Dimock’s GEORGE ANDERSON: A Modern Variation on Kierkegaard’s FEAR AND TREMBLING

Peter Dimock, George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013  (page numbers for quotes below are from paperback edition)

Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric, originally published in Danish in 1843. (page numbers for quotes below are from the translation by Sylvia Walsh published by Cambridge University Press in 2006)

I initially chose George Anderson as my selection for us to discuss this month based on a comment by the NYT Book Reviewer who stated, “I feel confident saying that … ‘George Anderson’ is unlike anything most readers will ever have encountered.” When I purchased the book to preview it, I discovered that it was a rather slim volume so I was trying to think of some other short work that would be appropriate to pair it with. When I read the words of the narrator, Theo Fales, stating that he wanted to initiate a colloquy about fathers killing sons, this immediately brought to my mind Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling that is also a slim volume in the form of a colloquy about fathers killing sons.

I am not sure whether or not Dimock was explicitly trying to make allusions to Kierkegaard’s classic philosophical work (Dimock does not list Kierkgaard as one of his sources). However, once I started looking for possible connections between the two works, I discovered many. In this posting I will explore some of these.

Both books attempt to grapple with large, serious, philosophical, theological, ethical, and political topics, and either could have been written in the form of a strictly nonfiction treatise. However, interestingly, both authors chose to write books that have a literary aspect as well. Kierkegaard uses a pseudonym, Johannes de silentio, who expresses some views that Kierkegaard scholars realize are not really the views of Kierkegaard himself. Similarly, Dimock has written a novel narrated by a fictional character, Theo Fales, who expresses some ideas that are not likely to be the same as those of Dimock himself. Thus, both books can be subjected to a literary critique in addition to exploring their serious themes.  The various arguments made and positions taken in both books regarding socio-political-ethical-theological issues need to be evaluated with reference to the psychological, emotional, and motivational states of the (fictional) narrators. In the case of George Anderson, a partial life story of the narrator can be pieced together by paying attention to the intrusions of personal facts embedded within the text. I have constructed a timeline of some of the relevant events elsewhere, although there are many gaps and ambiguities in the narrative, and trying to make sense of these is part of the literary appeal of the novel. Also, both narrators express, wittingly or not, many humorous quotes that intrude in the midst of discussion of serious issues as I have illustrated in a previous post.

Another similarity is that both authors are uncompromising, writing books that are difficult and require a great deal of effort to understand. These are clearly not books written in a style to appeal to the lowest common denominator, or to make it onto best-seller lists. Akin to the recruiting motto of the Marines, these books are simply looking for a few good readers. Johannes de silentio makes this point explicitly in Fear and Trembling, speaking of himself in the third person, “[this writer] writes because for him it is a luxury that becomes all the more enjoyable and conspicuous the fewer who buy and read what he writes. He easily sees his fate in an age when passion has been abandoned in order to serve scholarship, in an age when an author who wants readers must take care to write in such a way that his work can be conveniently skimmed through during the after-dinner nap…(p 5) This same quote would have applied equally had it been slipped into George Anderson.

And both books use a similar structural technique that involves repetition, or more accurately, repeated variations on texts and themes. Fear and Trembling tells four variations on the biblical story of Abraham’s attempt to comply with a command from God to kill his son Isaac in the initial chapter, Tuning Up, and then provides a more detailed accurate description of the same story in a subsequent chapter, A Tribute to Abraham. This is followed in the remainder of the book with literally dozens of repetitions of various aspects of the story, sometimes repeating exact quotes of what has been stated earlier, or slight variations, but juxtaposed with new text that gives the repeated phrase a nuanced new interpretation.

George Anderson uses a similar structure, and the rationale for the repetition in this book is made explicit by the narrator, Theo Fales. He informs us that he is attempting to provide a “Getting Started Guide” of sorts for how to use a “meditative method” he has developed, and the method involves a specific set of rules for meditating on texts. The texts are repeated in a particular order, but presented in juxtaposed pairings such that a particular text will be paired with something different each time it is repeated. Theo claims that he derived his basic method from a meditative practice of the religious order of Catholic Jesuits, modified by incorporating compositional methods used by a (fictional) jazz musician named Jason Frears. This complex structure appears simply repetitive on a quick reading, but a more careful, meditative reading reveals that the repetitions are variations on a theme, and that the repeated quotes (or paraphrases) are given nuanced new meanings by their juxtapositions with different texts.

