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_DSC1283, by Christophe Relander

Experiment 1. Standing subjects are blindfolded and asked to talk about the future and the past. The subtle shifts in body position are noted. When talking about the future, subjects will tend to shift their body weight forwards. When talking about the past subjects tend to shift their body weight backwards. 

Experiment 2. Subjects are asked to represent the flow of time graphically on paper. Nearly all subjects who speak languages written from left-to-right will place the past on the left and the future on the right. Chinese subjects tend to place the past at the top and the future at the bottom of the page. 

There can’t be much doubt that some relation exists between spatial relations and our intuitive understanding of time. When we walk or run we move forwards not only into space but also into the future. When we see an object that interests us we move towards it not only in anticipation of apprehension of that object but also anticipate a future in which that object occupies some place in our lives. The future is in front of us, the past is behind. How biology and culture may have brought us to associate space and time in the way that we do certainly poses interesting questions. Heidegger believes that the philosophical tradition has also played a part in perpetuating this “common understanding” of time. More perniciously, he argues, it has also led us away from a deeper understanding.

Though Heidegger accepts that time has become our “criterion for separating the regions of being” he believes that this constitutes a naive understanding to which we have grown accustomed without proper investigation. Here are two important quotes from his own outline of what he calls “temporality” of being. These preliminary statements are already full of exciting possibilities:

“Dasein ‘is’ its past in the manner of its being, which, roughly expressed, on each occasion occurs out of its future.” [B&T2.6]

“It’s own past — and that means only that of its ‘generation’ — does not follow after Dasein but rather always already goes ahead of it.” [B&T2.6]

The idea of Dasein as its past, occurring out of its future, or the past not following after but “always already ahead” of Dasein contradict  our intuitive, spatially derived understanding of time. However, when we consider how we “carry” our past with us and “emerge” out of our future, already we are speaking of ideas that may be less counter-intuitive than we initially thought and closer to the true temporality of our being. Consider the idea that Dasein “is” its past. That I am an accumulation of the effects of past events that all continue to affect me now. The events of the past determine the nature and range of possibilities that are open to me in the future, both objectively speaking and in my understanding, acceptance or denial of those possibilities. The past is therefore “always already” ahead of us in that it is through the past that the future becomes present.

This is not only philosophically interesting but also imperative to understand. Heidegger tells us that the philosophical tradition of understanding time has made it impossible for us escape our uncultivated, deficient relationship with our past. Heidegger invites us to reassess the temporality of being in order that we may “appropriate” the past productively. Anyone who renewed their relationship with the past in the context of psychotherapy will have understood this in a very immediate and tangible way. We tend to bury the past with ritualistic utterances such as “it’s all in the past”, “don’t cry over spilt milk” or “let bygones be bygones” — mantras which obscure the clear and present existence of the past right here, right now.

Thoughts after The Word For Snow, a play by Don Dellilo

Images projected on a gauze screen suspended mid-stage, barely material. Floating in the shared headspace of the Purcell Room, the flood. The second deluge. Our collective anticipation of a final end to possibilities and reason.

A rubber-skirted tugboat, lifted, inverted and crushed against the arch of a bridge. Cars carried in unaccustomed diagonals on a pulsing, irreverent swell. Vehicular embodiments of design, engineering, science and culture thrown spinning into white clapboard houses. An elemental force overturning the familiar.

So much more appalling than blood spilled is the subversion of technology. More compelling than human loss, more appealing. A part of us longs for just such a maelstrom. The purity of jumping from a capsizing ship. The water calling us, we rush to meet it willingly, ecstatically. Relieved of the burden of hoping.

Apocalypse inhabits the air like one of the minor gases. Our culture exudes it. It hangs in the space between names and utterances like a reassuring smell. A feathery miasma around everything we tell ourselves to make the world familiar. The mass production of facts. Inserted into the void between us and our lived experience, to save us from the weight of experience. We miss them when they are not there. Uneasy in their absence, we reproduce them to fill the space.

