Texts cited by Heidegger:
SZ Sein und Zeit, trans. John MacQuarrie and Ed Robinson. New York: Harper and Row 1962
PLT Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper and Row 2013
BW Basic Writings, Ed. David Farell Krell. New York: Harper and Row 2008
P Pathmarks, Ed. William McNeill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998
HF Ontology: The Hermeneutics of Facticity, Trans. John Van Buren. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2008
Several years ago while I was still in college, I worked a long-range delivery job that had me alone in a car for 15 hours every weekend. The first couple hours of my route would be filled with podcasts, usually a combination of On the Media and In Our Time, but once that was over, I would put on music, and the band that clicked with me most at this point in my life was La Dispute. Part of this was probably because I’m from the same city, and a lot of places they talk about in their songs were even a part of my delivery routes, places like East Grand Rapids, Hudsonville, northbound on I-75, and so on. But I think the bigger reason they resonated with me was that at the time, I was working on a large paper focusing on the thought of German philosopher Martin Heidegger. So for several months my weeks were filled with reading through his work and then spending all weekend listening to Rooms of the House on repeat while processing what I’d read, and so for all the changes my thought has gone through the last few years, the two topics will always have some overlap, even if only in my head. So that’s what I want to talk about here.
It might be best to start the way Heidegger does; by backtracking to the beginning. For Heidegger, philosophy has often proceeded blind to its own foundations, trying to start from nowhere, when in his view it needs to start with “explicating the original motivational situations in which the fundamental experiences of philosophy have arisen.” (P3) So what is this soil out of which philosophy grows? We get our answer early on in Being and Time: “Looking at something, understanding and conceiving it, choosing, gaining access to – all these ways of behavior are constitutive for our inquiry, and therefore are modes of being for those particular entities which we, the inquirers, are ourselves. Thus to work out the question of being adequately, we must make an entity – the inquirer – transparent in his own being.” (SZ7) But this study of the object in question, namely, us as human beings, also needs to proceed from the proper place. Rather than insist, as many have, that what makes us unique is our ability to sit back and think rationally, he insists on starting with more generic examples, things like working in a workshop, driving a car, cooking and cleaning, and so on. He writes “At the outset of our analysis it is particularly important that Dasein should not be interpreted with the differentiated character of some definite way of existing, but that it should be uncovered in the undifferentiated character which it has proximally and for the most part.” (SZ43) And it’s at this point where we start to have overlap with the album in question, which remains focused throughout on the small details of life, in an its banal trivialities, something that comes across especially well in Woman (In Mirror):
In the bathroom
off the kitchen
leave the door ajar
in a brand new dress.
Let me watch,
put your makeup on,
let me in,
give me holy privileges.
There’s a dinner thing,
Thanksgiving, dress up nice
make a dish to bring.
There are moments here
only yours and mine,
tiny dots on an endless timeline.
Here we have relationships as they are, ‘proximally and for the most part,’ composed of tiny details, little moments of connection that make up a larger story. Love today tends to get hyped up as the best thing that can ever happen to you, but the band here takes a different approach. The song isn’t cynical, but it’s measured and attentive to things that often tend to escape notice but, if given proper attention, can seem incredibly significant, like how seeing one’s partner changing or preparing to go out can feel like a divine privilege.
In the mirror
with your eyes wide
ask for wine,
but you never look away when you do,
your eyes don’t move,
I never move mine from you
and I watch
it’s an honest thing when there’s no one there,
some days they feel like dress rehearsals,
some days I watch and you don’t care.
There’s a dinner,
Thanksgiving, dress up nice,
make a dish to bring.
There are moments here,
only yours and mine,
tiny dots on an endless timeline.
