An Earnest Buffoon in Christendom: Kierkegaard’s Irony by Peter Kline

[The following is an excerpt from Peter Kline’s forthcoming book, Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology]Kierkegaard by Peter Kline

Writing with apophatic desire within Christendom is what leads Kierkegaard to adopt what is perhaps his most basic and pervasive literary form, namely, irony.[1] Writing with passion requires the indirection of irony because Christendom has confined theological speech within what Kierkegaard calls a “dreadful illusion.”[2] Coming late in a theological and religious tradition that had formed itself into a body of social institutions and patterns of speech in which one was a Christian automatically, simply by being born into a Christian society, Kierkegaard was disturbed with what he regarded as Christendom’s ability to deceive people into the belief they were living a Christian life when in truth what surrounded them was a self-deluded caricature of Christian speech and action.

The reason such “reduced circumstances,”[3] as Kierkegaard names them, call for irony, as apposed to a direct form of speech, has to do with what makes Christendom’s illusion dreadful. It is crucial not to underestimate or caricature Christendom, even if one’s judgment is that Christendom is itself a caricature of Christianity. For Kierkegaard, what made Christendom’s illusion about itself dreadful was not that it was false in relation to an objectively measurable and presentable understanding of Christianity’s truth. Christendom is not a doctrinal error. Nor is it simply an ethical error, a failure to live up to an objective Christian ideal. What is dreadful about Christendom is not any easily identifiable lapse or hypocrisy but rather its profound intellectual and emotional sophistication. Such sophistication has the capacity to embed one in an illusion from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself, at least by any straightforward means. Christendom includes earnest debates about doctrine and ethics, intentional divisions into denominations each of which defends the truth of its perspective, thoughtful reflections on the history and mission of the church, etc. For Kierkegaard, therefore, the way to approach truth and break through illusion is not to step back and “reflect” objectively on one’s situation and the ideals, values, and doctrines one is striving to embody. Such a move simply places one squarely within Christendom, no matter how “radical” such reflections are.

Rather than produce a dogmatics or a system of doctrine, Kierkegaard sought to write theological truth by cultivating in himself and in his reader what Jonathan Lear calls “anxious, disruptive experiences of irony.”[4] Irony as Kierkegaard sought to cultivate it, however, has nothing to do with apathetic detachment or a refusal of commitment. For Johannes Climacus, “the presence of irony does not necessarily mean that the earnestness is excluded. Only assistant professors assume that.”[5] Kierkegaard, like Socrates, deploys irony for ethical-religious purposes, as a way to deepen commitment and intensify earnestness. He assumes on the part of his reader a basic commitment to and familiarity with Christian identity, that is, he assumes Christendom. Yet he also assumes that a truly earnest pursuit of Christian truth under the “reduced circumstances” of Christendom will involve an “awakening” to how modern familiarity with Christian identity has reduced Christian speech to a species of “chatter,” even (or perhaps especially) when it is most sophisticated. Kierkegaard writes, “every Christian term, which remaining in its own sphere is a qualitative category, now, in reduced circumstances, can do service as a clever expression which may signify pretty much everything.”[6] A “qualitative category” is one that withdraws from conscription into quantitative projects of identity and power, projects to which Christendom’s bishops are wholly committed in Kierkegaard’s view. Categories such as “revelation,” “God,” “Christ,” “salvation,” etc. are for Kierkegaard categories of self-dispossessing action that have “no relation to survival as evidence of [their] truth.”[7] Christendom, however, has turned such categories into terms for leveraging its own power, that is, ensuring its own survival on the condition of reducing Christian categories to place holders for whatever powers and identities are in vogue. As Mark Jordan puts it, such categories become “terms used by everyone for everything—say, in churches, used by the weak for dictated testimony and by the powerful for repeated judgment in the name of ‘tradition.’”[8] Christian speech has in modernity lost touch with its “own sphere.” It has surrendered its own capacity for disturbing speech, for passion, in order to ensure its own survival.

To cultivate passion for truth in such reduced circumstance requires exposing the familiarity with which one assumes Christian identity and speech to disturbance and disruption. Such disruption generates experiences of irony insofar as I am led to experience my once familiar pursuit of Christian identity and speech as suddenly strange and difficult. I experience irony when I experience my own earnest attachment and performance of Christian speech as a form of chatter, uncannily hallow and bereft of truth, caught up in the interests of power, domination, and clever evasions of truth-telling. This is not because I am able to glimpse objectively the distance between chatter and “authentic” Christian speech—the fantasy of Christendom’s bishops, theologians, and self-assured converts—but because I longer know or have an objective sense of how to speak or live Christianly. My Christian identity has become a problem, a difficulty, an open question.

