...the specific character of despair is this: it is precisely unaware of being despair. --Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness unto Death
There is abundant chatter today about “being spiritual” but scarcely anyone believes that a person can be of troubled mind and healthy spirit. Nor can we fathom the idea that the happy wanderer, who is all smiles and has accomplished everything on his or her self-fulfillment list, is, in fact, a case of despair. But while Kierkegaard would have agreed that happiness and melancholy are mutually exclusive, he warns, “Happiness is the greatest hiding place for despair.” --Gordon Marino
I just caught this op ed by Gordon Marino in the NYT. It's kind of shocking, actually, that something like this would appear there. It seems so out of place these days. His points regarding the distinction between depression and despair are very important. A parallel distinction between 'acedia' and depression is also very well developed in Kathleen Norris's Acedia and Me. I'm not going to get into what 'acedia' means here, but it is not the same as Kierkegaard's 'despair'. They are similar, though, in this respect: they are not to be confused with clinical depression--they are conditions hazardous to one's spiritual health. In fact, as the quote above indicates, for Kierkegaard, someone in a state of despair--which is the condition of the loss of Self--could be very self-satisfied and think himself happy. Despair is not an emotional condition; it's a spiritual one.
I came of age in an era when Freud was still taken seriously, and when it wasn't shameful to admit you found Jung intriguing. But we're in a post-Freudian era now. Something happened--in the 80s or 90s?--when it became accepted conventional wisdom that the ailments of the soul were nothing more than bad brain chemistry . I was never a Freudian, but Freud, at least, when he was taken seriously, created a space in our mainstream cultural life for considering the possibility that we have souls that are in need of our care.
For Freud the soul or psyche was mostly a cauldron of sub-rational, instinctual impulses, but while I was never a Jungian, I found him interesting for finding a quasi culturally legitimate way to talk about the super-rational and transpersonal archetypes as mixed in with all the other impulses in that cauldron. That kind of thing seems to have been pushed to the periphery now. One rarely finds anything in the mainstream media that is even remotely interesting in its discussion of the spiritual life or of the care of the soul. That's why I was so surprised to see this piece in the Times.
Ernest Becker, in his book The Denial of Death, argues that Kierkegaard was talking about both the sub- and super-rational in a proto-postmodern idiom decades before both Freud and Jung. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are, in my opinion, the profounder and more honest psychologists in comparison to Freud and Jung, and each Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, in a profounder way, was a prophet pointing to two possibilities that lay before humans in what later became the postmodern age.
Let's do a bloggy comparison of the two: I admire Nietzche's cultural analysis, but find his prescription for a cure regressive. I admire Kierkegaard's cultural analysis, and see him as someone who points us to our best future. Both understood the leveling cultural forces carried by late modernity and the spirit of capitalism and how they were grinding up the human soul and churning out despairing Last Men. And both offered alternatives, which I would argue are the only alternatives to being a bread-and-circuses Last Man if one is serious about finding one. Kierkegaard's solution, if not the road less frequently taken (I think there are many 'anonymous' Kierkegaardians out there), is certainly a road much less celebrated in popular and high culture. W.H. Auden and Walker Percy were deeply influenced by Kierkegaard. What significant literary figure or thinker is alive today about whom the same could be said?
Nietzsche and, more obviously, Darwin define the cultural narrative that dominates mainstream secular thinking in our time. Darwin’s influence is better understood, but Nietzsche is no less important in terms of his significance in shaping the postmodern stream of secularist thought. When talk of Nietzsche comes up, it’s usually associated with a discussion of his idea of the uebermensch “Superman” or, and the way the Nazis appropriated it in to their bizarre ideas about the Aryan master race. While the German word uebermensch is usually translated into English as superman, it's meaning is closer to "overcoming man."
And we could point to many of the toxic ways in which Nietzsche’s philosophy, fairly or unfairly, has been adapted to justify excessively pathological behaviors. Just as there are vulgar Christians, there are vulgar Nietzscheans, and it's unfair to attribute to the eponymous founder the limitations of those who claim him as their inspiration. (Nietzsche understood that as well as anyone as in his famous quote: "In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.") Nietzsche was an honest and very serious thinker, and he was confronting a very real problem head on. He was struggling for a way to embrace transcendence in a world in which grace was an impossibility. Not possible, I'm afraid. There was only one Nietzsche, and he died in an asylum. But he deserves credit for seeing more clearly than almost anyone the nature of the problem and the importance at the 'end of an age' to find a new model of open-ended human future possibility to which late moderns could aspire that contrasted with the homogenized lumpen mass into which he thought his contemporaries were being transformed. He called this homogenized mass the Last Man.
(Digression: The problem of the Last Man is very interestingly grappled with in the unfairly maligned Francis Fukuyama book The End of History and the Last Man. Yes, that "last man". The book is not so much about the triumph of capitalism and social democracy as about asking the question: "Is that all there is to life? It's a big, big problem and nobody wants to talk about it. I given him credit for trying.)
The conflict between Superman and Last Man has had a tremendous impact on our popular culture in the way we have come to understand heroism or what the well-lived life is. It is seen, for instance, in almost every film that comes out of Hollywood since the 1960s. The protagonist, whether he’s an action hero, or the free-spirited type that for instance Jack Nicholson portrays in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, or even Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (just to take three films that randomly come to mind) is a variation of Nietzsche’s uebermensch.
