This essay is a comparison of the themes found in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time and Joris-Karl Huysmans With the Flow. The aim will be to show that although these two texts differ in their length, their style of presentation and the contexts in which they were published they can offer the reader similar insights into the meaning of ‘existence’.
In a television interview Iris Murdoch proposed that philosophy aims to clarify while literature aims to mystify. As a writer of both philosophy and literature she posits that these two forms are mutually exclusive, with philosophy being a purely rigorous endeavour and literature a form of entertainment. In the interview, Murdoch admits that philosophy and literature are both truth-seeking, truth-revealing forms in that they seek to elucidate basic truths about ourselves and the world in which we live. Given this, however, her contention is that they do so in fundamentally different ways. [i]
However, to consider the two forms of writing in this way is to consider not what is being said in the writing but the manner in which it is said. Indeed, I believe it false to judge that rigorous thought does not take place during the writing of, or is capable of being expressed through, literature. If this is so then it seems that what separates philosophy and literature is simply that the former, for the most part, is perceived as aiming at a more logical or pedantic structure of argumentation than the latter. Indeed, this is the line of argument that Murdoch in fact pursues.
With this view in mind it is not my task to highlight the fact that some philosophical writing, most notably that of French and German philosophy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has a particularly literary style. Indeed, to do so would be to focus again on the style of presentation rather than the thoughts that are developed therein. In contradistinction to Murdoch’s view, to consider what is actually being said is to see that philosophy and literature can, as they often do, share common themes. As an example of this I aim to compare the themes in Heidegger’s text with those in Huysmans’. To begin with, however, I will briefly introduce the two books.
Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time is an exposition into the meaning of Being, with Being here not meant as a particular being or other but their very Being, their existence. To elucidate the possible meaning of Being he proposes a form of being whose own Being is an issue for it; he terms this Dasein. For the most part Dasein exists, Heidegger proposes, in an inauthentic manner rather than an authentic one.
Joris-Karl Huysmans’ With the Flow tells the story of a low-paid Parisian civil servant, Jean Folantin, whose days are filled with weariness and drudgery. By comparing the inauthentic mode of Being as proposed by Heidegger with Huysmans’ treatment of the character Jean Folantin I aim to question the notion that philosophy and literature are mutually exclusive modes of writing.
My proposition is that each of the writers takes what is a generally recognised, though vague feeling and tries to expound upon it, growing it through the medium of the written word; what is being considered in both cases is the vague feeling of what it means to be. Indeed, Heidegger states that the starting point for his primordial ontology is the fact that we all have an inherent, albeit vague, sense of what Being is. As an entry point into the discussion of the meaning of Being, Heidegger begins by considering Dasein in its average everydayness.
Dasein’s Average Everydayness
Heidegger posits that Dasein’s character manifests itself proximally and for the most part in its average everydayness. He states that ‘this undifferentiated character of Dasein’s everydayness is not nothing, but a positive phenomenal characteristic of this entity.’ [ii] This mode of existence is at once the closest (in that it is the way that we exist from day to day) and also the farthest away (it is so close that we do not think to consider it). Indeed, since this mode of existence is so well known to us, previous philosophers have ignored it.
By focusing on the way in which Dasein comports itself on a day-to-day basis, Heidegger discovers that it does so mostly in a state of inauthenticity. This will be discussed in more detail below. To begin with I will outline the way in which Huysmans’ With the Flow also focuses on the average everydayness of its main character. Indeed, the book opens with a scene in which Folantin is sat in a restaurant, contemplating which cheese to order:
‘The waiter placed his left hand on his hip, set his right hand on the back of a chair, and swayed on one foot, pursing his lips.’ [iii]
The writer here gives attention to the most banal of everyday details and in this initial encounter sets the scene for the rest of the book. The main character, Jean Folantin, is caught in a state of indecision but also knows that whatever decision he makes, the cheese is going to be repulsive. Indeed, having chosen the Roquefort he gets, as expected, ‘a dismal piece of cheese.’ [iv] This sense of being trapped and indecisive but knowing that it really does not matter what choices are made pervades the whole book. As I will go on to show this ties in closely with Heidegger’s ideas as proposed in Being and Time.
