I am alone during this COVID-19 pandemic, like many others. My family spreads across two continents and I recently took residence on a third, a move coinciding with a new year that looked promising and exciting.
As the days stretch, new thoughts surface. My plants and inanimate objects will be my company for the next weeks (months?). Multiple times a day, I stare at my living room, in a 360-degree-pivot, taking it all in. This is my new geography, I say apophantically. The walls shrink at first.
I wasn’t upset with the confinement when it began. I understood the rationale and welcomed the opportunity to slow down our otherwise future-chasing busy lives. Tomorrow became today, or is it the other way?
On day 1, I basked in silence. Not only owing to my lack of musical appetite (sorry Nietzsche!) but also to bear witness. It felt as if, in great solemnity, someone flipped an hourglass at the same time in different places. One could see a connection with other confined cities and towns, some ahead, some behind “the curve.” One could suddenly develop epidemiological erudition and approvingly nod to arguments set forth by self-appointed experts in various media. The tectonic shift happened when rich countries, submerged by the intensity of their adversary, revealed their tragic vulnerability. A microscopic virus shook the inhabited corners of our planet.
As always in crisis, humans are swift to adapt. Normalcy – going about, enjoying slices of life and parties – converted to a frowned-upon socially condemnable oddity. (Go home and wash your hands!)
Physical distance, more aptly describing the “social distancing” mantra du jour, set in. As the dust slowly settled, I confronted the abyss. I am alone, and a faceless danger roams nearby. I considered escaping, bridging the three continents, but this eventuality soon proved impossible as border closures and travel restrictions spread. My windows on the outside narrowed and closed.
Martin Heidegger speaks of Dasein as the fundamental experience of human existence. In a series of analogies in his monumental Being and Time, he recalls that trees don’t reflect on their being, with the same incapacity said to apply to animals. Humans, on the other hand, do. Things and animals are, but men exist. This defines the difference between ontical and fundamental ontological queries, a distinction at the core of the Heideggerian thought which seeks to de-reify the being of humans.
Dasein, from da-sein, being-there, is not the mere understanding or realisation of consciousness. Dasein is the kernel of consciousness, as existential Being. It posits that before I engage in any action, I am I, my I first is, and the fact that I am condenses into an “issue for me, and is mine.” Dasein refers to “mineness.” My being is not yours; your life cannot replace mine. Concurrently, my characteristics do not fully capture my “being,” the fact that I am. I am a woman, half French and Tunisian, living in New York, but this is a fraction of me, the fact that I am precedes and supersedes all derived attributes.
The concept of Dasein is not a pure exercise of introspection either; it interacts with the world, an ontical space where Dasein lives. The world offers a conduit of opportunities and possibilities for Dasein, which sits within this finite space. It is through its projection (and thrownness) into the world that Dasein reveals itself.
Dasein answers the question of what it meant for humans to fundamentally be. Dasein is about one’s experience of being thrown into life, into finitude, caught in both temporality and a world, along with others. Dasein’s day-to-day expression is marked by care or concern: I write this story because I care about initiating (and hopefully completing) this action. I have set this action in motion; I am not indifferent to it. Dasein is not an immortal essence. Its fundamental being is one anchored in time, space, its relation with others and equipment (i.e. things).
I take note of several of my current shortcomings. My being-with-the-world diminished in scope. My worldhood hits the delimitations of my apartment, populated by Heideggerian equipment, tools ready-to-hand, e.g. a computer, books, plants, furniture, food, etc (though some could be said to be present-at-hand given the circumstances).
My physical being-with has been severely compromised during this period of self-isolation. Heidegger tells us what we should understand our nature of being to gregariously associate with others, that it represents a primordial influence we cannot reject. I am aware of das Man, of other people besides me, other Daseins besides mine, of their presence outside, beyond the fences of my narrow and confined world. I see the silhouette in the cage-like capsules of the neighbouring mid-century building, the giggles of the next-door couple, their cooking plates clinging.
My being-towards-death is a subject of lengthy reflections during these solitary moments. As the days go, how do I engage with the past and the present, how do I foresee the future? Being-towards-death highlights a different take on time, breaking its assumed linear injunction. The future holds the past since the future includes my former choices, attitudes, experiences and actions. Time is a projection of possibilities, Heidegger says.
Being-towards-death is at the heart of Dasein, for as soon as we exist, we are bound to die. This is hardly a novel idea, but one which could be traced back to oriental philosophies. In my certainty of death, I carry the future, and I am an existential embodiment of time. The future, through death and possibilities, is a driving force; it opens itself in the present. Death in Heidegger’s ontology is personal, ineluctable, undetermined, and forms the limit of my possibilities. This takes a specific echo during a pandemic with variable fatality rates and ever-moving peak propagation predictions.
In Being and Time, the German philosopher notes that anxiety (unlike fear) pushes us to be aware of Dasein. Through unsettling experiences, we acknowledge our being. Anxiety is not problematic per se but paves the way towards freedom. Why? Once we understand Dasein and chiefly its finitude, we can accept our being-towards-death and direct our Dasein and being-with-the-world.
My eyes open to a myriad of small miracles daily, as I quietened down the tormented voices reminding me that, should anything happen on either of those continents, we would not be together. The morning light, just two hours past sunrise, hits a naked tree branch in front of my building. I check every day for buds – not yet. Vulgar time is encapsulated in the formation of new plant leaves, prolific ivy murmuring with the transient nature of these strange times. The roots, still tender and forming, on the new seeds I planted by the windowsill grow. The skin of my aloe vera feels soft. The purple oxalis opens and closes in its good-morning / good-night ritual. This is my (ontical) world and I interact with it, as present-at-hand and ready-to-hand. I question which one is which, until I am reminded of the beat inside my ribcage and everything falls into some order.
The pestilence of COVID-19 is anxiety. It can guide our journey towards our human experience of being, itself defined by its mortal limitation. I am not intrinsically alone as I inject Heideggerian thought into the space of this living room. I use anxiety to observe the primordial nature of my being, one that isn’t detached from my surroundings, those in immediate reach, and the second-tier of familiarity I suspect from outside the walls of this quarantine shelter. Through the movement of being in the world, towards death, and with others that Dasein embodies, it urges a reconfiguration in the way we interact with a changing world – a flux theory of some sort.
I could die; I will die, one day. It will be personal, undetermined, and faithful to the categories Heidegger described. Perhaps more than that, physical solitude is a positive reminder that we are being and time ourselves. Confronted with this, the weeks that pass announce everyday enchantment and self-understanding – possibilities and the authenticity of Dasein. What remains during and after this singular experience of isolation? That I am.
Heidegger describes the world as “homely.” He couldn’t be more accurate.