KRSK: Self-Torment; Esthetics with Imitation Religious Gilding

Insofar as self-torment, viewed esthetically, is comic, it is, viewed religiously, reprehensible. A religious healing is accomplished not by laughter but by repentance; self torment is a sin like other sins.

But while the esthetic, precisely because it is not involved with the internal, quite generally dismisses self-torment as comic, the religious cannot do so. The religious individual’s fear is precisely fear for himself; the religious healing consists first and foremost in arousing this fear, and from this it is easy to see that here the matter becomes more difficult. But how does the individual begin to fear himself without discovering by himself the danger he is in. A sly religiousness, to be sure, acts in another way. It says, “One must not evoke the dangers oneself; our Lord will surely send them if necessary.” One may well say that, but it will never do to say “Amen” and end with that, for that kind of talk is dubious. Despite the religious phrase “Our Lord,” instead of which someone, in order to talk even more religiously, might say “Our Savior” (as if the religious consisted of certain words and phrases), the categories are nevertheless half-esthetic. Although the talk is religious, the individual is seen only in an external relationship to God, not in an interior relationship to himself. The talk amounts to this: Our Lord can certainly bring danger and misery to your house; indeed, he can take your property, your beloved, your children, and he will surely do it if it is beneficial for you–ergo, since he has not done it, then there is no danger. This is esthetics with imitation religious gilding. From a religious point of view, the greatest danger is that one does not discover, that one is not always discovering, that one is in danger, even if one otherwise had money and the most lovable girl and adorable children and was king of the country or one of the quiet ones in the land, free from all cares.

As stated, one may well say that, but one must not say “Amen” and end with that, for then one deceives. On closer inspection of the talk, this is again apparent. So, then, there is a man, a real favorite [Pamphilius] of fortune (this phrase is very appropriate to such religious talk), who is coddled and cared for and, unacquainted with danger, is edified by the thought that Our Lord will surely . . . . . if . . . . .. What a lucky esthete, who in addition to all the Heiterkeit [serenity] of the esthetic has a religious safe-conduct document! But to begin with, everyone has something called imagination. So our lucky fellow hears rumors of sufferings and misery in the world! Well, he is ready and willing to give and is praised for it. But imagination is not satisfied with that. It paints for him a horrible picture of suffering, and when it is most shocking, the thought strikes him and a voice says: It could indeed happen to you also. If there is any knightly blood in him, he says: Why should I be exempt in preference to others. (Tieck has treated this somewhere in a short story in which a rich young man despairs over his wealth, not because of spleen but because of his sympathy for mankind.) Of this the talk says nothing at all, and yet here is the dividing line between the esthetic callousness that does not want to know that it exists and the religious elevation through suffering. That there is a crossroad such that one cannot buy exemption by paying the welfare tax and giving a bit more–about this nothing at all is said; our Pamphilius would be happy until Our Lord, when it was found necessary, sent danger. What is the speaker doing here? He is deceiving. Instead of taking him out into danger, he is helping him by way of religious fancy to play hooky from life. Any attempt to clog up receptivity to the fact that one is in danger is esthetic deviation–callousness–not toward poetry, but toward the esthetic, as it manifests itself in relation to actuality.

S. Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way, Hong translation, p. 468-9.

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