But What Are You So Afraid Of?
The house in which I spend the second half of the growing up portion of my life is only two blocks from my high school, but all the same, once I have my driver’s license and my white 1982 Toyota Corolla, I drive to school every morning. To attribute this compulsion to laziness is to overlook a complexity in the behavior. For instance, I park, every morning, in the same spot, which is the second-furthest spot in the entire parking lot from the entrance to the school; the only spot further from the entrance is to its immediate left. The consequences, though largely undefined, of not parking in my spot, impose themselves upon me ominously and indeterminately and so, to make sure that I never have to face them, I leave thirty, forty-five minutes before school starts. This, now, is my senior year in high school: for thirty or forty-five minutes I stand in the classroom in which my first period class convenes looking out the window at the parking lot, waiting for the arrival of who I cannot, from this perspective, properly refer to as my girlfriend, but who was the closest thing I had during that era of my life to a girlfriend. I loved her; or, more to the point, I was in love with her. And from time to time she allowed me to ejaculate in my pants while I dry-humped her. I cannot here divulge her name except to say that her first name began with the letter ‘A’ and her last name was a word that, in another context, would refer to, or describe, a part of a tree. She looked like a boy. She was a goalie on the soccer team and—thanks, I like to think, to the hours I spent playing one-on-one with her during the off-season, hoping for a sweaty dry hump afterwards—the star of the basketball team. She comes late to school, in her silver Toyota Corolla. By the time I am watching out the window for her, I am no longer driving my white Toyota Corolla, but rather a metallic blue Nissan Stanza Wagon and, later that year, a Ford Tempo of a similar hue. What I want, desperately, is for her to park her car next to mine. She can’t miss it, right there, where it always is, just a couple of car lengths from the parking lot entrance.
My emotional condition, for the moment, when she finally arrives, always between the first bell and the late bell, is determined by where she parks: elated if she parks close to my car—on an almost drug-like high if she parks near enough to my car that we’ll talk if we leave school at the same time (I’ll do my best, then, to make sure we do)—and increasingly devastated depending on how far away she parks. The spot just to the left of my car, the furthest from the school entrance, almost always remains open, but she would never park there. She knows too well how much it would mean to me. In either case, my emotional condition is precarious: she would never sit next to me during the class we have together first period, but occasionally she looks at me when she arrives, and from time to time she talks to me after class, though briefly. Such conversations are double-edged swords: they bring me high and then, because the conversations are always brief, and because she never throws her arms around me or tells me she loves me during them, are never satisfying. So I crash.
It is 1994.
It is 2005. In the morning I peer out the window of my loft in mid-city Los Angeles to make sure that nobody has stolen my car during the night. From time to time I exchange cordial emails with the girl whose first name starts with the letter ‘A’ and whose last name is a word that, in another context, would refer to or describe a part of a tree. Last summer she got married.
To a woman.
Heidegger makes an important distinction between fear and what, in various moments, has been translated as anxiety, angst, or dread; what, in any event, is the essential constitutive or revealing moment of Dasein, a certain phenomenological being in the world. Fear, Heidegger tells us, is always of something—of something that is in the world. It is grounded or founded in threat, or in being threatened by something, and the founding or grounding movement of that experience—the experience of being threatened by something—is in the swift approach, experienced as a nearness that could almost be described as an on-handedness—in other words, “it is on hand”—of something that has not yet arrived.
Fear, in this fashion, or the experience of the threat from which fear is derived, literally promises the presence of a future, seals it into the experience itself of the present, when that experience is one of fear.
But fear is also illusory, or secondary, a derivative phenomenon of the foundational phenomenon of angst, anxiety, or dread which, first of all, is distinguished from fear in that it is dread not of anything out there in the world. Dread, or anxiety, the experience, according to Heidegger, that reveals the nature of being as itself, or in itself, a being-in-the-world that is at once no being other than a being-in-the world, is of nothing, and in a sense this is precisely what constitutes it as itself. What we are discovering, perhaps, according to Heidegger, in that moment of profound anxiety or dread, is not simply our own being as such as a being that is in the world, a being-in-the-world, but also, in precisely that same moment, the absolute vacuum of the possibility of a being that is never anything other than a being-in-the-world not being in the world. Dread manifests as a revelation of the fact that our being-in-the-world is not not in the world, and yet this revelation is also the constituting of the very possibility, which is itself, from the standpoint of being, a self-impossibility, of being-in-the-world not being in the world. Dread, which is the first moment of revealing of our being-in-the-world, of its revealing not to itself but to language, and, therefore, thought, is something perhaps like the moment of discovering that there is no being here outside of being-in-the-world, a world which exists, somehow, at the same time, indifferent to our being in it, and will exist when we are no longer in it, already exists while we are no longer in it.
