The Funny Side of FEAR AND TREMBLING and GEORGE ANDERSON

Peter Dimock, George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013

Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric, originally published in Danish in 1843.

I realize that much of what is discussed in these two books is pretty serious, even grim. However, both books also contain a lot of really funny stuff. That is part of what appeals to me about doing this compare and contrast exercise of the two books. Just in case you have been reading the books so seriously that you failed to see any humor, I provide a few of my favorite example here.

FEAR AND TREMBLING
Johannes de silentio, Soren Kierkegaard’s alter ego who narrates Fear and Trembling, is a brash young upstart who decides to take on the established order of his day, the dominating System Philosophy of Hegel, and the Lutheran Church in Denmark that had incorporated many of Hegel’s ideas into its theology. This is something most mere mortals would do only with extreme trepidation (dare we say, Fear and Trembling), but Johannes is obviously fearless and goes right for the jugular, never hesitating to spew sarcasm and ridicule towards the establishment. Consider the following quotes: (page numbers are from the Cambridge Texts translation)

“The present writer is not at all a philosopher; he has not understood the System, whether it exists or whether it is finished. He already has enough for his weak head in the thought of what huge heads everyone in our age must have since everyone has such huge thoughts.” p 5

“That man was not a learned exegete, he did not know Hebrew; had he known Hebrew, then perhaps he would easily have understood the story of Abraham.” p 8

“Perhaps someone or other will succeed, for our age does not stop at faith nor with its miracle of turning water into wine; it goes further and turns wine into water.” p 31

“If a man who suffered from insomnia were present [listening to a sermon being preached about Abraham], he would perhaps have gone home, sat down in a corner and thought: ‘The whole affair is a momentary matter; just wait a minute, then you will see the ram and the trial is over’.” p 45

“One not infrequently hears people who become engrossed in cliches for lack of losing themselves in studies say that a light shines over the Christian world, whereas paganism is shrouded in darkness. This sort of talk has always seemed strange to me, since every more profound thinker, every more serious artist still rejuvenates himself in the eternal youth of the Greek people. Such a statement may be explained by one not knowing what one should say but only that one should say something. … for as Boileau says: ‘A fool always finds a greater fool who admires him’.” p 48

Those who talk this way are a numerous lot whom I shall designate by the common name of ‘associate professors’. Secured in life, they live in their thoughts …” p 55

” I am courteous enough to assume that everyone in our age, which is so esthetically sensual, so potent and fired up that it conceives just as easily as the partridge which, according to Aristotle, has only to hear the cocks voice or its flight overhead — I assume that everyone who merely hears the word ‘concealment’ easily will be able to shake about a dozen novels and comedies out of his sleeve.” p 74

“[Queen] Elizabeth received news of this, so it is said, if I am not mistaken, then sat for ten days with a finger in her mouth, biting it without saying a word, and after that she died. This would be a theme for a poet who knew how to pry the mouth open; otherwise it wold be useful at most to a ballet master, with whom the poet in or age too often confuses himself.” p 82

“If philosophy were also to imagine, among other things, that it might just cross a person’s mind to want to act according to its teaching, a curious comedy could be made out of that.” p 86

“…Faust is so ideal [as a doubter] that he does not belong with those scholarly doubters who doubt one hour every semester at the lectern …
[T]he comic element in the plot lies dormant by bringing Faust into an ironic relation to those low comedy fools in our age who run after doubt, produce an external argument, perhaps a doctoral certificate, to prove they have really doubted, or swear that they have doubted everything, or prove it by the fact that they met a doubter…” p 97

“This urge to go further is ancient in the world. … Heraclitus the obscure has said: ‘One cannot pass through the same river twice.’ Heraclitus the obscure had a disciple who did not stop there; he went further and added: ‘One cannot do it even once’. Poor Heraclitus, to have had such a disciple!” p 109

GEORGE ANDERSON
(page numbers following quotes are from the paperback edition)

The humor in George Anderson tends to come in entire paragraphs or pages that slide, often imperceptibly, between the sublime and the ridiculous, profound and gibberish — and it often took me a few readings to decide which passages were which, and in some cases I am still not sure, but more often than not I found the gibberish to be REALLY funny. The humorous gibberish is mostly too long to quote here, but I will start out with one full-paragraph quote that provides a good example,

“In imitation of functionalist principles of stochastic determination and the application of statistical mechanics to human command functions, the serial order of the application of the elements of the method’s three tables in the construction of mental sounds for musical notes is strictly adhered to throughout these exercises. As illustrated here, therefore, the construction of the mental sound of the fifth note is accomplished by the application of the fifth truth statement (Whenever events lose their independent value, an abstruse exegesis is born), as you would expect, but then by the application of the first pair of Constructive principles (Emancipative capacity of bourgeois literacy and Historylessness). This is because there are only four pairs of Constructive Principles in all so the next in the series after the fourth must be a return to the first in imitation of the temporal linearity of historical duration (“time arrow”), despite the continued incidence and determining influence of cycles of repetition.” p 63

As another example, I invite the reader to try going through the book to see how many times a sentence begins with the phrase “By Historical Method I mean …”, and after having read all of these sentences, I leave it as an exercise to try to explain just exactly what it is that he means by “Historical Method”.

