Assistant Professor? To Be or Not to be. . .

In the circus, humans are represented as freed from consignment to death. There one person walks on a wire fifty feet above the ground, … another hangs in the air by the heels, one upholds twelve in a human pyramid, another is shot from a cannon. The circus performer is the image of the eschatological person – emancipated from frailty and inhibition, exhilarant, transcendent over death – neither confined nor conformed by the fear of death any more….
William Stringfellow

Me!an assistant professor!the butt of those Postscript jokes?

He’s excellent at outlining arguments and giving historical overviews, but never considers his existential relationship to these things. Personally, he shrinks to an abstract cipher, a talking head. Teaching science you’re detached and objective, right? So teaching Kierkegaard . . . I’m involved . . . and subjective?  


In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steven Pinker, Harvard professor, public intellectual, and “new atheist,” intones like a true assistant professor: Is the world really falling apart? Follow the data: In 6 graphs, you’ll see that health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are all on the rise.”  — So — I’m hysterical to feel angst at shootouts or Yemen, at melting icecaps or Putin blackmails? 

An Existentialist’s Survival Guide gives our friend Gordon a moment to appreciate angst. It can instruct, alerting me to danger – the toddler about to step into the street. It can teach me what it means to be me — by showing me my values when they clash. If I hurt others without angst, I’m a worse “me” than the “me” that feels sharp angst doing hurt. Angst is colliding tectonic plates.  Having to hurt collides with my revulsion at hurting. The collision shows what makes “me” me.

Pinker, the assistant prof., is deaf to what Kierkegaard calls “an existential contribution.” [1]   Kierkegaard addresses my particularity, my personal angst and joy. I’m not one of a crowd or a cipher caught up in the spirit of the age — not a random sample of humanity-in-general, or an instance of human progress, scientifically graphed. In receiving your existential address, I am then-and-there a unique and original presence. And if I reciprocate, addressing you existentially, I’m not an assistant professor.

Sometimes an existential act marks who I am. I march in a woman’s rally or I light a candle for a friend on the day of the dead. In those moments I am those discrete acts. But often my “me” lies in scattered reveries of a “me” yet-to-be congealed in an act. Dreaming of what I’ve been through, my ‘me’ is a shifting, multitude. Sartre loves the definitive act. Kierkegaard loves these “what if” moments where a “me” has not congealed.

There’s not a single Abraham in Fear and Trembling, but four reveries of possible fathers of Isaac, and fathers of faith — and four reveries of Abraham as mother. This “existential contribution” from Johannes de silentio attunes me to the complexities of identity. The search for who Abraham is mimics the dream-like search for the “me” who picked up Fear & Trembling 50 years ago.  An Abraham worth savoring is an angst-tormented enigma slouching toward a conclusive “me.” These are beautiful tales, Silentio says — and Rilke says beauty is the beginning of terror.

Kierkegaard’s parade of pseudonyms is a model for my sifting through a parade or panorama of memories, each highlighting a less than decisive “me.” I am a multiplicity of singularities: the father confronting a bear with his son, the soloist playing slightly out of tune, the scholar making sense – or not — of “an existential contribution.” It’s as if I look through a photo album. Each picture of me is a “me” —  and the “me” who looks at the photo is slightly altered with each new photo observed.

Exchanges I’ve had with Kierkegaard over the years flicker as if album photos. They expose my existential relation to Kierkegaard’s living words, living titles, living sentences, paragraphs, appendices, prefaces. These address a me responsive to them. To evoke the shifting seas of intimate mutual address is evoking an existential relationship. It’s like evoking the flow and leaps of couples’ figure skaters — or like a Socratic dance before God. Only if I share dancing snippets of what I am to myself can I bear witness to Kierkegaard’s gifts. You must feel presence of the recipient as well as the donor. His dance brings out what I am to myself. I am a relation related to myself and to another who constitutes me.


I own an assistant professor’s cap.  I’m donning it here to sketch four sectors of identity, four ways to focus who I am.  