One outcome of doing a careful reading of these two books side-by-side that I found particularly fascinating was the discovery that many phrases from Fear and Trembling appear  in similar form in George Anderson. Even the subtitles of the two books have a similar flavor, “A Dialectical Lyric” and “Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time”. Here are a few examples of pairings of quotes that struck me with their similarities:

“And Abraham rose early in the morning” (Fear and Trembling {F&T} p 18)
“So they began to beat him early in the morning” (George Anderson {GA} p 36, and then used repeatedly)
“[his method of composition requires a] juxtaposition (early in the morning)…” (GA p 36)

“[Abraham revealed his faith by] being delighted to receive Isaac back.” (F&T p 30, and similar in many other places)
“I am valuable because she came back.” (GA p 21 and several other places)

“I cannot understand Abraham, I can only admire him.” (F&T, p 99, and similar in many other places)
“I admire you more than I can say” (GA p 7) …”Your action was brave beyond anything I have done.” (GA p 23, and similar in many other places)

“It is a trial, a temptation … but what does that mean.” (F&T p 52)
“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?” (GA p 58)

“A youth falls in love with a princess and the whole content of his life consists in this love…” (F&T p 34)
“… I fell in love with the first notes she sang. Leda is my one true love.” (GA p 22, and similar in many other places).

After having taken note of these, and other similarities in wording and phrases, I started to think more seriously about some of the major thematic topics that are addressed in the two books. There is enough substance in these two books to fill a one semester graduate seminar, so it would be folly to try to do a comprehensive “compare and contrast” exercise regarding the major themes addressed in these these books within the confines of a single blog posting. What I will do here is simply mention a few that I found particularly interesting.

The inadequacy of words to express truth
Both books deal with the inadequacy of words to convey truths, and with the even more insidious use of words to deliberately obfuscate or distort the truth, or to promote a big lie.

The colloquy in Fear and Trembling centers around the argument that, “Abraham cannot be mediated, which can also be expressed by saying he cannot speak.” (F&T p 52) After all, what would Abraham say to his son?, “I am going to kill you because God told me to do so and I think following God’s orders is the right thing to do”. Or to his wife, Sarah?, “I know he is our only son and that our destiny lies with his offspring, but I have decided God wants me to kill him.” Fear and Trembling argues that the only justification for Abraham’s act is his ‘faith’,  and this is not a rational response since “faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off.” (p 46). Judged according to rational thought or words, Abraham’s act was absurd, and any attempt to use words to justify it, preposterous.

George Anderson  also starts out with a quote, “Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right” — George W. Bush, July 5, 2004. The remainder of the book deconstructs how a legal document produced by the Bush administration, which I will refer to as the torture memo, attempts to use legalistic language to explain that ‘inalienable’ really means ‘alienable’ or perhaps means nothing at all. The legalistic mumbo-jumbo of the memo (produced in full as an appendix at the end of the book) is as tortuous to read as its tortuous arguments granting impunity to those in the Bush administration who promoted and allowed torture to be performed. Words have become hollow, meaningless, or worse, used to promote big lies under the pretext of explaining that which is true. The apparent gibberish of the text in some sections of George Anderson is obviously done in part to parallel the style of the language in the torture memo.

The narrator of George Anderson, Theo, does his best to come to grips with and make sense of the torture memo. The ‘meditative method’ he develops for this purpose tries to get beyond words to find underlying truth. Theo’s method was  highly influenced by the jazz musician Jason Frears. Jason’s father had died when he was only 12 and following this loss Jason “stopped talking for a year.” (p 64). Jason later developed a compositional method that expressed truths by translating words into musical notes. Theo wants to try to do something similar with his method. He meditates on juxtaposed texts, uses the words to form images, and the images to form musical notes that can be put together into a love song.

Theo has his work cut out when trying to use his method to make sense of the torture memo. As an example, while trying to juxtapose the following two quotes, both residing within the Bush Administration torture memo,

‘Torture is abhorrent both to American law and values and to international norms.’

‘While we have identified various disagreements with the August Memorandum, we have reviewed this Offices’ 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.’ “

he exclaims in exasperation, “Words fail to mean themselves.” (p 83)

Things go from bad to worse when the scope of the task at hand starts to broaden. Initially, Theo only intended to use his meditative method for the limited objective of trying to make sense of the torture memo, but soon broader issues involving American Exceptionalism begin to surface. This is because the text Theo chose as the master narrative for his meditation was a story about a slave named George Anderson who had witnessed his brother being whipped to death by their master (who was also the brother’s father, hence the colloquy about fathers killing sons). Meditations involving this text soon broaden to encompass America’s history of slavery as well as the more limited issue of torture during the Bush administration.

