Losing oneself in the depths of being

In Chapter 1 of Writing in the dark, van Manen gives a phenomenological account – one that is based on “lived experience” – of writing. The Dutch-Canadian phenomenologist details how writing takes place when the writer is lost to the everyday world and instead finds himself or herself in the creative space opened up by words themselves. In other words, writing involves the phenomenon of “entering” (van Manen, 2002, pp. 2-3). This entering, van Manen observes, causes the writer’s self to be “partially erased” (van Manen, 2002, p. 2). Perhaps writing is most inspired and productive when not holding on to oneself with conscious effort and obstinacy, but surrendering it to a “special reflective mood” (van Manen, 2002, p. 2). Writing, phenomenologically speaking, is what Heidegger aptly calls Gelassenheit – release of oneself into being. Hence accomplished writers can speak of the lived experience of “creative release”.

However, being phenomenologically grounded in lived experience, van Manen has the insight to realise that in the actual practice of writing, words often do not come readily to the writer, such that the writing experience becomes one of solitude and disorientation in darkness – hence the title of the book (van Manen, 2002, p. 2). Words’ invitation to enter their space does not come readily; to put this in Heideggerian language, it is definitely not ready-to-hand.

The “hermeneutic phenomenology” claimed to be used by van Manen hence stands before the aporia of non-writing in the lived experience of writing, given how resistant words are to the appropriation, or the claiming as one’s own, by the writer as “self” or “subject”. Perhaps a question concerning methodology needs to be put: is “hermeneutic phenomenology”, which is a term not used by either Heidegger or Gadamer, hermeneutic or phenomenological enough? Given his theoretical standpoint on the lived experience of teaching, it is not surprising that for van Manen, writing, too, which like teaching is a form of skilled practice improved through experience, is a non-reflective activity that differs in essence from thinking.

…the self is affected in an even more fundamental way in writing. A peculiar change takes place in the person who starts to write and enters the text: the self retreats or steps back as it were, without completely stepping out of its social, historical, biographic being. This is similar to what happens when we read a story. One traverses a world that is not one’s own. Here everything is undetermined. Everything is possible. Just as one is no longer oneself when one loses oneself in a novel, so the writer, in writing, seems no longer quite this or that personal self. In a certain sense, the writer becomes depersonalized or a neutral self – a self who produces scripture (van Manen, 2002, p. 3).

In the same chapter van Manen continues as follows:

We step out of one world, the ordinary world of daylight, and enter another, the textorium, the world of the text. In this world of shadows and darkness one traverses the landscapes of language. One develops a special relation to language, a reflective relation which disturbs its taken-for-grantedness. In fact, it may happen that in the attempt to write, one loses one’s very sense of language: one finds it impossible to write. And yet one must write. One is drawn to write. One writes. One has become “one” who writes (van Manen, 2002, pp. 3-4).


It is van Manen’s reflections on text and writing that the hermeneutic inadequacy of his so-called “hermeneutic phenomenology” comes to the fore. Instead of a surrender to the opacity of the textorium, or textual darkness, hermeneutics, true to its historicity and its tradition, calls for the luminosity of understanding – a clearing of being that cannot be reached without the struggle of interpretation, which does not end easily and has a tendency to return in a spiralling movement involving shifting levels of understanding: the movement of aletheia (truth as uncovering of being) together with its shadow, lethe.

Gadamer, in bringing Vollendung to Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle of aletheia, highlights, in his paper The eminent text and its truth, the primordiality of text as the origin of hermeneutic activity (Gadamer, 1980, p. 6). In Europe in the West as well as in the “Aryanised” culture of Tibet in the East, hermeneutics came into being in order to interpret, without the chaos of spiritual degeneration, the truth of sacred texts in religion. Hermeneutics, therefore, owes its birth to the divinely inspired human effort to struggle against the demonology, or Goetia, of untruth and damnation. To quote Gadamer from the same source:

Only when the understanding of something written is disputed do we ask after the precise text or exact wording. It is in this hermeneutic relation that something constitutes itself as text (Gadamer, 1980, p. 6).

Unlike the interpretive approach of van Manen, in hermeneutics it is not accepted that writing and text are events that happen to us, or happenings without the “mineness” (Jemeinigkeit) of Dasein. Instead, hermeneutics brings the perennial human struggle for truth into the midst of the text, such that its being, or textuality, becomes a contested ground for interpretation in the temporal (zeitlich), open-ended spiralling of the hermeneutic circle. Gadamer observes, through Goethe, that writing becomes complete when its author puts a finality to it (Gadamer, 1980, p. 7). The potential perpetuity of communication through words has to end at some point in time in order for it to become Schriften – the written works of an author in either manuscript or published form. Writing is grounded in the temporality of being and its wholeness is based on it. Perpetuity of word production, in contrast, is not wholeness, because as Heidegger explains in Being and time, Dasein finds authenticity only in the finitude of its being-towards-death (Sein-zum-Tode). Writing comes into being through the mortality of its author, even if it can exist indefinitely beyond his or her death. This is the paradox of writing that establishes the existential finitude of hermeneutics.





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