Individual suffering for the common (but not lowest common denominator) good.


I have included the above video in these presentation notes for my class because I think that Zizek is advancing a Kierkegaardian argument about abstraction in “The Present Age” but with different conclusions. What follows is a discussion presentation I am giving on Wednesday. I have to admit that I found this reading difficult, and that attempting to characterize Soren Kierkegaard in simple terms is nearly impossible – so dense, complex and complete are his personal, philosophical and theological writings. Still and all I think I made a bit of a breakthrough in my own understanding by undergoing some reflection on this work, and ultimately am satisfied that at least in some small part I “get it” though I am not convinced this means anything for understanding more of Kierkegaard generally.

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Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who lived from 1813 until 1855, and is often referred to as the Grandfather of Existentialism.

I think it’s safe to say he was a complex personality who courted a certain kind of solitary and pious lifestyle throughout most of his existence. Although he came from a well-to-do family, I have always thought of Kierkegaard as an ascetic – though materially he lived like others of his class and social position – he was certainly an emotional ascetic. Not only did he break with his father (with whom he was very close and thus crushed when he discovered the hypocrisy of the premarital sex which begat Soren), he maintained few intimate friendships in his life. His one love affair – with Regine Olsen – resulted in a broken engagement which Kierkegaard was loathe to explain, even in his private journals. While he writes that he believed his “melancholy” made him unfit to be a husband, one wonders if he was motivated more by the belief that living a contemplative life required an unencumbered and uninterrupted home. Personally, I think that Regine really dodged a bullet on that one, as I doubt life with old Soren would have been much fun.

A frequent critic of his society, the church and with other idealist philosophers of his own day, Kierkegaard was a prolific writer who published under several pseudonyms in a dialectical relationship to one another. Some of his chosen names were ridiculous (Johannes de silent, Constantin Constantius, Hilarius Bookbinder, Anti-Climacus) which makes one suspect that he did not choose them in order to masquerade against his own authorship, but as various aspects of his own intellectual currents, to be set beside and against one another in public discourse.

Kierkegaard was mainly concerned with the question of existence, and specifically the ability to live an individual life of meaning drawn from experience. This individual experience extended into his theological work which explored the difference between objective and subjective arguments for Christianity, including the individual’s relationship to Jesus Christ and to God which could come only through faith. An incredibly pious individual, some of the most powerful writings I have read by Kierkegaard include his spiritual writings on faith – and I have to admit being shaped in my perspective on faith (even as a non-believer) by his writing.

Kierkegaard rejected the theological rationalism of Hegel which posited that one could know God through human reason, and explored the concept of the “leap” into faith which must be made in order to accept the paradoxes inherent in Christianity. It is through this leap that we can know the loving God, and accept the suffering the comes along with our human experience.

And with Kierkegaard, suffering is not only to be borne, but seen as an essential link between the individual and his ability to know God fully. To strive with God, as he puts it in his lament to Job in his work Repetition:

“Why were you silent for seven days and nights? What went on in your soul? When all existence collapsed upon you and lay like broken pottery around you, did you immediately have this superhuman self-possession, did you immediately have this interpretation of love, this cheerful boldness of trust and faith? Is your door then shut to the grief-stricken person, can he hope for no other relief from you than what miserable worldly wisdom poorly affords, lecturing on the perfection of life? Do you know nothing more to say than that? Do you dare to say no more than what professional comforters, measure out to the individual, what professional comforters, like formal masters of ceremonies, lay down for the individual, that in the hour of need it is appropriate to say: “The Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord-no more, no less, just as they say “God bless you” when one sneezes! No, you who in your prime were the sword of the oppressed, the stave of the old, and the staff of the brokenhearted, you did not disappoint men when everything went to pieces-then you became the voice of the suffering, the cry of the grief-stricken, the shriek of the terrified, and a relief to all who bore their torment in silence, a faithful witness to all the affliction and laceration there can be in a heart, an unfailing spokesman who dared to lament “in bitterness of soul” and to strive with God.”

I include this here as a link to our earlier discussion on Job as I think it illuminates a certain kind of existential questioning in the Bible, not to mention picking up on the individualism which Kierkegaard priorizes in our work for this week (The Present Age). Here we see a condemnation of society pitted against the individual (“professional comforters, measure out to the individual”), and that individual becoming emblematic of the greater torment of human kind.

