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Existentialism & Culture

We Have Spirit, Yes We Do! We Have Spirit, How ‘Bout You?

Dan Sinykin says that Kierkegaard is worried about you.

Preface: For the love of God, consider this a primer, a warm-up, a teaser, but certainly not a substitute for the work analyzed within. One is a ragtag attempt at accessible jottings about the other, which is a timeless masterpiece on the human condition. You can guess which is which.

A stranger with whom you’re having a casual conversation on, say, a short flight suggests after a few minutes of innocent banter that your life lacks something vital – literally vital, as if without this mystical something you’re a walking corpse. He suggests your living death to you subtly, not with pamphlets or Hell-threats, not in the name of any gods or religions; he maybe even less suggests than implies that you’re missing something, showing only indirect concern for your well-being. He then says, “If you buy this pretty standard understanding of what it is to be human, then, look, you’re dead on your feet.” But then, unfortunately, you discover that philosopher’s blood flows through his veins as he lectures on and on in jargon incomprehensible to the uninitiated.

Your in-flight companion may very well be Anti-Climacus, a pseudonym of Søren Kierkegaard’s, speaking to you not from the window seat (which would be frightening, as he died more than a sesquicentennial ago), but textually, from his masterful exposition, The Sickness Unto Death.

I’ll try to cut through the jargon to give you an idea of what Anti-Climacus thinks you (and I) are missing. First, he notes that we humans are more than the mere combination of our bodies and our minds. Our ability to relate to ourselves as mind-body conglomerates – our self-consciousness – makes us more. And so consciousness of ourselves presents us with our primary task: becoming ourselves. In other words, our (your and my) task is to embrace our self-consciousness by developing a concrete sense of ourselves. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Most of us aren’t doing so hot.

We can go wrong in a number of ways: well, four, actually. The self, also called spirit, is a synthesis of the finite and the infinite, as well as of necessity and possibility, and so can go too far in any of these four directions.

The finite and the infinite, as Anti-Climacus means them, are extremes of imagination. If you get carried away on the wings of imagination, you’ll end up in fantasy-land; but if you lack imagination altogether, you’ll become a company man, a face in the crowd – even to yourself. Both sides fail to embrace selfhood.

Necessity and possibility, as Anti-Climacus means them, are extremes of ambition. If you relish the realm of possibility, you may end up a daydreamer, a wish-upon-a-star maker who delegates the actualizing of your hopes to fate; but if you spend too long kicking the can with necessity, you end up either calculating every worldly probability to discover your future, or you again abandon yourself to fate, but instead of dreaming you say c’est la vie, what will be will be. Both sides, again, fail to embrace selfhood.

“So,” you ask, “if I’ve got my head out of the clouds and I’m my own person, and if I’m a realistic dreamer with plans for a good life ahead of me, then what’s Anti-Climacus got on me? What’s with all this accusatory walking death business?”

Hold on. It’s not an easy task becoming a self, and if you’re defensive that’s a good sign you’re having trouble. If so, you’re not alone. Take, for instance, the case of the world-saver, prevalent today. The world-saver is eager to save humanity, but often forgets that ‘humanity’ is only a word (a case of infinite, imaginative feeling). Or take the scholar who surrounds herself with books and other scholars inside ivory towers, whiling away the time in pursuit of worldly knowledge, forgetting that our task is in the subject of the self (this is a case of infinite knowing). Or take the big-talker – you’ve surely met a few – who gives the impression of dominance and success, but mostly just dominates impressions (a case of infinite willing). Take, for instance, the couch-potato, one of the throng of millions who live, it seems, to be entertained; or take the bureaucrat who day in and day out lives for, even as he gripes about, The Man; or take the high school student who cannot move unless he has been subsumed into one mob or another (all cases of excess finitude). (Tangentially, and remembering that for Anti-Climacus ‘spirit’ is a synonym for the self undertaking the task of selfhood, imagine the horror of the old Danish author in the stands during a high school basketball game, as he hears the chant that is the title of this article.) Or take the elementary school guidance counselor who insists that anyone can become anything he or she wants to be (excess possibility). Take the religious fundamentalist who preaches ideas that he clings to, or anyone who justifies his behavior on the grounds that “I’m going to die someday anyway.” They manage to end up in the same camp (excess necessity). Each of these types – and of course each contains its own exceptions – deserves an essay devoted to it alone. And these are just a sample of where our (your and my) task of becoming a self sails onto the shoals of difficulty.

But is Anti-Climacus right to call these types, and you and me, the living dead? Or is that accusation a bit of hyperbole? Perhaps Anti-Climacus is hyperbolic, but I also think he’s right to show us how life can be good without making it look easy. I’ll take the accusation of deadness in my soul in exchange for the higher standard to which I can look, toward a life truly lived.

© Dan Sinykin 2009

Dan Sinykin wrote this while he was a Visiting Scholar at the International Kierkegaard Library at St Olaf College, in Minnesota.

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