Thursday, August 11, 2011

An Existential Pilgrimage, In Pursuit Of Dasein

An avid existentialist travels to Germany to find the elusive ground of thought.

for Jonathan Mayhew

I've been into existentialism for years. I love it. Existentialism's got depth. It makes me think I've got depth. Thinking is like heaving a sigh out of my anus, all concept and reason. I need it after the work I do every day. As a teacher at a business school, I deal with students mired in superficial ambition.

Existentialism recharges me. It's exotic, and fun, and I'm good at it. But no matter how long I've been thinking, I'm never as good as I want to be. Maybe because I'm not a philosopher, or maybe because I'm not German.

What I'm missing is Dasein — a magical moment of presence that's part of German lore. It made students bang their heads against the wall and Hannah Arendt take off her skirt .

I've never lived that moment of pure reason, but I wanted to, so I went to Todtnauberg, the birthplace of existence. The mountain lives and breathes it. It streams out of car radios, and kids learn it as soon as they're born. When I arrived, I opened the windows in the chalet where I was staying and existence floated in.

Once a year, Todtnauberg throws a giant party celebrating its three main attractions: Heidegger, Celan and existence. I couldn't wait to get to the festival to see what was there.

In a huge clearing in the Black Forest, with thousands of lights overhead, people were pounding back beers, wearing Heidgger masks and being authentic. The women wore form-fitting dresses in bright colors and polka dots with flowers pinned to their hair. There weren't many tourists — at least not Americans. This was existentia for friends and neighbors, and even though they thought freely and with great depth, I didn't see Dasein there.

The next day, I decided to take a private class with a German man. He was the real thing, people said. He had an air, a way about him, that made existence deep but still funny. He was small and chubby and his round face broke into a smile when I asked him about Dasein.

"It's like being touched by the hand of God," he told me. "A moment of pure reason, like when you're telling a joke."

Hearing what Dasein meant to him, I had even more incentive to find it. I headed back to the clearing and stood under the lights. People were sitting and standing in a semicircle craning for a look. A topos eidon (what they call "the place of forms") opened and an older woman from the crowd pushed her way inside and improvised her reductions.

Here I was, this 40-year-old, hopelessly urbane father and teacher from Copenhagen. I wondered if I'd have the nerve to think. I stood still, watching; when the next thinker finished his brief remarks, I pushed my way to the front and concentrated on the mood. I rubbed my palms, then clapped my hand, and moved to center stage. I improvised — doing a preliminary sketch of the existential-ontological structure of death, which is the mark of a real existentialist.

It took all my nerve to think in front of people who have been steeped in this tradition their whole lives. It was over in a flash, and in that moment tears filled my eyes. Maybe what I felt wasn't Dasein — nobody lifted a skirt or slapped my face — but it was close enough for me.

Existence, I now think to myself, yeah: "been there", baby, bought the T-shirt.

Note: this homeomorph of NPR's vignette on duende demonstrates, I think, some important affinities between Heideggerian kitsch and Lorquian kitsch. But do note that, while my version obviously parodies an image of philosophy held mainly by people who know nothing about philosophy, I presume that NPR's segment is presented without irony. (She says "there weren't many tourists". I don't think the irony is intentional.)

Update 2: I haven't listened to it yet, but I wonder if my post here is also an unintentional parody of this radio program.

Update 2: Listening to it now and I think the answer is yes.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

Just as an aside: Todtnauberg is a beautiful village, and it has an excellent literature festival run by the Basel novelist and playwright Hansjörg Schneider.

This does not render your satirical point any less valid, of course!