by David Wemyss (November 2011)
Speech and thought fast as the wind and the moods that give order to a city he has taught himself, and how to flee the arrows of the inhospitable frost under clear skies and the arrows of the storming rain. He has resource for everything. Lacking resource in nothing he strides towards what must come. From Death alone he shall procure no escape, but from baffling diseases he has devised flights. – Sophocles (the “Ode To Man” from Antigone).
George Orwell once wrote about “a rather cruel trick I once played on a wasp. He was sucking jam on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed œsophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him”.
It’s a striking analogy. But the thing that’s wrong with it is that, unlike the severed wasp, men and women in the present age don’t try to fly away. Few even sense the possibility. And many will think that that’s just as well. After all, what would “flying away” mean?
A lot of people will think it must mean confronting death. We’ll come back to that. Orwell did actually go on to say that it was man’s soul that had been cut away. But he wasn’t telling his readers to turn to Christianity, although he was honest enough to face up to the aridity of secular alternatives. Perhaps the meaning of “flying away” should be seen as a recoil from herd mentalities, or a distaste for instrumental thought. It may be a bit like breaking free of what Heidegger called “enframement”.
All of these things ring true. In fact, Orwell occasionally sounds a bit like a British Heidegger, using elegant and straightforward English (rather than pretentious Teutonic jargon) to spear humanistic hubris. However, if you read the article from which the quotation is taken, the eventual implication is that humanism has to do better because, in the end, no man is an island. But does hubris feed on that very thought?
I think a sound human understanding sees wisdom in John Donne’s great saying but also something not quite true. The question of insularity doesn’t have to be settled as if it were a proposition in analytical philosophy. But we have to be wary of other bewitchments here. Listen to Virginia Woolf, in her 1930 essay “On Being Ill” –
That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you – is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown.
Beautifully written. Yet people who write this kind of thing may be expressing not a quiet sense of spiritual insularity but a fiercely resentful narcissism. And the difference is enormous.
For most of her life, Woolf’s insularity was little more than an aesthetic disdain for what she called “the heroism of the ant or bee.” The army of the upright marches to battle, but Virginia will take to her bed:
It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, nature is at no pains to conceal – that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will lie thick upon factory and engine; the sun will go out. Even so, when the whole earth is sheeted and slippery, some undulation, some irregularity of surface will mark the boundary of an ancient garden, and there, thrusting its head up undaunted by the starlight, the rose will flower, the crocus will burn. But with the hook of life still in us still we must wriggle.
People catch trains and go to work, but civic life is a genial pretence. Virginia sees through it all. Not for her the dismal mediocrity of making a living. Safe in the upper middle-class enclave she thinks has been so unfair to her, she sees herself as a deserter, of all things. Then, adding to the fast-growing list of ordinary people she mocks for being, well, ordinary, she has a go at ordinary churchgoers:
. . . on the bleakest day, in the wettest fields, lamps will be burning, bells will be ringing, and however the autumn leaves may shuffle and the winds sigh outside, hopes and desires will be changed to beliefs and certainties within. Do they look serene? Are their eyes filled with the light of their supreme conviction? Would one of them dare leap straight into heaven off Beachy Head? None but a simpleton would ask such questions; the little company of believers lags and drags and strays. The mother is worn; the father tired. As for imagining heaven, they have no time. Heaven-making must be left to the imagination of the poets.
There is probably a mature disturbance of spirit in there along with the aristocratic disdain, but I can hardly detect it nowadays. Maybe I grew up. In fact, I wonder if she did, just at the end. Did her suicide have something to do with having begun to sense the crooked timber of a thoroughly obnoxious personality? There are certainly a number of late diary entries that suggest that the reality of German bombs falling on London altered her pre-war position of contemptuous pacifism, which came to a head with the monstrous “Three Guineas”, published in 1938.
It was a salutary lesson for me that the pellucid beauty of “On Being Ill” led eight years later to “Three Guineas”, with its insistence that Britain in the thirties was a tyranny as bad as Nazi Germany, that all loyalties were false (except those emanating from the virgin forest of course), that all uniforms were evil, and that war was a male desire to dominate brought about by competitive education.
Indeed, not many people realise that Virginia Woolf in 1938 was pretty well recommending the post-1967 British comprehensive school – except that it would have been a university – one so given over to cultural destructiveness that her own books would have fallen out of the syllabus.
Theodore Dalrymple put it characteristically well in the City Journal a few years ago when he said that, had she survived to our own time, Woolf would have had the satisfaction of observing that her cast of mind – shallow, dishonest, resentful, envious, snobbish, self-absorbed, trivial, philistine, and ultimately brutal – had triumphed among the elites of the Western world. And if that seems a little harsh on someone who did I think have a considerable gift – Mrs Dalloway is surely a very good novel – just remember that she also wrote the most immitigably stupid book of the twentieth century.
It just goes to show that you should look at how people comport themselves towards the world before accepting that they have something worthwhile to say about turning away from it. But the good news is that, when you do look, what you see is not always a disappointment.
