Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology

The following is a guest post by Peter Kline. Peter is an Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University in Theology and Philosophy. In addition to Kierkegaard and apophatic thought, Peter has interests in psychoanalysis, mysticism, art, and aesthetics. He is also a practicing artist, and his work can be found at: http://peterklineart.virb.com/.Kierkegaard by Peter Kline

This is one of the pieces of art that I plan on submitting as part of my dissertation, “Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology.” And here is an excerpt from the dissertation that can be read as a bit of commentary on the painting. I’m interested in exploring what it would mean to inhabit a space between the word and the image, painting and writing toward “nothing,” toward the apophatic space and time that keeps everything in motion, that releases the word, the image, the self with its projects off itself into a temporality timed by the rhythm, the “repetition,” of eternity.

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Like Foucault, Kierkegaard “writes in order to have no face.”[1] He writes in order to face the “divine nothing” and in that (de)facing he yearns to become nothing, nothing to be hawked by theory retailers or put to use by purveyors of any Christendom, old or new. What marks apophatic discourses as apophatic is their limitless self-critique, their willingness to take back and negate everything that is given in speech, even negations, or to take back as the manner of giving. This breathes into discourse an elusiveness, often quite subtle, that the commentator must become attuned to, with a patience, humility, and artistic ear that work against the scientific desire to “master” texts.

The simultaneity of giving and taking back is what Kierkegaard practices as “indirect communication” and “double-reflection.”[2] This simultaneity, which requires that one write at a slant or with a swerve, is how he lets discourse perform the paradoxical simultaneity of time and eternity—Øieblikket [“the instant,” or “the glance of the eye”]—in which time is thrown off center, off itself, forward. Kierkegaard’s authorship throws language off center, off itself. It lets the outside of speech into speech and so writes itself around and toward what cannot be named or gathered into definitive and stabilized meanings. Kierkegaard writes in the tension of passion between time and eternity, with one eye looking into time, the other looking into eternity. He winks at his reader, disrupting his own discourse even as he writes it, the way a wink disrupts the gaze even as it performs it. This is exactly the sense of Øieblikket, the glance of the eye, in which eternity approaches and withdraws in the same instant, opening time forward. An approach that withdraws as it approaches is one that makes room. Kierkegaard writes in order to make room for his reader, to release the reader forward into the roominess of eternity, rather than suffocate them with a smothering, tightly determined discourse.

Kierkegaard writes beyond the concept, beyond even his own concepts, or he allows a beyond, a rupture, a fragmenting, into the writing of concepts. He writes to release and revitalize an energy, a passion, a sense, an anger, a tenderness, a sorrow, a joy, a laughter that concepts cannot allow to burst forth. Hiin Enkelte, “that single individual,” is the limit concept of Kierkegaard’s writing, the limit of the concept, the stumbling block on which every concept trips and falls, or else learns to dance, to get off itself. Hiin—“that”—pushes Enkelte beyond the concept, beyond the abstraction of “the” individual to that one, right here—hello! Hiin indicates the movement of an address—“My dear reader!”—an address that is already a response to what opens, to what is given, prior to thought and prior to speech, the sheer thatness of that other, the shock of relation and responsibility that elicits a joy (and terror) that arrives before language and outlasts it. One might think of the joy of babies (in-fants, non-speakies) who learn to smile in the presence of the other before they learn to speak, who beam with the joy (and terror) of existence before learning the “ambiguous art”[3] of language. Kierkegaard writes in order to return his reader to, to repeat forward, this smile older (and newer) than speech:

Thus the upbuilding address is fighting in many ways for the eternal to be victorious in a person, but in the appropriate place and with the aid of the lily and the bird, it does not forget first and foremost to relax into a smile. Relax, you struggling one! One can forget how to laugh, but God keep a person from ever forgetting how to smile![4]

Kierkegaard’s wink always comes with a smile, an apophatic smile, with the joy of relating and communicating outside of, beyond, prior to, along the edge of, or simply without the concept. Academics, as a rule, are trained to forget how to smile, especially in their writing. To read Kierkegaard well, however, one must be able to smile, and wink, and dance—to let the outside in.

Notes

[1] Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge

[2] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 73ff.

[3] Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, 231.

[4] Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses, 12.