LESSONS IN SACRED OBSTETRICS
A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.
– “A,” Either/Or
The soul is sick. She moans, trembles and sweats. Look! she is stumbling, white as death. She can no longer stay on her feet but falls to her back and cries out in agony.
Those who care scramble about. They seek help—but who can help her? What is it she needs? “A doctor!” calls one. “A therapist!” another. “A real job! A real job!” cry her parents and her desperate, respectable friends. “More!” cries a Salesman, assured she needs saving. “Repent!” thin men agree, “and be saved!” “Our healthcare system has failed her!” picket the zealous. “She’s fading! She’s fading!”
“She’s pregnant.” (But none of the frantic hear.) An old woman, old as leaves, has recognized of what she truly stands in need: a midwife.
But, could it be? All this—the crowd-conformity, the crass consumerism, the spoiling of the seas, the felling of the woods, the brutalism of our tastes, our bleakest nihilism—all these have been but…birth pangs? A greater world gestates! Something Most Wonderful is being knit inside…
The soul is pregnant with God.
But who is it can deliver Him? Where is the midwife? Without one, both will die. Who has experience in such vital exploits? A rare set of skills is called for, to be sure. Audacity, obviously, but also precision, poise. Fingers sensitive to the pulse of the times. For many imminent dangers face this Nativity. Look! There, flanking the soul in labor, ready to devour the Child as soon as It is born: the beast of superficiality, and the dragon, irony.
Fortunately, our midwife has been gestating too—developing through the dialectical labor of Centuries. Indeed, in the nineteenth century “the child leaped in her womb,” and the voice was heard of one crying out in the wilderness, “Either/Or!” What pseudonym shall we give this incarnation of the midwife? Not “Yahweh-Is-My-God” (‘Elijah’), for he is no Jewish prophet; nor “Yahweh-Is-Gracious” (‘John’ [fittingly, from Latin from Greek from Hebrew]), for he is not Christ’s preface either. No, he is, most appropriately, the repetition of that repetition, whose bold project “amounts to neither more nor less than wanting to introduce Christianity again.” In that endeavor, he would fail; but he would indeed pave a Way as he stood at the crossroads of epochs. He, with another prophet of the century, would stand before the altar of God. “God is dead!” cried the Witness beside him; “Long live God!” he cries. And so his name shall be “Kierkegaard,” for he is both “Graveyard” and “Church-Farm,” simultaneously cemetery of old idols and fallow soil for new cults. “That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die,” and the God of the past must perish for the soul to give birth to God. Kierkegaard—dialectic even in name.
So, call in that midwife! There’s much he will need to teach us if we are to bring God safely into the world, today, in our town time…
SUPERFICIAL IMMEDIACY AND IRONIC REFLECTION
A man sits on a couch, watching an episode of his favorite television show. He isn’t creating something beautiful, considering the sacredness of growing things, imagining the sublime possibilities of God. No, he is completely enraptured by his screen. For as long as it has his attention, it has it utterly and completely.
Oh…but the show has ended.
No worry! He presses a button and another comes on right after!
Now, he isn’t thinking about creating something beautiful, considering the sacredness of growing things, imagining the sublime possibilities of God. No, he is completely enraptured by his screen…
This is superficial immediacy.
Wait…who said that? You turn, and see a security guard with his finger to his lips. “Not so close, please,” he warns a couple who have leaned against the man’s couch. You look at the wall and read the plaque: “MAN WATCHING TV.” The artist’s statement is full of words like “disjuncture,” “recontexting,” and “problematize.”
But this “piece” isn’t creating something beautiful, considering the sacredness of growing things, imagining the sublime possibilities of God. No, it is critiquing the superficial immediacy of that man.
This is ironic reflection.
(Not again!?) You turn, and see a different security guard. “Not so close,” he warns a couple taking a picture of the first security guard. You look at the other wall and read the plaque: “AT THE ART GALLERY: EXHIBIT: MAN WATCHING TV.”
