“Infinitude’s despair, therefore, is the fantastic, the unlimited for the self is healthy and free from despair only when, precisely by having despaired, it rests transparently in God.” — (Søren Kiekegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, pg. 30)
Must we despair in order that we don’t despair?
Must we suffer, so as not to suffer? We find ourselves in a paradox, stuck between finitude and infinitude, wanting to die and not wanting to die. Life can be artificial oftentimes — death has already struck us a blow, a death that is more internal and threatens the infinite more than any physical death could. Every day we face ourselves; we face our possibilities, sometimes cringing and other times barely aware that we are sad.
Søren Kierkegaard experienced despair. The words he writes on the subject reek of subjectivity; you can almost taste-smell-touch Kierkegaard’s despair as you read a work like the Sickness Unto Death.
Kierkegaard never claims to be someone whose been “transparent before God”; he probably never was “healthy and free” from despair — for he says all of us whether we are Christian or not, have despaired or continue to despair.
There are probably many events in Kierkegaard’s life that disrupted his own synthesis of infinitude and infinitude.
Kierkegaard's Failed Romance with Regina Olsen
Kierkegaard fell in love with a young woman named Regina Olsen. There is no doubt that many of the works produced by Kierkegaard were a result of the relationship he had with her.
They were planning marriage until Kierkegaard decided to end the relationship. It seems when great happiness is evident, or the possibility of happiness is on the horizon, despair settles in deepest. In the Moviegoer Walker Percy’s character Binx Bolling makes that clear in the Moviegoer when he says, “whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise” (121).
Kierkegaard had straddled that possibility and it made him afraid; he didn’t fall out of love with Regina Olsen (he loved her dearly — till his death). When he broke off the engagement with her he made sure she did not suffer embarrassment. In Kierkegaard's time, if a man breaks off an engagement with a woman, the woman is stigmatized. Kierkegaard prevented that stigma so he forced her to break off the engagement with him. He made sure friends and family saw him as the villain and Regina as the victim. He quit seeing her; he quit sending flowers; he quit courting her.
Why did he do this? Obviously they would have been happy. What caused him to end such a relationship? Kierkegaard was afraid that if he married Regina Olsen, he would be unable to continue writing — he considered himself unsuited for the married life (Coppleston, Vol. 7, p. 338) — he was a man with goals and ideas and sealing a marriage, he felt, would prevent him from achieving his philosophical goals.
He alludes to the engagement in his writings; one gets the sense that he regretted his decision — that he gave up on a beautiful thing. He writes of the relationship, pseudonymously, in a wry, novel-like section of Either/Or or also called The Seducer’s Diary.
A few years before his engagement to Regina Olsen, he seriously considered suicide. Kierkegaard grew up in a strict, religious family. His father was a melancholic, religious man who believed that God’s wrath was imminent. The father’s dire religious overtones hung over the family like a doomsday saying. Kierkegaard's father read to his son stories from the bible from an illustrated tome that depicted graphically the violence of the crucifixion. I think the young Kierkegaard was seared by those images of a brutally beaten Christ hanging on a cross.
The Theme of Despair in the book The Sickness Unto Death
The central story of Sickness Unto Death is an interpretation of the rising of Lazarus by Christ recounted in Chapter 11 of John's Gospel. Lazarus, the brother of Martha and the Mary who anointed the body of Jesus with oil and dried his feet with her hair, is ill and near death. Kierkegaard reads the story as an explanation of despair. Christ says Lazarus's sickness is not unto death (John 11:4). The disciples misunderstand Jesus to mean physical death, but Jesus means spiritual death, the death caused by despair. Raising Lazarus from the dead is the greatest "sign" Christ performs in John's Gospel. In fact, it is the culmination event of many minor "signs" Jesus performs. Kierkegaard reads the story as an allegory on despair. Raising Lazarus from the dead is meant to serve a point: that death won't kill Lazarus. To raise him from the dead only for him to die, physically later on, is to suggest that Christ has saved him from the death caused by inner despair.
On a Recent Visit to Copenhagen I Visted Kierkegaard
I wrote on Kierkegaard as an undergraduate philosophy major. I went to Copenhagen to visit his grave, which turned out to be a great pun for in Danish graveyard is "kierkegaard" so when I asked someone where was the grave of Kierkegaard they thought I was asking where was the churchyard. It is fitting that Kierkegaard's name means graveyard.
On my way to Copenhagen I took a ferry from Germany to Denmark in a train. The train enters the ferry via built-in tracks. It was late at night. I was sitting next to a German girl who was going to Denmark for a summer job. Since we were talking to each other, when the train boarded the ferry, we both went on deck to look out into the sea. I remember looking down into the dark wine waters and feeling vertigo and this sudden desire to plunge into the vortex.
Perhaps what Kierkegaard was trying to say is that we can die way before our actual deaths. Feeling the vertigo made me feel alive but at the same time hearkened a baleful note to my mortality. I recognized the horrific contingency of my being, that I won't last long. Kierkegaard's point was that we succumb to death long before we physically die in a kind of covering up of our selves. Famously Kierkegaard defines the self as a relation that is in relationship with its own self. Sometimes this relational structure becomes muddled, scratched over, hidden and we become lost to our self. We are unmoored from our relationship to our very self.
The greatest form of despair is the despair that does not even know it is in despair.
To know I am in despair is the first step to not be in despair. In other words, to know that I am born, introduced to this world without any instruction, or even with my permission, so I recognize that I am not at home in this world. To be in despair is to kid myself into thinking that I am at home in the world when really I am not.
Heidegger was influenced by Kierkegaard. What Heidegger has to say about anxiety is closely mirrored to Kierkegaard's theory of the self. Dasein (Heidegger's neologism for the human being, which means literally being-there) is a being whose very being becomes an issue for it. This is very close to what Kierkegaard was trying to say. And I think it is what Walker Percy was trying to say in all of his novels: we are strangers in a strange land.
That night on the ferry to Denmark I wanted to jump into the void for it promised an escape. Not that I had any external reason to be in despair. At that time in my life, I was feeling pretty good. But the recognition came to me that what defines the human being is despair.
The Mass of Men Leads Lives of Quiet Desperation
I think it was Thoreau who said the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. I think he was onto something. And so was I at that moment. Since then I have forgotten. Only to find my notes on Kierkegaard in a notebook from my college days which I reconstructed to write this blog post. The me of 2000 when I was 20 is sending a message to me of 2012 at 32. I think that is how it works. There is no essential self. Just fragments. Thank god we can communicate.