While the World Burns

Today I have a clear view of the Rocky Mountains; a week ago, the smoke from fires in Oregon and south affected us: for a couple of days, we had an air quality alert. Fires don’t care about international borders; smoke doesn’t care. Compared to life down there, we’re lucky. I have often thought of Calgarians as being like Tolkein’s hobbits in their Shire, gloriously oblivious to the grand conflicts around them. But the smoke blows up here, too, reminding us what we’re part of. Climate emergency and political crisis, which also blows up here from the south, are part of our lives, and we are responsible.

In such times, I make yet another attempt to reread Heidegger. Who?!? you say–did I mean Heidegger, the most unrepentant of ex-Nazis, a philosopher most obscure in his generalities…him? For me, at my age, Heidegger’s fall into Nazi collusion, which I believe was both personal and philosophical, is a reminder of the ever present potential of any system of thought to be used for evil as for good. The key word in that last sentence is system. It’s when thought is systematized that it becomes dangerous. Heidegger wants to present a system of thought, but he also offers a critique of systems of thought.

I’ve sought many guides to Heidegger over the years, because for me, his work requires guidance. My current guide is Mark Wrathall’s little book, How To Read Heidegger, in the how-to-read series edited by Simon Critchley. Wrathall begins each chapter with a couple of page extract from Heidegger’s writing, and then he explains it. I am most appreciative. What, then, does Heidegger via Wrathall help us with, in terms of understanding our current vulnerability? And by the end of this post, how can we better understand what we need from Shakespeare, in our vulnerable condition?

Wrathall begins with what Heidegger means by saying that humans live in multiple worlds. A world, in this sense, is “a particular style of organizing our activities and relations with the things and people around us” (20). To understand our current crises, whether these involve climate, or lack of political leadership, or racial conflict, we need to see each issue as part of a world that first instigates this crisis and then makes it difficult to respond. Response is difficult because we still are enmeshed in the style of organizing our activities and relations that produced the crisis. Example: a little more than a mile west of our house, the Province of Alberta is building a large bridge over the Bow River, as part of an expanded ring-road project, so yet more vehicles can drive around Calgary, heading west (it’s a marvel of technology and seductively fascinating to watch being built). The not-so-old bridge will become east-bound only; the new bridge will be west-bound. A world is the way of seeing, relating to, and finally acting that makes that bridge seem necessary. In the present world called Alberta, building it as a rail bridge is unthinkable, a non-starter. We need a bridge for cars and trucks. Some people, in their worlds, need a conviction of racial superiority, and in more people’s worlds during the last decade, they are willing to be self-conscious and public about that. Simply proclaiming a different world in opposition to theirs will only intensify conflict. You have to begin by understanding the world that makes such thinking, relating, and acting not just possible but necessary, their world. To get ahead of myself, Shakespeare is noted for making the most awful characters’ worlds plausible. His significant talent was for taking multiple points of view, or in Heidegger’s terms, provisionally inhabiting multiple worlds.

A second of Heidegger’s concepts is mood. “Heidegger is pointing to the way that while we are in a mood,” Wrathall writes, “everything shows up as having a certain unified ‘tone’ or ‘flavour’ or ‘feel'”. Moods “do this by deciding for us what will be salient in a given situation” (36). Moods establish salience. Here we get to what is for me, after a career of teaching sociology, the most interesting problem: “The way things matter to us, Heidegger says, is not something we are free to decide, but is imposed on us by the way the world is arranged and the ways that we are disposed for the world” (36). The way things matter to us–that’s the crux. Here my example can be why bioethics, so far as I can tell, has had so little impact on actual clinical practice in medicine. How healthcare professionals do this activity of medicine is disposed–they are disposed to act–by the way their world, the physical spaces of hospitals and clinics, is arranged: what’s there for use, and how the things they use are at hand. Settings impose, a verb to take seriously. Things at hand impose and then dispose for further use. That disposition includes what people consider salient: what matters, what counts, and what is effectively invisible, including sometimes pain. Effecting change requires about affecting mood, which is formed in material circumstances, amid things that are arranged.

Three is enough for a blog posting, so third and last I turn to art: the work of art, in the sense of what distinctive work art does. On Heidegger’s account, art works by uncovering. Uncovering is his translation of the Greek word that’s usually translated as truth. One of Heidegger’s most useful tactics is to turn substantive nouns into verbs; to emphasize that what’s involved is not a substance, as in the truth, but a process, as in continuing uncovering. It can make Heidegger’s writing confusing at first, but Shakespeare does the same thing, as Philip Davis has pointed out. A book of my formative youth was Buckminster Fuller’s I Seem to Be a Verb, which is a great title.

“Works of art help us to grasp the character of a world,” Wrathall writes, glossing Heidegger (75). “The art work shows us the essence of the thing purely and simply, so free of distraction or adornment that we can see what is really at stake in the world” (83, emphases added). To see what is really at stake, and at the same time, to see what others, living in their worlds, believe is really at stake, as their worlds dispose what they are able to see.

The tyrant creates a world based on fear and its corollary necessities. Tyrants understand, intuitively, that humans need worlds perpetually reconstructed for them. It’s remarkably easy to guide that reconstruction so that the tyrant appears necessary as the only possible remedy to the fears that same tyrant has not invented, but rather has exploited and made central to people’s world. Art, including Shakespeare as a paramount example, can uncover what a world conceals. Art may be the best available human means of uncovering.

Most of Shakespeare’s plays are simple as storytelling for an audience that was mostly illiterate and had to get it the first time through. It’s why the plays are constructed from folk-tale motifs and recognizable character types. There are also infinite complexities that require later reading, but the action is right out there, in the audience’s face. And the action, with help from the language, uncovers. Many, maybe even all, the plots hinge on layers of uncovering. Shakespeare uncovers weakness and evil, prejudice and fear, forgiveness and joy. Participating in one of the plays–staying with the story over a couple of hours of sustained engagement–is a form of therapy. A therapy of stripping away and restoring: entrenched dispositions are stripped away, and we are restored to seeing possibilities that were obscured. Shakespeare offers no system. He does what Heidegger argues language does: he shows us pictures, sometimes of tyrants and sometimes of true love. His pictures uncover.

Thus Heidegger helps me understand how Shakespeare works, and why his work has a claim on us, not as time out from the crises of the moment, but as what we need to encounter those crises in their multi-perspectival complexity.

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