414. (Søren Kierkegaard)

According to Kierkegaard in The Concept of Anxiety, to live only in time is to live in sin; to live deterministically, materialistically; and Kierkegaard posits this as a metaphysical-psychological necessity because the spirit is infinite, and acknowledges its infinite possibilities, and so, when reduced to a phenomena of time and material determinism, when reduced to a consequence of past generations, of which it is only the last domino to fall, it cannot, honestly, deny the truth; its possibility for freedom is compromised. Here is where meaning enters the picture: the spirit might, in fictions, and fictitiously to one degree or another, interpret its actions as one thing or another; it might know its own will and law; it can ascribe meanings to itself; but these meanings are ascriptions and arbitrary. To compound matters, Kierkegaard accepts, with Hegel, that good is the measure of all action; and knowing actions as good, potentially (that is, knowing the good to be a possibility of freedom), and knowing oneself to be materially determined, one feels a divide between one’s possibility of goodness and sensuous, material, temporal existence. The spirit must look elsewhere: to eternity. Only living in the moment, and recognizing the moment as eternity touching temporality, can the spirit overcome the sin that is time. But this cannot just be done. This cannot just be willed; it requires a leap of faith into the fullness of time that Christ revealed when he spoke of the imminence of God’s Kingdom; perhaps Kierkegaard would say that imminence is the imminence of eternity, tangential to the present in the moment; perhaps the return of Christ, the judgment, is the return of the mind to the moment in which eternity is present, and the judgment of the eternal present in each moment; this, is speculation. People act and look inwardly to know themselves as they act; to act self-consciously:

Here we have an example of the two analogous forms of the demonic in this respect. When a man of rigid orthodoxy applies all his diligence and learning to prove that every word in the New Testament derives from the respective apostle, inwardness will gradually disappear, and he finally comes to understand something quite different from what he wished to understand. When a Freethinker applies all his acumen to prove that the New Testament was not written until the second century, it is precisely inwardness he is afraid of, and therefore he must have the New Testament placed in the same class with other books. The most concrete content that consciousness can have is consciousness of itself, of the individual himself—not the pure self-consciousness, but the self-consciousness that no author, not even the one with the greatest power of description, has ever been able to describe a single such self-consciousness, although every single being is a such a one. This self-consciousness is not contemplation, for he who believes this has not understood himself, because he seems that meanwhile he himself is in the process of becoming and consequently cannot be something completed for contemplation. This self-consciousness, therefore, is action, and this action is in turn inwardness, and whenever inwardness does not correspond to this consciousness, there is a form of the demonic as soon as the absence of inwardness expresses itself as anxiety about its acquisition.

This is an example of how Kierkegaard, whether he is entirely accurate in his reading of, say, Hegel or Aristotle, is crucial in not taking wrong steps in making sense of them; it is also Kierkegaard for our time, a demonic age, still. For our purposes, it is enough to suggest that the leap of faith and the leap to eternity happen inwardly, as they touch each life. And what does this leap reveal? “Only he who passes through the anxiety of the possible is educated to have no anxiety, not because he can escape the terrible things of life but because these always become weak by comparison with those of possibility.”  And: “Whoever learns to know his guilt only from the finite is lost in the finite, and finitely the question of whether a man is guilty cannot be determined except in an external, juridical, and most imperfect sense.”

What we find here, and elsewhere, in Kierkegaard is a sense that the finite cannot satisfy the self-understanding; that the individual cannot be explained by the temporal and that it nonetheless must be explained by the temporal. And I’d go further: the appeal of Kierkegaard for someone who cares about literature is not about what he means, but about what happens to meaning in his work—or more truly, how his work is about significance that the spirit requires and that the temporal, sensuous, finite world cannot satisfy. I do not mean that Kierkegaard writes about Christianity because he thinks that Christianity gives a life a particular meaning; I mean instead that the fullness of time, the presence of the eternal, the open, unresolved possibility that the eternal implies, satisfying the spirit and repelling it alike (the ambiguity of anxiety), gives a glimpse of an experience of meaning itself that is not bound by this world. Kierkegaard suggests not just that our life has no significance compared to the eternal, and God, but that our sense of significance of things is, because it is bound by time, by imperfect judgments of good and evil, by material determination that binds our sense of things. The eternal does not just offer the possibility of immortality, of free action, of perfection, or whatever else; it offers spirit another self-conception, another understanding of what it is to exist, to act, to be complete, to know oneself. It offers a radical possibility of what possibility can mean, of what freedom can mean, and this, it is implicit in the language, of what it means for something to mean. We know good and evil, but the meaning of these remains impossible to grasp from our vantage; faith is the possibility that they mean in a way we cannot conceive.

We cannot offer a conception of this alternative to meaning as we know it; it is the leap of faith into the nonsense of which, following Wittgenstein, we cannot speak. Much of this is an interpretive reach; but there is something implicit in The Concept of Anxiety, and it finds expression in his own liveliness of expression, anecdote, cultural reference, metaphor, and capacity for narrative; what is implicit is that the meaning of things runs uncertainly through the world, and that the world, even as it gives various meaning to things, is also always possessed of a meaning that is established in, moored in, present in eternity; the actions and thought of a moment are actions and thoughts of eternity, but we cannot know what they mean there; and the leap of faith is a leap that they have a meaning in eternity that will redeem them from their temporal imperfection, their state of sin in the time-bound meanings that might catch, but cannot hold, the light of eternity. It is not a stretch to say that the anxiety of the possibility of freedom, found in the possibility of the spirit reflecting on itself, and acting, is an anxiety about what the objects of reflection mean.

Though speculation, it helps make some sense of Kierkegaard’s watchword of faith: absurdity: the absurd is an interruption of meaning, a refusal to mean the way we expect and know things ought to mean. Abraham’s faith is impossible to understand; it is absurd; it is pure faith because it proceeds by a meaning not of this world. If I were a Christian, I would find in this latent significance of significance in Kierkegaard a perspective onto the Holy Spirit, the most elusive of the Trinity: if God speaks the Word that is the Son, if the Son is the Word of God made real in time, then the Holy Spirit is meaning, flickering transcendent, uncertain, unevenly in creation, even at its darkest, neither equivalent to the Word or the speaker of the Word, necessary to defining both, and necessarily defined by both; the trinity becomes an account of meaning, speaker, and logos. Further, I would find it possible to interpret the atonement and passion as an affirmation of the meaninglessness of human suffering and waste, and the suffering that is meaninglessness itself, given its fullest meaning, made to bear witness to, and contain, meaning itself, because undertaken by God. Theology comes to seem wonder not at being or truth, but at meaning itself, both of this world—since our knowing meaning as something to know is possible only in life—and alien to it, something that cannot inhere in sensuous temporality, except insofar as sensuous temporality yields further sensuous temporality. Kierkegaard says that Christianity reveals the fullness of time: time filled with an eternal that redeems—restores meaning—to what is otherwise always losing itself, always and only looked back upon as lost, or else anticipated as a future that always runs ahead, a false conception of possibility (the future mistaken for possibility, or at least diminished as possibility), since bound to the sensuous materiality of what has come before, and bound, for the glimpse of the possible it affords, to the view of time from a particular vantage point, already shifting, always shifting, within time.

Whatever we make of Christianity, or of his fashioning of Christianity, Kierkegaard is one of the great authors of time, intervening between Wordsworth and Proust, radically different from either, but an invaluable counterpart to both.


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