The apocalypse that approaches is not a material one but a flood of words that will rise up and engulf meaning as sea levels rise.

Extracts from the play:

         I call myself a pilgrim
         a traveller to sacred places
         there are more of us now
         and others stirring
         what do we hope to find?
         the inspiration of someone else’s stillness
         the bracing sting of clear thought
         we’ll never know these qualities in ourselves
         we’ll never have the sheer being of those who have mastered themselves
         and the world
         the world
         this is our overwhelming subject
         philosophy sucking last breath now
         theology pissing blood
         everyone believes in every god 
         everything happens all the time
         everything happens in myth, in art
         isn’t this what he’s saying?
         he is saying we have myth to protect us when history goes mad
         this world is changing physically, verifiably
         but even if it is
         this doesn’t feel like reality
         I don’t know if what we see is a sign
         or something we feel, something we find evidence of
         only because we feel it
         because we’re influenced to feel it
         induced to feel it
         all of us, most of us,

It may be early and rather presumptuous to start making ambitious claims but, on the other hand, my status as a non-academic reader of philosophy (albeit with some philosophical training) perhaps gives me a bit of breathing room in this regard. I can’t deny that this idea has been bothering me for some time and more and more, I find that the only way to put an idea to rest is to express it in written words, to make it an object of my own scrutiny and perhaps that of others. To this end, I would like to attempt a brief, necessarily tentative, case for drawing a parallel between Heidegger’s Being and Time and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Tentative because it is drawn from only on a partial reading of both, though the insistence of the idea, it’s refusal to be dismissed, spurs me onwards onto this unstable ground.

Both writers approach head-on questions that are not merely philosophical questions but which are questions about the the pursuit of philosophy. Each takes their own starting point. For Heidegger the question is “what is being?” and for Wittgenstein, “what is language?”. They both then proceed to shake the foundations upon which philosophers have traditionally addressed these questions. Heidegger takes aim at the complacent dismissal of the question of being, arguing instead for its centrality. Wittgenstein calls into question the tendency of philosophers to pursue universal characteristics of language, arguing that utterances in a language can be said to have meaning only within the particular games that give them purpose.

It seems that their similarity has somewhat escaped me in my attempt to define their respective projects. Nevertheless I will persevere…

Both Heidegger and Wittgenstein seem to be taking issue with the practice of philosophy. They have both identified unhelpful confusions at the heart of building philosophical systems. For Heidegger it is an evasion of the central question of ontology, for Wittgenstein, a confusion about the demands we make of what we might call a theory of language.

Wittgenstein’s great insight was to redirect the philosophical eye back towards language as it is used in our everyday lives, bringing into doubt the pursuit of essential characteristics of language. We are to accept language as it is, as an shifting set of unstable, adaptable and evolving tools for a wide variety of communicative aims.

Heidegger does something similar when he establishes that  to take up a philosophical investigation of the nature of being is itself a mode of being — one mode among other possible modes. We are all philosophers of being whether we know it or not, whether we accept it or not. Our existence is always in some relation to the question of being and thus, any investigation of this question, any attempt to frame a “theoretically transparent”  structure of being requires that we not prioritise any particular mode of being as our object of investigation while dismissing the being-ness of others.

It would seem that my comparison has been unsuccessful. Nevertheless something has been achieved.

“The question of existence is an ontic “affair” of Dasein.” [B&T1.4]

Heidegger has established that the questioning of our existence is a peculiar distinction of the beings that we are. To be engaged in an inquiry about being is what defines us. The question underpins any and all of our understandings of ourselves and our world. In the first chapter of Being and Time, Heidegger establishes that we are, in this sense, ontological beings. That is to say we reason about existence. We are capable of making existence an object of questioning. Think of the last time you felt anger or frustration at some chance occurrence that seemed to defy all of your experience and understanding. Perhaps also think of the last time that you came into moment of self-awareness during a day in which your every action and thought seemed to flow unconsciously with an unexpected harmony. Ask yourself if the question of existence did not arise explicitly to you at these times.

