We have forgotten to notice we’re alive.
We know it in theory, of course, but we aren’t really in touch with the sheer mystery of existence, the mystery of what Heidegger called ‘das Sein’ or ‘Being’.
Martin Heidegger was a 20th Century German philosopher, following a lecture, in 1961, Heidegger was asked how we might recover authenticity, he replied that we should simply aim to spend more time ‘in graveyards’.
I used to have a student who lived near Vake Cemetery and if I arrived early, I would wander about the cemetery, taking photos and reflecting on my own mortality. Georgian graveyards are different to British graveyards, many of the gravestones have photos etched into the stone of the deceased person. Many of the deceased lived for less time than I have.
At 53, I am acutely aware that I am nearer death than birth (I won’t live to 107+). Heidegger like Kafka and Murakami highlighted the uncanny strangeness of everything, wondering why things exist as they do.
For Heidegger, the modern world is an infernal machine dedicated to distracting us from the basic wondrous nature of Being. It overwhelms us with information, it kills silence, it distracts us– partly because realising the mystery of Being has its frightening dimensions. What we’re really running away from is a confrontation with ‘das Nichts’ (The Nothing), which lies on the other side of Being.
The Nothing is everywhere, it stalks us and it will swallow us up eventually, it’s only when we realise that other people cannot save us from ‘das Nichts’ that we’re likely to stop living for them; to stop worrying so much about what others think.
Two years ago, my mother died, I posted about the experience at the time: Between Funerals. When our parents die, we realise we’ll probably be next. Sometimes I believe in an afterlife, sometimes I think there is just nothing. Wandering around a cemetery, I realise I am alive but at any moment such being may cease.
In The First Man, Camus writes of visiting a military cemetery, his father died in the First World War.
At that moment he read on the tomb the date of his father’s birth, which he now discovered he had not known. Then he read the two dates, “1885-1914,” and automatically did the arithmetic: twenty-nine years. Suddenly he was struck by an idea that shook his very being. He was forty years old. The man buried under the slab, who had been his father, was younger than he.
This was a strange unnatural thought, he felt the compassion a man feels for an unjustly murdered child and started reflecting on his own mortality.
For he too believed he was living, he alone had created himself, he knew his own strength, his vigor, he could cope and he had himself well in hand. But, in that strange dizziness of the moment, the statue every man eventually erects and that hardens in the fire of the years, into which he then creeps and then awaits its final crumbling – that statue was rapidly cracking, it was already collapsing.
Albert Camus’ life was cut short on 4 January 1960 at the age of 46 in a car accident near the town of Sens. 144 pages of a handwritten manuscript entitled Le premier Homme (The First Man) were found in the wreckage.
Another thought I should ponder: What will happen to my toys when I die?