Once upon a time there was a man who as a child had heard that beautiful story of how God tempted Abraham and of how Abraham withstood the temptation, kept the faith, and, contrary to expectation, got a son a second time. When he grew older, he read the same story with even greater admiration, for life had fractured what had been united in the pious simplicity of the child. The older he became, the more often his thoughts turned to that story; his enthusiasm for it became greater and greater, and yet he could understand the story less and less. Finally, he forgot everything else because of it; his soul had but one wish, to see Abraham, but one longing, to have witnessed that event…. His wish was to be present in that hour when Abraham raised his eyes and saw Mount Moriah in the distance, the hour when he left the asses behind and went up the mountain alone with Isaac— for what occupied him was not the beautiful tapestry of imagination but the shudder of the idea.Søren Kierkegaard as Johannes de Silentio, Fear and Trembling, Exordium; Hong/Hong 1983 ed.
I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, but I’ve always been too intimidated to just sit down and read it by myself. I’ve listened to several lectures available on Youtube, and taken a mooc on Kierkegaard’s use of Socratic irony, but reading the book itself always felt like biting off way more than I could chew. Until now.
This is, for me, the greatest value of The Catherine Project. Through their small Reading Groups held on Zoom, I was able to overcome that intimidation and finally read the actual text. And yet again I realized there’s no substitution for reading the source material; a lot of the supposedly explanatory material made a lot more sense after I read what it was explaining.
It’s impossible to give a “nutshell” description of the book, but there are certain qualities and expressions that are more common than others. It’s an exploration of faith, using Abraham’s Binding of Isaac (the almost-sacrifice on Mount Moriah) as an exemplar. Kierkegaard wrote it using one of his pseudonymous personas: Johannes de Silentio. Scholars consider two major reasons for this approach: first, he wanted the book, which was intended to stir his fellow Danes to wonder if they truly had faith in his sense of the word, and felt it would be best to come from someone who admitted he does not, in fact, have Abraham’s type of faith, and wanted to understand it. Second, he didn’t want his own background, academic and personal, to interfere with the text. He’d ended his long engagement to a woman and there are those who feel he referred to this in places throughout the text, particularly in the “weaning” examples. And he was a vocal opponent of contemporary philosophers like Hegel and Martinson, as well as the Danish Lutheran church. The book is often viewed as a challenge to encourage members of the church to examine their own faith.
De Silentio describes three spheres of existence (which Kierkegaard discusses in other works as well): the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious, in order of increasing difficulty and impact. He’s concerned mostly with the movement – a loaded term – from the ethical/universal to the religious/absolute, via the comparison of the Knight of Infinite Regression and the Knight of Faith. While Abraham is the exemplar of the Knight of Faith, de Selentio uses many examples from literature, myth, and scripture to show how he moves from one stance to the other. Among the most complicated and hard-to-understand (for me, at least) aspects of the text, he describes the absurdity and paradox, as well as anxiety (the fear and trembling) of faith, both of whihc it difficult to reach. Then there’s the idea of the inability to communicate the experience of faith – why Abraham could not explain himself to Isaac – which plays with the persona’s name of de Silentio.
This was my second full-length (10 weeks) reading group with the Catherine Project. For my first round, I chose a short story reading group, something in my wheelhouse. Having gotten my feet wet, I felt I was ready for a more challenging project, and this was certainly that. Each week covered a page span in the book, generally about fifteen pages, sometimes more, sometimes less. It’s surprising how dense fifteen pages can be.
It was a difficult study, but a highly worthwhile one. In a traditional class, there’s a tendency to read passages, maybe chapters, and hear a lecture explaining what it all means. That’s fine, but this process of reading a confusing book, along with others who have different interpretations and viewpoints, reading every word, sometimes concentrating on one sentence for a considerable period of time, is quite something.
This word-by-word reading in a group setting, while it isn’t fast and it isn’t easy, really has its benefits. At one point, someone mentioned that “passion” has its root in the word for suffering, which had quite an impact on de Silentio’s praise of passion. The difference between active and passive voice describing two similar moments also made a difference. One reader wondered if the Virgin Mary could have been used as an exemplar, parallel to Abraham. We all wondered about the significance of the passages on weaning, which seem to be somewhat incongruous. Several of us felt Abraham set a terrifying example of a slippery slope, the use of the Voice of God to excuse horrific deeds. To be fair, de Silentio deals with this in the text, but not to my satisfaction (cheeky of me, but there it is).
