The Round Dance of the World

Byung-Chul Han

Scent of the pine trees –
A lizard scurries
Across the hot stone.

In 1927, Le Temps retrouvé [Time Regained] was published in Paris. The same year saw the publication of Heidegger’s Being and Time in Germany. There are numerous similarities between these two works, which, at first glance, seem so different. Like Proust’s project on time, Being and Time sets itself against the increasing disintegration of human existence, against the decay of time into a mere sequence of point-like presences. Contrary to Heidegger’s aspiration that Being and Time represent a phenomenology of human existence of timeless validity, his work is in reality a product of its time. Historically specific processes and time-independent characteristics of human existence are intermingled in it. Thus, Heidegger offers a problematic explanation of the ‘destruction of the everyday world’1 through acceleration, which he says is the result of a ‘tendency towards nearness’ that is intrinsic to Dasein’s essence:

Dasein is essentially de-distancing. As the being that it is, it lets beings be encountered in nearness … An essential tendency towards nearness lies in Dasein. All kinds of increasing speed which we are more or less compelled to go along with today push for overcoming distance. With the ‘radio’, for example, Dasein is bringing about today a de-distancing of the ‘world’, which is unforeseeable in its meaning for Dasein, by way of expanding and destroying the everyday surrounding world.2

To what extent is ‘de-distancing’ – as a mode of being of Dasein, which I use as a means for spatially opening up my surroundings – related to that unleashed acceleration which steers towards the suspension of space itself? Apparently, Heidegger does not realize that the age of the radiophonic, even the entire ‘age of haste’, is based on forces far greater than the ‘tendency towards nearness’ intrinsic to Dasein’s essence, and which make Dasein’s orientation in space possible in the first place. The total removal of space is something altogether different from that ‘de-distancing’ which affords Dasein a spatial existence.

The new media abolish space itself. Hyperlinks make pathways disappear. Electronic mail does not need to conquer mountains and oceans. Strictly speaking, it is no longer something ‘ready-to-hand’. Instead of ‘hands’ it immediately reaches the eyes. The age of the new media is an age of implosion. Space and time implode into a here and now. Everything is subject to de-distancing. There are no longer any sacred spaces which one may not ‘de-distance’, i.e. spaces whose being set aside [Ausgespartsein] is part of their essence. Spaces with a scent hold their appearance in reserve [sparen ihr Erscheinen]. An auratic distance is inherent in them. The contemplative, lingering gaze is not de-distancing. In his later writings, Heidegger himself turned against the unlimited de-distancing of the world. Thus, origin is something which ‘halts in its withdrawal, and holds itself in reserve’.3 It does not exhaust or divest itself. According to Heidegger, the ‘nearness to the origin is a nearness which still holds something back in reserve’ [sparende Nähe].4

The ‘they’, which Heidegger generalizes into an ontological constant, is in reality a phenomenon of his time. It is, in a manner of speaking, a contemporary of Heidegger’s. Thus, the temporal experience of the ‘they’ corresponds exactly to the ‘cinematographic’ time which, according to Proust, characterizes the ‘age of haste’. Time is dispersed into a mere sequence of point-like presences. The ‘they’ ‘is so little interested in the “matter in question” that, as soon as it catches sight of it, it already is looking for the next thing’.5 The ‘they’ zaps through the world. Thus, Heidegger speaks of a ‘dispersed non-lingering’ and of a ‘never dwelling anywhere’ [Aufenthaltslosigkeit].6

Heidegger realized early on that the emptiness of being goes hand in hand with the acceleration of life. In his lecture course of 1929/30, he says:

Why do we find no meaning for ourselves any more, i.e. no essential possibility of being? Is it because an indifference yawns at us out of all things, an indifference whose grounds we do not know? Yet who can speak in such a way when world trade, technology, and the economy seize hold of man and keep him moving?7

Heidegger explains the general haste in terms of the inability to perceive silence, the long-lasting and slowness. Where there is no duration, acceleration, in the sense of a purely quantitative intensification, sets in, in order to compensate for the lack of duration, even for the lack of being:

Acceleration [Die Schnelligkeit] … not-being-able-to-bear the stillness of hidden growth … purely quantitative enhancement, blindness to what is truly momentary, which is not fleeting but opens up eternity.8