A key thing going on here is the familiarity the narrator has with his partner, and the world they inhabit. Part of the reason these small details which make up our lives are so often missed is they form a world we become so familiar with that in its familiarity, it disappears. This invisible familiarity is, according to Heidegger, a fundamental part of being human, as he dissects the etymology of the Ich bin, I am: “’In’ is derived from ‘innan’ – ‘to reside’, ‘habitare’, ‘to dwell’. ‘An’ signifies ‘I am accustomed’, ‘I am familiar with’, ‘I look after something’…and so ‘ich bin’ [‘I am’] means in its turn ‘I reside’ or ‘dwell alongside’ the world, as that which is familiar to me in such and such a way.” (SZ54) This familiarity with our world, and those around us has recently been proven at the levels of neurobiology1, but Heidegger was calling attention to this long before neuroscientists. Things like facial recognition can be analyzed in what Heidegger refers to as ‘mood’, something that not only enables self-understanding, but is always shared, as Ben Morgan writes “In Heidegger’s argument, the shared mood comes first: It is where we meet each other, and it is the basis on which we come to our own sense of ourselves. In other words, there’s something going on in which we are already involved that is also the medium through which we come to a sense of each other and of ourselves. This emotional involvement is the background against which both my identity and the strangeness of other people can be experienced.”2 Two things to note about mood that show up in both this passage and the song itself: first, mood is the basis of our own self-understanding. It isn’t a distortion of our perspective; mood itself is the frame through which we interpret and understand everything. Even without paying attention to the lyrics, one can hear in the stifled percussion, Dreyer’s muffled voice and the relaxed guitars a feeling of warmth and comfort. The lyric-videos the band posted for each song also help convey a sense of familiar everydayness, the lyrics laid over found footage of everyday events like family gathering, weddings, graduations and family trips. So mood is incredibly important for how we experience the world, and Morgan points out that it’s also always shared. At our basis, who we are is a reflection of those around us; we are always, as Peter Sloterdijk would put it, in a space of shared cohabitation. In this way, connection and communication run deeper than simply transferring information from one isolated subject to another; instead, “In [a] more general kind of communication, the articulation of being with one another understandingly is constituted. Through it a co-state-of-mind [Mitbefindlichkeit] gets ‘shared’, and so does the understanding of being-with.” (SZ162) This shared communication, that dwells below the simple propositional exchange takes place in the song as well, where things are communicated without even the use of words.
A glance back, the small of yours
on the sink where I set your glass.
A hand that rests there flat a moment, retracts,
and the recognition that you give
when you shift position.
Move your hip slightly in,
we say nothing then out loud
and that’s what feels the most profound.
It’s in these little moments where two people, dwelling in the intimate familiarity of each other’s presence that the everydayness of existence comes to shine forth. “Being attuned…can be ‘experienced’ and ‘felt’ only because the ‘human being who experiences’, without being aware of the essence of attunement, is always engaged in being attuned a way that discloses beings as a whole.” (P147; BW129)
How is it that this everydayness, so central to who we are, gets glossed over so easily? Part of it is its very familiarity; in order for us to navigate the world so easily and comfortably, we need to forget most of it in order to focus on whatever tasks we have at hand. But part of it, Heidegger thinks, is embedded in the history of philosophy itself, particularly in its misunderstanding of ‘truth’, which is understood in increasingly narrow terms as technology comes to dominate our way of seeing the world.3 But this increasing narrowness has a long history of development, arguably going back to Plato. Heidegger, however, thinks that where Plato went wrong is in his thinking about humans, and their relationship to truth, and a big part of his thinking on this comes from reading the Greek word for truth in a more literal fashion, since aletheia literally translates to not-concealed. Meanwhile, the opposite of truth is no longer simply a proposition that doesn’t accord with reality, but instead is a covering-up. Heidegger writes: “The being-true of the discourse as truth means that in discoursing as showing the entities of which one is talking must be taken out of their hiddenness; one must let them be seen as something unhidden, that is, they must be discovered. Similarly, ‘being-false’ amounts to deceiving in the sense of covering-up: putting something in front of something (in such a way as to let it be seen) and thereby passing it off as something which it is not.” (SZ33) So our misunderstanding of truth gives us a false conception of who we are, covering up our actual nature as beings who mostly find ourselves immersed in a world of both revealed and concealed elements, something that comes to fore in track 8, THE CHILD WE LOST 1963, which plays with the theme on several levels, which are worth breaking down:
There were shadows in the bedroom
where the light got thrown by the lamp on the nightstand
on your mother’s side after midnight,
still you can see it all,
you can see it all.
