The Thing and The Place: a Tale – Ștefan Vianu
In the civilization of Ancient Greece, man feels the need to create everlasting things, things that are meant to become
Photo by Ilinca Pop
I. Starting from the Greek man: a problem
In the civilization of Ancient Greece, man feels the need to create everlasting things, things that are meant to become landmarks within his world. These things are represented, first of all, by the works of art and architecture. Through them and because of them, man lives within the horizon of eternity. Man projects himself – Paideia (1) – through creating, observing and understanding the works of art. He lives in two worlds: the world of action and labor, whose horizon is the city (polis); and in the world of Thought, as a poet, sculptor, painter, musician, architect, thinker (2). However, these «worlds» are not separate: they are the two dimensions of the Greek man’s universe. The world of Thought is not simply something that lies beyond this world, but its actual meaning and the meaning of man’s life in general. The visible and the invisible are coexisting in man’s soul, in a mutual relationship, and this tension gives birth to creation and to masterpiece.
Undoubtedly, there is a real possibility of living exclusively within the world of social life in the Athens of the fifth century. However, philosophers believe that this way of living is not a fully human one, as society is not the scene of Truth, but rather a «shadow play», a world of illusions. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato shows man the way out of this world of illusion. Man can turn his inner eye to the world of «Ideas», then return «here» in the common world of the everyday life. And then, in the light of the Idea, he will look at things differently: by reading their profound meaning, that lies beyond the ludic surface of the images.
What does Plato’s tale – about leaving the «Cave» and returning to it – tell us nowadays? The question and the answer is already in us, within the depths of our historical being, as long as we live in the world of the Writings that «build our being,» – in what Martin Puchner calls «the written world».
The Myth of the Cave seems to address primarily those who devote their life to thinking. To put it right, it’s quite a bit different. This fundamental writing of European culture speaks about the «human condition»: about access to Truth, about the possibility of building a life based on Truth. We have learnt that, for the modern man, the very possibility of this foundation has become problematic, if not impossible; all the more so far for the «postmodern man.» Truth itself became a fiction. Traditional societies are completely different. In these societies, the ideas about the World are in fact projections of what the Imaginary (social-individual) consists of, into the depth of the real world. There, fiction and reality are and remain united within the layout of the unique, global, comprehensive reality (3).
It is the same with our societies, in a manner of speaking. We cannot imagine Man without certain Fictions in the absence of which the World would not be a world, a «cosmos.» However, the modern man builds a «real» world from which Fiction and Myth are as of right – although not effectively – ruled out. This is The Grand Fiction of Modernity.
This myth of «demythisation» is coming close – if I’m not mistaking – to its end. We became aware of the fact that we are living within fiction as well. Our fictions, however, inhibit creation and our «competence to build» (F. Choay) instead of nurturing it. We understand why some contemporary thinkers speak, after the «death of God», about the «death of man» or about a time of dehumanization: the era of the «god-man» (homo deus) (4) who creates himself through himself and by staying in his world. Will this process go on, or are we entitled to await a return of the values of the Past in the common world of everyday life? We do not know. However, we can already state, following Nietzsche, that the greatness of Man lies in his ability to fictionalize and to create: to rise above the reality of facts towards the essential «supera-reality», in which dream and imagination play a fundamental part. Art and architecture, the preservers of «monumentality», acquire significance within the mental dimensions of dream, imagination and desire» (5). The Architect builds himself before building the world; he is a designer of the Essential House – or else he does not exist.
II. Being at home in the world?
Architecture «materializes and preserves the mythical and poetic ground of constructing and inhabiting space» (6) – that is its original task. The poetic ground of the inhabited space is preserved by acknowledging the root of thought in its mythical ground. Housing is the underlying reason for building. Thus, habitation is the historical process of taking roots in one place. This «place» is not necessarily man’s birthplace, but the essential «house that shelters daydreaming» (7): the inner home. The thing itself. Starting from it, we may learn what a «thing» is. We think of the thing not by adorning it with metaphors, but by keeping it unrevealed. There is enough room for things inside us. We also get to know them in there. We are building the essential house and, afterwards – on its foundation – edifices.
Modern philosophy seeks «the thing in itself,» outside of Man, and it fails to find it. Modern science isolates that aspect of the thing that can be seen, observed, put «forward»: things become ob-jects, «representations». Starting from the act of objectual (and objective) knowledge, man throws himself in that «out-side» of the world. This, in turn, becomes a world of representations and images (8). The world of life is put «in front,» of us – re-presented before being lived. It is a world of familiar «tools» (Heidegger) and yet an unknown world, in which the existential is «thrown».