You can turn away from the world without a chip on your shoulder, perhaps without even really thinking that that’s what you’re doing. But of course it isn’t as easy as that. Most of us will turn away from the world because it displeases us, and displeasure with the world is usually going to be our own fault. By comparison, turning away from the world in the full bloom of its loveliness is a gift, and no one will grasp it who has not already begun to receive it.
I think the nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard understood this – even though he might not always have managed to accomplish it. His spiritual insularity is often considered to be incommensurable with genuine Christianity, but I think it gave me the only glimpse of faith I ever had. Whatever the truth of that, the experience was so powerful – Kierkegaard was such a living presence – that I headed across the North Sea to Denmark on what can only be called a pilgrimage.
And so, on a summer night in 1985, walking in the lonely moonlight of the Jutland coastline with the sea crashing and moaning all around me, I found myself thinking that – pace Matthew Arnold – the melancholy roar was not faith but grace, withdrawing as it must before coming back in again.
After all, how can anyone actually say they have faith? In time of war, you blow up bridges that the enemy might cross, even though they might be beautiful strong structures you crossed yourself earlier. But the Gospels didn’t blow up the bridges they described, and so, to this day, the enemy rushes across. Faith has to accommodate the inkling that the bridges are meant to be down, but grace has stopped wrestling with the analogy.
Of course we’re talking here about an essentially self-revocative author, for whom irony was sometimes the condition for saying anything authentic at all. But, as I have tried to tell people over the years, irony is not sarcasm. When the ironist says something other than (or more than, or less than) what he really means, he relies on having a listener or reader who is capable of making an imaginative leap of felicitous suspicion.
And so, when it comes to Kierkegaard’s distaste for sociality, I think we should be clear that we’re not dealing with irony. He really didn’t care for “the public”, believing as he did that St. Peter had gone too far at the first Pentecost in establishing a ruinous congregation of 3000. And he obviously didn’t think the recognition of Jesus needed to pass through the channels of ecclesiastical mystery. As for the social reformer which revisionist scholars are determined to turn him into, well, it’s an absurdity – unless the imaginative leap of ironic discernment topples over into overt dishonesty. Instead it seems that, before God, two is a crowd and three a spiritless age. This may sound like a recipe for solitary fanaticism until you realise that, for Kierkegaard, one is a crowd too.
His solitude was marked by suffering, and, although he spoke about keeping “the wound of negativity” open, it’s easy to imagine that what really happened was that an infected wound got closed up. The whole gamut of Christian psychology was compressed into the frail body and soul of a man struggling from the outset with congenital melancholy and crippling self-awareness.
But (like Wittgenstein, and relevantly so) he was always fond of uncomplicated people. His problem was with the church, with politicians, and with “the assistant professors” into whose hands he knew he would fall. Otherwise his authorship is littered lovingly with seamstresses and charwomen and mothers and children – although feminists should look away now.
These women were held in the highest esteem by Kierkegaard for their devotion and patience, but the last thing he was thinking about was that they might deserve rooms of their own – pace Virginia Woolf – or political emancipation. It wasn’t that he saw no point at all in trying to cure social inequalities between men and women, or to ameliorate the living conditions of the poor – that would just have been mean-minded – but he saw that the democratic movements of his time were already trading on resentment and relativism, and that soon enough people would be taken to be good or kindly only if they espoused the correct political views. He saw that it was relatively easy to stress the equality of the lowliest – if not to act on it – and that the truest test of neighbourly love might sometimes be to show an immediate sense of the equality of the highest. He issued a memorable set of early warnings against the redefinition of human sympathy in doctrinal terms.
But he was never in doubt about shared experience per se. His seamstresses and charwomen and mothers and children were pleasing to God, and he looked affectionately at their simple piety and obedience. Their devotion was not something that “lagged and dragged” as the autumn leaves shuffled and the winds sighed. For Woolf, of course, the leaves and the wind were altogether deeper than the worn mother and the tired father who had no time to “imagine heaven”.
Nothing could be further removed from Kierkegaard’s cast of mind. Indeed, the things that set him apart from sociality set him apart from ordinary people much less than from the fashionable circles in which he actually moved. And although he was notorious for being impenetrably difficult, the voluminous journals are in fact eminently readable. For more than twenty years now, I have returned time and again to this curious little entry from 1849:-
He takes a walk one day in a beautiful wooded area. It has just been raining; everything smells fresh and fragrant; it occurs to him that he never or only rarely had felt so indescribably, so ineffably good.
As he walks along the thought comes to him en passant: what if you took your life – and he does it.
Here there is no premeditation about such a step, no sequence of events, nor any violent agitation. The thought comes to him something like this: see, there is a delightful little flower; he commits the deed in about the same state of mind as that in which one bends down and picks a little flower; therefore death in this case would be a kind of well-being carried to a higher power.
Not for Kierkegaard a virgin forest, or a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown; on the contrary, his insularity is expressed against the backdrop of a beautiful wooded area we can all enjoy. And we can all mean much the same thing by the word enjoyment.