Once this happens, the book begins to take on larger issues related to unmediated truths, as in Fear and Trembling. In George Anderson, the truths that do not need mediation are those expressed in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident…”. However, the more the words of the Declaration of Independence are examined, words written by men who owned slaves, the less clear it is what these words mean. Theo does his best to make his method work, but sinks increasingly into madness, his own words increasingly juxtaposed fragments of gibberish, similar to the word-salad speech of a schizophrenic.

Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.) – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15609#sthash.v4cQzgkm.dpuf
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free. (America never was America to me.) – See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15609#sthash.v4cQzgkm.dpufTheo does his best to make his method work, but ultimately gives up, crying out in despair, “I have loved and made a lie.” (p 99), as he sinks increasingly into madness, his own words increasingly juxtaposed fragments of gibberish.

Alternative interpretations of history?
Soren Kierkagaard disagreed passionately with the prevailing view of prominent theologians in the Danish Lutheran Church such as H. L. Martensen that Western culture reflected the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, and that God is actualized in the norms and ethics of the Christian community. (These theologians were heavily influenced by the ideas of the  Germain School of System Philosophy, led by Hegel). Kierkagaard argued that this was a dangerous illusion and stated that his goal was to “inject Christianity into Christondom.”  (p xxii, from the editor’s introduction to the Cambridge texts translation) In Fear and Trembling, Johannes de silentio goes to great lengths trying to demonstrate how the story of Abraham is inconsistent with this prevailing view of history.

In George Anderson, Theo Fales argues forcefully against American Exceptionalism, asserting that “Histories enlightened dream of natural universal equality” (p 35) is an illusion that has never been true in the New World. He mocks the notion of American Exceptionalism with a sarcasm reminiscent of Johannes de silentio in Fear and Trembling, “I once heard a historian … hurl from the academic podium the dictum that history happens only once and in only one way. He was making the case for the United States as the indispensable nation. From all things, one purpose, one empire, one happy ending–no matter what atrocities were unfolding.” (p 68)

The historian whose views George Anderson argues against most vehemently, analogous to Kierkegaard’s H. L. Martensen, is  an American Theologian/Historian who promoted American Exceptionalism, Jonathon Edwards.  The narrator Theo quotes from Edwards, but never refers to him by name, only as “Our best American Philosopher” whose intent was  “to hasten and beneficially affect (with the assistance of Divine grace) the fulfillment of God’s plan by considering all parts of the grand scheme in their historical order.” (p 68)

Eventually Theo comes to the conclusion that the Bush torture memo and America’s history of slavery reflect the same underlying concept, impunity of the powerful from any constraints on doing whatever they damn well please. Theo initially achieves the insight of, “…slavery as a legal system of impunity.” (p 103) after meditating on a text taken verbatim from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Theo’s initial meditation had been on the narrative of the slave George Anderson who had witnessed his brother whipped to death. In that narrative an apologist might have found a (scant) suggestion that the slave owner had, at least in his own mind, a justification for the act of killing his own son; the son had apparently stolen something belonging to the master. In the narrative from Frederick Douglas, there is not even a fig-leaf  of justification. It is a horrific account of torture of a woman slave by her master, witnessed and recounted later by the woman’s nephew,  “He would whip her to make her scream and whip her to make her hush. It was the bloodstained gate to hell of slavery.” (p 96)

Theo uses this narrative as a metaphor for both the actions of the Bush administration in granting impunity for torture and more generally for American History of Exceptionalism, “History and Enlightenment open onto an inner realm (operating by its own laws) without any extrinsic purposes whatsoever.” (p 106)

What is our Highest Duty?
Is one’s highest duty to the ethical norms of society as expressed in principles such as the golden rule (Do unto others as you would have done to yourself), and the principle of universality (if an action is right [or wrong] for others, it is right [or wrong] for us.)
to some other higher standard?, e.g., a duty to God, a commitment to Social Justice, World Peace, etc.

In many, perhaps most, instances these two sets of standards will lead to the same conclusion regarding what should be done. But what should be done when they do not? Both Fear and Trembling and George Anderson agree that religious, sociopolitical, or other forms of personal convictions should, at least in some cases, trump societies sanctioned values in terms of what is “the right thing to do”? But both books also agree that allowing passions to guide behavior is a potentially dangerous idea. This can give rise to civil disobedience as practiced by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and in our own time to courageous acts of whistlblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. But, also to deranged parents who kill their children in the belief they have been commanded by God to do so, and to terrorists who set off bombs in public places out of a conviction that social justice demands these actions.