The narrator,Theo Fales, starts out as Vice President of a large publishing firm, McClaren Books. But consider what is revealed to have happened to him by the following three quotes taken from three successive pages,

“As soon as the service was over, in the joy of my vision’s new immediacy, I urgently asked my boss and best friend, Owen Corless, to give me — then and there — the equivalent scene from his own life. I asked him to tell me what he had seen during the singing. … Owen refused — lightly at first. But I insisted. He pretended not to understand. Our relations have not been the same since.” p 17

Followed on the next page with,
“…[I]t will be difficult to reach me at my listed McClaren Books address. … I have requested and been granted a leave of absence from the company. … This comes after continuing difference between Owen and me.

And finally on the following page,
“Most days I am at my desk at the reading room at the Hollander library.”

The narrator Theo tells us that he is using his “method” for a lofty socio-political-ethical purpose; He wants to try to attain an understanding of why Kallen participated in writing a memo legalizing torture for the Bush administration. However, personal factors from his own life-situation keep intruding into the text, many of which are funny. Here are some of his “other motivations”, revealed indirectly through personal intrusions into the text:

Wanting to win an argument,
“With the help of this method and our actions, I know that we will be able to prove Owen wrong.” p 19

As a self-help therapy (The fact that Theo has recently separated from his wife, and has declared his love to someone else he only met briefly after the separation make the following two quotes especially poignant),
“The following is from an early record of my own practice of this method: Bourgeois good faith finally rests on the ideal of a lasting community of love founded on the ideal of love between spouses.” p 21
“When I recently separated from my wife of thirteen years, the method helped me know how to care for Lily, my teenage daughter.” p 64

And perhaps, his motivation is influenced by a need for ‘networking’,
“I very much look forward to our meeting in which we will have the chance to talk. When that time comes, I may ask you for your law firm’s legal services on my own behalf…” p 44

Or as a ‘pickup’ aid,
“I have declared my love for Leda. I was able to do so because of my practice of this method. p 98

Here is a sampling of some other short quotes that are hilarious, at least if they catch you in the right mood in context while reading the text:

“Every moment forfeit in a history of absolute loss: I am valuable because she came back. Memorize this and you will be safe…” p 21

“My method takes four weeks and two days to complete.” p 22

“Despite what Hollywood might have you believe, you don’t call in the tough guys, you call in the lawyers.” p 28

“I confess that I myself have misgivings about how easily the rules I specify for the composition of musical notes can be used by others. … As my mother used to say, ‘You may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb’.” p 38

“I have developed an easy notational system that I will now ask you to learn by heart. The first musical note resulting from my practice of the second week’s first exercise is written in the following way: I.I. i(a); i(b).” p 51

“Once you have established the sound of the first day’s note, permit yourself to enter freely into a colloquy with any person of your choosing, imagined or real.” p 55

“Memorize the eighth footnote of your December 30, 2004 legal finding: ‘While we have identified various disagreements with the August 2002 Memorandum, we have reviewed this Office’s prior opinions addressing issues involving treatment of detainees and do not believe that any of their conclusions would be different under the standards set forth in this memorandum.’ What does this mean?” p 58

“I did not have the courage–though I knew I had found my one true love [Jessie Bishop, a dancer her had met the night before at a strip club] –to knock. There was no bell.” p 73

“I wrote one letter to Jessie Bishop, in it I asked about Robert. I never heard anything back.” p 80

“‘Immediate’ in the seventeenth century, could be used as a noun that referred to a person … as in: ‘Christ is speedy, and swift as a roe, especially in his immediates.” p 95

Finally, consider how you might feel if you were David Kallen and received Theo’s letter in your mailbox and read the following quotes. Perhaps scared shitless?

“[I] would be pleased to meet any members of your family who will be attending.” p 98

“I understand that your home is quite close by.” p 109

“Remember that in subsequent cycles of this method, you will be asked to make yourself the historical subject of the fourth week’s exercise.” p 113 

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About Ron Boothe

I am a retired professor of psychology living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2013 Selections, Fear and Trembling, George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Times. Bookmark the permalink.

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