Love and Kierkegaard in the Age of Trump




This piece is part of the launch of the latest issue of the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 19,  Romance

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I LIVE IN SEMI-RURAL Nevada County, California, and a year ago, in my gym, I overheard a tall, pale, buzz-cut, older-but-still-muscled man — a man I had once witnessed huffing in the direction of the TVs above the treadmills, “I don’t care what color you are, when an officer pulls you over you do whatever he says!” — I heard this man complaining to a friend at the bench press. “Liberal media,” he said, snorting at one of the TVs. “They twist everyone’s words. They make me sick.”

This was the week after neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, the week after Donald Trump picked up the narrative the right-wing media had prepared — the narrative the neo-Nazis had baited — by blaming counter-protestors for violence “on both sides.” I suspected I should stick to my StairMaster, but my skin twitched. For months I had watched the gym’s bank of TVs broadcast competing news stations side by side, the cross-captioning of each talking head suggesting parallel black holes, and I could hold the tension no longer. I crossed the gym floor, and stood at this man’s shoulder. I said, “I’m equally troubled by Fox News, if you want to know.” He drew his spike-haired head back in shock. And then this man and I stared, mutually baffled, as the whole gym watched.

That standoff now seems innocent. In the year since a white nationalist killed an innocent woman in Charlottesville, more Americans have moved their turf wars off Facebook and into the streets. In my grocery store parking lot, confederate flags are now popping up alongside the Make America Great Again bumper stickers. A few weeks ago, at the local “Families Belong Together” march protesting the separation of children at the border, “Motorists at the intersection responded by honking their horns, popping wheelies on their motorcycles, flipping the bird, or screaming ‘build the wall’” — so reported the front page of our little local paper.

Can anyone still speak earnestly of “bridging the divide”?

¤

Many years ago, I was closer to the other side — or at least, close to one of its proponents. Bill’s defining high school achievement was his presidency of the Young Republicans. His faith was in the free market, the invisible hand of self-interest, and the prosperity that inevitably flowed to all via the power of trickle-down. In his words: He was a realist.

I was his eight-years-younger ingénue, and I had followed him to San Francisco with a vague plan of coercing him to marry me, which naturally he resisted, while we remained, both of us, agonizingly in need of each other. I will spare you the months of melodrama, the addled stew of sex and commitment and the exquisitely painful notions of fate that certain women — dare I say certain women influenced by complicated relationships with elusive fathers — recall too well from their 20s. In short: We chased each other, until I finally decided to leave him for good, and then Bill proposed. He did this with the fanaticism of a martyr. In an email. I sat in the walk-in closet that served as my writing space and read the bullet points about our compatibility, which included an explanation that, after considering whether he might want a woman with bigger breasts or a little more height, he’d decided my body was the absolute best. I stared at the screen and thought: I have to say no. And then: But what if I’m alone forever? And finally: Damn you, Bill, why did you have to propose in an email with bullet points about my breasts! In short: We got engaged.

I recognize now what I saw in Bill then. I was a young escapee from the cottonfields and strip-malls of Fresno who craved an identity and Meaning — the same craving that had connected me to Bill. Oh those early dates, when he spoke of studying Nietzsche during a year abroad at the Sorbonne! Through our roiling pre-engagement epoch, reading Nietzsche together was erotic, the shared nihilism confirming communion of our souls. “God is dead!” we agreed before embracing in the dark. Bill and I, we both confessed the hard surface truths, and surely that united us in our depths. True, I had misgivings over how Bill rated women’s looks on a 1–10 scale; I was frustrated when he spent our rent on hand-tooled Italian shoes and Rolex watches. But Bill said status-seeking was just part of the real world, and the budgeting challenges were “liquidity issues.” I was pleased to window shop at Burberry — who was I to argue? Bill and I both loved books, and ballet, and opera, and Laurent-Perrier Champagne. We were an Us.

