Peter Sloterdijk – Poetics of Detachment - 1988

Ladies and Gentlemen. Were we to be on the banks of the Ganges my task here today would probably be easier. I would then not need to offer an involved explanation of a philosophical concept of existence, would not have to endeavor to set out a phenomenological description of our being-in-the-world, I would not have to elaborate on how the Latin word existence reflects the Greek word ecstasy, I would not need to make many remarks on the foundation of the ecstatic in the everyday and of the everyday in the ecstatic, and I would also not need to always speak so unnaturally clearly to ensure the recording experts from Indian TV were kept happy.

In Frankfurt on Ganges we would now be sitting under mango trees in the evening breeze, we would be looking out at the ghats, where the devout walk down the stairs to complete their ablutions in the holy river, and out on the open water we would now and again see packages tied up in fabric float by, their shapes resembling human bodies, and the air would be filled with sounds and smells reminiscent of the dead and the living, the sun would already hang heavy over the river, and I would start to address you by telling you a story. […] It would be to bring a traditional wisdom into the present and not plagiarism if I were to tell you the story of the garudas. Most of you would of course already know it, as Ramakrishna often told it, Swami Muktananda told it, Sri Aurobindo told it, and in addition to them hundreds of others, too, each in his own way, and each in his way correctly, as in the current of oral narration there are no differences in status made between originals and copies; here repetition is as original as the first time and each reproduction is a premiere. Nevertheless, ladies and gentlemen, you would be intrigued to hear the story anew, as you know from previous lectures that you can never be sure whether you have understood it. I would therefore narrate the legend of the birds that fly higher than the peaks of the Himalayas. The garudas are immortal, and once they are aloft they are freed from the powers of gravity. They do not need to take food on board as they are completely self-sufficient. They never land on earth, they tarry solely in the highest regions of the air, they sleep up in those towering heights, they make love there under the open sky and above the open earth, they would appear to need nothing other than height and expanse, as if they were able to take sustenance from the umbilical cord of their own beatitude. The only moment in the life of the garudas when this detached existence is in danger of being disturbed is at the very beginning.

For as detached beings the garudas lay their eggs in the air. While the egg falls from such a great height toward earth, the sun serves to hatch it. If the mother has flown high enough then the time until the baby birds hatch is just sufficient for the plummeting egg to still be above the earth when the shell breaks open and the young garuda takes to the air. It feels the sheer wind in its feathers, it catches itself in free fall, it spreads its wings and starts to rise up. Thus a strange and wondrous new race of birds joins the avian species. But by no means all the young ones are so happy to hatch above the earth and to find themselves in the air. Perhaps the mother bird did not fly high enough when laying the egg, perhaps clouds covered the sun and prevented the falling egg from becoming warm enough to hatch. At any rate it happens more than once that time does not suffice for the divine fledgling to liberate itself from its shell. Gravity is too strong, the descent too rapid, and the compressed form of the bird remains captive in its calcium prison, as the earth comes rushing toward it so dangerously. In despair the infant tries to free itself, but it is too late, and the earth sucks the crashing egg toward it with immense power, and so that comes to pass which should never come to pass and which nevertheless happens all too often: the egg smashes on the ground. Stunned, the infant remains stuck in the broken shell, does not even realize that it has failed to fly upwards in time, lies on the ground, its wings stuck, hit by lightning, crushed by brightness and heaviness. Now it will never learn to fly. Once the first shock is over, it musters its energy and flutters in vain on the spot, then resigns to the power of gravity and tries at least to wobble on its legs. Usually it succeeds, some of those fallen gods repeatedly speak in later life of how important for them an erect stance is. Yet however much these vertical animals walk around on earth they will never shake the feeling that something about them is not completely normal. In a tiny cranny of their memories an intimation remains that once upon a time the opportunities open to them were quite different, but that they were prevented from seizing them. Ladies and gentlemen, I only wish to take the tale this far, the one I would have told you under the mango trees on the banks of the River Ganges.

You can be sure that I would have really padded the tale out, unraveled it before you like a fairy-tale philosophical carpet into which ever more thread were spun. I would have told you the one or other tale within the tale, for example about the earthbound birds who learned to fly after all, and would have woven the one or other analytical and mystical commentary in-between about Ramana Maharshi and Master Hakuin, about Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Rabbi Derrida, about Indian midnight children and Californian high-noon children. Dusk would have fallen and small oil lamps would have floated on the Ganges, commemorating the souls on their path to the open sea. My audience would have gradually drifted away, listeners would have got lost in the city’s streets, at some point the hour would strike when hungry white buffalo stray across the squares looking for edible remains in the piles of rubbish. No doubt most of the listeners would have immediately forgotten the story, only the one or other would have gone home with a feeling of something tugging between their shoulder blades. The people of Frankfurt on Ganges are sometimes highly prone to suggestion, they can take even the strangest imaginary physiologies personally, and after my story the one or other of them would no doubt have had the unerring feeling that in their backs the crippled stumps of wings were making themselves felt. While it may be impossible it nevertheless happens, with unmistakable signs. On an evening such as this, the one or other would find it difficult to fall sleep, tossing and turning in bed until 3 a. m., sleepless in a state of not being able to fly. […]

In our country an increasing number of people are experiencing sleeplessness. Doctors suggest the phenomenon has in recent years developed into an epidemic, with every fourth or fifth person among us affected by it. For writers this is news that kindles hope. Ladies and gentlemen, I would speculate as follows: If there are people who become sleepless owing to the feeling that they cannot fly, then there must also be people who owing to sleeplessness encounter the feeling of not being able to fly. The term for this is an inverted expression. For example, emotional worry usually takes a path from the inside to the outside, from effect to tears. Yet, the opposite path is also possible: With a degree of enjoyment you stand slicing onions for the coq au vin, the juice of the onions irritates your eyes and you cry, your good spirits disappear immediately, and because you are crying anyway you take the opportunity to feel all the worries in the world. Thanks to such feedback, sleeplessness is a fruitful chapter in philosophy. I would even go so far as to claim that philosophical thought only gets real depth among the sleepless, because night is the mother of ontology. Everything is quiet, I am alone, there is only my wakefulness, which ticks like a time bomb, and its opposite: the dark, formless mass of the world that does not speak to me and invites dehumanization. In such moments it becomes clear that the word being is a synonym for nothingness: the ontological problem leaves you in peace before you do not know that. With the kind permission of the author from: Peter Sloterdijk,

Zur Welt kommen —

Zur Sprache kommen.

Frankfurter Vorlesungen.

(Berlin, 1988)

Edition Suhrkamp 1505,

pp. 99—105