Epigraph: William Stringfellow:
In the circus, 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 performer is freed from consignment to death.
Who’d want to be an assistant professor – the butt of those Postscript jokes! He’s good at outlining arguments and historical overviews — but never considers his existential relationship to these things. He’s a talking head. This takes him far from a Stringfellow circus performer. The Assistant is not freed from consignment to death. He’s already dead.
I have no textbook positions. I won’t speak “objectively.” It’s objectively true that pseudonyms exemplify Gilbert Ryle’s “systematic elusiveness of the “I.” But Gordon will cut my mike if I go there. He wants to hear how I’ve been changed by the news from Denmark — he wants a subjective sense from a single individual. What’s it like to have been seduced over the years?
Well, he’s rubbed off on me. The “me” before you is an episodic, inconclusive Kierkegaard string — of either/ors, unscientific jottings, tremblings, and pseudonyms. I’m a circus of rude interruptions, reveries, calls from the past, and resets, half way between angst and salvation. This is a diary of the seduced: Like any good seducer, Kierkegaard addressing 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. He gives attention exclusively to me, which is both flattering and frightening.
Let me be a talking head. I have four sectors of identity.
File-identity — my name with code numbers for tax collectors, passport offices, motor vehicles departments, university payroll, and administrators.
Bodily identity — my height is more stable than my weight. I have footprints as well as fingerprints. There’s a distinctive lilt to my walk, and distinctive timbre to my voice. I am an envelope of flesh and a plumber’s delight. I lack a linebacker’s body. My vocal chords are flesh.
Socio-political-cultural identity — I’m part Irish, a Mainer with dashes of Berkeley counter-culture and New York intellectualism. I’m not a Slovakian skier or fashion model. I could be a Concord Saunterer or tax delinquent.
Fourth, Existential identity — my unruly, shifting sense of presence to myself in decisive acts, fleeting memories and anticipations. The “I” who marched at King’s funeral is not exactly the “I” who joined the woman’s march in January. The “me” who reads Kierkegaard in Yafa is not this Minnesota “me.” I had hoped that identity would be singular. What if it’s four-fold or forty-fold and growing?
My file, bodily, and socio-political-cultural identities keep me dressed properly in public. My existential me is a me-from-inside as I indecorously cheer my granddaughter’s water polo shots, or face down a bear with my son in Yosemite, — or plunge into the circus vagaries of my long-term Kierkegaard affair.
An existential act is often an identity-maker. I march in a woman’s rally, light a candle for a friend on the day of the dead. In those moments I just am those discrete acts. But often I’m scattered reveries of a “me-yet-to-be congealed,” a scattering of endless personal memories and antici-pations, a shifting multitude. If Sartre loves the definitive act, Kierkegaard loves, in addition, a “me” floating as memories and as imaginings of what I might be.
In my existential identity I live what Cora Diamond calls “difficult reality.” A living room photo elicits warmth and wonder at a handsome young man in his prime. In a split second his reality shifts. The photo elicits a deep grief. That life was quickly cut short by war. In my bones I feel both realities, of blossoming youth and tragic death. My reality is difficult, double, in sync with my conflicting feelings. Remembering Kierkegaard encounters, I’m in sync with multiple conflicting moods ingredient to my Kierkegaard affair.
It’s undignified to air personal laundry in public, but I gird up my loins. Kierkegaard gives me tools: irony, humor, pseudonymity, paradox, Socratic evasions and inquisitions. He lets me enter difficult reality, confessing my seductions without getting stark naked.
Think of the difficulty of the Abraham portraits. There’s not a single Abraham in Fear and Trembling, but four reveries of four possible failed fathers of faith — and four reveries of Abraham as Mother. All eight attune me to identity complexities. The several Abrahams mimic the dispersed “me” who picked up Fear & Trembling 50 years ago. Any Abraham worth savoring is a tormented enigma slouching through inconclusive identities. These are beautiful tales, Silentio says — Rilke says beauty is the beginning of terror.
Kierkegaard parades masks that provoke memories, each high-lighting a less than decisive “me.” I am multiplicity: the father con-fronting a bear, the soloist playing slightly out of tune, the scholar making sense of “an existential contribution.” These pictures provide multiple “me-s” problematically linked to others. The “me” who looks at the photos is slightly altered with each new photo observed. I’m a difficult reality.
Kierkegaard’s moments flicker like album photos, moments flashing by in words, titles, sentences, paragraphs, appendices, prefaces. Only if I share dancing snippets of what I am to myself can I bear witness to Kierkegaard’s gifts. You must feel the presence of me, the recipient, as well as the generous, anonymous donor. I’m a relation related to myself and to another who constitutes me.
I’m a flaneur, promenading with him through paragraphs or streets or memories. I mull reveries of father-and-son tromping Tuolumne Meadows, aware of bears. I cheer my granddaughter rifling shots at her water polo net. SK encourages my reveries as a lover of souls, far away and close by, of toddlers and friends, here and there. My existential circus gets unmasked as phases of a difficult reality, not unlike the inharmonious voices of my friend’s pseudonyms. I arise in glancing bits and pieces.
