Heidegger’s Ereignis: The Presence of Choice
by Erin Johannesen, M.A., M.D.
How odd it seems that in writing in his native German, Heidegger chooses the most concrete noun he can find, Ereignis, to describe the experience of manifesting, of our experiencing Being as the opening and shining forth of Being itself. In such experience, the actor, the action, and the acted upon all fall away into the unconditional Beingness of being. Here, without signifier or signified, there is evenness and givenness of our potential, unowned and yet completely known.
And to convey this vast manifesting to us, Heidegger carefully chooses the word ‘Ereignis’. Ereignis refers to an ‘event’, to an ‘occurrence,’ and, if one stretches it a bit, to a ‘happening’. When used as a verb, it interestingly becomes reflexive, that is, it refers back on itself as itself and is sich ereignen, meaning ‘to happen,’ or more literally, a thing ‘coming to pass into itself…’ which has more dynamic, more movement in it than does its form as a noun, but still has the same stuck – glued to the spot – autistic-like deadness. The senses are not felt and are not alive here.
Perhaps Heidegger could have chosen a more dynamic word like Erlebnis and avoid the stuck-in-concrete problem altogether. Erlebnis, although still neuter (as is Ereignis), means a vivid event, ‘an experience that rises to the level of an adventure’. It shares a history with the verb erleben ‘to live to see,’ that is, ‘to experience,’ which has its root in the verb leben, ‘to live’. While such aliveness may well capture the dynamic manifesting of Beingness, Erlebnis also can pertain to a uniqueness particular to whichever person is actually having the adventure. This unspoken particularity of Erlebnis may limit for Heidegger its usefulness for as a first choice for conveying the unlimiting and unlimited aspect of Beingness.
There are also a number of other words available in German that mean ‘an event’ or ‘a happening,’ and we may wonder if Heidegger held any of these words as possible choices for Beingness:
Begebenheit, a word abundant with fullness, refers to an event or happening that is something out of the ordinary, like a dramatic manifestation of Nature. It is a word that portends an event as something that strikes us by its vast multiplicity of dimensions, yet this particular word also connotes a bringing of us not into reality, but rather into a subjectively colored realm of fantasy, into a story of make-believe. So perhaps this word is not as wise a choice as it initially appears to be.
Another possible choice may have been Vorgang, literally meaning ‘a going through’; this word refers to an event that is changing or evolving…a process, the specifics of which remain elusive, and so this word comes casting a large shadow of vagueness. Heidegger, on the other hand, seems to be looking to clarify the openness of opening of an event, and so Vorgang may perhaps leave a thing, ‘a happening,’ in an as yet too overly unclaimed space.
A fourth choice, Vorfall, which means ‘a sudden happening’ and is literally translated as ‘an occurring through’ or ‘a falling through’ brings with it a splendid aspect of the immersive quality of Beingness that Heidegger may have been searching for. Vorfall, however, also carries a keen sense of unpleasantness, like an ill-Fate may befall a person, a quality which Heidegger would likely not wish to imbue on the vast unprejudicial qualities of Beingness.
Vorfall’s cousin, Zwischenfall, which means ‘occurring between’, refers to an incident, usually in the diplomatic sense that is rife with dangerous possibilities or of things completely unforeseen. Such evoking of danger or fear goes against the qualities of evenness of Being, and so this word too is likely not apt to be favored by Heidegger.
Finally, there is Geschehnis, possibly a wonderful word for Beingness as it is a most abstract term for a ‘happening’ or an ‘event’. Geschehnis, with its inherent, abstracted openness, seems like a great option for ‘Beingness’. Unfortunately, in German, this word, while conveying the most open and unhindered nature of an event, is used, in my understanding, to refer only to an event that is written about and so, for a German reader’s ear, it would not easily take one to an event that by its nature goes beyond a frame of words and language. In this way, Geschehnis may ironically hinder the reader from experiencing the unframed Beingness Heidegger wishes them to know.
And so, we arrive back where we began with the word Ereignis. We can, however, perhaps have made now enough room to understand that even though Ereignis is one of the most concrete of German terms for ‘event’, it may also be a perfect word for Heidegger to choose, for on closer view, we may realize that Ereignis is connected with Auge, the German word for ‘eye’. In the play, Faust, Goethe refers to the inherent quality of ‘seeing’ present in the word Ereignis when he writes, “Das Unzulängliche, Hier wird’s Ereignis” (which one may translate as “In the unseen or the inaccessible, here becomes the event”). With this surprising and welcomed connection, Ereignis, the most general of terms for ‘event’, refers now beautifully and magically to that which becomes visible – or real – to the eye. As this word or term conveys the idea of becoming visible, it can refer only to definite and not to obscure happenings, and so for Heidegger perhaps the word to choose for Beingness becomes apparent as an event beyond doubt. He chooses a word that brings its own manifesting and brings it both clearly and definitively: Ereignis.