By nature of the fact that Dasein is in the world and that it shares this world with others, Heidegger posits that the nature of Dasein’s Being is as Being-with. Dasein understands itself for the most part through its world and encounters others in this world. The main character of Huysmans’ story, however, is often described at times when he is alone. Indeed, he often finds having to spend time with others deplorable and thinks that
‘sitting mulling over his memories and entertaining himself with his own idle musings [is] preferable to the company of people…’ [v]
How are we to understand this eagerness to be alone if, as Heidegger postulates, Dasein’s nature is as Being-with? In Heidegger’s view, being alone is simply a deficient mode of Being-with. Indeed, he thinks that average everyday Being-with-others usually occurs in a deficient mode of ignoring or feeling indifferent towards others. In other words, when Folantin is alone in his room or walking the streets of Paris and showing no concern for others he is still acting in the mode of Being-with-others, albeit in its everyday deficient sense.
Folantin was born into a poor family; his father’s only possessions at the time of his birth were a few small coins. Having studied hard as a boy and after earning good grades he managed to find a menial job in the civil service. However, because of his lowly upbringing he was not able to attract the patronage of any members of parliament and so could not gain any promotions. Thus, he continued with his menial tasks as a copy clerk, being paid a low wage and no longer expecting any pay rise or promotion. At different points in the story he feels as though he is a victim of circumstances; he feels that things could have been a lot different if he had more money. Indeed,
‘with his 237 francs 40 centimes per month, he had never been able to move into comfortable accommodation, or take a maid, or treat himself and put his feet up, all snug and warm in their slippers.’ [vi]
This demonstrate Heidegger’s notion of thrownness. By this he means that Dasein has been thrown into existence, without any choice in the matter. In other words, Dasein has no choice in the kind of situation it is born into, whether it is rich or poor, black or white. However, this idea of thrownness does not simply mean that Dasein is initially thrown into the world; rather, that it exists constantly as thrown. Thus, Jean Folantin’s lowly upbringing follows him around throughout the story and affects him throughout his life.
The effect of Dasein finding itself in the position of having been thrown is that it falls prey to what Heidegger calls mere wishing: wishing that things could be different; wishing that the possibilities open to it could be greater or more diverse. The notion of Dasein’s possibilities is a key concept for Heidegger. Indeed, he believes that Dasein has a certain number of possibilities that are within its potential to realise. However, in its everyday mode of existence as thrown, Dasein’s hankering after possibilities in fact closes off these possibilities.
According to Heidegger, average everyday Dasein is blind to its possibilities. Its possible options are restricted to ‘what lies within the range of the familiar, the attainable, the respectable, that which is fitting and proper.’ [vii] Dasein’s possibilities are diminished as it seeks to tranquilise itself with the merely actual. In this way no new possibilities are willed; only that which is immediately at one’s disposal is altered, and then only minimally, so that there is a semblance of something going on.
This happens often in Huysmans’ story: the main character spends large amounts of time worrying about which restaurant he will eat at. He sometimes deliberates over this as if it is the most important choice he will ever make. This fascination with the minutiae of the banal and everyday is heavily present in both Heidegger’s and Huysmans’ texts.
In the face of this thrownness Dasein, in the mode of everydayness, flees from itself into what Heidegger calls the they. This they, however, is not some other as distinct from the self. Indeed, ‘I’ myself am also this they, in other words it is a they-self. The they-self is a mode of Dasein’s being in which it flees from itself into the public everydayness. Dasein falls into the they-self when it is absorbed in the world. In so doing, it blends in, becoming a part of the undifferentiated mass of others that form the they-self.
