Notes on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling after reading Joakim Garff

Abraham would have been terrifying because if we had met him we would never have glimpsed his inner life. We would not have seen the man of faith. We would have seen a man who was prepared to murder his son.

Traditionally, when the story is told, the faith of Abraham is emphasised. Abraham had such faith that he would not withhold from God even his own son. God rewards him for his faith.

The Bible tells us: God never intended to let Abraham murder his son, he was just testing Abraham’s faith. But Abraham didn’t know this at the time. He was preparing to murder his son.

It would have been hard for Abraham to explain his actions to anyone but God Himself. But being a man of faith, Abraham never felt he had to.

But what is terrifying is that Abraham would have been in all outward respects indistinguishable from a maniac. If a man today planned to murder his son, and told us that God had told him to do it, we would not praise that man as a man of faith.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard posits such a man. He is called “the sleepless man”. He hears the story of Abraham told at church. He’s so possessed by the story he cannot sleep. He resolves “to do just as Abraham had done”. The pastor gets wind of this just in time, calls the man “abominable man, scum of society” and sees to it that he’s arrested. The man will spend the rest of his days in a mental institution or awaiting the death penalty. (263)

Kierkegaard’s point is that the pastor is caught in a contradiction: he wants to praise Abraham but will not praise the man who would do as Abraham did. (264)

The inner life is not easy to recognise by any outward signs, is the message of Fear and Trembling. No-one can know the faith that drives Abraham to plan this terrible act except Abraham himself. In the same way, the pastor cannot know whether it is faith that drives the sleepless man to his own monstrous resolution. You either praise neither man, or both. (264)

But there’s a problem with Kierkegaard’s argument. He re-tells the story of Abraham and Isaac 4 times, and the final time he suggests that Isaac could have noticed the “shuddering” of his father as he “clenched” his left hand “in despair”. By these signs Isaac would have known that his father ultimately lacked the faith to carry out the task. (257)

If Isaac can read the state of his father’s faith from his outward appearance, then there is some connection between a person’s inner and outer life, between his inner feelings and outward behaviour. And so there is in principle something that we can observe, something outward, by which we could distinguish the man of faith, acting on God’s command, from the maniac, driven by some inexplicable madness to copy the actions of Abraham without the justification that Abraham had (the command of God).

Garff points out that Kierkegaard never really clarifies the connection between the inner and outer life in his book. Fear and Trembling is not supposed to offer such an explanation because it starts off from a faulty premise: that inner and outer life are wholly separate. And because this premise is faulty, Kierkegaard can’t help but contradict this premise. (265)

By defending the sleepless man where the pastor and most other sane people would condemn him, Kierkegaard makes it seem that he is “the implacable defender of inwardness”, of the principle that only God can judge the intentions of human beings. But Garff seems to suggest that if Kierkegaard ever intended to argue this he didn’t do so for long. Garff tells us that the absurd and contradictory argument in Fear and Trembling is a sign that Kierkegaard is going to move in his later work towards a philosophical position where inner and outer are connected. (265)

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard was either deliberately writing from a philosophical position he didn’t really hold, or else he really did believe what he wrote but later moved on and rejected these views. Either way, we should not take Fear and Trembling to be the ultimate statement of Kierkegaard’s philosophical position.

(Numbers in brackets refer to pages in Joakim Garff (2005), Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, trans. Bruce H. Kirmmse, Princeton University Press.)

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Notes on Confucius’ Analects Book 17 Chapter 6

“Respectfulness, tolerance, trustworthiness in word, quickness and generosity.”


Has something to do with not being too persistent in your interactions with others. If you want someone to act in a certain way, and they refuse, then you know when to let the matter drop. Even if you’re certain you’re in the right, you owe it to others to let them find their own way. Finding one’s own way is something valuable in itself, and you rob others of their own peace of mind if you don’t allow them the dignity to choose for themselves.

Respectfulness concerns the rules about who you should offer advice to, who you should be gentler and more tactful with, and so on. For example, you would approach your boss with criticism in a different way than you would tell off your own children. But even (especially!) with children, respect is important, it’s just there are different rules for being respectful.

How to be respectful is something determined by culture, and you need to be aware of those unwritten rules. You learn awareness of rules by making mistakes, and gradually correcting yourself. This is why it will take you 40 years to become “free from doubt”.


Continues from the concept of respectfulness in that it describes the way you should be when others do not follow your principles. Live and let live. Not everything can be correct as you see it.

It’s wise to be tolerant, because we are all still learning. Even you can be wrong sometimes. How foolish you would feel if you were to shout and shout and then discover you were in the wrong.

And even if you turn out to be right, the other person will be less resistant to change if you take a more flexible, and less confrontational, approach. Your flexibility can be an example for others. We all need to be able to bend like reeds sometimes.

Trustworthiness in word

It’s only fair that what you say should match what you do. If you don’t keep your promise, then you’ve told a lie, even if you didn’t mean to do so at the time. The promise retroactively becomes a lie. So take care what you say!