For Kierkegaard, the passion of Christian living is sustained by keeping the problem and difficulty of Christian speech and action open rather than closed. The truthfulness of a Christian life is conditioned upon it never ceasing to be an ironic existence, ever disruptive of a settled Christian identity, ever responsive to a voice from another sphere that withdraws from the objectifying patterns of speech that ensure Christendom’s survival. As Jordan puts it, “we restore weight to the old Christian terms by realizing that we have never been able to carry them or use them skillfully.”[9] There is that within the Christian categories to which I am committed, what is “qualitative” in them, that breaks my own understanding and use of them apart, that never allows me to handle them with authority, as grounds for cultivating an easily adopted identity. Such dis-possession, again, does not entail a deflation of earnestness. It is the condition of an ever-deepening engagement with and commitment to an infinitely difficult truth. It is the possibility of a passion for truth-telling that does not “fall down before the golden calf of whichever System or Anti-System happens to be in vogue.”[10] This is a passion that must “adopt despised speech,”[11] speech that refuses the interests of easily assumed and cultivated identity.

Kierkegaard’s authorship multiplies and performs various forms of despised speech, speech without authority, ironic speech that withdraws from any certainty about itself. Perhaps its most ironic gesture, or the one that gathers together all its preceding ironic gestures, is Kierkegaard’s final word as a Christian author in which he unsays even his own name as he declares, “I am not a Christian.”[12] This declaration occurs in the middle of his “attack on Christendom,” an attack on the familiarity of Christian identity and speech that is animated, as Jordan puts it, by “his hope that the ‘specific weight’ of Christian words might be felt on the other side of a satire that would devour Christendom, of an indirectness that displaces his own authorship, making even his own name the ironic token of missing voices from the other sphere.”[13] Søren Kierkegaard, that author who gave up every attachment in order to devote himself to the task of writing out what is entailed in “becoming a Christian,” declares at the end of his life that he has not, finally, become a Christian. “Christian” is not an identity that he can adopt, in part because becoming a Christian is not about assuming an identity but about undertaking a living response to a voice that calls him out of even his own name. Kierkegaard does not yet know how to respond to the voice that calls him, that calls him to give up everything, to become nothing. Yet, ironically, this not-knowing is what keeps him in proximity to this voice, straining to let it be heard, not least by himself.

Kierkegaard’s straining to hear and respond to the divine voice within the reduced circumstances of Christendom shows itself in his experimentations with form, his experiments with writing otherwise than as doctrinal exposition or self-assured moralizing. What is characteristic of Kierkegaard’s ironic writing experiments, for Jordan, is that they are “nearer burlesque than austere irony.”[14] The forms of the authorship perform their own distance from reassuring objectivity by way of passionate caricature that re-stages theological and philosophical characters and themes at slant, with a wink, with “histrionic gestures and fantastic scenes.”[15] Jordan: “read him as re-staging fans’ passions for Hegel, for Father Abraham, for Greek lyric and versions of Don Juan, for fairy tales and drunken speeches, even for the endless scribbling of the despised Adler.”[16] Even at its most Christianly religious, Kierkegaard’s writing does not settle down into measured and calculated forms “since any theology of God incarnate as a poor man executed for blasphemy must speak in the mode of ridiculous passion for an object otherwise despised.”[17] And within Christendom such ridiculous passion “requires choices both of institutional affiliation and devices of writing that are more exaggerated, like the choices of a bad actor or a buffoon. Kierkegaard makes such choices when he writes polemic in his own name against the memory of Bishop Mynster and his Christendom.”[18] Such earnest buffoonery offers itself as “a parodic invocation, a bit of camping, an artifice of fantastic desire.”[19]

Kierkegaard’s irony is apophasis under the conditions of modernity, apophasis when negation no longer prepares the heart for praise but drives the logic of “the system.” It is apophasis as an act of mourning the loss of forms appropriate for praising a God who will not be made the guarantor of the church’s survival at the hands of the state. Irony negates performatively by letting an un-masterable difference into its speech, the infinite qualitative difference between an identity and the self becoming nothing before God.

Notes
[1] For my reading of Kierkegaard’s irony, I am helped by Jonathan Lear, A Case for Irony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
[2] Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as an Author (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 41-4.
[3] Kierkegaard, The Book on Adler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 146. Hereafter BA.
[4] Jonathan Lear, Wisdom Won From Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), ch. 4.
[5] Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 277n.
[6] BA, 146.
[7] BA, 36.
[8] Mark Jordan, “The Modernity of Christian Theology or Writing Kierkegaard Again for the First Time,” Modern Theology 27:3 July 2011, 445.
[9] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449-50.
[10] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 444.
[11] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 450.
[12] Kierkegaard, ‘The Moment’ and Late Writings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 340.
[13] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 445.
[14] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[15] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[16] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[17] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 449.
[18] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 448.
[19] Jordan, “Writing Kierkegaard Again,” 443.

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.

***

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.

The Sense of Painting

The post below was penned by artist Peter Kline. For more information about Peter and his beautiful artwork, please visit: peterklineart.virb.com. (All images are of Peter Kline’s paintings.)

“Painting is the art of bodies, in that it only knows about skin, being skin through and through. Another name for local color is carnation. Carnation is the great challenge posed by those millions of bodies in paintings: not incarnation, where Spirit infuses the body, but carnation plain and simple, referring to the vibration, color, frequency, and nuance of a place, of an event of existence.” – Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus

To Cynthia, for offering this space on her blog: thank you!