We settle within this world – that is familiar and ordinary – without actually inhabiting it. Where do we actually live? Where are we at home? The inhabitable world is the world of the Thing. The actual dwelling begins where the common yet alienating world of object ends. The difference between the Thing and the Object lies in the way in which one looks at it. Through the thing that I am looking at an entire World reveals itself; instead of a common object, it becomes a Thing. «The ship was stranded at the shore / Covered by the snow of the moon / And the sea is quiet, rested, / By the whip of the storm.» (9) By looking at the stranded Ship, I am actually looking, feeling and thinking, clearly or vaguely, about the Night, the Snow, the Moon, the Silence, the Sun, the Universe, the Infinite. Time seems suspended, swallowed by the silence of the night, like the storm is swallowed by the stillness of the sea. The Ship borrows something from the Night’s immensity. In the silence of the night, the Ship is the World itself. I am looking at it – knowing that the World is present; not in front of me, as an object, but around the ship. I take part in its silence, which tames my restlessness. In this unusual transfer, «the sense and the taste for Infinity» (Schleiermacher) arises within me, slowly and instantly. Immensity lies within each Thing that one is looking at – and simply there. Poets teach us to «taste» it – and to dwell around things, creating places. On the contrary – there is no room for immensity in the world of the objects that remain objects. Here the horizons are long gone – and, along with them, the places.
Architecture and art enliven «the place», educating the eye and the thought. In this process of learning, man finds out what the Thing is – and understands what the Place is. The poet understands the identity between the Thing and the inhabitable World. «Where do things begin? Things begin with the World; they are the World. But besides the things from Nature that come from Hands that we do not see, there are other Things, made by men, according to the model of primordial Things that were not made and looked at. And there are tools and vessels from immemorial times, and these things have been adopted by Nature; they seem to be fruits or stones to us, after millennia» (10).
Touching the Thing means giving up the evidence of reason, situating one’s self within the realms of thought, aside mystery. The Thing takes its roots in the inner, celestial, Invisible ground (11), where the Thing and Man correspond and respond to each other. Man, whose glance touches the Thing, dwells within the Realm that belongs to him only through the act of dwelling.
However, we cannot simply refer to the «Thing» and the «Work of Art» as if we were not living in a world of objects. The very work of art is nowadays «mechanically reproducible» and understood through this «reproducibility» (Benjamin). We live in a world of objects, a world of «tools,» whose structure was described by Heidegger in Being and Time (12). However, we may wonder: are we simply «thrown» into this world, has dwelling – as taking roots – become impossible? Perhaps we don’t have to go that far; perhaps we can still think of the poetic significance of dwelling. I have already explained in what sense. Objects – understood in the essence that we invest them with – become things.
Thus, we are starting from within the «Cave», where man is content to see what is shown to him. We want to think of the contact point between the world of the Thing and that of the Object, between the inside and the outside of the World. Man inhabits the world poetically and non-poetically. We are now referring to the un-poetical way of dwelling in the «age of access».
III. The Socialized Man
The world today is not the Greek «Kosmos», but the world of the everyday life, in which man is «thrown».
In the tractate Being and time, Heidegger refers to the man that is thrown in the world as Da-sein «being-in-theworld». In the natural, ordinary, familiar world. Although this way of being is considered «unauthentic», authenticity (Eigentlichkeit) – as assuming the possibilities of being of the existential – is nothing but assuming the state of being-thrown-into-the-world (Geworfenheit) as it is. Man, as existential, is placed outside his own self, in the world. Whereas the world is not the Greek totality of visible and invisible things, but the «herein», within which man lives, as existential: «the public space» or the society (13). Private space is not at all heterogeneous within the society. It is defined as the space of «being-at-home», opposed to the «outer» space of society and also dependent on it. Social life grasps the entire life of the modern man.
The world is, therefore, for the moderns, the social world.
Not the world that is «scientifically» studied by sociologists, but the very dimension within which the modern man exists. The world is not, as the Greeks thought, All-encompassing – not even the totality of the visible and invisible «things.» We could name it «outer world» (weltet); in its own meaning, the world is the hidden phenomenon of the «worldy» (Weltlichkeit) that never «discloses» itself as it is, but only in the various aspects of the social world. Man exists in the light of the world, in the light of Society. Man’s Being (Sein) as an act of being is his being-in-the-world, while the world is the light in which he «lives.» He does not see the light, but in it he can see everything that crosses his path: people, creatures, things, objects, images. To be thrown into the world, to be given to the world and its light – this is what socializing man within his own being refers to.
