Finding Mother Through Heidegger

Poet Shim Bo-Seon reflects on his relationship with his own mother and what it means to be a mother when they no longer hold domain over the home as their children seek public lives.


I recently made my mother a suggestion: Let’s read and discuss Heidegger’s Being and Time together. I have never read this book, and neither has she. I’d always wanted to read Being and Time but it wasn’t in my field and it was infamous for being a difficult text, so I’d been putting it off time after time. But this time, I was resolved. So why read it with my mother? Frankly, I wanted to do a sort of experiment with her.

My mother’s initial response to my suggestion was “What?” She asked, “Heide-who?” “Being what?” and seemed befuddled.

“You’ve almost exclusively read fiction so far. How about something different this time?” I tried to convince her. “Why shouldn’t you read a philosophy text? If you read and discuss the book with me, it’ll be easier to understand and fun. And you’re already familiar with Buddhist books. There are some overlaps between Buddhism and Heidegger. The translated terms and theoretical concepts might be a little confusing, but we should give it a go.”

“Okay, let’s give it a try,” my mother agreed reluctantly.

I am very much looking forward to this little “project” of mine. Of course, mother could throw her arms in the air midway crying, “Enough! This is no fun! It’s too hard!” but there is also the possibility that something very interesting might come of this. In Being and Time, there is a term called “Das Man,” which a friend of mine explained to me as the type of human being who lives as they are told. In other words, these are people who only think about the image of themselves as reflected in the eyes of others. This very concept is what I most look forward to discussing with my mother. I would like to see my mother discuss her existence through her own words, and not through how other people portray her. I will also be able to discuss my dilemmas about existence with her. We could even establish common grounds as two contemplative beings rather than as simply mother and son. Isn’t it enticing?

My mother is your typical Korean mother. I’ve recently learned from Kim Hang of the Yonsei University Institute for Korean Studies that in the past, there was an interesting culture of collecting dishware sets among most middle class Korean mothers. The mothers liked to buy expensive dishware and display it, but never use it, instead hoping to pass it down to their children as wedding gifts. It was conspicuous consumption meeting traditional gift-giving culture. After hearing this, I went home and asked my mother if she collected dishware. She produced some crystal from the cupboards. I asked her why she collected dishes she never used.

“Everyone collected dishware back in the day,” she said. “It was a popular hobby. Married women liked to show off their dishware, and they gave it to their children when they got married. I would have given it to you if you got married, but oh well,” she sighed. “I’ve no use for them now.” This was her thinly veiled exasperation over her unmarried children.

One could say that Mother’s dishware collection is the modern man’s pursuit of petit bonheur. According to Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, the modern man’s obsession with “small things” signifies the collapse of the public realm:

"Since the decay of their once great and glorious public realm, the French have become masters in the art of being happy among 'small things,' within the space of their own four walls, between chest and bed, table and chair, dog and cat and flowerpot, extending to these things a care and tenderness… This enlargement of the private, the enchantment, as it were, of a whole people, does not make it public, does not constitute a public realm, but, on the contrary, means only that the public realm has almost completely receded, so that greatness has given way to a charm everywhere."

Collecting dishware is a sort of conspicuous consumption practiced by Korean mothers whose identities are confined to the private—more specifically domestic—...