1) My “file-identity” – my name with code numbers for tax collectors, passport offices, motor vehicles departments, university payroll offices, and administrators who have my CV on file.[2]

2) My bodily identity — my height has been more stable than my weight. I have footprints as well as fingerprints. There’s a distinctive lilt to my walk, and a distinctive timbre to my voice. I am an envelope of flesh and a plumber’s delight. I lack a linebacker’s body. My singing voice is bodily.   

3) My multilayered socio-political-cultural identity. I’m Irish, a Mainer, with dashes of Berkeley counter-culture and New York intellectualism.  I’m more a Concord Saunterer or tax delinquent than a Slovakian skier or model. I identify with “Never Again.” To be ‘me’ must be to live from my many social-political roots and commitments.  

4) My punctuated existential identity: an unruly, shifting sense of presence to myself in discrete memories. The “me” who marched at King’s funeral is not exactly the “me” who joined the woman’s march in January. The “me” who reads Kierkegaard in Yafa is not the existential “me” who writes in Berkeley or Portland. We bask in the hope that identity is singular, and worry if it’s double, and freak if it’s four. What if it’s forty-fold?

My social-political-cultural and file identities are pretty stable, if not singular. The intimate feel of my writing with Kierkegaard is unstable. Turning over shifting images exposes a somewhat naked me, unclothed by those more commonplace file, bodily, socio-political-cultural identities. I’m not an assistant professor. Existentially, I undergo that feeling of me-from-inside as I cheer on my granddaughter at water polo, or flee with my son from a Yosemite bear, or summon the existential vagaries of my long-term Kierkegaard affair.

I live in Cora Diamond’s “difficult reality.”[3] A desk-top photo elicits warmth and wonder at a woman caught short in her prime. And also the grief of a life caught short. In my bones I feel the that double reality. Similarly, I am double, in sync with my double feelings, viewing the woman. I am multiple, in sync with my multiple feelings surveying the unending memory-flashes of my affair with Kierkegaard.

An assistant professor knows it’s undignified to air personal, existential laundry in public. Either I throw in the towel, forego my assignment to come clean, or I gird up my loins for self-revelation.  Kierkegaard gives me tools for self-revelation: irony, humor, pseudonymity, paradox. Mimicking Kierkegaardian-Socratic evasive inquisitions lets me evoke what it is to be me without becoming stark naked.


On a given morning I’m a flaneur, promenading with him through paragraphs or streets or memories. Perhaps I mull reveries of father-and-son tromping Tuolumne Meadows, aware of the bears. Or perhaps he listens to me cheering my granddaughter’s rifling shots in her water polo meet. Or perhaps he encourages my reveries of me as lover of souls, far away and close by, or my reveries of toddlers and friends, here and there. Parts of my existential condition get unmasked as phases in a difficult reality, many-faceted and often inharmonious, not unlike the many-faceted, inharmonious voices of my friend’s pseudonyms. I arise as myself in glancing bits and pieces.

There are existentially celebratory moments that are more definitive: “here I stand, I can do no other.” Or: “here we stand, we outfoxed the bear.” These moments of resolution upstage “me” as multiple phases in imagination. Before we outfoxed the bear, there were many possible ‘me-s’ in waiting: a fleeing me, a fighting me, a nonchalant me, a paralyzed me, a me that stuck with my son, a me that shamefully didn’t. Taking my friend as a mentor, I find evocative moments which I struggle to hide or not to hide or that I resolve in decision. I ponder “me-s” to unmask and to mask amidst love, shame, anger, and a thousand other moods and presences, vivid or misty.


I confess I’ve succumbed to Kierkegaard’s wiles these five decades–succumbed dialectically and lyrically, comically and pathetically, through zillions of scenarios. I’m bewitched by an endless raconteur, a Socratic inquisitor, a theatrical prompter.

