Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Notes From the Existential: Friedrich Nietzsche



I. The fall of the Dionysian/Apolline dialectic and the rise of Apolline culture.

To aid in the explanation of the Apolline/Dionysian dialectic he posits in The Birth of Tragedy (BT), Friedrich Nietzsche explores the roots of the Greek culture that became Apolline. At the end of section 2, he claims the existence of an “Apolline consciousness” that masks the human Dionysian drive (Triebe) to blissful “intoxication” and “self-abandonment” (BT 21). Nietzsche examines the “artful edifice of Apolline culture” (BT 22) in section 3 and finds this culture to be based on two distinct foundations.     

The first foundation is the legend of Silenus and King Midas. The king wanders through a forest in search of Silenus, the daemon (an entity with god-like and human qualities) companion of Dionysus. Once found King Midas asks “what is the best and most excellent thing for human beings” (BT 23). Silenus laughs and replies:

Wretched, ephemeral race, children of chance and tribulation, why do you force me to tell you the very thing which it would be most profitable for you not to hear? The very best thing is utterly beyond your reach not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. However, the second best thing for you is: to die soon (BT ibid ftn. 38).

In essence this proclamation functioning as new knowledge to the Greeks, removed meaning from human life. According to Nietzsche this legend, which the Greeks regarded as true and genuine, became the impetus for a new vision of humanity.

The second foundation of Apolline culture is the reaction to Silenus’ knowledge. The Greeks responded with an attempt to discard the Titanic era of gods that included Dionysus and the hordes of followers that celebrated him in mad ecstasy. The “Titanic divine order of terror” (BT ibid) was gradually replaced with the Apolline order of Olympian gods, which Nietzsche describes metaphorically as roses emerging from a bush of thorns. This was the only way in which humanity could survive knowing the terrible truths of Silenus. Essentially the Greeks created the Olympian gods in their own likeness. The self-image of beauty and structure as the pinnacle of Grecian existence is manifested in the god Apollo and the Apolline culture that pursues art as beautiful, embodies the Olympian reality. In effect this inverts the truths of Silenus in that now human life has meaning again and is justified as the constant pursuit of perfection that is represented in gods that reflect back this image of humanity.   

Nietzsche refers to Apolline culture as an “artful edifice” (BT 22). The term “artful” reinforces Nietzsche’s idea that the Dionysian/Apolline aesthetic drive is the basis for existence. “Edifice” acknowledges that the Apolline is an illusion that was created as a necessity to “veil” (BT 21) the Titanic age of Dionysian madness. Nietzsche refers to the Olympian gods as “dream-born figures” (BT 23) to assert that these deities are the product of humanity’s needed illusions. The Greeks replaced their gods with idealized representations of human beauty, while also including “their extreme sensitivity, their stormy desires, their unique gift for suffering” (BT 24), because but they could not replace the natural Dionysian drive in humanity’s collective consciousness. In this sense the “veil” is known to be a mask or illusion to humanity and is now a required mechanism to accept the Dionysian world. However the necessity of the illusion also makes the illusion real, as it is a product of consciousness in the same way dreams are part of human reality. For all that the Apolline “artful edifice” was a response to the Dionysian drive, the Apolline drive does not work in opposition to the Dionysian drive, but rather in conjunction as a symbiotic dialectic.

For Nietzsche this mutual dialectic is the ideal that took time to coalesce. In the initial reaction to Silenus’ knowledge, the foundation of Apolline culture began and later overtook the Dionysian culture. Nietzsche relates this Apolline saturation to the epic poetry of Homer and its effect on a society in which humans have a sense of heroic honor. In Nietzsche’s Homeric age, humans have achieved a kind of enlightenment at the realization that the Apolline triumph of essential illusions over the Dionysian drive is natural. With this knowledge, humanity feels close to nature and is satisfied with the quality of unification of nature and humanity. In response to this achieved unity, the Homeric human creates art to reflect the connection to nature, which Nietzsche refers to as naïve art. In this way naivety is another Apolline illusion, but not the variety of known illusions humanity is comfortable with but rather a byproduct of the Apolline mindset that works to consume itself with illusions that function unconsciously. The Homeric human is static in an Apolline process that is ongoing. The evidence for this, Nietzsche argues, is naïve art that represents a triumph of humanity in its collective realization and understanding that humanity has discovered its righteous existence through nature and Apolline illusion. Thus Homeric Apolline culture has been duped into believing its own vainglorious dogma.
   
Nietzsche identifies the force that controls humanity’s journey of actions into eras such as the Apolline as the “Will.” He adopted this from Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will, in which nature controls humanity in an irrational non-cognitive fashion. The Will is a “blind” force in the universe to which humanity’s sense of representation is only a facet of the Will. Hence, humans only think they have self-determination when in fact they are merely subjects of the all encompassing Will. Apolline culture has been blindsided by the Will to the extant that their illusions have become their confining delusions of grandeur. Nietzsche ends section 3 by articulating the imbalance of the life defining aesthetic drives and its effect on Grecian society:

[the Greeks] had to recognize a reflection of themselves in a higher sphere without feeling that the perfected world of their vision was an imperative[a command]... With this reflection of beauty the Hellenic ‘Will’ fought against the talent for suffering and for the wisdom of suffering which is the correlative of artistic talent (BT 25). 


II. The origin of the tragic chorus and an aesthetic meaning of life.

Nietzsche wrote BT to elucidate his aesthetic theory. The book’s overarching claim is that the ancient Greeks arrived at the most supreme way in which to live, through their tragedies of Greek drama. They had achieved the perfect balance of Dionysian and Apolline artistic forces that Nietzsche treats as an ideal way in which to live a life. Hence the book’s title refers to the origin of this perfect symbiotic tragedy and calls for its much needed rebirth in Nietzsche’s 19th century.

There were three physical elements in ancient Greek drama; the stage where the actors performed the play, the audience or spectators, and the chorus. While there has been debate as to what all three of these actually are and what their respective functions accomplish, the latter has been notoriously difficult over the ensuing centuries in the attempts to designate a succinct connotative meaning. It is especially hard to give the chorus a single meaning and raison d'être‎, as it is something that evolves over time. Additionally it’s something that’s used differently with different playwrights. In Euripides’ tragedy Medea, the chorus is a group of people, assumed to be women, that either speak all at once in a choral fashion or in an alternating way that has each member speaking at different times. Medea uses the chorus as a kind of sounding board for her ideas and intentions, and the chorus likewise reply. It also acts as a medium between the stage and audience wherein the chorus narrates to the audience in a manner similar to the way an omniscient narrator speaks to the reader in a literary novel. This is a general description of the chorus in Greek tragedy. Although for Nietzsche, Euripides represents a decline in the art form.