But Heidegger goes further. Addressing ourselves directly to the question is only one subset of the modes of being in relation to it.

Even when it is not immediately “at hand”, this question permeates every moment of our lives and is infused in everything we do. Whether we are addressing it in philosophy, appealing to tradition to resolve it, inadvertently obfuscating it through other activities, forgetting about it, or actively avoiding it since it troubles us, we exist in some more or less explicit relation to this question.

Moreover, all of our scientific knowledge is premised on some stance in relation to this question. At the root of every scientific pursuit has been a question of our relation to the phenomena that we experience. Thus, every attempt that we make to express a truth presupposes some conception, however vague and ill-defined, of what we are in relation to these phenomena. Each and every claim to knowledge about the world is rooted in an implicit framework designed to contain this question, to render it unproblematic. For Heidegger, as scientists or as lay people, so accustomed have we become to traditional answers, whether from philosophy, religion or simply hand-me-downs from our parents or our culture, that it can even seem ridiculous to ask the question, “what is being?” Aren’t you be-ing right now? Can you not tell me what that is?

Attempting to frame a “theoretically transparent” answer to this question is just one way to exist in relation to it. It strikes me that the very fact that we can choose whether to engage in such a pursuit, or reject it in favour of any number of alternative pursuits, suggests to me that one is either addressing this question or not addressing it. The question itself does not go away.

A few years ago, while I still lived in Iran, I picked up Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time” at the highly enthusiastic recommendation of a friend. We had high hopes of the possibilities that might arise from reading the book together and sharing our insights. It never really happened. Our lives were simply too hard to reconcile at that time, everyday matters got the better of us and the project was set aside.

Despite our plan never getting off the ground, I read much of the first part of the book and, though my understanding was necessarily partial, I believe I have felt reverberations from it, not only in my thinking, but also in my lived life. I knew that I would certainly, one day, come back to the book when the time was right. That time, I hope, has arrived. My brand new copy of the Joan Stambaugh translation arrived in the post today and this evening I have begun my painstaking, deliberately pedestrian, re-reading of the first chapters.

To give my project some existence beyond my thoughts and private notebooks, I have decided to begin offering select quotes from the text with the thoughts that arise in connection with them on this blog, partly for the intrinsic value inherent in exploring the possibilities of public thought in dialogue with the private, and partly in the hope that other fellow seekers might spare the time to read and respond to my ideas. I am also curious to know if the internet can really be a means to connect with others in the pursuit of real understanding.

That’s enough of a preamble I think. The reasons why we begin on a path may not be transparent to us at the outset. Let us allow them to reveal themselves and develop as the process continues.

The Kaneto Shindo retrospective at the BFI Soutbank in now in full swing. You can read more about this wonderful director all over the internet so I won’t bother you with a biography. I should just say that Onibaba (1964) is a fearsome, highly-charged piece of work which you should see if you have even a passing interest in Japanese horror movies, past or present. I will be seeing it again later this week but already I have been lucky enough to catch The Naked Island (or The Island as the BFI incompletely translated it) which was his breakthrough work from 1960. Shortly before that I was told I should see a work by another Japanese director who was then unknown to me. Hiroshi Teshigahara worked with the novelist Kobo Abe on four films in the 1960s of which the best known is Woman in the Dunes (1964) which won the Palm d’Or and earned Teshigahara a nomination for Best Director at the Oscars.

To me, there is an irresistable parallel between these two movies though their differences are just as marked. Woman of the Dunes is startling, visceral and troubling where The Naked Island is quiet (though not a silent movie, it completely lacks dialogue), mournful and moves at a slow, even pace. While Woman in the Dunes is surreal, highly dramatic and overtly allegorical, Shindo’s film could almost be a documentary or educational film given the close and repetitive attention paid to the minutiae of the family’s life of hardship and resignation. In style, form and tone these films have nothing in common.