Heidegger’s philosophy of time is connected to his times. Thus, his critical comments regarding time, for instance about the permanent shortage of time, are also aimed at his times:

Why do we have no time? To what extent do we not wish to lose any time? Because we need it and wish to use it. For what? For our everyday occupations, to which we have long since become enslaved…. This not having any time is ultimately a greater being lost of the self than that wasting time which leaves itself time.9

Heidegger invokes ‘what is essential in Dasein’ and what ‘cannot be forcibly brought about by any busyness or mad rush’.10 ‘Essential existence’ is ‘slow’. Heidegger explicitly turns against the ‘modern’, which is characterized by point-like presences and discontinuity.11 As a characteristic manifestation of modernity, the ‘they’ only perceives the narrow tip of the actual. Thus, it rushes from one presence to the next.

The decay of time also takes hold of the identity of Dasein. Dasein is ‘dispersed in the multiplicity of what “happens” daily’.12 It is ‘lost in the making present of the today’,13 and thus loses the continuity of its self. The age of haste is an age of ‘dispersion’. This awakens the need ‘to pull itself together [ Zusammenholen ] from the dispersion and the disconnectedness’.14 But narrative identity only establishes a connection, while Heidegger’s strategy regarding the question of identity is to aim for the extraction of ‘the primordial stretching along of the whole of existence, which is not lost and does not need a connection’, namely ‘a steadiness that has been stretched along – the steadiness in which Da-sein as fate “incorporates” into its existence birth and death and their “between”’.15 This ‘fatefully whole[,] stretching’,16 namely history, is more than a story which establishes a connection. It is not a narratively constructed picture, but a pre-narrative framing which encloses ‘birth and death and their “between”’. Dasein assures itself of itself independently of a narrative construction of identity. Heidegger’s strategy regarding time and identity is a response to the narrative crisis of his times. The strategy formulates a notion of identity which would still be viable in an age of general de-narrativization.

Being and Time is based on an insight that is specific to its times, that the loss of historical meaningfulness leads to the decay of time into an accelerating sequence of isolated events, that because of a lack of gravitation or an anchoring in meaning time rushes off without hold or aim. Heidegger’s strategy regarding time consists in a re-anchoring of time; in giving it significance, a new hold; in enframing it again within a historical line [Zug], so that it does not disperse into a meaningless, accelerating succession of events. Against the threatened end of history, Heidegger emphatically invokes history itself. However, he knows very well that the gravitation, the historical meaningfulness which is meant to set time right again, cannot be of a theological or teleological kind, and he therefore opts for an existential concept of history instead. The historical traction now originates from the emphasis on the self. Heidegger concentrates time by integrating the temporal horizons by way of their relation to the self. History as directed time protects time against decay, against its dispersion into a pure sequence of point-like presences. In this, it is the self that provides the direction. The ‘constancy of the self’, this essence of authentic historicity, is duration, which does not pass. It does not elapse. The one who exists authentically has time always, so to speak. He or she always has time because time is self, and does not lose time because of not losing him- or herself:

Just as the person who exists inauthentically constantly loses time and never ‘has’ any, it is the distinction of the temporality of authentic existence that in resoluteness it never loses time and ‘always has time’.17

The shortage of time, on the contrary, is a symptom of inauthentic existence. Dasein in its inauthentic existence loses its time because it loses itself to the world: ‘Busily losing himself in what is taken care of, the irresolute person loses his time in them, too. Hence, his characteristic way of talking: “I have no time”.’18 Ultimately, Heidegger’s strategy regarding time consists in transforming ‘I have no time’ into ‘I always have time.’ It is a strategy based on duration, an attempt at regaining the lost mastery of time through an existential mobilization of the self.

In his later writings, Heidegger moves further and further away from the historical model of time. The place of history is taken by the seasons or other figures of repetition:

In the pathway’s seasonally changing breeze this knowing gladsomeness … thrives … Along its trail winter’s storm encounters harvest’s day, the agile excitation of Spring and the serene dying of Autumn meet, the child’s game and the elder’s wisdom gaze at each other. And in a unique harmony, whose echo the pathway carries with it silently here and there, everything is made gladsome.19

The ‘silent harmony’ of the seasons and its echo, which continues, even renews itself in the ‘here and there’, suggest duration. The world is an acoustic space with its own natural oscillation, in which nothing fades away or elapses. The ‘gathering play’ which surrenders nothing to disappearance or dispersion creates a fulfilled duration:

In the coolness of the autumn day, the fire of summer finishes in cheerful serenity … The cheerful serenity of the autumn coolness, which harbors the summer within itself, drifts about this country path every year with its gathering play.20

Again and again, Heidegger uses the trope of the ‘back and forth’21 as a counter-trope to historical time. In the movement of the back-and-forth, time comes to stand still [zum Stehen], so to speak. A duration a-rises [ent-steht] Heidegger’s poem ‘Time’ goes:

How far?
Only when it stops, the clock,
with its pendulum swinging back and forth,
only then do you hear: it goes and is gone and goes
no more.
Already late in the day, the clock,
only a faint track toward time,
which, near finitude,
a-rises from it.22

The ‘back and forth’ produces duration within cyclical change. Heidegger’s Pathway is itself constructed like a pendulum clock. The text sets out with the words: ‘It runs from the park gate towards Ehnried’. And towards the end of the text, we read: ‘From Ehnried the way turns back to the park gate.’23 The back-and-forth of its course makes the pathway a figure of repetition and gathering. Nothing progresses without returning. All Forth is caught by a Back, as if by an echo. This back-and-forth is also reflected in the play of children:

Out of the oak’s bark the boys carved their boats: equipped with rudder and tiller they floated in Metten brook or in the school fountain. The world-wide journeys of these games reached their destination [Ziel] easily and found their way back to shore again.24

Nothing is lost to indeterminacy. And nothing is subject to change. The country path is a silent place of eternal repetition. Everything remains gathered: ‘The pathway gathers in whatever has its coming-to-presence [sein Wesen] along the way; to all who pass this way it gives what is theirs.’25 Everything rests in the timelessly valid ‘coming-to-presence’, in an eternal presence. The pathway’s back-and-forth silences the world into the ‘Same’. In the pendulum strokes of its back-and-forth, the world a- rises. The pathway represents a clearly delineated world of duration with its own natural oscillation. Everything stands within the simple lustre of a perspicuous order. Nothing escapes the eye and hand of the mother: ‘The eye and hand of the mother surrounded their world [i.e. that of all things]. It was as if her unspoken care protected all that came to be [alles Wesen].’26

The country path does not strive towards a goal [Ziel]. Rather, it rests in itself in contemplative fashion. It illustrates a via contemplativa. The back-and-forth frees it from having a goal without exposing it to destructive dispersion. A peculiar gathering is intrinsic to it. It does not follow a course towards … but lingers. It silences the directed, spasmodic time of labour into duration. As a place for contemplative lingering, the path symbolizes a dwelling that does not need a goal or purpose, one that can do without a theology or teleology.

The world is a ‘round dance’ of ‘earth and sky, divinities and mortals’.27 The ‘round dance’ is at the same time a temporal formula, an eternal circling in itself which prevents any spatio-temporal dispersion. Everything remains gathered in the ‘ring’ of the world, in the ‘radiance of their [i.e. of the fourfold’s] simple oneness’.28 The ‘sky’, too, is a timeless circling in itself, an eternal up-and-down. It is the ‘path of the sun, the course of the changing moon, the wandering glitter of the stars, the year’s seasons and their changes, the light and dusk of day, the gloom and glow of night, the clemency and inclemency of weather, the drifting clouds and blue depth of the ether’.29 At the temporal level, the strictly symmetrical structure of the world creates the impression of a time that stands still. The symmetry of the world, which suggests an immovable, uniform order, extends into language. Heidegger even emphasizes it with special figures of speech. His philosophy consists not only of arguments, but – problematically – also of verses. Types of syntax and rhyme patterns are intentionally employed to create, for instance, the feeling of an eternally valid order. Thus, the beautiful, symmetrical order of the world, the ‘fouring’, is invoked,30 in a poem that is, not coincidentally, made up of two stanzas of four symmetrically composed lines. The ‘radiance of their simple oneness’30 is completed in the metrical radiance of ‘mist diffuses/blessing muses’ [Regen rinnt/Segen sinnt].

