“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 490)
This week, I revisited Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for Arts One. This text is one that has, in many ways, haunted me for almost a decade. I’ve read it several times, recommended it to others, and most importantly, struggled with it. Because you are meant to struggle with this text. It is meant to unsettle you, create dis-ease, confusion, uncertainty and–to put it bluntly–blow your mind. It is an exercise in thinking about something beyond thought, after all! And I think that’s why the text has always intrigued me. I am fascinated by the idea of pushing thought further and further, of testing the boundaries of intelligible reason, of wondering why Kierkegaard found himself so caught up in the intelligibility of the Abraham story.
On that last point, there is one enduring theory that is referenced even in the introduction to our own edition: Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen. Kierkegaard’s father was a melancholy man who was consumed by guilt and depression. His guilt was never entirely explained, but may have derived from the fact that he slept with Kierkegaard’s mother out of wedlock when she was still a maid in his home. Kierkegaard appears to have inherited this depressed, melancholy and guilt-ridden temperament from his father. His mother and several of his seven siblings died before Kierkegaard was 21, many dying in childhood. Kierkegaard himself was convinced that he would not live much past 33, though again, the reason for this is unclear. But this back-story is necessary in order to understand Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen.
Kierkegaard met Regine in 1837 and proposed to her in 1840. She accepted him. However, in 1841, Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, much to Olsen’s confusion and dismay. When he was asked why, Kierkegaard never did give a satisfactory answer. Some speculate that he broke the engagement off because he was afraid of his impending early death, and fearful of leaving Olsen widowed. Some said he was fearful that his melancholy temperament would make him an unsuitable husband and father. But some people suppose that Olsen was Kierkegaard’s Isaac; she was his test of faith. That is, Kierkegaard sometimes claimed that he could not see how be a good husband and father and be the religious scholar he felt called upon to be at the same time. While this might be dismissed as someone making the decision to pursue fame and glory over pursuing a life of home and family (a perfectly rational and intelligible decision) some scholars suggest that this is only what Kierkegaard said. What he meant, what he could not say, was that he was being tested.
If he was being tested, it seems possible that he failed the test. He never got Olsen back (as Abraham got Isaac). Instead, she married another, and Kierkegaard lived alone. However, indications are that he never stopped loving Olsen. He left everything to her in his will. If he failed the test, it seems to have been because he could not sustain the duel movement of faith. Indeed, Johannes de Silentio claims at many places in Fear and Trembling to be able to understand, and even to make, the move of infinite resignation (giving up Isaac/Olsen) but not the double-movement required of faith (giving up Isaac/Olsen, but still believing that one will get him/her back somehow). That is, de Silentio cannot sustain the paradox of believing two conflicting beliefs. And it is possible that Kierkegaard cannot as well.
So, Kierkegaard’s fascination with the Abraham/Isaac story is often thought to result from his own love, and loss of, Regine Olsen. But I don’t want to jump too quickly to the conclusion that Kierkegaard and de Silentio are the same person, or share the same experiences and perspectives. They may, they may not. Indeed, part of the reason Kierkegaard may have written under this pseudonym may have been to distance himself from these ideas and theories. Another reason may have been his desire for us to meet these ideas on their own merits, and not do what I just did: explain them away as a result of Kierkegaard’s past experience.
Still, when I read this text, I am vividly aware of how intimate and passionate it is. This is not an essay. It is, as one student recently put it to me, more like a diary, or a stream of consciousness. It is a personal exploration of an old myth. Whether he intended to or not, whether this is about Olsen or not, the text will contain elements of Kierkegaard’s identity within it, simply because he wrote it. And, in writing it, he brought his own lived experiences to bear. This doesn’t invalidate Kierkegaard’s reading of the Abraham/Isaac story, nor do I think it allows us to dismiss his interpretation. What it does do, is illuminate something interesting about interpreting texts. Interpretation is personal. It is a meeting of you and the myth. You bring your life experiences to the meeting, and the myth brings all the past interpretations and discussions. But what comes out of this meeting is unique.
Which brings me to the quote from Camus with which I started this blog post. It’s one of my favorite Arts One quotes. And I think Kierkegaard exemplifies it. He breathes life into this Abraham story, possibly by breathing his own lived experiences, his own unfulfilled hopes and dreams, into the myth from Genesis. And in doing so, he attempts to flesh out the subtle characterizations of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah as represented in the original biblical text. We may not agree with the life he breathed into these texts. We may take issue with them, or delight in them, or be unsettled or confused by them. And we may want to breathe our own life both into Fear and Trembling and into Genesis itself.
All these options are open to us this week. In speaking about these texts, we bring them to life again. But, in speaking about them, we aren’t being silent.
Perhaps that’s another reason Johannes di Silentio (and by extension, Kierkegaard) returns to this text. Perhaps his obsession with this text was a way to drown out the silence.
For more on Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen, see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/