5.01.2014

Fear and Trembling


My shrink told me an incredible story yesterday. An old friend of his is a Hasidic Jew, devout through and through. This man's young son was terribly sick, couldn't find a new kidney, and died. My shrink saw the man, this father, a few days after the son's passing. And, much to the surprise of my shrink, the man was fine. "Everything is good," he told my shrink, "everything is as it should be."

This is a terrifying story to me. This man, of course, is right — from the perspective of the infinite. When you know that life is all there is and it's always in flow, when you know that all of life is necessarily good and beautiful — that is, when you're joyful — then nothing is wrong, not even the death of a child — and, to that end, not even the extermination of European Jews. But to believe this, to live this, is to leave the social and all the tethers of identity, all those buttresses that seem to make me me — father, son, Jew, man, guilt, fear. And that scares the crap out of me. 

I first read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling in the Fall after college, more or less alone and living in Manhattan. It was an awesome experience — funny and scary and strange. I remember lying on the small, weird, old, green guest bed in the weird, small second bedroom in my grandfather's upper east side apartment (I couldn't afford my own place as I worked at a damned used bookstore) and hearing all the resounding traffic noise below. I hope the metaphor of this scene is not too subtle. Two significant aspects of that book stuck with me.

There's Abraham, alone in his faith, standing directly before God, untethered from any social demand and free of any guilt, anxiety, or doubt. It's an intense, romantic image: the man alone with the madness of his life, unfettered by social demands, facing the infinite undaunted. It's remained a perhaps dubious ideal for me.

And then there's Johannes de Silentio, the pseudonymous author of the book (Kierkegaard rarely wrote under his own name; his books are fictions, perspectival reckonings of different positions). Johannes is blown away by Abraham. He just can't believe it. How can this dude agree to kill his son, his only son, his impossible son (Isaac is born when Sarah is, like, 110)? Either Abraham's a madman murderer or he's the father of faith (Kierkegaard was at once paralyzed and motivated by the absolute demands of either/or). I always loved how Johannes wasn't quite buying it. There was something reassuring — and nebbishy Jewish — about it. 

But the thing that inspires Johanne’s fear and trembling is not just Abraham's anxiety-free willingness to kill his son. It's that Abraham comes back to his wife after his trip to Mount Moriah! He comes back into the social order and continues being a father, husband, worker, a normal dude shopping at the market. 

After all, taking leave of the social has, in its way, been domesticated. There are the ascetics, the monks, those who recuse themselves from society, living their lives in monasteries without the stresses, worries, and duties of work, sex, which restaurant to eat at. Kierkegaard calls these the knights of infinite resignation. 

It's a bold life, no doubt. But it also simplifies things day to day. There's no silly bourgeois nonsense to contend with — no demanding girlfriends, no stressed out sons, no idiot bosses or soul crushing PowerPoint presentations. Brush away the quotidian demands of life that harass, harangue, and humiliate us and living with God (or whatever you want to call it) becomes, well, easier.

Don't get me wrong. This is not to diminish the beauty, the ecstasy, of living life outside everyday social crap. In fact, it sounds mighty fine. Sure, I'd miss uni and gin and the sweet kisses of a lovely lady on my belly. But, oh, to be free of the hassles! Not to have to have one more conversation about whether I flirted with that girl or not. Not to have to figure out what I'll cook for dinner. Not to have to figure out what my son will eat, how he's faring, all that guilt and angst. Just to concentrate on my relationship to the infinite, all day every day. Oh, lord, that sounds great!

And it makes a certain sense to me. I've had glimmers and glimpses of the plane of infinity. I've felt the surge of the cosmos, my ego and its all-too-petty needs melting away in one magnificent woosh, the teem of becoming surging through me, in me, with me, as me.

But it's always when I'm alone. The moment I enter the social again, the moment I have to talk, answer an email, negotiate traffic I become once more enmeshed within the toils of this all-too-human life and its petty, petty anxieties — worry about my son, guilt about my fathering, jealousy or resentment over some woman. I lose that delectable taste of infinity, its joy and simmering peace.

This is what makes Kierkegaard's vision so profound. It's not that Abraham takes leaves of the social; it's that he returns (and doesn't ask for forgiveness). This is what Kierkegaard calls the knight of faith: to live on the infinite plane all the time while simultaneously living in the finite everyday. 

How am I to live with this ahuman, infinite flow and still be a father, a son, a worker, a human being? How do I talk to a woman who's freaking out about her job and just doesn't believe me when I say it's irrelevant? How do I talk to clients about their brand when, my god, who the hell cares? How do I speak with my mother who grieves for her daughter?  

I encounter many people who confront the infinite and handle the social with the utmost seriousness. They religiously go to Zen meditation classes; attend lectures on this or that wisdom; quote all sorts of folks on Facebook. They look me intently in the eyes when speaking. To me, that sucks all the pleasure out of this social realm, a plane as ripe with delight as it is fraught with angst. If I'm gonna live here, if I’m not going to be a monk, then gimme my uni! Gimme my gin! Gimme my humor! Let me frolic!

I want the resonant peace and wisdom of infinite becoming and the multihued pleasures of finitude. As of now, I see either/or. I want to see and.

2 comments:

Donald said...

You want *and*. Your only rational choices seem to be *either or*. Thus angst.

And now it is clearer to me why K is the father of E. And why he clung to irrationalism.

Beautiful, moving essay here too. Thanks, I needed that.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Thanks, truly. This essay was — is — part of an ongoing reckoning for me. In case that wasn't obvious. It seems I've been mulling the same shit for decades. Not sure if that's wisdom, idiocy, both, or neither.