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Where is the noise for the existential masiiiive?


TRIBE Promoter

Gah. Wow is it ever late... anyway, here's an essay on Kierkegaard for all of you existential heads out there... Bon appetit!

Stop and Smell the Poppies at the Parade of Tormented Heroes
Dylan Lane

Was Tarquinius Superbus in seinem Garten mit den Mohnkopfen sprach, verstand der Sohn, aber night der Bote [What Tarquinius Superbus said in the garden by means of the poppies, the son understood but the messenger did not]. - Hamann

Tarquinius Superbus was a legendary king of ancient Rome, the son referred to in this selection sent a messenger home to tell Tarquinius that he had successfully occupied a targeted city and was awaiting further orders. Tarquinius took the messenger to his garden and then pointedly decapitated all of the tallest poppies without further explanation. Perplexed, the messenger returned to Tarquinius’ son and told him what he had seen. The son immediately knew to execute all of the most prominent citizens in the occupied city, which then unconditionally surrendered to the might of Rome.

In choosing to open Fear and Trembling with this passage, the theme of communication without language is firmly established. Soren Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes De Silentio is a self professed tormentor of heroes (Fear and Trembling – 109). The characters in the book are his sadistic poppy garden, through which the author communicates beyond language. He extends the torment from the characters to the reader by weaving a gradually tightening web of uncomfortable concepts around what he feels is a paradox found in the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. Silentio presents himself alternately as a poet or a philosopher and repeatedly fails to “think himself into”(FT-33) this paradox that is Abraham. He knows that conceptualization is largely ineffective here, but his lack of faith bars him from coming any closer. A paradox is by definition a conflict of categories, it simply cannot be grasped with language or concept because conceptualization is the root of the very categories which are in opposition. Witnessing Silentio’s anxiety in combination with the disturbing scenes and concepts throughout the book throws the reader into emotional turmoil. Unlike the emotional disturbances brought on by a traditional work of fiction, the reader is not given a cut and dry solution to the drama and must resolve the turmoil on their own. Fear and Trembling is a photographic negative exposed by a harsh burst of divinity, once read and explored it lies waiting to be developed within the reader into an unmediated relationship with the absolute. Again and again the tyranny of reason smashes us up against the paradox. Every time Silentio confronts us with the decision to either reject faith entirely, or to accept the existence of Abraham’s paradox (FT-55), to accept that the knight of faith can shatter the glass ceiling of the universal and make the double movement of infinity, regaining the sacrificed in this world through virtue of the absurd (FT-55-56).

The categories in conflict in the paradox of Abraham are ethical. It is essential when reading Fear and Trembling to equate the ethical with the universal, Silentio formulates this equation as soon as he begins to outline the nature of the paradox in the first problema:
The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means it applies at all times. It rests immanent in itself, has nothing outside itself that is its telos [end, purpose] but is itself the telos for everything outside itself, and when the ethical has absorbed this into itself, it goes no further. The single individual, sensately and psychically qualified in immediacy, is the individual who has his telos in the universal, and it is his ethical task continually to express himself in this, to annul his singularity in order to become the universal (FT-54).

Abraham violates the universal by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God, but Kierkegaard argues that this does not make him a murderer due to a teleological suspension of the ethical (FT-66). Through the incredible power of his faith Abraham has entered into an absolute relationship with the absolute (FT-66) and asserts himself as a single individual over the universal. The universal is by definition the highest end, so in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham’s faith has brought him to a paradox. We must now either accept faith can save Abraham, or we must reject faith entirely (FT-81). If we accept that faith exists then we have a paradox, if we reject the paradox we go no further than the universal, where Abraham “is and remains a murderer”(FT-74) and we learn nothing of faith.

To be beyond the universal as a single individual in unmediated relation to the absolute is to be beyond all concept and communication. Abraham cannot communicate his experience by any means, to anyone but God. Silentio expresses the utter incommunicability of being the single individual in an absolute relation to the absolute by writing: “Abraham cannot be mediated, in other words, he cannot speak. As soon as I speak, I express the universal, and if I do not do so, no one can understand me.”(FT-60). The experience is so paradoxical that “The one knight of faith cannot help the other at all, Either the single individual himself becomes the knight of faith by accepting the paradox or he never becomes one” (FT-72). Utterly alone in Fear and Trembling, Abraham is perpetually in silent union with the absolute.

