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Living the Question of Existence
Never before has he moved so quickly! And yet he is sitting quite still, not uncomfortably – resting, even – in a ‘marvellous armchair’. The fields are flying past, still the brightest green of springtime. There’s no divine wind in his sails hastening his journey. This is a new kind of miracle: an alchemical fusion of steam and steel, ingenuity and ambition, is putting railways straight through Christendom. And this new kind of motion gives a man like him time for repose. The first-class carriage is quiet, and as usual he is travelling alone. The gliding landscape makes him think of the time that has passed, all the things that have changed. He recollects the intensity of the last few weeks, the crises of the past months, and before that too many years stagnating in the university. Perhaps now there is a chance of freedom from all that? Speeding away from Berlin towards the Baltic Sea at forty miles an hour, anything seems possible. In less than two days Søren Kierkegaard will be back in Copenhagen.
It is late May 1843, and Kierkegaard has just turned thirty. Three months ago he published Either/Or, a huge, eccentric work of philosophy which quickly caused a sensation. He wrote much of that book in Berlin during the winter of 1841, the most productive period of his life so far. And this month he returned to Berlin for a shorter visit, hoping to do the same thing again – and, sure enough, he boarded the train today with two manuscripts in his bag. He has finished Repetition, the story of a man who, like Kierkegaard, gets engaged to a young woman but changes his mind and breaks it off. It is narrated by another character who – also like Kierkegaard – travels to Berlin a second time, returns to his old lodgings on Gendarmenmarkt, sees the same play in the same theatre. Part novella and part manifesto, this strange little book will propose a new kind of philosophy, in which the truth cannot be known, yet must somehow be lived.
The other book, still unfinished, is Fear and Trembling. It is about the story of Abraham and Isaac told in Chapter 22 of the Book of Genesis. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, so father and son walked for three days to Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound Isaac’s hands and feet and raised his knife to sacrifice him – but then an angel appeared, telling him to kill a ram instead. Abraham and Isaac walked home again, three more days. What would the old man tell his wife, Sarah, when she asked him where they had been? What was he thinking? We will never know: the biblical narrative says nothing about Abraham’s thoughts, his feelings, his intentions, which can only be imagined. As he writes this book, Kierkegaard is creatively reconstructing Abraham’s inner life.
Some will claim that this kind of poetic thinking has no place in philosophy, but Kierkegaard draws great philosophical lessons from the journey to Moriah. And he is fascinated by the dark mystery of Abraham; perhaps he even enjoys the thought that his own life holds a similar mystery, which others may one day imagine, interpret, reconstruct: ‘He who explains the riddle of Abraham has explained my life – but who of my contemporaries has understood this?’ He hopes that Fear and Trembling will guarantee his fame as a writer, that it will be translated into different languages, studied by generations of scholars.
‘I have never worked so hard as now,’ he wrote from Berlin to Emil Boesen, his closest friend, just before he began this journey home. ‘In the morning I go out for a while, then come home and sit in my room without interruption until about three o’clock. My eyes can hardly see. Then I sneak off with my walking-cane to the restaurant, but am so weak that if anyone called out my name I think I would keel over and die. Then I go home and begin again.’ Despite his physical condition, he warned his friend that ‘you will find me happier than ever before’; even if he is entering ‘a new crisis’ he is glad to be putting his past into words. ‘These last months I had in my indolence pumped up a proper shower-bath and now I have pulled the string and the ideas are cascading down upon me: healthy, happy, thriving, cheerful, blessed children, born with ease and yet all of them share the birthmark of my personality.’
Berlin’s railway station in 1843
Working like this in Berlin, fuelled and frayed by sugary coffee, Kierkegaard felt most himself – yet animated by a force not entirely of his making. He submitted to a cycle of despair and exuberance which he understood as a spiritual education. In his journal he described the wretched phase of the cycle, when he was ‘put down in a dark pit where I crawl about in agony and pain, see nothing, no way out’. This suffering seemed essential to what followed, like the labour pains of a woman giving birth: ‘Then suddenly a thought stirs in my mind, a thought so vivid, as though I had never had it before even though it is not unfamiliar to me … When it has then taken hold in me I am pampered a bit, I am taken by the arms, and then I, who had been shrivelled up like a grasshopper, grow up again, sound, thriving, happy, warm, and lively as a new-born child. Then it’s as though I must give my word that I shall follow this thought to the uttermost; I pledge my life and now I am buckled in the harness. I cannot stop and my powers hold out. Then I finish, and it starts all over again.’ His creativity may be a blessing or a curse, but it feels inescapable, either way. The ideas flow through him, with a life of their own.