So here’s the first layer of unconcealment; here we have two elements in the first couple lines, shadows and light interplaying with one another. This image, one of small places of illumination surrounded by hiddenness hints at another aspect of Heidegger’s understanding of truth, as a clearing, something that shows up as early as Being and Time, where he writes “When we talk in an ontically figurative way of the lumen natural in man, we have in mind nothing other than the existential-ontological structure of this entity, that it is in such a way as to be its ‘there’. To say that it is ‘illuminated’ means that as being-in-the-world it is cleared in itself, not through any other entity, but in such a way that it is itself the clearing.” (SZ133) This concept of the clearing would later be developed in an essay titled “The Essence of Truth”, where he would declare that all ek-sistence takes place in a space that has always-already been opened up, allowing things to present themselves: “All working and achieving, all action and calculation, keep within an open region within which beings, with regard to what they are and how they are, can properly take their stand and become capable of being said.” (P141; BW122) And we see this in the first few lines pointed out, where seeing is dependent on a place that’s lit up. It’s also worth noting Heidegger’s term for clearing, Lichtung, contains the German word for light, Licht, so a clearing is literally a place where things are made visible by the light. However, these spaces of illumination are only possible on the basis of surrounding darkness: “concealment preserves what is most proper to aletheia as its own.” (P148; BW130) So the way we experience the world as an illuminated place is only possible because some things remain obscured and hidden. The world then isn’t simply composed of light and noise, but shadows and silence as well, the things we don’t know, or don’t speak of, helping compose it.
And a hush fell over everything
like a funeral prayer, a reverence,
ancestral, heavy in the air
though you didn’t understand
what it meant
that they never said her name aloud around you
even sitting at the table with her things they’d kept.
Second, we have a twist hidden in the passage above; not just that people occupy a clearing, but that they are the clearing. “The entity which bears the title ‘being-there’ is one that has been ‘cleared’…in other words, that which makes it both ‘open’ for itself and ‘bright’ for itself.” (SZ350) The band gives us both the positive and inverted example of someone who is there both in their presence as a light, as well as in an inverted form, in a sort of present-absence, a darkness.
You were visions, a vagueness, a faded image,
you were visions.
You were a flame lit that burned out twice as brightly as the rest of us did.
When you left, you light then you tumbled away.
There are shadows that fall still here at a certain angle.
So now we have two ways in which the song is playing with the theme of the relationship between the world, the person, truth and light, but there’s a third and final way. In his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art”, Heidegger wanders through a variety of different works in different periods, and sees art as performing a transformative role at a grand historical level, concluding “Art as poetry is founding…founding as beginning. Art attains to its historical nature as foundation…At each time a new and essential world arose. At each time the openness of what is had to be established in beings themselves, by fixing in place of truth in figure. At each time there happened unconcealedness of what is. Unconcealedness sets itself into work, a setting which is accomplished by art. Whenever art happens – that is, whenever there is a beginning – a thrust enters history, history either begins or starts over again.” (PLT74; BW201) What he means here is that art doesn’t just show us the world as it is, but can help establish new ways of seeing, new ways of engaging with the world, new clearings, but to do this, the fact that there’s a shadow at all needs to be addressed, and the shadow here is not just the fact that someone is gone, but why.
No, they never said her name aloud around you.
Only told you it was perfect where your sister went.
And you didn’t understand why it hurt them so much then
that she’d come and left so soon,
could only guess inside your head at what a “stillbirth” meant,
only knew that mother wept.