Nevertheless the two films seem to address themselves to a similar central question in pitting their protagonists against an inert natural element. For Teshigahara it is the deadly, encroaching sand. The substance is ubiquitous and threatening. It surrounds the eponymous woman’s home with high, crumbling walls, threatening to engulf and bury her as, she tells the man, it did her husband and child. These same walls are a trap for the unsuspecting entomologist who is lured by the villagers and incarcerated like one of his helpless insects. Inside the woman’s dilapidated hovel, the sand pours from the rafters onto their possessions, onto their skin as they sleep, sticking by the sweat of their bodies. Confronting the sand also provides a means of living. The woman shovels it into baskets for the men of the village to raise by means of a winch to be sold for construction work. In toiling against the sand she both preserves and persists.

For Shindo, the element is water. The island has none and the couple must carry it in buckets from the mainland to raise their meagre crops. Cataloguing the travails of Shindo’s husband and wife pairing, their rowing, fetching and pouring, constitutes the bulk of the film. When the wife takes up the single, rear-mounted oar of their dependable little boat, we see her tiny body bend with the effort, it shapes her posture as she strains and pulls. Once the boat is moored, the two ascend with the water to their woefully parched potato crop at the top of the island. Shindo tracks every step of their straw sandals up the steep slope, describes the balance of the yoke on their shoulders. Every motion is determined by the manner of the work and the tools with which it must be accomplished. External necessity bending the body to the tasks that shape it.

The speechlessness of The Naked Island speaks of the oppressive character of this necessity, a necessity that not only bends the body but also prevents individual self-expression. No wonder then, that a lone encounter with mass culture, on a rare excursion outside familiar environs, is mute and incomprehensible to both parents and children. Silence also expresses the submission that accompanies the two dramatic twists in the plot. The first, an accident, elicits an uncompromising reaction but both perpetrator and recipient of this quick retribution accept it as nothing more than another aspect of the necessity for which they are merely conduits. Allowing us only a moment to digest the shock, the already familiar theme music returns and the two are back to work. On a second, far graver occasion, comes grief and despair but even this becomes absorbed into the self-perpetuating stasis of their daily lives.

By contrast, resignation does not come easily to Teshigahara’s central character. The unsuspecting entomologist has come to this remote coastal village on a mission to transcend his ordinary everyday existence, to achieve a kind of immortality by securing a place in the scientific canon. His misfortune, and the central irony of the plot, is to have the meaningless everyday struggle of another imposed on him against his will. He resists and in his resistance we are invited to ask how far we can value one justification for existence over another.

Man: “It’s like building a house in the water when ships exist.”
Woman: “Why insist on a house?”

If his previous life had been any more fulfilling, why had he been so eager to escape? Are we not adaptable to any of a seemingly infinite variety of modes of being? What prioritises one over another? Are not all such choices arbitrary and absurd in the face of our insurmountable limitations — our inevitable demise and the impossibility of knowing another?

The entomologist eventually finds his own reason to stay among the dunes. His rebellion resolves into a resignation similar to that expressed by silent ritual played out in the lives of the family living on Shindo’s island. Given the anguish that Teshigahara’s protagonist experiences on the way to this conclusion, we might ask ourselves if silence might not be the only appropriate answer.

“Don’t get upset, I want to tell you something,” is what my mother always says as a prelude to the tiniest pieces of advice, invariably unwanted. She thinks that if she can impart her myriad rules, gathered together, they will build for you a life worth living. When to drink before and after a meal, the medicinal qualities of kitchen spices that she may have read in a magazine or heard from an immigrant friend who has long been pouring milk in her tea. A quilt sewn from diamond scraps, each missing from the wider fabric within which it was once whole.

