In book Gamma of the Metaphysics, Aristotle states that the question of being, of existence, is the one question that remains unanswered. Since then many attempts have been made to find an answer to this issue, with the west historically depending on Christianity to explain it. Today there are plenty of ways to interpret the question of being: perhaps the meaning of being is found through God, or through the meaning we give things, perhaps the pursuit of meaning is what makes being meaningful in its own right, or maybe there is no meaning to being at all. All we can do is assert that while we are here, unaware of what it is we should be doing, that at least something must be done to fill our days.
Unintentionally, much of the content I’ve recently produced has focussed on psychoanalysis or at least some interpretation of our subjective connection to the rest of the world. I believe that approaching the question of being through this lens of thought ought to shed some light on the problem of being, at least in a practical way that might help anybody concerned with being.
Both Jacques Lacan and Martin Heidegger had contributed to schools of thought (Psychoanalysis and Phenomenology respectively) that offer insights and direct suggestions as to how to pursue and understand what it is to be. Firstly it’s important to comprehend that one’s time alive, regardless of whatever their view of life after death may be, is finite, it is the only time we will be able to experience, and it is running out. A grim picture yes, but a motivating one.
Both Lacan and Heidegger base their theories on this one point, that death is certain and that whether or not we will be able to exist in any form after we die is very uncertain. Lacan uses the Freudian term ‘death drive’ to explain this. Our only certainty is the horror of inevitable death, and in confronting death, we are given only one imperative: live! Death drive is an attempt to articulate the only source of libido (mental energy) we have at our disposal, that which is sourced from knowing that we must get things done before we can no longer.
Heidegger offers another interpretation of this in his theory of Dasein(to be). For Heidegger it doesn’t take much to be human, we merely need to exist; the world we live in and our relation to it is what shapes our humanity, one particular relationship that we share with everyone in the world is that we all exist in this temporary and finite state of life. In being placed here (in whatever circumstances that may be) you are presented with a limited number of pathways you can realistically pursue, your ability to do this is called Seinkönnen (your potentiality to be).
I’ve always found Heidegger to be one of the most empathetic thinkers of history, and one of my favourite reasons for this is because he understands that for all of us: if being born without purpose wasn’t bad enough, finding a purpose in the chaotic times we live in is near impossible. We may desire for ourselves things that the world doesn’t want us to have; we may see a path that will mean we must endure much suffering due to the incessant chatter and judgement of the world we live in. This chatter and judgement is known as ‘das Man’ (the they), it is the societal limitations you are expected to adhere to. Heidegger compassionately describes this unfortunate state, of which we are all born into as ‘thrownness’. We have been thrown into a situation we hadn’t signed up to; nonetheless, we are here.
The last post I wrote for you described the Tri-part structure of the personality: Id, Superego and Ego. I want you to recall the function of the superego as a repository of all of the collective opinions and expectations you gather through your exposure to society. Understand that our Superego and das Man are very similar concepts, in the same way, death drive and Dasein are.
Similarly to Freud’s ‘death drive’, Heidegger proposes that in spite of there being no instruction as to how we must live. He frames this as guilt, a debt that we must pay for simply being alive. Our guilt towards life is an imperative to live as good a life as we can, and we do often feel guilty if we find ourselves idle, or not living the life we had hoped to. In everything we do, our guilt compels us.
Now that we’re alive and have been placed on the earth, what is to do? Heidegger insists that there are two states of living: authentically or inauthentically. Most of us spend most of our time living inauthentically, why? An authentic life for Heidegger is defined by an insistence on breaking away from das Man, from not listening to the hubbub of society and living our life the way we feel we should. The mechanism that prompts us towards this is the very guilt that drives us toward any action; our conscience deems it necessary to repay the debt of life by accomplishing something we genuinely desire. This is known as a ‘call of conscience’: we are thrown into the world, may as well live it up.
This is all well and good until we look at the myriad of terrible options we can take if it is unfortunate enough to desire them. Take Heidegger himself: irrelevant of the subjective circumstances, he ended up becoming a prominent Nazi. Of course, it is unlikely that we will end up in as bad a position as him, but cheating on your partner or wasting your money on a lifetime’s worth of useless shit are only a dangerous desire away. Understanding your desires is the key to finishing Heidegger’s puzzle.
While Heidegger believes that we live directly in our reality and relate to the entire world around us, Lacan takes a different view. Lacanian psychoanalysis claims that you as a thinking being exist entirely within a psychic state, that your body relays sensations to you which you experience, but ultimately you are disconnected from the rest of the world. In particular, you are unable to understand how other people experience the world in any precise sense; therefore since we cannot possibly understand how we could relate to others, our entire reality is constructed in relation to us.
This mode of relating to the world is called fantasy which acts as a lens that allows us to see other objects (that’s a nice chair, how would it feel if I sat on it? How would it look in
My apartment?) and subjects (that’s an attractive lady, how would she look by my side? How would it feel for me to sleep with her?) in a way that makes sense to us. The energy used in fulfilling desire is libido, it comes from our innate drives, from our Id. Fantasy is a mental construct composed of everything we have learned from the world, the ethics, structures and motifs of our fantasies are limited to what we have and haven’t learned through our exposure to society, we can say then that fantasy is a function of the superego.
Like the guilt in Heidegger’s Dasein, it is the gap between our reality and our aspirations that create a need to act. For Heidegger, it is the gap between having been thrown into the world and the possibility of an authentic life, for Lacan it is the gap between our material reality and the fantasy through which we perceive it. Lacan calls this ‘manque’ (lack). There is always a lack between our fantasised desires and their real outcomes, meaning we always want more. Of course, if we were ever to have our fantasy fulfilled we would have no Lack with which to channel desire; our libido would asphyxiate itself. It is the very impossibility of fantasy that makes it so appealing.
Here at this point, we are offered an insight into our desire, to keep it potent we must keep it unreal. A healthy marriage is a modest contemporary life goal for many of us, beating the odds and making it till death do us part, rather than legal documents. Through the lens of the superego and our relation to the world through fantasy we can understand the tragedy of the typical modern marriage: two partners get together, marry after careful vetting and development of a marital narrative (we will have x amount of children, live in Spain for a couple of years, and so it goes). Time elapses, more boxes on the marital to-do-list are ticked, yet the desire wanes. The partners slowly reject each other due to problems evolving and intimacy devolving. We can see here that the very precise, intense fantasy of marital life is slowly being fulfilled and that this Lack that is fuelled by the very impossibility of our desire (for when we had committed to the desire we could never imagine ourselves as a parent with a loving family, an excellent job, and a legacy. What was then delightfully unattainable is now the everyday banal).
When tempted with a mistress, pursuing a new fantasy can prove useless. We know the story: the mistress makes the husband feel wanted again, the wife is bored and dissatisfied, there is a co-worker or a friend. All for nothing more than a masturbatory pursuit of personal fantasy. What we desire from infidelity is not the sexual act itself, but the arousing satisfaction we derive from a new phantasmagorical muse. Can we not direct this back towards our previous desire for marriage? Or project this libido to other less harmful pursuits? Perhaps the severely high rates of divorce tell us more about how out of touch we are with ourselves, than our partners
In summation, what we can learn from Heidegger is that we are here now, there is no out. The very best thing we can do is live according to our desires independently from what we feel people will judge us for, that way we will have accomplished tasks we were prepared to suffer for, that we desired to achieve before we die. These tasks should be carefully considered, and our desires questioned, there is no rule to say what is right for every situation; for each of us, the task is to do our best to be aware of our fantasies and to learn how to desire in a matter we deem right.