Death: The Mountain Range of Being

Johannes Achill Niederhauser

How does this title make any sense? How could death be a place?

Death is, if it is at all, utter negativity, the utter opposite of life and of positivity, not some place we could even begin to imagine. WHAT ELSE WOULD THIS BE BUT YET ANOTHER FANCIFUL NONSENSE FROM A PESKY GERMAN THINKER. Death is, says Hegel, “most terrifying“ (Vorrede, 26). If death were a place, then it would be a most terrifying place. To remain with Hegel, death is most terrifying for what? For the understanding, i.e. for Vorstellung, because what is dead cannot be held firmly and manifestly before oneself. MENTION THE DIALECTICS THAT THE UNDERSTANDING ALWAYS ALSO TURNS INTO SOMETHING DEAD FOR IT WANTS TO HOLD ON TO SOMETHING, MAKE PERMANENT Hegel continues: “But not the life that shies away from death and safeguards against devastation pure and simple, but the life that bears it and preserves itself in death, is the life of spirit.“ (26; my emphasis) I have emphasized in death, in ihm, because it suggests a certain locality of death present in Hegel. I do not want to conflate Hegel with Heidegger and claim that death in Heidegger is a marker for negativity as it is for Hegel. However, thinking death as a place is necessary even for Hegel, it seems. Life, sheer immediate positivity, needs to stride through death, utter negativity, in order for life to include mediacy in its immediacy. Spirit is to “dwell“ with negativity. “This dwelling is the magic power which turns the negative into being.“ (26) We are all too familiar with the terminology of dwelling, as readers of Heidegger. Death as negativity to Hegel appears to be a place in which Spirit needs to dwell in order for being to assume its proper and full potential.

Hegel does not explicitly address and articulate the apparent spatial sense he attributes to death. With Heidegger things are reversed. Death is explicitly articulated as a place. And not just any place. Death is determined as the Gebirg des Seins, literally the mountain range of being. In Contributions Heidegger points out that death comes in many gestalts. The Gebirg is thus one of those gestalts of death, which man knows of. The Gebirg is one of the ways in which death manifests itself for man’s destiny.

Heidegger publicly speaks of death as Gebirg for the first time in the Bremer Vorträge of 1949. There Heidegger writes: “As the shrine of the nought, death is the Gebirg of being … The mortals are who they are as mortals by assenting in the Gebirg of being. They are the abiding, wesende, relationship to being as being.“ (GA79: 18) In a footnote added in the same year to the introduction of What is Metaphysics?, Heidegger writes: “Letting death come towards oneself, holding oneself in the arrival of death as the Gebirg of being (crossed out)“ Being crossed out indicates that being is here at the centre of the fourfold, holding together the relationality of the four poles. Mortals are to take a self-relational stance in regards to their mortality. The footnote is added to the following sentence: “We have to think standing-in in the openness of being, carrying out the standing-in (care) and persisting in the uttermost (being towards death) all together as the full essence of existence.“

In a poem to Hannah Arendt dated from 1950, a poem Heidegger dedicates to Arendt’s friend Hilde Fränkel, who was terminally ill at the time of writing, Heidegger also speaks of death as Gebirg:

“Tod ist das Gebirg des Seyns/

im Gedicht der Welt./

Tod entrettet Deins und Meins/

an’s Gewicht, das fällt–/

in die Höhe einer Ruh/rein der Stern der Erde zu.”

Cf. Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger, Briefe, 1925–1975 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1994), 80

Death is Being’s mountainous region

in the poem of the world.

Death will save and free us from what’s yours and mine

Pushing toward the weight that falls —

Falls toward the height of a silence,

purely toward the star of earth.

What should all of those quotes tell us other than Heidegger’s philosophy is after all just charlatanry, bad poetry, and downright pessimistic. Death is the mountain range of being is at best meaningless word magic, at worst the reduction of being to morbidity. But maybe Heidegger did see something here. Maybe he did see a gestalt of death that had been covered over before.

Let my try to unpack the poem: Death is the Gebirg of being in the poem of the world and as such death saves and protects. Death saves and protects and in so doing frees from the division between the I and the Thou. The weight could be thought of, if this is not too associative, as the heavy weight of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. The weight of attempting to live as if one returns forever and has to live the same life over and over again. Death then would be what gives weight, what frees us for that weight, for death is what gives weight to life and pulls back onto earth into a silent releasement. That is, the silent affirmation of finitude and imperfection in an all too well-organised global surveillance-economy.

What is death here? Death is not demise. Death is not the end of someone’s life. If we take Heidegger seriously here, then death as the mountainous region of being is whence the freeing for the heavy weight, for “the full essence of existence“ comes.

Furthermore, if death is the mountainous region of being, then we have to think death on the level of being and think it such that from this level it translates up unto the level of mortals. As mountainous region death is a barely accessible place, it is where being hides and conceals itself. Death then is the resting place of being. Andrew Mitchell has suggested to translate Gebirg as refuge. In how far is death the place where being conceals itself? We have to ask, how does being essentially sway or abide? Being is presence but in and for its presence it is concealed, verborgen. In the German the root verb of what is translated as disclosing, concealing and unconcealing is bergen. Bergen means to bring to safety, to protect, to harbour and to shelter. We can thus understand death as Ge-Birg, often hyphenated by Heidegger, as the gathering of Bergung, of a concealing harbouring of the Open of being.