A woman with whom I am currently romantically involved remarks to me that she has recently read that scientists have discovered a new galaxy.
“You mean a new planet,” I say to her, having read that very day that scientists have discovered that the new planet they recently discovered—a planet which indeed may not be a planet, for the matter is still up for discussion—has its own moon. Although, if the planet is not a planet, then the moon is not a moon, but leaving that aside…
“Not that,” she tells me.
She’s always a step ahead of me.
“They discovered that a long time ago. This was just last week.”
“A whole new galaxy?”
“They took a picture of it,” she tells me. “But this is what I don’t understand. They took a picture of it, apparently, eight hundred million years ago.”
We are at the beach in Goleta, California. It is daytime, or nighttime; I can’t remember which it is. I think it is night. I think we have just eaten a pizza.
“I don’t understand,” she says to me. “This just doesn’t make sense to me. How can you take a picture of something eight hundred million years ago?”
I either have of have not yet thrown the pizza box in the garbage, but I remember with great clarity that, when I do—whether I have or have not already—I find that it does not fit into the opening of the garbage can, and the woman with whom I am currently romantically involved calls over to me to fold it in half.
And I do.
And it works.
Having not yet or already done that, I explain to her:
“Light takes a long time to get places. Especially from very far away.”
“But eight hundred million years? I know, but I still just don’t understand that.”
I do not, in this moment, have an experience of Heideggerian dread or angst or anxiety, but I do, I think, have a moment of insight into something about where it originates. If you can take a picture, a photograph, of eight hundred million years ago, right now, then how can our lives, our existence per se, or being-in-the-world, exist as a phenomenon absolutely bracketed in time, or by time? It doesn’t make sense, but, I suppose, that’s precisely the point. If you can take a photograph of eight hundred million years ago, then to some extent, insofar as a photograph freezes a moment of presence, eight hundred million years ago is present right now, here, and if eight hundred million years ago is present then it only follows that eight hundred million years from now is present, as well. Right now. Eight hundred million years ago, when we did not exist, when there was not being-in-the-world, as it were, instead of not not, and eight hundred million years from now, when we will not exist, in precisely the same sense, exist—are present—right now, when we do exist. Which is to say, our not being-in-the-world, or being being-in-the-world, is present in our not not being-in-the-world, which is still nothing other than a being-in-the-world.
The moment of anxiety is what reveals our being-in-the-world to us as a not not being-in-the-world and, therefore, in the sense that that being-in-the-world, or not not being-in-the-world, is a revelation to itself of itself, constitutes it. It is a drawing away that closes in on us, which wraps itself around us, quite literally, and suffocates us: takes our breath away, Heidegger says. We cannot be expected to live like that. We are children. I am a child. During my high school years, in the house in which I spend the second half of the portion of my life that can properly be described as growing up, only two long blocks from the high school itself, I am a child. I cannot be expected to live like that. Even now, I cannot be expected to live like that, occupying the absence at the center of my presence. Nobody can. That is why, even according to Heidegger himself, that moment of clarity—dread or anxiety—in which our being-in-the-world is, or is not not, by revealing itself as being-in-the-world—always lasts only a moment, one cold and profoundly meaningless moment, before we fall back once again into an illusory existence of temporality and relation. Dread of nothing, which is itself an experience of nothing, which is itself the nothing itself, must be not so much replaced as manifested by fear: fear which is not simply of something in a world which is something other than our being in it, but also fear which is of that which is impending but has not yet arrived, which therefore founds the very presence of the future as something other than the present, rather than as something which is the same as the present—its own absence from itself. Fear puts us back in time. It assures us that our not being-in-the-world, the end of us, has not yet come, by constituting a future which is not the present. It saves us from the already-present of our own oblivion.
