Reading Kierkegaard’s Fear & Trembling with the Catherine Project [IBR2023]

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.

The Catherine Project, Fall 2022: Short Stories, Montaigne, and a Town Hall

Anyone may study with us who wishes to learn and who has the basic skills necessary for serious reading and conversation. Our conversations are open-ended and not guided toward particular conclusions. Our students, or readers, are understood to be motivated by their own questions. No one’s inability to pay or inability to travel ought to be an obstacle to their opportunities to learn.
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We read books of richness, depth, and lasting value that bear repeated re-readings. Such books teach readers at all levels of preparation, and they level the distance between the teacher and the learner so as to encourage collaboration. With a book as a teacher, each reader develops the ability to inquire in depth and to evaluate evidence by his or her own lights.

The Catherine Project: Principles

Last summer, I read Lost In Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life by Zena Hitz. I’m not sure of the exact path I took, but somehow I ended up discovering The Catherine Project, a learning community Hitz began two years ago. I’ve been assuming it was mentioned in the book, but I don’t see it anywhere; I must’ve run across it while researching the author. In any case, it was a fortuitous find. I just completed my first Reading Group, as well as a one-off Seminar, and attended a Town Hall. Let me tell you about it…

When I looked at the list of Fall 2022 offerings, I was overwhelmed: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Chaucer, Flannery O’Connor, Dickens, TS Eliot, Njals Saga, Foucault, Shakespeare, Zhuangzi, Greek and Latin… I wanted to take them all! Small-group tutorials with required homework; less rigorous reading groups involving discussion of the text at hand; subject classes for concentrated study. All free, all online! I thought I was hallucinating. I’ve been pretty disenchanted with moocs for a while now, as they focus on selling certificates for job skills and move away from humanities and basic sciences, and leave behind the community of the cohort for a more drop-in-any-time approach. But now, here was thousands of years of literature and philosophy at my fingertips!

I decided to play it safe: for my first venture, I’d take the eight-week-long Short Stories reading group meeting for 90 minutes on Tuesday evenings using The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. I knew I’d be reading BASS at the same time, but I figured I could slow that down if necessary.

The details arrived a few weeks before the group started. We’d be reading two stories a week, with Prof. Andrew Piper of McGill University as our facilitator. I’d only read two of them before, so I was looking forward to fleshing out my short story background.

I was a little nervous. I can write up a storm, but I have trouble speaking, often lapsing into near-incoherence when my brain thinks faster than my mouth gets the words out, or, in the other direction, I suddenly have no idea where I am and my train of thought comes to an abrupt stop. I was also a bit concerned about Zoom: I’d already been kicked out of one library-based reading group because I don’t have a functional webcam (though by the time I put on my headlamp to light the book, my headset to hear and be heard, my hat to keep warm, and wrap myself up in what might charitably be called loungewear, it isn’t like anyone would recognize me anyway). Would this be a problem? As it turned out, no one seemed to mind on either account.

The desire to learn for its own sake is the primary engine of our work. Accordingly, we prize amateurism. Tutors learn along with our readers and therefore often teach outside of their fields of specialty.
We find that conversation is the best way to cultivate free and independent learners. Conversation and reading are the primary vehicles of the learning we offer: writing assignments are subsidiary. Essays help the reader to think and help to focus the conversations that result from it.
Our courses help readers to develop as free inquirers. We seek to support independent learners, but we also seek to nurture autodidacts: self-directed, courageous, and honest pursuers of learning in all walks of life.

The Catherine Project: Principles

The group started out with about twelve readers, though that dwindled a bit to six or eight core members over time. In the first session we gave brief introductions. Some readers were students or had a literary  background, others were more casual readers. I was one of the older readers but there was a wide range.

We’d spend half the session on one story, then move on to the next at the 45 minute mark. Prof. Piper would start by asking what people thought of the story under consideration, and we’d go where that took us. He’d put in comments here and there, adding to our impressions and giving us approaches that could be used for other stories:

  • How is the author directing our attention, and to what?
  • Who’s telling the story, and why; who is the main character, is it the narrator?
  • How is time – narrative time, elapsed time – used in the story, where does it speed up or slow down?
  • Are expectations met or thwarted? How do we as readers react to ambiguity?
  • And a question that still stays with me – why are so many stories about suffering? Is it a matter of selection – they’re seen as serious, so they get anthologized – or is it intrinsic to storytelling?

I greatly enjoyed having real-time feedback on stories I didn’t quite grasp; it’s a lot different from me blogging BASS here and Jake blogging it over there, then comparing notes. Of course, the tradeoff is that I wasn’t as assertive about my reading as I can be when I blog. Sometimes various readers would have very different views of what was happening in the story, what a character was thinking at some point, why they took this action instead of that one; this, too, was very helpful. And it was very nice to find out that sometimes other readers were perplexed by a story. I’ve been feeling quite stupid during this year’s reading of BASS, but maybe they’re just ambiguous stories.

The mood was quite relaxed and flexible. At one point, I asked Prof. Piper about an image on the wall behind him; it turned out to be something he’d used in his first book as a visual epigraph, a squiggle from Tristram Shandy. When the stories took a very dark turn, he changed the syllabus to include a story with a bit more humor in the next week.

At the end of the class, we all brought in book suggestions, which was fun; I’m going to get to Ursula LeGuin, I promise, and Richard Powers, though probably not The Overstory at first. Prof. Piper also provided a list of his book suggestions, which, to my delight, included Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai – not only one of my favorite reads, but the book I recommended in that very session.

In light of our commitment to simplicity, egalitarianism, and intellectual focus, readers do not choose tutors, tutors do not choose readers, and members of reading groups do not choose one another. Readers choose a book to read or a course of study.
We go after the deepest and most difficult questions and ask the same of our readers. We do not “dumb down” material. Flexibility
We seek to meet the human need for serious inquiry with as few arbitrary constraints as possible.

The Catherine Project: Principles

While this group was running, a one-session seminar was announced on Montaigne’s essay “Of Pedantry.” This is the sort of reading that intimidates me, so I was glad to have some guidance. It was a much larger group, and went a lot faster. The essay is a sort of warning to acquire knowledge in order to gain wisdom, not just to memorize facts. I thought, somewhat incongruously, of the Jeopardy! book I read recently, Prisoner of Trebekistan, in which Bob Harris described how he started out memorizing facts to win the game but ended up genuinely interested in knowing more about places and events and people he was memorizing.

The Catherine Project also held a Town Meeting one evening, aimed at providing more information about the organization, answering questions, and fund-raising. One of the questions finally clued me in on a piece of trivia that I hadn’t been able to track down: Who is Catherine? I combed the website early in this journey and couldn’t find it. I’d assumed it was Catherine of Siena, but you know what happens when you assume. It turns out there are two Catherines: Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of philosophy students, and Catherine Doherty, founder of Madonna House, the Catholic community where Zena Hitz spent some time recovering from academia. Hence the focus on simplicity: a desire to learn without the administrative and bureaucratic burdens formal university study imposes on both students and teachers.

I’m looking forward to finding out what groups will be offered this Winter. Maybe I’ll be more adventurous and go outside my comfort zone. Ancient Greek? Foucault? Chinese philosophy, Norse sagas? The tutorials and subject groups have very limited enrollment, so they may not be available; the Reading Groups are larger, but still have a cap. But I’m sure I can find something that will grab my attention.