- Retrieving Kierkegaard for the Post-9/11 Occasion:A Late Meditation on the Secular
We live in a place / That is not our and, more, not ourselves—Wallace Stevens (2011, 383)
As anyone familiar with my scholarship and criticism is aware, the idea of the secular has been, increasingly, its supreme theme from virtually the beginning. The questions my work has insistently posed and struggled to articulate have invariably been 1) What does being a secular intellectual entail for his/her interpretation of being? 2) What does being secular imply about his/her subjectivity? And, not least, 3) What does it demand about his/her interpretation of and cultural, social, economic, and political comportment toward the world? In this, I have been in solidarity with the “worldly” initiative inaugurated by Edward Said’s uncompromising commitment to the secular world and to the “worldly criticism” that commitment entails. In recent years, however, the consequence, no doubt, of “time’s winged chariot” and the imperatives of this lateness to resist all transcendental props, I have come, at the liminal point of my intellectual life to realize—with Said, if not his “worldly” followers—that commitment to the “secular” or “worldly” as such, is inadequate insofar as the real meaning of the secular depends on the transcendental (the paradisiacal) it opposes; that, in other words, in this world eternity and time belong together in unending strife. The secular as such, devoid of its antithesis, tends, in its appeal to the laws of nature, to reproduce the world in the teleological image of the orderly Creation: the world in this secular dispensation, as Max Weber made decisively clear, becomes the object [End Page 471] of mastery and the calling of human beings—their vocation—the rationalization of the earth according to the imperial dictates of the “capitalist spirit.” Their “worldliness”—their human condition, which calls for engagement with the transience of time—becomes an unworldly worldliness. This late realization has precipitated a retrieval (Wiederholung in Heidegger ’s term) of a major early influence in my intellectual life that, in the process of my career, I had virtually forgotten but which has haunted by thinking about the secular all along. I am referring to the great Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, whose works I began reading as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in 1948, soon after returning from captivity in Germany during World War II.
Opened by my degrading experience as a prisoner of war and, and not least, by bearing witness to the horrendous allied fire-bombing of Dresden that killed over a hundred thousand civilians in one night and day Allied raid, to this first self-de-struction of modern Western civilization, I was deeply receptive to its severe criticism by the humanist existentialists such a Jean-Paul Sartre, Simon De Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others, who attributed its ultimate justification of violence to the metaphysical principle that “essence precedes [is ontologically prior to] existence.” And in the throes of that trauma, I read these radically revisiononist thinkers, particularly Sartre’s novels, avidly, and, in the process, disrupted many of the highly popular classes in the humanities I took, which at that time were being taught by and large under the aegis of the traditional humanism, on the one hand, and the (anti-humanist) New Criticism, on the other. But it was not until my sophomore year that I was enabled to feel/think the full impact of this intellectual retrieval of existence from the dominance of essence: temporality from its dependence on universality, be-ing on Being. That was, paradoxically, when, out of the clear blue, a fellow maverick student friend from Missouri, David Mize, attuned to my fraught intellectual confusions, offered me his copy of The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, a selection edited by Alexander Dru published by Oxford University Press under the auspices of Christian novelist/editor, Charles Williams, in 1939, the first translation of the Danish thinker ’s works into English.1
As I recall, I was profoundly struck by the first words of these journal entries: something like “We think backwards, but live forward,” an existential assertion pointing...