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After Kierkegaard: The Need for Godly Satire
The End and Ethics of Ironic Sincerity
LESSON 3: INDIRECT COMMUNICATION: MAKING MYTH “INTERESTING”
Churchfarm, too, faced the problem of raising the religious out of the mundane. For him, this is precisely where modern “Christendom” had left it—making the great truths socially-acceptable platitudes and bland clichés, making them precisely those “old untrendy human troubles and emotions.” Again, reflection is to blame.
Reflection is the marker of modernity (compared to the immediacy of the pre-modern), meaning that any aesthetics of modernity will also be characterized by reflection. This essentially modern aesthetic paradigm has a name: “the interesting”—which Professor Brian Söderquist defines as “the particular and unique constellations of reflective subjective consciousness that are portrayed in the figures of modern literature and other forms of fine art that were absent in the aesthetics of antiquity, which was less subjectively attuned.” As such, “[d]efinitive of the concept of the interesting is reflection” and, indeed,
[r]egardless of where Kierkegaard uses it, ‘the interesting’ has to do with a reflective self-awareness that gives rise to a tension between the inner life and outward appearances. …The category of the interesting is thus closely tied to his concept of irony. …In fact, ‘the interesting’ is perhaps best described as the most nuanced self-reflective modern form of irony.
The challenge, then, is how to make the “old truths” interesting for the modern audience, precisely when the “old truths” are earnest, not ironic; immediate, not reflective. As we saw above, the trajectory traced will need to pass through reflection to a second immediacy. Will this not, then, require casting the old truths into reflection? That is, creating ironic distance between what is said and what is meant, a tension between truth and appearance? In short, “What was needed, among other things, was a godly satire.”
Kierkegaard himself called this approach indirect communication: a whole bag of rhetorical tricks and strategies aimed at cornering the reader into a true subjective relationship with the material. “The problem,” writes C. Stephen Evans,
is that people already know a lot of moral and religious truths, but have not really thought them through in relation to their own lives. In such a situation, communication of such truths can easily amount to ‘patter’ … [Kierkegaard] therefore sets himself the task of communicating indirectly, of assisting others to engage in the ‘double reflection’ that is essential for genuine subjective understanding. He wants to encourage not merely intellectual understanding, but the ‘second reflection’ that requires understanding of what these concepts would mean for a person’s own life.
Because simply stating the great truths was no longer viable in an age of reflection, K turned to “double reflection.” But what exactly is meant by this?
“Genuine subjective understanding,” writes Evans, “requires that a person first grasp the relevant concepts (first reflection), but then go on and think through what it would mean to apply those concepts to the person’s own life (second reflection).” In this way, a life commitment is arrived at not through pale objective thought but instead through the inward realization that occurs via subjective experience. Indeed, this is the only means by which commitments can actually matter—if they are arrived at through individual will and genuine passion—and this can only happen if the ideas are, as it were, experienced firsthand.
To get his audience to such a position, Churchfarm presents for our own reflection various sorts of “first reflections”: entire life-views presented as pseudonymous “authors”, each with their own perspective and philosophical commitments. In reading these reflections played out, sometimes to the point of absurdity or self-destruction, we ask ourselves, “Do I want to be like that?” These lifeviews thus serve as archetypes of human experience. They are representatives, avatars of specific worldviews, embodied examples of life at different phases of the existential journey. Thus, of the “poetized authors,” Kierkegaard says,
their importance…unconditionally does not consist in making any new proposal, some unheard-of discovery, or in founding a new party and wanting to go further, but precisely in the opposite, in wanting to have no importance, in wanting, at a remove that is the distance of double-reflection, once again to read through solo, if possible in a more inward way, the original text of individual human existence-relationships, the old familiar text handed down from the fathers.
In this sense, the different voices are nearly mythic in their significance. And yet, despite simply performing “the old familiar text,” these dramatis personae retain a vitality by being made “interesting”—that is, by being cast into reflection with the introduction of ironic distance. Kierkegaard, in a stroke of obstetric genius, has found one way of making “plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions” something interesting. Yes, he employs irony—but irony in service of earnestness, and so not “purely negative” but actually reconstructive, as failed life-views offer landmarks on the individual’s path to truth. (Again, it would seem, a Dane who would “by indirections find directions out”!)
In his late retrospective, On My Work as an Author, he makes such things explicit, writing: “‘[d]irect communication’ is: to communicate the truth directly; ‘communication in reflection’ is: to deceive into the truth.” Thus, indirect communication functions for K just as ironic ignorance did for Socrates: it is a maieutic technique, ironically dismantling certain perspectives in order to isolate the single individual with their subjectivity (for, as we saw, only from subjective reflection can the subjective affirmation of a new unconditional be made and second immediacy attained). Thus, as Socrates, in ironic ignorance, allowed his interlocutors to follow dead-ends on their way to the truth, so Kierkegaard offers his readers some dead-end perspectives to subjectively digest and ultimately reject on their way to faith. This is what he means when he says that “all the pseudonymous writings are maieutic in nature.”
