Total guilt

I am drawing close to the mid-way point of Kierkegaard’s writings.  Appropriately enough this coincides with Concluding Unscientific Postcript which represents a sort of culmination of his earlier writings (which he actually attempts to integrate in one section of CUP).  As I understand it this work was potentially to be  his last and subsequent works are called his ‘second authorship’ many of which reflect a more ‘concrete’ engagement with social issues.

I want to offer an extended quote here as it helped to clarify certain lingering thoughts that have surfaced in various areas of my life namely the interplay of guilt and action.  How does one reconcile (if that is the appropriate method) the call of the Gospel, the limitedness of humanity, and the unwieldy variables of life?  In many ways I find my own experience partially reflected in a heightened and intensified way through recent posts by Dan O (here and here . . . in many ways it is the comments [particularly on the second site] that capture what I am talking about).

What I find intriguing in the quote is how it forms part of Kierkegaard’s attempt to shift guilt-consciousness towards a category of ‘totality’ rather than remain in an ethical category.  To remain under the ethical is to remain under the numerical (I think I am getting this right).  To remain under the numerical is to forever have the more hanging over our head that while aimed at being life-giving tends towards death-dealing in the one desiring to be a practitioner of the Gospel.  This death comes in the externalizing of guilt-consciousness which can never be integrated directly into another individual and so becomes a law unto itself.  There is no amount of ‘good’ that will resolve this guilt.

Now perhaps Kierkegaard’s ethical and religious domains are infinitely caught up in ‘beginning’ and never become as political as people want them to be but I think he should be well heeded in also acknowledging that running furiously in the wrong direction is also not much better . . . likely worse.

The second half of this quote gets a little diluted but the first half reads well in terms of the line between much guilt and total guilt.  Particularly poignant is the line about the one bound up with happiness, by the finest thread, as it were, by the help of a possibility that continually perishes.  There is a possibility that holds us even if the possibility continually perishes.  The emphasis added belong is mine.

In the eternal recollecting of guilt-consciousness, the existing person relates himself to an eternal happiness, but not in such a way that he now has come closer to it directly; on the contrary, he is now distanced from it as much as possible, but he still relates himself to it.  The dialectical that is present here, still within immanence, creates resistance that intensifies the pathos.  In the relation that is the basis of the misrelation, in the intimated immanence that is the basis of the dialectic’s separation, he is closely bound up with happiness, by the finest thread, as it were, by the help of a possibility that continually perishes – for this reason the pathos, if it is there, is so much the stronger.

The guilt-consciousness is what is decisive, and one guilt joined together with the relation to an eternal happiness is sufficient, and yet it is true of guilt, more than of anything else, that it sows itself.  But the total guilt is what is decisive; compared with it, making oneself guilty fourteen times is child’s play – this is also why childishness always keeps to the numerical.  When, however, the consciousness of the new guilt is in turn referred to the absolute consciousness of guilt, the eternal recollecting of guilt is thereby preserved, in case the existing person should be on the point of forgetting.

If someone says that no human being can endure such an eternal recollecting of guilt, that it is bound to lead to insanity or to death, then please not who it is who is speaking, because finite common sense frequently speaks that way in order to preach indulgence.  And this way of speaking rarely fails, provided three or four people are gathered together.  I doubt that anyone in solitude has been able to deceive himself with this talk, but when a number of people are together an one hears that the others are behaving in this way, on is less embarrassed – how inhuman, also, to want to be better than others!  Once again a mask; the person who is alone with the ideal has not knowledge at all about whether he is better or worse than others.  So it is possible that this eternal recollecting can lead to madness or death.  Well, now, a human being cannot endure very long on water and bread, but then a physician can discern how to organize things for the single individual, not in such a way, please note, that he ends up living like the rich man but that the starvation diet is so carefully calculated for him that he can just stay alive.  Just because the existential pathos is not the pathos of the moment but the pathos of continuance, the existing person himself, who in pathos is indeed inspired and is not, spoiled by habit, peeking around for subterfuges, will seek to find the minimum of forgetfulness needed for enduring, since he himself is aware, of course, that the momentary is a misunderstanding.  But since it is impossible to find an absolute certainty in this dialecticizing, he will, despite all his exertion, have a guilt-consciousness, once again totally defined by his never having dared to say that, in his relation to an eternal happiness, he had done everything he was able to do in order to hold fast to the recollecting of guilt. Concluding Unscientific Postscript 535-537


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