Tuesday, May 27, 2003

The absence of imagination had itself to be imagined

In Being and Time Martin Heidegger attempted to describe the basic facts of human existence, the structures that characterize all conscious experience. In important ways, the book is more than brilliant; it is simply right; and its insights surface in surprising places, for example, theoretical computer science. Philosophically trained people regard those unfamiliar with Kant, the “precritically na├»ve,” with amused condescension as if they were children who don’t know how babies are made. It’s not that philosophers are all Kantians—far from it—but they have first-hand knowledge of how an encounter with the Critique of Pure Reason forever changes how you think. Some of Heidegger’s ideas are enlightening in the same sense. One can correctly say of Being and Time what Goethe said about the Critique, “It’s like walking into a brightly lit room.” The good lighting in question, however, does not refer to the clarity of the writing.

Heidegger has come in for sustained criticism over the last couple of decades because of his dubious political connections, but I have been more concerned about what his style betokens. In fact, Heidegger’s way of staging his ideas bears on his relationship with the Nazis. The pedantic pomp of the syntax and the majestic obscurity of the terminology don’t make Being and Time into a conceptual Nuremberg rally, but there is an element of stage management about Heidegger’s presentation that furthers an agenda not obviously related to the underlying argument. Partly the monumentality and pretentiousness of the text reflects nothing more alarming than the status anxiety or mere vanity of a Heidelberg philosophy professor, but the implication remains that the philosopher is a Mage or Hero who can conjure a special truth by dint of a mysterious act of will. The language is an aesthetic, which is to say cosmetic, solution to the problem of how to maintain or establish privilege and sacrality in an utterly profane and disenchanted world. Taken literally, Being and Time presents a vision as stark in its own way as the atoms and void of Lucretius, but the Heideggerian censer puts out enough aromatic smoke to obscure the industrial landscape. The theological tone worked: whatever effective support Heidegger lent to the Reich, he certainly managed to give aid, comfort, and thesis topics to a great many nuns.

Calling something primal, ontological, archaic, or even Ur doesn’t automatically change anything. One is, we presume, the Ur Integer; but it isn’t any oner for all that. Which suggests a project for the industrious. What would the Heideggerian philosophy look like transposed into a more neutral key? I’m certainly not industrious, but I can offer a very small sample of what it might be like to rethink the Heidegger without the heavy breathing—technically speaking, without the ontological difference.

Heidegger calls the universal characteristics of existence existentials. They are what every one of us shares despite and because of our utter uniqueness. He calls one of them “thrownness,” the fact or circumstance that we always find ourselves in the middle of things. The world and its affairs are always already underway when we take an eternally belated notice of them. The Divine Comedy begins “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” Imagine that this line described not a particular moment in a particular life but every particular moment of every life. Alternately the pris de conscience can be exemplified by the moment at the party when you sober up enough to notice the cigarette butt floating in the half empty cup of lukewarm Everclear and Welch’s grape juice.

I assert a quotidian, earthly, mundane, reductive, statistical, nonphenomenological, thoroughly ontic counterpart to this insight. The fundamental thing to realize when and whenever we begin to realize anything is that the jig is up. Everyone’s existence is the most recent consequence of an unbroken string of happy chances. A gipsy wizard might feel special because he’s the seventh son of a seventh son, but our complacency is founded on winning millions of genetic lotteries back to back. That we are here is the sheerest miracle, but nothing about the situation guarantees that the miracles will keep on coming. To the contrary. We are as subject as anybody else to the prevailing rotten odds. It follows that the fundamental realization, if not exactly a Viconian thunder word, is “Gulp!”

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