Note: While I intend this piece to be readable for those who haven’t also read Fear and Trembling, I suspect that this piece will be a lot more valuable to those who are interested in the text itself, which can be found in loads of places on the internet, but also at least here.
A few months ago I was writing up a storm about Heidegger. The ultimate purpose of this storm was because I find him fantastic. But I like Kierkegaard a whole lot more. I’ve recently been re-reading his Fear and Trembling, and the concept in it I find the most interesting and worth discussing is the Teleological Suspension of the Ethical that he describes in the first main section of discussion.
Whew. The phrase itself is somewhat of a mouthful. Therefore, in order to make sense for you readers, I should explain what a Teleological Suspension of the Ethical is. That would make sense before I start telling you why it’s important.
And once you know what it is and why it’s important, then we can maybe start talking about it. Or perhaps I’ll save it for a later post. We’ll have to see!
I recently watched this fantastic 1969 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, directed by Alain Resnais and written by the exceptional Marguerite Duras. I’d also recommend the film to anyone who likes a classic, or who has an interest in things that are beautiful. I thought I might say a few things about it. Also, Hubert Dreyfus talks about it in his lecture series on Kierkegaard– which I think is just brilliant.
This film smoulders at the edges with incoherent light, like the edges of burnt newsprint. It is black and white, which means that the fire has gone out. It is covered in coal dust, and the coal might be from wood or metal. Or perhaps, the ashes might be flesh.
Flesh, human life, cities and memories all are subject to the law of impermanence. Even when they are shot through with violence and love, those tethers can’t hold them down– and they float away into the sky.
We could say that Nevers (Emanuelle Riva)– the female character as she is named at the end of the film– and Hiroshima (Eiji Okada)–the male character of whom can be said the same disgrace themselves together. But do so only to re-enact a trauma that is passed and which therefore can never be touched again. It’s an experiment in fossilizing pain. At least in the case of Nevers, her defining pain is something she clings to, and which she is compelled to relive again and again through her affair with Hiroshima and other men, as we come to learn..
Hiroshima was a city that disappeared in an instant. It was also a horrible scar, left by the most brutal and impactful conflict in human history. These assets fix it as a perfect scapegoat for a sacrifice.
In the first scene, Nevers and Hiroshima are entangled, as they question each other over documentary footage detailing the horrific aftermath of the atomic bomb. In this light, it is significant I think that the trauma of Nevers was individual, while the trauma of Hiroshima was collective.
There is something essentially audacious about comparing the loss of a single individual to the loss of an entire city. I suppose the way we can satisfy our concerns as viewers of this film would be to acknowledge that his own knowledge of Nevers’ secret love is what brings Hiroshima to accept her on his own grounds. Where previously– as in the beginning of the film– he did not believe that she had seen suffering that was comparable to his own.
But both know what it’s like to be mad with grief. The film-makers wisely unplumb the depth of world-death. They use the death of one’s lover to point at it indirectly. That’s probably because it’s impossible to fit something so large in something as small as a film. It would be easier to fit an elephant into a tea-cup.
It’s really easy to get down about the state of collective discourse on the internet. It’s easy to think that the only consequence of our increased inter-connection is an increased capacity to be ass-holes to each other.
That’s true. I’m pretty sure the internet has a polarizing effect on people, because it’s easy to be a shit-head to someone behind a screen. It’s easier to demonize someone you don’t have to meet after you dox them and ruin their lives.
At the same time, I’m not convinced that wasn’t always the state of human collective consciousness. That didn’t stop us from doing some other really beautiful things, like all of the art in history, for example.