In section 7 of BT, Nietzsche sets out to explain the chorus and its origins. Almost immediately he claims the ancient Greek chorus to be inherently tragic by asserting, confusingly, “that tragedy arose from the tragic chorus and was originally chorus and nothing but chorus” (BT 36). Toward the end of the section he elaborates to say the chorus consists of satyrs belonging to the cult of Dionysus. A satyr is a being that is half man and half horse or goat that celebrates Dionysus in ongoing festivals to honor the deity with music, intoxication, self-abandonment, and general hedonism. The satyrs that sing and play unstructured music to Dionysus are known as dithyrambs. As Dionysus’ daemon companion, Silenus is among the satyrs and knows the bliss of the Dionysian world. As mentioned earlier, humanity after Silenus’ revelation knows that the best thing for humanity is to not exist at all, and the second best thing for humans would be to die as soon as possible. With this in mind, the human that accepts this terrible truth and rejects the Apolline world of image, appearances, and illusion, is able to know and understand the knowledge of Silenus. That is to say, humans that realize genuine pain and suffer honestly are able to revel in the tragic celebrations of the Dionysian chorus, and then suffer again at the new awareness of the Apolline façade and discover the illusion that separates the two aspects of humanity. The human that transcends to this place, in what Nietzsche credits to an analogy his then friend Richard Wagner articulated, as a process similar to being “absorbed, elevated, and extinguished... just as a lamplight is superseded by the light of day” (BT 39). Notice that this light as knowledge is not subtractive. The light is not turned out and replaced with more light, but the light as knowledge is added and expanded to with more knowledge. This new place of additional understanding is the realization of the needed illusions of Apolline rationality, order, and beauty, as well as the assumed illusion between Dionysian and Apolline worlds to be false. The person now understands that the aesthetic drives of Dionysus and Apollo work together for a greater common good. This attained understanding of Dionysian/Apolline balance without division becomes a state of mind and being that obtains a middle way in the knowing of the unity of Dionysian/Apolline drives. And this middle or enlightened area is also where the birth of tragedy has taken place. Nietzsche refers to this space or state as the “metaphysical solace” that gives rise to “true tragedy” (BT ibid). In a comparison to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Nietzsche writes that both men and women in possession of metaphysical solace;

have gazed into the true essence of things, they have acquired knowledge and they find action repulsive, for their actions can do nothing to change the eternal essence of things; they regard it as laughable or shameful that they should be expected to set to rights a world so out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires one to be shrouded in a veil of illusion” (BT 40).

The Greeks no longer need to be saddened and opposed to Silenus’ wisdom. To obfuscate the daemon’s truths, to prop up an “artful edifice” (BT 22) is to take action where none is needed. The world does not need to be corrected with illusions. Yet the Apolline perspective of images and dreams to explain beauty is good when it has an equal in the Dionysian rawness of euphoric ecstasy. So tragedy as fist born in the Dionysian cults that became the chorus of Greek dramas, is now fully realized as the enlightened middle of Dionysian and Apolline perspectives.
  
The new view of tragedy as originating in the chorus is at the heart of Nietzsche’s aesthetic philosophy. His claim that tragedy as briefly seen in the eras of Aeschylus and Sophocles represents the pinnacle of aesthetic experience in all history. And for Nietzsche the aesthetic experience of art is the ultimate way in which humans can be in touch with nature. The dialectic of Dionysian and Apolline aesthetic drives is not a binary system in the Hegelian sense, but rather a firm affirmation in the power of art to give true unmitigated meaning to life. He asserts that art and its appreciation through its purest form of music and tragedy produce a new myth as an order to live through. This position is in opposition to the pessimism of Schopenhauer and the later shift to morality as humanity’s purpose and its subsequent universalization through dogmatic piety. Nietzsche writes that art’s purpose is to unify humanity with nature, or better yet it’s to say that art is humanity’s nature. The German term “ureine” meaning a primordial oneness is the purpose of aesthetic experience in which “Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art” (BT 18).


III. Nietzsche really hates Socrates and Euripides.

Part of Nietzsche’s BT is to lament and ascribe a cause to the eventual corruption and downfall of the perfect form of Greek tragedy seen in the works of Aeschylus and Sophocles. His analysis of the corruption leads to three root causes; the misunderstanding of the Dionysian/Apolline dialectic, an over analyzing critique of the function of art and its subsequent quantification, and the end result of producing dramatic art that has placed moral judgment as the prime mover of artistic gratification and audience appeal. The two culprits of this problem, Nietzsche has determined, are the playwright Euripides and the philosopher Socrates.

As a chronology in Classical Greek history, Aeschylus was the first playwright to embody the perfect tragic form. Sophocles followed roughly a generation later and was also a master of the Dionysian/Apolline dialectic. Euripides was born ten years after Sophocles, and Socrates was born ten years after Euripides. All this is to say that, with the exception of Aeschylus, the latter three were all contemporaries of each other. In this sense Euripides was writing alongside a master playwright that wrote in the tradition of Aeschylus, while also being influenced by his friendship with a non-playwright in Socrates. Nietzsche argues that Euripides was a thinker and not a poet. Nietzsche’s rationale is that Euripides misunderstood the affect and pathos of Aeschylus and Sophocles, but did not know that he misunderstood their work. Likewise, Socrates as a philosopher not only was incapable of understanding the dialectic form, but as a result did not respect the Dionysian/Apolline approach. Nietzsche quotes Socrates as saying “‘Everything must be conscious in order to be good’” (BT 64). The meaning of this requires that there be no subtext in art, and that with subtext art cannot possibly be good. Therefore art for Socrates needs to make complete sense on a conscious level. However Nietzsche as a proponent of the Dionysian, gives his trust to the irrationality and ambiguities that compel an observer or audience member to implicitly deduce the feeling or meaning in an artistic construction. So perhaps it is strange that Socrates would put all his trust in a purely surface level consciousness because it seems to maintain that all artistic works are good because they are conscious and therefore equal in their artistic merit. With this mode of thought, Socrates would only have two kinds of art in his world; those that are good and those that are not good. This directly translates to his famous judgments of people and situations as either just or unjust. As Socratic thought was an influence on Euripides, Nietzsche claims Euripides’ aesthetic principle was “‘Everything must be conscious in order to be beautiful’” (BT ibid) as well as “‘In order to be beautiful, everything must be reasonable’” (BT 62). And so here is one reason why, according to Nietzsche, Euripides under the influence of “aesthetic Socratism” (BT ibid) helped to destroy Greek tragedy.
          
Nietzsche writes that this aesthetic Socratism motivated Euripides to reinvent and restructure Greek drama to fit this new aesthetic form. One way Euripides did this was to eliminate the Dionysian elements from the chorus structures of Aeschylus and Sophocles. As the previous components were disorder and randomness, the new chorus was Euripides himself in the guise of a common human or “everyman.” This satisfied the Socratic element of reason as good, as well as the chorus’ direct unambiguous narration to further explicate the happenings on the stage to the audience as conscious. For Nietzsche this was seriously flawed because Euripides as an everyman or a spectator within the narrative to achieve ultimate consciousness was betraying the fact that he was not in fact a spectator, and was merely an elitist playwright attempting to portray himself as an everyman spectator with the cumulative effect of pandering and thus insulting the intellectual abilities of his audience. Additionally, this method assumed the audience or public to be a single entity with only diametrical Socratic interpretative abilities like right or wrong. Nietzsche writes of this artist/audience relationship, “Why should the artist be obliged to accommodate himself to a force which is strong only by virtue of its numbers?” (BT 57). Herein lies the importance of multiple interpretations of an artwork and why Euripides under the influence of Socrates misses the point. Of this limited black and white Socratic thinking (which ironically is not thinking enough), Nietzsche criticizes Euripides further; “he draws up his plan as a Socratic thinker; he executes it as a passionate actor. Neither in the planning nor in the execution is he a pure artist. Thus Euripidean drama is simultaneously fiery and cool, equally capable of freezing and burning” (BT 61).

