“All the world’s a stage.”- let’s use that. For the sake of convenience (and the fun kind of negligent over-simplification), let’s call human reality The Stage.
We do the being-born thing, we open our eyes. Conveniently, we find ourselves in a world where everything is already up and running. Things are labeled and organized and in progress. We don’t have to wake up from birth and slowly name everything in existence, decide that birds are called birds, shoes are shoes…we don’t have to re-invent the wheel and cheese-making and the concept of banking and all of that. The Stage is set, in other words. We find ourselves in the midst of a Play and we just go along with it all and live accordingly.
The Stage, for the most part, is mind stuff. It is ideas and constructs that we erect and use in order to make sense of everything and keep it all ordered and useful. And the ideas are historical in nature. They’re made of time. Some of them have been around for awhile, thousands of years; and either because they are constructive or ego-pleasing, they stick; they remain a permanent feature of The Stage (war, for example; music; funny hair cuts). Other ideas are new, taped on, not yet permanent, but going through a trial phase. Maybe they’ll stick around, maybe they’ll get discarded (Velcro; beard trends; gourmet pet food)…there’s an ebb and flow to the props on The Stage.
Outside of The Stage, it’s just the chaos of…well, it’s just chaos; we don’t really know where the chaos comes from; we can’t know the nature of something that lacks a nature. But basically, outside of The Stage, you find non-human reality and it is terrifying. It is raw information…too complex, too loud, too intense. And that’s where The Stage comes in…it is designed to subdue all of that, domesticate the chaos. Tidy it up a bit. We take ideas and thoughts and constructs and superimpose them over the chaos and make it feel less frightening, less real, more manageable.
Reality…I’ve called it chaos, but let’s also call it the horror…it is formless. It resists our shaping. Reality is the ultimate other. But we’re able to fool ourselves, live contentedly on The Stage, and perhaps that’s enough. It seems to be. Most of us live life without screaming through every waking second.
I don’t know if there’s a non-Stage world that we can actually touch with our minds. I suspect not. Maybe we get echoes of it in music, maybe in the lost hum of distant traffic. Science definitely peeks through the curtains at the raw data and takes notes and tries to organize it all, and there’s a beauty in that. Science is one of my favorite Stage decorations. I mean, reality, the non-Stage world, it’s there…we’re in it. I just think it likely remains permanently obscured behind all of the props and curtains and Stage bits we surround ourselves with. (“I could be bound in a nutshell…”)
So, we wake up in this human reality…it has been built and constructed by others (over history, in the culture that precedes us, and so on). And then, to varying degrees, we add our own bits and pieces as we go along through life.
People afraid of change add nothing. They just glide along through The Play, watching it unfold (careful to keep their arms and legs inside the ride at all times).
Creatives and egoists sort of resent all of the pre-existing stuff (the constructs and value systems and props) and try to tear down as much as they can. They try to re-configure The Stage as they see fit. Again, I don’t think there’s an outside to any of it…a primordial reality we can reach; an exit. There is no genuine tearing down of Stage bits, just replacing old props with new ones. This is either good or bad depending on which words you use to describe it. It can be inexhaustible surplus, it can be a prison-like state, etc.
Trying to get off The Stage, into something more “real” or “authentic”…this is what got the philosopher Heidegger into trouble. He realized that we were all living inside of this big simulation; the world was culture and habit and what he called “publicness” and, anyway, The Stage. So he began to write about escape and what it would look like.
Heidegger liked to write about the way a human existence tends toward daily states of boredom and anxiety. He thought this was significant. He thought it was a clue.
In moments of day to day life, our mind secretly notices that the things around us are actually quite weird and random. A pot holder, for example, makes perfect sense…in context. It makes sense if, let’s say, you’re handling a baking pan full of tiny, hot mini-bagel pizzas or whatever.
But a pot holder is also an incredibly bizarre, paw-covering relic made of lumpy, warmth-rejecting fabric that, for most of its existence, just sits there, pointlessly, inside of a wooden rectangle that, if you think about it, is also pretty weird. Kitchen drawers as open-topped rectangles made of dead, shaped tree-flesh that exist purely to slide one way or another (and into which we stick incomprehensible things like pot holders).
Point being: we try to hide all of the weirdness of reality behind useful concepts and helpful labels and practical ideas. We hide the chaos behind The Stage.
Heidegger theorized that, over time, humans forgot they were on The Stage. They convinced themselves that The Stage was reality. The Stage is all there is. It’s pretty comforting to feel like, essentially, you have a handle on the world, that you generally know what’s what, so we let ourselves forget what The Stage really is.
