A department studying shadows, a city of only restaurants, Heidegger, my old classes in Berkeley; it’s a potpourri of ideas connected by Tim Horvath’s Understories. Some books inspire, others seize.  Understories seizes, shakes, then splits everything open.

I really enjoyed Horvath’s earlier novella, Circulation, which came out a few years back, so I was excited about this full-blown collection and greedily devoured its pages when it came out. The collection is wrapped in a series of urban planning case studies, analyzing the impulses of human nature in its many forms, devious and all too relatable. One story in particular was especially meaningful to me: “The Understory,” which caused a time warp in my brain back to my university days at Berkeley.

“The Understory,” is about Schoner, a faculty member teaching botany at the University of Freiburg in the 1930s, where he meets a newly appointed Martin Heidegger. They develop a friendship and Heidegger is both charming and whimsical. On a deeper level, their relationship becomes a petri dish where layers are stripped away like tree bark for examination and a canopy of lenses is magnified on the emotional ecology of disappointment and loss.

Heidegger, exploring phenomenology (the study of the structures of subjective experiences and consciousness) was and still is considered one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century.  I got firsthand exposure to his work in 1998 while I was taking Philosophy 185: Heidegger with Professor Hubert Dreyfus at Berkeley. The course was considered one of the hardest on campus because Heidegger was “resculpting/reanalyzing” language and the lexicon through which the old philosophical traditions of Aristotle and company had been conveyed. “Nuking them” might have been more accurate, and the equations leading to atomic annihilation weren’t simple.

The material was taxing— like mental boot camp with Being and Time as the ultimate obstacle course. The whole relationship of subjectivity, intentionality, and even “being” were put into question. Existential was different from existentielle, and dasein was already lodged into the ever-present background. I spent sleepless nights memorizing new terminology just so I could keep up with the class debates about concepts like ontology and epistemology. Heidegger’s intricacies were a convoluted mishmash used to combat Western philosophy and two thousand years of assumptions. I think, at some point, some of it actually made sense. I loved discoursing on these complex ideas and going to class to try to make sense of what was being said, though Schoner in, “The Understory,” encapsulates how I often felt:

He (Schoner) can distinguish the grammatical distinctions between Sosei (“being-as-it-is”), Sein-bei (“being-alongside”), and his namesake, Schon-sein-in (“Being-already-alongside”), but he cannot follow the conceptual distinctions that the philosopher is attempting. At times, Heidegger makes him feel a little like he doesn’t speak German at all.”

Never had I encountered someone who’d systematically dismantled every notion we’d taken for granted. I still have some of the test questions from my first midterm and am amazed that I actually understood what they meant. Here’s a sample question:

If the mode in which we encounter the present-at-hand can be understood as a privative mode of our relation to the ready-to-hand, does it follow that ready-to-hand being has ontological priority over present-at-hand being? Why? In what does this priority consist?

Here’s another beauty:

If all sight is grounded in fore-structured understanding, is there any method of letting “that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself?”

The paper I wrote for the midterm posited the question “How would a person born in Japan in the age of the samurai view death if he was placed into present day America?” The background would shift so dramatically that his “being” would have a shock to the system. This would cause an existential crisis that would spark a separation of subject and object, with the object being the concept of death or suicide, as hara-kiri was glorified in one culture and despised in another.

The Graduate Student Instructor who graded the paper found it amusing and encouraged me to explore the idea further in my second paper. I should have. Instead, I focused on something altogether different: Heidegger’s collaboration with the Nazis. The subject is masterfully explored in “The Understory,” in the form of Heidegger’s speech, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” which supported Nazism, and Schoner’s response of both disillusion and disbelief.

I had a similar reaction when I first realized that Heidegger, considered a genius by so many, could support an abominable regime. Until then, young and idealistic, I had thought of philosophers or scholars in the way Richard Hofstadter from The American Political Tradition described a speech by Wendell Phillips challenging students:

The duty of the scholar, he began, “is to help those less favored in life,” and to educate the mass of the people. And yet very few of the great truths about society had grown out of scholarly inquiry, “but have been first heard in the solemn protest of martyred patriotism and the loud cries of crushed and starving labor…” American scholarship, in truth, had not given its hand to aid in the solution of a single great social question of the age. It had denounced the slavery crusade, spurned the reform of penal legislation, ignored intemperance, and laughed at women’s rights.

Questions of philosophy like understanding being in a theoretical or abstract manner seemed trivial next to how it actually affected a person’s life. In our classes, there was a reverence for Heidegger that verged on worship. I felt a little crazy when I decided I’d devote all my efforts to using Heidegger’s own philosophy to attack his pro-Nazi stance and Being and Time as a whole.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the paper was doomed to failure. I not only got a bad grade, but was ridiculed by several of my classmates when I told them what I did. I was lucky just to pass the class.

In “The Understory,” Schoner writes Heidegger a letter many years after WWII has ended.

Trees have always defined the forest for me. I climbed in the canopy, because I thought that’s where the best, truest view was. But in the wake of the Storm of 1938, I find that the little plants of the understory have become very dear to me, dearer than I could have ever imagined. I will not burden you with their Latin names, but I do urge you to take notice of them the next time you are out walking in the woods.

This Berkeley story was my little understory.  Tim Horvath’s collection of Understories is full of others, much more evocative and interesting, including “The City in the Light of Moths” and “Runaroundandscreamalot!” I’ve been a fan of Horvath’s work for a while now, and this collection is a brilliant foray into not only the understories that comprise our lives, but the threads that we hold dear, even when washed away by storms, tragedy, and the hammer of circumstance. Perhaps you’ll find your own understory here, too.