Here is what I am working on in terms of a theory of heartbreak: The poems used here are read literally with none of the irony that Millay intended. I just want to use the words she writes to flush out ideas, so this is in no way meant to be a reading of Millay, but rather a thought experiment on heartbreak:

I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.”
– Ednay St. Vincent Millay “Time Does Not Bring Relief: You All Have Lied”

The Millay poem quoted captures a feeling of heartbreak and of what happens in heartbreak. After being in love and spending time with a loved one, when that loved one is no longer present, the memory of that person lingers. The heartbroken tries to forget, but in forgetting suddenly becomes aware that the ex-beloved has been forgotten and, in turn, the heartbroken is reminded of the loss, which turns the beloved into an object of contemplation. I believe Martin Heidegger can inform this feeling of heartbreak. The beloved is gone and forgotten, “there is no memory of him”; that is, until the heartbroken remembers that the beloved was forgotten, which leads to the heartbroken standing “stricken, so remembering him.” In the one heartbroken, the memory of the beloved resembles Heidegger’s present-at-hand. Furthermore, the heartbroken’s emotions lose their ontological definition or “ready-to-hand[ness].” Heidegger describes the interconnections of Being and all the things Being interacts with in the world. The tools that Dasein interacts with are what is ready-to-hand. As Dasein moves through the world in average everydayness, the things in the world, the ready-to-hand tools in the world, remain unnoticed. In other words, when things are going smoothly, we become absorbed in everydayness in the world, but when something breaks, we notice the interconnectedness of the world, and we also notice how that previously ignored tool relates to the world—that is, the tool becomes present-at-hand. The longer the tool is broken, the more the tool becomes an object of contemplation; as Charles Guignon describes the situation:

As we adopt a stance in which things are explicitly noticed, we can be led to believe that what have been there “all along” are value free, meaningless objects whose usefulness was merely a product of our own subjective interest and needs. Heidegger’s point, however, is that this conception of reality a consisting of essentially contextless objects can arise only derivatively from a more “primordial” way of being absorbed in a meaningful life-world (13)


Guignon goes on to explain how this is a product of the “disworlding of the world” and is not how the world is actually built. I would argue this explanation Heidegger gives informs heartbreak. When heartbreak occurs, is there not a sense that something is being taken for granted in the relationship? People get comfortable and start to treat loved ones as mere objects in the world, as a tool that is merely ready-to-hand, and then with the dissolution of the relationship and the onset of heartbreak, suddenly, the relationship and the beloved become “a meaningless object” who was only used for our own selfish subjective interest and needs. The relationship and the other become objects of contemplation as if something was broken. However, the heartbroken’s contemplation can lead to a “more primordial way of being absorbed in a meaningful life-world.” In heartbreak, the heartbroken becomes aware of his/her world and the lack of the beloved in it.

In order to understand heartbreak and what happens in heartbreak, it is important to understand identity because heartbreak makes a subject confront his/her identity in a radical way. Heidegger posits identity as Dasein. Dasein is the being that asks about its own being. This being is a being-in-the-world-with-others-towards-death. Within this conception, Heidegger explains that Dasien is always a taking up of possibilities. The structure of being that Heidegger outlines is as an always-already being in the world thrown ahead of itself into its potentiality, but being thrown ahead of itself Dasein still has to deal with the past while always having the potentiality of the end ahead of itself. Heidegger describes it as such:

The ahead-of-itself presented itself as a not-yet. But the ahead-of-itself,
characterized in the sense of something outstanding, revealed itself to our
genuine existential reflection as being toward the end, something that in the
depths of its being every Da-sein is (Heidegger 292, italics in original).

In heartbreak, this ‘ahead-of-itself’ as a ‘not-yet’ is manifested because the not-yet—the possibilities that Dasein can take up in the future—is no longer possible. The other has left and with the other leaving, so to do all the possibilities Dasein had with the other. Heartbreak gives rise to the feeling of life being broken, of identity being changed, and of Dasein looking at its life in contemplation as an object present-at-hand.

— I have more ideas about this– so I am going to leave this here and come back to it. This might be what I explore in my dissertation.