In the they-self ‘everyone is the other, and no-one is himself.’ [viii] Thus, for Dasein this is an inauthentic mode of being; in the they-self Dasein is disburdened of its answerability and decision-making. Dasein, however, tries to make small changes in an attempt to feel that there a still choices open to it. This can be seen very clearly in Huysmans’ text, in which Folantin tries to make small changes to his daily routine to cheer himself up. These often involve changing to a new restaurant and usually end up in failure:
‘One day when he was fed up with it all, he made an attempt to change things, flying in the face of all probability and all common sense. The failure of the experiment had proved decisive…’ [ix]
Small changes to the order of things are known by De Certeau as tactics and are held to be creative acts that subvert the larger system; they are ruses that one plays on the system of control, the they-self. [x] However, their abject failure in the case of Jean Folantin only goes to highlight the power that the they-self has over the individual Dasein. As I will show later in this essay, Folantin eventually gives up all hope of making anything different and vows to accept things just as they are, to go with the flow.
A Pallid Lack of Mood
Folantin does not seem to be absorbed in the world as Heidegger suggests someone caught up in the they-self will be; he exhibits a sense of aloofness towards most things. Indeed, rather than being absorbed, he is often withdrawn into a mood of bland nothingness and passivity. He ‘no longer feels tempted by anything’ [xi] and becomes ‘resigned to the absence of any well-being’ [xii] in his life. When his friends desert him for married life he finds he does not have the energy to make any new ones and thus becomes increasingly lonely. This all leads to the character’s feeling of numbness and a general lack of mood.
For Heidegger, Dasein’s pallid lack of mood in such situations is not simply nothing; rather, in it Being has become a burden. He states that ‘a mood of elation can alleviate the manifest burden of Being’ [xiii] but also that the very possibility of this alleviation discloses the burdensome character of Dasein. As I shall explain below, authenticity arises from an acceptance of this burden and Dasein’s realisation that it is simply the null basis of the nullity that is its death.
As I have already noted, the fact that Dasein generally acts with indifference towards others and its surroundings highlights the fact that it is acting in an inauthentic manner. Indeed, Heidegger states that indifference is one of the primary ways that everyday Dasein operates. Inauthentic being is one of curiosity but, as is explained below, this curiosity is not a seeking out of new experiences and an excitement with the world; rather, it is simply being swept up by the things that the they-self is concerned with.
Idle Talk and Curiosity
Though Folantin is usually indifferent to his work colleagues, in one of his more upbeat moods he begins to take an interest in the general goings-on:
‘M Folantin had started to make conversation now, listening with angelic patience at all the gossip, and even taking an interest in his friend’s infirmities.’ [xiv]
Heidegger calls this idle talk and though this is not meant disparagingly in it is expressed a mode of being that is inauthentic. In idle talk one can talk about anything without really understanding it, meaning that everything is discussed but nothing properly understood. Hence, everything becomes closed off from Dasein as the they-self stops it from getting to grips with any of its own issues.
For Heidegger, curiosity goes hand-in-hand with idle talk. However, as discussed above, by curiosity Heidegger does not mean that Dasein becomes absorbed by what it itself finds interesting; rather, curiosity is a kind of distractedness, a constant shuffling from one thing to another. Through this way of behaving, Dasein is confronted with a constant ambiguity that leads to a tranquilisation that is described by Heidegger as a kind of floating.
This tranquilisation, however, does not lead to a peaceful resting but to a constant hustle. In the Huysmans novel this is manifested in Folantin’s incessant worrying and his constant desire to switch restaurants. This hustling behaviour follows as a direct consequence of the idle talk of the they-self, which does not allow Dasein a chance to settle on any subject or to think for itself. Thus, what begins as public idle-talk only ends up in Dasein’s increased isolation and alienation from its own potentiality-for-Being.
The Hidden Nature of Inauthenticity
In its everydayness, Dasein thinks that it has everything it wants and needs or that it is all within its reach. It does not, therefore, seek to stretch beyond itself and merely stays within a tightly defined context. However, due to the way that information is publically interpreted by the they-self, Dasein is kept in the dark regarding this; the they-self hides the manner in which it takes away Dasein’s choices.
However, while Folantin for the most part exists in the mode of the they-self, he seems to know that he does so, or at least has a vague feeling of it. Indeed, in one part of the book he realises his life is empty and existence prison-like; he has a feeling of being trapped. Here the character seems to be aware of his inauthenticity and is thus cynical in his attitude. Cynicism is here meant in the manner describes by Slavoj Zizek in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology. [xv] In this sense of cynicism we are aware that the ideological structure of society is a fabrication but go along with it anyway.