The shadow here is not just the absent person, but the fact that no one will talk about it. The absent sister is both a gap in the family, particularly the mother, but also a gap in the sense that no one will really talk about it. The band is bringing to light the shadow of the family’s history, showing the sort of long-living sense of shame that can surround such an event. It’s the sort of thing that is loudly silent, a concept Heidegger explores in Being and Time: “Keeping silent is another essential possibility of discourse…Keeping silent authentically is possible only in genuine discoursing. To be able to keep silent, Dasein must have something to say – that is, it must have at its disposal an authentic and rich disclosedness of itself. In that case one’s reticence makes something manifest, and does away with ‘idle talk.’ As a mode of discoursing, reticence articulates the intelligibility of Dasein in so primordial a manner that it gives rise to a potentiality-for-hearing which is genuine, and to a being-with-one-another which is transparent.” (SZ165) This silence can be deafening, and it will haunt the family forever, the footage in the video depicting happy family gatherings, but the lyrics challenging the surface, suggesting there’s something going on underneath. There’s a storm underneath, a storm that haunts the narrator’s family at gatherings, that haunts my own family at gatherings, something everyone knows but no one talks about. But the band, in doing a song about such an event, can also be seen as challenging the shadow itself, and attempting to set up a new clearing. This is part of what art can do; give us a new perspective on what it means to be and go through various elements of life, and possibly challenge outdated ways of thinking about them. By bringing light to the shadowy parts of our lives, the band may be taking up Heidegger’s challenge for poets to venture ahead of the clearing already in play: “The more venturesome are the poets, but poets whose song turns our unprotected being into the open. Because they convert the parting against the open and inwardly recall its unwholesomeness into a sound whole, these poets sing the healing whole in the midst of the unholy.” It’s worth remembering that the clearing, here seen to be a dynamic interplay of light and shadow, also is the very limits of what can and can’t be said. To repeat from earlier, “All working and achieving, all action and calculation, keep within an open region within which beings, with regard to what they are and how they are, can properly take their stand and become capable of being said.” (P141; BW122) By venturing out into the unwholesome and unholy, the band challenges the shadow, and brings light to something we traditionally have not been able to speak of, possibly setting up a new world in the process.
But she never said it once out loud
on the way back home from where you thought they meant
when they said where sister went.
After grandpa got hospice-sick
and he couldn’t fall asleep they wheeled his stretcher-bed beside her at night
and I saw the light on the day that he died by their bed,
grandma’s eyes while us grandkids said our goodbyes.
She said “don’t cry, somewhere he holds her.”
Said a name I didn’t recognize,
and the light with all the shadows combined.
So if setting up new approaches to the world is how art works in a grand historical sense, how does it work on a smaller, more detailed scale? In his essay “What are Poets for?”, when writing on some of his own favorite poets, such as Holderlin and Rilke, Heidegger comments that “The mark of these poets is that to them the nature of poetry becomes worthy of questioning…” (PLT139) Working through some of their poems, he finds not just attempts to describe their world, but reflections on how poetry works in describing the world, what they, as poets, are doing. In another essay, he connects poetry to the Greek poiesis, literally bringing-forth. (BW317; QCT10). This occurs in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology”, where he shows how this bringing-forth is being overly systematized, leaving the whole world at the mercy of humans who see everything as mere resources. However, there is another sort of bringing-forth available, one that poets can remind us of, and one which the band draws explicit attention to in Woman (Reading). The first lines remind us of Heidegger’s analysis of the everyday, of the focus on ordinary scenes and moments.
You in the living room, you on a Tuesday afternoon,
a breeze see when the curtains move.
You by the window with both feet up on the couch
where you sit and you read and I watch you.
The song as a whole describes the narrator remembering what it’s like to sit in a room and watch a lover reading, and what it’s like to describe being there. The world as disclosed and illuminated clearing gets a twist in “The Origin of the Work of Art”, where he contrasts world with earth. We’ve already talked about world, which he defines in this essay as “the self-disclosing openness”, but what is earth? It is not to be associated with the planet, but instead contrasted with the world as disclosed, opened-up, revealed. “What this word says is not to be associated with the idea of a mass of matter deposited somewhere, or with the merely astronomical idea of a planet. Earth is that whence the arising brings back and shelters everything that arises without violation…The earth is the spontaneous forthcoming of that which is continually self-secluding and to that extent sheltering and concealing.” (PLT41,47; BW168, 174) So while world is disclosure, earth is a sheltering and concealing, and “The opposition of world and earth is a striving.” (PLT47; BW174) World seeks to disclose, earth pulls back and tries to remain hidden, and the dynamic push and pull of the two elements creates a strife, and the work of art sets up the opposition.