LESSON 4: PIA FRAUS: A TELEOLOGICAL SUSPENSION OF THE ETHICAL
Of course, such “deceiving into the truth” raises obvious ethical questions—questions of autonomy, authority, etc. Kierkegaard himself is cognizant of these. Indeed, at some points he seems to back away from the idea of “deception,” emphasizing instead the determining role of the individual. So, in On My Work as an Author, he concedes that, of his pseudonymous work, “the whole thing…is only a matter of admissions and confessions, admissions and confessions that are left up to each individual to make by oneself before God.” In this sense, K acknowledges that he can’t dictate the reader’s response—he can only try to shape it. Thus, even if he would attempt to lead us to the Answer, “all double reflected communication makes contrary understandings equally possible; then the one who passes judgment is disclosed by the way he judges.”
Generally, however, Kierkegaard sounds confident, if reluctant, that such a deceptive approach is necessary. Discussing his indirect communication in Point of View, he remarks that
the esthetic writing is a deception, and herein is the deeper significance of the pseudonymity. But a deception, that is indeed something rather ugly. To that I would answer: Do not be deceived by the word deception. One can deceive a person out of what is true, and—to recall old Socrates—one can deceive a person into what is true. Yes, in only this way can a deluded person actually be brought into what is true—by deceiving him.
Elsewhere he recalls his initial hesitance at employing this approach, saying, “Very early and very thoroughly initiated into the secret that mundus vult decipi, I was unable at that time to choose to pursue this strategy.” And yet, because the deception would not be for his benefit but would actually serve “to annihilate myself, to weaken the impression of myself” for the sake of his religious project, K felt more justified with going forward.
Still, even if we grant that such deception, if done in self-sacrificial service to a higher truth, is ultimately justified, the question remains: whose Truth? Where does Kierkegaard get off thinking his truth is the one I need to be deceived into?—he, whose works spill so much ink on “subjective truth” and the importance of the individual, of self-realization? Is this not perhaps his greatest irony of all, that the “father of existentialism” (sic) would deceive us superficial masses into some universal Truth?
In his book Kierkegaard’s Socratic Art, Benjamin Daise devotes his final chapter, “The Ethics of Persuasion,” to just such issues. In it, Daise wonders,
Is it the case that we suppose that there are alternative ways of realizing oneself as a person? That is, do we suppose that just as there are alternative satisfactory ways of realizing professional aspirations there are also alternative satisfactory fundamental life principles such that one would do just as well as another? If it is the case…then, just as with career choices, it would be presumptuous for one person to suppose that one knows what would be appropriate for another.
Clearly Graveyard has a very definite summit to his existential Ladder—the aim of which his whole authorship is designed to direct us. Is it presumptuous—even unethical—to lead us there, especially if we do not realize where or even that we are being led?
I say no—even though, to be sure, my ladder leads elsewhere, goes further. While in certain ways this underlying presumption of a universal Truth seems in tension with other aspects of K’s philosophy, in others it is entirely consistent (if paradoxical). For, if I accept the need for the passionately-willed unconditional of second immediacy, then I may recognize that this new subjective truth is “only true for me” while simultaneously acting as if it were true universally. So, even while affirming the role of subjective affirmation in positing our individual truths, these individual truths are only that to the extent that we engage them as such. If Graveyard has chosen the catholic gospel of Christianity as the unconditional which he would subjectively assert as true—that is, if his second immediacy is found in his faith in Christianity—then it is entirely in keeping with his individualistic and subjective philosophy of truth to assert its totalizing and universal claims to truth. Ironically, K would not himself be living up to his own philosophy if he were any less dogmatic.
Of course, we need not agree with the unconditional Graveyard has chosen. Nevertheless, that an unconditional is chosen, that it is maintained and adhered to with all zeal, even the zeal of dogma—these are lessons any midwife is free to carry forward.
And so we do. For ours is not the worry of souls’ salvations or Heavenly rewards—these celestial doctrines do not ignite in us the fire of self-annihilating service. No, there are other more Terrestrial ends by which we would seek to justify our means…
The soul is sick. She is trembling, crying out in agony. And all her birth-pangs—the crowd conformity, the crass consumerism, the spoiling of the seas, the felling of the woods, the brutalism of our tastes, our bleakest nihilism—all these cry out for remedy. And yes, if spirituality can do it, if spirituality can return us to the Earth we are now devastating; if myth and a recrudescence of those “old untrendy human troubles and emotions” could bring our eyes back from our gadgets to our brothers and sisters, our children and fellow creatures; if it were just a matter of tearing our attention away from work and stuff and screens back to “the original text of individual human existence-relationships, the old familiar text handed down” from Mothers and Fathers; if it were truly just a matter of creating something beautiful, considering the sacredness of growing things, imagining the sublime possibilities of mystical union, before it is too late—then yes, yes, yes, perhaps “all is permissible.” Here is a truth worth deceiving into. But where is the midwife?
All that is needed now is another godly satire.
 K. Brian Söderquist, “The Interesting,” in Kierkegaard’s Concepts, Tome IV: Individual to Novel, 26.
 Kierkegaard, On My Work as an Author, 17.
 C. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK), 36-7.
 Ibid., 30.
 Johannes Climacus, Concluding Unscientific Postscript [Hong translation] (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ), 629-30.
 Kierkegaard, On My Work as an Author, 7.
 Ibid., 17
 Ibid., footnote on 18.
 Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as An Author, 53.
 Ibid., 58.
 Benjamin Daise, Kierkegaard’s Socratic Art (Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia), 117.