With the simple subtractive quality of Euripides’ new tragedies established as conservative and bland, Nietzsche now attests that aesthetic Socratism has moralized Greek tragedy. In the previous Dionysian/Apolline dialectic, morality was not at the forefront of the artistic pathos. This is because the Dionysian element would not allow for it due to its unpredictable nature. As a result there was mathematically more possibilities for the art to work. Also it is thought that this ambiguous, uncertain nature correlates and is more relatable to real human nature. Under the establishment of aesthetic Socratism, real human nature is jettisoned in favor of a didactic approach where human nature is portrayed as is should be according to the philosophy of Socrates. Not surprisingly this makes for dull moralistic stories designed to condition with little artistic potential. Nietzsche points to “Socrates’ dictum that ‘Only he who knows is virtuous’” (BT 62). Nietzsche then describes the result of this aesthetic philosophy as:

With this canon in his hand Euripides measured every single element – language, character, dramatic construction, choral music – and rectified it in accordance with this principle[the aforementioned dictum]. What we criticize so frequently as a poetic flaw and a step backwards in Euripides’ work, as compared with Sophoclean tragedy, is mostly the product of that penetrating critical process, that bold application of reason (BT ibid). 

In this overly meticulous creating, morality is lost to formulaic constructions that dictate virtue as dogma. Of course this is the downfall for Nietzsche that led to the moralized art of an all too realistic and dogmatic era. Accordingly the moral ambiguity and likeness to the Dionysian part of humanity, the new tragedy forms as Socratic and predictable are unable to use the Apolline element to the same degree and is ultimately a very derivative form art that is closer to pastiche.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Presence of Absence


In “The Sisters” and “The Dead” from Dubliners, James Joyce explores the symmetry between absence and presence. The author employs these mutually dependent devices both in the structure of the narrative as well as a force to articulate aesthetic qualities of the stories. In these two stories specifically as well as much of Joyce’s work, absence conveys a presence in a way that compels the reader to participate in the interpretation of meaning. 

“The Sisters” begins with a young boy thinking of death. He walks by a window “night after night” looking for the two candles that would signify an Irish wake. The boy contemplates the paralytic condition of his friend, the Catholic priest Father Flynn, after sustaining his third stroke. Remembering Father Flynn’s recurring statement, “I am not long for this world,” the boy thinks the words of the phrase to be “idle” and knows these words are now “true.” How this truth has evolved from the phrase is not immediately revealed, though Joyce allows for his audience to consider its tacit meaning to the progressing narrative with subsequent references to forms of inertia. The boy’s thoughts move on to the audible sounds of the words; paralysis, gnomon, and simony. Under the circumstances the boy feels that paralysis in particular sounds like “the name of some maleficent and sinful being.” The direction of thought, all contained in the first paragraph, conveys a young mind attempting to understand a potential loss.

Later at home, the boy finds out Father Flynn has in fact died and chooses reticence in the presence of his uncle, aunt, and family friend Mr. Cotter as they voice their concerns about the relationship between the old priest and himself. Joyce has Mr. Cotter speaking of the priest in an elusive, mumbling manner in which he doesn’t complete his thoughts; “--No, I wouldn’t say he was exactly ...... but there was something queer ...... there was something uncanny about him. I’ll tell you my opinion. ...” The boy thinks these people have misunderstood, and believes he alone knows the true ecclesiastic and learned nature of Father Flynn. Here the reader is made aware of the boy’s frustration with his dismissive silence. It is the reticence that speaks of the boy’s certainty toward his emotionally and literally disconnected family. Mr. Cotter’s objections are also spoken as though he’s nervous or it’s the first time a negative sentiment concerning Father Flynn’s behavior has been vocalized. The scene renders the priest a powerful presence of the past that still exists in his absence.

That night in his bed, the boy has the beginnings of a dream in which he tries to extract meaning from Mr. Cotter’s unfinished thoughts but is interrupted by the image of a paralytic;
In the dark of my room I imagined that I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I drew the blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas. But the grey face still followed me. It murmured, and I understood that it desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region; and there again I found it waiting for me. It began to confess to me in a murmuring voice and I wondered why it smiled continually and why the lips were so moist with spittle. But then I remembered that it had died of paralysis and I felt that I too was smiling feebly as if to absolve the simoniac of his sin.
The audience and young narrator are reminded of the priest’s paralytic condition, and are thus compelled to think of death, paralysis, fear, and an ecclesiastic crime as one entity. Father Flynn is now known to be a figure of binary possibilities; from friend to “maleficent and sinful being” that exist in the boy’s mind. What’s confessed by the priest’s likeness in the dream is never made clear by Joyce. The reader knows something was imparted to the boy but can only speculate on its content. The reason for his mentor-like relationship with Father Flynn, the absence of the boy’s biological parents, or any backstory informing of the general circumstances of the story, are all communicated to the reader by way of an absence of information. These facets of the story are clear because, like the paralytic nature of a fearful and reticent environment, they are unmentionable, yet felt.

The next day the boy visits the house and shop where Father Flynn and he had spent time together. The place is named “Drapery” and consists of umbrellas and children’s bootees. The reader and narrator simultaneously read an official notice of Father Flynn’s death, respectively in the story’s text and as part of the boy’s narrative discovery;
“July 1st 1895
The Rev. James Flynn (formerly of S. Catherine’s
Church, Meath Street) aged sixty-five years.
R.I.P.”
For the reader, this is new information regarding James Flynn, though for the boy, it is merely a confirmation of death which then prompts him to think of the “little dark room behind the shop” where he would’ve been with Father Flynn if he had still been alive that day. The narrator recollects and informs the reader further on some details of the priest’s life and education while then confessing; “I found it strange that neither I nor the day seemed in a mourning mood and I felt even annoyed at discovering in myself a sensation of freedom as if I had been freed by something by his death.” Here Joyce conjures the boy’s dream again and reminds the reader that something was said by Father Flynn but he still cannot remember what. Nonetheless, the boy leaves and comes back with his aunt to view his friend in his coffin and pray. Later that night he listens to his aunt talk with Father Flynn’s sisters. One of the sisters tells of her brother’s later struggles: “The duties of the priesthood was too much for him. And then his life was, you might say, crossed.” After a long silence she goes on to mention a chalice he broke during a service that “contained nothing.” and how he could sometimes be found alone “talking to no-one.” Finally she tells them of the night two other priests found Father Flynn “sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession box, wideawake and laughing-like softly to himself.”

Joyce propels “The Sisters” with the silence of negative space. A literal silence is displayed in the narrator’s reaction toward Mr. Cotter’s unfinished sentences, as well as the lull in the aunt and boy’s astonishment regarding the sister’s description of her brother’s deteriorated state. Also, the reader follows the narrator’s young mind in his misunderstanding of circumstances around him. The boy superficially perceives Father Flynn to be solely a man of the church without moral fallibilities or a degenerating mind, but grants the possibility of something foreboding in his friend. In this way, Joyce uses the boy’s undeveloped mental grasp to communicate misunderstanding through a lack of knowledge. Similarly the reader is also without knowledge and perceives the circumstances differently by filling these information gaps with assumptions that point to ethical culpability on behalf of Father Flynn. Further concerning these lapses of information to be transgressive or a kind of censure that’s only known to the reader, and hence entangled in a larger truth, Margot Norris writes;
The holes in the Dubliners stories open up the possibility of transgressive reading in two senses or layers. First, the reader (like the characters, on occasion) entertains the suspicion that the gaps and ellipses in the narration hide or occlude evidence of transgression. Second, the suspicion itself becomes a form of readerly transgression by implicating the reader in imagined transgressive knowledge... In this way the reader confronted by the gaps and ellipses of “The Sisters” shares the vulnerability of the boy who risks a loss of innocence by the very fact that he must confront gnomic language (Norris, 19).      
Joyce of course, does not reveal any truths close to literal or absolute, and instead evokes a feeling of complex ambiguity that sits in the mind of his reader.
     
