“I am Reaching, but I Fall”

Earlier last week, I attended a performance of Les Misérables at the Esplanade — it was really enjoyable. I love the story and the music is great. But since this was probably the third or so time I watched the musical, I had the chance to take a step back to undergo deeper reflection on the structure and themes of the musical. I am no musical or literary expert (haven’t read the book, apologies to the purists), but I noticed a single running thread across the musical during this re-watching that I wish to reflect on in this post. It is difficult to provide a succinct summary of this theme, but provisionally let’s call it the tension between idealism and realism (both used in the ordinary, non-philosophical sense).

I noticed this thread as I watched the last scene where we see both Eponine and Fantine as they lead Valjean to heaven. It puzzled me to see Eponine there along with Fantine, since, well Valjean barely knew her. But as I reflected on the entire musical, I discerned some kind of structural parallel between Fantine and Eponine at the beginning and the ending of the first act. Both of their main songs as well as their stories reflect a similar theme — one of the stark contrast between the intensity and tenderness of their idealistic hopes and dreams, almost to the point of delusion, as well as the indifferent and uncaring realism expressed in their circumstances.

Fantine expresses her longing and hope for the bygone days as well as the darkness of her present situation in her song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ before she sells herself into prostitution, loses her innocence to a random man and is violently beaten:

“I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving …

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now, from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed”

Eponine expresses a similar sentiment in her song, “On my own”, as she describes her impossible longings for Marius’ affections and her own pathetic comfort in pretending that he is with her. Soon after, she will die in Marius’ arms trying to protect him, her feelings ultimately unrequited;

“On my own, Pretending he’s beside me
All alone, I walk with him ’til morning
Without him, I feel his arms around me
And when I lose my way I close my eyes
And he has found me …

I love him, But every day I’m learning
All my life, I’ve only been pretending
Without me, His world will go on turning
A world that’s full of happiness
That I have never known”

This theme surfaces elsewhere in the musical — consider the revolutionaries, their high idealism as they hope to throw off the monarchy and establish a fair republic, and yet the unmitigated brutality of their eventual deaths. Valjean’s life expresses this as well, his hope at a better life and yet the crushing circumstances he ultimately finds himself in; even Javert’s life, to a lesser extent, demonstrates the dissonance between a man’s idea of the world and yet the world’s painfully subverting reality. A pivotal line that they both sing poignantly highlights this theme; Valjean sings it in the beginning of the musical as he wrestles with his wretchedness and the grace shown to him and Javert at the end as he too wrestles with the mercy shown to him by Valjean:

“I am reaching, but I fall.”

Realism and Idealism

There is something about this tension that resonated deep within me; it had an uncanny ring of truth. Art succeeds when it transcends reality in order to truly represent and communicate it, and these two themes are as true in our day as ever.

Let’s take the unrelenting realism represented in the film first. Surely our world is not much different from that depicted in the musical. Reports of terrorist killings fill the papers nowadays on a daily basis and I’m sure that closer to ourselves, we know of the random, perplexing, and sometimes absurd tragedies that befall those around us. A desperately broken family, a friend lost in his youth and an old man having to amputate his leg because of a car accident. The world resists formulation into neat, nice categories; it is inscrutable and indifferent to our hopes and dreams, to our conceptions of justice (think Javert) and indeed to the very demands of justice.  J.I. Packer, in his classic ‘Knowing God’, speaks of the ‘wisdom’ of the Book of Ecclesiastes in this manner:

“Look (says the preacher) at the sort of world we live in … You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature. You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control. You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to whether it is deserved. Humans die like beasts, good ones like bad, wise ones like fools… Seeing all this, you realise that God’s ordering of events in inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so.”

What of the similarly unrelenting idealism the musical expresses? That too speaks deeply to the human soul. I have written elsewhere of the strange glory in the strivings of man and indeed there is nothing more human than to hope. Despite the bleakness of the lyrics and their context, there is something utterly beautiful about the two songs ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘On my Own’ — a kind of tender and heartbreaking sublimity is expressed in them.

