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A rather unpleasant novel I just finished (Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander, the same author, I believe, of the twisted Holocaust Survival Tips for Kids) has again brought to my mind the dialectic discussed by Kierkegaard in his above famous work (The Sickness Unto Death). It has been a while since I read it, so I feel I need to re-read it in light of various recent thoughts. In super brief formulation as I recall it, Kierkegaard describes how the inability to accept one’s own nature before God results in various forms of existential angst or despair, either wishing one was something else, or wishing one not what one was. This leads to guilt about things for which one ought not to feel guilty, and lack of guilt for things for which one ought to feel guilt. The reason the above novel brought this to mind is the protagonist there is dealing with vicarious forms of (false) guilt: guilt for not suffering, guilt for surviving, etc. More importantly, as the title indicates, the story plays with the idea that hope is fatal, a sort of inverted self-fulfilling prophecy. At the same time as I was reading this novel, for work I was reading the theories of Harold Innis, who believed that cultures/civilizations flourished most just as they were about to experience collapse (and that there is a causal link between flourishing and collapse, or collapse and flourishing). He even quoted Kierkegaard’s nemesis Hegel to this effect (using, incidentally, the rather lyric quote “Minerva’s owl takes flight in the setting dusk…”).  This is rather similar in idea to the one in the novel: that success creates disaster. It is almost a secularized version of the Hellenistic hubris-theology.

The reason these made me contemplate the above work again is the way they deal with anxiety and despair: both see sources of despair in places where it would not appear to belong, but neither seems to see any way of avoiding such. They are almost even bleaker than Camus’s cosmic F-you; at least Camus was willing to make the effort heroic. It strikes me the problem is one of relations/dialectic: in Kierkegaard’s terms, of being able to relate oneself to oneself properly, and to related oneself to ultimate reality (God, good, and evil, and other people).

 

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