James Joyce uses absence in both the structure, and as as a narrative element in “The Sisters.” The artistic form and musical nature of the story are dependent on the breaks of knowledge that intersect with the reader’s imagination. The effect is reminiscent of rests or breaks in melodic lines over an undercurrent of rhythm. Father Flynn’s influence on the narrator as well as his significance in the lives of all the characters is especially disquieting since he is never alive in the story. Just as silence and absence echo throughout “The Sisters” in the physical non-presence of Father Flynn, emotional absence looms within the characters in “The Dead.”

Joyce begins “The Dead” at the turn of a new year in the shadow of a previous year. It’s cold outside with a rare Dublin snowfall making an impression on the characters of the story, “we haven't had snow like it for thirty years, and I read this morning in the newspapers that the snow is general all over Ireland” remarks the main character, Gabriel Conroy. The setting is an annual Christmas and New Year’s themed party hosted by two aged sisters, Kate and Julia. The sisters are worried as their favorite nephew, Gabriel and his wife Gretta, have not yet arrived while Freddy Malins is most likely late due to his drunkenness. Almost immediately Joyce tells of three literal absences and hints at their respective importance to the subtext. When the anticipated young couple do arrive, Gabriel blames his wife for their lateness. The housemaid, Lily, asks Mr. Conroy if it’s still snowing as she takes his coat and he scrapes snow off the bottom of his shoes. He answers and then patronizes her with an attempt at small talk: “I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with
your young man, eh?” Lily retorts and consequently Gabriel offers amends in the form of a gratuity, which is misunderstood as an act of charity. This initial scene establishes a lack of depth in the personalities of Gabriel and his elderly aunts. Gabriel’s superficial remark about his wife, the bungled conversation and redemptive pay off to Lily, display an insecure man with a crude awareness of social caste. Even though Freddy Malins turns up intoxicated every year, Kate and Julia routinely invite him anyway but then worry of the potential problems he will cause to their gathering and reputation. Joyce establishes the two aunts as charming, yet a bit overbearing and shallow.

The odd combination of insecurity and shallowness continues as Gabriel becomes distressed and increasingly anxious about the impression he will make on others:
He was still discomposed by the girl's bitter and sudden retort. It had cast a gloom over him which he tried to dispel by arranging his cuffs and the bows of his tie. He then took from his waistcoat pocket a little paper and glanced at the headings he had made for his speech. He was undecided about the lines from Robert Browning, for he feared they would be above the heads of his hearers. Some quotation that they would recognize from Shakespeare or from the Melodies would be better. The indelicate clacking of the men's heels and the shuffling of their soles reminded him that their grade of culture differed from his. He would only make himself ridiculous by quoting poetry to them which they could not understand. They would think that he was airing his superior education. He would fail with them just as he had failed with the girl in the pantry. He had taken up a wrong tone. His whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure.

While Gabriel is not confident in his social abilities at the party, Joyce manages to channel a supreme sense of confidence in his life outside of the narrative. In the excerpt above, Gabriel is insecure in the text but is known to have made choices that reciprocate his anxiety as arrogance. He has the gall to choose the subtle poetry of a Victorian Englishman for his oration. In the climate of Irish nationalism in which the story takes place, it could not have been lost on Gabriel that his choice of poetry might not be properly understood, but the poet’s native ties to Pax Britannica would. Still at his moment of indecision, he feels his listening audience to be comprised of simple-minded philistines and further in the story refers to them as “vulgarians.” In this instance of superior air, Gabriel feels he needs to dumb down his choice to recognizable names and familiar Irish sung poems. Joyce then dismantles the edifice and shrinks Gabriel back to the apprehensive personality the reader encountered earlier when he acknowledges himself to be a failure that will only continue on a path of disappointment.

Like Father Flynn, Gabriel is a complex character that inhabits polemical areas. Joyce has crafted dialectical contradictions in his stories and characters to reflect their moral complexities. Thus in Gabriel’s case, the man is capable of denouncing a crowd of lowbrow “vulgarians” for their assumed misunderstanding, while at the same time feeling that he has failed them and is an “utter failure” himself in his misunderstanding of the situation. One aspect of Gabriel’s personality is visible to the reader while the other is not. However, the absent side of his personality is also known because it too alternates and becomes present in the story. This dynamic can be likened to the early 20th century philosopher of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl and his “transcendence within immanence” concept using a cube as a metaphor for Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy. If one is to hold a cube, “one can never see more than three sides at one time, although we know there are in fact six sides... there is no such thing as omniscience, no absolute knowledge, since everything that is visible (the visible symbolized by the three exposed faces of the cube) rests on the foundation of invisibility (the three hidden faces of the cube)” (Ferry, 234). In this example, both Gabriel and Father Flynn are explained as to how other characters see and interact with them in Joyce’s stories as polemical individuals. Thus, the reader has the benefit of omniscience and is able to see the full multifaceted characters, or six sides of the cube at once. The dialectic of an absent character would provoke the notion of a present character. The knowledge of both instances in the reader gives a construction of a knowable unknowable. In “The Dead” this phenomena is experienced by Joyce’s audience progressively into the stories of Gabriel the individual, as well as Gabriel and Gretta as a married, dialectical unit.  

Kate and Julia’s party continues with more guests arriving, including the not-yet intoxicated Freddy Malins. The niece of the two aunts, Mary Jane, plays the piano but Gabriel finds the music irritating and moves around until he sees a photograph of his deceased mother. He recalls his two aunts always looked up to their older sister even though she didn’t have the musical ability they possessed. Aunt Kate tells Gabriel she referred to her as the “Brains-carrier” of the family. Gabriel remembers his mother Ellen being dignified and traditional, and made it possible for his brother Constantine and himself to receive an education. Even though she’s physically gone, Gabriel’s mother has a strength over him that he appreciates and then distains as his memories of her turn dark;
A shadow passed over his face as he remembered her sullen opposition to his marriage. Some slighting phrases she had used still rankled in his memory; once she had spoken of Gretta as being country cute and that was not true of Gretta at all. It was Gretta who had nursed her during all her last long illness in their house at Monkstown.
The symbolic shadow that moves over Gabriel’s face, impels the reader to feel the presence of his mother. Nothing more of Ellen is said in the story, but it is obvious she has a sway over her son’s life. She is always with him in a stark fashion. There’s also a sense that something about Gretta is unknown to both parties. Gabriel feels his mother was ungrateful and could not have understood his wife’s nature. Likewise, Ellen’s essence seems to know a truth about Gretta that Gabriel does not, and she speaks to him in silence. He feels this and the absence of knowledge only angers him further into a fear of sadness that might come to be.