Though the content of Being and Time and With the Flow share many common themes, the fact that Dasein is usually unaware of being caught up in the they-self while Folantin is not perhaps points to an essential difference. The fact that Folantin understands his situation cynically whereas Dasein does not is surprising given that With the Flow was published prior to Being and Time. Indeed, one would generally expect that later writings to exhibit a greater sense of cynicism than earlier ones.
Anxiety and Uncanniness
For Heidegger, fear means being afraid in the face of something; what one is fearful about is something actual in the world. In contradistinction to this, with anxiety one does not know what one is anxious about. In fact, with anxiety one is anxious about the world at large and one’s Being-in-the-world. Through anxiety one feels a sense of uncanniness, a feeling of not being at home in the world. This feeling individualises Dasein, throwing it back to itself and thus allowing it to be authentic. Heidegger posits that uncanniness is the basic state of Being-in-the-world, though it is usually covered up by Dasein’s everydayness.
At the beginning of Huysmans’ novel the main character is rushing home after his disappointing meal and is ‘not altogether free of anxiety.’ [xvi] What he is anxious about, however, is the fact that he did not prepare a fire before leaving his room, which will result in his room being freezing cold when he gets home. In terms of the distinction that Heidegger makes, Folantin is suffering from fear rather than anxiety since he is worried about a particular and specific thing.
Fear, Heidegger posits, results from and is a manifestation of Dasein’s everyday inauthenticity. This fear simply works to keep Dasein’s inauthenticity hidden from it, which then stops it from achieving its authenticity. When anxious, the uncanniness that results brings Dasein face-to-face with the nullity that is at the basis of its Being. This nullity, however, is not a lack created by an ideal that does not get attained; it is not a form of metaphysics or dualism. The nullity that is the basis of Dasein is its own end, its death.
For Heidegger, anxiety amounts to the disclosedness of the fact that Dasien exists as thrown Being-towards-its-end. However, for the most part Dasein flees in the face of its end, flees into the they-self and the numbing effects of everyday activities. The they-self discusses death as something that is not a threat; it is an event that always happens to someone else and never ‘I’. In this way, Heidegger believes, death is turned into a public event and hence Dasein’s own individual Being-towards-death is covered up.
Heidegger posits that Dasein does not exist as a totality; this lack of totality ends when it dies. However, by way of this death it is no longer and hence cannot witness its totality. Furthermore, during life it is not possible to represent one’s own death; we can witness another dying but then this is not our own death. In With the Flow, Jean Folantin receives a telegram that a relative of his has recently passed away:
‘She was a cousin of his whom he had briefly met once or twice, long ago, in his youth. Ever since, for twenty years, he had hardly spared her a thought, and yet the death of this woman affected him deeply.’ [xvii]
As this is not his death but the death of another, this does not help Folantin to gain any understanding of his own death. Does the impossibility of representing his own death mean that Folantin will always suffer from a lack and is destined to be always incomplete and inauthentic? Heidegger does not think so, for he holds that Dasein exists in such a way that its own end belongs to it throughout, is something that is already included within its Being. In order to exist authentically, then, Dasein must open itself up to the certainty of a death that is indefinite in terms of when it will arrive. The state of mind that can open Dasein to this threat is anxiety.
Following the news of the death of his cousin, Folantin starts to brood over it. One might think that this kind of contemplation of death could result in the authentic recognition of the possibility of dying that Heidegger is after. However, for Heidegger, authentically Being-towards-death does not mean brooding over death. In fact when Dasein does so it is simply trying to have death at its disposal, as something it can manipulate and predict, rather than being open to the threat posed by the possibility of death. The threat is always impending but can come at any time.
Time and Finitude
Dasein in its everyday understanding, Heidegger argues, thinks of itself as finite and time as infinite. However, in that this is an everyday understanding, stands in the way of Dasein’s authentic understanding; in authenticity Dasein understands itself to be the finite basis of temporality. Thus, only when it has realised the finitude of its existence can Dasein be authentic. However, Heidegger believes that since Aristotle time has been understood only in terms of our circumspective concern, in other words through our everyday dealings with things. He posits that this way of thinking has become so naturalised that we no longer question it; it seems self-evident to us.