On Mondays, I come to realize that I’ll never outlive my existential challenges, nor escape being forever an enigma to myself. On Tuesdays, he confides that my despair needn’t be crushing: I can morph toward a saving existential hide-and-seek, an indispensable coping mechanism. I can mimic his mimic-ironic-pathetic excursions. Late night terrors can morph into shadow-boxing. On Wednesdays, he whispers that even classroom stints can be laced with humor, paradox, and theatrical pseudonymity. On Thursdays, I’m reminded that humor, paradox, theatricality, and pseudonymity are part and parcel of living lives nested within lives: solitary life masks romantic life, family life humors temple life, musical life tempers body-maintenance life. Letting a sense of me emerge from transience and multiplicity demands humor and pathos, paradox and irony, inwardness and pseudonymity.

Fridays are books. I notice details in the smallest of things, even titles. He lingers with graveyard night mists, or with throw-away Crumbs; he lingers with Either/ors and Fear and Trembling. Life and books become carnivalesque, full of daring sideshows, high-wire acts — feats of strength, passionate infinities, throwaway prefaces, and the hide and seek of pseudonyms.[4]

Saturdays we move to charades. Living room furniture is pushed back and invited guests join us in carnival and farce, romance and heartbreak, grief and salvation. Sundays are praying, rest, and recuperation — walking, taking in the cityscape, the landscape, the church interior.


Kierkegaard introduces that monster book, Fear and Trembling.  Weaning mothers mimic a weaning Godhead. Whistling shop-keepers embody Abraham’s faith. High-wire acts. A difficult reality – especially for Assistant Professors. On an evening Kierkegaard unravels cordiality, heartfelt inwardness. These are existential contributions passed my way. Our thinking becomes contrapuntal, a fertile mix of the ethical, the poetic, the dialectical — all the while avoiding impersonal, one-dimensional facts, arguments, or knowledge.

He tries on the garb of parson, professor, lawyer, editor, journalist, dramatist, bachelor, master thief — Socratic flaneur, writer sans portfolio. It rubs off on me. My file identity of professor and writer, overlap motorcycle escapades, being on stage with Medgar Evans or Leontyne Price, looking down from the Golan Heights to the Valley of Tears. Each of these is the start of identity-exploration. I’m arm in arm with my granddaughter by the Guadalquivir, or talking on a St Olaf lawn: match-maker-Kierkegaard. I thank him for all those friends I’ve meet through him.

Think of the circus vitality of his titles: Either/Or, Prefaces, Repetition, or the clincher, Postscript: in full spiffed up regalia, A Final Unscholarly Afterthought, Sequel to Scraps of Philosophy: A Mimicking, Pathos-filled, Dialectical Compendium, an Existential Provocation. [5] This is riot and carnival.

Odd creatures like Prefaces (it’s nothing but prefaces), Either/Or, and Postscript break up literary cubbyholes. They are Socratic irritants that can teach us Socratic ignorance, bafflement viscerally conveyed in a difficult reality of annoyance, helplessness, joy, and allure. Socrates’ interlocutors, like Kierkegaard’s, are left puzzled. Why does he sidestep the closure of definitions and single reality?

I relish the vitality of his titles. He says his Prefaces are “like tuning a guitar, like chatting with a child, like spitting out a window.” Put that in a resume!  I suspect he is pulling my leg. Postscript and Fear and Trembling aren’t entirely serious — more like “tuning a guitar.” In fact, an early section of Fear and Trembling is called “attunement.” His feints provoke our parries. He calls Prefaces the work of “a light-hearted ne’er-do-well”.  Is that in his resume?

 I watch him shift through moments poetic and literary, dialectical and theological, in fetching titles like Philosophical Crumbs, or A Final Unscholarly Afterthought, a 600 page Sequel to Scraps of Philosophy: A Mimicking, Pathos-filled, Dialectical Compendium and Existential Provocation. This riot of a title sparks me beyond scholarship into my books of poetry and evocative prose and acceptance of the philosophical depth of the carnivalesque.

His menagerie is a mirror asking whether my own works and life are a menagerie – father-professor, wanderer-musician, family-chief-of-staff, seeker-of-love and home-scape, a me now emerged from a cocoon, blooming as a social butterfly — a carnivalesque life quite beyond career, family or fitness paths, and even carnivals end in the rude closure of death.  

