Monday, November 30, 2009

Applying Heidegger to Fiction

Note: My presentation is not is long as it appears to be. I could not find a link to the short story excerpt, so I had to simply type it out and paste it to the bottom of my entry. It would probably make sense to go ahead and read it before reading my presentation.

My favorite class readings have been the excerpts from Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art. I am particularly interested in Heidegger’s claim that a work of art sets forth the happening of truth, because this resonates strongly with some of my own views. Unfortunately, I think that this claim’s strength suffers from a weakness prevalent throughout Heidegger’s work: a surprising lack of concrete examples. Abstract concepts and theories offered in isolation run the risk of ambiguity. While they are important in pointing us in a certain direction, they should be grounded with illustrative examples.

As I already mentioned, I support Heidegger’s claim about the aim of artwork. However, I want to carefully analyze one of the few examples he does offer—his application of this claim to Vincent van Gogh’s A Pair of Shoes—in order to draw out as much information as possible. Then, through the use of a couple of my own concrete examples, I hope to bolster his argument. I will attempt to apply his concepts to another famous painting, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, with the hope of showing that his intriguing theory remains relevant even when Heidegger has not handpicked the work in question. Finally, I will apply his aesthetic philosophy to an excerpt from one of my favorites short stories, William Gay’s Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?, in order to further illustrate his claim and also to stretch the realm of application beyond painting.

van Gogh link:

Heidegger argues that van Gogh’s painting, A Pair of Shoes, is a work of art that achieves this assigned goal. In other words, he feels that it sets forth the happening of truth. The work accomplishes this task by allowing us an unencumbered view of the subject matter. When we look at the shoes in the painting, we are able to escape from traditional modes of seeing. In a sense, we are liberated. We are able to see the shoes for what they truly are at their essence or we are able to “leave the thing to rest in its own self, for instance, in its thing-being” (662).

At first glance, such a claim is odd. How could this painting reveal to us the true essence of peasant shoes when it doesn’t even appear to be a representation that is completely realistic? Among other problems, for instance, sudden eruptions of white paint appear in places that should be covered in shadow. Furthermore, almost every brush stroke is legible. However, Heidegger explains that what is important, “is not the reproduction of some particular entity that happens to be present at any given time; it is, on the contrary, the reproduction of the thing’s general essence” (666). Heidegger feels that the work has captured this essence and goes on to explain, rather poetically, exactly what this entails:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of [the peasant women’s] slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind… (664)

Heidegger’s rant continues on for several more lines. His point is simply that these details that have been captured by the picture are what makeup the true essence of a pair of peasant shoes.

In providing us with this essence, Heidegger goes on to argue that the work discloses a world to us as viewers. The details reveal to us the world of the peasant, and according to Heidegger, this world disclosure allows for the happening of truth. It is important to note that, for Heidegger, a world is more than simply a “collection of the countable or uncountable, familiar and unfamiliar things that are just there” (672). In other words, the peasant woman’s world, which has been revealed to us in the painting, is not revealed by the mere representation of the boots. Rather, we are brought into this world because the shoes express to us the reality of peasant life.

Heidegger explains that when a work discloses a world, it instigates a sort of struggle between concealedness and unconcealedness. In van Gogh’s painting, certain elements of peasant life are revealed to us. At the same time, these realities spark new curiosities concerning this world, and as a result, we realize that other facts are concealed from us. As viewers we embark on a circular process in which we move back and forth from concealedness to unconcealedness. According to Heidegger, this is the happening of truth.

Edward Hopper link:

Unlike A Pair of Shoes, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is not merely a representation of a single thing. Rather, it is a representation of an entire scene full of things. There are buildings in the background, a diner, saltshakers, people, etc. Certainly, the essence of the painting as a whole could never be arrived at by viewing the individual things that make up the scene. However, through the juxtaposition of light and darkness, through the use of different hues, and through the arrangement of the people at the bar, the true essence of the scene is felt. When one views the painting, he perhaps gathers from the mysterious men seated at the bar and covered with shadows that something dangerous is going down. Or, perhaps, one notes the giant window and feels the customers’ great vulnerability. Maybe something horrible is lurking just around the corner and is on its way. Or maybe it’s something else. Regardless though, something about the scene is ominous, and although we may not be able to place our finger on why, this is what the image is really about.

