Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I even took pleasure in inciting him to begin his philosophical instruction - a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants in the writings of Søren Kierkegaard

If nothing else I have learned to take Kierkegaard ironically, and once I do that I can enjoy his grim humor:

There was a man whose chatter certain circumstances made it necessary for me to listen to.  At every opportunity he was ready with a little philosophical lecture, a very tiresome harangue.  Almost in despair, I suddenly discovered that he perspired copiously when talking.  I saw the pearls of sweat gather on his brow, unite to form a stream, glide down his nose, and hang at the extreme point of his nose in a drop-shaped body.  From the moment of making this discovery, all was changed.  I even took pleasure in inciting him to begin his philosophical instruction, merely to observe the perspiration on his brow and at the end of his nose.  (56)*

Kierkegaard’s humor often comes from his inventiveness, as he pursues an idea, for example describing a true “knight of the faith” as an accountant who walks “as sturdily as a postman” and “thinks about the special hot dish which his wife has been preparing for him, a grilled lamb’s head garnished with herbs perhaps” – given the chance, “he will discuss it with a passion” (107), the grilled lamb’s head, a classic Danish dish which you should not Google if you do not want to see a photo of a grilled lamb’s head.  I am still not exactly sure what a “knight of the faith” is meant to be.

In a discussion of “demoniac despair,” Kierkegaard invents a sentient clerical error:

perhaps it was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential constituent in the whole exposition – it is then as if this clerical error would revolt against the author, out of hatred for him were to forbid to correct it, and were to say, “No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer.”  (158)

I suppose I should be pulling out some sharp aphorisms, too, but Kierkegaard is no G. C. Lichtenberg, and I find his inventions, these little characters than emerge, more amusing than his sayings, although those are not bad either.

The characters are part of the one part of Kierkegaard that I feel I misunderstand most fruitfully, the “Exordium” to Fear and Trembling in which he retells the story of Abraham and Isaac in four different ways, each with a variation not in action but in the psychological outcome.  Abraham, for example, is intentionally cruel to his Isaac in order to protect his son’s faith, to direct Isaac’s doubt or despair onto himself (so Abraham sacrifices not his son but himself).  Or in another version, the reverse:

But Abraham prepared everything for the sacrifice, gently and quietly, but when he turned aside and drew the knife, then Isaac saw that his left hand was clenched in despair and that a shudder passed through his body – but Abraham drew the knife.

Then they returned home and Sara hastened to  meet them; but Isaac had lost his faith.  No word of this has ever been mentioned in the world, and Isaac never spoke to anyone of what he had seen and Abraham never suspected that anyone had seen it.  (100)

So Abraham’s entirely human and understandable – almost necessary (that’s another one of the variations) – moment of doubt is destructive.

Kierkegaard immediately turns these scenarios to a complex argument about faith, dread, and despair that I did not understand at all.  Whatever fragments Auden used went unrecognized, except for the four stories themselves; whatever idea I was supposed to be following was replaced by an idea about narrativity, about how stories imply other stories, with especially rich stories implying many other stories.  Once each new story is recognized – told, written, imagined – it becomes a permanent part of the original story.  Maybe it was invented, maybe it was there all along.

Meanings accumulate, too, complementary or contradictory, but unresolvably so, because as stories they may well all be true.  Or many of them may be true. Or none. Who knows.

In other words, I recognized in Fear and Trembling the Kierkegaard of Borges and Derrida, or a simple outline of such a creature.  I read Kierkegaard, and all philosophy, as if it were literature, and perhaps too much as if it were about literature, but in this narrow case it really was.

*  Page numbers from The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, so I have no idea which book this is from.


  1. Perhaps now is a good time for you to read Kierkegaard's The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Pies in the Face.

    The problem with philosophy is that more of it should be written as literature, as stories, rather than as structured argument with specialty jargon. My weakness is a tendency to read philosophy as journal, as autobiography, as confession. So Aristotle is all bragging and Kant is all worry about duty and Wittgenstein is all an attempt to explain the world to mechanical engineers, et cetera.

  2. Like I wrote before, this stuff is a lot funnier than I remember. Perhaps I just read the wrong Kierkegaard.

  3. Did I mention that the second half or so of Fear and Trembling, the part that moves from narratology to actual philosophy, was incomprehensible? Maybe I should have mentioned that.

    But I know what you mean, Miguel - that passage about the sweaty philosopher would not be out of place in a Machado de Assis novel.

    My great problem with philosophy, my prejudice, is that from its status I feel it ought to be like math, with fundamental postulates and lemmas and so on, when in fact it is only like math metaphorically.

    So often it is in fact autobiography - a good response is "Hey, pal, that's not universal - that's you."