Chapter 6

not the nihil absolutum. This dreadful encounter with your absurd thrownness, right up to the point of death (“bis zu seinem Ende”),34 is an encounter with the possibility of your own impossibility and thus with the awareness that the mortal ability to make sense of things is all that stands between you and complete obliteration.35

But surprisingly, the no-thing we encounter, this yawning abyss under our feet, is a nihil that is neither absolutum nor even negativum. It does not suck you into your death—it neither kills you nor encourages suicide—but rather in a “positive” way (and this is the wonder of it all) throws you back (abweisen)36 upon your mortal self as a groundless engagement-with-meaning. You cannot make sense of the absurd—trying to do so would itself be absurd—but you can make sense of everything else as you stand there with your back pressed up against your death. You now see that, against the encompassing dark, you sustain a fragile bit of space within which things appear as meaningful. You realize that, despite its groundlessness, your mortal understanding of meaning is the thin line separating you from absolute nothingness. You understand that, even amidst your daily life of sense-making, you are at each moment already at the point of death—and therefore at the point of life, with the ability to make sense of everything you meet.

# # #

Although fundamental moods like dread confront you with the groundlessness of your engagement with meaning and leave you with nothing to hold on to, you still have the possibility of fleeing from this experience. You can retreat from this awareness of facticity and try to continue your life in the everyday ways that paper over mortality and the final absurdity of living—like the protagonist of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” who, once having seen the dreadful “thing itself,” flees it.

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the Eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

34. SZ 305.29 = 353.23. This Heidegger calls “die äußersten Grenzen des Möglichen,” GA 16: 59.23 = 420.2–3.
35. SZ 250.38–39 = 294.25: the possibility of one’s own impossibility.
36. GA 9: 114.8–11 = 90.18–19.

Thomas Sheehan - Making Sense of Heidegger