You with a book propped on your knees,
a breeze seen in your coffee steam.
I’m in the office thinking back to rules of poetry;
it’s fourteen lines, the last two rhyme,
what does pentameter mean?
“In setting up a world and setting forth the earth, the work is an instigating of this striving.” (PLT48; BW175) Art and poetry are about bringing-forth, poiesis, but in doing so, something pulls back, and in the song we see a dynamic push-and-pull, an attempt to use whatever frameworks are available to bring about disclosure.
I write AB AB, try to find your rhyme scheme.
I look for objects on the desk with which to sculpt your image best.
What would I name this?
Could I paint it?
‘Woman (Reading)’? ‘Girl at Rest’?
Throughout the song, the narrator is trying to find ways to describe the memory of what it’s like to be there, to watch someone, to be in love. Various mental images occur, rules of poetry give him a framework and objects provide necessary tools to try and attempt, but in every case, reality eludes complete description. There always remains something beyond our grasp, something that doesn’t quite fit. “Each time we encounter and which encounter us keeps to this curious opposition of presencing, in that it always withholds itself at the same time in a concealment. The clearing in which beings stand is in itself at the same time concealment.” (BW178; PLT52) But rather than see it as a flaw, Heidegger sees this limitation on disclosure, on the clearing, as an essential element of it. Mark Wrathall explains: “there is always more to entities than we can deal with. No matter how skillful we get in dealing with entities, Heidegger argues, there will always be something about the that we can’t focus on or pay attention to…But this concealment…is precisely what makes it possible for us to deal with the thing in the first place…We get a grip on entities in the world, in other words, by generalizing, by dealing with them as instances of a known type.”4 The limitation of our knowledge is its very condition of possibility, and poetry reminds us how much of reality actually eludes us, even in our everyday world. The song at hand deals with a very typical memory, simply watching someone reading on a couch, and it’s a scene that could’ve occurred within Heidegger’s works as well, since he often focused on very generic, everyday moment involving generic, everyday objects that hold so much meaning and memory in them, such as Heidegger’s kitchen table: “What is there in the room there at home is the table at which one sits…Here and there it shows lines – the boys like to busy themselves at the table. These lines are not just interruptions in the paint, but rather: it was the boys and still is.” (HF69) Or it could be the narrator’s living-room couch.
When you leave here,
when you go from a home you take all that you own
but the memories echo on hardwood floor in the living room,
tore the carpet, the scratches below that we found
and the wine stain on the couch, we got drunk and decided we’d still try to move it around.
And I can’t tell what the difference is
between the ones that we made and the ones that we didn’t make.
They all conjure images still
where you sit and you read in the sunlight aware that I watch.
The world is overflowing with meaning, and poetry can only capture so much at one time. The world itself always eludes our total understanding, but poets can help bring particular elements into focus, illuminating the world for us, both carving new paths and retracing old ones, showing us how saturated the world is with both meaning and memory.
And I live alone now save for the echoes.
I live alone now save for the echoes.
1 See Iacaboni, M., Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect to Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2008; Morgan, B. On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self. New York: Fordham University Press 2013; and Dreyfus, H. “Being-with-Others” in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger’s Being and Time, Ed. Wrathall, M. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2013.
2 Morgan, On Becoming God, 40
3 See Heidegger, M. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Harper Perennial 1977; Thomson, I. Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005, chapters 1-2; Mitchell, A. The Fourfold: Reading the Late Heidegger. Illinois: Northwestern University Press 2015, chapter 1.
4 Wrathall, M. “Unconcealment” in A Companion to Heidegger, Ed. Dreyfus, H. and Wrathall, M. London: Blackwell 2005. 348; Wrathall, M. Heidegger and Unconcealment: Truth, Language, and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011, 24-25.