Harmonious Dwelling in Heidegger’s Fourfold
In Heidegger’s description of the little farmhouse in the Black Forest1, all the important concepts I have been exploring are at play as manifest in the dwelling of mortals, upon the earth, beneath the sky, and in communion with the divinities. Heidegger writes:
“Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and sky, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope, looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave it the wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and that, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of the long winter nights. It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the “tree of the dead”—for that is what they call a coffin there; the Totenbaum—and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time”
The dwelling of the mortals who built and arranged their little house is indicative of their understanding of their place within the Fourfold. Demonstrated is their receptivity to the Fourfold and their willingness to work within it rather than against it. They did not build their house in such a way as to deny nature or to attempt to master it. Rather, they worked with nature in such a way that they both love and preserve it. They did not choose the site upon which to build their little house based upon their preference for a particular view, one that would perhaps have required even more insulation and fuel to combat the cold. Rather, they chose a site which would naturally afford them protection against cold winter winds, and they designed the little house itself and the pitch of its roof to accept the snow and make the best use of it. Likewise, they chose a site near to a water source rather than insisting that water be somehow directed to come closer to them by means of elaborate mechanisms that require “conquering” or working against nature.
“Demonstrated is their receptivity to the Fourfold and their willingness to work within it rather than against it. They did not build their house in such a way as to deny nature or to attempt to master it. Rather, they worked with nature in such a way that they both love and preserve it.”
Their very things or belongings speak to the reality of Being as the Fourfold and physis. Their things acknowledge and pay tribute to the stages and phases that make up mortals’ lives, to the central role that death plays in existence, as well as the intimate relationship that holds between the four of the Fourfold. The presence of both childbed and tree of the dead point toward the awareness and acceptance of the deaths, the continual changes that comprise existence. By making explicit and honoring death as an integral aspect of life, life is more fully understood, and therefore more fully lived. The various rites of passage, the little deaths and changes that can and will occur, are reverenced and cared for and thus full dwelling is made possible.
“By making explicit and honoring death as an integral aspect of life, life is more fully understood, and therefore more fully lived.”
In our own time and society, I sadly say, such an approach to living is scarcely found. While we very much like to talk about and emphasize all the new beginnings in life, rarely is acknowledgement given to the death or ending that made each new beginning possible. Whether it be the death of a childhood fantasy, such as comes when one learns that there is no Santa Claus or tooth fairy, or the loss of the illusion that one's own parents are perfect, or the death that is the loss of one's virginity, or the death that is becoming an adult by means of turning eighteen, or the death that is high school graduation, or the death that is the loss of that first love, or the death that is the giving up of a dream, or the death that is a divorce, or the death that is a layoff, or the death that is becoming a parent, or the death that is the onset of aging, few if any of these things are ever acknowledged, honored, mourned, and incorporated into an understanding of life as the intrinsic parts of life that they each may be.
“While we very much like to talk about and emphasize all the new beginnings in life, rarely is acknowledgement given to the death or ending that made each new beginning possible.”
Much less do we truly honor death as that ultimate and final happening in a mortal's life. Our society’s practices of draining blood, embalming, applying makeup, extracting eyes, and sewing shut lids and lips belie our professions to any real acceptance and embrace of the reality of death. To place a body that itself has been preserved in a wood and metal strongbox and then place that into a vault in the ground so as to stave off the natural, the inevitable, is upon reflection not only sad but really quite hideous and most assuredly indicative of a complete failure to embrace death as the natural part of life which it is.
 “Building Dwelling Thinking.” In Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.