Wednesday, May 16, 2012

From Melancholia: Kiergegaard's Fear and Trembling

Written under the pseudonym/persona Johannes de Silentio, John of the Silence, Frygt og Bæven (Fear and Trembling) takes a deep unflinching look at one of the Bible's most terrible and enduring mysteries. The story of Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac is regularly trotted out in sermons as an example of obedience and giving your best to God. Kierkegaard pointed instead to the burden and the bloody intent of the long journey to Mt. Moriah. He asks of the congregant who took the preacher at face value and went home to sacrifice his child:
If the orator got to know of it, he perhaps went to him, he summoned all his clerical dignity, he shouted, "O abominable man, offscouring of society, what devil possessed thee to want to murder thy son?" And the parson, who had not been conscious of warmth or perspiration in preaching about Abraham, is astonished at himself, at the earnest wrath which he thundered down upon that poor man. He was delighted with himself, for he had never spoken with such verve and unction. He said to himself and to his wife, "I am an orator. What I lacked was the occasion. When I talked about Abraham on Sunday I did not feel moved in the least." In case the same orator had a little superabundance of reason which might be lost, I think he would have lost it if the sinner were to say calmly and with dignity, "That in fact is what you yourself preached on Sunday."
Kierkegaard used the tale of Abraham and Isaac to distinguish between a merely ethical existence – one governed by prevailing social norms – and an existence based in the love of God. Abraham becomes great because he believes. He believed God's promise that he would be the root of a great tree even as he grew old childless. And after being rewarded with a child he was told to sacrifice "thine only son, whom thou lovest" (Genesis 22:2) as a burnt offering. Slaying Isaac would invalidate the promise that his lineage would accomplish great things. Carried out, this deed would make Abraham a murderer and God a liar.

Yet Abraham does what he is told, raising the blade to kill his bound child because a voice in the wilderness told him to do so. By reason of this leap of faith, "Abraham was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself." Seeking to understand a "knight of faith" like Abraham silent Johann finds at last "there is nothing I can learn from him but astonishment" and admits "I can well describe the movements of faith, but I cannot make them."

Turning in dread from Mt. Moriah, Kierkegaard's pseudonymous narrator considers the knight of infinite resignation. While Johannes takes pains to distance himself (and the author) from the example given, it is hard to miss autobiographical elements in the tale of a young man who "falls in love with a princess, and the whole content of his life consists in this love, and yet the situation is such that it is impossible for it to be realized, impossible for it to be translated from ideality into reality."
So the knight remembers everything, but precisely this remembrance is pain, and yet by the infinite resignation he is reconciled with existence. Love for that princess became for him the expression for an eternal love, assumed a religious character, was transfigured into a love for the Eternal Being, which did to be sure deny him the fulfillment of his love, yet reconciled him again by the eternal consciousness of its validity in the form of eternity, which no reality can take from him... The wish which would carry him out into reality, but was wrecked upon the impossibility, is now bent inward, but it is not therefore lost, neither is it forgotten
* * *
There was one who also believed that he had made the movement; but lo, time passed, the princess did something else, she married -- a prince, let us say -- then his soul lost the elasticity of resignation. Thereby he knew that he had not made the movement rightly; for he who has made the act of resignation infinitely is sufficient unto himself.
Kierkegaard's knight of infinite resignation has drained the cup of life’s profound sadness: he finds peace and rest and comfort in sorrow. But he does not gain faith: he accepts the inevitable but dares not hope for the impossible. The knight of infinite resignation affirms the ethical and universal, sacrificing his desires to a greater good and his expectations to undeniable reality. The knight of faith is willing to act against the greater good, to disregard all evidence, to become a fool, a madman, even a murderer for his personal beliefs.

So what separates Abraham from a common child murderer? How do we distinguish between the voice of God and any number of mental disorders? Fear and Trembling provides no easy answers to such questions. Johannes notes there are no sure signs by which we may tell a knight of faith from a knight of infinite resignation or from the unenlightened greengrocer across the street.  Faith is an internal and individual process, one which cannot be analyzed or memorized but can only be lived. Because it involves belief and trust, it also comes with a great deal of danger: indeed, there is nothing riskier than betting everything on an absurdity. The leap of faith comes with no assurances of a safe landing. But one must make that leap nonetheless: one must sacrifice the temporal to gain the eternal and in doing so to gain one's self.