Everyday Dasein encounters time through what it encounters within the world. This everyday mode of dealing with time occurs many times in Huysmans’ novel. In some scenes, time drags; in other scenes the main character tries to waste time, to kill it. In one scene he is late for work but does not realise this as his watch is wrong:
‘The chief clerk of the office where he had worked for twenty years had told him off, quite ungraciously, for arriving later than usual. M. Folantin had bristled and, taking out his round pocket-watch, had replied sharply, “Eleven o’clock precisely.” His chief had in turn pulled out from his pocket a real Big Ben of a timepiece. “Eleven-twenty,” he had retorted.’ [xvii]
Here there is a disagreement with the reading of time by way of the two men’s watches. However, Heidegger would argue that what is being discussed is not the temporality that is the basis of Dasein’s existence but the derivative notion of time that occurs in everydayness. Indeed, everyday Dasein only knows time publicly and not as its own, in other words only inauthentically.
However, in its Being, Dasein is grounded in temporality and it is only by virtue of this that is able to measure time with clocks and other instrumentation. Before Dasein does anything at all, it reckons with time; this way of reckoning with time is prior to any measurement of it. Indeed, in measuring time we actually forget what it is we are measuring.
For Heidegger, authenticity for Dasein means letting itself take action. It is a coming face to face with the uncaninness that comes through anxiety. It is a realisation that one is the null basis of one’s own nullity. This is in contradistinction to the everydayness in which Dasein understands itself only in terms of the world rather than the kind of being that it is. Heidegger believes that we generally only have odd moments when we are able to overcome our everydayness. During those other times, we go through a life of dull suffering surrounded by the comfortableness of the accustomed that is often burdensome or repellent.
This description (that of everyday Dasein) perfectly describes the character of Jean Folantin in Huysmans’ novel. At various points within the story he tries to make his own way in life, to forge his own path, but ends up simply accepting his fate and going along with the they-self. At the end of the story he encounters a prostitute and, though it nauseates him, ends up going to her house and paying her. At this point he has lost all enthusiasm for life and simply wishes to “go with the flow”. This ending can be read in two ways. The first would be to assume that following the interaction with the prostitute, Folantin takes his place once again in the they-self. Another interpretation would be that over the course of the book he has developed a form of will-less thinking that Heidegger calls Gelassenheit. This later argument, however, lies beyond the scope of this essay.
In this essay I have attempted to show that though the styles of presentation of Being and Time and With the Flow are very different, their content shares many of the same themes. It is my contention that they both seek to elucidate what it means for us to exist, to be. Granted that their language and style differ greatly, my aim has been to show that their common ground is thematic rather than grammatical. Indeed, I believe that the thematic commonality is in one sense more profound than, and primordial to, the linguistic and stylistic differences. And since it was published first, Huysmans’ novel can even be viewed as a precursor to Heidegger’s work.
[i] Iris Murdoch, Television interview on philosophy and literature. Found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m47A0AmqxQE. Accessed 24 February 2012.
[ii] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962) p. 69.
[iii] Joris-Karl Huysmans, With the Flow (London: Hesperus Press, 2003) p. 3.
[v] ibid, p. 37.
[vi] ibid, p. 12.
[vii] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962) p. 239.
[viii] ibid, p. 165.
[ix] Joris-Karl Huysmans, With the Flow (London: Hesperus Press, 2003) p. 12.
[x] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (London: University of California Press, 1984).
[xi] Joris-Karl Huysmans, With the Flow (London: Hesperus Press, 2003) p. 10.
[xii] ibid, p. 7.
[xiii] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1962) p. 173.
[xiv] Joris-Karl Huysmans, With the Flow (London: Hesperus Press, 2003) p. 39.
[xv] Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989).
[xvi] Joris-Karl Huysmans, With the Flow (London: Hesperus Press, 2003) p. 3.
[xvii] ibid, p. 52.
[xvii] ibid, p. 4.