Like most homeward-bound travellers, Kierkegaard is not quite the same person as he was when he began his trip. Even in these early days of ‘railway mania’ he cannot be the first human being to sit alone on a train, reflecting on the life he is leaving behind and imagining the destination ahead. Hypochondria and superstition have conspired to persuade him that he will die within four years, but his brief future is lit more brightly than before by the manuscripts in his bag. He sees them now, bound in thick blue paper in Reitzel’s bookshop, throwing sparks into the dry pews of Christendom. He may feel freer, strengthened within himself, but he is also apprehensive as he thinks about what – and who – awaits him at home.
The first time he visited Berlin he was leaving Regine Olsen behind: twenty-eight years old and a newly qualified Magister of Theology, he was not embarking on a brilliant academic career but fleeing the aftermath of his broken engagement. A year and a half has passed since then; Regine remains at her family home in Copenhagen, and he is still writing about ‘her’ in his journal. In Berlin this second time, memories of their painful separation lay in wait for him at every turn, and he came to a realization: ‘If I had had faith, I would have stayed with Regine.’ By now, though, Kierkegaard has set his life in a different direction. He knows that he will never marry. When he sees Regine in church or on the street – and he sees her often – he cannot speak to her. The image of her face and the echo of her final desperate words to him flood his soul with confused, conflicting feelings; all his thoughts of her are tangled with his effort to understand himself.
Nevertheless, there is a pleasure in coming home. He will stroll beneath the chestnut and lime trees on Philosopher’s Walk and Cherry Lane, the footpaths along the high medieval ramparts that encircle his beloved city like a verdant crown, blossoming every spring. He is looking forward to going to the Frederiksberg Gardens on Sunday afternoon, where he will sit in the shade, smoke a cigar, and watch the serving girls enjoying their day out. It will be especially lovely there now that the air is warmer, and the girls will no longer be bundled up in their shawls.
He will return to his large apartment on Nørregade, close to the university and the Church of Our Lady. From there he sets off each morning to immerse himself in the life of the city, walking through all its neighbourhoods, up on the ramparts, out along the lakes, wearing down his boots. On these daily walks he meets acquaintances on every street, and many of them will walk along with him, arm in arm, to converse for a while. Kierkegaard does most of the talking, of course – and no one’s conversation flows and leaps more gracefully, no man’s wit is sharper. He casts an odd top-hatted shadow as he veers across the street to dodge the sunlight, but his companions put up with his awkward lopsided gait and the flamboyant gestures of his free hand, which invariably holds a walking-cane or a rolled umbrella. Passers-by catch his penetrating gaze with interest and a little fear, for he seems to measure everyone he meets, body and soul, in the glance of a bright blue eye.
Frederiksberg Gardens by Peter Christian Klæstrup
And since Either/Or came out in February, even more people recognize him and want to talk with him. Kierkegaard is curious about other human beings, but he also needs time alone – time to write! When he returns home from his ‘people baths’ he carries on walking, pacing around his darkened apartment as he composes his next sentence, then returning to his tall writing desk; he goes back and forth for hours, filling pages with his thoughts.
Despite the unprecedented speed of the steam engine, there is still an hour to go before the train arrives in Angermünde. When he closes his eyes he sees Abraham, on his way home from Mount Moriah. Who had he become, having prepared a fire, tied up his son, raised his knife? What did he say to Isaac as they walked home? If he had come closer to God on the summit of that remote mountain, how could he explain to Sarah that her child’s life had seemed a price worth paying?