Forests spread
Brooks plunge Rocks persist
Mist diffuses
Meadows wait
Springs well
Winds dwell
Blessing muses31


1. Transl. note: The German text has ‘Zerstörung der alltäglichen Welt’, whereas Sein und Zeit (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2001), p. 105, has ‘Zerstörung der alltäglichen Umwelt’, i.e. ‘environment’ rather than ‘world’. The English translation opts for ‘everyday surrounding world’. The difference between ‘Welt’ and ‘Umwelt’ is relevant in light of Heidegger’s presentation of the animal’s poverty in world, and his references to Uexküll’s notion of ‘Umwelt’, in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, trans. William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington/ Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995), where this serves the purpose of distinguishing animals and human beings. Animals are suspended in an environment, while man is world-forming and has a world.

2. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh; revised by Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010), pp. 102f.

3. Martin Heidegger, On the Way to Language, trans. Peter D. Hertz (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 66.

4. Martin Heidegger, Elucidations of Hölderlin’s Poetry, trans. Keith Hoeller (New York: Humanity Books, 2000), p. 43.

5. Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 331.

6. Ibid.

7. Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude, transl. by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker (Bloomington/Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 77.

8. Martin Heidegger, Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), transl. by Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Bloomington/Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 84f. [Transl. note: ‘Acceleration’ translates Heidegger’s ‘Schnelligkeit’ (speed, rapidity), see Beiträge zur Philosophie (Vom Ereignis) (1936–1938) (Frankfurt/ M.: Klostermann, 1989), p. 121.]

9. Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts, p. 129.

10. Ibid., p. 130.

11. Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 372: ‘Awaiting the next new thing, it [i.e. the ‘they’] has already forgotten what is old…. Inauthentic historical existence, on the other hand, is burdened with the legacy of a ‘past’ that has become unrecognizable to it, looks for what is modern.’

12. Ibid., p. 370.

13. Ibid., p. 372.

14. Ibid., p. 371.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 391. [Transl. note: The passage runs: ‘Existence defined by the Moment [augenblickliche Existenz] temporalizes itself as fatefully whole, stretching along in the sense of the authentic, historical constancy of the self.’ The German reads: ‘Die augenblickliche Existenz zeitigt sich als schicksalhaft ganze Erstrecktheit im Sinne der eigentlichen, geschichtlichen Ständigkeit des Selbst.’ (Sein und Zeit, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2001), p. 410, i.e. it is the stretching that is fatefully whole.]

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Martin Heidegger, ‘The Pathway’, trans. Thomas F. O’Meara (revisions: Thomas J. Sheehan), in Listening. Journal of Religion and Culture 8 (1973): 32–9; here: p. 37 (emphasis restored). { p. 71 } References to ‘The Pathway’ pages above have been updated to {link} to the corresponding page in Man and Thinker. The German ‘Der Feldweg’ is in GA 13.

20. Martin Heidegger, Country Path Conversations, transl. Bret W. Davies (Bloomington/Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 2.

21. Transl. note: The German is ‘hin und her’ which suggests spatial or temporal movement. The English translation has ‘here and there’.

22. Martin Heidegger, Gedachtes/Thoughts, transl. Keith Hoeller, in Philosophy Today 20/4 (1976): 286–90; here p. 287. ‘Wie weit?/Erst wenn sie steht, die Uhr,/im Pendelschlag des Hin und Her,/hörst Du: sie geht und ging und geht/nicht mehr./ Schon spät am Tag die Uhr,/nur blasse Spur zur Zeit,/die, nah der Endlichkeit,/aus ihr ent-steht.’

23. Heidegger, ‘The Pathway’, p. 33 and p. 37. { Man and Thinker, p. 69 }

24. Ibid., p. 35 (emphases added by B-C. H.). { Man and Thinker, p. 69 }

25. Ibid. { Man and Thinker, p. 70 }

26. Ibid. { Man and Thinker, p. 70 }

27. Martin Heidegger, ‘The Thing’, in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 163–84; here: p. 178.

28. Ibid. [Transl. note: The context is Heidegger’s discussion of the fourfold of earth, sky, divinities and mortals.]

29. Martin Heidegger, ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, in ibid., pp. 141–59; here p. 147.

30. See ibid., p. 148.

31. Martin Heidegger, The Thinker as Poet (Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens), in ibid., pp. 1–14; here p. 14. ‘Wälder lagern/Bäche stürzen/Felsen dauern/Regen rinnt. // Fluren warten/Brunnen quellen/Winde wohnen/Segen sinnt.’