Why Heidegger would call death the place of gathering of all Bergung? What is bergen? Bergen is the sheltering disclosure, giving heed to the disclosed beings in their being rather than forcefully and manipulatively demanding them to function. Thus Bergung is mindful of and respects the law of aletheia, that whatever is disclosed simultaneously covers over other aspects. The opposite of that Heidegger calls stellen. It is no coincidence that Heidegger ends the section on The Essencing of Truth as Bergung in Contributions with some notes on “The Machine and Machination (Technology)“ (GA65: 392), where he also mentions the destruction of the earth and the displacement and uprooting of the worker. In the world of machines the Bergung of truth is corrupted to a mere positioning of all things in a neatly operable warehouse of immediate availability. In the Nachlaß Nietzsche warns of “an uncanny wheel work with ever more finely tuned wheels,“ of “the total economic management of the earth that is inevitably in store for us.“ Stellen, placing or putting, is a corruption of bergen, because it seeks to fundamentally and radically manipulate rather than disclose in a carefully sheltering manner. Is it coincidence that in such an age man seems to rush towards promises of immortality and self-aggrandisement? We have, after all, apparently arrived at the anthropogenic age, the age of Geo-engineering — ultimate hubris some might think — and the possibility of virtual infinite prolonging of life qua conscious states of experiences seems right around the corner. And, as Heidegger himself noted in his last public interview with Richard Wisser, the human being is about to be produced just as that uncanny wheelwork needs him. In On the Essence and Concept of Physis Heidegger argues that if “life in itself would become some technological fake product, at the same moment there would no longer be health, birth nor death.“ (GA9: 257) That is, there would no longer be mortals, but only organised, stream-lined positioned rational animals executing the tasks of technology. Organised by an organisation that no one would quite know where it came from. And being would have no resting place. It would burst into an unstoppable gigantomachia.

Why then is death the place where being hides and finds refuge? Death as place is the inaccessible, that which slips from manageability and controllability. Death as the place of gathering of all bergen is the last refuge of being where, as it were, being is relieved or even freed from itself and its current fate: enframing. This intimate relationship of being and death is translated up unto the level of mortals. Mortals are those beings who have to carry out and withstand this tension rather than run from it. To bridge this with what was outlined above in regards to Hegel: death is terrifying to Vorstellung, to the understanding that needs to corroborate all things in front of itself in constant and homogenized availability. Death withdraws from the demands of stellen and as such is the refuge of being, its hiding place from itself. Ivo De Gennaro argues that man needs again to take a mortal stance, i.e. to come into his own. In Being and Time death is the ownmost possibility of Dasein. Following Dastur, man needs to be in death for the late Heidegger. Becoming what we are means to become mortals. That is, man needs to be in death as the mountain range and refuge of being, man needs to bear the burden of bergen rather than being the executing animal of limitless manipulation operating under the fantasy of becoming the homo deus.

To be in death, following Hegel, is the life of Geist. Yet, with Heidegger we have a richer account of the tension between being and death than with Hegel. With Hegel the lines are drawn, the negative sublates the positive unto its proper immediacy. With Heidegger, the result is unclear. Death as the refuge of being means that being can rest there but also that it withdraws into that place and that being therefore is barely accessible, and denies itself. Being dwells in death and it can get lost in its mountain range. Being can leave, can abandon beings, and it is for its relationship with death that it can do so.

Death is the place where being rests, but simultaneously also where being can abandon beings and lose itself. The human being is the being where this tension is carried out and in this sense we have to understand Heidegger’s paradoxical claims that the human being has to become the mortal being. Only if we appreciate this claim, can we understand when Heidegger in the late 1940s and 1950s repeatedly says that the human being is not yet the mortal being. If mortals fail to become what they are, the equilibrium of the fourfold is at stake. True, the human has no control over being. But, as Heidegger continuously points out, the essence of the human and the essence of being are wesensverwandt, essentially related, thus there is reason to assume an influence of human activity over the fate of being. Why else would we need to ask the Seinsfrage? It is the task of the human as mortal being to engage in acts of Bergung and as such allow being to withdraw without abandoning beings entirely. That is the task of the poet. Different from Hegel, the precise outcome is unclear with Heidegger. Yet, Heidegger’s thinking is a planting of seeds rather than an implicit will to absolute control. Heidegger writes: “The mortals are who they are as mortals by assenting in the Gebirg of being. They are the abiding, wesende, relationship to being as being.“ They are that relationship because they are mortal, i.e. those who carry out the tension of being and death and the way this is carried out matters for the fate of being. This carrying out can be performed if mortals are in death, in that place of concealment, of harbouring, sheltering, rather than in the assumed transparency of manipulation, where nature is an open book of mashable data.

Also Heidegger’s notorious word of man as the “placeholder of the nought“ (GA9: 419), which means that the human being frees a place for the totally other than beings, which makes any differentiation possible, should now be clearer. The human being as the mortal being carries the shrine that is death to the nought.

Compared to contemporary fantasies of immortaily purveyed by Ray Kurzweil and Transhumanism Heidegger’s promise must appear bleak. Humans, as long as they are human, are mortally finite. Yet, not only that. They shall also dwell in death as Gebirg. Why? For the human being is the shepherd of being. That now means: The human being in a community of mortals guides being into its refuge and listens carefully to its more fundamental call rather than to the demands of its current fate, a fate that drives being to abandon itself and beings.

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