Perhaps she knows, at some level hidden even to herself, that my reasoning and hers parted ways long ago, long before this moment when we face each other over the last unsealed box. It’s been ten years of upheaval, tenuous equilibrium and rebirth, and how often have you been this close? How much do you know about a life still carried on the slash and burn momentum of brutal youth, fertilised on fresh ashes. I ask myself, how much more of this, how much more of this before… before what exactly? Whatever she is telling me this time, my mind has already reached a far beyond place and most of the boxes already sealed.


“William, where are you?”

“Somewhere else,” I reply and my voice traveled through walls, passed unlit rooms and my sleeping grandmother before I realized how true this was.

“I wanted to drink tea and eat nuts,” she said, summoning me for shared moments. The darkness of low cloud and unceasing rain now thickened by oncoming night. In her disembodied, plaintive voice, she’s alone in the kitchen, I hear a parting of the ways, and I leave what I am doing to join her.

Moisture, from the undersides of descending clouds had invaded the porch and now tunneled into her lungs through her nostrils and possessed her with a silvery shudder. Inside, Milad still slept an intoxicated sleep, buoyed on the downy warmth and thinning air from which the kerosene stove had sipped oxygen throughout the night, radiating heat, silently, faithfully.

She pulled the two halves of the door shut with a polite thud, they lodged comfortably as they had been accustomed, left before right, held firm by the reciprocal pressure they exerted on each other. Two halves of a heart, her husband used to say when Changiz was young, like us, that’s how we’ve kept warm all this time. Except that now he was gone and the door still closed and the nights of early spring were warm but lonely.

With a series of shuffling steps she turned away from the door, feet first, thighs then hips, taking pains to turn fully about face before she made toward the gate of the porch, really just a fraying square her son had cut from the side of a discarded shop fitting, held in place by a length of synthetic twine hooked round a nail. The sandals and plastic baskets had the neglected look that things left outside take on in the morning, protesting their hours outside your ken by remaining exactly where you left them, colors a shade closer to gray than their more vivid presence in the daytime.

She pushed the gate out in front of her, sliding her hand across the cracking grain of paint on its surface towards the hinge. She felt the reciprocal force grow against her hand, the way all things pushed back these days. With her upper body, right hand pressing the wall for support, elbow bent behind her, she sent the cast-off panel past the point where it would not swing shut again. It congratulated her with a creak and bounced, indolent against the painted adobe, straining slightly at the screws that her son had bored directly into the wall rather than replace the rotten wooden post on which the old gate had hung.

“What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami wrote his first two short novels while managing a successful jazz club in Tokyo. Both were nominated for Japan’s most prestigious literary prize which was a double surprise to him when he heard the news because he had forgotten that he had even entered the manuscripts for consideration. He did not even consider himself a novelist at that time, having completed his first two works “in spurts, snatching bits of time here and there” while running his bar.

But to write his third novel, Murakami knew that if he followed the old formula he would fall short. He would not be able to produce a work he intended to be more complex and consciously thought out. He could no longer live at the mercy of his customers at the bar; staying up as late as they did, inhaling their smoke (as well as his own) and processing their orders in the unquestioning way that any bar owner must if he’s to maintain his business. Murakami tells us that he never had any ambitions to be a novelist, nor did he have concrete ideas of what he wanted to write about, just a conviction.

“If I wrote it now I could come up with something that I’d find convincing,” he thought to himself lying on his back on a grass slope which served as spectators’ seating at a baseball arena. The decision to write his first novel fell to him from the cloudless blue sky above. But the decision to write the third came from within him – and with it came long-distance running.

There are those who might hope that hidden away in this book are secrets of how to become a great writer, that perhaps this is a book about writing novels disguised as a book about running. For them there are six short pages at the centre of the book which serve to inform would-be writers that talent is a pre-requisite but that focus and endurance can be learned. That’s how to write a novel. You decide, you write and you finish it. “Writing is mental labor,” says Murakami, “but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor.” Now go pick up your fountain pen.