The tractate Being and time offers an accurate description of the structure of human existence and of man’s Ways of Being-in-the-World – «attunement», «understanding», «interpretation» – , and of the matter of existence: «the disclosure – of the impersonal self.» However, Heidegger does not consider from the very beginning the rooting of human existence into the historical soil. The Da-sein analysis projects a typically modern vision of man onto a timeless sky – a vision according to which man’s essence would be nothing more than his existence as being – thrown into – the-world. Human’s historicity is not radically thought of as the foundation of existence. Heidegger repeats the gesture of Modernity to level all possibilities of being. The highest possibilities of Man are left out, to the extent that they are revealed only to the historical knowledge that penetrates into the final layers of the Past (14).
The existential «thrown-into-the-world» is the socialized man, who belongs, flesh and spirit, to the impersonal «self».
To understand it means to overcome it: to situate one’s self in the realm of mythical and poetic Knowledge. We shall understand the meaning of the existence of the man inside the Cave only from the outside of the Cave. To think of the socialized man is to refer to him within his limits (III) and, at the same time, to step beyond him, within the depth of knowledge, discovering «the thing» (IV).
What (who) is the socialized man?
A rigorous analysis can be found in Ortega y Gasset’s book, «The Revolt of the Masses.» Unlike the Heideggerian analysis that tends to ennoble the socialized man – by giving him an ontological aura, Ortega y Gasset’s description portrays him in his very own «nudity». The existential that is «thrown-into-the-world» is the mass-man. «He is a man emptied of his own history, with no inward past. (…) He is less a man than a shell of one, made of plain idola fori: he has no insides (…). Consequently he is always ready to play at being anything. He has only appetites, he believes that he has only rights and no obligations: he is a man without the imperative of nobility – sine nobilitate – the snob» (15).
A man without any past, without any insides, who belongs entirely to the present. He is a product of the Revolutions of Modernity. By proclaiming «the human rights» he denies the fundamental right of man: the right to continuity, the right to take roots (16). Man takes roots in the Celestial Ground – that the mass-man ignores. Stuck in the Present, he is rootless and he denies any roots: his world is «the society of spectacle» (17). If he turns to the past, it becomes a toy in his hands: the insides of the past are exposed in the blinding light of the public space. «The worldliness of the world» means keeping the man that was thrown into it at the surface of the social world.
The mass-man ignores the descent into the depths of the Past. He feels «at home» anywhere and everywhere. The mass-man transforms the world into image, into the pseudo-infinite totality – solely quantitative – of the images, whose unity is that of a pile. Just as Plato’s prisoners, the man inside the society of spectacle can only see the world of images. In the age of access (18), touching the world seems possible only by looking at it. Culture itself tends to turn into a «world-culture» (19) of a Present that is continuously reproducing itself, like Tiguely’s installations.
The world perceived as an ensemble of images was described by Guy Debord: «When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings – dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behaviour.(…) [the spectacle] naturally elevates the sense of sight to the special pre-eminence once occupied by touch». (20) The similarity between this description and that of Plato’s Cave is striking. The same spectators fascinated by the images that they are looking at. The images «become real beings» simply as they are reified by all viewers; the inter-subjective reality is crystallized in the «bad objectivity» (Adorno) that is forced onto them.
The very structure of the existence of the spectator-man is that of «being-on-the-outside.» This means that the inner man is denied: the reality of the spectator-man is that of self-estrangement, as in not knowing the Self (21). The spectator-man understands himself by projecting himself into the world: he is «potentiality-for-Being» in a world that tends to be confused with the images of the world. Man’s life is no longer understood as the process of creating (Paideia, Bildung) the self, but as «throwing» the self into the everyday life. Thrown in front of us, the thing becomes a common object. The world – as an all-encompassing whole and as the home of man – disappears.
IV. The thing: the eyes that calls the things by their name
Man does not stay inside the Cave, within the world of objects. The inner life of Man is not «thrown» into the world.
Inhabiting in itself, life manifests itself in the space of the thing. The thing occurs with the change of vision – better said, of perception. The thing is in itself, and I myself am in the place created by it. I perceive the aura of this branch (22), the atmosphere that it creates. We could state that I «own» the objects, while the things are. The work of the thing is the inhabitation of the self. While inhabiting the inner space, in the original place of the opening to the World, man lets things be and he can create things starting from what already is.
The touching eye penetrates the depth of the world. Dwelling means inhabiting among things, in the light of the moon and that of the sun. Poets and writers speak of dwelling; they picture the meaning of things by showing us the places inhabited by man, in which their thoughts can be found.