Whether Nietzsche would approve of these heroes is another matter, but we understand our heroism these days in a Nietzshean idiom. He is formulaically depicted as a larger-than-life, make-up-the-rules-as-you-go-along Superman who always fights a villain who represents the repressive, conformist law of the Last Man--aka, "The System". Every plot that pits the alienated, risk-taking, bold individual against the soul-crushing ”system” is a variation on this Nietzschean theme.
The American adaptation of Nietzsche’s Superman is hardly perceived as pathological. Rather in one variation or another, he is the charismatic, passionate man. He’s in touch with his instincts, he knows what he wants, and he thinks that rules are for lesser beings, namely the Last-Man wimps who lack his boldness and initiative. In Hollywood terms you’re either a Superman or a conformist, ground down, bread-and-circuses Last Man, and if you’re a Last Man, your story is only interesting if it’s about how you find the courage to become a Superman.
(Another digression: I just saw the Mira Nair/Hilary Swank "Amelia", and it's the same old me-too-ism that shapes the least interesting part of the feminist narrative. Why do only men get to be an uebermensch? Nair's Amelia needs to be free, not caged. The animals running on the savannah--they're so free. Please. It's so cliche now, I'm amazed that anybody bothers to explore this theme. Ok. I get it. She was ahead of her time, but what a bore. It's just the story of a woman wanting to go down the dead end already explored by men who preceded her. That's a feminism devoid of the feminine, which is it's own kind of dead end.)
So the Nietzschean heroes tend to be transgressive "liberal" types who seek to overcome the restrictions of traditional morality when they appear in popular cinema, but in real life, particularly in the American political sphere, the Nietzschean hero is embraced more readily and dangerously by the political right. Right wingers like Dick Cheney see themselves as uebermenschen, and see Liberals as the contemptible promoters of a society that produces lumpen last men: Rule of law? That's for Last Men, not for me. I am a superman who creates his own reality. Ironies, of course abound, when it comes to the ways in which the lockstep, conformist, law-and-order movement conservative comes to support leaders like Cheney, who sees himself fancies himself above the law and beyond good and evil. These movement conservatives are, alas, Last Men, and they submit to the strong man, the Big Daddy, who promises them bread and circuses and to keep them safe.
But movement conservatives don't see themselves as Last Men. Rather they see themselves as players in a grandiose heroic fantasy. They see themselves as defenders of freedom, and they see Liberals as destroyers of it. Movement Conservatives, with the exception of the demagogues who cynically manipulate them, are Last Men through and through, but they project their Last Manhood onto their ideological polar opposites. One thing about Freud and Jung: they understood how projection works. And if there is one essential element of collective right-wing psychology, it's projection of dissociated negative parts of themselves to demonize those whom they perceive to be their enemies, whether they are Communists, Muslims, or Democrats. Obama is a trifecta in this respect.
So what alternative does Kierkegaard offer to either the Last Man or the Superman? Here's Marino in the NYT piece:
Though it will make the Bill Mahers of the world wince, despair according to Kierkegaard is a lack of awareness of being a self or spirit. A Freud with religious categories up his sleeves, the lyrical philosopher emphasized that the self is a slice of eternity. While depression involves heavy burdensome feelings, despair is not correlated with any particular set of emotions but is instead marked by a desire to get rid of the self, or put another way, by an unwillingness to become who you fundamentally are. This unwillingness often takes the form of flat out wanting to be someone else.
I explore this problem of Selfhood in my posts "From Outer to Inner; From Given to Chosen I and II", But here's the bottom line: The difference between Nietzsche and Kierkegaard is that the latter was open to the super-rational, the realm of grace and freedom. Nietzsche's world, for all his longing for liberation, was a closed system, a jail, the overcoming Self come to a dead end, locked in on itself, an eternity of drawn-out Groundhog Days, endless cycles of eternal return. You can argue that Nietzsche is the braver for accepting the hard truth, but to do so requires a willful rejection of so much evidence for the existence of grace.
You don't have to believe in the Christian mythos; unpacking that is graduate level work that isn't all that important in the final analysis. Just acknowledging the existence of grace is all that's required. It's Ariadne's thread, lying there right in front of us and and if one uses it as a guide it will bring him wherever he needs to go, whether with the correct intellectual understanding or not. And for some pulling on that thread might lead them to Kierkegaard who might help them make some sense of what they've got hold of, because his work is nothing if it is not primarily a phenomenology of grace. That's the only thing that explains his description of the movement out of the aesthetic, into the ethical, and ultimately into the religious. It's at the heart of his ideas about the teleological suspension of the ethical. It's why he points to Father Abraham as the paradigm of the man of grace. But the reverse is true as well: you're not going to get anywhere with Kierkegaard unless you have some basic apprehension of the basic logic of grace. His stuff will seem only to be convoluted nonsense without it.
And if the world is in fact devoid of grace, and the great tradition that bears witness to it is delusional, then Nietzsche's intuition or logic of eternal return is quite correct. But once you accept the possibility that he is not correct the world is turned upside down logic of salvation history, of interventions from outside the closed system that are designed to subvert the system from within its belly, not in the style of the Nietzchean hero, but in the style the Logos bearer--those who have Selves reconstituted in the image and likeness. Frodo Baggins is more the heroic prototype here, but for more on this, see my posts Christian Liberty and Disembedding and Theosis.