Before I am old enough to drive, there is the question of the red, plastic clock on the shelf in the kitchen. At my suburban Midwestern high school, we are allowed to go home for lunch. They are not afraid that we will commit criminal acts during that time; or they don’t care if we do. They are preparing us to perpetuate the suburban upper middle class by affording us our bracketed moment of freedom, insulation from the gaze of authority, something the students at the inner city schools do not have. Lunch lasts, I believe, from about 11:50 in the morning until, as I recall, 12:46 in the afternoon, when the fifth of our seven periods of class begins. I walk home for lunch where, for a moment, I have been saved, and I am free; where I am home. Generally, I am home by noon, for, as I have said, I live only two long blocks from the high school campus. I eat tortillas with cheese melted on them, left over mostaciolli, and therein lies a story about my dog vomiting which I will not tell here. I am terrified of arriving late to school. Terror, Heidegger says, is manifested in the sudden encounter with that of which we are afraid but which is utterly unfamiliar. But here’s the thing. I do not simply leave very early to give myself more than enough time to get back to school on time. I leave, every day, at exactly 12:18:50 according to the red plastic clock on the shelf in the kitchen. Or, rather, at first I decide that I should leave by twenty past, just to be sure. But if I should leave at twenty past, then I ought, really, to leave at nineteen past, in order to give myself room for error. Thus develops the notion that I should leave by nineteen past, which is to say, before nineteen past, but how to quantify it? I settle, by way of a process that is not a process at all, at 12:18:50. It makes sense. The ten-second window gives me a clear space of time between not yet 12:19 and already 12:19, and it is this space to which, finally, I have committed myself, the space between not yet and already.
On this particular day my mother, who is a teacher in another school district, has the day off of work, owing perhaps to a holiday that has not extended itself to my school district, or perhaps a doctor appointment. She is home when I come home from lunch, and my Aunt Sue, who lives upstairs in our duplex and is an artist and therefore keeps her own hours, is downstairs with us. At perhaps twelve or fourteen after I begin to arrange myself to get into position to leave. At seventeen after, I am standing with my backpack on my shoulder watching the second hand trace its circle on the face of the red plastic clock on the shelf in the kitchen.
My mother wants to know what I’m doing.
Sue, who knows, blows my cover.
“He’s sitting there watching the clock,” she says. “He does it every day. He sits there watching the clock and leaves at the exact same time every day.”
My mother panics and becomes frantic. Panic, Heidegger says, is that which occurs in the moment of the arrival of that which we have feared but for which—and perhaps this is precisely why we have feared it—we are not prepared. Panic. She lunges toward the clock, grabs it before I can intervene, and runs toward the other side of the house with it. I no longer know what time it is. I chase her. She’s having none of this. Before I can reach her, but so I can see what she is doing, she spins the dials on the back of the clock. The clock’s hands move, the minute hand and the hand that indicates the hour, and the second hand stays still, moves slightly backwards, resumes its position and begins to tick again. There is nothing for me to do. I leave for school not knowing what time it is, for sure, according to the old system for determining my time of departure, for that system has been obliterated—it depended not on accuracy but on consistency, reference of a single clock to itself—but knowing that whatever time it is, or, I should say, whatever time it was when I left, it definitely was not 12:18:50.
Of course, nothing happens to me that afternoon, and my mother thinks that precisely this experience will cure me of my compulsion.
What she does not consider is that perhaps this experience is precisely what I am afraid of.
What about the girl whose first name begins with the letter ‘A’ and whose last name is a word that could, in another context, refer to or describe a part of a tree? She’s a lesbian, as it turns out! It really comes as no surprise; even then, everyone knew it, and the only boy she ever dated in high school other than me was plainly a homosexual. But was I afraid this would happen?
Perhaps, if I really loved her, this would be what I feared the most.
But, on the other hand, if I did not so much love her as fear that she did not love me because of me, because of some failure or deficiency on my part, this is the best I could have hoped for. Perhaps my refusal to accept what plenty of other people were telling me reflected a reluctance to believe in what I most wanted to be true until the evidence was indubitable. In any event, by the time I am updated regarding her sexual orientation it is of no more than anecdotal relevance to me. She is a distant, idiosyncratic memory, a name—beginning with the letter ‘A’ and ending with a word that could, in another context, refer to or describe a part of a tree—that I associate, or that associates me, with the rather predictable psychology of a particular moment of my existence that has long since passed into its own oblivion.
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