Monday, July 28, 2008

Judge Vilhelm Replies

I've been reading noted literary critic James Wood's first and only novel, The Book Against God and am enjoying it as much as I enjoy his criticism in The New Yorker. It's the story of Thomas Bunting, who's a seventh-year PhD student in philosophy who can't finish his dissertation because of a much more pressing and elaborate project, the Book Against God, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

I'm not too far into the novel just yet, but I suspect what we've got here is a portrait of the Kierkegaardian religious sphere removed from believe in God. (I doubt Wood, who I think is an atheist, intended such a meaning, but thank the Lord or evolution for the Death of the Author.) Thomas Bunting is, in my early analysis, a sociopath, a man who lies compulsively and feels no remorse, who can't find a philosophical difference "between lying to one's wife and lying to a corporation." This statement horrified me at first, but upon further analysis, it's akin to what I was taught growing up in a Southern Baptist church: No hierarchy of sins exists, and theologically if not practically, they are all the same. (I am interested to know if other brands of Christianity teach such an idea.) At any rate, Thomas ends up as a moral absolutist of sorts, even though he rejects morality.

So it makes sense that he describes Nietzsche as "one of my favorite philosophers," since his views echo the German's, specificially the essay "On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense." Nietzsche, a consummate atheist, argues that since consciousness "has no further mission that might extend beyond the bounds of human life," truth is
A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjective to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration, and which, after they have been in use for a long time, strike people as firmly established, canonical, and binding; truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions.
Morality is therefore irrelevant to Nietzsche, and the prohibition against lying is a social construction and has no intrinsic value.

(I've often said that Nietzsche is the atheist I respect the most because he is the one who is unafraid to face directly the logical conclusion of materialism, that is, that there is no such thing as right and wrong or as value. We have no reason to do "the right thing," and further, we have no grounds on which to condemn anyone for doing something we find horrifying.)

Wood's book has value not just on its own terms, then, but because of what it suggests about Nietzsche, i.e., that he exists in the religious sphere without belief in God. But first: What on earth do I mean by the religious sphere? I wrote my thesis using this schema, so please bear with me as I ramble on . . .

Kierkegaard posits three spheres of existence, each of which telescopes and contains the one that precedes it. He does so chiefly in three books: Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, and Stages on Life's Way. The first sphere, the sphere in which most of us exist, is the aesthetic. The aesthete defines himself entirely by himself. He lives in his own head and has little genuine connection to the outside world. His relationships are thus necessarily strained, and indeed, the aesthetic resembles what Heidegger would later call the being-against-one-another (exactly what it sounds like). The aesthete believes himself to be happy but is deeply alienated--his sole goal in life is pleasure and more specifically, to avoid boredom, which after all is "the root of all evil."

A person enters the ethical sphere when he commits to a particular idea or theory, when he attaches himself to something outside of himself. Kierkegaard's example is of marriage, but the ethical could be any belief system--most religious folks are in the ethical sphere rather than the religious. (We shall see why in just a moment.) Walker Percy says that the great ethicists of our age are the artist and the scientist, and he suggests that both of them are in quiet despair, especially the artist. Reason and logic also belong to the ethical sphere.

The religious sphere is entered only when a person lays aside the ethical sphere in what Kierkegaard calls a "teleological suspension of the ethical" (later theologians would call it the "leap of faith," a term which Mr. K never uses). Kierkegaard's famous example is Abraham, who turned his back on the laws of society when God told him to sacrifice his son. One lays aside the ethical not to serve oneself but to serve God, and it's very important that this is not a teleological abandoning of the ethical but merely a suspension--Abraham is a knight of faith not because he was willing to sacrifice his son but because he knew that God would restore him. The religious sphere is a realm of pure subjectivity, and a person is enthralled only to God. Not very many people make it, and Kierkegaard says nothing, as far as I know, about what a person stuck in the religious with no belief in God would look like.

But I think Wood gives us just that, and here's why: Thomas Bunting's wife dislikes people "for only two reasons: it's either something murkily musical, or something elusively ethical." But he is unable to understand her system of demerits and demotion, and this failure to understand suggests a failure to understand both the aesthetic and the ethical. (The reasons for the ethical should be obvious, but Kierkegaard suggests that music belongs to the aesthetic sphere.) With those two spheres eliminated, Thomas has only one place to live, the religious, and given his affinity for Nietzschean thought, I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that Nietzsche, too, exists in this sphere.

This connection explains the similarities between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche--I have often said that their ideas are basically the same, although they start from opposite places. They may meet here in the religious sphere, even if Nietzsche is unaware of it.

1 comment:

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

This statement horrified me at first, but upon further analysis, it's akin to what I was taught growing up in a Southern Baptist church: No hierarchy of sins exists, and theologically if not practically, they are all the same. (I am interested to know if other brands of Christianity teach such an idea.)

I've found that youth-minister-types (they're the ones who most often deploy this trope, in my experience) fold like three dollar chairs if you press 'em on the logical implications of such a thing. It's a handy little riff to get fourteen-year-olds into the baptistery, but it doesn't hold up even to an amateur Socrates like myself.