But when at last we were engaged, a strange thing happened. Immediately, I became obsessed with death. Mostly my own death, though I should have been more concerned about my 20-year-old brother. That same spring, George W. Bush began the invasion of Iraq. My brother was then training with the Army. I followed the front-page news with dread, but not diligence. Instead, I found that I had tumbled into the writings of the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard — I started reading the 609-page abridged paperback Either/Or. Or at least, I was trying. Untrained beyond undergraduate Philosophy 101, I read Kierkegaard with no rigor, only naïve strivings for epiphany. Kierkegaard was manic, tempestuous, grand, hair-flinging. Life has become a bitter drink to me, and yet it must be taken in drops, counted one by one. Yes!

I had also started going to Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. I would listen to lectures on Kierkegaard and wander around the cathedral. Bill wasn’t pleased when I got baptized. I felt I could because the Episcopalian vows didn’t entail denouncing abortion or tasting the wine as actual blood; no one would interrogate me for thinking the Immaculate Conception was a truth only symbolically. I was drawn to … something, though I remained afraid that God was in essence an imaginary friend and that Nietzsche, or at least what Nietzsche represented in my CliffsNotes understanding, was the Real.

Into the middle of all this abstract contemplation came actual reality. Despite my avoidance of the news, contemporary events were inescapable. One day, on my way to a ballet, I found the transit station mobbed. Streams of people, young and old, carried signs that said NO WAR FOR OIL, hoisting effigies of President Bush, his face grinning like a monkey’s. They headed up the escalators that led to Union Square. Chants echoed in the plaza. I watched the marchers with an awe verging on reverence. Bush was taking us into war on false pretenses and with surreal bravado. This was obvious to me, even though Bill read to me nightly about the necessity of “pre-emptive” military action, cribbing links refreshed hourly on the Drudge Report. Sometimes I rolled my eyes, sometimes I conceded a point or two about Saddam’s brutality and the need to “support the troops”; mostly I begged exhaustion and told Bill the subject was too close to home.

In fact, the subject was getting closer to home every day. My brother, done with boot camp, was hoping to make Special Forces. His life was a pawn in a global game of the disingenuous — I understood this clearly as I made my way through the protestors to catch my train. At least these people are calling out the truth, I thought. Still, I merely watched. I was not one of Them.

Bill welcomed me home that evening with a kiss. “Berkeley liberals!” he said. “They’d have Saddam continue to slaughter innocent Shi-ites. Your brother will be a hero, honey. Those people are just hypocrites.” And I said nothing while, in a North Carolina training camp, my brother mastered the sniper rifle that would take many an Iraqi life during two front line tours, and learned to drive a Hummer, which he would, after an IED attack on a Baghdad street, cleanse of his dead platoon leader’s blood.

¤

The gravitational center of Kierkegaard’s deliberately brain-whirling genius — and the proposition that made him the father of existentialism — is the necessity of choice. You must choose, every moment of every day, who you are. Lest this sound like New Age affirmation, be warned of the agony. The problem: No one can rationally tell you the kind of person you should be.

The choice is a lonely, irrational leap. The values of one kind of life are nonsensical to the other. Not that Kierkegaard says this so straightforwardly. Instead, he carries out his other maniacal idea — that philosophy, rather than offer objective, Hegelian systems, should disorient the reader and place him (for Kierkegaard, alas, always him) in the subjective vortex of personal choice. In other words, Either/Or throws you right in the middle. Kierkegaard (hiding behind a pseudonymous “editor,” no less) presents Either/Or as a collection of papers found in an escritoire. In the first part, the papers of “A,” we glimpse the hidden inner anguish of a disaffected young bachelor who lives for the delectations of the greatest opera, who seduces women for sport, who claims that the only meaning of life is pleasure. In the second part, the papers of “B,” a judge writes to this young man, arguing the repugnance of his lifestyle and insisting on the “aesthetic validity” of marriage.

