The feeling of not being there
Charlie Ducey | Monday, March 21, 2016
Notre Dame is not a place that is easily detached from its geographic bearings. It just doesn’t make sense to imagine the University anywhere else than the capricious climate of the Midwest with Chicago looming across the flatlands of northern Indiana. The lake effect and late arrivals of spring belong to the Our Lady’s university as much as brown brick and Marian statues do. There’s a whole spatial mystique to the place. It’s hard to put it into words, but you feel it when you’re there.
In what follows, though, I want to describe the rare and bizarre moments in which this feeling of being there slips away — when, for a brief, elevated instant, the dominant associations you have with a place vanish and you experience a once familiar setting anew. Gertrude Stein may have captured a similar sensation when she described her childhood home with the perplexing formulation: “There is no ‘there’ there.”
Perhaps what she was getting at, and what I hope I’m getting at, too, are these moments when worldly concern gives way to a less inhibited form of perception, when what stands before you is not “that building where I have a test in two days” or “the dreaded stretch of South Quad” but verdant grass, nameless brick facade and sky.
These are, in effect, quasi-religious experiences, brief flickers of transcendence, which, above all else, result in a feeling of peace. In my own life, such experiences are rare but not without precedent. Just this morning, as it happens, I was walking onto campus after a 24-hour-long fundraiser at the Robinson Community Learning Center — Shakespeare plays were read, donations were pledged — only to find that I was not on the University of Notre Dame campus at all, but in a field standing before a massive stone building with a billowing portrait of a priest on its southern face. DPAC was right in front of me. But I was not there.
Admittedly, the two hours of sleep I had managed to squeeze in between a group reading of “Macbeth” and “The Twelfth Night” may well be the source of this momentary delusion. But the local cause of this experience for me carries little importance compared to the substance of the experience itself.
Somewhere in his philosophical inquiry “Being and Time,” the German philosopher Martin Heidegger defines the world not as a composite set of objects but as a network of concerns projected by self-aware entities. For Heidegger, the line between experiencing subject and experienced object coalesces into a unitary phenomenon he calls “Being-in-the-world.” In this view, then, DPAC is not some spatial arrangement of bricks and glass but a set of experiences and concerns I associate with the place — a screening of student films, a production of “Hamlet,” a shortcut to escape the cold. Nor am I a radically separate entity, isolated in my own private mental theater of thoughts and musings, but an incorporated member inextricably bound to being in the world.
Now, I bring up needlessly esoteric German philosophy because this idea of the world and myself as an interconnected network of concerns relates to the sensation I’m trying to describe (albeit in a circuitous and blundering way which testifies to the essentially ineffable/non-transferrable nature of such experiences). The feeling of not being there effects a kind of amnesia toward these concerns. All your schemes and mental designs just sort of fade out and give way to immediate experience. And, if you are constituted by your concerns, then you start to fade out, too, thinning into a pure, disinterested observer. And if that is what the world is, then the world, in such moments, fades away with you.
Without getting too carried away with the self-abnegation bit, which sounds something like the Buddhist doctrine of anatta, I want to consider the significance of moments like these. On one hand, they can be seen as a kind of escapist flight of fancy in which we pine for the cessation of worldly concerns as sources of stress that dissipate into the fray of whatever we’re experiencing just then. Who wouldn’t take up the chance to forget about that upcoming deadline and bask in the sunshine instead? The whole point of these moments, though, is that we don’t choose them. They just happen.
On the more edifying hand, then, such place-less moments can serve as reminders that whatever seemingly grand strategies or monumental worries we associate with a place like Notre Dame, they are only part of a much greater scheme comprised of the concerns of others and the powers that be (God, taxes, Middle Tennessee men’s basketball), all of which are largely beyond our own control. Despite our attempts to navigate the labyrinths in which we find ourselves, this oddly displacing sensation, the feeling of not being there, could lead us to question how many of the labyrinth’s walls which we’re concerned about are really worth the worry. In other words, we might consider that some of the concerns we think are there, especially in a place of relative privilege, might not be there at all.
Charlie Ducey waxes poetic without warrant, but who needs a warrant to write poetry? He studies English and German and is in his final year at Notre Dame. Please direct fan art and gripes to [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.