The Secular Resurrection of Time and Human Presence.
In revisiting the events that surrounded my father’s death I modulated an understanding of death and human presence in secular terms. I did not pass through the formal stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance and peace. I approached, as William Pinar formulated, the “ethics of healing” in historicist terms, attempting to “explore the complex relation between the temporal and conceptual” with the goal of disclosing “their relation to the Self and its evolution and education”. In all of this I came to reject a linear notion of time in favor of a view of time that was “dimensional” and “elliptical” in nature.
The importance of reflecting on time (temporality) as related to the human condition became an essential task with the passing of my father; the interruption of death shattered the continuity of my existence. Blanchot refers to such events as “disasters,” extraordinary moments that rattle our ontological foundations, moments in which we are forced to confront and deliberate the essential characteristics that define us as sentient, ephemeral creatures: finitude, fragility, and mortality – in short, to ask original questions concerned with self-identity such as: “How am I in the world with others?” “How am I with Time?” “How are we with Time, or beyond, as temporality?”
Blanchot wonders, “How can we write about the disaster when by its very nature it defies speech or compels silence – when moreover, it consumes thought and rips books apart?” In striving to inscribe the disaster, I was endeavoring to mediate, repair, and rejoin, to the best of my aesthetic aptitude, those aspects of life that personal catastrophe had torn asunder. Creative responses come in a variety of forms, for example, the poetic act of bringing a work of art into existence or the philosophical process of deep, reflexive thinking both represent creative attempts to understand the “disaster,” both represent examples of creative problem-solving.
The disaster is of a compound makeup: On the one hand, it is always relative to the particular individual. On the other hand, there exists a universal aspect to the phenomenon, namely, its ability to disrupt lives by pushing our humanity to the limits of an absolute breakdown. However, as Blanchot is careful to point out, this is not to indicate that the “disaster” is fatal to those who experience it. Despite living on the heights of despair, those who undergo the “disaster” remain alive; while loved ones may die we are left to struggle through and navigate the void created by their terrestrial demise, and although I attempt to suggest a sense of enduring “human presence” this void is never effectively filled.
After the initial pause, which follows in the wake of the “disaster,” engulfed by its “rumbling silence,” questions concerning human identity and future potentialities are invoked. When the need to create arose in me, I attempted to work out some sort of a solution to the aporia, or “waylessness” that I was experiencing. For Blanchot, this occurs through the process of authorship.
Although the process of inscribing the disaster through essay might appear cathartic, it is not a surefire remedy for cure, or panacea, purging us of our existential affliction. Writing allows for the clarification of the emotions and it perhaps teaches us to hold ourselves, as “embodied” existents, within a mode of comportment that necessitates the continued experience and clarification of the emotions. With this understanding, it is impossible to cleanly suture the wound(s) inflicted by these devastating events, and in effect leave no trace of emotional scarring. We cannot, as it is common to say these days, bring a sense of closure to the drama, and mark a return to normalcy. The wound always remains open to some degree, and when resolute to this fact we project ourselves into the future with grievance, anguish, and agony in tow. The disaster attunes us in such a way that we understand and inhabit the world in a different way. Because of the disaster, things have undoubtedly changed.
And so it is too with the phenomenon of death, when those we love depart the world and leave us behind to continue on without their lingering, palpable presence. But, is it really the case that what is gone, or past, is by definition, irretrievable? Is it possible to imagine a radical conception of time and life in which the relationship to the Other calls for a radical reassessment of human existence as defined by science, theology, or traditional philosophy? Addressing this concern, Bergson and Heidegger provide revolutionary re-readings of time, which necessitate the reassessment of what it means to be human, and beyond, what it means to “be” at all. Their critical contributions to the history of ideas inspired my reflections, influencing my attempt to live and inscribe the “disaster,” as I pursued the notion of existential reclamation of the deceased through the redemption of suffering and loss. Death is the loss of someone never to be seen again. It is the sudden absence of a unique and familiar person.
Death is the ultimate moment when all of our would-be possibilities, dreams, and hopes are abruptly and permanently closed off. Death changes the world. This fact is beyond dispute. Yet, the dead are with us, and in fact, many times seem more alive to us than the living; this too, I would like to suggest, is beyond dispute. Those with whom we move through “time” and “history,” remain with us despite their physical extinction. This is because of the solicitous relationships we share with loved ones and friends, this is because of the way that we are with Time and as temporality.
Many believe that the legitimate overarching meaning of one’s existence is possible by way of reflective analysis. Privileging our vantage point in the present moment, we cast our glance back over the expanse of the past, in order to take a toll, in order to arrive at an objective assessment of one’s deeds and accomplishments. This is precisely what I initially tried to capture in the eulogy written for my father’s memorial service. The eulogy, eulogia, literally “good words” in the Greek, for eulegein, to “speak well” of someone, is usually conceived as a traditional way to praise a person who has recently passed away. However, the eulogy I had written for my father was discarded, it was never delivered, as I felt it served as an inappropriate and inauthentic encomium to his life. However, such historical reflection on one’s life in order to assess one’s life, which amounts to a vile form of historiography, dealing as it does exclusively with the “mummified ruins” of past experience, in Nietzsche’s terms, never accurately grasps and in fact defiles the authentic meaning of one’s existence, if by this we mean how a person lived in relation to mortality, how she chose in the light of finitude to live with the most extreme possibility of existence, namely, nonexistence. The flawed idea of life as a coherent, understandable totality begins from an erroneous conception of time, which finds its corollary within the following inaccurate presuppositions: Time is linear and quantitative, death is a singular, extreme point on the “line of time,” human nature is knowable in its universal objectivity, and that which is not sustained in the “presence” of our mind’s eye as “substance,” true being, or whatever, is therefore not authentic being, judged as either spurious, deceptive sensate phenomena or non-being, plain and simple.