Kierkegaard’s two categories of people, then, are embodied by these two types: the aesthetic high art devotee (the cad), and the sermonizing ethical bloviator (the judge). This baffled me back then; I was 25 and I was reading the book as though trying to recognize my astrological sign. If I didn’t go around seducing men for sport, was I still an aesthetic person? I had recently started going to church, did that make me an ethical person, even if I wasn’t quite sure what I believed? These ideas only became clear to me years later after I read more Kierkegaard and found a book of commentary — 1946 Introduction to Kierkegaard by a Jesuit named Régis Jolivet (a guide I would find, incidentally, while browsing a used bookstore with the man who became my second husband).

The aesthetic life, Kierkegaard and Jolivet clarified too late for my airheaded twentysomething self, can manifest in refined and less refined versions. A person in the aesthetic sphere could be a Manhattanite who lives for Champagne and Mozart, or a South Carolinian who cherishes Pabst Blue Ribbon and firing rounds of her new semi-automatic rifle: anyone whose life depends on amusement to ward off the awareness of eventual, inescapable death qualifies. Life in the ethical sphere takes many forms, too. Anyone who tries to escape the dread of death by piously enforcing morals qualifies, whether that person is a vegan lecturing on the evils of pig slaughter or a pro-life demonstrator threatening clients outside an abortion clinic.

For me, this leads to the most confusing difficulty. Most of us fail to live cleanly within either the aesthetic or the ethical, a complication Kierkegaard was aware of but did not fully explicate until years later in The Sickness Unto Death. People in the aesthetic sphere get lonely, weak, and entwined; we wind up seriously coupled. If we could just live the aesthetic life without compromise, we would have inner consistency: it would be the consistency of the demonic but at least our core self would be consistent. Instead, we typically bounce between the aesthetic and the ethical, unanchored by inner self-possession.  

And this leads to the difficulty of the choice. Though Kierkegaard doesn’t say it outright in Either/Or, both the aesthetic and the ethical modes of life are dead ends. Either/or is a false dilemma. What is needed is a third, higher state in which, as Either/Or’s judge promises in Part Two, “everything returns, but transfigured.”

¤

If the idea of Kierkegaard’s two kinds of people is no longer as baffling to me now, in my 40s, as it was in my 20s, that’s partly because I see the difference in the contrast of my first husband and my now-husband. The difference is wide as eternity.

My ex-husband loved “objectively” ranking attractiveness and told me I was a “seven” on a 1–10 scale. (His “10” back in 2002, if you’re wondering, was Ivanka Trump.) My current husband thinks ranking people’s looks is nonsensical. He claims I am more beautiful to him at 42 than when he met me at 34, and he says this without any winking irony. My ex-husband shopped at thrift stores for Ralph Lauren, hoping high-status people would believe that he bought his shirts full price. My now-husband thinks wanting people to recognize a logo on your clothing is absurd; he shops at thrift stores in order to work less and spend more time with our daughter. My ex-husband liked to go to museums because he dreamed of buying blue-chip art to showcase for dinner party guests. My now-husband thinks the art market is a profanation. He donates to museums and dreams of a society in which art can’t be commodified.

I could give you dozens more examples, but I think the divide I come back to most is this: My ex-husband felt badly for the poor but believed the best way to help them was to start a company that would make him wealthy and give them jobs; my now-husband gives to our local homeless shelter and donates to the food bank, even when our own budget is stretched, because people who are cold and hungry need food and shelter now.

There are probably longitudinal studies that show my ex-husband’s strategy is ultimately more effective in addressing poverty, and other studies showing that it’s not. That doesn’t matter. The actions of each man aren’t ultimately logical. My ex-husband and my now-husband live in separate, self-contained moral worlds.

¤

Until recently, I had mostly forgotten about my ex-husband’s world. But in November 2016, I received an email from him for the first time in years. I had typically been chirpy and apologetic with my ex-husband. But this was three days after the election of Trump, and for reasons that were then obscure to me, my remorse-induced goodwill snapped. Most of my response was civil except to his asking how I was doing. I said frankly not very well, now that the United States had a sociopath dictator-in-the-making president, thanks to people like you.