Gabriel then allows himself to be drawn back to the dance. He gets partnered with the “frankmannered talkative young lady” Miss Ivors. She promptly toys with Gabriel by saying she has a “crow to pluck with [him]” and then confuses him further over his gullibility. Next Miss Ivors outright attacks him with a rhetorical question, “I have found out you write for the Daily Express. Now aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” As a result of this, she goes on to associate him as a “west Briton” or specifically an Irish citizen with sympathies toward Britain’s colonization of Ireland. Gabriel is blindsided by her accusation as he considers himself a book critic: "He continued blinking his eyes and trying to smile and murmured lamely that he saw nothing political in writing reviews of books.” Again, Joyce reduces Gabriel to a victim, incapable of understanding why he is being admonished. He thinks of the potential words of his defense, but they only remain in his imagination. He fears any defensive response might adversely affect his professional standing being that Miss Ivors and he are contemporaries. She then aggressively suggests he vacation on a remote isle in western Ireland where Old Irish, or Gaelic, is still spoken. Here Gabriel is at a total loss because he feels minimal to no connection to his native country and has concentrated on a worldly education primarily on the European continent. He pathetically maneuvers with weak excuses not to go, but then as she continues to press, and upon seeing the reaction of others on the dance floor he shouts, “--O, to tell you the truth, retorted Gabriel suddenly, I'm sick of my own country, sick of it!”
Joyce puts Gabriel outside of belonging. With no close family left other than Gretta, he has no mooring to any kind of home and has thus focused his energies in greater European studies:
He also feels an alien in his own country, because he is trained in modern European languages and is primarily interested in the international literary movements of the Continent instead of the revival of Gaelic, a dead language for Irishmen... in his personal life, he is timid, fearful, and ineffectual... Such details are merely outward signs of the deep, basic self-distrust and timidity he feels (Bowen and Carens, 211).
After the incident, Mary Jane begins to sing as the other guests migrate toward the dinner table. Miss Ivors announces she’s leaving early and weathers the gentle protests of all but Gabriel when he politely asks, “--If you will allow me, Miss. Ivors, I’ll see you home if you really are obliged to go.” After some mannerly goodbyes, she answers with, “--Bleannacht libh” a Gaelic farewell. In this exchange Joyce manages to force each of their impending absences on each other with a drastic kindness.
   
For Gabriel, his assurance expands when he is asked to carve the holiday goose. He takes pride in being at the head of the table, customizing food portions “--Now, if anyone wants a little more of what vulgar people call stuffing let him or her speak.” At this point Joyce directs the reader away from Gabriel and toward Mr. Bartell D'Arcy, a tenor vocalist that debates the nature of singing with the two aunts, Mary Jane, Freddy Malins, and the lone Protestant of the group Mr. Browne. The conversation moves to Mr. Browne’s inquiring on the nature of Trappist Order;
He was astonished to hear that the monks never spoke, got up at two in the morning and slept in their coffins. He asked what they did it for.

--That's the rule of the order, said Aunt Kate firmly.

--Yes, but why? asked Mr. Browne.
Aunt Kate repeated that it was the rule, that was all.
Mr. Browne still seemed not to understand. Freddy Malins explained to him, as best he could, that the monks were trying to make up for the sins committed by all the sinners in the outside world. The explanation was not very clear, for Mr. Browne grinned and said:
--I like that idea very much, but wouldn't a comfortable spring bed do them as well as a coffin?

--The coffin, said Mary Jane, is to remind them of their last end.

Joyce shifts the focus of Gabriel to the lack of information in Mr. Browne. The absence/presence effect is the same, albeit lighter and more comical. The void of Catholic know-how indubitably lies with the Protestant. Amazed at the behavior of the monks, Mr. Browne provides some comic relief that seems natural to the dinner party. The elderly Aunt Kate’s immediate answers are fittingly appropriate and funny. As is the extended confusion that’s answered by Mary Jane’s conversation ending response. The final answer Joyce gives to the discussion brings the reader back to a dinner table in Dublin in the early 20th century. The humor offsets the serious themes found in the rest of “The Dead” although it is no less artistic. The personalities in the back and forth exchange illustrate a certain, accepted Irish character; merriment, warmth, and dead seriousness.

In Gabriel’s speech, Joyce gives these Irish qualities a different treatment. The speech that unnerved him at the beginning now provides a platform for Gabriel’s command of eloquence and flair. He advocates for the preservation of certain traditional ways of the past while noting the benefits of enjoying the present. His oration acknowledges the musicianship and generous cheer of the three hosts; Kate, Julia, and Mary Jane. “As long as this one roof shelters the good ladies aforesaid - and I wish from my heart it may do so for many and many a long year to come - the tradition of genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us and which we must hand down to our descendants, is still alive among us.”
 Through Gabriel’s character, Joyce communicates the importance of recognizing the naïveté of youth and how it is irreplaceable. The changes that constantly work the human spirit are to be appreciated in even in the saddest of times. He moves to his fear of over-education and the skepticism it sometimes produces in a false enthusiasm stemming from “a thought- tormented age.” Gabriel tells that the memories of the dead should be cherished, but then he warns of an inability to perform a human duty to life in the present when mourning the dead of the past. And of the silence and emptiness of absence, Joyce writes; “of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through life is strewn with many such sad memories.” The scene ends with a toast to the hospitality of the three ladies of the house. All the guests sing; “For they are jolly gay fellows,
For they are jolly gay fellows,
For they are jolly gay fellows,
Which nobody can deny... Unless he tells a lie,
Unless he tells a lie.
The last section of “The Dead” involves Gretta and Gabriel as the dialectical unit. Before this, her role has only been on the surface of Gabriel’s story. She is ample and supportive, as well as sweet and understanding toward her husband and everyone in general. However, she is mostly absent throughout the story. Gretta remains silent and on the outskirts of the reader’s comprehension. Joyce makes her known through reminders filtered through Gabriel.

When the guests are preparing to leave the party in the early cold morning, snow is invoked again. Joyce uses the rare snowfall as a character in the same recurring way he stages Gretta. In the beginning, Gabriel wipes snow from his overcoat and galoshes, and answers Lily’s inquiry into the snowy weather as, “I think we’re in for a night of it.” Gabriel mentions to his hosts that though Gretta caught a cold at last year’s party, “she'd walk home in the snow if she were let.”
When her husband is fretting about his impending speech before dinner, Joyce writes of Gabriel in a pensive mood gazing out into the night:
Gabriel's warm, trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!
Later when Mary Jane is playing a waltz on her piano and people are dancing, the narrative mentions the possibility of people outside in the snow wondering of the warm-hearted party inside. The rare Dublin snow covers everything in a cold beauty that weighs down living tree branches and blankets the Wellington Monument, all while reflecting west. This is the first mention Joyce makes of the snow’s connection to death. In this story, the dead are remembered memories that have passed westward with a symbolic setting Sun. At the conclusion of the party, the snow and wind whistle outside. It is mentioned that all of Dublin has a layer of snow, or what could be interpreted as a metaphor for paralysis. The paralytic condition of Father Flynn and the name “paralysis”, as well as its reminder that it is “the name of some maleficent and sinful being” extends to “The Dead” and most of the stories in Dubliners.