Time is not linear. The duration, or length, of time cannot be measured scientifically by way of mathematical symbols, for time has no length. While intellectual-based modes of knowledge accurately measure the medium of space, they are powerless to calculate, gauge, and represent the non-spatial medium of time, with its dynamic flow and flux. The future does not rush toward us as we stand in the present moment, only to disappear forever into the irretrievable void of the past. Neither the wall-clock nor wristwatch properly represents time. According to Heidegger, by treating time as a quantitative phenomenon, measurable in length, in its extension, we “lose” our time, our human temporality. The clock attempts to show us “what” time is, but misses the more substantial ontological matter of “how Time is,” which is to say, the way in which we enact time when living as temporal, existential beings. “What primarily the clock does in each case,” writes Heidegger, “is not to indicate the how-much of time in its present flowing, but to determine the specific fixing of the now”.
To exist authentically, is to envisage a life in praxis, life as a process of taking over our existence through a process of decision-making, in the act of legitimizing our thrown-past in the service of making (and remaking) our future being. We are Time as “care,” which is the ontological structure, or foundation, of the human’s being. In essence, the “care” structure embodies the three moments of “ecstatic temporality”: (1) we are always out ahead-of-ourselves in the projection of a future, (2) we are always alongside others in the world, and (3) we are always already in the world as a thrown being, as someone with a past, a history and heritage. When considering such a model of Temporality, of which “clock time” is merely derivative, it is crucial to acknowledge that the past, which comprises our heritage and history, is sewn into the very fabric of our being. To repeat, the past is continually at work influencing and shaping the moment of en-presenting through its ever attendant presence. The past serves as the source of our life and future, for in the instant of willful choice we redefine the present by making decisions regarding possibilities that arise as a result of the past, which is at once the historical ground of our existence.
It is inevitable that we leave the world alone, for no one can take another’s dying from her. However, it is not the case that we enter the world in the selfsame manner. This is because we are thrust into existence as factically determined beings, as members of a family, as the populace of a community. As people with a history and heritage, we are called to appropriate the past into our existence, and through our choices, the history we are born with becomes our authentic history, or “historicality,” as it merges with our life. That which is given by our forebears as heritage is a gift that continually influences the manner in which we enact our destiny, until we too must take death upon ourselves, and in turn, pass along our history. With such a notion of Time and life, we might imagine a way in which the presence of the deceased continues to exercise an enduring effect on our lives.
The authentic remembrance of the deceased is never a mere recollection. Mere recollection [Erinnern], as Heidegger reminds us in his reading of Hölderlin, “encounters something irrevocable, which allows no further questioning. Such remembrance ‘remembrance’ would then preserve the past without questioning it”. However, remembrance as Andenken, which is the title of Hölderlin’s poem, calls us to the task of thinking and questioning in an original sense, it calls us to question, in light of the past, what is still on the approach from out of the indeterminable future. Authentic remembrance, according to Heidegger’s analysis is a “thinking of” [Denken an]:
This ‘thinking of’ what is yet to come can only be ‘thinking of’ what has been, which in distinction to what is simply past, we understand as what is still coming into presence from afar.
Thus, authentic remembrance, as I am conceiving it, is the recovery, the “repetition” of a living experience as represented in the calling forth of their being into a living presence that powerfully strikes from beyond the grave, beyond the horizon of death, exerting its monumental force on the history of the living. This process represents something resembling a modulation toward the resurrection of human presence, in the sense that the dead live within our deeds as the continued re-enactment, reevaluation, and re-creation of their history as it inspires our history in the instant of “en-presenting.”
As described, we are beings that project our possibilities into the future from out of a “thrown” past as history, and therefore we are always in the process of recovering and repeating some inherited possibility. When living authentically, we appropriate freely this past, as the source of the future. From this description, it is possible to imagine that our deeds are intimately linked to the deeds of our departed ancestors, and their history is inextricably bound to our history. If there is secular redemption for the memory of suffering and loss, it exists within the life that calls us to be beholden to the time of the past and assume a caring and responsible attitude toward the time of the future. Such an idea of existence would be inconceivable without the importance of the memory and presence of those who are forever with us in the spirit of their historical being, in the moment of the time of the present, preserved within the spirit of our historical being.
The human is a complex being. However, as Heidegger states, “Philosophy need not be high flown, it is enough if we dwell on what lies close and immediately in the here and now.” Anyone can follow the path of meditation, thinking in her own manner, within her own limits. Philosophy is a creative form of problem-solving; it is a way of thinking that is never truly at an end, never completed, a process of thought that is always on-the-way toward understanding ways to solve the problems we encounter. We might consider philosophy a discipline that first seeks a proper understanding of the issues, which often entails a reformulation of the initial questions that we ask, which amounts to an enquiry into the questions themselves, in order to clarify the manner in which to best approach the problems.
While its scope is grand and its issues many and varied, philosophy most often finds its subject-matter, its place and home-ground, within the immediate realm of our day-to-day lives. For example, it is possible to think seriously and philosophically about such things as this patch of earth, this present time of history, and this life with other members of the human race, or, as was my focus, the time and worldly proximity that we have shared, and continue to share, with those loved who have passed on. ∎
Bergson, H. (1944) Creative Evolution. New York: The Modern Library.
Blanchot, M. (1986) The Writing the Disaster. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row.
Heidegger, M. (1995) The Concept of Time. New York: Blackwell Publishing.
Heidegger, M. (1966) Discourse on Thinking. New York: Harper and Row.
Heidegger, M. (2001) Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry. New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Pinar, W. (1994) Autobiography, Politics and Sexuality. New York: Peter Lang.