But the artist’s statement is essentially unchanged, full of words like “disjuncture,” “recontexting,” and “problematize.” This “piece” isn’t creating something beautiful, considering… —No, it is critiquing the superficial immediacy of the art gallery!
This is still ironic reflection.
Ironic reflection, you then realize, has no end.
It is infinite…
Churchfarm, too, faced these demons, faced them in their inchoate phases. What we today know as “the shopper,” the middle-class “consumer” (our dear friend on his couch), was, in Churchfarm’s time, not fully realized. He still had the tinsel of religion dangling off him (even if Christmasses were over). Still, there he is: the bourgeois Philistine! (embodiment of unreflective immediacy). “[Kierkegaard] called them ‘Philistines’ [spidsborgers],” writes scholar of philosophy M. Holmes Hartshorne talking about those embodiments of superficial immediacy, whose “essential character…is an unconscious reflection of society’s values and prejudices, i.e., of everything which his contemporaries take for granted, without his giving a single thought to the basis of these beliefs.” The Philistine thus lives in a state of immediacy, not reflective enough to consider his existence to the point of seeking some spiritual depth or self-actualization, not skeptical enough to see and so correct the wrongs of his society.
However, simply waking him from this superficial stupor does not solve his problem—rather, it generates a new one: ironic reflection. Hartshorne again:
When the Philistine discovers that his values and decisions and his life’s purpose are determined not by his choice but by the relative and accidental character of prevailing patterns of society, he becomes disillusioned. Everything tends to become for him a matter of indifference, because no choice, no decision is finally his; it only appears to be and so is empty of self and of meaning. Because his values and duties have no absolute status in reality, not even in the reality of his own nature, they are threatened with meaninglessness. Nothing any longer is taken seriously.
With the disillusionment of existential thought, the Philistine will probably transform into the reflective “aesthete,” that is, the shrugging hipster, the po-mo nihilist, our dear artist of the above “conceptual art piece.” “For the aesthete,” says Hartshorne, “values have no relevance, because they have no objective status, no ontological reality. …The aesthete perceives the folly of being constrained by any values whatever.” Thus, woken to the harsh truth that the superficially-immediate world (in which so much of contemporary society lives and breathes and has its being) is shallow, empty, and destructive, yet unable to posit anything more valid in its place, the reflective aesthete can only show Caliban the mirror, ironically reflecting the monster he cannot cure of ugliness.
This approach is as old as irony itself—which is to say, as old as Socrates: the “midwife” of philosophy. Socrates, by assuming an ironic ignorance, prompted his interlocutors to reflect on the established order and thereby expose the fundamental arbitrariness and absurdity of its unquestioned values. And yet, after demolishing the order, what was to be reconstructed with any sense of confidence? “Irony has here a dismantling or destructive function,” writes Nassim Bravo Jordán on Kierkegaard’s ironic inheritance from that old gadfly:
Socrates destroys the validity of the prevailing culture and system of beliefs, but does not provide anything else in place of the lost actuality. In this sense, Socrates was ‘purely negative.’ …As Socrates revealed the inadequacy of the established order and gave no other solution to cover for the loss, he brought the individual subject to a state of isolation where he was left alone to himself. …Now the subject had to turn his gaze into his own inner self and look for an answer that the given actuality could no longer provide.
For Graveyard—attempting to kill the illusory God of ‘Christendom’ in order to deliver his own Christian God—reflective irony is key precisely to isolate the “single individual” in this way. Only once we’ve gotten him alone with his subjectivity can he leave the superficial immediacy of crowd-Philistinism and begin his spiritual ascent. “[J]ust as philosophy begins with doubt,” K writes, “so also a life that may be called human begins with irony.” Thus, in his cartography of the spiritual ascent, the ironist occupies a necessary liminal space between sensual immediacy and the ethical realm that begins with reflection.
