulf, as well as real medieval kings and bishops who presided over busy settlements on the fertile land. I’ve never felt the presence of ancient history as strongly, even when seeing the bog bodies in the Aarhus and Copenhagen museums (carefully preserved and displayed in shiny cases): there’s something about it being left alone in the open, still-farmed landscape that’s surprisingly moving. The star exhibit of the museum itself is a tiny statuette of Odin – or perhaps a Viking goddess – seated on a throne flanked by raven messengers. As we set off on our bikes to go back to the station we pass an unusual number of rooks, jackdaws and hooded crows in the fields. It’s still sunny, they can’t be starting to roost. It occurs to me they may well be the descendants of birds that scavenged Iron Age and Viking fields and middens (møddinger in Danish). Is it possible that they have some ancient attachment to the place?

Through the woods

I’ve found the patch in the woods where the muntjacs live; I guess they don’t move around much. I can usually find them if I’m careful, but I try to stem my desire to stalk them so they won’t get spooked and go away. I love to know they’re there, living their secret lives, and I think of them often. Their eyes when they see you are the opposite of a spaniel’s pleading eyes in a pub. There’s no bridge between us. Perhaps there never was. Find your own silence, they seem to say.

*

What is it a sentence can do, even a banal one, when it’s brought back from contemplation and coupled to the world through the act of writing it? The reflexivity of writing isn’t a dead end as I once thought. Nor is it a game. It can be an event that moves you on, or back to where things silently happen with you. It can be a practical act in its own way – an act of faith that brings the chaotic, detached everyday self into a clearer awareness: not of a spiritual world lifted out of the material but of the two interwoven in every moment.

*

The trees are letting their seeds fly in the wind. White catkin fluff catches to things like sheep’s wool on brambles. I picked some from my beard this morning. The scatter-approach to pollination: something’s bound to take in the earth and grow lasting and solid, as if it was always there.

*

When I can’t write, when the building noise distracts me, or when I have nothing to say, I don’t recognize myself. I’m not at home. Writing is a house of being under construction. Sometimes you feel you’re living in rubble. But then the right sentence comes, the edifice rises up around you and the edifice is what was there all along. At the same time the sentence you’ve written stands as a witness to what it’s revealed, even made richer than it was, at least for you. When this happens the world lies open. You can get up from your desk and live in your home, kiss S., make plans with her.

I say these things again and again because every day they escape my grasp, or rather I escape theirs.

*

When you think, you’re both thinking and describing your thoughts. Isn’t the act of writing – the blackening of the screen – just a way of shaping thought? And when you think, aren’t you already in writing, committed to building a house of being around you whether you like it or not? You move from thought to act and back again, trying to find your way through the words of others. What happens when you write a thought down? Often the subject eludes you. The words disperse. But doesn’t something happen nevertheless? No matter how unsure you are of what you’re saying, no matter how badly you fail to grasp it, doesn’t something take place in the saying itself?

*

When we go through the woods, says Heidegger, we’re always already going through the word ‘woods’. Both the woods and the word were there before us. But it’s the going through them that brings them together. In a sense the saying of the word summons the thing. The word summons but doesn’t create. We don’t give being, but call and respond to it, help unveil it, enter it. And as we do, being at the same time withdraws from us.

*

What is it that sometimes happens to you in the moment when word and thing come together? What light comes slanting in on your words? What glints on the other side of being? Celan once wrote that he saw God in a ray of light under his hotel door. Is it something like that – a ray of light under the door of a dark rented room?

Silence

S. and I move about the cottage each feeling the other’s presence. We speak, or don’t: speech or silence, it’s all the same. When she goes out to the garden I can sense her absence even if I haven’t heard her leave. She tells me about a study which showed that when couples live together they begin to mirror each other physiologically. Their heart rates, breathing and brainwaves synchronize when they’re in each other’s presence, as when our footsteps fall in with those of the person we’re walking with.

*

Noise weighs on me now the way silence used to, even out here. The right words only come in stillness. When the pigeons aren’t cooing, the cat isn’t scratching something, customers aren’t knocking on the door for eggs, delivery vans aren’t rolling by to T.’s farm, S. isn’t clattering in the kitchen… then something takes hold that’s mine yet not mine. Words born of silence, returning to a kind of silent saying: strange route to what’s already here.