Kierkegaard mon amour

I’m not claiming to be uniquely troubled or worthy of special levels of pity. I realise these problems afflict all of us. That’s my excuse for whining on and on about myself: that you might see in me a kindred spirit, an exemplar of our common suffering. I’m someone you can compare yourselves to, perhaps identify with, and who might sympathise with you because I’ve felt the same.

Søren Kierkegaard is a fellow traveller, in this regard. (It’s kinship, not equality, of course: he’s the Father of Existentialism; I’m a schmuck.) He hunted through his own experience for philosophical truth, and, although he keeps resolutely to abstractions, in the two short works I’ve read, there’s a clear sense that he’s offering his own experience as an example, that the battle for the soul that he describes is taking place within his own breast.

Kierkegaard recognised that the vivid, living spirit inside you, the brilliant flame of consciousness, is indistinguishable from anguish. To be cognitive, self-aware, is to writhe and shrivel in tongues of fire, of painful memory and inarticulate feeling, but “the possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast, and it is an advantage which characterises him quite otherwise than the upright posture, for it bespeaks the infinite erectness or loftiness of the spirit.”[1] “Despair is a characteristic of the spirit, is related to the eternal.[2] That’s the price of admission. It is a gift to be grateful for.

“What occupied [Abraham] was not the finely wrought fabric of the imagination, but the shudder of thought” (Soren Kierkegaard, 2005, Fear and Trembling, London: Penguin, p9.)

Kierkegaard also understood the problem of the secret self. In her biography, Philosopher of the Heart: the Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (2019)[3], Clare Carlisle discusses the difficulty the philosopher has expressing his interior truth:

“Religious people have to live conspicuously in the world like everyone else, though they harbour a ‘secret’ that is not willingly concealed, but impossible to express: ‘inwardness is incommensurable with outwardness, and no person, even the most open-hearted, manages to say everything’”[4]

And he used writing for an identical purpose to my own. Ms. Carlisle summarises:

“Writing is inseparable from this effort of self-understanding: it is through words as well as through silence that he brings coherence to the motions of the soul. Yet for Kierkegaard this is always a paradoxical exercise, revealing and concealing at the same time – like telling someone you have a secret that can’t be told. Writing gives his most solitary reflections a public aspect, exhibits the contradiction between his inward and outward life, brings his hiddenness into the open. He evasively offers to the world an image of himself to explain that he cannot be understood… ‘After my death,’ he wrote in his journal that year, ‘no one will find in my papers (this is my consolation) the least information about what has really filled my life’ … When Kierkegaard writes something truly private, he cuts it out of his journal with a knife and throws it on the fire.

            He is consoled by the thought of remaining hidden because he has been so afraid of being seen… Sheer anxiety compounded by high ideals”[5]

That’s pretty prestigious company to keep! All my own concerns are here: the sense of an enlivening despair that anguish and anxiety inspire; writing as a journey of self-discovery; the inability to communicate, to unlock and share the secret self; the solitariness in company, the fear of exposure…

There’s a sense, I think, that the integrity of the self would be compromised and weakened, if it was communicated. I understand that, too: once you have become used to solitary thinking, with a single point of view, you think your whole identity would start to crumble if brought to the attention of others. You’d start to become part of a negotiated, collective identity; You’d be changed; you’d lose yourself. That is a threatening idea, so to ‘keep it in’ becomes to ‘hold it together’[6].

It’s reassuring to realise that I’m not the only person who’s ever been concerned with these issues or thought them worth writing about; it’s humbling to realise how unoriginal and primitive my writing is, in comparison. It’s depressing to realise how dry a subject it can be!

Still, it’s nice to share something with Kierkegaard (not the high ideals, of course!)


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, 2008, The Sickness unto Death, London: Penguin, p11

[2] ibid, p24

[3] Clare Carlisle, 2019, Philosopher of the Heart: the Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard, London: Penguin, pp50-51

[4] the quotation Ms Carlisle uses is from his notebooks

[5] ibid

[6] I know: I’m far too much into Kierkegaard. I’m co-opting his work for my own purposes and it’s terribly presumptuous, but then, not understanding something gives you a lot of scope for interpretation!

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