One reader gave us an amazing metaphor using Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting “The Creation of Adam”: [paraphrasing] There’s a space, like in the painting – you’re constantly reaching, you can’t fully touch God, but as long as you’re reaching, you’re the Knight of Faith; if you give up you’re the Knight of Resignation.” Another mentioned that the reply Abraham gives several times in the story – “Here I am” – is something of an echo of the name of God, Yawhew, “I am.” These are insights that aren’t found in scholarly commentaries; they probably wouldn’t come up in a traditional class, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought of them on my own.
So what was so hard about it?
The book itself was structurally confusing. Aside from the Preface, sections had Latinate titles and didn’t conform to the general structure of a contemporary textbook: after the Preface, four alternate versions of the Abraham story made up the second section (it wasn’t clear until later that these were examples of Abrahams who had not made the movement to faith), followed by a Eulogy of Abraham, and then a section, with its own preamble advocating the value of working to achieve understanding (thanks, Kierkegaard), of three Problemata, each asking a different question: Is there a teleological suspension of the ethical? Is there an absolute duty to God? Was it ethical for Abraham to conceal his mission from Sarah and Isaac? A brief Epilogue closed out the text.
Then there was the language of the text. Extending my cheekiness, I’ve said numerous times, Kierkegaard needed 1) and editor and 2) a glossary. Words I thought I knew – universal, absolute, mediated, paradox, absurd, movement – were being used in specific ways that seemed baffling. Other works were used as examples. Some were vaguely familiar to me – Goethe’s Faust, the legend of Agamemnon and Iphigenia – and some were completely new to me – Agnes and the Merman, the apocryphal book of Tobit.
Even the physical book itself confused me. The edition we used combined F&T with another work, Repetition, as well as Supplement materials (journals, drafts) and End Notes tucked as far away from the notations as possible. I ended up copying the PDF into a Word document so I could bring the end notes to the side of the passages quoted, instead of flipping through trying to find them and then forgetting what the number was, what the page was, and, ultimately, what the passage was that was being addressed. Though ridiculously time-consuming, it helped, not just with understanding the Notes but as a preview of the material. I also found putting homemade tabs on the sections helped, letting me flip more easily between text and notes and supplement.
I struggled a bit with the group sessions themselves, though I became far more comfortable as time went on. Most of it was my confusion over the text and its meaning, and my general intimidation. I’m also not very good at speaking – I get confused, re-start, jump over ends of sentences, and now I find my voice itself is starting to crumble – and tend to stay quiet. Each reading group is run differently, and this one used the “just speak up” method of conversation management rather than the “raise hand” feature; I find it hard to just start talking, afraid someone else will start talking at the same moment. And of course that happens a lot, to everyone, and it’s no big deal. Given the group was small – ten to fourteen people initially, whittling down to six to eight by the end – it was perfectly manageable, so this is something I need to adjust to if I’m going to participate in Zoom meetings, as it seems I am on several fronts. I got better at it over time.
One other personal quirk haunted me. The Catherine Project has only one real rule for these groups: discussions must stick to the text at hand. Quoting commentaries or moocs about the text is discouraged. No bringing in other works that have similar themes and methods. It’s interesting that this parallels my short story blogging with my buddy Jake Weber; he adheres strictly to ‘the story must stand on its own’ while I research some stories to death. I pretty much think by forming these networks, and I realized how my own interpretation is often buried under what others with more insight have said. I still look for hard-and-fast answers, and in a lot of philosophical works, it’s more about different interpretations than about one correct view. So this is a good challenge for me, to develop a different kind of reading technique. Maybe I’ll try it when Jake and I take on the next BASS.
I did, towards the end of the reading, obtain a couple of commentaries (one by Clare Carlisle for Reader’s Guides and one by John Lippitt for Routledge Guidebooks). I have to emphasize, however, that these would not have made sense to me, any more than the lectures and classes I found piecemeal, without having read the original text, sentence by sentence, word by word, and had the benefit of the ideas of ten or twelve other people to increase my understanding in the first place.
I had another interesting experience as the result of this group. A few years ago, as part of my “Re-reading Project” to take another look at books I’d read long ago and see if they read differently now, I re-read Wilton Barnhardt’s Gospel. I thought I recognized Kierkegaard in the novel. Having read this text, I felt even more strongly that there was some influence. I contacted the author and he agreed, Kierkegaard had been a factor, though the Pragmatists were probably more prominent. I was delighted to have recognized something in the wild.
The group leader will be continuing with Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death in the summer session. While I’d like to continue with this group, I’m not sure if I want to continue studying Kierkegaard, or get a taste of something else. I also found the time of the group meeting – noon on Thursdays – to be unusually disruptive to me; I do much better with evening groups, though I’ll certainly manage it if the lure is strong enough.
I continue to be impressed with the Catherine Project, and grateful for the opportunity to study works that have always seemed unreachable. I’m eager to start the Summer session; the offerings will be available early in April for those interested in trying this style of learning.