69. The abysmal (II)
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
The best way to understand Heidegger is to go and stand on a cliff ledge and look down at the creamy swirl and rocks that could shred your liver if you fell on them. In moments like these, we feel a kind of vertigo and this vertigo is also accompanied by a supreme sense of openness. The same thing happened to me after a car crash. My girlfriend ran her car into a concrete spar, doing about sixty mph, and the spar punctured the rear passenger door behind me. Another few feet and it would have intruded, a man-made iceberg, into the side of my body. The car stopped across the inside lane of the road and in the distance, as I pulled the door handle, quite useless after the crash, the mechanism having buckled, I could see the lights of cars coming towards the darkened wreck that we were in. They would not expect it and there seemed little chance that they would slow down. After I pulled myself out a rear window and stood on the bank of the road, I experienced Heidegger’s vertigo. I felt sudden giddy freedom.
This may well have something to do with biology, but the sensation of freedom, of everything being open and falling beneath you, has its own particularity. To live towards this sensation, towards the finitude of existence, towards the end of your self-consciousness of being, towards death, this is what Heidegger means by an authentic life. The other way to live is as they: the life that obscures the finitude of life, of our final end. Richard Nixon, speaking for an oral history project, exemplified the they life when he told his interviewer: “I live everyday to the full. I wake up and think that this day could be my last.” This clichéd way of speaking obscures the feeling of vertigo that goes along with authenticity. When we speak in these clichéd ways about the finitude of existence, we are hiding from the vertigo: we are hiding from our freedom and authenticity. We use these clichés to hide from the awesome: “He passed on.”; “I can’t complain.”; “Chugging along, chugging along.”; “Not bad; you?”. These verbal tricks are the false currency that we pass between each other to obscure the terrible finitude of our existence.
A man who really lived each day as if it were his last and meant it would be a very different man to Richard Nixon: the politician almost exclusively inhabits the they world; the world that is not orientated towards death and authenticity. The world that makes everything solid and fixed and unfree through the thick gravy of cliché: the they, the imaginary man who passed on never dies; but you, yes you, the person reading this, will, on a cliff or a roadside or in a hospital bed, come to an end. We never meet the man who passed on; we never experience our own death.
When I return to my room and find that it has been tidied up, I realise that there was a relation between the books and notepads and socks and pens and the fluff that gave my room a sense of my roominess. The final node in this interrelation was me; the present consciousness. When the interrelation is disturbed, by tidying away, I again see a small element of the authentic. Actually, whole nations and continents are like this: we live in a web of interrelations, mediated by language, and even the dead are present by their absence—just as my missing sock is very much there when an unseen hand has tidied it away. As it happens, our technological world, mediated by numbers and spreadsheets, is like a hidden hand that tidies away our bedrooms and sorts our books into colour-coded lines. We return to our rooms—our countries—to find that everything has been tidied away according to rational plan, quite efficient and neat. Number work, the myness of our world has petrified.