Time and Nothingness

During my time as a student at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut — from which I earned a B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Philosophy — I had a teacher, Professor Langston, who’d earned his Ph.D. in Intellectual History. He was, therefore, justifiably enamored of the work of existentialist deconstrutionists and post-modernists such as the Austrian-German philosopher Edmund Husserl (who founded the school of phenomenology before going on to found the Proßnitz School of Driving in his hometown); Husserl’s disciple, the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger; and more contemporary brain-twisters like the American philosopher, Willard Van Orman Quine. While I liked Professor Langston very much and took more than one of his courses, I couldn’t figure out why anyone would devote meaningful quantities of time and energy to studying the obscure and convoluted work of people like Husserl, Heidegger, and Quine, rather than applying one’s attention to other more mundane and applicable things like living and reality.

But what did I know? I was just an uneducated rube.

Nevertheless, since all of Heidegger’s idols had written or were writing books, Heidegger, too, thought he should get on the stick. So, he decided an autobiography was as good a place to start as any. After 12 years, he hadn’t written a word. But he was undaunted. He decided to publish 480 blank pages with the title, Hat Jemand Mein Leben Gesehen? [translation: Did Anyone See My Life?]

When asked by John-Paul Sartre if he didn’t think that was a tad audacious, Heidegger answered: “Was zum Teufel? Hillary Clinton hat es mit My Most Honorable Achievements geschafft. Was bin ich, gehackte Rinderleber? [translation: What the hell? Hillary Clinton did it with My Most Honorable Achievements. What am I, chopped liver?]

But there had been bad blood between Heidegger and Sartre for a while because Sartre had once accused Husserl, Heidegger’s intellectual mentor, of having transitioned to a transcendental interpretation of phenomenology when Husserl argued in favor of allowing right turns on red in his School of Driving. “Si je dois attendre le feu vert pour tourner à droite en France, le moins que les Allemands puissent faire est d’avoir un peu de patience. En outre, nous n’aurons pas à nous préoccuper de l’émission de carbone ou de l’absence d’émissions avant le siècle prochain,” Sartre wrote in a letter to Heidegger. [translation: “If I have to wait for a green light to take a right turn in France, the least the Germans can do is have a little patience. Besides, we won’t have to put up with any carbon-emission or net-zero nonsense until the next century.”]

But I Digress

Before I discovered Heidegger’s autobiography was a collection of blank pages — and before he decided to publish it that way — I started doing some research. I was particularly interested in what might have prompted Heidegger to write the book for which he’d received the most recognition, especially in pointless academic circles. That book, Being and Time, introduced the concept of Dasein (the German word for being or existence), which Heidegger interpreted to mean the being in the world particular to human beings. He’d previously tried to apply Dasein to insects and reptiles, but his morbid fear of spiders and snakes convinced him it would be less traumatic to stick with people.

In poring over some of Heidegger’s diaries (which were particularly difficult to read due to his having written them in German shorthand, a holdover from his days as a court stenographer), I discovered his notes from the events of one specific Christmas Eve. I have to admit I was taken aback at his hostility toward his Aunt Mathilda and his Uncle Fritz, even as I was amazed at the way he used that hostility as a source of inspiration for Being and Time. Here’s an excerpt from one of the pertinent diary entries:

Während ich endlos auf mein Heiligabendessen wartete, hantierte meine Tante Mathilda gedankenlos in der Küche herum, während Onkel Fritz in der Stube dummes Zeug redete. Mein Magen knurrte so laut, dass mehrere meiner männlichen Verwandten nach draußen gingen, um nachzusehen, ob sie ihre Lastwagen in der Einfahrt hatten laufen lassen. Mein akuter Hunger versetzte mich in eine Art Fugue-Zustand, in dem ich das Gefühl hatte, in warmem Wackelpudding zu schweben, und in dem die Zeit in einem Tempo zu vergehen schien, das einem Klondike-Derby-Rennen auf der flachen Erde nicht unähnlich war.

