When, as we say, we come to our senses and reflect on ourselves, we come back to ourselves from things without ever abandoning our stay among things. Indeed, the loss of rapport with things that occurs in states of depression would be wholly impossible if even such a state were not still what it is as a human state: that is, a staying with things. Only if this stay already characterizes human being can the things among which we are also fail to speak to us, fail to concern us any longer. (Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking”, pg.155)
What does a “stay among things” mean when I abandon my stay among immediate things of care at home to take a stroll through buildings and lights at night? On a walk, I choose to “stay” casually– linger, breeze through– among things that do not really make up a destination. The church with the whitewashed exterior, for example, is a site for this breezy care. So are the red party lights hanging outside someone’s home. I stay with them and other nocturnal city things for an hour or two, and then return home.
The nightwalk could be a turn “inward”, away from things demanding consistent care. A chance to be one’s own company among things that don’t matter. But these things that don’t matter become the objects of casual contemplation for the inward-turning walker. She thinks mostly about her “self”, but her senses remain alert to the red light and white church and safe dark street. Contemplation is casual, but it still consists of things with some import. The walker has not stopped staying among things. In fact, they construct her inward-turning nature. Even inwardness needs a construction aided by things that are not purely of one’s self.
But then what makes the walker “more” inward now than when she’s occupied with things closer to her? Could it be that a closeness to things (including to people) eliminates the sort of breezy freedom that inwardness seems to need? Or is the question not about inwardness at all, but about how to negotiate that “human state” of “staying with things”? Maybe inwardness is this state of negotiation. When the walker is at home occupied (perhaps over-occupied) with things of direct relevance and concern in her life, she can still turn inward. She can do so by staying alert and awake to the things occupying her– by being conscious of how she is in the middle of being occupied by them. So inwardness cannot really be contingent on the presence or absence of things. Instead, it seems to depend on how those things take control of a person– how they devour her or structure her life. Maybe the walker has let herself be too devoured, and so needs to experience the irrelevance of things on her walk alone in the dark. She needs to remind herself that her inwardness still exists, in spite of things, and because of them.
If her inwardness exists because of things, then the lights and the streets cannot really be “irrelevant”. They must have some “role” in the walker’s relation to things, perhaps not as individual units, but in their consolidated existence as part of her turning away to turn inward. It is after all the church, in its whiteness and bigness in the black night, which catches her attention. Briefly, she looks out for what “denomination” it is, and thinks that god might be quite content being housed in a place like this, at the crossing of three large diagonal streets but sufficiently set off from all of them. Thinking of churches and gods, she turns into a quiet, empty residential street with little light. Suddenly, there are strings of red party lights on someone’s front door. The house itself is relatively still. The walker gets flashes of the mouse she saw seconds earlier on the street, and the sex shop with purple lights that seemed to have closed early. Small doses of seediness to balance out the night. It is breezy, and casually indulgent, inspired by a small curiosity. But it cannot be irrelevant because the walker needed to do it, and she needed to step out of home, at night, to do so. Her small thoughts about them put her mind in perspective: she exists even outside of the things closer to her that she needs to abandon from time to time. Her inwardness can escape itself, modify itself, but never disappear. She will always know, for better or for worse, when things succeed or fail to speak to her.
Heidegger says that in states of depression, things “fail to speak to us”. Did things of the home fail to speak to the walker because she was too occupied with them? Were they speaking to her too much, to the point that they eventually stopped? It is this self-initiated stopping point that seems to be so important. We live in closeness with things, we build our lives around them, and they speak to us. Then suddenly they do not, and we often become sick, or lonely, or absent from everything we did before.
This happens on a much smaller scale in the case of the nocturnal walk. Things familiar to the walker stop speaking to her because they have been speaking too much, too hard, too long. She realizes this and abandons them for a time. This isn’t, however, a “loss of rapport” with things in such a definitive, final way. In fact, if it were, the walker might even have remained indoors, continuing to stay with failures of speech. Instead, she chooses to let be for a while the failures and the things associated with them, and turns to things that have meaning outside of her. If she had decided to stay home, it is very possible that her inwardness might have become self-perpetuating. Lost with itself, it might have been difficult for inwardness to return to a dialogue with things of any sort, and it would have become unproductive and stagnant. The walk at night is a resistance to stagnation– an acknowledgment of the unavoidable interfaces of attempted turns, momentary failures, and recovery speeches. The walker is not giving anything up and turning elsewhere. In fact, there is no “turn” at all. She is simply playing with and testing the way she is in the aggregate of her surroundings, so that they all keep changing with each other, and stay fresh.