Gabriel asks for Gretta and is told she is still upstairs. He is anxious to spend a night with her in the hotel directly after they exit his Aunt’s house. While waiting he tells a ridiculous story of his grandfather’s horse riding in circles around a monument to the English conqueror of Ireland, William III. After he says goodbye to Mr. Browne, Gabriel goes back into the darkened house. He is now unattended and amid the sound of further goodbyes, he hears a quiet music:
A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terra-cotta and salmon-pink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man's voice singing.

In Joyce’s eloquent prose, Gabriel sees a transformation in Gretta. She feels like a ghost to him. Gabriel is confused while the reader is intrigued. Here the absence and presence of the story meet. The reader feels Gretta evolve into a ghostly presence, though Joyce again leaves absences of information and lets the audience think. Gabriel is now removed from his previous place in the story. This leaves a void with no gravity while his new presence is unknowable:  
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

The artistic invocations suit the lyrical prose and give the reader an aura of what Gabriel is feeling. Joyce writes of symbols rather than compelling his audience to create them. To Gabriel, this dream-like experience is his life in perfection. He is confused but also transfixed with his wife’s ghostly beauty.

In the hotel room that Gabriel was previously looking forward to, Gretta explains to him what happened at the house when she heard Mr. Bartell D'Arcy
playing and singing The Lass of Aughrim. Joyce writes that Gretta is consumed with tears and resists any affection or comfort from her husband. Gabriel is baffled: “As he passed in the way of the cheval-glass he caught sight of himself in full length, his broad, well-filled shirt-front, the face whose expression always puzzled him when he saw it in a mirror, and his glimmering gilt-rimmed eye-glasses.” To the reader, this is the illusion Gabriel now faces – directly in the mirror. He knows what he is about to hear will undoubtedly change everything. Gretta now fills the absence with a confession. She tells Gabriel and the reader, that the song she heard tonight was once sung to her by a boy of 17, whom she loved when she was young. Gabriel politely implores and it is revealed he was of the Gaelic heritage of Gretta’s home in the west of Ireland – the area Miss Ivors told him to visit. Gabriel has the beginnings of anger that are quickly dashed when she tells him the boy’s name was Michael Furey and that he is deceased. She continues to explain that their relationship had ended and the boy refused to accept her absence. The prose assumes a free-verse quality and tells that he died of exposure to the rain and cold while in the presence of Gretta’s refusal.

Joyce ends “The Dead” with a soliloquy-like meditation. Gretta sleeps and Gabriel thinks of the past and his future. He thinks of his place in the absence and silence of Dublin; “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.” For the reader, Joyce’s ending is contemplative and complex. The story ends in this place, but the lives of the story continue without the presence of a reader.   


   
 
Works Cited:
Ferry, Luc. A Brief History of Thought. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011. Print.
Joyce, James. Dubliners – Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton and Company, 2006. Print.
Bowen, Zack and Carens, James F. A Companion To Joyce Studies. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1984. Print.
Norris, Margot. Suspicious Readings of Joyce’s Dubliners. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Reading a Poem by Michael Ondaatje: "Letters and Other Worlds"


Michael Ondaatje is a poet and novelist who’s authorial voice focuses on an individualistic perspective that spans great and small lengths of history and geography. His work’s worldliness and integrative nature perhaps stems from his singular background. He was born in Sri Lanka, raised in the UK, and later immigrated to Canada. Ondaatje’s narratives bear a unique sense of lyricism and description that one might describe as, “lyrical collage.” His oeuvre includes the collections of poetry, There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do, The Cinnamon Peeler, Handwriting, the novels, In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient, and my personal favorites, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, a book of prose and poetry, as well as the novel Divisadero. “Letters & Other Worlds” is a poem that has been anthologized since its 1979 publication, wherein Ondaatje addresses his father’s alcoholism in a free verse form.

The poem begins with an unattributed quote followed by two indented stanzas of five and four lines respectively. The quote reads like a sentence fragment, in that it has no capitalization to signal a sentence beginning, nor a period to end it; “for there was no more darkness for him and, no doubt like Adam before the fall, he could see in the dark”. The similarities of the pronouns, he and him, and the biblical Adam between them, along with dark and darkness, create an arch that is first stationary, then falls, and finally rises. In the first and second lines of the indent, Ondaatje uses parallelism and repetition to invoke the poem’s title; “My father’s body was a globe of fear / His body was a town we never knew”. The words “globe” and “town” refer to the “Other Worlds” of the title. In the fourth line, “His letters were a room he seldom lived in” the poet repeats the “Letters” of the title while “room” is the “World” mentioned in a spatially, shrinking manner. The next stanza uses the same devices of parallelism and repetition with the same words as stanza one, although adding a tainting “fear” to the structure. The quote and two indented stanzas function as a preface to the narrative of the poem.  

The third stanza begins with one end-stopped line announcing the death of the father; “He came to death with his mind drowning.” Ondaatje further describes the condition of the body, and the relations between blood, gin, brain, fluids, compartments, and finishes with the phrase, “a new equilibrium.” This is meant to communicate the physical state of the father in contrast to the next stanza which declares, “His early life was a terrifying comedy / and my mother divorced him again and again.” The poetic narrative regresses in this stanza by mentioning the father’s early life and “falling” as in the biblical Adam of the opening quote.

The sixth stanza provides a distractive element to offset the continued alienation of the father. This is achieved by having the entire stanza in parentheses, as if to exercise an aside to the primary theme of the poem. Ondaatje writes of his mother being a comically bad driver that was invariably stoned by the townsfolk whenever she was recognized.

The father returns in the seventh and eighth stanzas to an uneasy balance with the mother. Ondaatje writes of their marriage, “he or she was the injured party.” A definite opposition is made implicit when, on a dock and waving goodbye to a newlywed couple sailing away, the distraught and “jealous” father jumps in the water and swims after his two friends. The mother is embarrassed and “pretending no affiliation” yet later is compelled to write a note of correction to The Ceylon Times when the paper published a sentimental story on the incident, “saying he was drunk / rather than broken hearted at the parting of friends.”  
           
The format of the short ninth stanza is one of transition to the last portion of the poem. It begins with “his last years” and in contrast to the outward display of emotion noted earlier, the father has now become a “silent drinker.” The dynamic between the physical body and place Ondaatje mentioned at the initial, indented section, has returned; “disappeared into his room with bottles / and stayed there until he was drunk / and until he was sober.”

“There speeches, head dreams, apologies, / the gentle letters, were composed.” So begins the final and longest stanza. The poet documents a reprieve that operates as the start of a denouement; “With the clarity of architects / he would write of the row of blue flowers / his new wife had planted,”. Interestingly an effect of the phrase “new wife” is of implied alliteration, in that the phrase rhymes with “new life.” This functions as a subtle misreading that, whether intended by Ondaatje or not, stops and confronts the reader with the suggested meaning of the word “wife.” The father has a new wife, and therefore the reader might participate in the story’s interpretation as to assume he also has a new life. New developments like, planned “electricity in the house,”, and a half-sister that “fell near a snake / and it had awakened and not touched her.” continue the theme of renewal of conscious life. However, the seemingly benevolent snake is “awakened” and ignores the half-sister while reminding the reader of Adam’s fall in the Garden of the initial quote. Again, the author poses a gentle question to the sensibilities of the reader. Then the father’s letters or literary creations, and awareness are expressed with a strong polysyndeton; “Letters in a clear hand of the most complete empathy / his heart widening and widening and widening”. All this juxtaposed against the rhetorical reminder of the biblical fall, “while he himself edged / into the terrible acute hatred / of his own privacy / till he balanced and fell”. The fall proves to be the father’s last, and Ondaatje patterns the last four lines with the oppositions and repetitions that have by now, become familiar to the reader; “the length of his body / the blood entering / the empty reservoir of bones / the blood searching in his head without metaphor.”     