The problem for Heidegger is that he couldn’t not see the fakeness of The Stage; it was too vividly artificial to him; he wanted out…he had the tear-it-down egoist and/or creative impulse.
So, how do you do that? How do you get out of something so ancient and sturdy and tenacious? How do you escape the big human construct that has gathered up all of our minds and blinded us to both reality and ourselves?
Heidegger- and this was his Faustian moment- he thought it would take a huge amount of strength. Heidegger, who had previously seen philosophy as necessarily separate from politics, began to feel like humans needed a big, cultural prison break- one that would only be meaningful if it took place in the political sphere.
He began to dream of a strongman who could come along and tear down The Stage. Someone who could guide us past the curtains, into the “real” world, the “authentic” one.
Relevant factors to mention here:
Heidegger was German. He philosophized in Germany. He was a German philosopher. I need an editor.
Furthermore: he began to teach and publish his first significant material around the late 1920s or so…an interesting time in Germany, according to books about Notable Things.
Heidegger, during that period of the late 20s, became deeply interested in Plato’s cave allegory. He got into it because his elitism found something he liked in the allegory- the lessers (as Heidegger viewed them) stayed in the cave, fooled by the shadows, but one person- one brave, daring soul- escaped the cave and found reality, truth. This escapee…this strongman who broke out of the cave…then needed to go back and educate the silly lessers so that they could escape as well.
An additional factor to bear in mind: Heidegger was having these thoughts during the brief duration of the Weimar Republic.
Democracy had come to Germany…and he hated it. People were free to think and support any given belief system. Heidegger’s elitism was displeased. People needed a shepherd to guide them through life, not the freedom to entertain this seemingly endless procession of noisy, squabbling values.
Democracy didn’t discriminate; this offended Heidegger.
So his philosophy- channeled through the Plato stuff- turned political. When Hitler came along, Heidegger’s dreams felt tantalizingly real- here was someone who could sweep away The Stage (exit the cave), tear it all down- someone willing to kill people to kill the ideas in their head. All of that annoying democracy stuff…Hitler was going to extinguish it.
Heidegger enthusiastically embraced the tenets of national socialism; he joined the Nazi party. He even became the dean of a college all so that he could implement the new fuhrer policies (thus completing his fusion of the philosophical and the political).
He saw The Stage of human reality. He saw the artificiality of it. And he wanted out. He wanted to make human life something real, something authentic. And this desire literally turned him into a Nazi.
After the war, after the de-Nazification committee released him back into the wild, his writing became conveniently cryptic and mystical. He was basically pouting. It’s like, “I’m taking my toys and going home now.”
He holed up in his cabin at Todtnauberg, mumbling, “Screw politics; I’m too weird for you people anyway. I’m just gonna sit in my cabin now and make up a bunch of words. Gelassenheit!”
My eyes hurt all the time and my arms are floaty and weird and when my fingers touch things, the sensation can linger for hours, ghost-like. My first memories in life are of realizing these things and struggling to make sense both of my reality and my self. I couldn’t tell what was what. And other people, they didn’t seem to function as very useful life metrics. I couldn’t watch human people and learn how to be human myself. Other folk didn’t seem to struggle with eyes and arms and texture; other folk confused me.
“What’s happening?” -thing I would ask myself regularly, starting not long into the post-diaper phase.
I’ve always been drawn to people who have a strong sense of the artificiality that underlies human reality. As a kid, that meant reading lots of science fiction. Alien stuff. Robot stuff. Later, a preoccupation with the Marx Brothers and various French filmmakers. Then, philosophy.
What happened was, in college, I studied Heidegger and I enjoyed Being and Time, but I kept hearing rumors that Heidegger was a Nazi. So, I asked professors about it…all of them said, “He was, but you just need to separate his life from his writing.”
And that didn’t click for me. How do you make a separation like that? For me, every idea I consider is deeply connected to how I sense and feel and live. Thought and biography seem inextricably bound up and fused. Independently, I began reading everything I could find about Heidegger, his life…and it was clear: you can’t separate his writing from his choices. You lose too much. You understand his elitist, life-shattering choices more once you connect his philosophy to his antisemitism and involvement with the Nazi party. They are of a piece. We should be honest about that.
And what interests me about it all is the fact that, every choice he made, could be traced back to that indelible sense that human reality was something false, artificial.
