Death as a tool to shape the way in which life can be lived

Upon reading Being and Time, my interpretation of living has been affected, Martin Heidegger has introduced me into the realms of possibilities as appose to a world only filled with actualities. After coming to an understanding of the concept that Heidegger enforces, death becomes beautiful, and the reaper is no longer as grim.12156157825_c7cc509c68_o (1).jpgI believe death can be used as a way to shape your life, but it comes with limitations, Heidegger defines the causation of these limitations as the they. I believe that limitations can also come from the within, it is not possible to live entirely authentically due to personal sacrifices needed to be made, so it becomes only accessible to obtain limited authenticity. I am not denying the power of using death as a tool to shape your life, but questioning the possibility of doing so in the 21st Century and also the ability of obtaining true authenticity.   

In order to understand the significance of death striking one’s Dasien, life and existence needs to be examined. Life is temporal. The temporality of life is beautiful and delicate. It is fact that death will always end our time. Not that it marks the end, yet that the end is there. Death can be witnessed throughout our life-times many times over. The seasons, an annual cycle of birth and death. Earth itself flowers and flourishes during spring and summer, yet autumn arrives bringing with it slow decay, leading to death in winter. We are surrounded by death, family and friends fall around us,the ‘dying’ of Others is something that one experiences daily. Death is an undeniable ‘fact of experience’[1]. To watch death of any form is a reminder, that your own is inevitable. This is what Heidegger refers to as the actuality of death. To live a life where death is not witnessed, a life with no seasons could not allow for the perspective and understanding of what it truly means to die as an actuality. The idea of no returns would be entirely abstract as all knowledge would be of being, therefore not being is incomprehensible, it would be similar to living in a world always entrenched in light and trying to understand darkness. The fact that death is going to happen to everyone of us is not a new concept, it is pure fact. The actuality of our death is not a revolutionary idea, Being and Time has not stepped forward as an extensive piece of work to identify the fact that death will come to you. No, Heidegger has uncovered a notion of potentiality of death, this is what I find to be of absolute vitality when using death as a way to shape life.

‘I knew someday I was going to die…and just before I died two things would happen. Number one; I would regret my entire life, and number two; I would want to live my whole life again. And then I would die. That terrified me….So I had to do something, I had to do something with my life.’[2]

Listening to an interview of Hubert Selby Jr. he describes a spiritual experience in which the possibility of death became present to him; he became anxious. This regret he is describing and the fear of wasting his life, is the fear of not living authentically. So for Hubert Selby Jr. death shaped his life, he set out to become a writer, he worked towards his authenticity. Death can shape the way you live your life, but it is very easy to become absorbed within life, so much so that the notion of death gets forgotten. I disagree with the recurring ideas of existentialists such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger that we fill our lives with activities as a way to forget and distract ourselves from the thought of death, I think that in order to live enjoyably activities are needed.  I use the term absorption because there is the grim reality that in order to live rather than to exist, in order to obtain an identity, it is through hobbies partaken in or the pleasures one seeks. In order to be able to enjoy these, one has to sacrifice part of themselves. These personal sacrifices will be different per person, just as it is not possible to experience the possibility of anyone else’s death, it is not possible to experience other people’s sacrifices. But predominantly it will be work. In order to provide at least basic necessities to survive an income is required. If your authenticity is unlike Hubert Selby Jr. or others whose authenticity allows for an income to be earned, then a certain degree of inauthenticity is required to become authentic. This is not saying that death is not being used to shape one’s life, but in order to live within the 21st Century a certain amount of sacrifice is required. Psychiatrist Robert David Laing’s writings from the 20th Century expresses his concerns with the way in which society and culture effect the self;

‘Social phantasy systems and interpersonal defences tend to mitigate inner and interpersonal conflict, and promote a relatively frictionless adaptation to one’s cultural surroundings. In so doing, they normalize our experience and behaviour so that they conform to prevailing cultural norms and expectations, while robbing us of our authentic selfhood.’[3]

His language and terminology signify his influences from existentialism especially with the use of authentic I can imagine that influence was found in Heidegger himself. Laing is primarily focusing on psychoanalysis and trying to gage an understanding of mental illness, yet has come to the conclusion that society and culture forces an inability to achieve authenticity. To counter Laing I have looked towards Jean Paul-Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who both were heavily influenced by Heidegger. These two characters became the forefront of existentialism throughout France in the early 20th Century, through reading Sarah Bakewell’s biography of these characters a sense is portrayed that similar to Hubert Selby Jr, their authentic Being is to write[4]. I am fully aware that it is not possible to know if someone else is authentic, as Kierkegaard expresses no one will ever know who is the knight of faith[5]. Yet from an external deduction it seems logical to suppose that these two characters who devoted their lives to philosophy, yet still fulfilled their lives with passion and pleasures lived their lives authentically. This is only a deduction, and cannot be taken as fact, yet I do believe that being-towards death was very influential in shaping Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s lives.

To return to the text of Being and Time, Heidegger describes the idea of perceiving your death as an event that could occur at any moment. Through becoming aware of the temporality of life and the possibility of death, it causes a shift in perspective of time. The most common perspective of life is that of a timeline with death at the end. Through this mind set it will not allow for full potentiality of life, as death is something that will occur in the future there is time to waste and to be inauthentic.