Although Silentio says that cannot think himself into Abraham, he pushes language and concept to the brink in his efforts. In mapping the event horizon of the divine singularity he illustrates his concepts poetically with various historical, legendary, or fictional characters. It is essential to realize that these characters are not meant to be real people like you or I, many of them are intentionally manipulated and dehumanized, they are only here to help us understand the paradox. The false Abrahams of the Exordium break down at the very edge of the paradox and the modified merman illuminates the demonic inverse. Silentio mutilates and lewdly re-animates, he places on parade the torment of his automatons. He forces us to witness their anguish as they completely break down, resulting in anxiety and discomfort for the reader. This discomfort is an invitation to learn from the shortcomings of the minor characters and step into the paradox. In order to understand the significance of their flaws we must better understand what it might be to sacrifice Isaac as the true Abraham.

To Silentio there are three types of sacrifice that can help us to understand what it is to be Abraham. The lowest level of sacrifice is that of the tragic hero (FT-66), who sacrifices that which he loves for something real in this world. Silentio illustrates this category with classical stories of unfortunate parents being forced to sacrifice their children for gains in this world that, although tragic, are within the domain of the ethical. For Agamemnon and Jepthah the sacrifice is for victory in battle, for Brutus it is for his nation, but for all tragic heroes the sacrifice must remain within the realm of ethics and the universal.

The second level is the knight of infinite resignation, an absolutely essential step towards the highest, a knight of faith such as Abraham. The knight of infinite resignation (FT-42) makes his sacrifice for the infinite, holding on to his desire and using it as a potent spiritual tool. Silentio depicts the knight of infinite resignation as deeply in love with a princess he cannot have (FT-42). Instead of moving on with his life after realizing the fulfillment of his love is impossible the knight of infinite resignation chooses to concentrate his entire being on the love in such a way that it:
would assume a religious character, would be transfigured into love of the eternal being, which true enough denied the fulfillment but nevertheless did reconcile him once more in the eternal consciousness of its validity in an eternal form that no actuality can take away from him. Fools and young people say that everything is possible for a human being. But that is a gross error. Spiritually speaking, everything is possible, but in the finite world there is much that is not possible. The knight however makes this impossibility possible by expressing it spiritually, but he expresses it spiritually by renouncing it. (FT-44)

The knight of infinite resignation is rare and beautiful, his existence is one of deep emotion and pure spirituality. It extends beyond the material into the infinite, yet the knight of infinite resignation still falls somehow short of Abraham.

Abraham, the knight of faith, is in an unmediated relation with the absolute. The absolute is that which is without any limit or stop and therefore cannot be divided. The absolute is beyond space, time and thought. To conceptualize is to categorize, and to categorize is to divide the absolute, which is a another paradox. The knight of faith is thus unimaginably paradoxical. The only way to know whether Abraham is a knight of faith is either by being God, the absolute, and then demanding the sacrifice, or by being Abraham himself. Because of the indivisibility of the absolute this follows from Silentio’s statement “Whether the single individual is undergoing a spiritual trial or is a knight of faith, only the single individual can decide”(FT-79). It is only through the Bible, the word of God, that we can even begin to know about Abraham’s relation to the absolute and the purity of his love for Isaac. The knight of faith is similar to the knight of infinite resignation in that he focuses his entire being on love for the sacrificed. God would not ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac if he didn’t love him with all of his being because then he would be a mere murderer like Cain (FT-74), and not the father of faith.
He must love Isaac with all his soul, since God claim Isaac, he must, if possible, love him even more, and only then can he sacrifice him, for it is indeed this love of Isaac that makes his act a sacrifice by its paradoxical contrast to his love for God. But the distress and the anxiety in the paradox is that he, humanly speaking, is thoroughly incapable of making himself understandable. Only in the moment when his act is in absolute contradiction to his feeling, only then does he sacrifice Isaac, but the reality of his act is that by which he belongs to the universal, and there he is and remains a murderer. (FT-74)

This is passage is essential because it encapsulates the essence and anxiety of the knight of faith as well as the necessity of his love and his action being in absolute opposition. The knight of faith is a knight of infinite resignation who then, by virtue of the absurd, returns to the finite where he gets the sacrificed back again (FT-37). The sense in which virtue is here used is not a strictly moral sense despite both the moral overtones of the word and its moral usage elsewhere in the book. Silentio uses the word virtue in the same way when he says “mediation takes place only by virtue of the universal”(FT-56), it refers to essence, to the nature of the universal. Within Silentio’s thought experiment we know that the paradox exists because it is written in the Bible, which is the word of the only one other than Abraham who could ever know that Abraham is a knight of faith. By virtue of the essence of the paradox Abraham is not a murderer, he is one with the absolute, which brings Abraham beyond the universal without invalidating its universality.

