Saturday, August 28, 2010

'It will be said that these are overly complicated remarks': a few notes on reading Heidegger's Being and Time (although not so much on Being and Time itself)

1. I've always disliked Beckett. Then someone told me that to understand Beckett, you have to read Being and Time. So I read Being and Time. Then I read some more Beckett. I still dislike Beckett. But I'm glad I read Being and Time. (There is no primary evidence, by the way, that Beckett himself had any interest in Heidegger.)

2. I read it in six days, at a rate of 12 or 13 pages an hour. I don't think there's really any other way to read it but continuously: your eyes have to adjust to the light down there. By the end of the first day, I had a sense of pleasant mental exhaustion. By the end of the sixth day, I felt as if I'd been interrogated by secret police. It's a truism, but this book is extraordinarily hard. I didn't understand much of the second half. If I hadn't done a degree in analytic philosophy, I don't think I would have understood much of the first half.

3. Back at university, I was only really familiar with Heidegger as a whipping boy for logical positivism (which is, simply put, the notion that unless a statement can be verified somehow, it has no meaning, a position developed by AJ Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic when he was only 24). Carnap famously quoted Heidegger's declaration 'The nothing itself nothings' as an example of why philosophy needed a positivist emetic, and I was looking forward to getting to that bit, but then I found out it's not from Being and Time.

4. Logical positivism as a stark rule has long since been discarded, but logical positivism as a general demeanour still hangs around places like Cambridge. That's a good thing, but it does mean it can be difficult, after an analytic training, to take continental philosophy at all seriously. In fact, the only continental philosophers I can tolerate are guys like Baudrillard and Zizek who don't take themselves at all seriously. This is a shame, because I'd like to read the others – I sometimes feel as if I've been inoculated against a disease I wouldn't mind contracting. Heidegger was mostly OK in this respect, although he is pretty cloudy a lot of the time.

5. The biggest obstacle, of course, is Heidegger's language. For one thing, he's so blithe about redefining words: 'guilt', 'ecstasy' and 'freedom', for instance, mean things here that have almost nothing to do with their familiar usage, and I don't think it's the translator's fault. Then there are all the untranslatable Germanic compound words. Guess what 'the ownmost nonrelational potentiality-of-being-not-to-be-bypassed' is a synonym for. Anyone? No? It means 'death'. And he uses it a lot.

6. In fact, sometimes this book was so hair-greyingly laborious that the only way to stay sane was to look for accidental pop culture references. 'Not only is the call meant for him who is summoned “without regard to his person,” the caller, too, remains in striking indefiniteness. It not only fails to answer question about name, status, origin, and repute, but also leaves not the slightest possibility of making the call familiar...' The calls are coming from inside the house!

7. Also: 'What we are alarmed about is initially something known and familiar. But when what threatens has the character of something completely unfamiliar, fear becomes horror. And when something threatening is encountered in the aspect of the horrible, and at the same time is encountered as something alarming, suddenness, fear becomes terror.' The hermeneutics of HP Lovecraft?

8. Finally, Heidegger's constant use of A. inverted commas B. rhetorical questions and C. the word 'relevance' reminded me quite often of Hipster Runoff. 'What is proved in this demonstration? What is the meaning of confirming this statement? Do we perhaps ascertain an agreement between “knowledge or “what is known” with the thing on the wall?... To what is the speaker related when he judges without perceiving the picture, but “only representing” it? Possibly to “representations”?'

9. On the other hand, there are lots of moments of clunky accidental poetry. 'Beings nearest at hand can be met up with in taking care of things as unusable, as improperly adapted for their specific use. Tools turn out to be damaged, their material unusable.' Later on: 'When we do not find something in its place, the region of that place often becomes explicitly accessible as such for the first time. Space... belongs to beings themselves as their place. Bare space is still veiled.'

10. And I loved this little excuse for why it's all such hard going. 'We can see the stunning character of the formulations with which their philosophers challenged the Greeks. Since our powers are essentially inferior, and also since the area of being to be disclosed ontologically is far more difficult than that presented to the Greeks, the complexity of our concept-formation and the severity of our expression will increase.'

11. Every so often, Heidegger will make a totally unexpected swoop from pure metaphysics down to some social or political point that seems to be fairly specifically about his own time and place. For instance, in chapter four, one minute he's explaining the abstract concept of 'entanglement' and the next minute there's this: 'In utilising public transportation, in the use of information services such as the newspaper, every other is like the next... In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the “they” unfolds its true dictatorship. We enjoy ourselves and have fun the way they enjoy themselves. We read, see, and judge literature and art the way they see and judge. But we also withdraw from the “great mass” the way they withdraw, we find “shocking” what they find shocking... This averageness, which prescribes what can and may be ventured, watches over every exception which thrusts itself to the fore. Every priority is noiselessly squashed. Overnight, everything primordial is flattened down as something long since known. Everything gained by a struggle becomes something to be manipulated. Every mystery loses its power.' Some of that, you think, could have come straight out of Adorno. Some of it could have come straight out of Nietzsche. And then with a shudder you remember Heidegger's Nazi years and you start thinking of other sources entirely.

12. Being and Time was supposed to be twice as long, but (to widespread relief, presumably) Heidegger never wrote the second half. Which makes it perhaps the only masterwork in the history of philosophy that ends on a genuine cliffhanger.

13. So what did I think about Heidegger's actual metaphysical argument? About the great double act, Being and Time? About his relationship with literary modernism? No bloody idea. I think I'd have to read a lot of secondary material before I'd even attempt to formulate an original observation. But just as the methods of philosophers like Ayers and Quine and Rawls have stayed with me for years in a way that I never would have expected when I was trudging through them at university, I'm hoping that Heidegger will have made at least some so-far-unconfirmed permanent impression. So Being and Time is totally worth a read, if you're willing to give up a full week of your life and quite a lot of ripe, healthy brain matter.

Update: 14. The day after publishing this post, I picked up, for no particular reason, my copy of Barthelme's Sixty Stories, opened it at random, and straight away found this: 'Heidegger suggests that "Nothing nothings" - a calm, sensible idea with which Sartre, among others, disagrees. (What Heidegger thinks about nothing is not nothing.) Heidegger points us toward dread. Having borrowed a cup of dread from Kierkegaard, he spills it, and in the spreading stain he finds (like a tea-leaf reader) Nothing. Original dread, for Heidegger, is what intolerabilises all of what-is, offering us a momentary glimpse of what is not, finally a way of bumping into Being. But Heidegger is far too grand for us; he applaud his daring but are ourselves performing a homelier task, making a list.'

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