I was snapping at a lot of people then. On Facebook, when I caught glimpses of a Republican friend sharing articles about Trump bringing back jobs, I fired off comments like, “How could you?” When my in-laws’ widowed neighbor called out “How’s it going?” I answered, “Badly. I’m disturbed that Donald Trump is our president.” When she replied, “Now, it could be worse. Just think if we had Hillary!” I sputtered, “I don’t need your lecture!”

My brother, the former Army sniper, seems to thrive on open confrontation, but I have never sought it. My now-husband and I moved from Oakland to Nevada County three years ago knowing we were leaving the “liberal bubble” for territory split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, but we did so never dreaming a candidate like Trump would make that split so tense. I live among “them” now.

I dare to think that I do, sometimes, see the way they see “us.” I see us through their eyes when the literary world attacks an elderly white New Yorker poet as racist because he wrote light verse joking about the proliferation of trendy Chinese regional cuisines. I cringe at “us” fulfilling their stereotypes of self-righteous identity-obsessed PC witch-hunters when we proclaim that white men cannot, under any circumstances, acceptably write from the perspective of a Muslim girl or an African-American woman.

I also dare to think I understand women on the religious right in towns like Redding, California, or Gary, Indiana. My daughter is adopted, and her former foster mom, an NRA card-carrying Trump supporter who lives in Redding, once looked at me in disbelief when I told her my husband does half the housework, and regularly plans picnics and special outings with our daughter. “That doesn’t happen in my world,” she said. A difficult reality when you’re living in a society that denies any legitimate alternative to life without a husband — a dilemma that feels familiar to me. I remember, back in my 20s, thinking I would be nothing without marriage, too, and so I had better accept Bill’s reality.

I’d thought, back then, that despite our surface differences and our marital incompatibility, Bill and I would always be good friends. I wept, for more than a year, for the tragedy of our lost togetherness. Only now had the election fully revealed: He horrified me.

How had American history brought us to the point where the “them” I’d thought lamentable but harmless now made my heart race? In a stroke, the old way of operating in society could no longer apply. The day after Donald Trump won the election, I sat down for a Skype meeting with a writing student interested in hiring me to edit her work after our class together ended. The woman on my computer screen was cheerful and composed, a registered nurse who lived in a wealthy San Francisco suburb. “How are you?” she said with kindness.

“Oh,” I said. “The election. God, it’s unbelievable.”

Her face hardened. The vigilance in her eyes, the brace of her shoulders — my heart sped as though I were looking down the barrel of a gun.

“Oh,” I finally said, when at last I took a breath.

“Yes,” she said.

We did not work together.

And Bill never replied to my email.

¤

Would Kierkegaard, beset by family demons but living his comfortable upper-middle-class life in culturally homogenous Danish society, even recognize the workings of the aesthetic and the ethical in our current divide? With Trump pointing to “bad hombres” and vowing to make Muslims register, don’t the Kierkegaardian distinctions of us and them now seem quaint?

I know that Kierkegaard would have at least appreciated the opportunity, in our current standoff, for public confrontations. Itching for martyrdom, Kierkegaard would have seized every chance for a spectacle of conflict, I am sure. But I find the public standoff much less appealing. And yet, faced with the buzz-cut man at the gym the week after Charlottesville, I could not stop myself, did not stop myself, even as the competing talking heads kept chattering on the screens above the treadmills.

“I’m sorry you’ve been indoctrinated by the other side,” he said.

“I want you to know I’m well aware of what is being promulgated on Fox News: I was once married to a Republican.”

“Well, how sad for him to lose a beautiful woman like you.”

“I don’t need your patronizing!” I said, and stomped off. Stomped back. “I want you to know,” I said. “What Trump’s election has meant. My daughter, who is Mexican-American, having to hear about the wall. The mosque in Sacramento covered in bacon.” And then I sputtered into my own grievances. “Men walking by my house telling me not to mow my own lawn, that it’s a man’s job!”

