Movement and the Knights within ‘Fear and Trembling’

It is perhaps dangerous to be too assertive when giving an account of Kierkegaard. There’s a whole series of multiple meanings and possibly even the odd trap and foil for the unsuspecting, though less so than in Nietzsche. To think on from Kierkegaard, however, is to grant oneself a license to be wrong about what he said but still right in what is said. An exculpation, no doubt, but one that seems almost ‘truer’ to Kierkegaards’ thought than a slavishly accurate but effortless exegesis. Nonetheless this is an excuse even whilst it may be an exculpation.

It is with these caveats covering my back that I approach the ‘Preamble from the heart’ [Fear and Trembling: Penguin 2006, henceforth FT]. It is, to locate the exculpation within Kierkegaards’ own words, in an attempt to do some of the work so that I may get my bread with justice that this approach is made. The ‘Preamble’ is the introduction in the drama that is FT of the Knight of Resignation and the Knight of Faith within FT. We are to meet these key conceptual personae – as Deleuze would call them – as Kierkegaard attempts to conceptualise and think the problem of movement. It is how things move that is crucial to the Preamble, what it is that makes something a movement. To tighten this some, it is what makes a specific kind of movement exemplary or vital to the very notion of movement itself.

In a fluidic, oceanic ontology of becoming in which movement is the over-arching and under-lying mode of existence (which I am not saying necessarily applies to Kierkegaard) the issue of distinction, of being able to make a distinction, would revolve around picking out one kind of movement from another. To distinguish the Gulf Stream from the background water whilst living within the ocean involves some kind of encounter with the variation that makes up the stream, a variation of speed or intensity (of temperature, population, transport, colour, smell). To distinguish is to be able to select or is at least that which must be presupposed by any capacity to select. To select is what is presupposed by any notion of movement, usually conceived in terms of ‘improvement’ or transcendence but not necessitating any such notions.  To move is to be able to select one way rather than another, life rather than death, even if this life and this selective movement involves little more than a sugar gradient or light source. At its most intimate this selective process extends into us as creatures such that we might reasonable be called ‘selective creatures’ even though  selective creatures might just be what we are as a kind of ‘by-product’ of evolutionary development, a Gouldian ‘spandrel’.

Now what I am not saying, in any form shape or manner, is that this ‘problem of movement’ as I have very crudely and roughly sketched it is in any way Kierkegaards’ problem. All I want to claim is that there is an encounter with the problem of movement within FT, notably introduced through the characters of the two Knights in the ‘Preamble’ and that I want to draw on Kierkegaards’ thoughts to help think through my own problem of movement. For Kierkegaard the problem of movement is posed explicitly in terms of faith – how can he (Kierkegaard writing as Johannes Silentio) make the movement that will take him to faith? He examines the story of Abraham with this in view. Understanding – reason – is to fail him in the movement and he can see no way to utilise reason to achieve faith. Given the inefficacy of reason to produce faith it falls to passion, it would appear, to produce the final movement necessary to take us to faith (FT: 47 note).

It is this ‘double movement’ problem that is dramatised through the two Knights. The Knight of resignation is able, through reason, to reach an infinite or eternal moment but cannot transform the finite. Brute reality limits the Knight of resignation. The sheer facts of the matter are always still the same – the pauper cannot marry the princess. It is only the value that is transformed and in the unrequited love the pauper finds the joy of the eternal moment. The Knight of faith, however, can make this very same movement that the Knight of resignation makes but is also capable of something else, some other movement that enables them to come back to earth after their leap into the infinite, transforming the finite, making not just the values quiver and shift but the very facts of the real itself somehow alter their necessity.

Abraham somehow ‘knows that’ Isaac/Ishmael will not be taken from him when he slits his throat, although this is something that cannot, in any normal philosophical sense, be known.  It is neither a ‘knowing that’ nor a ‘know how’. The paradox, perhaps, lies in the peculiarity of the ‘knows that’ phrase. The repeated cry of ‘I cannot understand’ is, after all, key to the text of FT. If I cannot understand then what is it I can do? At the moment the best I can come up with is a pun, a play on words – I cannot understand but I can undergo. This, it seems, must be open to me when I approach Abraham if there is anything at all to learn from him, if he is to be the ‘father’ of anything. I must somehow be able to approach faith, the existential situation that Abraham is instantiating, and if not by understanding it then perhaps through undergoing ‘it’ (whatever that is). This undergoing cannot be assimilated to a ‘know how’ however.  This would turn faith into a skill, something to be learnt and this somehow seems inappropriate for Kierkegaard.  The Knight of Faith seems to just be able to take a particular stance towards the world, as though the capacity of this character is that which is crucial.  How are we to learn to be faithful?

I’m not sure I care enough about faith to want to pursue it. To this end I find it strange to still be fascinated by FT, almost more fascinated by this text than by any other. There is a sympathy for something within this struggle of the text that is compelling but it isn’t the struggle for faith, rather it’s this struggle to ‘undergo’. Quite what is being undergone is still unclear, though I increasingly think it’s the struggle to undergo thought itself. Kierkegaard/Silentio identifies what it is he cannot do in a number of ways, one of which is striking -“to exist in such a way that my opposition to existence expresses itself every instant as the most beautiful and safest harmony, that I cannot” (FT: 57). This definition is that of a thinker, that of the philosopher understood not as a technician of reason but rather as the purveyor of ‘resistant thought’ (something I explore at more depth elsewhere, suffice to say that it develops from a reading of Deleuze’s claim that ‘all philosophy begins with misosophy’ in his book ‘Difference and Repetition’). At one point in the ‘Preamble’ Kierkegaard says “For my own part I don’t lack the courage to think a thought whole.  No thought has frightened me so far” (FN: 31)  He then goes on to say that if he did come across such a thought that he couldn’t think he would hope he had the courage to confess his lack, to confess that the thought ‘stirs’ in him a fear.  As evidence of his courage he says that “if I had conceded that Abraham was a murderer, I am not sure I would have been able to silence my reverence of him“.

This prompts the question of what the work is.  It seems at first that it is a work of faith that Silentio is calling for but there is no instruction on how to do this work, there is no pedagogy of faith within FT.  Instead there is a pedagogy of thought, of the depth and implication of the existence of faith for thought.  It is thought that must do the work, it is thought that finds itself unable to understand and it is this situation of thought that seems to both articulate the necessarily doubled infinite movement of the Knight of Faith and claim that it can go no further and something else must now lead the way – that ‘something else’ being passion, not faith.  It is a work of passion to reach faith, but a work of passion that is forced by thought.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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