Last Frontier 296

By Jim Harris

In the House of Being:

Heidegger, Willie Nelson, and Time

            I first read the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in an introduction to philosophy course at Stephen F. Austin State University in the early 1960s.  A young reader who was energized by the novels of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, Heidegger’s books and essays seemed long and boring to me.

            I first became aware of the country songs of Willie Nelson in the same decade.  A listener who believed the Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis made the coolest music, I thought Willie Nelson sang cornball country and was a hick from the sticks.

            Now half a century later and feeling like a hick, I’m reading with pleasure Heidegger’s major book, “Being and Time” published in 1927, and I’m listening with pleasure to Willie’s “Come On Time,” released in June of this year on his album “Ride Me Back Home.”

            So both of these writers, Heidegger and Nelson, are interested in the subject of “time”, and these days so am I, just as I continue to enjoy reading about writers who are philosophers and popular music singers.

            Heidegger, born in 1889, and Willie, who turned 86 last April, are of course of different generations, Heidegger dying in 1976 just after Willie moved to Austin to establish with a few of his friends what became known as “outlaw country,” a genre of country music I decided was pretty cool.

            The way things are going with Willie, with new songs written and new albums released regularly, he may never die.

            Heidegger’s massive book “Being and Time” is a work that explores how the subject of “being” has been defined in philosophy, saying that the subject has not been explored much by thinkers since the time of Aristotle.  He believes philosophy, for the last two thousands years, has been more about individual beings rather than the abstract subject of being, and back in the 1920s he wanted to revive interest in discussing the importance of that subject.

            In his song “Come on Time,” Willie says a lot about time in just four short stanzas and 28 lines.  Here is the first stanza, with slash marks indicating the end of lines:

            “Time is my friend, my friend / The more I reject it the more that it kicks in / Just enough to keep me on my toes / I say come on time, I’ve beat you before / Come on time, what have you got for me this time? / I’ll take your words of wisdom and I’ll try to make them rhyme / Hey it’s just me and you again / Come on time.”

            Willie takes a mano-a-mano approach to his subject that he calls a friend who is in a boxing match where they are standing toe to toe and are ready for a slugfest. 

            Although I do not know it for sure, Heidegger probably never heard of Willie Nelson, but I am sure he would like what Willie has done in his song that reads like a poem. Heidegger liked what artists, novelists, and poets do with language.  In fact, here is probably the most famous three sentences from all of his writings:

            “Language is the house of Being.  In its home man dwells.  Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.”

            Heidegger believes that the subject of Being (he likes to capitalize it to distinguish it from everyday beings) exists only because humans have language.  Without language, there is no thought.

            Heidegger thought so much of poets (his word for all writers of literature), he delivered a lecture on the subject on “What are Poets For” in 1926 and published it as an article in 1937.  In he writes, “If Being is what is unique to beings, by what can Being still be surpassed? Only by itself, only by its own, and indeed by expressly entering into its own.”

            And near the end of his essay on poets, he writes, “Song is existence.”

            That’s something that Willie has written and said for as long as I have listened to him sing the songs he has written.  Just can’t wait to get on the road again to sing with my friends, he says.  This is my existence.

            So the two of them share much, especially when it comes to the subject of time.

            After his albums titled “Stardust” in 1978, “Poncho and Lefty” in 1983, and “Teatro” in 1998, this new album “Ride Me Back Home” is my favorite of his collections.  “And written when he is 86 years old?” you are asking.

            Rolling Stone magazine did an article about him back in April, a few days before his birthday. Of the new album  Rolling Stone writer Patrick Doyle says the title song “isa heartbreaking tribute to horses who have seen better days (‘Now they don’t need you/There’s no one to feed you/There’s fences where you used to roam/I wish I could gather up all of your brothers and you would just ride me back home.’ “

            “The subject is close to Nelson’s heart: He has more than 60 rescue horses on his property outside Austin, Texas, which he calls Luck — one of his favorite things to do is walk across his driveway to his fence and watch them approach him, one by one. ‘I’ve bought a lot of horses that were gonna be slaughtered,’ Nelson said. When he heard Sonny Throckmorton’s song, he was floored: ‘It’s a good story,’ Nelson says. ‘I heard it and I said it fits exactlythesame thing I’m doing. It just seemed natural.’ ”

            Several of the songs on the album deal with the subject of time.  In addition to the title song and “Come on Time,” there are “My Favorite Picture of You” and “Seven Year Itch.”

            There are many ways to define both time and being.  Time may refer simply to the present era, as in “We are not here for a long time; we are here for a good time.”

            The word being, with a cap B or in lower case, can also mean many things. So to conclude, here again from his poets essay is Heidegger:

            “Not only is man by nature more daring than plant and beast.  Man is at times more daring even ‘than Life itself is.’ Life here means being in their Being: Nature.  Man is at times more venturesome than the venture, more fully (abundantly) being than the Being of beings.”

            That last sentence may send some readers to the bookstore to purchase a Heidegger work. 

            Then again, it may urge other readers to an early cocktail hour.