My Socratic-Kierkegaard passes the task of authentic response on to me. His elusiveness shows up in the feint and parry of those books part literature, part philosophy, part polemic, part sermonic, part farce, part . . . Why expect all books should have proper places, simple niches? Why expect my friends fit snugly in social-cultural niches, or that I occupy a single translucent niche?

The number and sort of faces in the theater of me is not pre-determined but up to me. If I acknowledge only my social and file identities – professor, father, resident of Portland, musician — I leave out my existential bits. There’s a rich texture to my walks with my son, to cheering my granddaughter, to assembling poems, or performing Elgar’s Salud D’amour. I relish each fleeting face in the theater of me, and mourn those I can’t relish.


Kierkegaard-Socrates conducts trials of existence, of my existence, and yours, or in another of his favorite images, he invites us to sweep onto the floor for a solo dance before God, before a presence pleased or displeased with the tilt of my soul. Kierkegaard’s writings bring me to the dance, demonstrate some steps, and leave the rest to me. His manner of writing is in our service, in my service. In its poetry and philosophy, its comic mimicry and tearful pathos, it is a great gift, an existential contribution.

There’s not just one trajectory through the mess of my experience culminating in the realization of just who I am. I’m a bit of this and of that, this side-show, and that, this musical act, that family drama.  SK makes an existential contribution in his actual performing – playing out the paths of pathos and mimicry, dialectic and lyric. Being a multitude – musician and poet, teacher and father, wanderer and a stay-at-home — is a carnival of existential richness, difficult but exuberant, well beyond the ken of an assistant professor.     



[1] The term “an existential contribution” is the final cadence in the mocking title and sub-title of Concluding Unscientific Postscript. (The actual  title is much longer.) It’s worth noting that this is the first time in the Western philosophical canon – so far as I know — that an action or gesture or claim is called ‘existential.’  Sartre and Jaspers will build on this seed, dropped by one Johannes Climacus almost offhandedly in Denmark in 1851.
[2] What it is to be me arises objectively, in the mode of a single reflection, as I read my “file identity” from a card, signing my name for taxes, or hospital records. Pieces of objective identity arise in single reflections, pieces of information. When I recall fearfully fleeing bears, I’m alive in a double reflection, reflecting first on a bear, on my son, on me, on the trail ahead — and then on what it is to be me faced by a bear, in fear and angst. I learn over time how to feel myself existentially, helped in off-hours by probing existential give-and-takes found in novels, films, psychology, folklore. These cultural templates help in narrating and feeling more subtly the tones of anxiety, despair, love, or morality.
[3] “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy,” Cora Diamond, Philosophy and Animal Life, Columbia. See quotation below.
[4] One might see pseudonyms alternately as a) fluffy devices to provoke public interest, b) suspect means to deflect personal responsibility for opinions or positions, and 3) tools to incite Socratic self-awareness and interpretative alertness. (Apart from the motivations for using pseudonyms, there remains the issue of power. Can “Kierkegaard” overrule the claims to authorship made by Climacus, Johannes de silentio, or Nicholas Note Bene?) See my “Pseudonyms and Style.”
[5] “The Very Tang of Life: Lyrical Jesting in Kierkegaard’s Postscript Title” [Authority and Authorship in Kierkegaard’s Writings, ed. Westfall and Tietjan, 2018.
*William Stringfellow:  on how the circus is a gift of sober intoxication:
[Cont. from epigraph]   So the circus, in its open ridicule of death … shows the rest of us that the only enemy in life is death and that this enemy confronts everyone, whatever the circumstances, all the time…. The service the circus does – more so, I regret to say, than the churches do – is to portray openly, dramatically, and humanly that death in the midst of life. The circus is eschatological parable and social parody: it signals a transcendence of the power of death.
[This quote from Stringfellow is from my friend Rev Clark West. I’d love to have the source tracked further.]









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