Of course, Kierkegaard has only been to Berlin, not so different from the urbane Danish world he left behind earlier this month. And he did not, like Abraham, need a knife on his journey – just a pen and his notebooks. Nevertheless, he feels that he has sacrificed a life with Regine, and with it his own honour and his family’s good name, for the sake of something that is difficult to explain. He broke his promise to marry the young woman who loved him, broke her heart, humiliated her. Everyone in Copenhagen knows about it; they all agree he was in the wrong. And now, coming home, the notebooks in his bag are full of ideas that challenge much of what the inhabitants of his city think they know. Kierkegaard is not bringing another new philosophy back from Germany, but calling into question whether doing philosophy is the right way to seek the truth, whether baptism makes people Christians, whether being human is something to take for granted.
All philosophers ask questions, but these are questions of a peculiar kind. They are the sort of questions posed by Socrates, his favourite philosopher, designed to produce confusion rather than answers – for confusion is a fertile soil in which wisdom might grow. While everyone else in ancient Athens was ‘fully assured of their humanity, sure that they knew what it is to be a human being’, Socrates devoted himself to the question, What does it mean to be human? – and from this question flowed many others: What is justice? What is courage? Where does our knowledge come from? The educated men of Athens had ready answers to these questions, but Socrates’s inquiries persisted until their views collapsed into incoherence or paradox. This devious philosopher, who seemed to be seeking knowledge, was just playing a trick on them! And yet Socrates was seeking knowledge, and his questions were as sincere as they were duplicitous: these questions led in a new direction, away from what the world recognized as wisdom, and towards a higher truth.
In Plato’s Republic Socrates offers a parable of ascent and return, which echoes Abraham’s journey up and down Mount Moriah. ‘Imagine a cave,’ says Socrates, where people are chained up, facing a wall; behind them, unseen, is a fire and an endless puppet show, and the puppet shadows projected onto the wall are all they know. One of these prisoners is a philosopher – a lover of wisdom – who escapes into the dazzling sunlight above the cave. He basks in this light, full of wonder, his vision transformed; then he descends again, back to where he came from.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, 1604
Socrates told this story to encourage his young philosophy students to think about the dangers of inhabiting a world once they have embarked on a critique of its deepest assumptions. The dimly lit cave where people are held captive, blind to the mechanisms producing the shadows they take to be real things, is an image of the human condition: these prisoners are like all of us, explains Socrates. The cave could be the human mind, its thoughts transfixed by a drama of insubstantial appearances. It could also be the social world, for an entire culture has evolved around this shadow play: the prisoners test each other on their knowledge of the shadows, and compete to predict their movements. But the parable shows too that our minds can expand beyond their habitual limits, and that there is something else beyond this world, just as there is an entirely different light and landscape above the cave. The philosopher’s first task is to wrest himself from illusions, turn around, and see how the shadow play is produced; next, he must find a way to climb up out of the darkness, see the sun, and understand things clearly in its light. This journey is a liberation, an enlightenment, and, we might imagine, a wonderful experience. But Socrates insisted that the philosopher must return to the cramped cave, bringing his insight with him. Will he be able to change the prisoners’ world? Or will they turn on him, ridicule him, refuse to let him call their way of life into question?
Socrates provoked his fellow citizens until he was eventually accused of corrupting his students and charged with the crime of ‘irreverence’ – failure to show proper piety towards his city’s gods. At his trial he refused to change his ways, declaring that ‘while I live, I shall never give up philosophy or stop exhorting you and pointing out the truth to any one of you whom I may meet, saying in my accustomed way: “Most excellent man, are you who are a citizen of Athens, the greatest of cities and the most famous for wisdom and power, not ashamed to care for the acquisition of wealth and for reputation and honour, when you neither care nor take thought for wisdom and truth and the perfection of your soul?”’ His incessant questions were, Socrates explained, ‘what the god demands, and I believe nothing better has befallen this city than my zeal in executing this command’. He compared himself to a gadfly, or horsefly, sent to disturb the Athenians for their own good: ‘I go about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long … But you, perhaps, might be angry, like people awakened from a nap, and might slap me, and easily kill me; then you would pass the rest of your lives in slumber, unless God, in his care for you, should send someone else to sting you.’ After they heard Socrates’s defence, a large jury of Athenian citizens condemned him to death.
Copyright © 2019 by Clare Carlisle