That is, I think, a creative feeling and it often leads to creative output, and it can be good and necessary. But it’s also a volatile feeling. It can lead minds astray, into terrible places. It’s a feeling that can eat people whole.
Knowing that The Stage is a Stage and that The Play is optional (and, generally speaking, not very well-written): then what? You mind has to grapple with that question of how to proceed.
Tender eyes and floaty arms, I could tell others were living in a very different reality…and it seemed to be communal, a shared thing. My brain decided to deal with the fakeness of everything by getting depressed. I couldn’t merge with the social spaces where we do the human things we do, so I cycled through phases of letting go.
That’s what depression is: an errant letting go. It’s pre-grieving.
I have a brother and he also pursues depression, only his version of it much bigger and far more expansive. I suppose that’s why I’m writing all of this. I’m trying to make sense of things. I think about other people who have tried to make sense of things and I get curious about the different paths they go down and where they wind up. Kindred strangers. Harpo and Jacques Tati and Mervyn Peake and Heidegger and numbers stations and the garrulous bird that lives in the chimney and Kristin Hersh and my brother and so on.
Sometimes mom calls and she refers to my brother as “sick” or “mentally ill”. And that’s okay. She tells me the tale of the week. The erratic, scary thing he did. And the same words recur…sick, mentally ill, imbalanced.
I don’t know if he is these things…I wonder if, in his case, these are Stage props. If they help make sense of chaos.
I think, somehow, he can’t see The Stage at all. The world, for him, isn’t a practical construct, it’s a lot of shifting, unknowable fragments…maybe he sees enough of The Stage to know it’s there, but he doesn’t see enough to feel like he is living inside of it. And what he is left with is just raw and chaotic. I think, inside of his head, it’s noisy…he’s much closer to reality than the rest of us.
Maybe, in some instances, that’s what depression is: more than letting go, it’s Stage collapse. The illusion drops away and you’re powerfully alone with, I guess, nothing; you become strange to yourself; the world becomes the horror.
I suppose some feel enlightened by nothingness. The difference between enlightenment and depression, as each encounters the nothing…I don’t know what that difference is. Choice? I don’t know. Tell me on Twitter if you know.
The word “nothing” is misleading. I don’t think “nothing” is blank, I’d say it’s the opposite- it is stark, overwhelming texture; vibrant, all-consuming information. Too much for a mind to absorb.
It’s what religion fears when it fears the face of god; when it eschews divine representation.
In my own states of dysfunction, I think some part of me always retained an ability to create mental handrails…just something, anything, to hold onto. Philosophy, for example, or science: they help me intellectualize the confusion, make it manageable. Popular culture helps me intellectualize the confusion. I always worry (possibly know) it’s just a beneficial cowardice.
I have silly stories in my head to cope. Listening to things, watching things, reading things, sticking props on The Stage. Maybe, on a bad day, I hear too many bird noises and get confused about myself, but mostly I keep one foot in The Play.
My brother survives on other things. 72-hour holds. Getting dosed. Unprivate rooms with paper clothes.
Everyone but my brother likes all of the labels he gets; they make people hopeful. Major Depressive Disorder. With psychotic features? Even better. Schizophrenia? Now we’re talking.
We knit ideas that fortify against the non-Stage reality; that soothe with low-dose Faust, rear-projection lithium.
But They say “It’s helping” and I hope it is.
I’ve never completely left The Play. Which makes it terrifying to watch what happens with my brother. I don’t think he can halt whatever happens with his thinking. He drops away and just keeps going.
Not all the way; not yet.
For now, he stays in some sort of tortured balance between Stage fragments and whatever is beyond the curtain.
Heidegger could see The Stage too clearly; little brother not clearly enough. Both extremes result in, I don’t know; agony, madness, one of the props the rest of us use in these situations.
Later in his life- after the loss of credibility, after his years hiding in a cabin- Heidegger befriended a Romanian poet named Paul Celan.
Celan was curious about Being and Time, intrigued by the writing. But he loathed Heidegger’s past. Celan was Jewish. He would spend time visiting with the philosopher, engaging in conversation, but couldn’t quite bring himself to feel comfortable with the man.
Celan also had a tendency to lose his sense of reality. His mood would plummet, he would randomly lash out; he could be a little wild.
One day, the two were speaking, along with a few other friends. They were having tea, all was well. Suddenly, the poet erupted. He turned angry, stormed out of the room. No one knew why. He didn’t come back.
Heidegger turned to the other friends in the room and quietly remarked, “Celan is sick.”