“It has just been raining; everything smells fresh and fragrant.” All of us know what this is like, but Virginia Woolf would diminish it by the connotation of a row of puppets. A twitch at one wrist jerked another. For Kierkegaard, on the other hand, the puppet comes alive not in singularity of experience but in the impulse to relinquish experience, precisely at the summit of its commonly understood beauty. Extreme individuality is being able to let go – not in disappointment or suffering or resentment, but just because.
But this is no credo, sewn Pascal-like into the lining of our reception of the everyday. Although it returns us to the everyday, there is nothing in it that could be called a philosophy of everydayness. Miraculous synoptic recoveries of experience just happen sometimes – but only to those who have reached the point of needing them in the first place. Kierkegaard was particularly fond of attributing this kind of thing to Old Testament sufferers like Abraham and Job. Every word is backlit all of a sudden, and the torment of a few words is forced to give way to the continuity of them all – as if the trajectory of a whole life has come into view unexpectedly. And, at that most felicitous point, a life can even seem complete.
It’s an edifying thought. And maybe a very mature one. When I was around thirty – immersed in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Heidegger – I was predictably familiar with the idea of trying to find an authentic comportment towards death, but I was thinking about it long before my discovery of those writers. It started even before my first encounter with Mahler. It was there when I was eighteen.
Not much more than an adolescent. And there’s the rub. All this “half-in-love with easeful death” stuff can seem like adolescent theatricality, a youthful indulgence. In particular, it can seem like an affront to the true awareness of death, the concrete reality known to those who lie in wretched pain and unimaginable loneliness.
Now there’s a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Not a pretty and poetic one, though, but a cold and cruel isolation.
And so, right from the outset as a philosophical writer, I was careful to acknowledge that – to quote the well-known joke – death in Heidegger was what he did in the third term. In particular, I made a point of never saying too much about comportment towards it – not out of a fear of tempting fate but because I already knew the twilight of a cancer ward as a mere visitor, and I recognised what an uneasy visitor I was. I could hardly get out of the place fast enough.
But I think I went too far in worrying that even the best philosophical or literary talk about death was always going to be on the edge of vacuity. By comparison, I’d say nowadays that a well-adjusted sense of absurdity and meaninglessness is much more likely to be good practice for the truth of its expression. After all, death does define existence. And the refusal to face up to it – no, that’s wrong, almost everyone “faces up to it”; the real point is to let the thought of it mature over the years – is as good an explanation as any for our tendency to insist on defining ourselves in terms of contingent things, things that are vulnerable to change.
The examples are endless. A violinist can get her fingers crushed. A footballer can lose a leg. A devoted husband can discover that his wife is betraying him. Children grow up and leave home. We don’t always get the top job. All of these things can induce despair. But, according to Kierkegaard, the real despair is about something else. It is about the thought that one is nothing if not a violinist, an athlete, a man loved by his wife, a mother whose children still need her, someone moving successfully up the career ladder, and so on.
And the self that is something – if not a violinist, etc. – is a self we can lose without noticing, easier than a banknote. People complain that, when the chips are down, Kierkegaard’s insistence on a mysterious and deeper self doesn’t seem to amount to anything. But then, if they’ve lost it without even knowing, we needn’t be surprised if they don’t know what it is. Like Orwell’s severed wasp, they don’t grasp the dreadful thing that has happened to them.
Of course Kierkegaard thinks there is something eternal about us, which Orwell did not. But if a mature sense of death – the days of man are but as grass – is likely to be good practice for the truth of its expression, Kierkegaard thinks that it will also be good practice for the truth of eternal expression, which he clearly believes can only be advanced apophatically (i.e. in keeping with the negation of all positive terms predicated of God).
But where does that leave us vis-à-vis his seamstresses and charwomen and mothers, whom he saw as pleasing to God in their simple devotion. For Virginia Woolf, such people could only seem careworn, with no time to “imagine heaven”. But isn’t Kierkegaard beginning to veer in the same direction? After all, his seamstresses don’t sound much like the kind of people who can be treated as prototype negative theologians. Yet, in a way, that’s what they were.
His devoted simple folk would not have thought that they were nothing if not what they were in terms of their gifts and talents. On the contrary, they would have been seen those gifts and talents as pleasing to God rather than self-definitive.
I wonder if a woman who embroiders a cloth for sacred use does not make every stitch as carefully as possible and perhaps begin over again many times. Yet I wonder if it would not distress her if someone viewed it in the wrong way and looked at the pearl- stitch embroidery instead of the altar cloth, or saw a defect instead of the altar cloth? She found her priceless joy in doing everything as carefully as possible simply because this work has no meaning and ought to have none; the needlewoman is unable to stitch the meaning into the cloth – the meaning lies within the beholder. (Kierkegaard’s Journals, 1845)
We don’t really grasp how far we are nowadays from this faithful embroiderer. Just eighty-five years later, back in 1930, Virginia Woolf was already too far away. But although the modern world is full of extraordinary things – and although we enjoy forms of autonomy that none of us should imagine we could honestly want to relinquish – the compass of the soul is correspondingly narrower.
Unlike the severed wasp, the impulse to fly away has gone. But the tiny stream of jam still trickles out of the severed œsophagus. Orwell’s analogy is still potent.
We have to start there.
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