The Despair Beyond Despair: Soren Kierkegaard On The Sickness of the Self

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”

—Soren Kierkegaard, Fear & Trembling

Soren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness unto Death was one of those books I loved to hate in college, and yet it had this uncanny way of insinuating itself into one’s life like a nightmare that just want go away. Here’s Kierkegaard describing the very reason we despair:

“The reason for this is that to despair is a qualification of spirit and relates to the eternal in man. But he cannot rid himself of the eternal—no, never in all eternity. He cannot throw it away once and for all, nothing is more impossible; at any moment that he does not have it, he must have thrown it or is throwing it away—but it comes again, that is, every moment he is in despair he is bringing his despair upon himself. For despair is not attributable to the misrelation but to the relation that relates itself to itself. A person cannot rid himself of the relation to himself any more than he can rid himself of his self, which, after all, is one and the same thing, since the self is the relation to oneself.”

One almost thinks that Kierkegaard in seeking to rid himself of himself must’ve spiraled down into that sinkhole of absolute despair when he realized just how impossible it was, an impossibility he’d spend his entire writing life pursuing. It’s always amazing as I read these various histories of philosophy on pessimism, and not one of them ever mentions Kierkegaard. They assume that because he proclaims himself a Christian that he was, and therefore could not be a pessimist; and, yet, after a lifetime of reading him I’ve always seen his proclamations of being a Christian as a fiction he wanted to believe, but knew deep down he could never attain. (Kierkegaardian scholars will argue this point…). Not being either a philosopher nor scholar it doesn’t much matter to me what either say of him to me, being an autodidact I have learned from my own inheritance of close reading from Samuel Johnson and every literary critic worth his salt to follow my own nose in this matter.

Now we can return to Kierkegaard on the sickness from which there is no reprieve. Just listen,

the torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus it has more in common with the situation of a mortally ill person when he lies struggling with death and yet cannot die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life; but when we learn to know the even greater danger, we hope for death. When the danger is so great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.

One imagines Nietzsche saying to himself if he’d ever read this passage (There’s no evidence that Nietzsche read Kierkegaard; the latter had not been translated into German. However, there is strong evidence that Nietzsche knew of Kierkegaard through the secondary literature; furthermore, Georges Brandes was a clear link between the two of them.). For Nietzsche the great horror was the very notion of an eternal return, a return to the same life lived over and over and over for eternity: amor fati.  As a heroic pessimist Nietzsche wanted to enforce this circular hopelessness as an ultimate form of bittersweet joy; a convoluted hope of the dammed. Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard attacked the earthly institutions of Christianity. Nietzsche would opt for a different savior: Dionysus vs. The Crucified. Kierkegaard affirmed a subjective Christ unlike any before or since: a sort of singular savior whose gospel was release from this terrible burden of eternal life. Both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard saw consciousness itself as the horror or horrors.

Thomas Ligotti never mentions Kierkegaard in his non-fiction work on Pessimism The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. I’ve often wondered why this is. Rereading some to the notes by Matt Cardin on his own site, The Teeming Brain, I came across a post dealing with Kierkegaard in his blog archives: Today we “medicate” anxiety, but for Kierkegaard it was central to being human. In it he quotes philosopher Gordon Marino on Kierkegaard,

It was because of this virtuoso of the inner life that other members of the Socrates guild, such as Heidegger and Sartre, could begin to philosophize about angst. Though he was a genius of the intellectual high wire, Kierkegaard was a philosopher who wrote from experience. And that experience included considerable acquaintance with the chronic, disquieting feeling that something not so good was about to happen. In one journal entry, he wrote, “All existence makes me anxious, from the smallest fly to the mysteries of the Incarnation; the whole thing is inexplicable, I most of all; to me all existence is infected, I most of all. My distress is enormous, boundless; no one knows it except God in heaven, and he will not console me…”

This sense of being alone, solitary, cut off from others and living in a state of angst – an agitated consciousness of a horror one cannot know or see that is pervading one’s whole being from the Outside in, producing a feeling of apprehension and dread, nauseous and doom-ridden as if one were being strangled in a dark malaise. For Kierkegaard it was our very freedom that produced such anxiety, a sense of being alone and cut off from both God and Man. But what is this freedom but the knowledge and awareness of one’s self-relation, a self-relation to the nothingness of one’s self and God and Others. The circle of despair begins and ends in this self-relating nothingness that cannot escape the torments and anxiety of its own nihl. As Kierkegaard puts it:

…despair is veritably a self-consuming, but an impotent self-consuming that cannot do what it wants to do. What it wants to do is to consume itself, something it cannot do, and this impotence is a new form of self-consuming, in which despair is once again unable to do what it wants to do, to consume itself; this is an intensification, or the law of intensification. This is the provocativeness or the cold fire in despair, this gnawing that burrows deeper and deeper in impotent self-consuming. The inability of despair to consume him is so remote from being any kind of comfort to the person in despair that it is the very opposite. This comfort is precisely the torment, is precisely what keeps the gnawing alive and keeps life in the gnawing, for it is precisely over this that he despairs (not as having despaired): that he cannot consume himself, cannot get rid of himself, cannot reduce himself to nothing. This is the formula for despair raised to a higher power, the rising fever in this sickness of the self.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s