"Thrownness and Death in the Age of Pandemic," by Jon Mackenzie

He won’t hear the thing come in. It travels faster than the speed of sound. The first news you get of it is the blast. Then, if you’re still around, you hear the sound of it coming in. What if it should hit exactly—ahh, no—for a split second you’d have to feel the very point, with the terrible mass above, strike the top of the skull. . . .

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

The problem with making ‘authenticity’ fundamental to your worldview is that it’s almost impossible to talk about anything without your words immediately sounding inauthentic. That’s what Martin Heidegger found when he began writing Being and Time in the early years of the nineteen hundreds. Ingeniously, he managed to turn this in his favour. The traditional nomenclature of philosophies past would not do, he reasoned. They had lost all meaning through a process of crystallisation in which they themselves had become inauthentic. The only way forward was a complete reinvention of the language in which philosophical ideas were captured. 

Before he knew it, Heidegger was inventing words, portmanteau-ing, extended adjective-ing with wild Germanic abandon. Dasein, that is, there-being—that is, the thing that is the subject of experiencefinds itself in-der-Welt-sein: in being-in-the-world. Entschlossenheit. Gelassenheit. Erschlossenheit. And let’s not forget my favourite of allthe-of-all-words-my-favourite, as Heidegger himself might put it—Geworfenheit.

Geworfenheit is hard to translate into English. If it could be rendered into our language at all it would have to capture the quality of having being thrown: thrownness, you might say. For Heidegger, thrownness was a fundamental quality of human existence. As humans, we find ourselves thrown into a world. It isn’t the case that we are given a schooling in self-awareness through which we come to terms with being an experiential being before being shepherded into the world. As we become aware of ourselves, we become aware of ourselves as subjects already within a world.

But there is also a directive aspect to thrownness. All thrown things have a trajectory. For Heidegger, there is an existential quality to Geworfenheit, a philosophical rendition of Newton’s third law of motion: every thrown being must come eventually to rest. For the physical object, that is a material decline, the slow arcing back to earth. For the sentient subject, that is a moribund decline, the slow arcing towards death. The moment in which the myriad possibilities available to Dasein become a singularity. A solitary reality: non-existence.

It is this thrownness towards death that should push the human creature towards authentic existence, for Heidegger. This awareness of the inevitable termination should drive us to live lives in which our being-in-the-world is most fully realised. But this should not push us towards hedonism and excess. As authentic individuals, we should become more fully integrated in the world. We are now able to exist as we are meant to exist: in the world. Our recognition of our thrownness towards death, then, should result in a greater freedom to be human; to fit comfortably in the world.

Whether or not Heidegger completely escapes the sort of inauthentic language that he detected running across the philosophical tradition remains to be seen. It is hard to read turns of phrases like ‘one’s ownmost potentiality-for-being, non-relational, and not to be out-stripped’ as anything less than entirely manufactured. But there are interesting ideas in his writings that have continued to rear their head long after Heidegger’s own being finally reached the end of its arc.

Take Thomas Pynchon, for example. The title of his most famous work, Gravity’s Rainbow, takes up the sorts of ideas that Heidegger was espousing many years earlier. Gravity’s Rainbow, we are told, is the name given to the flight path of the V2 Rocket that struck terror into the hearts of Londoners towards the back end of the Second World War. The principle was simple: the rocket was ‘thrown’ up into the air before Brennschluss was achievedthe rocket’s fuel burned out and the forces of nature rolled into action, bringing the machine crashing back down to earth. Thrownness towards death.

Pynchon does well to express the existential element to this thrownness. At the very outset of the novel, Geoffrey ‘Pirate’ Prentice experiences one of the first V2 attacks on London. He won’t hear the thing come in. It travels faster than the speed of sound. The first news you get of it is the blast. Then, if you’re still around, you hear the sound of it coming in. Thrownness towards death. A silent killer. Hanging over you like a shadow.

For our generation, that notion of thrownness towards death had all but disappeared. Existence seemed continuous. There was no sense of a Brennschluss on the horizon of life. The great leaps of science and technology had made us feel invincible. But we are living in an age of pandemic. Death, it seems, will become a reality for us, at least for a short time.

In Gravity’s Rainbow, paranoia becomes a key theme. The novel’s protagonist, Tyrone Slothrop, becomes convinced the rainbow’s end is fated to be his own end. The unimaginable pressure of living under the threat of extinction carries psychological effects and we are only just at the beginning of the inevitable anxieties that will ensue.

But there may be an unintended consequence here. There may emerge the possibility for a more authentic existence; or at least, there may emerge a realisation of the myriad possibilities that open up to us as we find ourselves thrown in a world that is itself thrown towards death. And in some sort of perverse way, in becoming aware of the death-spiral we find ourselves in, we might find a way to truly be human.

Jon Mackenzie

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