What I’d like to do here is try to make some sense of my own practice as a painter by thinking along with Jean-Luc Nancy.

At the heart of Nancy’s thought is a thinking of sense. Rather than truth or meaning, Nancy prefers to speak of sense. We don’t know the truth of the world so much as we sense the world. We make sense of the world. We touch it, and we are touched by it.

Sense, for Nancy, is always a form of touching. There is no sense, no meaning, no truth, without touch. This is simply to say that there is no sense without relation, without being-with.

The sense of a work of art, like the sense of anything else, arises only from the way it touches and is touched, from the way it engages one or multiple senses. A painting or drawing, for instance, asks to be touched by the viewer’s sight or vision. Nancy writes:

Vision…glides along swerves and follows along departures. It is a touching that does not absorb but moves along lines and recesses, inscribing and exscribing the body.[1]

The sense of a painting is found not only, or even primarily, in the apprehension of its finished form. The sense of a painting is always per-formed in the contact between the painting as skin and the vision that touches it and is touched by it. Eyes glide along curves and angles and feel out their sense. They follow formations and deformations, fissures, borders, and gaps. They leap between colors and get lost in shades.

Painting, no less than music, even if differently, unfolds in time, as the movement, the sense, of bodies in space.

Nancy’s philosophical and religious thought traces and performs the deconstruction of principled form that opens onto the touching of sense. What is possible on the other side of the death of metaphysical reason? Touching sense, Nancy answers, touching the infinite sense of the world, its being-with, that has no principle, no necessary form, only its own infinite possibility.

The self-deconstruction of Christianity is paradigmatic here, for Nancy. At the heart of Christianity is a body, specifically a body that calls attention to itself, absolutely: Here is my body. The sense of Christianity is the sense, the touch, of this body. Christianity proclaims nothing else, for Nancy, than the absolute “here” of the body. In doing so it also proclaims the absence of any hierarchical principle that would form the world from beyond, from elsewhere. Sense is absolutely here, not elsewhere, in and as the body that touches and is touched.

Nancy titles one of his chapters in his book, Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II, “There Is No Sense of Sense: That Is Worthy of Adoration.” There is no grounding principle that is worthy of adoration. Monotheism in its radically deconstructive gesture proclaims “the gods,” the principles that structure the world, to be nothing but idols. There is no grounding principle. The sense of the world is its opening to what exceeds any and all principle. This “what” is not any “thing,” no old or new god, but only the movement of the world’s own opening, its being-with itself as an opening.

Now that is worthy of adoration. The world comes from and rests on nothing. We are here, absolutely here, to adore this, to touch the opening that without principle forms at and as the heart of the world.

The self-deconstruction of painting over the past several centuries has followed this same movement. On the cover of the English translation of Nancy’s book Adoration, there is a reproduction of a painting by the French painter Simon Hantaï. Hantaï developed a method of painting in which the canvas is scrunched and folded up into itself, painted along its folds, ridges, and recesses, and then unfolded to reveal the unpredictable form of the painting. Hantaï lets the canvas touch itself. He lets it touch and be touched. The principled form of the canvas gives way to an unprincipled touching, a being-with of the painting with itself that is not a closure into itself but an opening onto infinite sense.

What is it that I do when I paint? Above all, I touch, I sense. I play with the infinite possibilities of sense. I let paint touch itself. I touch paint. I let paint touch me. Often I abandon my tools—principled instruments—and use my hands and fingers directly on the canvas or the wood or the paper. Or I use my tools in excess of their intended purpose. I touch them and let them touch differently, without principle.

My inspirations as a painter, those I adore, are painters who abandon themselves to the unprincipled sense of painting. Above all, for me, Cy Twombly:

As far as painting goes there’s enormous—probably more than with a lot of people—freedom…It’s instinctive in a certain kind of painting, not as if you were painting an object or special things, but it’s like coming through the nervous system. It’s like a nervous system. It’s not described, it’s happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning. It’s like I’m experiencing something frightening, I’m experiencing the thing and I have to be at that state because I’m also going.[2]

And Jean-Michel Basquiat:

I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist. Or I’d draw a big ram’s head, really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spiderman.[3]

And Dorothea Tanning:

By the time I stood in front of this big white canvas, the game of prisms had taken me over. I don’t even know if it was a game anymore. It seemed so desperate, sometimes. It carried me away—so far that I didn’t even have to choose what would be there—I just dived in, and among the forms that came out were these things, there, presiding like friends at a picnic.[4]

To paint is to touch is to sense is to feel the opening of the world right here. Painters play with this opening. We try to sense it, to touch it, to let it touch us. It is an opening more intimate to the world than the world is to itself. It is this infinite dis-enclosure, like canvas as skin exposed to painter as lover, that forms, without measure, the gift of the world—that is worthy of adoration.

Peter Kline: [email protected]

Notes

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Corpus, p. 45.

[2] http://www.cytwombly.info/twombly_writings2.htm

[3] http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/new-again-jean-michel-basquiat-/#_

[4] http://www.dorotheatanning.org/life-and-work/view-work/work-117/