In order to be who we are, we human beings remain committed to and within the being of language, and can never step out of it and look at it from elsewhere. Thus we always see the nature of language only to the extent to which language itself has us in view, has appropriated us to itself. That we cannot know the nature of language—know it according to the traditional concept of knowledge defined in terms of cognition and representation—is not a defect, however, but rather an advantage by which we are favored with a special realm, that realm where we, who are needed and used to speak language, dwell as mortals. —Heidegger, The Way to Language
Heidegger’s meditation puts into words an idea that has been with me, in an unspoken and perhaps obscure way, for many years: that the true “place” of our being is in language; or that the truth of our place among beings is best found there. Language is not merely understood here as an instrument of communcation, as a collection of signs, or as a carrier of meaning, but more profoundly as revealer of being. Everyone who engages with human being engages with language and inscribes themselves as a thinking being there in some way. They inhabit words that are not their own, but common to all; yet their mode of inhabiting those words is uniquely their’s, just as much as it is uniquely given over to the thinking of being that they were, or rather, that they are insofar as they remain thinking in language, by the power of language to continue revealing being. Such is one reason why I write and encourage so highly the thoughtful sharing of words, attentive as possible to the linguistic formulation that the thinking takes. It is not just a trade among phrases, an exchange of ideas, but the profoundest form of our dwelling with one another in time, in our common home, language, which Heidegger elsewhere calls the “house of Being.” (So why pretend like these words might not be the last ones I ever say? We wait far too long to give our final testament. And so we miss our living childhood.)
The notion that our being abides in, and so ought to be entirely committed to, listening (in/to) language, can also be found in Christianity (referring not to the organized religion or any doctrine, but the texts associated with it as an experience, dare I say the experience “Christ” tries to name). John’s Gospel begins with the claim: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Sadly, the gripping need to pin this… sovereignty? preeminence? loving space?… of the Word onto one person, a savior reigning peacefully over all things, has probably thwarted generations of believers from thinking through what about the link between language and life (or being) makes such a claim possible; and so the glorification of Jesus Christ kept believers from an even more promising engagement with the Word, from a creative transformation because of It, within and with It (radiant stillness? gracious Saying?). More difficult to think, though perhaps “simpler” by essence, is the primacy of the Word for our being, the Word as realm (or home) of our being as such, down to its most intimate aspects, up to its most shareable; and how this Word calls us to singularity, a point of irreplaceability in the order of things (usually interpreted in Christianity as: God’s unique love for us), where we can speak and give ourselves up to this speaking, to be used for Its abiding-stilling Saying (Christianly: dwelling in the peace of Christ).
All the talk of denying earthly-everyday existence, talk against sin and covetousness, the call to die while living, to lay down one’s life in friendship: all of this finds its unity, not in a hatred of mortality or in restrictive morality, but in this insight: that our being comes from and returns to the (giving-given) Word, which transcends all attachments and desires of the flesh, all will-to-power, the entire metaphysics of subjectivity that Heidegger himself constantly tries to deconstruct. All of our life is already a survival, structured according to traces we share with others and keep not for ourselves; thus Christianity’s ruthless condemnation of riches and property, its call to “the highest poverty” where things are “used without using them up,” things are done as not-doing them. “Presence” (parousia) is inseparable from a work of mourning that cannot be completed; our destiny is in loving remembrance (of the other), which charges everything with an unknown destiny (beginning with the present, beginning with each word). To make the word flesh is what I owe you as a thinker of being who thinks with you. The word as flesh is how you have always appeared to me, which does not at all mean that you only are what you say; on the contrary, your body’s every movement is verb. Our entire being “says something,” shows something, let’s something appear. Without that factum, there’s just rot and machine, nothing visible or hearable about me or you or humanity in general. But how much there is of us to see and hear!
The Word said, “Abide in me and I will abide in you.” Fantasies about being absorbed by some metaphysical person can be left aside here. Sharing a body with God and/as sharing a body with all people; life after death and/as life in the other or in the future; resurrection in a spiritual body as undying existence in the word consecrated to the thinking-revealing of being; the remaining, therefore, of what is “proper” to one, one’s soul, for all eternity in this common space, language; the justice to be done at the end of time, when every testimony will be heard; the word of faith dwelling near to the heart forever, spoken beyond human understanding, effective in its very act and utterance—all of this can be, needs to be, rethought along the lines of Heidegger’s thinking: “man finds the proper abode of his existence in language.” Paul put it like this, likening the Lord to the “unknown God” of the Greeks: “He allotted the times of existence [of all people] and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’” Now, we are smart enough to rethink the “he” Paul is referring to here as, perhaps, the mystery of the Word itself, or as Being(-logos). We are smart enough to not be scared by the religious nature of all this and, inventively, venture new interpretations, new paths to and through language, for the sake of rendering clear the stilling Saying whose offspring we are.
Ultimately, these new paths to language will command a different respect for what we so facilely call “words”–our relation to them, our strangeness in them. At stake in language is what our entire being “says,” shows, lets-be-seen. How much truth of Being can we stand? And how could we stand it, without words? No mortal ever sees or comprehends this letting-be-seen in its entirety; perhaps we are only given a sentence-by-sentence glimpse of what we have contributed to the “revelation.” Yet, in another way, we never cease, will never cease, “saying” it. Different respect for that means a different respect for others—for the otherness of the other(‘s word): the unknowability of their being insofar as any knowledge of their true belonging in/to “language” totally escapes us as individual mortals, even as it is preserved there and demands our attention. It calls for a different politics, for a different relation to time and intervention in the social. It bespeaks another kind of body, another kind of extension, another story of giving life. It calls us to think our responsibility to the Saying and to ask what we must do “in remembrance,” “in thanks” of such being.
For what would it mean, finally, to be thankful for, “that which in the event gives delight, itself, that which uniquely in each unrepeatable moment comes to radiance in the fullness of its grace”? As Heidegger confessed, “To guard the purity of the mystery’s wellspring seems to me hardest of all.”
Such a work of guardianship at the origin of language, where the word is made flesh and our flesh is given over to our true life in the word, would revolutionize our thinking about personhood, self-image, personal narratives, what sort of responsibility is due in all that we Say, what sort of realm our utterances are ultimately given over to, and so on. Who has really understood what it is to be heard as an entirety speaking? Who is it who would see everything we have let be seen through our saying-showing word, the gesture of our existence? Surely, it is not we ourselves. What sort of secret is this? What is a person, a signatory, a thinker? Where does it get its sense, its unity, its (in)visibility to others? How is it, or how does it become, touchable, memorable, lovable? We are recalled again and again to our reality in the word: an absolute mystery in which we never cease trembling, an inappropriable gift no reception can receive, the miracle of a testament moving and staying, “heaven on earth,” created-discovered, heard-spoken, word by word, trace by trace: a “silent” (speechless?) surprise stroke over the abyss, promising fast everything: delivering us back somehow to our origin, over there, in the heart of other people. What then makes the impresentable, impenetrable essence of “us” so communicable? To what do we owe this grace—this pleasure?
from April 2016(Image: Michael Eichner, Untitled)