The village draws attention and lends the man its tranquility and its stillness: the tranquility of the vast time of collective memory, of which Plato thought as «an image of eternity.» And man lends the village his vision and his thought – that no longer belongs to the present, but to the essential memory from which it emerges: «Seen from the valley, Geneval offers the setting sun an olden face crowned by oaks. With its eyes turned to light, the village welcomes the rising sun and feeds itself with subtle shadows, with the colors that are born. (…) Unstirred, silent, it draws the eye through the expression of a tenacious thought, the thought that arises from the shadow and the light of the facades of the worn-out houses. The stone is welcoming and, above the olden washed-out and sunburned walls, we can feel the weight of the wooden and clay roofs, covering the daily worries and thoughts of the people» (23). Man nurtures his humanity by aligning the temporality of his existence with the essential time of collective Memory. He inhabits the Earth poetically, preserving «the mythical and poetical foundation of the inhabited and built space.» He preserves within himself the «Archetypal House» (Bachelard): the original image of the house that doesn’t merge with the «birthplace» (24). Man inhabits poetically by naming things, hence keeping them from the torrent of forgetfulness. «Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, / bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window – / at most: column, tower… But to say them, you must understand, / oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves / ever dreamed of existing» (25). In and through this naming process, man finds his place in the World of Things – that of discourse, and only that. Poetic discourse holds the meaning of the world. Things are «inside» simply within it, preserved in their essence. The essence of the thing lies not only in its form (eidos), but in its act – energiea – of inhabiting itself, from which its presence or atmosphere emerges. Things are not revealed to the eye: by naming them, they are given back to the ground from which they come from – from within us. By the grace of the word, they indeed become things. Poetic discourse offers the thing the density it requires in order to be itself, not just an object.
The thing sets in deep within us, awakened by the magic of the poetic word, in the realm of primordial Images. An then we can inhabit – here and there – and we can say: House, Bridge, Well, Gate, Tree, Window, Column, Tower.
1. Cf. Werner Jaeger, Paideia, Oxford University Press, 1986.
2. Cf. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, 1958.
3. Cf. G. Gusdorf, Mit și metafizică (ed. Ro,), Amarcord, București, 1996
4. Cf. Y. N. Harari, Homo deus, Harvill Secker, 2016.
5. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Eyes of The Skin. Architecture and the senses, John Wiley & Sons, 2007, p. 11.
6. Architecture should strengthen the reliability and comprehensibility of the world. In this sense, architecture is fundamentally a conservative art; it materializes and preserves the mythical and poetic ground of constructing and inhabiting space, thus framing human existence and action. By establishing a horizon of existential understanding, architecture encourages us to turn our attention away from architecture itself». J.Pallasmaa, Toward an architecture of humility, 1996, online: http://www.geocities.ws/
7. G. Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1994 p. 6.
8. «In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation. The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudo-world that can only be looked at.» Guy Debord, in Society of the Spectacle, Rebel Press, p. 7.
9. Alexandru Macedonski, Corabia (Flori sacre): OPERE I (ed. Ro), București, 2004.
10. Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin. Ein Vortrag (https://freeditorial.com/
11. Cf Henry Corbin, Corps spirituel et Terre Céleste, Paris, 2015.
12. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, State University of New York Press,
1996. The 16th and the 17th paragraphs precisely describe the structure of
«placing» the existential that is thrown in a world of «tools» and «signs.»
13. Cf. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, State University of New York Press,
1996 & 14:
14. This kind of knowledge is convincingly described by N. Berdiaev:
15. Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, Norton&Company, New York, 1957
16. «Revoluțiile, atât de inconsecvente în graba lor ipocrit generoasă de a proclama noi drepturi, au călcat în picioare și au distrus dreptul fundamental al omului – atât de fundamental, încât el constituie definiția însăși a substanței sale –, dreptul la continuitate» (Ibid., p. 38).
17. Cf, Guy Debord, Society of spectacle (1967) and Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988).
18. Cf. Jeremy Rifkin, The Age of Acces. The New Culture of Hypercapitalism
Where All of Life is a Paid-for Experience, New York, 2000.
19. Cf. Rifkin, in La Culture-monde. Réponse à une société désorientée, Paris, 2008.
20. Guy Debord, in Society of the Spectacle, Rebel Press, p. 11.
21. Ibid., & 30, p. 21.
22. W. Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, In: Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, from the 1935 essay New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
23. Henri Bosco, Un rameau de la nuit.
24. Bachelard, Earth and reveries of will: an essay on the imagination of matter, 2002.
25. R. M. Rilke, The Ninth Duino Elegy (online: https://www.desertlotuszen.