Dasein in Silence
In Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), the Stalker, a village idiot, leads the Writer and the Professor to the forbidden center of an industrial ruin said to be the key to the individual happiness and human future. The two intellectuals are disappointed, agitated and argumentative, but the idiot falls into sound sleep by a creek. In the creek, submerged under the polluted water, there is an abandoned icon of John the Baptist. A black dog suddenly appears from nowhere, standing by the village fool in silence.
The cinematic imagery sheds light on Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism. Let’s begin with Heidegger’s frustration at the limits of textual language:
“… the questions raised in your letter have been better answered in conversation. In written form thinking easily loses its flexibility … it is difficult … to retain the multidimensionality … [by contrast] speaking remains purely in the element of Being.” (Heidegger 1972:219, my emphasis).
Ostensibly concerning a mere technical detail of writing, the meaning of the passage might be deeply rooted in Letter on Humanism’s core idea, which I believe is the importance of a true essentialism, or, an authentic humanism (Heidegger 1972:227). For Heidegger, humanism as understood in Western philosophical tradition is a distortion of the original meaning of essence, because it is built on an artificial dichotomy of essence and actuality and a false opposition between soul and body (Heidegger 1972:229). When one pits essence against actuality, one diminishes essence and loses grip on it. But where to get hold of the original essence? It’s in language, “the house of the truth of Being” (Heidegger 1972:223). Two observations follow this proposition.
The first is Heidegger’s colloquialism. Some of his unique terms such as Dasein (Heidegger 1972:229) are from spoken German. It is a technique used to bring philosophical language to its original meaning, but it also directs readers to the source of authenticity, the Volk. It’s noteworthy that Heidegger switched from Catholicism to Lutheran Protestantism in his late 20s. His philosophical stance on language, thus, might be seen in the light of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible to German directly from Greek, bypassing Latin. Unsurprisingly, Heidegger bemoans that “… Greek civilization is always seen in its later form and this itself is seen from a Roman point of view” (Heidegger 1972:225). He rejects humanism of a Roman origin.
The second observation is that Heidegger’s emphasis on language excludes animals from the realm of essence, because animals are (arguably) without language. Heidegger was aware of this exclusion and its inherent dichotomy I suspect he wasn’t comfortable with. The solution he came up with, crudely speaking, is to treat animals as a lesser version of human, as opposed to treating human as an evolved version of animals. His evidence is philological: anima in animals refers to “soul” (Heidegger 1972:227) – what about animals, after all, are their souls. This is also seen in his understanding of Uexküll’s bee experiment – as dissected by Agamben (Agamben 2004:52) – that animals in their captivity is not without essence but just in a state of poverty (Agamben 2004:60-61) –their souls are “closed” by environment while human souls are elevated, with the help of language, to the totality of world. Agamben considers it “undue projection of the human world onto animals” (Agamben 2004:60) and goes on deconstructing Heidegger’s thesis in terms of the open/captivity dialectics (Agamben 2004:65).
It’s curious that Agamben doesn’t’ treat the open/captivity dialectics in terms of language. If we treat “open” as a consequence of language, and language one of the forms of communication, we are reminded of Alfred Gell’s African chimpanzee trap: its mechanism lies in its ability to arouse chimpanzees’ curiosity and induce their thoughts; when they decide to play with the net’s trigger, they are shot by the poison arrows (Gell 1996:26) and in turn caught. Here, the hunting ground (the ground of actuality) is also the symbolic ground (the ground of essence) for both hunters and chimpanzees. Essence and actuality are unified. Humans and animals are connected. Freedom of thoughts leads to both the caputure and the captivity of the body.
Heidegger, thus, can be faulted for stopping at language – stopping at the doorstep of Art which has the ability to communicate in silence. Art, which depends on emotions and sensuality to communicate, is also inherently animalistic.
This brings us back to Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s interesting that the three human beings appear in the film do talk a lot, but they talk gibberishes. They fail to communicate linguistically in their search for inner truth. The failure is partially explained by the intellectual division of logic (or science) as represented by the Professor, poetics as represented by the Writer, and faith/ethics as represented by the village idiot – we see the same frustration at the division in Heidegger’s Letter. However, for Tarkovsky, even the colloquialism of the village idiot, the language of the Volk, fails to move the two intellectual snobs who dwell much of their thoughts on their individual triumphs and vengeances. Language is a weak agent for the purpose of grasping essence, because it can be easily manipulated by the individual. At the two ends of spiritual connection, there is art, and there is silent affinity shared by the Stalker and the dog.
2004 . The Open: Man and Animal. Kevin Attell, trans. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
1996. Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artwork and Artwork as Traps. In Journal of Material Culture 1(1): 15-38
1972 . Letter on Humanism. In Martin Heidegger Basic Writings. David Farrell Krell, ed. Pp. 210-265. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
Addendum: two reading questions
- Is there any religiosity in Heidegger’s critique of humanism?
- Imaging a city-country-forest ternary system where metaphorical transitions between the three levels are going on, where would you locate the Hedeggerian transition?