One response to this tension might be to moderate our expectations. Perhaps we should simply think that the world is a little less decent and cosy as we might have thought and at the same time be a bit less optimistic in our dreams. Such a response would be mistaken — we would be falsely portraying the bleak nature of the world and at the same time be betraying our dreams. No, the world is not a little less cosy than we think, it is full of sorrow and brokenness, and we shall not budge one inch from our hopes. Our pessimism must be as black as night and our optimism as bright as the sun. Chesterton expresses this artfully:

“It will be said that a rational person accepts the world as mixed of good and evil with a decent satisfaction and a decent endurance. But this is exactly the attitude which I maintain to be defective … what we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralise each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening.”

A Christian Pessimism and Optimism

How are we to live with this, this heartbreaking dichotomy between our deepest longings and the harsh realities that the world presents us? This Christian worldview holds the key as to the reason for both our hopes and our broken world. It tells us that this world feels broken because it is. It truly is not as it is meant to be. The naturalistic atheist can tell you that the world is unfriendly to our transcendent longings, and yet he cannot say that the world is not as it should be, for to him the world simply is. But that is false, the world is in a state in which it ought not be; it has fallen since the dawn of man, since our ancestors cast scorn on God’s love and decided to trust in themselves. This world has been cursed and it now frustrates us. Yet more, it is not merely the world but ourselves in our inward being we have fallen; we have all turned aside from God and his love and all our desperate attempts at finding meaning elsewhere is painful and disappointing. To stare in the face of this is to no doubt call for a bleak pessimism about the world and the human condition.

Yet this, in a paradoxical manner, calls us also to hope. As Chesterton (again) discovered, that the Christian worldview …

“entirely reversed the reason for optimism. And the instant the reversal was made it felt like the abrupt ease when a bone is put back in the socket. I had often called myself an optimist, to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit in to the world. The Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do NOT fit in to the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the WRONG place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.”

Do not avert your gaze from the horrors of this world, but neither grow desensitised to the extent where you no longer grieve at them. Instead let its darkness draw you to despair of both the world and of yourself, and then look to that familiar silhouette of a man on the cross. We bear our crosses to follow him in this world, and with him both forsaking the world and yet loving and giving ourselves for it. Jesus is our hope for forgiveness and glory, and it is through him that we shall one day have the privilege to see

“a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)


The Normativity of the World; Thoughts on Heidegger

[Long and technical post alert!] One of the philosophers I enjoyed studying the past semester was Martin Heidegger — not the easiest philosopher, I probably understand maybe 20% of him, and certainly not the nicest guy in Christian or even secular terms either (he was a registered Nazi) but I found many valuable insights into the human condition in his seminal work, Being and Time. The chief insight I have gleaned from him and which I discuss in this blog post is this: one cannot give a purely descriptive account of the world, instead all our observations of the world are always shot through with normativity. Now, to understand the jargon I just said, some discussion needs to be made about the difference between description and normativity. I shall do that and then talk a bit about how Heidegger bridges the gap between description and normativity and then draw some implications from this. Hopefully in some future post (because I realise that this is already too darn long) I might engage more critically with some of these implications.

Is and Ought

The difference between a normative statement and a descriptive statement is that a descriptive statement tells you how the world is or describes a certain state of affairs in the world whereas a normative statement tells you how the world ought to be. For example, ‘The bible and a book of Platonic Dialogues is on my table’ is a descriptive statement whereas ‘I ought to read my bible more instead of Plato’ is a normative statement. One describes how the world actually is while the other tells me something that should be done.

Many times in ordinary speech, we derive normative claims straightforwardly from descriptive claims. For example we see that genocide results in thousands of deaths (a descriptive claim) and say that genocide should be stopped (a normative claim). However, philosophers have noted that we cannot make such a derivation straightforwardly. Why is this so? Such a move would fall foul of what is called Hume’s Is/Ought gap. The idea is that you cannot derive a normative claim (what you ought to do), from a purely descriptive claim (about what is going on in the world). This is because claims about what one ought to do are different in kind from claims about what states of affairs hold in the world.

