Category Archives: Kierkegaard

Gnashing, sneering, praising

I was twenty-four, and the religious revival within myself was at its height. Earlier that summer, I had discovered Kierkegaard, and each week I brought back to the apartment one more of the Princeton University Press’s elegant and expensive editions of his works. They were beautiful books, sometimes very thick, sometimes very thin, always typographically exhilarating, with their welter of title pages, subheads, epigraphs, emphatic italics, italicized catchwords taken from German philosophy and too subtle for translation, translator’s prefaces and footnotes, and Kierkegaard’s own endless footnotes, blanketing pages at a time as, crippled, agonized by distinctions, he scribbled on and on, heaping irony on irony, curse on curse, gnashing, sneering, praising Jehovah in the privacy of his empty home in Copenhagen. The demons with which he wrestled—Hegel and his avatars—were unknown to me, so Kierkegaard at his desk seemed to me to be writhing in the clutches of phantoms, slapping at silent mosquitoes, twisting furiously to confront presences that were not there.

— John Updike, ‘The Astronomer’

The pier

K., who works with S., comes up from Norwich and drives us to Southwold on the Suffolk coast. We eat dinner in a pub and walk down the damp pier. The yellow beam from the lighthouse sweeps through the fog, over the black water, the houses along the road, the mural of George Orwell (who lived and wrote here), giving things an eerie greenish hue. It’s like the last scene of a film, says K., where a spy gets picked up, a couple have to part or someone drowns tragically. We amuse ourselves by making up increasingly absurd scenarios for movie endings, probably to relieve the oppressive atmosphere of the place. Except it’s not oppressive is it, I think to myself as we walk back to the car, or a set for anything – tragic or comic. It’s nothing but itself: a cold dark coast, neither benign nor hostile.

   Only one real thought, however kitschy it sounds: how to live in the face of the impersonal. Not to cover it over with your own stories but to accept it and yourself with it. Consider the nightmare of a world covered up by a single story: where every thing, act and thought must conform to a certain end; where no chink is left open in the armour of the everyday for the impersonal to show us, if only for a moment, the smallness of our stories and the horizon of our true possibilities.

Gift

The slow arc of your life, sustained by a continual return to the lifegiving moment, which holds you in your course and shows you the breadth and depth and height of time. I call it a return, but isn’t it more like a repetition? A repetition of the same that makes the same new and lets you face the newness of the future – that lets you function in the world.

Kierkegaard wrote about repetition. The Danish word for it, gentagelse, literally means ‘taking back’, but for Kierkegaard it means more than wresting the past into the present. True repetition for Kierkegaard points both back and forth in time, it renews the past while opening it up to the unknown. It has a mysterious relation to the moment, and in a sense is the moment: a kind of suspension of time that gives you back the past as the new for no reason, just as Job was given back his life and more for no reason. Repetition happens: it’s experienced as a gift, not taken.

An atom of eternity

Kierkegaard described the moment (øjeblikket, or ‘the glance of an eye’, that is, the moment of seeing) as:

‘not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity … It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time … The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited, whereby time constantly intersects eternity and eternity constantly pervades time … The fullness of time is the moment as the eternal, and yet this eternal is also the future and the past.’

Isn’t he right that the eternal can only come into the world through the moment? But what do we know of the eternal?

The moment as both homecoming and an opening to something unthinkable. No matter how often you turn from it, it’s there, at the heart of time – isn’t it first of all the revelation of time itself? And on the other side of the moment, touching its edges? Something infinitely greater, perhaps – the first and last God, which makes the moment, so vast to you, seem like a speck.

Despair

Besides my large circle of friends I have another intimate confidant: my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, he waves to me, calls me aside, although physically I stay in place. My melancholy is the most loyal mistress I’ve known; what wonder, then, that I love her back.

*

I feel like a chess piece must feel when the opponent says of it: ‘That piece is untouchable’.

*

I have, I think, the courage to doubt everything; I have, I think, the courage to fight everything; but I do not have the courage to know anything, to possess, to own anything. Most people complain that the world is trivial, that life isn’t like a romantic novel, full of favourable opportunities; I complain that life isn’t like a novel in which there are hardhearted fathers and goblins and trolls to battle and spellbound princesses to free. What are all such enemies combined compared to the pale, bloodless, dogged nocturnal forms with which I fight and to which I myself give life and being.

*

How barren are my soul and thoughts, and yet how perpetually tormented by vacuous and voluptuous birth pangs! Will my spirit forever be tongue-tied, must I always babble? What I need is a voice as piercing as the glance of Lynceus, as frightening as the groan of the giants, as persistent as a sound made by nature, as mocking as a gust of icy wind, as cruel as Echo’s taunting, ranging from the deepest bass to the most melting high notes, modulated from a solemn whisper to the energy of rage. That’s what I need to be able to breathe, to express what’s on my mind, to shake the depths of my anger and my sympathy. – But my voice is as hoarse as the cry of a gull, or dies away like a blessing on the lips of a mute.