‘So in saying we are temporal, it is clear that Heidegger is not emphasising the obvious fact that we are going to die, or that we have a sense of time but rather that our way of Being simultaneously spans the three dimensions of time. The Past, the present and the future exist in every moment of our existence and constitute who we are and also our current activities’[6]Martin Heidegger

To try and explain the way in which the three dimensions of time coincides with each other is to the start from the self, the Being. Everything the Being knows has been shaped by his/her past, and everything the being is aiming to do in the future will create the present self. So when considering life in this way all opportunities and goals for the future become possibilities. Now think of death in the same way as being projected into the future in order to shape your life today, an analogy is to think of death as the sun and the projection of the time dimensions as a boomerang. In order to get the full potential out of the boomerang is to play outside in the sun. But if you were unaware of the sun then you would be left to play with the boomerang indoors, therefore caging the full potential of the boomerang and therefore your life. So whilst looking at time with this perspective, it emphasises the importance of using death as a tool to live a life with full possibilities. Not only is the possibility of death able to shape your future, yet also all three plains of time, life itself becomes possible and the impossible becomes achievable. Death as a possibility allows a fresh perspective and the importance not to waste the temporality of life. Time has become more present and more important.

To look at other elements from Being in Time, Heidegger faces some criticism, especially with his ideology of being-with, Levinas being one of these[7]. It is Heidegger’s understanding of being human which is the capacity to engage with others, the fact that Heidegger does not develop these ideas which is what puts him up for most criticism. Through reading interviews with Levinas, he has put forward an argument that the death of others are also significant, if not more so;

‘If there were only the two of us in the world, you and I, then there would be no question, then my system would work perfectly. I am responsible to the other in everything. In this anthropology, the other’s death, his being toward-death, is more important to me than my being-toward-death.’[8]

Further on in this interview, he breaks away from the abstract of a world of two, to discussing society as it is. He discusses the relationships between Beings and expresses that responsibility to others, is not a state of mind as Heidegger is describing but rather an obligation. ‘To be human is first of all obligation. Every feeling, every state of mind, presupposes a being-hostage!’[9] So to relate this to being-towards death, Levinas is arguing that Being is shaped by others, rather than by the possibility of death. I find myself agreeing with this notion of being-hostage, yet I think being-towards death and being-hostage can be entwined especially within the 21st Century and life as I know it. I have come to the understanding that being-hostage is another constraint of living authentically. To live being-towards death is in bondage and entrapped by the notion of others. Therefore, death can strongly influence life, yet here is another constraint and challenge to achieve full authenticity.

Levinas through his Jewish heritage questions this ideology and argues that it is abstract, when putting this theory into practice, especially in places such as concentration camps, Heidegger’s ideology does not stand. Regardless of this criticism, I believe being-with is a vitally important element of using death as a way of shaping life as it highlights the importance of relations, if social relations were not held with importance, life would lose its vibrancy as personal existence with no regards of others does not hold the same substance. Another reason why I find being-with so vitally important is stepping away from an individual to looking upon a global scale, the fact that the possibility of death can occur is relevant to all humankind it provides a connection and an understanding of one another. So in the fact of the individual possibility of death, in a sense allows for interdependence of society as a whole. An understanding of one another is accessible. To return to Levinas, he would criticise this argument profusely especially in regards to the horrors of Auschwitz[10]. In extreme situations such as this, I believe most existentialist notions become problematic so when I am considering the interdependence, I can really only discuss from my person individualistic understanding of the world.

So to bring this back around to the question asked, I believe that death as possibility can be used as a way to shape, or at least guide your life. There are many limitations in regards to achieving full authenticity, this is where it becomes problematic as sacrifices have to be made. Therefore, I do not believe full authenticity is attainable, yet the fact that death shapes the striving towards this authenticity is where the power of death really lies. The fact that achievement has not been made is not to be discredited, a path has been formed to travel along, the reaching of the end is not the significant factor, the journey itself is. The possibility of death opens the Beings eyes and allows for a relishing in this journey.

[1] Martin Heidegger (translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson), Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) 301

[2] Hubert Selby Jr, Hubert Selby Jr Interviewed by Ellen Burstyn Part 1 [accessed 01/05/2016]

[3] Daniel Burston, ‘Cyborgs, Zombies and Planetary Death: Alienation in the 21st Century’, in Humanistic Psychologist, Jul-Sep 2014, Vol. 42 Issue 3, pages 283-91 (284)

[4] Sarah Bakewell, At The Existentialist Café (London, Chatto &Windus, 2016)

[5] Johannes De Silentio, Fear and Trembling (HTML presentation by Siegfried) 16

[6] Michael Watts, The Philosophy of Heidegger (New York: Routledge, 2011) 18

[7] Patrick O’Connor, Email Discussion (18/04/2016)

[8] Jill Robins, Is it Righteous to Be?: Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas (Stanford: Stanford University Press) 133

[9] Ibid

[10] Will Large, Lecture: Philosophy and Contemporary Life Biopolitics (28/04/2016)

Death as a tool to shape the way in which life can be lived

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