Highfalutin’ – November 2010
by Gabriel J. Kruis
This month I wanted to write about an idea that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger discusses in his book Being and Time. I’ll enter this heavy topic with a caveat: I know nothing about the man, have never read anything by him, and harbor a mite of disdain for the rigors he went through in writing that book, which, in its complexity and length, deters most people from ever cracking its covers.
I suppose, ultimately I won’t even be talking about Heidegger directly, but instead I’ll have written about what I’ve been told by my roommate Tyler on his admittedly confused understandings of Heidegger.
Most of us have heard the phrase, “I think, therefore I am,” which is a little gem by the French thinker Descartes, that basically reduced all certainty down to this idea: that he existed because he was aware of himself.
Everything else was suspect.
As out there as that statement might seem, a lot of people dug it, and it soon became the foundation of modern philosophy.
Until Mr. Heidegger came around and didn’t like where Descartes ended up. “Instead,” he argued, “We are not just thinkers, but we are a part of the physical world. We are beings. And being beings we are subject to time. Time and being are inextricable.
“Time is finite.
We are finite.
We are going to die.”
To which you might say, “I’d rather not talk about that.” But what Heidegger did with this idea of us as deathward beings in the world was pretty interesting.
Essentially, according to Tyler, our lives are very much contingent on the things around us. Your future is determined by the physical things around you. What you can make your tools. What you can eat to sustain you. Without one of these things your future could change drastically.
Break your coffee pot: your future heads for sleepy mornings, reprimands by boss, pay cut, and ultimately job loss. Lose your cell-phone: lop off the future in which you make that business deal. Lose your computer: annihilate 3 years of pure memory – love letters written, poems composed, short stories begun, pictures of home: friends, family, mesas and fields of sage – erased.
So, try as we might to distinguish ourselves from the things of this world, in truth, we are not distinct from it; we are inextricably of the same fabric (warp and woof). We are not only thinkers – minds or spirits – we are physical beings with lives in the physical world. In Heidegger’s view, when we act as if this is not true, we move away from an “authentic” mode of being. But if we say, “I am a being and beings die. They are erased from this world,” then we are afforded a perspective on this life, which does not allow us to take things for granted; or, with death in mind, we do our best to sustain ourselves in order to continue living well.
In other words: If we live with death in mind, we will truly live.
Heidegger uses a lot of philosophical mumbo-jumbo to describe this. He calls people “Dasein,” which means “being-there” in German, and he describes the sustained acknowledgment of ourselves as physical death-bound beings as, “authentic living.” But for our purposes I want to use the words from a Rock & Roll song I once heard: “I am very here.” Which is to say, I am acutely aware of my presence here. In this physical world. Not just now, but I am at all times. The Buddhist may call this type of awareness “mindfulness.”
Walking over the Williamsburg Bridge the other night, I had a revelation about what it means to be very here in New York. I realized that I am not distinct from this city, but I am a part of it. I know it like I know my body. Coming home from Manhattan, I had to consider how to get back, and I realized I knew perhaps a dozen ways.
My thinking, Cartesian mind (Cartesian=Descartes’ adjective) is sewn into the physical world. It’s made of maps and memories about this place. To get home, I could’ve walked across different bridges, down different streets, or taken subways or buses. More than just getting home, I also know the bike lanes that get me to museums, Chinatown, Harlem, the library, the Manhattan Bridge, beaches, Jersey, and on and on.
And I know how to get to the airport to get back home.
This city and I are a part of each other. I am here, knit into these streets for who knows how long. While I’m here: I am very here.