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Number 12: Summer 2016

Anxiety as Authenticity in the Face of Our Being-Towards-Death

Haya Oakley

Heidegger recognises that which is at the heart of our work, namely that we can represent one another in a certain role, activity, fantasy but we are unable to represent one another in death. We can offer to die instead of someone, but we cannot experience another’s death.

Heidegger’s concept of Death is not something which comes at the end of life, life’s end point, something total and complete like the completion of a task. ‘Death is not something not yet present-at-hand, nor is it that which […] has been reduced to a minimum. Death is something that stands before us, something impending’ (293–4). The being-towards-our-death discussed by Heidegger is not a historical event in the future; rather, it is the knowledge that, as Aristotle points out, we are delivered to our death as soon as we arrive in the world. We have no conceptual knowledge of this fact which, according to Heidegger, reveals itself to us in a rather primordial fashion, in the shape of what he calls anxiety, the only possible authentic response to this universal and undisputed human condition.

I suggested earlier that we might be able to identify different pathological structures by observing how patients take up a place in the world in the face of our being towards death.

The Hysteric 

“One of these days one will die too, in the end: but right now it has nothing to do with us…” This evasive concealment in the face of death dominates everydayness so stubbornly that in Being with one another, the ‘neighbours ’often keep talking the ‘dying person’ into the belief that he will escape death and soon return to the tranquillized everydayness of the world of his concern (297).

A female patient of mine once told me that, on looking in the mirror that morning, she had noticed changes to a mole on her face and wondered if it might be a malignant melanoma. She thought she ought to go and see the GP and have it checked out but decided to wait for a couple of weeks. I quote: ‘I have only just been to see him about something else and I don’t want him to think I am being hysterical’.

This is one of many examples of the way in which the hysteric deals with the appearance of death, this time represented by the suspected melanoma. It is quickly replaced by concerns of appearances, of what the other might think of her, and what her possible illness and/or death might mean to the significant others in her life. The new eroticised project gains a romantic crescendo when she almost ventures to plan what she might wear in her coffin. Having adopted an inauthentic stance in the face of her being-towards-death, always – melanoma or no melanoma – she reverts to what Heidegger calls ‘falling’ into ‘the they’. She tells herself that we all have to die one day, not now, and shifts gear to the actualities of one’s death, the ‘fugitive’ way. Yes, death is something that will reach out from somewhere one day and get us. The ‘One’ in ‘One dies’ is in fact ‘Nobody’ so it can’t possibly be me – not yet, not now.

‘Dying’ is levelled off to an occurrence which reaches Dasein, to be sure, but belongs to nobody in particular. If idle talk is always ambiguous, so is this manner of talking about death. Dying, which is essentially mine in such a way that no one can be my representative, is perverted into an event of public occurrence which the ‘they’ encounters….Death gets passed off as always something ‘actual’; its character as a possibility gets concealed…The ‘they’ gives its approval, and aggravates the temptation to cover up from oneself one’s own ownmost Being-towards-death (297; emphasis mine).