Saturday, 11 February 2017

Review: Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.

Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (trans. Alastair Hannay), (Penguin: London 1985)

I can comfortably tell you that this is kinda sorta about Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).  However, that’s about all I can tell you after slogging through the longest 158 pages of my life.
Image from here
I’d love to tell you that this "lynchpin... of the existentialist movement" opened my eyes to a new way of living.  However, I found Kierkegaard almost completely impenetrable.  The problem seems to lie partly in his extremely repetitive use of abstractions and symbols.  He refers constantly to “making this movement” (which I think means ‘making a decision’), “becoming absolute in relation to the universal” (or possibly vice versa), and being a “knight of faith” as opposed to being a “tragic hero”.  If any of these terms were defined, I missed it.  I’m assuming Hannay’s translation is sound and the book is equally inscrutable in Danish.  The editors of Wikipedia seem to think the same, since the article on the book mostly consists of slabs quoted from it.

The other problem is that Kierkegaard seems addicted to changing his style and subject.  You find yourself reading a speech in praise of Abraham.  A bit later you’re reading about whether it was ethically permissible for that patriarch to conceal the intended sacrifice from his family (a fair enough question).  And then for no obvious reason he wants to talk about a fucking mermaid (pp.120-125).  I was disappointed in my hopes that there’d be a postscript telling readers that the whole thing had been 1843’s version of the Sokal hoax.

If you’re a student and you’ve been set this text for a course, you have my pity.  If you’re looking for your next book, save your money.  But if you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, this is it.

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