To see this, consider the normative claim ‘We ought not commit genocide’. We cannot derive this simply from purely descriptive claims such as ‘genocide kills thousands of people’ or ‘genocide discriminates against a certain race’ — a normative claim needs to be established, such as ‘If x results in thousands of deaths, one ought not to do x’. Thus, to claim that ‘We ought not commit genocide’, we need to do more than make purely descriptive assertions of the states of affairs that would result from genocide, we need to establish some kind of claim that connects the normative with the descriptive. Such a claim, as ‘If x results in thousands of deaths, one ought not to do x’, is said to be able to bridge the Is/Ought gap and thus allow one to legitimately derive normative claims.

The problem is with deriving such a bridge principle. We all know where to get descriptive statements — we just get them from observation of the world around us. But a normative claim cannot be found anywhere in the world. A scientific account of the world providing say a description of genocide can tell you that it results in multitudes of deaths, that it disadvantages a certain race and that it ravages a nation in socio-economic terms— but why should these be reasons for us to prevent genocide? The scientific account is silent.

Philosophers have, of course, various ways of circumventing this problem, but this discussion is simply to flesh out the difference between descriptive and normative statements. Heidegger’s conception of human beings provides some resources into overcoming this and through him we shall see that in fact, a purely descriptive account of the world is impossible.


In Being and Time, Heidegger attempts to give an existential analytic of the being of Dasein. Dasein is simply the type of being which we are ourselves, which Heidegger claims is ‘the being for whom its being is a question’. The thought is that for human beings to exist simply is for them to take a stand on the type of being they wish to be at every moment of their life — in other words, humans are the type of being that leads its life. For reasons that I will not go into, Heidegger calls this type of being Dasein (lit. being there) and his book attempts to analyse and give an account of Dasein.

Heidegger claims that philosophers since at least Descartes have an impoverished view of human beings because they have been attempting to explore the world as if we were spectators looking in from a detached viewpoint. This assumes that our human existence is one that is fundamentally isolated from the world. The world is as “a play staged before us; and the world of a play is one from which its audience is essentially excluded.” (Mulhall, 2005) However, Heidegger asserts that such a picture is mistaken. According to him, human existence cannot be comprehended apart from its being ‘in’ the world. Try to think about human beings without them existing in a world — it seems incoherent to call what you are still thinking of a human being at all. This reveals a tight conceptual connection between Dasein and the world, which Heidegger formulates as Being-in-the-world.

Now, if Dasein is essentially engaged in the world, it can never be a mere spectator and thus cannot give a detached, purely descriptive account of the world. Heidegger explains this by saying that objects in the world are primarily conceived as ready-to-hand as opposed to present-at-hand. A present-at-hand account of objects is one that simply observes and describes properties e.g. we give a present-at-hand account of a hammer by talking about its shape, material constitution etc. A ready-to-hand account, however, considers our engagement with objects as equipment; our actually using the hammer for a certain task. Heidegger notes:

“[H]ammering does not simply have knowledge about the hammer’s character as equipment, but it has appropriated this equipment in a way that could not possibly be more suitable. . . . [T]he less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is – as equipment … The kind of Being which equipment possesses – in which it manifests itself in its own right – we call readiness-to-hand.” (BT 15:98)

A present-at-hand account of objects cannot exhaust the meaning of an object — I can describe the hammer and know how it functions, but I primarily encounter the hammer in the act of hammering. I do not fully understand the hammer if I just look at its properties until I start hammering. As noted above, Heidegger considers our engagement with objects as more primordial than our descriptive account of them. A more crucial point is this: we stop hammering and enter into a mode of exploring the properties of equipment only when it fails to serve its ready-to-hand function:

“If knowing is to be possible as a way of determining the nature of the present-at-hand by observing it, then there must first be a deficiency in our having-to-do [i.e. engagement] with the world concernfully …” (BT 13:88)

For example, we stop to examine the properties of the hammer in closer detail when it becomes unusable as a tool and we want to fix it. A descriptive enterprise is thus undertaken when a piece of equipment becomes unhandy for a larger task. This implies that the descriptive enterprise can never be purely descriptive, for its very undertaking is to the end of using the object as equipment for a larger project. All our present-at-hand accounts of knowing are always embedded within a larger picture of ready-to-hand engagement.

