Tuesday, 25 November 2014

"THE CROWD IS UNTRUTH"

A crowd in Ferguson, Missouri


At the age of 41, in the middle of what would prove to be his last year on earth, Danish writer and theologian Soren Kierkegaard shook off all subterfuge, dispensed with his coterie of coy pseudonyms, rejected his heretofore treasured "indirect approach" to polemics, and became for a time a hyper-conspicuous figure in Danish society, passing out homemade literature on street corners and railing against church authorities in a succession of scathingly-worded newspaper columns.

Kierkegaard's antics made a generally negative impression upon the Copenhagen cognoscenti, who mostly regarded him as a nuttering nuisance, or at best an eccentric monomaniac publicly flogging an increasingly woebegone spiritual hobbyhorse in a most unseemly manner. Yet the Kierkegaardian critique of the state-funded Danish Lutheran church, if severe, was in fact quite astute, and his approach, while brazen, avoided overt self-indulgence.

At that crucial moment in his soon-to-be-cut-short existence, Kierkegaard conceived it as his mission to assume a stern and prophetic role, shouting from his sidewalk soapbox that "Christendom" was a sham and a fraud because it amounted to sacrilege; real Christianity was inherently a world-denying enterprise, and it inevitably entailed misery and persecution; under Christianity "witnesses to the truth" attested to the purity of their hearts by the fruits of their suffering at the hands of the world. That anyone could claim to be a proper witness to the truth – when he in fact merely reaped the benefits of the establishment institution to enhance his social status – struck him as a hideous notion which needed to be decisively debunked.
                                                                   
SK: A man against mobs, and demagogues. 

Kierkegaard's unsparing analysis did not exclude himself, as he was more than anything quite convinced of his own unworthiness compared to those of previous times who had suffered gravely in order to remain true to their Savior. Though he often targeted specific people – one Bishop Hans Martensen in particular greatly aroused his ire for calling another recently deceased bishop a "witness to the truth," when to Kierkegaard's way of thinking the high placed, well-respected affluent man in question (whom Kierkegaard had known personally) bore no relationship whatsoever to the martyrs and saints of the faith who suffered endless miseries and hardships for the sake of the Gospel – still this short, stooped, funny-dressing man never set himself up as any more worthy than the ones he was criticizing, and he always bore their mockery with good humor.

The grounding of Kierkegaard's theology was a fierce opposition to the then-entrenched Hegelian notion that the divine will was rendered manifest in the world through the machinations of impersonal, world-historical movements, whose mighty clashes on a grand scale were, it was believed, essential to the bringing about of the dialectic of progress. Hegel, to put it simply, believed in the fundamental significance of crowds, of majorities, of sweeping trends, of revolutions, of "big," earth-shaking, headline-making events. Like Antoinin Artaud, Hegel enthused about the power of the (properly directed) masses to enact massive change and help humanity make great leaps forward.

For Kierkegaard, by contrast, crowds, majorities, trends, revolutions, and the like were just stuff and nonsense, trifling affairs full of sound and fury, which, for all of the bustle and hubbub they aroused, in fact signified nothing of import. Kierkegaard was convinced that the only thing needful took place exclusively between the individual and God:
"The crowd" is untruth. Eternally, Christianly, what Paul says is valid: "only one receives the prize," [I Cor. 9:24] not by way of comparison, for in the comparison "the others" are still present. That is to say, everyone can be that one, with God's help - but only one receives the prize; again, that is to say, everyone should cautiously have dealings with "the others," and essentially only talk with God and with himself - for only one receives the prize; again, that is to say, the human being is in kinship with, or to be a human is to be in kinship with the divinity."
The "crowd," however, was a despicable, ridiculous entity: brutal, unthinking, avidly conformist, and stupidly intoxicated with its own supposed importance. Yet much as he disdained the mob, Kierkegaard devoted his true vitriol against those demagogues who benefited by whipping up the mob to do their bidding – i.e., the so-called "leaders" of social and political movements. If the mob themselves were contemptible, their "leaders" were beneath contempt, in Kierkegaard's eyes:
"The crowd is untruth. There is therefore no one who has more contempt for what it is to be a human being than those who make it their profession to lead the crowd. Let someone, some individual human being, certainly, approach such a person, what does he care about him; that is much too small a thing; he proudly sends him away; there must be at least a hundred. And if there are thousands, then he bends before the crowd, he bows and scrapes; what untruth!"
Kierkegaard was for this reason content to stand alone and conduct a one-man campaign against those whom he saw as both the mob and the mob ringleaders, who to him had combined to make a mockery out of Christ's teachings, deceitfully erecting a comfortable "Christendom" in the guise of the hard, arduous truths of Christianity:
"Maybe I shall not be understood  well, I am understood by God, and I understand myself. Maybe it will go ill with me  well, that is what the New Testament presupposes. Maybe I shall not succeed  well, in a Christian sense, victory is only won by defeat!"
Indeed, as he himself forecast, Kierkegaard ultimately "lost" in his self-consciously quixotic quest to make the establishment label itself a fraud. Almost a year after he began his "attack upon Christendom," the long physically frail solitary crusader collapsed in the street, victim of an apparent stroke. He died a short time later in a Copenhagen hospital, at the tender age of 42. Few mourned the passing at the time, and in the pews and pulpits of Danish state Lutheran churches, life generally went on as normal, with barely a hitch.
                                                                     
"Kierkegaard" actually translates to "graveyard."

Of course, a posthumous Kierkegaardian cult sprung up almost immediately, and today this eccentric, weirdly prematurely wizened fashion victim, this prolific but often maddeningly abstruse author, is a hero to many a self-styled misfit and loner.

Kierkegaard himself would of course heartily dismiss any pretension of being a "leader," just as he would disdain the idea of attempting to "change" the world through political agitation or social activism. For him, victory comes not in overthrowing the established order or causing the capitulation of one's enemies. but in remaining engaged in the fight, and never for a second compromising one's commitment to truth.

To Kierkegaard, no crusade for righteousness can ever properly succeed, since anytime a worthy cause came to be embraced by the majority, it would thereby cease to be worthy, having lost that which lent it its initial integrity through having become tainted by worldliness, just as Christianity ceased to be truthful – which is to say, ceased to be itself – when it became the de facto faith of the state, something which in Kierkegaard's view proper faith can never be. Truth, from a Kierkegaardian perspective, forever resides in the minority; conversely, truth dissipates when it ceases to be, as with the early Church, an embattled minority. Might, in essence, makes wrong.

In an age even more obsessed with mass movements than Kierkegaard's, obsessed with the prospect of worldly success, convinced of the self-evident virtue of the majority (i.e., "democracy") and the march of "progress," the patently Coriolanian "attack upon Christendom" constitutes a compelling and greatly-needed antidote.



Andy Nowicki, co-editor of Alternative Right, is the author of eight books, including Under the NihilThe Columbine PilgrimConsidering Suicide, and Beauty and the Least. He occasionally updates his blog when the spirit moves him to do so. Visit his Soundcloud page.

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