Acting quickly is important. But only as quickly as you safely can: you don’t want to rush into error.

You’ll get faster in time, as you become more competent and more certain of yourself. Don’t rush into false self-certainty: allow it to develop step by step.


Generosity without giving anything away. Meaning: you don’t spend anything you can’t afford. The superior person lives by her generosity. It’s her very being, her very style, her very comportment. She expresses herself in her generosity. The superior person has more to lose by not giving than by giving. What she gives most of all is herself. The superior person is like an artist in this respect.

(I’ve been reading The Analects by Confucius, translated by D.C. Lau.)

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Henry Miller and Belief

“I believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son, in the blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Ghost, in Adam Cadmium, in chrome nickel, the oxides and the mercurochromes, in waterfowls and watercress, in epileptoid seizures, in bubonic plague, in devachan, in planetary conjunctions, in chicken tracks and stick-throwing, in revolutions, in stock crashes, in wars, earthquakes, cyclones, in Kali Yuga and in hula-hula. I believe. I believe. I believe because not to believe is to become as lead, to lie prone and rigid, forever inert, to waste away …”

And, elsewhere in Sexus, Henry Miller is accused of being a Romantic, because he admires “the revolutionaries of yesterday”. In fact it’s his belief in the value of belief that makes him a Romantic.

Belief, any belief, unites a man with his fellow human beings. His fellow believers. On his own, as an individual, a man is nothing. Or at best mere matter, passive and inert. You don’t become free by asserting your individuality. Freedom is not self-sufficiency, else it would be impossible to be free. The one who would be übermensch becomes neurotic because he’s trying to assert his independence from the very humanity that grounds his existence.

Miller is all for standing aloof at times. Standing at the window, looking at the New York streets at night, he spits when he thinks of all the humdrum workers sleeping to prepare themselves for another day of meaningless work. One in ten thousand might escape, he says, and of course Miller himself is one of those with the pluck to escape.

But to stay sane, you need to shift your position. Sometimes you need to just believe. Because when you believe in something, you’re allying yourself with others. Religion binds human beings together. It’s something higher than us, something that we can collectively fix our gaze upon, united in our admiration, or awe, or simple quiet acceptance, of what we see.

It’s not about setting oneself apart from the crowd, but looking for that fire in you that burns in everyone. And in belief you find the embers of the original passion that brought that belief into being, and with this you can rekindle the fire of the living human spirit.

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The Noose and the Sky

The deepest truths about a human being can be expressed only in lies. Nietzsche knew this, Henry Miller knew this. So did Sylvia Plath. Why? Because each human being is the sum of the stories she tells herself: for example the stories about what she desires, and what she has decided to do with her life. And these stories must contradict each other, and so cannot all be true at the same time. To make the stories fit together, lie upon lie is required.

The “bell jar” in Plath’s novel is a metaphor for Esther Greenwood’s own body, which seems a cage to her, imprisoning her in life, in a life without meaning. Whether she is at home in Boston or working and partying in New York, whether she is at school or in an asylum, Esther feels trapped inside herself. She’s decided she wants to free herself, and believes that suicide is the only way to do this. She has made several attempts on her own life by the time she is put into an asylum.

Throughout the first part of the novel, before she is committed to the hospital, she can’t decide what she wants to do with herself. Well in fact she decides all kinds of things, each incompatible with the last: I will spend the summer in Cambridge and take a course, I will spend the summer writing a novel, I will learn shorthand … She wants everything at once, and this is what makes her “neurotic”: “I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”

The bell jar occasionally lifts, and she can smell the air outside. She is free from herself, her own mind and body that binds her. My favourite line from the whole book describes a moment, shortly after Esther has received shock treatment and is looking at the knife she has just used to crack an egg at breakfast: “I tried to think what I had loved knives for, but my mind slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the centre of empty air.”

There’s something of the simultaneous hope and heartbreak of this book captured in that sentence. Esther identifies with her thoughts, however sad they make her, and with her decisions, however much they contradict each other. As she says at one point: “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell.” Story-telling, fabricating a life out of her thoughts and feelings, is essential to her, and it is heart-breaking to see a thought slip away from her after her treatment. As a poet she needs her thoughts. But being able to swing and soar in the empty sky from time to time allows in a kind of happiness, an ease that might save her, because it might give her a relief from the thoughts that so often end in thoughts of death. We can see hope in this empty sky.

Reading the novel I was hooked, following Esther this way and that, desiring what she desired in every moment, so that she didn’t seem neurotic to me, she seemed real. It’s the beauty of a novel like this that the realness of the main character means we feel we’re getting a sense of a life as it is lived, with all its contradictions. We’re given a real living story, a path to the truth which is the beating heart of a human being. In Plath’s words: “I am I am I am.”

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New and Old Essays

I’ve added a Publications page to the blog. It’s very short now but it’s grown a bit in the last few days, and I hope it will grow a bit more soon. Last week Empty Mirror published an essay I wrote about William S. Burroughs and cats, and yesterday an old essay I wrote and posted here on the blog 7 years ago about Deleuze and Guattari and May ’68 was republished at NON. So I hope you’ll give those a read.

