Fear and/or Trembling

Been rereading Fear and Trembling, which has to be one of my all-time favorite books by this point, in its own strange way. Every time I go back to it, I get more out of the experience. This was probably the first reading when I felt like I had, even for an instant, a grasp on that third section, with the business about Agnes and the merman. That book has shaped my thinking so much in the four years since I first read it, even though, like many things I've come to really appreciate with time, I was pretty dismissive of it on my first encounter with.

What does it mean to me? I still don't know. On one level, I respond to the authorial posture Kierkegaard (as "Johannes de Silentio") takes in it: he writes from the perspective of one outside of faith looking in. And one of his basic points, on the incomparability of faith with normal existence, its inacessability, is something I've taken very strongly to heart. Much of our social and political discourse in this country starts from a position that faith and ethics are in some sense one, or at the very least that religious faith speaks in very straightforward and easily applicable ways about everyday life and morality. Which is a notion that Kierkegaard more or less shreds in his discussion of Abraham. Okay, yes, I can see -- espeically with each rereading -- the little tricks, the parts of the argument he skims over, but I think it's a really legitimate point that faith is or must be something apart, separate, wholly and unknowably interior. It's certainly made me, as basically a nonbeliever, more tolerant: the faithful know what they know, and, well, what faith tells them it tells them, and they're under no obligation (nor should be) to try and rationally justify to me their religious understanding to me. This cuts both ways: I think the argument can be turned around, too, and Kierkegaard rails a great deal againt easy presumptions of faith. He's my shield against proselytism in some sense -- but no matter how much skepticism I might have towards any given bible-thumper, I don't actually know their interior life, and I'm not going to jump to conclusions.

Further, his arguments about esthetics and irony, the double movements, really work for me, and I'm pretty deeply inspired by the structure of of the progression he lays out in Fear and Trembling. First the movement towards renunciation, the movement of infinite resignation, the explicable and understandable motion, a going-outwards from oneself in a giving-up. And then, its reversal, the movement of faith, the incomprehensible motion, the return to onself and the inner life, the belief that the giving-up will not be required, by virtue of the absurd. The coexistence of these motions, the absolute necessity that one genuinelt make the first before the second becomes meaningful, this layering of irony: well, that's the kind of stuff to warp an impressionable young mind. It's beautiful, it tells me about a truth within and behind irony, it's a form of meaning, a way of being in the world and pulling something stranger and more beautiful out of the very details of one's normal existence, and yet somehow transcending it.

That said, I think I'd be a horrifying example to old Soren, taking the teaching in that sense. I'm not taking it at the level of faith, but at the level of esthetics, which he goes off about at great length in that weird but compelling third section. I'm missing the meaning, according to its author's own words, to be reading Fear and Trembling as an esthetic argument. This does disturb me a bit. But on that very same esthetic level, and following its own relaxed standards of rigor, the argument works for me, and this is something that I know and can't properly explain, something I believe in perhaps precisely because I recognize a certain absurdity in it. So, sure, Kierkegaard may be rolling over in his grave, but this lax reading sanctions itself. And so I go about my business, secure in my faith in irony, the operative force shaping the world these days. And I go about my business, secure in my belief that what is given up may yet be given back, only transformed, so that the odd blessings that fall from out the sky carry in their forms the echoes of familiar and renounced ones but are more marvelous than anything that can ever be grasped at.