How does one decide which of these acts are courageous and deserving of admiration and which are deranged and ought to be condemned? Both books try to deal with these issues in a serious way. Fear and Trembling tries to delineate some of the characteristics that  differentiate a true religious believer who should be admired, “a genuine knight of faith”, from a fanatic. George Anderson tries to deal seriously with the question, “What is the appropriate citizen response, knowing what we know, to the president’s statement to the nation delivered on July 5, 2004 that ‘Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right?'” (p 95)

Confronting Ethical Paradoxes
The major paradox in the case of Fear and Trembling is that Abraham’s willingness to kill his own son is considered by Christians, Jews, and Muslims to be the epitome of religious faith, and yet judging Abraham’s actions based on ethical standards would lead one to the conclusion that Abraham should be condemned as a child-murderer for this act.

The major paradox in George Anderson is that David Kallen, a fictional character in the novel but probably based on an actual person, ordered special forces to subject him to torture. He did this in order to place himself in a position to revoke beyond appeal a previous legal opinion granting permission to the President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense of the United States to order torture without fear or threat of prosecution for committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. And yet after all that, he ended up writing a footnote that was attached to a legal document that had the (opposite) effect of granting impunity from prosecution to those who had performed these acts!

The “solution” offered for dealing with the paradox in Fear and Trembling involves embracing the paradox by an “absurd act of faith”. Specifically in the case of Abraham, the absurd act of faith that guides his actions is a belief and trust that he has a relationship with a God who will keep his/her/its promises. The narrator, Johannes de silentio states that he has admiration for Abraham’s faith, but that he cannot really understand it, and would not himself have the courage to act as Abraham did. Much of the book involves Johannes’ careful examination of the positions of various philosophers and theologians who claim that they do understand Abraham, but who Johannes thinks trivialize the act of courage it would take to act as Abraham did. Johannes exudes sarcasm and scorn towards those individuals and their positions as he deconstructs their arguments. In the final analysis, Johannes concludes that either Abraham was a murderer or a man of faith, and one cannot have it both ways; and if he was a man of faith, this is incompatible with the (popularly held) position that Abraham was the epitome of an “ethical” person. Abraham’s act is justified only if faith supersedes ethics. Kierkegaard himself thought it did, and used this principle as the linchpin around which he formulated a philosophical/theological system commonly referred to today as Christian Existentialism.

The attempted solution to the paradox in George Anderson also starts out with faith. The narrator Theo Fales asserts to David Kallen,”I send you this historical method in good faith.” (p 10)  Just as Johannes admires but cannot understand Abraham, Theo admires but cannot understand David Kallen. Nevertheless, he appears to genuinely want to use his method to try to create reciprocal empathy with Kallen. He writes, “You were brave beyond the rule and measure of our training and learned with your body what words spoken in good faith could mean.” (p 105) However, Theo’s intense anger at what Kallen did can not always be repressed, and empathic meditations are frequently interrupted by uncontrollable outbursts of sarcasm, scorn, and diatribes. Nevertheless, Theo makes a heroic attempt to, “Compose notes for a historical song that move beyond the constraints of what is without appeal to transcendence of any kind.” (p 111)

Here are the words to his Love Song in Imperial Time:

Every moment forfeit
In this history of absolute loss:
I am valuable because she came back.
If you see Leda before I do,
Sing her this song
So she does not chose another,
I will do the same for you
If, while you are away, I meet
Your one true love
And you teach me
The words, Refuse
Empire; create reciprocity.

When first encountered, these words read (perhaps) as gibberish. However, if you have read George Anderson you will have encountered each of the phrases in this love song multiple times, juxtaposed with various other texts, and the poem will take on a meaning not captured simply by its words. And this is not the last step in Theo’s method. The last step is to translate each of these words into musical notes that make a love song — then the words themselves can be thrown away.

Ultimately, Theo tries to resolve the paradox that has been tormenting him by an absurd act.  He declares his love for Leda, a woman he has only met briefly when he heard her sing the wordless notes of a song composed by Jason Freers. This can perhaps be treated as a metaphor for Theo’s achievement of transcending the constraints of Empire and the lies of American Exceptionalism, analogous to Kierkegaard’s ‘youth’ for whom the love of a princess became for him, “the expression of an eternal love, assumed a religious character, was transformed into the love of the eternal being…(F&T p 36)

However, Theo is not satisfied to simply have a theoretical epiphany. Like Abraham, in Fear and Trembling, Theo acted! A concrete, brave, existential, absurd act! And just to make sure we realize this, he  includes in the appendix a copy of the actual physical letter he sent to Leda on February 5, 2010 declaring his love.

Ron Boothe



About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently 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 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dimock’s GEORGE ANDERSON: A Modern Variation on Kierkegaard’s FEAR AND TREMBLING

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    A pretty fascinating piece titled “Mike Tyson Explores Kierkegaard” appeared in The Wall Street Journal on December 13. Here is a link to it

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