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Being as Onion: A Heideggerian Parable
Mark C. Watney watches Martin Heidegger’s kitchen encounter.
Tears seeped through the onion’s flaky skin as it sat in misery before Herr Heidegger. “I just cannot seem to find myself!” the wretched root cried out.
“What is it you wish to find?” Heidegger gently asked.
“The purpose of life!” whispered the vegetable.
“And where have you been looking?”
“Well, I’ve been peeling back the layers over the years…”
“Layer after layer…”
“…After layer. After layer!”
“And I found…”
The onion was in desolation on the couch, overcome at last by the deep sobs which shook his peeling bulb, a picture of ontic-centered misery: “Nothing! I found nothing!” he declared.
“Herr Onion,” Heidegger replied. “You have discovered an incredible truth!”
“What do you mean?”
“You ARE nothing – that is the truth. You have peeled yourself to the core and found no thing there. It is the greatest and hardest of truths, to discover our own fallenness and emptiness as ontic-roots. As individual bulbs, we are all quite meaningless.”
“Where then is meaning?”
“You must throw yourself, Herr Onion, into the finest pot of soup you can find. As an onion-in-the-soup, you will discover your true identity. As you care for the soup, as you fill the entire pot with the flavor of onion-ness, you will experience an incredible authenticity.”
“But… but… I just want to be me!”
“Ah, but it is in-the-soup, Herr Onion, that you will become your truest self. Out-of-the-soup you are an angst-riddled, wretched little root, of no value or purpose – an ontic-oddity.”
“But… but… the knife! The boiling water!”
“If you want authenticity, you must face your fears, Herr Onion. You must have, as Herr Tillich says, ‘The Courage To Be’!”
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) by Clint Inman
Painting © Clinton Inman 2023 Facebook At Clinton.inman
1. On Being an Onion
What is an onion’s essence? Can it be found through peeling away layer after layer? No-thing there. Can it be found by weighing it, or describing its shape, its color, its national origin, its genus, its age? No. In all these pursuits we end up empty-handed. Peeling an onion is proof that an onion is nothing. A horrifying epiphany for the onion perhaps, but an epiphany which can release the desperate vegetable from its ontic-fixation, and focus on its ontological possibilities. ‘Ontic’ refers to the physical presence of an object or person; ‘ontological’ refers to all possible states of being, past, present, and future, in which a person could find themselves. Seen ontically, therefore, an onion has little value, as its value is not found in its physical distinctiveness, but in the flavor it adds to its soup.
2. Onions & Flavor
The primordial being of an onion is therefore in its flavor, or way of caring (Being and Time, 1927, p.123). As it dissolves itself sacrificially, as it becomes absorbed into its potage, it adds flavor, and thus expresses ‘care’. An onion therefore is in terms of what it adds flavor to (p.133). Expressed another way, an onion is what it commits itself to. Its care is expressed as commitment to whatever it finds itself thrown into. Thus it is that an onion is “existentially that which it is not yet” (p.136). Its value is always expressed in terms of its possibilities: a being which is never just valued ontically, but ontologically, as a flavorizer of what’s there – its soup.
3. Onions & Authenticity
Remove an onion from its soup (which has always already absorbed all the flavor from it), and ask what meaning it now has, as a shriveled, soggy, ontic root. The question is meaningless. All meaning is found in-its-world. The raw, ontic onion, lying in a supermarket bin, can only be ‘seen’ authentically in terms of its futurity. An inauthentic onion expresses itself in terms of its onticness (“Oh, I just gotta be me!”). Children usually look at onions inauthentically: If it cannot be picked up and whacked with a bat, or immediately eaten like an apple, it is useless. Children are only able to see onions in their actuality. Adults however, are able to recognize an onion’s powerful culinary possibilities ; their view of onions is therefore authentic. (As with onions, so with people.)
4. On Understanding Onions
Understanding an onion as culinary possibility is the only way to understand an onion. This is probably my most powerful therapeutic insight: Possibility is greater than Actuality. Reflecting on this truth is, I believe, potentially life-changing – and not only for onions! When we see beyond actualities, to possibilities, we have begun to understand.
5. Understanding & Time
Time is ‘the horizon of our understanding’. Trapped as we all are in the present, in clock-time, it is difficult to value possibilities above actualities. And the possibilities of an onion are obviously beyond a child’s horizon of understanding. The greatest epiphany we can have here is our ability to exclaim: An onion exists in the future!
[Michael Gelven says it best: “Understanding is a possibilities projector” (A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, 1989, p.89). He uses the analogy of music, which can never make sense in the present (a single quivering note), but only in the past, present, and future. Understanding music is based on our expectations beyond the single note quivering in the present tense. (As with music, so with onions.)]
6. Onions & Mood
Sitting isolated in a grocery bin, an onion soon “becomes tired of itself” (Being and Time, p.127). It feels angst; a great burden of being settles over it. But when an onion envisions its possibilities, it experiences Truth – an un-covering of its purpose in life – which is experienced in the onion as ‘an elevated mood’ (p.127).
7. Onions & Fear
Yet for an onion, fear can be experienced in the distant sound of a boiling pot, or the sudden ‘Thwack!’ of a knife. To overcome this fear, an onion needs to confront that which it most fears, as an opportunity to overcome the lingering ontic-angst of shelf life. Meaning (for an onion, as well as for us) is only found when we get over ourselves, throw ourselves into a pot of soup, and sacrifice ourselves for a greater good.
© Mark C. Watney 2023
Mark C. Watney is a South African immigrant who teaches English at Sterling College, Kansas.