How to write a novel may not be something a writer could really tell anyone about anyway. To approach such an intimate part of the artist head on would seem almost barbarous. So, for his personal memoir, Murakami instead chooses to approach his career from a tangent, writing about an activity which has been a loyal partner to him ever since he gave up his jazz club; long-distance running – an activity which has tested him, humbled him and dragged him through intense physical pain and psychological distress. An activity which has laid bare his facticity, his inner call to authenticity and his mortality, things we all share whether we are writers, readers, runners or none of the above.

We all have bodies, we all move. We all have minds, we all communicate. We move from place to place, we converse with others and we think to ourselves privately. If communication is the essence of the mind, then perhaps the essence of the body is motion, to cover distance. One could say conversation and chatter are like the everyday movements of our mundane lives. A stimulating intellectual debate might be the equivalent of a hard-fought game of tennis or squash. Long, solo training runs akin to introspection. Who is to say that novel-writing might not be the long-distance running of the mind?

But not everyone has the inclination to enforce upon themselves the hard discipline of a daily writing schedule. And neither is everyone suited to the solitude of long-distance running. Murakami tells us that he runs simply because it “suits him”. He has come to know that he is an essentially solitary character who has had to “learn” to be sociable. Solitude is neither “difficult nor painful” for him. While he is running he doesn’t “have to talk to anybody, have to listen to anybody”. Running brings him closer to the stillness which occupies a place within us all. His “own cozy, homemade void, [his] own nostalgic silence”.

Aside from the comfort, with introspection also comes a certain danger. Murakami talks of the “sense of isolation like acid spilling out of a bottle” which “can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart”. “That’s why I’ve had to keep my body in motion,” he says, “in order to heal the loneliness inside and put it into perspective.”

As he describes the tortuous final stretch of his one and only 60 mile “ultra-marathon”, pain becomes transcendence. Murakami describes passing through an “unseen barrier”. “I hardly knew who I was or what I was doing,” Murakami writes. “By then, running had entered the realm of the metaphysical. First there came the entity of running and then there came the entity known as me. I run; therefore I am.”

This brush with nothingness brings on what Murakami magnanimously calls the “runner’s blues” but which for a dedicated marathon-runner must feel full-blown existential crisis. In the course of this mind-alteringly demanding race he has traversed the entirety of life and experiences a kind of ego-death as he crosses a finish line which strikes him as an arbitrary marker. A line in the sand for which the path that brought him there fails to offer any justification. “Just because there’s an end doesn’t mean existence has a meaning,” is the thought that strikes him in his meta-conscious state as he punches a weary fist into the air.

With the relentless pushing of one foot in front of the other, stride after stride through external physical space and internal barriers both physical and psychological, Murakami confronts time and mortality. Each stride is a moment longer lived and a step that cannot be retaken. It’s always there. Whether you brood on it, choose to ignore it or laugh it into the background. The always approaching end of possibilities. The finish line. However arbitrarily it may mark the end of your race.

Running doesn’t talk much. It doesn’t have much to say that you could really call ideas. The physical body has its own ways of communicating but the messages it delivers to us are nowhere near as complex as those which bubble up through our minds. Sure, there is no clear distinction between the mind and the body since they interact in myriad ways which we may never fully understand. But in the day-to-day lives we lead we often make the distinction, mostly unconsciously. We know that we have a lot to do and need to sit down at our desks but the body demands motion and gets restless. The mind craves that extra slice of cake or to drink another beer but it’s our bodies that tell us the consequences over time. The body might not be as articulate as the mind but if we listen carefully enough we might get some advance warnings.

I think Murakami has heard the voice of his body, communing with it over the course of thousands of kilometers of track and road. It has spoken to him of the void, the will and the end. If running hadn’t helped him to become the writer he is today i guess we wouldn’t be reading this book, because he wouldn’t have written it. I guess you could say that Murakami is expressing his gratitude.

© William Yong, 2010

Anti-government graffiti, scribbled out and signed “death to Israel”.