“Well, that’s not right, that shouldn’t happen,” he said.

“It’s happening because you supported Trump!” I stomped off again.

The woman practicing yoga on the mezzanine caught my eye and whispered, “Thank you.”

But I didn’t feel proud of the exchange as I resumed my StairMaster perch and watched the pale buzz-cut man starting up from the treadmill at the TV screen blaring a report on civil rights groups preparing to square off against “free speech” protestors. Legs churning, I looked down on this baffled fellow citizen — a man who, within his world of landed white gents, had thought of himself as gracious and charming, who used to greet me with, “Hello, little lady.” Huffing on that StairMaster, I realized I was looking down on a man being told to take his chivalry and shove it.

By the time he finished his workout and disappeared into the locker room, I felt a burning need for reconciliation. I dismounted the StairMaster, wiped the sweat from my face, and scrawled a letter on one of the “Comments” cards provided at the front desk.

Dear Sir, 

I am a Christian. My brother served two tours as an Army sniper to Iraq. My ex-husband is, as I told you, Republican. I think a principled Republican party is needed in this country. This is not what Fox News promulgates.

I want you to know what current Republican politics has meant to my life. My now-husband has Cystic Fibrosis, a genetic condition. With our current health insurance, he will live strong into his 70s and be able to raise the daughter we adopted from foster care. Under the Republican health care plans, he would have been dead within weeks. I got my information on this straight from Congressional Rep’s offices, not from any biased source.

People’s lives are at stake. Again, I respect Republicans who are principled. But I am heartbroken by the destruction Fox News has wrought on our country.

With hopes of peace and our mutual freedom and prosperity — and with dreams of genuine kindness —

I signed off with my name, phone number, and email address. Then I waited for the man, but I never saw him come out of the locker room. Eventually I gave up and walked out. In the parking lot, I saw him climb into a four-wheel-drive truck. I jogged up the street as this truck drove two blocks and parked in front of the grocery store. I ran across the parking lot with the letter in my hand. I stopped a few paces from the truck, panting, heart pounding.

The man who climbed out of the truck was someone else.

I took the letter home.

¤

Why did I start that letter with I am a Christian?    

Kierkegaard’s third realm, the way out of the dead-end false choice between the two mutually exclusive value systems, was to synthesize the aesthetic and the ethical within a higher sphere. His way out — the way to resolve the two poles of the dialectic — was to choose to be an individual who stands alone before God. This is the only real choice, his surrogates stressed — the choice that must be chosen.

In a bizarre day-becomes-night way, this choice is the line of philosophical thought that connects Kierkegaard to Nietzsche. Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche say the way to true existence is to reject any mob mentality. To Kierkegaard, this required standing before the Christian God. To Nietzsche, modern man had killed the idea of God. But if you ask me these years later, now that I have actually read Nietzsche for myself, Nietzsche still had a God. Nietzsche’s God was the überman — the highest Self.

Whether appealing to God or überman, I began my letter I am a Christian because I wanted to reach the man in the gym at a level beyond our separate spheres. I wanted us each to stand, side by side, two individuals in a spiritual arena. But as I recount all this, I see the blind spot in my impulse. To Kierkegaard, standing before God did not entail righteous self-proclamation. To Kierkegaard, standing before God meant repentance.

In the United States, we don’t talk much about repentance. We have adopted a pop-psychology stance that deep guilt is a useless feeling. Even religious discourse in our country scarcely approaches the topic of repentance meaningfully. Once, attending a mega-church in Redding with my daughter’s former foster mom, I heard a “prosperity gospel” preacher deliver a long, ostensibly self-excavating sermon on the topic of sin — the “sin” in question being that he once accidentally left an envelope full of cash for the Sunday School outing in a parking lot. His sermon offered no hint that he might harbor deeper transgressions to face. I can’t say the Episcopal church in my semi-rural town — a church I’ve stopped attending — digs much deeper. There, the preacher’s sermons are full of self-flagellations for failings like keeping an extra 50 cents given in error by the grocery clerk. What Kierkegaard called “Christendom” — a Christianity more concerned with material comfort and social conformation than the radical example of Christ — is alive and well.

