The Forest Clearing or, At the Water’s Edge

tdialecticThere is a small village in England called Tyneham. There is, the internet will tell you, nothing particularly remarkable about it. Accessible on a single, narrow country road, you drive round the crest of a hill and see it lying there in the fold of the valley. A church steeple catches the eye and beyond that there is the sea. It is a trivial cluster of houses, perched on the edge of the south coast, far from anywhere, isolated and beautiful. There’s a sweeping bay, hills, sheep and, on occasion, sun too. The village traces its roots to the Doomsday book, the church to the thirteenth century. In keeping with much of the land of England it was parceled off and sold, exchanged and inherited down the lines of the wealthy and the landed. Tyneham, was it seems, a place of little importance — a site where farmers and fisherman could be relied upon to make their rents and where the old class system was embedded into it all. Into the very air breathed and the ground family homes were built upon. Nothing special – there are hundreds, even thousands of places like it across this so-called green and pleasant land.

The war took Tyneham.

Churchill’s cabinet requisitioned the entire village in 1943. That huddle of family homes was surrounded by hills, by thousands of acres of rolling land, perfect for artillery practice and so, just like that, hundreds were told to leave the village and their homes. Houses passed down through a family were now in the hands of the ministry of defense. All done just in time for Christmas. The final group to leave the village left a note on the door of the church.

Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.

There’s a quiet kind of tragedy to that story — it’s easy to idealise the generations who lived there, with their simple homes, and close-knit community. Those jobs, so interdependent with the land and sea and the seasons are so far removed from life now. It’s easy to see it as a way of life that, whilst simpler, was also, somehow more real. Of course, none of them ever went back, and the village and the land is still owned by the ministry of defense. It’s all still there —the buildings still stand but seventy years of human absence has left the village now shrouded in trees and undergrowth. Walls and roofing have collapsed and the forest has moved in. Wandering through the village is a deeply uncanny experience — an unheimlich realisation that there is no-one at home anymore. A little away from the centre of the village stands a house in a wooded clearing. Surrounded by trees the roof is gone, but most of the structure remains. On the wall of what would have been the main room there are photographs of the family that was turned out. The light is warm and slightly gloomy, and all that can be heard is bird song and the faint trace of voices back beyond the tree line. It would have been a good house to sit and think in. But perhaps not perfect — not ideal. Those voices beyond the tree line speak of intrusions, and more damning, distractions.

Wenn in tiefer Winternacht ein wilder Schneesturm mit seinen Stößen um die Hütte rast und alles verhängt und verhüllt, dann ist die hohe Zeit der Philosophie (Bakewell, p. 93)

However, standing in the cold shadow of the house walls it feels haunted. Something that once was is gone, but the echoes that remain are somewhat unsettling.

From there a path leads down towards the beach — a beautiful English cliché, that sweeps from the village round to the headland. Stones among the sand of course, but an excellent spot for a picnic. Dogs dash through the waves and there are some wind-flushed parents over there, chasing some stubby legged child. There, on the edge of the sea, there seems to be less gloom in the air than back in the village. The house in the clearing seems a long way away. Here, there is less quiet, but here on the beach, within that odd interstitial zone, that border situation between water and earth, you can talk.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Tyneham, since wandering through it in April sunshine, and after reading Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café I find myself drawn back to the image of the house, vs. the shore-line as sites of both Being and of philosophical thought. Rather than attempt a jargon heavy, academic (by which read, “unreadable”) book on existentialism, Bakewell’s book is a brisk, accessible and deeply affectionate philosophical biography of the great existentialists. The dominate figures are of course Sartre and de Beauvoir whose work and life are unfolded with care and precision, allowing for the full force of these two remarkable people to emerge. Refreshingly, Bakewell never separates thought from life, or what is personal from what is philosophical. Existentialism, if it is anything, is applied philosophy. How can one understand Sartre’s thought without understanding is personality? How can one make sense of his volcanic, infuriating, expansive personality without understanding his thought? Existentialism is, inescapably, lived thought and the entire book gives insight into this intricate connection — the entangled nature of life with thought. How we live, how we act, affects how we think.

And here we come back to the house in the clearing, and perhaps the great tragedy, the great potential “what-if” of existentialism. We come back to the magician of Messkirch, Martin Heidegger. Perhaps the section of the book which best exemplifies the lived reality, complexity, compromise and fragility of philosophy are on Heidegger. Beginning with his studentship under Husserl, Bakewell sketches out this desperately intelligent figure. A solitary figure, raised in the hills of German, wandering the isolated forest paths, mind turning and turning. He would retreat to his own isolated home in the hills, to sit, to think, and to write in silence. He came to university to study with the best and to outstrip them all. His mentor and teacher, Husserl, watched him lecture with horror, reaching the philosophically distressing conclusion that he could have nothing to do with this “Heideggerian profundity.”  Here was a philosopher burningly intelligent, obsessed with learning how to think. Heidegger was a star — a philosopher desperately needed, whose intellect, writing and teaching was captivating. His writing on resilience, on resisting the voice of das Man – the “they” that takes up residence in all our heads, draining us of our “answerability,” was a powerful call to create and take up our own self-made authentic Self. It was a call to do something. To respond. To resist.

And yet…

And yet, and yet..

It’s impossible to read the sections on Heidegger’s writing, thought and behaviour during the war years without a profound sense of anger and regret. If Heidegger has a legacy it must be one of regret. Of what could have been. What could have come from the demands of that historical moment meeting with the philosophical insights of Being and Time?

You might deduce that the authentic voice of Dasein would call on you not to raise your arm as the march passes by. But that was not what Heidegger meant…(p. 79)

After the war, Heidegger retreated to the woods and to his cabin. Back to the forest paths and what later became known as “the turn” in his thinking. He became marked by silences. Acquaintances and colleagues found him as a void, a silent presence that could not be reached. The old man of the mountain could not be drawn down to the seashore, could not be drawn into communication. He was ‘outside of the dimension in which a conversation between men is even possible’ as Marcuse put it. Perhaps the relationship between Jaspers and Heidegger best exemplifies the issue — language was for Heidegger the ‘house of Being,’ – a fitting image for the philosopher is his forest hut. Jaspers response? ‘I bristle, because all language seems to be only a bridge for me.’  This gap seems insurmountable and thus Heidegger’s philosophy is a place where, for all the talk of home, Bakewell finds it ‘uninhabitable.’ (p. 321)

One of the final enduring image of Bakewell’s book is this notion of language as something which takes us beyond ourselves, beyond the doorway of the house of Being. In one of Jaspers final appearances in the book, he shares a story about the sea-shore. Taken by his father to the island of Norderney they walked the water’s edge together, seeing the vast expanse where ‘there is this other, the infinity of the ocean that liberates us.’ (p. 305) It’s an invitation within all good philosophy – to rethink, to think a-new and perhaps find a new way to look upon that vast liberating other.

Homo viator as Gabriel Marcel put it. Man, the traveler. Rather than homeward, let’s head to the edge of the ocean.

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