And so, for Kierkegaard, the ‘”good” is the opening toward new possibility
and choice, the ability to face the anxiety; the closed is the evil, that which turns one away from newness and broader perceptions and experiences; the closed shuts our revelation, obtrudes a veil between the person and his own situation in the world.
Ernest Becker in Denial of Death, p. 72
He had seen, he thought, too many of the
hard, bright, cold, fast-darkening winter days,
but this bright Sunday afternoon was splendid,
the brief kiss of Scandinavian summer
nuzzling at the ear of Copenhagen.
This afternoon he sat alone in the
Fredriksberg Garden, smoking a cigar,
as was his habit, and turning over
many things in his imagination,
that lambent flame playing over the world.
He reflected that as yet he had made
no career for himself, yet men sitting
all around him were already established,
most of them smiling benefactors,
all their efforts directed at making
life easier for the rest of mankind.
These men built great cities and institutions,
the great plazas and comfortable churches;
their voices announced the end of chaos,
and the arrival of a new Eden,
the longed for apotheosis of man,
the banishment of dread and anxiety.
But undergirding all this bright progress,
the thin, hump-backed and spindle-legged man
thought as he sat alone smoking his cigar,
was the idea that rational thought
could make spiritual existence easier,
purge man of his hungry demons,
make finite man serene beneath dark skies,
deliver mankind to theology
as easily as the aproned butcher
slaughtered the plump hog and sold the sausage
to the bourgeois housewife in his clean shop.
His cigar burnt down; he lit another.
He rolled the cigar between his thin lips
and looked hard at the fat, smug men about him,
all of them concerned with making life easy.
Perhaps, he thought, it is time for a man
to disdain the easy and make life hard again,
time for one to expose the easy conscience
of an age convinced of material
progress and intellectual enlightenment.
Scalded by loneliness, he knew there can
be no encounter with the self in the
detachment of thought. No, encounter comes
through the bitter despair of either-or,
comes to the harrowed soul alone in the night,
naked under distant blazing stars.
And the Dane arose and left the Garden,
his fate as clear as Copenhagen summer sky.
Dr. Elgee and I have been talking a little about Kierkegaard. K., says Dr. Elgee, was extremely dysfunctional. I think K. is too religious for Dr. Elgee. Dr. Elgee, lest we forget, is, au fond, a hard-nosed scientist, though I often think he has the soul of a poet.
Yes, our poor Dane was indeed dysfunctional, as was Nietzsche. Frankly, their botched lives bother me. Damn it all, the older I get the more I understand that life must be lived, then thought about, and even then I don’t know whether the perplexing position in which we find ourselves can be understood. One must, I guess, hope for small particles of insight, quick moments of illumination.
I find myself–within limits—on Freud’s side (as silly at this sounds, this being “on someone’s side”), not so much in his ideas (Becker shows how wrong-headed Freud is) but in the way he lived his life. I don’t know–I really don’t–considering the human condition that one can do a better job that Freud did in his passage through the quotidian, the days and months and years, his time running toward its fated end, his stoicism at his end, his understanding that life had no solution, only ways of adapting. A lot of people forget that near the end of DoD Becker says it doesn’t make much difference whether one comes down on the side of Kierkegaard or Freud. Here’s what Becker says: “…if we take Kierkegaard’s life as a believing Christian and put it up against Freud’s as an agnostic, there is no balance sheet to draw.” K., adds Becker, “failed in life,” K.’s life being “not a voluntary sacrifice in free will, but a pathetically driven sacrifice. He did not live in the categories in which he thought.” Does any man?
So how does one choose between “scientific creatureliness and religious creatureliness”? Well, you know Becker’s answer, I suspect, by heart: “The most one can achieve is a certain relaxedness, an openness to experience that makes him less of a driven burden on others.” A point perhaps to make is that Freud’s life was in most ways we measure the simple living of a life more satisfactory than Kierkegaard’s. I fancy that both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard seem a bit hysterical at times. Freud never does. I don’t know who’s right. I am just trying to live a life here, and, alas, not doing, or so it seems to me, a very good job at it. We all seem to mess up in this regard. It could be–you tell me–that a man who is profoundly conscious of individuality within finitude always limps a bit in the run through life. And yet Kierkegaard was a great thinker, much of his analyses unassailable. I always put down Becker with more sorrow in my heart than was there when I picked him up–but, then, I wouldn’t have missed reading him for anything.