Kierkegaard despised “Christendom.” Instead he found salvation, and what some might think a perverse kind of ecstasy, in constant guilt. He wrote that the authentic Self “repents himself back into himself, back into the family […] until he finds himself in God.” When I finally read this in Either/Or’s Part Two, three years after leaving Bill, I wrote YES! in the margin. How had it taken me so long to find this passage? It uncannily described what had happened for me.

Despair often remains unconscious, Kierkegaard (under yet another pseudonym) writes in The Sickness Unto Death. Those who do not choose their mode of existence will be in despair — a kind of numbness — without knowing it. Counter to conventional wisdom, then, the surfacing of despair is a positive development, because one is becoming aware of the problem. So then: The death-obsession that struck me when I married Bill had been a positive thing, the rising awareness of my formerly submerged despair. And indeed, in the years just after the split from Bill, I felt the constant presence of a gnawing but mysterious problem slowly revealing itself: my selfishness. Then one Maundy Thursday after nightfall, as the altar was being stripped, the shrouded cross carried away, I broke down sobbing in a cathedral pew.

The next day, I went to confession. I knelt and tried to identify precisely my transgression. I saw, finally, that I had known I no longer loved Bill when I decided to marry him. This felt like a physical stab to the heart. I had known I did not love him and I had lied to myself about that in order to gain the security of his love. No wonder I had felt that I did not want God, in my imagination or reality, to exist. After I had named the transgression, the priest told me it was important that I now leave the sin behind and go forward in my life; we said the final words of the rite of reconciliation together and I walked down the cathedral’s Great Steps toward the city, the afternoon air gentle against my neck. It struck me, later, that the priest did not seem to find my transgression so shocking. And often when I share this story of confession to close friends they say, out of kindness, “Bill played his part in it; weren’t you being too hard on yourself?” They say, “You’re a good person, and you were a good person back then, too.”

All of that, Kierkegaard would say, misses the point, and I have come to agree. Among the page of quotes from The Sickness Unto Death that now hang on my office wall are these: The opposite of sin is not virtue. The opposite of sin is faith. And: There are only two columns, and whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

The opposition of Kierkegaard’s two dialectical poles, faith and sin, is still meaningful to me. And yet, perhaps because of the state of mainstream Christianity in this country, I am uncomfortable with the language; increasingly I fear these terms ring hollow. The church where I was baptized, Grace Cathedral, seems to share this wariness of hollow abstraction. In the year since Charlottesville, they have increased their budget for “social justice ministry”; they have held vigils for families separated at the border, and registered voters. Finding encouragement in the cathedral’s actions, I now canvas once a week for the Democrat congressional candidate I hope will displace the Republican incumbent in my district come November.

I have decided to act.

¤

After Charlottesville, among other insufficient actions, I staked a vinyl sign on my front lawn, knowing our street is high-traffic, and every parent dropping their child at my daughter’s elementary school, just down the block from us in this county that leans Democratic by only a two percent margin, will see it. The sign says, among other things, NO HUMAN BEING IS ILLEGAL, WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS, and, most ill-advisedly in this town where signs to this effect are routinely vandalized outside the Unitarian Church, BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Some months ago, I turned the corner onto my street and saw a sign, hand-painted in red, posted beneath the speed limit. BEREKLEY TRAITORS GO HOME BEFORE WE PATRIOTS DEPORT YOUR STINK-ASSES.  

The police kindly took the TRAITORS sign down. I left my sign up. I don’t leave it up in any hopes of being “right.” I leave it up because I can’t bear, this time, not to choose.

¤

Rachel Howard’s first novel, The Risk of Us, will be published April 2019.


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