As may have also been the case for many of you, I did not begin 2020 with a 6am run or an early morning spin class. The invention of the Apple Charlotte Royale on the eve of the new decade (1 part gin, 1 part elderflower cordial, 2 parts apple juice and topped off with somewhere less than half a pint of prosecco), might have had something to do with this. When I awoke at the dawn of a new decade, at the crack of midday, I knew I would not be leaping out of bed for a bracing walk, or a refreshing swim in the ocean, but instead would be in for a far more philosophical experience.
It is just over ten years ago, at the beginning of my master’s degree, that I read Emmanuel Levinas’s Existence and Existents. In this work, Levinas offers an account of our experience of the brute “there is” (il y a) of existence. A central demonstrative example in his analysis is insomnia. As he characterises it, during bouts of insomnia:
“The bare fact of presence is oppressive; one is held by being, held to be. One is detached from any object, any content, yet there is presence. This presence which arises behind nothingness is neither a being, nor consciousness functioning in a void, but the universal fact of the there is, which encompasses things and consciousness.”
And this, I thought in 2009, and on 1 January 2020, and many times in the intervening eleven years, is the experience of a hangover. Not an “oh I’ve got a bit of a headache”, “I’m a bit sleepy”, “give me dat coffee now, boi” fun Facebook meme hangover. No, a proper hangover. A hangover where you literally can’t do anything. A hangover that I once described to a student I met at a philosophy talk after she told me she enjoyed being hungover, “because you have to figure out exactly what you want to eat”. Oh no, no, no, I told her, if you’re actually hungover, you’re not eating anything until at least five hours after you wake up, when you might attempt a Rich Tea biscuit, or perhaps a slice of dry bread if you’re feeling particularly adventurous. And, if you’re reading this, girl from a phenomenology talk in Brighton circa 2013, what I was describing was not “in fact alcohol poisoning”, as you confidently proclaimed, because I googled it.
This is not to glamorise accidental overindulgence, or even recommend it. I would much rather be the naïve young student with her choice of Saturday morning breakfast foods. Rather, I aim to offer some solace to those unfortunates who may have won the title The Queen or King of Hangovers at some time during their years on this earth, by drawing attention to what we might call “the philosophical hangover”.
For Levinas, existence is something that presses down on us in feelings of weariness, fatigue and insomnia. In all of these states, the oppressiveness of existence, the continuing, ongoing, never ending anonymity of existence as such, intrudes on us. And this, dear reader, is the experience of the philosophical hangover.
For Levinas it is important that we are able to withdraw from Being. Sleep allows this, giving us the opportunity “to, like Penelope, have a night to oneself to undo the work looked after and supervised during the day”. However, insomnia disbars this possibility of withdrawal, “the possibility to ‘suspend’, to escape from this corybantic necessity, to take refuge in oneself”. Instead one is confronted with the sheer being there of existence without respite. Similarly, in being hungover, “one is detached from any object, any content, yet there is presence”. You awaken to a sense of yourself in the world, but somehow detached. The constant refrain of those close by “can I get you anything?” is a question that can only be met with “no” or a blank stare. There is nothing to be done, no succour or salve to be had. The hangover must simply be endured.
In this regard, the detachment from the world one experiences in a truly hungover state, is similar to the experience of anxiety as described by another phenomenologist concerned with existence, Martin Heidegger. In his analysis, Heidegger characterises anxiety as a disclosive mood in which the everyday world ceases to have the meaning for us. When a tool breaks-down, the Being of the tool and what Heidegger calls the “ready-to-hand” world, i.e. entities as we encounter them in terms of their use-possibilities, is brought into sharp relief as something from which we are now alienated. Similarly, in a hungover state, I may see the book or the Netflix account, but I cannot interact with these entities as I usually do. They have become inaccessible, because in this hungover state, as in anxiety, “entities within the world are not ‘relevant’ at all”.
However, for Heidegger, this slipping away of the significance of everydayness, allows what is more fundamental to come to the fore. We are brought face to face with Being, and more specifically with our own human Being, or what Heidegger calls “Dasein” – literally “being-there”, his term for the human being and the human way of Being. In Heidegger’s account, this encounter with our Being as Dasein can be an occasion for a positive revelation. Once the everyday significance of the world has receded, we see more clearly what is at the core of our own existence: that we are fundamentally free and undetermined beings. Although we cannot dwell within the “truth” of our Being while also interacting with the world in an everyday way, we can attempt to carry over with us this understanding of what was disclosed in these anxious moments into our normal lives. However, this is not the revelation of the philosophical hangover.
Rather than disclosing anything distinctive about our own Being that may help us to become more self-responsible in our daily lives by recognising the fundamental freedom that characterises us qua Dasein; the philosophical hangover confronts us, like Levinas’s insomnia, with the sheer there is of existence. Like insomnia, the philosophical hangover is an impersonal event. As Levinas puts it, it is “not the notion of consciousness, but of wakefulness, in which consciousness participates”. In Being hungover we are aware of existence, but not as something we can do anything with. It is a depersonalised experience of Being. There is some respite in the form of a nap. But otherwise, one lies there “the object rather than the subject of an anonymous thought”. As Levinas continues,
“To be sure, I have at least the experience of being an object, I still become aware of the anonymous vigilance; but I become aware of it in a movement in which the I is already detached from the anonymity, in which the limit situation of impersonal vigilance is reflected in the ebbing of a consciousness which abandons it.”
In being hungover, I am not experiencing my Being, but rather Being as such. Or as Levinas rather aptly puts it, “that being which is not to be lost nor duped nor forgotten, which is, if we may hazard the expression, completely sobered up.” I relate to myself as an object simply persevering in its existence without any kind of intention or capable of directed action. I am not there, but there is a body that is me, and that in 3 – 4 hours may be able to drink a Ribena.
And then slowly, the feeling subsides. The encounter with the brute there is of existence lessens and everyday significance and possibilities for action again begin to come to the fore. You can sit up. You can do more than just stare at a wall. You can go into the kitchen. You begin again to have desires: Rich Tea biscuits! Ribena! bread! You forget the brute there is and absorb yourself again in life, at least until the next time someone breaks out the gin.