It is no wonder that elsewhere Kierkegaard wrote:

“If I had not Job! It is impossible to describe and to nuancer what significance he has for me, and how manifold his significance is. I do not read him as one reads another book with the eye, but I read this book as it were with my heart, with the eye of the heart I read it, understanding as in a state of clairvoyance every particular passage in the most various ways…. Every word of his is food and gladness to my ailing soul. Now one word rouses me from my lethargy, so that I awaken to new disquietude; now it quiets the fruitless fury within me and puts an end to the horrible feeling of mute nausea produced by passion. You surely have read Job? Read him, read him over and over again.”

Now, to our reading this week – The Present Age (1846) – which seems to start off as a very non-theological work, one concerned mainly with society. As mentioned in Kaufmann’s introduction, this was originally part of a longer essay which comprised a critique of the book Two Ages. The two ages being the French Revolution and Kierkegaard’s present.

I have to admit that I found this work, as brief as it is, quite challenging – both to my conception of Kierkegaard’s theological perspectives, as well as to my own assumptions about the self in relation to society.

The work characterizes the two ages thusly:

The Revolutionary Age: Action-oriented, individually satisfying, priorizing the individual, great leaders, experiential, concerned with emotion, decisive

The Present Age: Passionless, levelling (lowest common denominator), focused on reflection, leadership by committee, nihilistic, concerned with reason over experience, illusory ethics, full of abstraction (money, consumerism).

Essentially, although Kierkegaard acknowledges that his present age is one in which more knowledge is held than ever before – he says that the abstraction of it (intellectualism, money, etc) impedes us from acting in any decisive way. And thus we wallow in indecision and are imprisoned by the levelling effect of misdirected attempts at social equality. This is characterized in the particular image of skating on thin ice:

“If the jewel which every one desired to possess lay far out on a frozen lake where the ice was very thin, watched over by the danger of death, while, closer in, the ice was perfectly safe, then in a passionate age the crowds would applaud the courage of the man who ventured out, they would tremble for him and with him in the danger of his decisive action, they would grieve over him if he were drowned, they would make a god of him if he secured the prize. But in an age without passion, in a reflective age, it would be otherwise. People would think each other clever in agreeing that it was unreasonable and not even worth while to venture so far out. And in this way they would transform daring and enthusiasm into a feat of skill, so as to do something, for after all ‘something must be done.'”

Ultimately this fear of falling through the ice holds us back and prevents us from living in a fully-realized individual state and instead we are tempted into the abstractions of purchase – even to the degree that we “bargain buy” our salvation through a misunderstanding of what the individual sacrifice of Jesus Christ means and are thus impeded from discovering the notion of true suffering through experience.

What I think is important to recognize in this discussion is that while many of us (in this class and in our society generally) can agree with much of Kierkegaard’s assessment of his present age (and by extension our own present age) which amount to the following:

  • only through suffering can the individual be reawakened to a passionate awareness of his own existence
  • radical individualism is socially beneficial because the refusal of assistance to others helps them achieve their highest destiny
  • we need to return to the authority of leaders, those who are individually and exceptionally living their destiny to drive society forward. Ultimately this means God.

I think if we return briefly to the Book of Job we can see that these conclusions in The Present Age fit with the experience of Job in his suffering. Not only is Job awakened to his life through the terrible events which befall him, but he is maligned by his society while passing through his most tragic hours. Ultimately it is his faith in the authority of his God which restores him – and he is able to move away from the questioning of existence back into the activity of living.

Kierkegaard closes off with the following statement: “In our times, when so little is done, an extraordinary number of prophecies, apocalypses, glances at and studies of the future appear, and there is nothing to do but join in and be one with the rest. Yet I have the advantage over the many who bear a heavy responsibility when they prophesy and give warnings, because I can be perfectly certain that no one would think of believing me.” Which I think is a lovely nod to not taking oneself too seriously (though it seems that SK was a pretty serious guy), and certainly not pretending to prophecy God’s future.

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“Reflection is and remains the hardest creditor in existence; hitherto it has cunningly bought up all the possible views of life, but it cannot buy the essentially religious and eternal view of life; on the other hand, it can tempt people astray with its dazzling brilliance, and dishearten them by reminding them of all the past. But by leaping into the depths, one learns to help oneself, learns to love others as much as oneself, even though one is accused of arrogance and pride — because one will not accept help — or of selfishness, because one will not cunningly deceive people by helping them; ie by helping them to escape their highest destiny.” (32)

This is an interesting trick that Kierkegaard pulls here in essentially making a social argument for individualism.  That is, to be individually concerned is to allow each person to achieve their destiny and thus live in a society of true equals – rather than one which is levelled (brought down to the lowest common denominator.

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