I love language; I hate language. It is how I made my living, but it always feels like cheating. It feels heartfelt, but dishonest. Odi et amo.
Do you remember the first time you were in love, or thought you were, as a teenager? The longing, the rapture. There is an almost universal response that “Love” is not an adequate word to describe the emotion. You feel as if your love is special, better, more aware, alert and awake than everybody else’s, especially your parents’. And you say, “I wish there were another word to describe how I feel.”
That is the first awareness most of us have of the difference between authentic and inauthentic existence. It is the first, and most universal — at least in our culture — awareness that our lives are divided into separate portions, one of them alive and burning and dangerous, and the other ordinary, safe and comforting.
German philosopher and godawful writer Martin Heidegger gave us the verbal formulation for this distinction when he named the “authentic” and “inauthentic” existence.
Authentic existence: An individual’s conscious response to his existence; i.e., his “being-in-the-world,” which inescapably associates life with death. Authentic existence is thus opposed to everyday (inauthentic) existence.
Heidegger is nearly impossible to read, in part because he invents words to express his ideas rather than relying on the old, well-understood words. He has more than 200 words alone created with the suffix that means “being.”
But it couldn’t have been any other way. Heidegger felt toward the ordinary vocabulary just as the teenager does toward the word “love,” that it is worn out and sounds trite and phony on the tongue that doesn’t truly understand, or rather live through, the experience — and specifically MY experience.
That is because language is by its essence inauthentic.
Language always takes us a step away from our “being-in-the-world.” It is a way of softening the experience, a way of taming it.
In this sense, I take as a central dichotomy the opposition of language and love.
An awareness of death, says Heidegger, is what wakes us up to the here-and-now, keeps us focused on the experience of being alive. And a desire to transcend death is the ultimate goal of both language and love.
The analogy of love and language is nothing new.
When Shakespeare wrote his sonnet, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,” he ends it with the telling couplet, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’’
In that, he is mixing the two: the words are immortal, and therefore, so is his love.
But the actual love is an experience and at its fullest transcends words more certainly than it transcends death. We love, have children and HOPE that the love will live past death. But there is no question that the experience of love can never be adequately expressed in words: They are too small, too conventional, too ordinary.
The sliver of experience in the condition of love IS the authenticity. It is the experience of life. The words are only ABOUT the experience of life. After all, would you rather make love or read Krafft-Ebing?
Now, certainly Heidegger wasn’t the first to recognize the distinction. He is merely the philosopher who fixes the meaning of the distinction like an entomologist pinning a butterfly. Heidegger gives us the vocabulary — now necessarily inauthentic — to describe the reality. We use his words, and as a consequence, fall (another of his words) into inauthencity.
The writer Henry Miller expresses it another way in his book Black Spring:
“What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature.”
Henry Thoreau’s whole book, Walden, is essentially about living an authentic life.
“To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”
“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” he writes in another place.
Yeats called inauthentic living “automatonism.”
For William Blake, what made Christ different from the rest of us was his ability to live authentically at every moment.
“Now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: Did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God? Murder those who were murder’d because of him? Turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? Steal the labor of others to support him? Bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? Covet when he pray’d for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”
And in another place: “Know that after Christ’s death, he became Jehovah.” Know that for Blake, Jehovah wasn’t a good thing. Jehovah is all rules: “One God, One Law, One King.”
Or perhaps we could go all the way back to Lao-Tse, who wrote the Tao-Te-Ching and said, “The way that can be named is not the constant way, the name that can be given is not the constant name.”
The best popular discussion of authenticity comes in Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has absolutely nothing to do with zen, even in its pop forms, and only a little to do with motorcycle maintenance.
The book is an investigation of what Pirsig calls “quality,” which, it turns out, is much the same as Heidegger calls “authenticity.”
“You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after you’ve seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness, there must be a time lag.”
“Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore, unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. This pre-intellectual reality is what [I] felt [I] had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this pre-intellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.”
And authenticity, rather than being a result, is likewise a source. Authenticity is a relation you have with being alive that allows you to see, feel, and experience without the intervention of word or symbol.
All art, or all worthwhile art, exists to reawaken in us this often closed-off authenticity.
Art cannot itself embody authenticity: It is, after all, words or symbols — even music is an analog of the experience.
But the best art gives us an experience in itself and demonstrates, or forces us to become aware, of how to experience the rest of our lives — that portion we live with our mates, children, parents, that portion that is our careers, that portion that gives rise to spiritual awareness.
Of course, all art is, in this sense, inauthentic.
But just as a metaphor is never the thing, but points the way to the thing, so art points the way to the authentic.