That’s all for this week, but I’ll have a proper blog post for you next time. Thanks for reading!

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Notes on Charles Bukowski on Writing

Charles Bukowski’s right: sometimes a poem just sounds too much like a POEM. You know it’s been worked up, affected, to make it sound like a poem should. Rather than being its own thing, an expression of something unique and new.

All writing has this problem, however authentic it is. You need to “reach into the ages” for the form that fits, or you won’t be understood. This means using technique, and going over and over it to make sure it’s right.

The thing is not to show your working. It has to seem effortless. And that’s what some poems don’t do: they seem like they’ve been worked over.

The thing is not to show you’re working. Bukowski claimed he just couldn’t work on a poem, couldn’t keep at it, and so what he sent off was raw, a real moment, something that went onto the page then and there and could never be repeated.

George Orwell said that writers are lazy. Right or wrong, they must appear lazy. That’s part of the art, and a matter of survival. Because if it seems they’re working so hard to create so little it’ll just seem depressing. No one much cares for the arts anymore anyway. People will just say “Why bother?” and writers finally won’t be allowed to exist, unless they write for the papers or the television.

Bukowski gives us the only good reason for writing: in order to live. Not in order to make money: at one point he writes he’s only made forty-seven dollars in twenty years. But in order to live: because unless you’re writing you don’t feel alive. And if you don’t need to write in order to live, he tells us: “Don’t do it!”

(I’ve been reading On Writing, which is a collection of letters by Charles Bukowski. It was published in 2016 by Canongate Books.)

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The Subject of the Drama is The Lie: Review of David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife

All of your thoughts are bizarre and troubling, says David Mamet. So sit down with a coffee and examine your own head and there’s always something to write about. And if you’re asking yourself “Am I mad?” “Will people want to see this?” then you’re probably on the right track.

This is a passing thought along the way, as Mamet tells us about the structure of drama, the 1,2,3 form that makes a drama pop. Yes, follow those troubling thoughts, but you’re going to need to keep a few rules in mind as you work, if your drama is going to achieve its purpose. (We’ll get to the purpose later.)

I’m making it sound like a how-to book, and it really isn’t that. For all Mamet talks about structure, this particular book gives the impression of a ramble – hopping from discussion of Hollywood to politics to God and back to politics again – with insights fizzing up along the way that will inspire any reader interested in the business of writing. We seem to be listening to a fascinating speaker holding court, following his own mind wherever it leads him. And we’re grateful that we’re here to listen.

But it is only an appearance of chaos, an illusion created by a master dramatist. He has done it to keep us off-balance to the end, to make us wonder what is coming, and excited for the next revelation. In other words, he has created a drama for us, disguised as a book about writing.

A central point for Mamet is that the struggle of the artist is reflected in the struggle of the hero. You can’t have the latter struggle without the former. Unless the writer is struggling as she writes, the hero she’s created just won’t be interesting. Artists create not to produce any effect on the audience, but to resolve their own inner conflicts. They are seeking peace through struggle, but it is an impossible task. Creation is a compulsive process, and compulsion never leads to peace, but only to more compulsive thoughts and behaviours.

A great drama reflects this truth. For Mamet, too much so-called drama seeks a peaceful and comforting resolution: the hero finds the strength to overcome the odds; the villain is caught; and so on. A well-written hero, on the other hand, is compelling because there’s something in her that cannot be resolved, that makes her human – only more so. And we know that the resolution is not going to bring ever-lasting peace.

The common demand for a peaceful resolution is tied up with our deeply-ingrained belief in reason, says Mamet. It’s not that we think that reason can save the world, but that we think it already has, and a corollary of this belief is that doing the right thing in this best of all possible worlds will lead to happiness and peace. To many of us, such schmaltzy resolutions seem false because we have an even deeper feeling that rationalism is a lie, and that things never “come out even.”

And so we come to the purpose of drama. The good dramatist will not try to rationalise the world but will merely “air” the situation, says Mamet. The result will not be happy, but it will be truthful. “The subject of drama is The Lie,” says Mamet, and “At the end of the drama THE TRUTH … prevails.” And though this is a resolution, it is rarely a peaceful one. Everything comes “whole” again when the truth is out, and life goes on, however happily or unhappily. We could maybe sum this up as the old piece of writing advice: “Show don’t tell!” The artist shows us the whole truth about the situation in the drama, for better or worse, for right or wrong, and doesn’t try to tell us what to think about it.

This is the purpose of the drama – to allow Truth to prevail over The Lie – and, as we’ve seen, the aim of the artist is distinct from this. The artist can only follow her own inner struggle and, depending on her skill, will create either great or mediocre art in the process of showing us the whole idea of that struggle. The great artist only airs rather than rationalises the troubling thoughts in her head because she knows she cannot hope for more, and the creative struggle must go on and on.

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