Ownership is freedom. We may do what we want with what we have. We believe we own our bodies and may do with them as we will. But is that really so? Does this most intimate form of ownership really grant us freedom to do as we will? One has only to take a casual stroll through a hospital to be disabused of that notion — hospitals being little more than horrific prisons where the limits of our ownership, and by extension ownership itself, are all too easy to spot. In a hospital, in room after room equipped with elaborate arrays of equipment that can be joined to the body to keep it in some desired condition, one has to confront a most discomfiting reality: what seems most close and intimate to us is a disorienting stranger. The wondrous forms painted or sketched with consummate mastery by a Leonardo or Michelangelo give way to the disturbing drawings of Vesalius: the body opened up for all to see, a network of tubes and cables that is for some reason much more difficult to look at than those similar networks we find in a building or a car. Why is that so?
We might say that this difficulty is born of deception, the unpleasant encounter with the aspects of the body we would otherwise most wish to hide from ourselves. For all those tubes and lines of cable are fragile and may collapse at any time, possibilities that our regular perception of our own bodies is not likely to emphasize. Of course, we suffer regular breakdowns, and often rather embarrassing ones, that are embarrassing precisely because they reveal how little we own what we think we own. Our capacity to take hold of ourselves proves to be extraordinarily fragile, and there is nothing more estranging, more fundamentally disorienting, perhaps, than a moment when one’s body gives out or reacts in such a way that one has no choice but to become aware of a singular fact: “we” (and why is this a “we”?) are strangers in our own body, which is not our own, does not belong to us and cares little or nothing for what is important to us.
Who are we then? We could answer this question in many different ways. We may be mind, we may be body, we may be spirit or flesh, and so on. But, in each case, the contrast arises with the realization that the body is indeed a kind of stranger over which I have utterly no control. Here is the vaunted “mind/body” problem in its least abstract instantiation. While philosophers may discuss this problem in any number of different venues, we each live it and nobody lives this problem more than the patient frozen in fear of the alien taking all she has away in the crepuscular twilight of pain, loneliness and desperate mendacity that is the lot of those whose bodies have decided to collapse.
The myth of ownership collapses along with the body. We are left to face the harsh reality encapsulated in Martin Heidegger’s extravagant phrase: “Death is Dasein’s ownmost possibility.” “Ownmost” is a curious translation of the German “eigenste,” an adjective whose root “eigen” denotes ownership, thus suggesting that what we own most (another impossible phrase) is the possibility to die. To put this slightly differently, what we most truly own is death. Of course, this phrase must seem darkly ironic, and it is. For what sort of ownership can this be but ownership that obliterates the inveterate trace of hope secreted away in the notion of ownership itself? A trace intimating that I may be freed of death, that I may own “in perpetuity” that, in other words, I do not have to face the humiliation of death, all my property, my house, my stocks, my cars, proving to be nothing more than an elaborate network of fences that protect me from a ghastly reality, which, having once emerged, will never let me go.
“I did everything correctly and still I must die!” This could be the motto of the main character in Lev Tolstoy’s harrowing novella, “The Death of Ivan Il’ich,” which Heidegger himself refers to in his discussion of death in Being and Time. Ivan Il’ich finds himself secure in what must be the bourgeois version of paradise: he is happily married, has a lucrative career and a lovely house — everything is perfect. But then what is hardly perfect introduces itself into his life, a small pain that becomes more and more severe, that becomes so severe that his entire life becomes nothing but pain, his thoughts scattered, his family distant, his world reduced to nothing more than that. He has discovered his “ownmost” possibility of being. He has come to know himself and, rapidly, all the things he used to claim ownership of fade away in the face of this knowledge.
If ownership is a sordid illusion, a lie we tell ourselves to alleviate the terror of being stuck in a body that finally crushes us in its death throes, is it possible to face that ownmost possibility? If we come to see the illusion of salvation through ownership, what do we do? Is this revelation itself not already a form of death? Can we live without ownership?