Not one of the false Abrahams in the exordium is a knight of faith, each exhibits uniquely constructed flaws that aid our mapping the furthest reaches of the universal. The first Abraham deceives Isaac about the origin of the homicidal command, making him believe it is Abraham’s own will and not that of God that demands the sacrifice in order to preserve the boy’s ideal of a good God. This Abraham is not a knight of faith because he inexcusably violates the universal by deceiving Isaac and second guesses the will of God. The second Abraham does not undetectably return to the finite like a true knight of faith. The ordeal ages him, scars him deeply, and takes away all of his joy in this world. The third Abraham disobeys God’s command because he believes that he is in a spiritual trial, a temptation away from the universal. He goes to Mount Moriah alone and repents for ever having dreamed of sacrificing Isaac, he does not understand the paradox because he does not have to faith to step beyond reason. “The ethical is the temptation” (FT-115) for the knight of faith. When the fourth Abraham draws the knife Isaac sees him clench his fist in despair, which shatters the young boy’s faith forever. His despair shows us that he lacks true faith because he does not manifest absolute love in absolute contradiction to his action, whose ethical expression is murder. This Abraham is a cowardly murderer.

Silentio has brought us as close to the paradox as language will allow, but further insight into the paradox may gleaned by considering its opposite, a single individual in an absolute relation to the demonic. The tormentor of heroes chooses the story of Agnes and the merman, an archetypal seductor, as the foundation from which he works towards the couter-paradox. Silentio has the merman succumb to guilt the instant before diving back into the sea when he beholds the incredibly purity of Agnes’ innocence. His voracious appetite vanishes, the sea is suddenly still, and the merman puts her down on the shore, explaining that he only wanted to show her what the sea looks like when it is calm (FT-95). Silentio then arbitrarily bestows upon the merman “a human consciousness”(FT-96) and lets us “suppose that his being a merman signify a human preexistence”(FT-96). These are massive alterations that not only twist the meaning of the story, but plot the merman a new and infinitely more tormented course. Once the merman has fallen for Agnes and succumbed to her innocence he steps outside of the demonic, he can only have Agnes as booty. There are several versions of the merman but the important version of the merman here is the one who, attempting to harness his demonic nature for good, tries to deceive the beloved into hating him. “Maybe he will endeavor to incite all the dark passages in her, to belittle her, to ridicule her, to make her love ludicrous, and, if possible, to arouse her pride”(FT-96).The guilty merman becomes self destructive, the more he deceives Agnes, the more she suffers, which causes him further righteous pain. At any point he could tell Agnes the truth and become a “grandiose tragic hero”(FT-97) but his nature is the demonic, about which Silentio says “If he has sinned he can bear the punishment without despairing, but to be without guilt from his mothers womb and yet to be destined as a sacrifice to sympathy, a sweet fragrance in its nostrils – this he cannot endure”(FT-104). The demonic shares the same principle at the absolute, that it is to say, one may enter into an absolute relationship with it, which is precisely what the merman does if, in depending upon his own “demonic sagacity”(FT-98), he is saved by Agnes and re-enters the universal. Like the paradoxical love of the knights of faith and infinite resignation the merman’s unfulfilled passion for Agnes becomes a powerful spiritual tool to enter the absolute. By his guilt the merman becomes the single individual outside of the universal, “he can return (to reclaim Agnes by becoming disclosed) only by virtue of having come as the single individual into an absolute relation to the absolute”(FT-98). This strange, but inspiring inversion of the knight of faith is dissimilar in one key respect other than the obvious inversion. One can understand the motions of the merman, but one still cannot comprehend the paradoxical double movement of Abraham.

No escape from the state of anxiety created by Fear and Trembling is to be found in the text. The parade tormented heroes has come and gone, we are left with only the turmoil, paradox, and chaos Silentio has disturbed within us. Again and again Silentio brings us back to the paradox, if we accept faith Abraham is saved, but if we reject the paradox then Abraham is a murderer. The unresolved discomfort in the reader serves as an impetus to stop and smell Tarquinius’ poppies, and perhaps to even take their own trip through the glass ceiling of the universal and back. The seed of a profound, mystical, and utterly incommunicable form of being is here in potential, we just need the courage to grasp it, and the faith to go further than concept. This mode of being defies imagination by definition, it is perfect unity with the absolute.

Work Cited:

Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling, Hong, Howard V. and Edna H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983
Alex D. from TRIBE on Utility Room


TRIBE Promoter
Because last time I did it I met someone cool in one of my classes, got good constructive advice, and had a lot of people read and consider my ideas.

I dunno... works for me.