Gelassenheit and The Shining

The experience of releasement Martin Heidegger develops in the concept of Gelassenheit has a precise analogy in the film The Shining (directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Stephen King, released in 1980). What is curious is the way we are introduced to what is referred to as “the gift” of the child in the film and how it turns out to be the crucial divisor between survival and nothingness.

Already in the precursor to the famous scenes in the mountain hotel the child reveals his special talents when he in a conversation with his imaginary friend Tony is imparted visions of doom: blood flooding through hotel corridors, girls pale as corpses, and so on. He has some kind of seizure, and the physician who examines him suggests that it could have been caused by an imagination of the vivid kind. It is only when he arrives at the hotel and is left alone with the chef that he realises that he is not alone in having the visions and encounters that Tony has mediatised to him. The chef explains quite clearly how some people can see beyond the immediate coordinates of our spatio-temporal givenness and perceive events that have happened before or that have yet to happen.

Indeed, this is precisely what turns out to be the case. As his father works himself deeper into a state of obsessive compulsion, the horrid visions the child are realised, both as confirmations of past events and as actualisations of visions that can be perceived as nothing but premonitions on the side of the child. The temptation here is clearly to remain within the explanatory framework offered by the figures of the story, and, indeed, by the story itself. The boy is perceived as having the ability of recounting hidden events from the past and to foresee future events: thus is his gift.

Should we nevertheless not turn another page in Heidegger’s notion of

to find a more thorough and less speculative en-framing of the gift? There is no need to question the boy’s abilities as a kind of special skill. However, and this is the crucial point, the visions and perceptions that the boy have when he is in his particular state of reception are interpretations that are contingent on his transversal into a domain beyond the ordinary. We first get a clear sense if this kind of encounter the first time he meets the chef in the kitchen. While the chef is explaining to the boy’s mother the various components of the storage facilities, the boy is able to somehow take leave of the ordinary conversation and its literal references and enter into a state where he hears a more profound voice emanating from the chef, as if from the underside or beyond the immediate words. What the boy hears is the chef asking if he would like some ice-cream.

The situation is similar to the scene in the precursor in that the boy is able to access some level of experience that is not immediately available through a set of common references and literal readings. In the film this theme is developed further so that in the end the boy is able to use his skills to manipulate the perceptions of others, and, finally, bring to the rescue the chef from his vacation.

What the boy is able to do is to step into what Heidegger referred to as the clearing. It is a space where we move beyond our everyday literalnesses and can encounter some hidden truth that is revealed — however brief — before it is again covered over. The clearing is not a particular spatial location or domain that we can wilfully enter. Rather, to enter the clearing is to have the experience of releasement: it is as if we are unconstrained and let go into this domain of transversal on the condition that our perceptions there are subject to codification of a particularly enigmatic kind.

It is such experiences that lie behind the child’s pact with his imaginary friend Tony that whatever he is imparted while in this special state of transportation must remain hidden.

Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)

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