But what if, after the established order is undermined, one becomes stuck in this liminal realm of irony? Destruction and dismantling complete, what if the individual has nowhere then to turn? Worse, what if ‘the crowd’ itself becomes thus despairingly ironic? Could such a thing even occur?
Indeed, it has—in both Kierkegaard’s time, and our own. Writing in The Point of View for My Work as An Author (a kind of retrospective key to his entire authorship composed towards the end of his life), the author marvels at the Copenhagen of his day, noting how
en masse the entire population of a city, guilds, fraternities, tradespeople, people of station…they, with their families become—those thousands and thousands become (the one and only thing I would venture unconditionally to insist is impossible for them to become, especially en masse or in families)—they become ‘ironic’ with the help of a newspaper, which in turn, ironically enough, by means of an editorial staff of street-corner loafers, usurpingly dominates the fashion, and the fashion that is stipulated is—the ironic.
In such an irony-saturated scene, where all the old values are excoriated through reflection, the only real sin becomes naïveté. The punishment for this transgression: condescension—destruction of the person not through denouncement or overt rejection, no, but through a means far more insidious: by being made irrelevant.
For our dear midwife, this was precisely the strange turn of events he witnessed. “It was a demoralization that was all too terribly reminiscent of the punishment with which one of the ancient prophets in the name of the Lord threatens the Jews as the most dreadful of punishments: Boys shall judge you.” In this ironized environment, says K,
[N]o attack is so feared as that of laughter, how even the person who courageously risked his life for a stranger would not be far from betraying his father and mother if the danger was laughter, because more than any other this attack isolates the one attacked and at no point does it offer the support of pathos…
O, for the pathos of naïveté! Whether this situation represents the incipient genesis of our time’s own condition or simply an uncanny doppelganger (an experimental Petri-dish for practicing test-tube midwives in preparation for the Great Re-Birth), I don’t know. Either way, this ironized population—ironized, note, under the influence of mass media—bears a striking resemblance to our own postmodern moment, when, under the pervasive trance of television-induced irony, “the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naïveté.” Such is the analysis, anyway, of David Foster Wallace in his own prophetic essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Wallace (himself an alien of sincerity in a land of ironists), fostered, like any good midwife (or, for that matter, the [god]father to the Son of David), a Child not to be his own. He himself would not see the Promised Land of earnestness, but in a lucid and cogent argument developed over some forty pages he reveals just how saturated postmodern American culture had become with reflective irony and critical ridicule—even to the point of calling them “agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.”
The problem, it would seem, turns out to be precisely what in Socrates’ “purely negative” maieutic approach proved beneficial: the critical effect of cultural dismantling. “[I]rony,” says Wallace,
entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.
In short, the hyper-reflection of postmodernism’s deconstruction of value becomes, in lieu of some subsequent reconstruction, a culture of despairing nihilism. Though we lampoon him in our installation pieces, might we not as well become the Man on the Couch? Whereas Socratic irony led the individual to reflection and thus realization of self, a critical irony propagated by mass media and consumed by the crowd turns the crowd, ironically, reflectively ironic.
And yet…not quite—not truly reflective at all, since the critique does not isolate one with his or her own subjectivity but occurs at the level of the crowd, which, virtually by definition, cannot rise above some over-simplified, superficial “reflection” (every “deep” needs popular’s “shallow”). Still, the irony is total and implacable. For in a post-modern culture distinctly reacting against the “Modern Project,” which was essentially the second act of irony’s play—the reflection-driven construction of a better world—in such a post-modern culture, there is simply nowhere to go after irony. There can be no resolution to this cynicism, since the target of the irony is resolution itself, fulfilment, an Answer.
The result of irony so directed can only be a general malaise—a population of cynics who, because a crowd, lack the necessary reflection to recognize those social means by which they have become so cynical to rise beyond it. Meanwhile the wits recognize, but can offer no remedy.