There are exquisitely existential celebratory moments: “here I stand, I can do no other.” “Here we stand, we outfoxed the bear.” Resolution at that point upstages gossamer possibilities. There awaited a fleeing me, fighting me, nonchalant me, paralyzed me. I ponder “me-s” amidst love, shame, anger, and a thousand other moods and presences. The Dane leaves me hanging: to hide or not to hide or to resolve decisively.
Over the decades I’ve succumbed to Kierkegaard’s wiles — dialectically and lyrically, comically and pathetically, through zillions of scenarios. I’m bewitched by an endless raconteur, a Socratic inquisitor, a theatrical prompter.
Mondays: I realize that I’ll never outlive my existential challenges, nor escape being forever an enigma to myself.
Tuesdays: I learn my despair needn’t be terminal: I can morph toward an existential hide-and-seek, an indispensable coping mechanism. I can mimic his mimic-ironic-pathetic excursions. Late night terrors can morph toward adventures.
Wednesdays: he whispers that even classroom stints can be laced with humor, paradox, and theatrical pseudonymity.
Thursdays: I’m reminded that humor, paradox, theatricality, and pseudonymity aren’t just evasions but part and parcel of living lives within lives: solitary life morphs toward romantic life, family life humors temple life, musical life tempers body-maintenance life. A sense of me emerges from circus transience and multiplicity — from clowns, dialectical high-wire acts, pathos, paradox and irony, from inwardness and pseudo-nymity.
Fridays: Books. I notice details: He lingers with graveyard night mists, with throw-away Crumbs; with Either/Ors and Fears and Tremb-lings. Life and books coalesce and become full of daring sideshows — feats of strength, passionate infinities, throwaway prefaces, the hide and seek of clowns and pseudonyms.
Saturdays: Charades. Living room furniture is pushed back and invited guests join us in carnival and farce, romance and heartbreak, grief and salvation.
Sundays: praying, resting, recuperation, little discourses or sermons – afternoon walks, taking in the cityscape, the landscape, the church-scape.
Fear and Trembling gives us side shows: a weaning mother mimics a weaning Godhead. Abraham strides about as a whistling shop-keeper. These are high-wire acts, difficult realities, impossibilities for assistant Professors. Thinking becomes contrapuntal, a fertile mix of the ethical, the poetic, the dialectical. This is far from impersonal arguments or knowledge.
He slips into the garb of a parson, professor, lawyer, editor, journalist, dramatist, bachelor, master thief – a Socratic flaneur, writer sans portfolio. It rubs off on me. My file identity as professor is overcome by motorcycle escapades, singing on stage with Leontyne Price, peering down from the Golan Heights to the Valley of Tears. Each is a flash of identity. I’m arm in arm with my granddaughter by the Guadalquivir. I’m talking on a St Olaf lawn.
Think of the circus vitality, the immortality, of his titles: Either/Or, Prefaces, Repetition, or the clincher, Postscript. If you spiff it up in full regalia, it’s A Final Unscholarly Afterthought, Sequel to Scraps of Philosophy: A Mimicking, Pathos-filled, Dialectical Compendium, an Existential Provocation. This is riot and carnival.
Odd creatures like Prefaces or Either/Or break up literary cubicles. They’re Socratic irritants that teach me Socratic ignorance, bafflement, helplessness, joy. Why expect the closure of definitions and non-circus, un-difficult reality?
I relish his tone. His Prefaces, he says, are “like tuning a guitar, like chatting with a child, like spitting out a window.” Put that in your CV! He’s pulling my leg. Postscript and Fear and Trembling aren’t entirely serious — more like “tuning a guitar.” Fear and Trembling begins with “attunements.” He calls Prefaces the work of “a light-hearted ne’er-do-well.” That’s not for your CV.
His fetching titles — A Final Unscholarly Sequel to Scraps of Philosophy — spark me beyond scholarship. This is carnivalesque. His menageries let me be a menagerie – father-professor, wanderer-musician, family-chief-of-staff, seeker-of-home-scape, social butterfly. And there are dark shadows. Even carnivals meet the rude closures of death.
Socrates-Kierkegaard passes on the baton of authentic response 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 who-knows-what. Not all books have a neat and proper place on the shelf. My friends don’t fit snugly in a well-labeled social-cultural niche – thank God! Why think there’s a single trans-lucent niche for me?
If I’m only my social and file identities – professor, father, Portland resident, musician – I truncate myself. In contrast, my existential bits and pieces let me bloom — in walks with my son, in cheering my grand-daughter, in assembling poems, in performing Elgar’s Salud D’amour. I want to relish each fleeting face in the theater of me – and mourn those I can’t relish and want to disown. And I want to relish those others who open their souls to me.
SK‘s existential contribution is his actual performing – playing out the paths of pathos and mimicry, dialectic and lyric. It rubs off on me as I savor and fear my multiplicity. This is a carnival of existential richness, difficult but exuberant, comic more than tragic, well beyond the ken of an Assistant Professor.
Read at St. Olaf College International Kierkegaard Conference, Sat. afternoon, 2018, June 16th