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Notes From the Existential: Søren Kierkegaard


I. The Aesthetic Aesthete:
To live in the moment is to be a sentimental fool and deny the complexity of the human condition.

In Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophical text Either/Or (EO), the writing is done in a pseudonymous fashion. In the portion entitled, A Fragment of Life; Part I Containing A’s Papers, Kierkegaard uses the characters Victor Eremita, the poet A, and Johannes to elucidate the first stage of his dialectical progression of individual development. This initial stage concerns the aesthetic approach to existence. Kierkegaard begins with an announcement stating an editor named Victor Eremita has found anonymous manuscripts that he then attributes to a poet he calls “A.” Eremita describes the papers as the product of a “witty, ironical, disillusioned young aesthete” (EO I, 2). These papers authored by A are meant to convey the essence of an aesthetic life, and Kierkegaard uses the character of A to communicate indirectly and haphazardly the nature of the aesthete to the reader.

A begins with a polemical argument that tells of the misery an artist experiences in life. “What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music” (EO I,3). A claims that his present cultural atmosphere (Denmark 1843) is unhappy because the overall climate is one without passion. He writes of the boredom and meaninglessness of life, and appeals to the work of Shakespeare and the writings of the Old Testament for consolation; “There one still feels that those who speak are human beings; there they hate, there they love, there they murder the enemy, curse his descendants through all generations – there they sin” (EO I, 13). Contrasting the despair of ordinary existence, aesthetic works of supreme pathos speak to the informed aesthete. A writes of sunshine penetrating his dark apartment as he hears a piece of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and goes on to explain the nature of music and its relationship to language as a form of language. For A, artworks that can be heard are the highest form of art and possess a sensuous quality. This is to say that aesthetic pleasure is a hedonistic solution to the problem of boredom. Later in the first half of EO, the character of Johannes writes of romantic seduction and the pleasure found in its planning.

Through the characterization of A and Johannes, Kierkegaard displays the whimsical and intense nature of the aesthete. While Johannes’ thoughts are more distilled and concentrated, A’s thinking is diffused and repetitious. He employs irony and wit but is ultimately “disillusioned” as Victor Eremita first attests. Through A, Kierkegaard evokes a capricious attitude toward life. A embodies the aesthete that is only concerned with the present moment and pursues the present to avoid the complacency of boredom and the misery of recollection. In this way, A has achieved a version of happiness that he thinks is the pinnacle of existence. However, Kierkegaard implicitly conveys the limitations of A’s conclusions to the reader. A is unable to realize anything beyond the aesthetic realm. He falsely believes that by living in the moment and experiencing aesthetic pleasure, he has overcome the problem of boredom that infests the culture around him.        

According to A, boredom is “corrupting” and “the root of all evil” (EO I, 258). This knowledge is not known to the common person and A purports to know this by way of his aesthetic or experiential immersion in boredom; “for like is only recognized by like” (EO I, 21). Humanity suffers boredom and is boring, yet the enlightened aesthete has achieved a redemption of the kind that is so often central to religious doctrine. Thus “idleness” is bliss and the answer to boredom; “[idleness] is a truly divine life, if one is not bored” (EO I, 261). A calls this solution the, “rotation of crops” (EO I, 263). He likens the phrase to a farmer continually changing his soil to promote new growth. Likewise, the individual who seeks constant change will be free of boredom. This is to live in the moment and eschew notions of hoping for the future and remembering the past. “Not until hope has been thrown overboard does one begin to live artistically... hope was one of Prometheus’ dubious gifts; instead of giving human beings the foreknowledge of the immortals, he gave them hope” (EO I, 264). The careful, selective choice of what to remember and how, is the outcome of experiencing the present and constant change; “The more poetically one remembers, the more easily one forgets, for to remember poetically is actually only an expression of forgetting. When I remember poetically, my experience has already undergone the change of having lost everything painful” (EO I, 265).

Also important to the “rotation of crops” is a commitment to non-attachment. The denial of friendship and romance in one’s life is tantamount to the successful aesthete. A calls this non-attachment a “social prudence” (EO I, 268). Attachment to others, according to A, is problematic to the enjoyment of the present and the pursuit of an arbitrary existence. Of friendship he writes, “A friend is not what philosophy calls the necessary other but the superfluous third” (EO I, 267). Of marriage, A contends that it will inevitably produce faithlessness and pain. The aesthete is to focus on themselves by only living for individual experiences of pleasure. This can come through the sensuousness of the arts and erotic hedonism. And finally, A declares “Arbitrariness is the whole secret” (EO I, 270). To be arbitrary is to live unattached and to constantly rotate the crops. For Kierkegaard’s A, this is the way to eradicate boredom and succeed at the aesthetic level.    


II. The Ethical Being:
Facing the truth and challenging individual awareness.

In the second half of Either/Or; Part II Containing the Papers of B, Letters to A, Kierkegaard uses the character of B, or more frequently dubbed Judge William, to respond to the claims of aesthetic superiority made by A in Part I. B writes two letters to A: the first is a defense of marriage and the second is a call for balance between an aesthetic and ethical way of life. Judge William admits to A that the aesthetic stage is valuable, but ultimately a skewed and unstable way to live.

In his letter The Esthetic Validity of Marriage, Judge William tactfully accuses A of speaking in generalities. The judge posits that this method of aesthetic justification invalidates any claim to individuality A might seek. The judge then writes of inner and outer histories that flow in opposite directions, and how the two function dialectically within an individual. Outer history is related to conquering nature, while the inner form possess nature intrinsically. Comparatively, the outer history of conquering nature, as in experiencing nature in an aesthetic way, is related to A’s conception of living in the present. The judge uses the concept of pride to illuminate the aesthetic lifestyle; “what is essential in pride is not sequence but intensity in the moment” (EO II, 123). This is contrasted with humility and the gradual accumulation of experience that humility of the inner history requires.

Humility is harder to portray precisely because it is sequence, and whereas the observer needs to see pride only at its climax, in the second case he really needs to see something that poetry and art cannot provide, to see its continuous coming into existence, for it is essential to humility to come into existence continuously, and if this is shown to him in its ideal moment, he misses something (ibid).

Judge William then connects the immediate of the outer to the slower growth of inner history, respectively, to erotic lustful passion, and marital love and passion. He concedes that eroticism is better conveyed to the aesthete, but is not as aesthetically gratifying as marital love because the latter requires time and living to achieve a superior aesthetic quality; “Marital love, then has its enemy in time, its victory in time” (EO II, 126). All this is meant to show that both inner/outer or immediate/gradual aspects aestheticism are vital to the ethical level of the individual Judge William is advocating.