Ich beschloss, ein Buch über die Existenz zu schreiben. In Anbetracht der Fugue, in der ich mich befand – und da ich nicht wusste, wie lange ich noch darauf warten musste, gefüttert zu werden – beschloss ich, es Sein und Zeit zu nennen. Da ich wusste, dass ich später am Abend, wenn der Weihnachtsmann kam, sicherstellen musste, dass ich fest schlief, dachte ich mir, dass ich genauso gut gleich damit anfangen könnte. Und da es Dezember 1926 war und ich wusste, dass ich das Buch erst im folgenden Jahr veröffentlichen würde, wusste ich, dass ich diesem schamlosen Heuchler, John-Paul Sartre, und seinem durchsichtigen, abgeleiteten Werk Das Sein und das Nichts immer noch 16 Jahre voraus sein würde. Sobald ich anfing zu schreiben, war das Abendessen natürlich serviert. Also widersetzte ich mich meinen sonst unantastbaren Manieren (und Tante Mathilda) und brachte meine Schreibmaschine mit an den Tisch.

Here’s the English translation:

As I waited interminably for my Christmas Eve repast, my Aunt Mathilda puttered mindlessly in the kitchen while Uncle Fritz prattled vapidly in the parlor. My stomach was growling so loudly that several of my male relatives went outside to see if they’d left their trucks running in the driveway. My acute hunger caused me to enter into a kind of fugue state in which I felt as if my being were suspended in warm Jello and in which time seemed to pass at a pace not unlike a Klondike Derby race conducted on the flat earth.

I decided to start writing a book about existence. Given the fugue in which I found myself — and since I had no idea how much longer I’d have to wait to be fed — I decided to call it Being and Time. Since I knew I’d have to make sure I was sound asleep later in the evening when Santa Claus came, I figured I might as well get a jump on it right then. And since it was December of 1926 and I knew I wouldn’t get the book published until the following year, I knew I’d still be 16 years ahead of that shameless pretender, John-Paul Sartre, and his transparently derivative tome, Being and Nothingness. Once I started writing, of course, dinner was served. So, I defied my otherwise inviolable manners (and Aunt Mathilda) and brought my typewriter to the table.


It’s widely held that philosophy originates as an attempt to answer the existential question: Why are we here? But finding Heidegger’s diaries confirmed my long-held suspicion that philosophy derives from another question entirely, which is this, regardless of whether it refers to a person, a culture, an identity group, or a nation: Why me?

Think about it: How likely would Heidegger have been to write Being and Time had it not been for Aunt Mathilda’s tardiness in serving Christmas Eve dinner, to say nothing of the crisis of German culture that followed its defeat in World War I? And were it not for his being famished to the point of an out-of-body experience, why would Heidegger have contended people are not subjective spectators of objects but that subject and object are inseparable, in effect suggesting he and the turkey he hadn’t eaten yet were one and the same?


It’s been reported in some circles that Jean-Paul Sartre paid Aunt Mathilda handsomely to stall her serving of Christmas Eve Dinner in 1926. But those reports remain unconfirmed. And it seems unlikely a dude as sharp as Jean-Paul would have precipitated or contributed in any way to an occasion that ended up yielding a book its author would later accuse him of mimicking. Alas, since Heidegger and Sartre are as dead as their intellectual popularity, there’s no way to know for sure.

Do I regret the time I spent studying philosophy with Professor Langston and others? No. Did it make me a more incorrigible questioner of everything and a more determined critical thinker? Yes. Did it make me a better man, husband, father, and grandfather — or better equip me to play the hand dealt to me in the reality in which I live? Not so much.

In the end, like Heidegger’s autobiography and Hillary’s My Most Honorable Achievements, it’s all time and nothingness.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have something more constructive to do.

Featured Image courtesy of Herbert Wetterauer, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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