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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.2 (2002) 303-321
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"The Peak on Which Abraham Stands":
The Pregnant Moment of Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling
Lasse Horne Kjaeldgaard
When Søren Kierkegaard in the 1840s began his one-man crusade against the predominant philosophy of his time and place—the right Hegelianism that was en vogue among his contemporaries in Copenhagen—he chose his weapons with great circumspection. The indirect form of communication, which he later advocated in more direct terms in his "Point of View," 1 was not only a maieutic means that helped the reader conceive of the latent and strictly private messages of the texts; it was also a strategy for Kierkegaard's undercover assaults on the Hegelian turn of the Geistesleben around him. By interweaving many of the Hegelian platitudes and self-confident pronouncements that circulated in the intellectual life of the day into the pseudonymous writings, Kierkegaard contested them with parody rather than argumentation. This is the local background against which these texts are structured and to which they are addressed in multiple and very subtle ways. That also goes for that of the pseudonymous writings which has become the best known but which may also be regarded as the most private and most secretive of them all, Fear and Trembling, published pseudonymously in 1843.
Secrecy, silence, and unspeakable messages are abundantly thematized in Fear and Trembling, as one could expect from the name of the narrator, Johannes de Silentio. Silentio is a prominent member of the choir of pseudonymous figures Kierkegaard invented to communicate indirectly with his audience and in [End Page 303] the name of which he published his most celebrated works. The silence that Silentio speaks of is that of Abraham of the Old Testament, who was commanded by God to sacrifice his only son on Mount Moriah. Although Genesis 22 includes fragments of the dialogue between Abraham and Isaac on their way to the mountain, Silentio insists that Abraham remained silent on the essential issue: the command he acts upon. The unmediated message Abraham had received from God could not be conveyed, and he was therefore barred from communication and bereft of his community as he journeyed to the Mountain. Yet Silentio's discourse upon this silence in Fear and Trembling has given impetus to innumerable pages of commentary. The questions and answers he poses in his reflections upon Abraham's ordeal have called for critical attention and controversy since the time of its publication. His obsession with the biblical narrative certainly seems to have been passed on to many readers of Fear and Trembling, which, a recent commentator has remarked, "continues to haunt us like no other of [Kierkegaard's] writings." 2 So far, it would seem, then, that Kierkegaard was right when he predicted, in an undated journal entry, that "Fear and Trembling will be enough to immortalise my name." It has indeed been "read and translated into foreign languages," as he foresaw it would. 3
Even so, what has passed unnoticed in its long history of reception is the significance of the titles that the manuscript text bore before it came to be called Fear and Trembling. On the title page the definitive appellation is placed together with two alternatives with less suggestion of pathos: "Movements and Postures" (Bevægelser og Stillinger) and "Between-each-other" (Mellemhver-andre). 4 Not much can be discerned from these unpeculiar phrases in isolation. However, tracing their history and significance through Kierkegaard's writings and beyond, will make it clear that Fear and Trembling was also dispatched to the narrow Hegelian community in Copenhagen for the purpose of questioning their literary and visual aesthetics and philosophy of history. Into the guerrilla warfare against them Fear and Trembling introduces a weapon of such sophistication that it has remained undetected so far: the power of the "pregnant moment." My aim here will be to demonstrate the way in which Fear and Trembling appropriates a principle of selection intended for the...