In his second letter to A, The Balance Between the Esthetic and the Ethical in the Development of the Personality, Judge William pursues the ethical stage while maintaining the importance of the aesthetic. More specifically the judge writes that the ethical stage is when “a person becomes what he becomes” and further that this stage “does not want to make the individual into someone else but into the individual himself; it does not want to destroy the esthetic but to transfigure it” (EO II, 227). Kierkegaard wants to communicate that the aesthete individual who is caught in the aesthetic stage is really no individual and is merely a loose amalgamation of partial roles. The aesthete in their immediate and unattached position is no one. They have only made aesthetic choices and “an esthetic choice is no choice” (EO II, 151). The individual, the judge argues, needs to doubt themselves willfully and then reach a nadir of despair. Once this despair is felt, they realize a more critical choice of their ethical nature. “The only absolute Either/Or is the choice between good and evil, but this is also absolutely ethical” (ibid). Once the choice and hence knowledge of an ethical self is known, the individual progresses farther into their inner history which B mentioned at the beginning of the letter; “Inner history is the only true history” (EO II, 122). The despaired individual has now felt the choice of the ethical that further leads toward personal inner awareness; “In choosing the personality declares itself in its inner infinity and in turn the personality is thereby consolidated” (EO II, 152).


III. The Knight of Infinite Resignation:
Surrender to despair, and to the death of the self.

Kierkegaard furthers his concept of inwardness in his text Fear and Trembling (FT). From the aesthetic sphere of A to the judgment of A by Judge William (or B), FT continues this path of individual awareness to the hierarchical religious stage Kierkegaard has outlined. The author once again assumes a pseudonymous character of Johannes de Silentio to symbolically and ironically communicate his philosophy.

In the section of FT titled, Repetition; Exordium, Johannes sets out to understand the Biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac found in The Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Johannes attempts to understand the story in four sections (I – IV), but ultimately is perplexed by the logic of the situation. Briefly the story tells of God commanding the leader of the Hebrews, Abraham, to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering to examine faith. Isaac was given to Abraham and his Sarah by God when the couple were very advanced in age. God wants to test the faith of Abraham by commanding the elderly man to kill his only son as a sacrificial offering. Abraham sadly follows the word of God and takes Isaac to Mount Moriah where he is to be sacrificed. At the moment just before Abraham kills Isaac, an angel appears and offers a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son. Abraham’s faith is tested in multiple ways: 1) he follows God’s command and prepares to sacrifice his son, 2) Abraham’s faith inwardly tells him that God would never make him do this and will stop him at the final moment, 3) Abraham is to believe the angel as a rightful messenger of God.

Toward the end of the next section, Eulogy for Abraham, Johannes writes of Abraham’s struggle with faith and metaphorically invokes the notion his possible failure in the word “flight.”

If Abraham had doubted as he stood there on Mount Moriah, if irresolute he had looked around, if he had happened to spot the ram before drawing the knife, if God had allowed him to sacrifice it instead of Isaac – then he would have gone home, everything would have been the same, he would have had Sarah, he would have kept Isaac, and yet how changed! For his return would have been a flight, his deliverance an accident, his reward disgrace, his future perhaps perdition (FT III, 74).

When Johannes uses “flight” he means Abraham after having escaped the test of faith, he would essentially lose his faith. The flight is a flight away from faith after Abraham’s presumed failure. If Abraham had seen the ram before he killed his son, he would have known the whole process was a ruse to test his faith. In this way, Abraham’s faith would never have been tested, and in fact failed with the knowledge of God’s true plan. Abraham would take flight from his God and faith to live out his days in secure, but quiet failure.


IV. The Knight of Faith:
Surviving personal death.

Kierkegaard’s system of inwardness begins with the aesthetic, then moves to the ethical realm, followed by extreme despair and angst to realize the the religious stage. This last stage before infinity is dived into knights of infinite resignation and knights of faith, with the latter being the highest known form of Kierkegaard’s spiritual attainment.

Johannes describes this path as different for every individual. Thus the path of Abraham to the ultimate knight of faith cannot be duplicated. An individual must face their own stages of individuality and despair to reach their unique positions of faith. Johannes begins with a physical description of a knight of infinite resignation; “[they] are easily recognizable – their walk is light and bold. But they who carry the treasure of faith are likely to disappoint, for externally they have a striking resemblance to to bourgeois philistinism, which infinite resignation, like faith, deeply disdains” (FT III, 89). These knights for Johannes are what monk and nuns are to the Christian faith. They have resigned themselves to the infinite, to worship and acceptance of their faith. These knights have no attachments in relationships or material possessions, yet they are beyond common philistinism in that they are able to deeply feel the pathos of art and culture. The knight of infinite resignation is exemplified in Abraham as he resigns himself to God. He follows an ordered love that realizes God as the zenith of love. Once Abraham has reconciled this to himself, he has thus placed himself, Isaac, Sarah, and every other kind of love below that of his love for God. He has resigned himself to a life of the infinite.

Johannes then proceeds to describe the ascendance of the knight of faith, which happens simultaneously with the infinite resignation stage but is superior. He writes; “Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so that anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in the infinite resignation do I become conscious of my eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith” (FT III, 97). This passage exemplifies Kierkegaard’s descriptions of the stages of individual inwardness. The knight of faith is an individual of the highest individual awareness because they have renounced absolutely everything for a belief or faith in something. As Abraham resigns everything he cherishes to the infinite in the service of his faith in God, he then loses himself. He has lost himself in a death-like despair, to become his ultimate self. Johannes calls a “paradox of existence” (ibid). Abraham as a knight of infinite resignation and then faith, realized in his actions and commitment to God that “he can be saved only by the absurd, and this he grasps by faith” (ibid).


V. Suspension:
Transcendence of ethics and morality.

In attempting to understand the story of Abraham and Isaac, Johannes asks himself and the reader if there is suspension of the ethical realm in this story. It is perplexing that on an ethical level, Abraham is an evil murderer while in the religious level he is considered to be the father of Christian faith. Johannes believes that in this way, the ethical and religious realms cannot function properly together.

This inability to understand superior levels of individual inwardness resembles the previous inability of the aesthete to understand the guiding principles of the ethical stage. A assumes to himself and others that he has in fact reached the highest form of individuality in his immersion and understanding of aesthetic experience. The ability to believe that this view could be mistaken lies outside of his aesthetic self. Judge Williams’ letters to A are hopeful and optimistic in the attempt to explain this to A. However, no amount of explanation could convince A of the superiority of the ethical over the aesthetic. Instead A has to experience a deep personal crises and loose himself to an ethical choice. To choose the ethical, A realizes its existence and in turn moves into a universal ethical realm. If he denies the ethical, he wallows in the despair of its existence and the failure of the aesthetic stage to deliver him from the knowledge of the ethical. Similarly, Abraham as man in the ethical realm must face an even greater test of angst and despair to realize and to understand faith.

For Johannes, the ascendance to a knight of faith requires a betrayal of the ethical stage. He asks, “Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical?” (FT III, 104). Johannes compares Abraham’s story to a modern day scenario wherein a churchgoing father takes a this sermon describing a test faith literally and then goes home and murders his son. Johannes wonders if the murder is justified as a suspension of the ethical to serve a higher unknown understanding to faith. The test of faith would be to believe this suspension is necessary to attain faith – even if the religious realm is unknowable to the ethical man. So the teleological or purposeful suspension of the ethical does not happen. Abraham and the modern churchgoer are seen as vile murderers on the ethical level.

This paradox reveals itself in the dichotomy of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. Abraham had to resign everything and Isaac to the infinite, while at the same time having personal faith that Isaac would not be lost.