Boredom, Laughter, and Kierkegaard’s Rotating Kata-Strophe (Take 2)

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Kierkegaard sees himself in terms of his method of “rotation.”  By turning things over, as one turns over the soil to “cultivate” crops, he feels he can avoid being trapped by Boredom:

My method…resembles the true rotation method in changing the crop and the mode of cultivation.  Here we have at once the principle of limitation, the only saving principle in the world.  The more you limit yourself, the more fertile you become in invention…The more resourceful in changing the mode of cultivation one can be, the better (26).

For Kierkegaard, constantly rotating from one thing to another, if done by way of “limitation,” is beneficial.  It is inventive, creative, and productive and not simply passive and consumptive (rotating from pleasure to pleasure, if you will).  However, Kierkegaard notes that the inventions can only fall under two categories: remembering and forgetting:

But every particular change will come under the general categories of remembering and forgetting  Life in its entirety moves in these two currents, and hence it is essential to have them under control (26).

To be sure, these are things that Kierkegaard wants to rotate around.  It is between the two that irony operates.  But there is a paradox: when irony remembers it forgets and when it forgets it still remembers.  The irony is that one cannot negate the other.  Between the two there is a kata-strophe – a movement – which, apparently, effaces Boredom.  But, as Baudelaire notes, Boredom may not be vanquished by art.  It seems that the question for Baudelaire and Kierkegaard is whether or not irony can displace the power of Boredom rather than negate it.

We see this in the following section which is entitled DIAPSALMATA (which translates, from the Greek, as a “musical interlude”).  In this section, Kierkegaard takes on the modality of an aesthete and boldly disassociates himself from his previous problematic by embracing passion rather than boredom.

Let others complain that the age is wicked; my complaint is that it is wretched, for it lacks passion (33).

Given what Kierkegaard has said, I would like to suggest that we read this disavowal of Boredom as ironic.  It is a performance of irony, rather.  It alludes to his effort to “forget” Boredom in the name of remembering Passion.  What we find, however, in his turn to Passion, are stanzas (strophes) that clash; we find a kata-strophe.  The music between these stanzas is telling.  It is manic-depressive.

In one stanza, Kierkegaard is extremely depressed. While in the other, he is overjoyed and manic.  He calls out, on many occasions, to be saved by the grace of the gods and suddenly, in an unexpected moment (or, as the Romantics might say, an “occasion”), he starts seeing everything bathed in wonder:

The apothecary pounds his mortar, the kitchen maid scours her kettle, the groom curries the horse and strikes the comb against the flagstones; these tones appeal to me alone, they beckon only me.  O! accept my thanks, whoever you are! My soul is rich, so sound, so joy-intoxicated!”

Immediately following this, we learn that he has, suddenly, become melancholic:

My grief is my castle…From it I fly down to reality to seize my pray…I live there as one dead.

What appeals most to the aesthete is the consciousness of this “rotation.”  Kierkegaard notes that the “essence of pleasure does not lie in the thing enjoyed, but in the accompanying consciousness.”  In feeling powerless or in feeling overjoyed, Kierkegaard experiences the essence of pleasure as consciousness.

However, as we can see the greatest consciousness for Kierkegaard is not melancholy; it is the feeling of salvation: the movement from depression to joy is of great interest to him. In the last two stanzas, this comes out. This is most explicit when Kierkegaard falls into disarray about love and youth:

Then I think of my youth and my first love – when the longing of desire was strong.  Now I long only for my first longing. What is youth?  A dream.  What is love?  The substance of a dream (36).

Out of this doubt and confusion, out of this irony, Kierkegaard is saved. To be sure, he is saved by laughter:

Something wonderful happened to me.  I was carried up into the seventh heaven. There all the gods sat assembled.  By special grace I was granted the favor of a wish.  “Will you,” said Mercury, “have youth, or beauty, or power, or a long life, or the most beautiful maiden, or any of the other glories we have in the chest?  Choose, but only one thing.”  For a moment, I was at a loss.  The I addressed myself to the gods as follows: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose this one thing, that I may always have the laugh on my side.” (36)

All of the gods demonstrate their approval of his choice by way of laughter.  From this passage, it seems that the grace of laughter has vanquished Boredom and all of life’s pleasures in the name of laughter.  It seems as if Kierkegaard will no longer have to rotate if he has “laughter” on his side.  He has moved and, by way of laughter, he can apparently be saved.  But is this the end?  Will he stop “rotating” now that he has laughter at his side?  Or is irony a stumbling block?

(In the next blog entry, I will take up the final note of the kata-strophe and relate it to the schlemiel.)

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