Strange the things that come to a man; today when I walked my dog at the park, I thought–I cannot tell you why–of Wordsworth’s great intimations ode. In it he says the child comes into this world not utterly naked but comes, rather, trailing “clouds of glory do we come / From God, who is our home.” As the boy grows older, the “shades of the prison house begin to close” around him. The boy loses the “vision” and it “fade[s] into the light of common day.” The poem, says Lionel Trilling, is about growing up. I think so. Wordsworth hints that it’s sad, somehow, that we have to grow up and lose the childlike wonder we once had in the world. Wordsworth forgets to mention that the “wonder” comprises a lot of terror and frantic anxiety–the Boogie Man under the bed. Childhood is vastly overrated.
I don’t think we come into this world trailing clouds of glory (Becker refutes this notion, it seems to me, in his conclusion of chapter 4 of DoD, in his comments on the English poet Thomas Traherne). In truth, the repression of the child is all that saves the child from sheer terror and chaos–or, if you will, madness. A child does not live in paradise. I don’t think, really, Wordsworth is right to call the child “a prophet,” a creature knowing truths the rest of us, as we grow up, work all of our lives to acquire. What truths? If a child–I am speculating now– is awe-struck, he is terrified, reminded, albeit unconsciously perhaps, that he is impotent and powerless. A man, on the other hand, is awe-struck in a different way. He is sublime in a way a child never is. A wise man will hope to find the sacred and the awe-inspiring in his life.
Wordsworth looks back on childhood with a false nostalgia, as if it would be wonderful for us to live forever as children, which implies of course that we are watched over by some authority. We grow up though (Wordsworth seems to accept this as a given) and being grown up we have to accept responsibility, but Wordsworth to his credit enjoins us not to grieve, to find “the soothing thoughts that spring / Out of human suffering; / In the faith that looks through death, / In years that bring the philosophic mind.” I venture to say that in some way Wordsworth was “happier” than either Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or Freud, though Wordsworth knew as much about suffering as anybody (his children died, his brother drowned, his sister went mad–the standard list for the time, for any time actually). From what I know of Wordsworth’s life, his life, the actual living of it, did not live up the ecstasies he writes about in his poems. One should never confuse a poem with a life–or confuse life with a philosophical treatise. Says Ovid, “Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor,” meaning, “I see and approve the better course, but follow the worse.” It’s a venial failing, and, for sure, it’s a ubiquitous one. We need no classical Roman poet to tell us “the rich irrelevancies and contradictions by which men live.”
What is the point? you may be asking, and, even admitting brevity is not my strong point, I guess I’d say that my point is that thing, to me at least, Becker alludes to over and over again (so does Robert Frost): and that is we must look for little victories in life. A lot of people want the big cure, the panacea. There is no great cure, no panacea. We are in the soup, sister!
Then what can one do? Well, one can do what Becker says one should do: one can admit the human condition is insoluble, that we are fated to live in a kind of hell, but that we do have a few choices in how we adapt to this sanguinary hell (all the tearing and gorging and excreting) in which we find ourselves. We can start with the truth: not a damn thing makes sense: it’s possible humanity has probably no purpose, the heavens are stitched to our pleading eyes, we are at bottom creatures, self-conscious ones for sure, but animals all the same, creature fated to die and vanish once more into nothingness, into eternal oblivion. The world is grotesque and absurd. It’s more, of course, but fundamentally it’s grotesque and absurd.
I don’t see any way around our having to accept the truth if we are to assure ourselves that we aren’t going to make other people miserable in our attempts to repress the truth. God, here’s to people who are easy to live with. I have pretty much said, “To hell with you” with those in my life who aren’t. One can try to relax with the truth, be grateful for the experience of life, though the experience could turn ugly at any moment and will, eventually, kill us–if only of old age. We don’t need to live driven lives (what, I wonder, is a “driven life”?). It is, I understand, this living of a relaxed and undriven life, much easier said than done. One can write like an angel but one must live as a man. Samuel Johnson says in the Life of Milton, “We are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance.” On a fundamental level, we are perpetually self-conscious creatures, irrevocably so and nothing we do to obscure this truth, whether chance or intent makes us geometricians or doctors or pedantic professors, will avail. Ah, there’s the rub!