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Startled Dismay in the "Other" Beginning

For R.B.

To destroy, this is easy. But to build, Oh!

In Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), Martin Heidegger describes the new tonality (Stimmung) in the "other" beginning. He calls this "startled dismay" (Erschrecken).

Stimmung for Heidegger phenomenologically describes one's "mood" or "attunement." This does not, however, simply indicate one's emotions or feelings at this or that time; a mood fundamentally underlies or serves as the backdrop against which one feels a particular emotion, e.g. "ecstatic" and "excited," "worried" or "afraid." Emotions come and go one after another without at times meaningfully leading to each other; a mood, in contrast, not only "stays" longer but takes "hold" of the person. This is why in bygone times, melancholy men (what we call "depressed" nowadays) were thought to be possessed by spirits--as were the mad men. Melancholia is the mood of extreme sadness without an object, i.e, with no cause or reason; madness (mania) is the mood of extreme happiness, also without a happy object. These two are the fundamental moods because they are the extreme poles within which strata all other moods are located. One can be melancholy behind the smiles and the laughter over the dinner table. As one can be manic in front of dying loved one. All other particular emotions or feelings take their place and measure against one's mood. In Being and Time, Heidegger describes anxiety (Angst) as the key mood which discloses the reality than Dasein is running towards death (Sein zum Tode).

When Heidegger says that "startled dismay" is the Stimmung of the "other" beginning, he contrasts it with the fundamental attunement (Grundstimmung) of the first beginning: wonder (Erstaunen or Gr. thaumazein). Thaumazein does not merely state a concept or cause (arche) that led the Greeks to philosophize; it describes the experience of their deep awe before that which arose on its own (physis), their admiration for the beauty (agathon) of nature, and their unity with the harmony (dike) of the cosmos.

Formulated in modern philosophy, this was the wonder that there is something rather than nothing. The fact of Being preceded all explaining or proving; the truth of Being--yet to come and then ultimately forgotten--was what the lover of wisdom (philosophos) searched and sought for in the the twin infinities of the heavens and the soul. Parmenides at the threshold of this beginning said: esti gar einai--there is Being. The cause (causa) of this Being was not yet to be determined--the medieval Schoolmen will do this much later (designating God as the ground of Being as the ultimate causa sui in the metaphysics of onto-theo-logy)--and the meaning of this Being will be sought for (and fought for) only to end in failure much, much later--in the figure of that philosopher by the name of Martin Heidegger.

"In failure." This can mean a foiled attempt. Or an inability to do what one planned--perhaps contingently (something came up) or necessarily (giving up). It can also mean not being able to arrive at the planned destination; knowing how way leads on to way, one gets lost, gets stranded and finally loses one's bearings. Or perhaps a reaching out for what eventually shows to be un-reach-able, that is, what ultimately shows to be out of one's range. Or it can also be a question that was asked well before its time--not only to answer it but more so to even understand it as a question and in its questionability.

Failure. While there are no good or bad failures, there are worthy ones--"To be worthy of what we lose is the supreme aim" (Emily Dickenson).

"Startled dismay" is to be in front of a worthy failure. It is to see the failure as failure no matter how shaking or disappointing it may be. If modern philosophy, starting with Descartes, begins with doubting everything that can be doubted (De omnibus dubitandum est) and proceeds to building from ground zero another castle, a new one now founded on solid ground (ego cogito) until it reach its towering height (Hegel), the "other" beginning begins not by leaving the destruction (the failed building), but--as difficult as it may be--by staying in the ruins of those very stones. The murderer, they say, always goes back to the crime scene; but he is only able to return because he left with blood in his hands. But the point was to stay. To stay in the ruins and not run from its embarrassment, to own up to the murder.

Startled dismay "means returning from the ease of comportment in what is familiar to the openness of the rush of self-sheltering. In this opening what has been familiar for so long proves to be estranging and confining" (Contributions, 11). If "startled dismay" be a Stimmung it is not only a mood to be felt and in which one wallows; this Stimmung is also a stimulus. As the key mood of this beginning, it fuels the act of starting anew. Startled dismay "calls" one to the "openness of the rush," it "provokes" one to act (anew), that is, to think anew--even if what one rushes to, that which shall be new, would be "estranging and confining."

When one sees his house burning, one does not watch the flames or run from the smoke. One rushes to his shelter, that is, he returns to save what can be saved in the very furnace that destroys all that he has in the hope that something shall still remain. Because as fire burns, it also lights, illuminates, enlightens. Lightning is the fire of a dark sky, illuminating the features of a hitherto unseen world. "But the lightning abruptly vanished," Heidegger says in "Logos." "No one held onto its streak of light and the nearness of what it illuminated" (Early Greek Thinking, 78).

The call then is to return and remain, to "station ourselves in the storm of Being" (Ibid.) This means to suffer the storm as storm, to bear it and not to drive it away and take shelter from it. It is precisely to take shelter in it, to find and abide in its center, to stare at its eye, where, amidst the terror of the rush, you stay in that eerie and most unfamiliar of all silences--the startling calm in the middle of the storm.

To be in the eye of Be-ing's storm: to experience the "startled dismay [that] lets man return to face that a being is, whereas before a being was for him just a being. . . . and lets man return to face that beings are and that this--be-ing--has abandoned all 'beings' and all that appeared to be beings and has withdrawn from them" (Contributions, 11).

There, in the eye of the storm, one ultimately suffers the stillness (Stille) of that departure, the silence of disappearance, and the sorrow of all withdrawal. There, nothing can be done but to let the storm take its course, not in a "helpless surrender of the 'will'" but by summoning one's "ownmost 'will,'" that will which is no longer "will" but a transfigured will--a "will"-less will. "And that," Heidegger says, "is what we call here reservedness" (Ibid.)

Reservedness, that comportment in the middle of the storm, is that falling silent (Verhaltenheit) into a reticence:
Thus the deep stillness must first come over the world for the the earth. This stillness only springs forth from reticence. And this reticence only grows out of reservedness. As grounding-attunement, reservedness thoroughly tunes the intimacy of the strife between world and earth and this the strifing of the onset of en-ownment. (Ibid., 25).
Silently letting the storm take its course, reservedly keeping all willing from returning, staying in that terrifying abandonment, this is the fruit of a startled dismay which owns up to its self, which stays when all has left. As falling silent, this is the silence of waiting--waiting before "the onset of en-ownment." This comportment of reserved waiting is not merely passing by the time or awaiting the cessation of the storm; it is pure waiting without knowing what, when, and if that which arrives arrives, if the storms finishes the storm. "Reservedness is the creative sustaining in ab-ground" (Ibid., 26). In other words, it is to stay in that startled dismay, to wait without hope, to sustain and suffer the weight of waiting, knowing that only one thing is necessary, that is, to let the storm of Being be.

To wait even if "we are too late for the gods and too / early for Being." But it is in this waitful staying that "Being's poem, / just began, is man" ("The Thinker as Poet," Poetry, Language, Thought, 4).


  1. yeah, waiting can be painful (to acknowledge one of paulo coelho's masterpieces, "by the river piedra i sat down and wept")...

  2. perhaps waiting is pain itself. and joy--the arrival of that which is waited upon...

  3. i couldn't agree more... esp. when one is waiting for something that which will never arrive...


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