Through the sensing of this essence, a world is disclosed to us—a world of eerie late-night danger. In turn, through the disclosure of this world, a battle is instigated inside the painting’s viewers. They embark on the circular process as they move from concealedness—at first this world is completely unknown to them—to unconcealedness—the painting reveals this world—and then back to concealedness—new curiosities, such as the ones mentioned above, arise out of this disclosure. Thus, truth happens.

Although William Gay’s short story, Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?, is done in a much different medium, Heidegger’s aesthetic philosophy is still applicable. The story is centered around a group of meth-ruined Southerners, the character Emile being one of them. The selected excerpt is a short story in itself and it tells of his degradation. This tiny work of art is made up of not only several things but also several images that are themselves made up of things. While, as I already mentioned, the piece is truly about degradation and Emile’s horrible route, this essence cannot be arrived at by merely looking at the isolated things or images through a traditional lens. For instance, if I were to take the image of Emile’s customers asking him to take down his mother’s embroidered sampler, the essence of the collective passage would be lost or at least damaged. However, when this image is taken along with the several other vivid images, Emile’s horrific world is revealed to us. Mention of Emile’s better days evoke sympathy and also understanding. We see him partying his way to doom. Images of him selling off vital pieces of farm equipment point us once again to what has been lost while simultaneously providing us with the next step in his slow demise. Then, we see Emile finally, in desperation, resort to creating a meth lab. This, combined with the other images, completes the curious transformation of a man as well as a property. After reading the passage, we are fully aware of how such degradation has occurred.

This detailed explanation serves as the disclosing of a sort of world—the horrific world that Emile has fashioned for himself and is now trapped in. The disclosure of this world sets Heidegger’s circular process in motion. Through disclosure, certain realities become unconcealed. For instance, the reader is educated on how such a fall might be possible. However, at the same time, the reader grows curious. He formulates hundreds of questions that Gay has left unanswered. He wonders, perhaps, what first turned Emile down such a path? Perhaps he struggles to imagine the beginnings of Emile’s addictions, or whatever else might especially strike the reader. The potential questions are endless. Yet, whatever they might be, the very process the reader is sent on as he travels back and forth from concealedness to unconcealedness signifies the happening of truth.

William Gay excerpt:

Emile himself had fallen on hard times. Once the scion of a prosperous farm family, now he could only look back on long-lost days that where bathed in an amber haze of nostalgia. He’d inherited all this and for a while there were wonders. Enormous John Deere cultivators and hay balers and tractors more dear than Rolls-Royces. For a while there was coke and crack and wild parties. Friends unnumbered and naked women rampant in their willingness to be sent so high you couldn’t have tracked them on radar, sports cars that did not hold up so well against trees abutments.

Little by little, Emile had sold things off for pennies on the dollar and day by day the money rolled through his veins and into his lungs, and the greasy coins trickled down his throat. The cattle were sold away or wandered off. Hogs starved and the strong ate the weak. It amazed him how easily a small fortune could be pissed away. Money don’t go nowhere these days, Emile said when he was down to selling off stepladders and drop cords.

Finally he was down to rolling his own, becoming an entrepreneur, slaving over his meth lab like some crazed alchemist at his test tubes and brazier on the brink of some breakthrough that would cleanse the world of sanity forever.

The appalled ghost of Emile’s mother haunted these rooms, hovered fretfully in the darker corners. Wringing her spectral hands over doilies beset with beer cans and spilled ashtrays. Rats tunneling in secret trespass through the upholstery. There were man-shaped indentations in the Sheetrock walls, palimpsest cavities with outflung arms where miscreants had gone in drunken rage. JESUS IS THE UNSEEN LISTENER TO EVERY CONVERSATION, an embroidered sampler warned from the wall. There were those of Emile’s customers who wanted it taken down or turned to the wall. Emile left it as it was. He needs an education, Emile would say. He needs to know what it’s like out here in the world. There’s no secrets here.

Works Cited:

Philosophies of Art and Beauty. Ed. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1964.

The Best American Short Stories. Ed. Stephen King and Heidi Pitlor. Houghton Mifflin: New York, 2007.

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