In other words, even though a scientist does experiments in the lab and makes the seemingly purely descriptive statement ‘The gravitational constant is 6.67408 × 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2’. This statement, as he makes it, has implications on his life and the lives of others because the scientist, as Being-in-the-world, can only make such a statement from the context of his own practical dealings with the world. Thus, the scientist’s analysis of a substance in the laboratory always happens in the context of other more practical human concerns. If Dasein is Being-in-the-World, any descriptive enterprise it undertakes can therefore never be one that is wholly detached from its engagement with the world.

Normativity in the World

And so any description that is given is always and inevitably shot through with normativity. Mulhall makes this point when he observes that “the utility of a tool presupposes something for which it is usable, an end product – a pen is an implement for writing letters, … This directedness is the ‘towards-which’ of equipment.” To encounter objects as ready-to-hand is to engage with equipment for a certain goal or purpose. The descriptive facts about the equipment which are derived from a present-at-hand analysis therefore contain normative implications, because they are derived in the context where the object is a piece of equipment ultimately for a certain goal that Dasein wishes to achieve. As Heidegger notes:

“[When dealing in a ready-to-hand manner with] ‘a hammer’, there is an involvement in hammering; with hammering there is an involvement in making something fast; with making something fast, there is an involvement in protection against bad weather; and this protection ‘is’ for the sake of providing shelter for Dasein — that is to say, for the sake of a possibility of Dasein’s Being” (BT, 18:116)

A conception of Dasein as Being-in-the-World is one where Dasein encounters the world primarily as equipment and thus where descriptions of objects in the world carry normative implications. Conceiving the relationship between Dasein and the world this way bridges the Is/Ought gap. We can derive normative implications from descriptive statements because those statements are never purely descriptive, they are made from within the context of active engagement.

I don’t think Christians can accept everything Heidegger says uncritically. For one, Heidegger’s view does not provide a set of objective norms (he ends up with a kind of ‘ethics of authenticity’) because he makes it seem as if the normativity of the world is derived primarily from the kind of being we are as opposed to there being some sort of independent standard. Nonetheless, I think that his conclusions are mainly right in elucidating our relationship with the world around us. Let me draw two implications that are important and right from a Christian point of view that I might reflect on in some future post:

  1. Descriptive statements have normative implications. This is probably the main thing I have been talking about. Not just statements about the world, but any descriptive statement we make, about ourselves, about God will inevitably have normative implications on us because of the type of being we are. We must not talk about theology or even philosophy while imagining that these things have no impact on how we should live, for they will inevitably will have such an impact! Failure to think about these things will only mean that we are naive or uncritical about the normative implications that holding certain positions have on us already.
  2. There is no neutral or presuppositionless position from which we observe and study in the world, instead even if we try to enter into a detached state in order to make empirical or philosophical observations, we still bring along with us our practical concerns. Indeed we can only enter into such a detached state by being extremely interested in something in the first place. All our descriptive inquiries are made in the context of practical concerns with their own presuppositions.

Finally, I hope that despite the technical discussion you can see something wondrous from Heidegger’s conception of the self and the world. Our living in the world is dynamic and living instead of static and lifeless. We engage and interact with the world not from a detached perspective but as readily occupied in it. To use an analogy my professor constantly employed, we deal with the world not as one stares at a violin and examines its shape and material, but as one plays the violin along with the orchestra of a thousand instruments. The world is more an object of wondrous engagement than of detached observation.