*

What is to come? What will the future bring? I don’t know, I have no idea. When a spider plunges down from a fixed point, as is its nature, it always sees before it an empty space in which it cannot find a foothold however much it twitches. That is how it is with me: always an empty space before me, what drives me on is a result that lies behind me. This life is back-to-front and horrible, unendurable.

*

Time passes, they say, life is a stream, etc. I can’t feel it, time stands still and I with it. All the plans I form fly straight back at me, when I want to spit, I spit in my own face.

*

My soul is so heavy that no thought can sustain it any longer, no wingbeat lift it up into the aether. If it moves, it only sweeps along the ground like the low flight of birds when a thunderstorm approaches. Over my inner being broods an unease, an anxiety that senses an earthquake.

*

A fire once broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded; he repeated his warning; they cheered even more. This is how I imagine the world will end: to general applause by clever people who think it’s a joke.

*

What philosophers say about reality is often as disappointing as when you see a sign in a second-hand shop that reads Pressing Done Here. If you went in with your clothes to have them pressed, you’d be fooled: it’s the sign that’s for sale.

*

I have only one friend, Echo. And why is Echo my friend? Because I love my sorrow, and Echo doesn’t take it away from me. I have only one confidant, the silence of the night. And why is it my confidant? Because it is silent.

*

What is it that binds me? Of what was the fetter that bound the Fenris wolf made? It was made from the noise a cat’s paws make when it walks, women’s beards, the roots of mountains, the sinews of bears, the breath of fishes and the spittle of birds. So too am I bound by a chain formed of dark delusions, of disturbing dreams, of restless thoughts, of forebodings and inexplicable anxieties. This chain is ‘very supple, soft as silk, resilient even to the strongest strain, and cannot be torn in two’.

*

How horrible boredom is – how horribly boring. I know no stronger expression, none truer, for only like knows like. If only there were a higher expression, a stronger one, then at least there would still be another movement. I lie stretched out, inert; all I see is emptiness, all I live on is emptiness, all I move in is emptiness. I don’t even suffer pain. At least the vulture kept pecking at Prometheus’s liver; at least the poison kept dropping on Loki; there were interruptions, however monotonous. Even pain has lost its power to refresh me. If I were offered all the world’s glories or all its torments, I’d be equally indifferent, I wouldn’t turn over either to reach for them or escape from them. I die death itself. What could possibly divert me? If I saw a loyalty that outlasted every trial, an enthusiasm that bore everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I sensed a thought that bound together the finite and the infinite. But my soul’s poisonous doubt consumes everything. My soul is like the Dead Sea, over which no bird can fly: when it gets halfway, it drops down, spent, to its death.

*

My sorrow is my castle, which lies like an eagle’s nest high up on the mountain peaks among the clouds; no one can storm it. From it I fly down into reality and seize my prey; but I don’t remain there, I bring my prey home, and this prey is a picture I weave into the tapestries in my castle. Then I live as a dead man. In a baptism of forgetfulness I plunge all experiences into the eternity of remembrance. All that’s finite and random is forgotten, wiped out. Then I sit like a hoary, thoughtful old man, and explain the pictures in a soft voice, almost a whisper, and by my side sits a child and listens, although he remembers everything before I tell it.

— Kierkegaard, ‘Diapsalmata’, Either/Or (my tr.)

I realize more and more that I am so constituted that I shall not succeed in realizing my ideals… Ordinarily, most people aim their ideals at the Great, the Extraordinary, which they never attain. I am far too melancholy to harbor such ideals. One would smile at my ideals… I aspire to be as little as possible; that is precisely the core of my melancholy. For that very reason I have been content to be regarded as half-mad, though this merely was a negative form of being something out of the ordinary. And this may quite possibly remain my essential form of existence, and I shall never attain the pleasant, becalmed existence of being something very small.

— Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, via here

Impotence and joy

It is dreadful, the total spiritual impotence I suffer at this time, just because it is combined with a consuming longing, with a spiritual ardour – and so without form that I don’t even know what it is I am missing.

*

There is an indescribable joy that is kindled in us just as inexplicably as the apostle’s unmotivated exclamation: ‘Rejoice and again I say, Rejoice’. —Not a joy over this or that, but a full-bodied shout of the soul ‘with tongue and mouth and from the bottom of the heart’: ‘I rejoice in my joy, of, with, at, for, through, and with my joy’ — a heavenly refrain which suddenly interrupts our other songs, a joy which like a breath of air cools and refreshes, a puff from the trade winds which blows across the plains of Mamre to the eternal mansions.

— Kierkegaard, Journals (tr. A. Hannay)