Sunday 29 March 2015

Kierkegaard and The Exorcist

Kierkegaard is like The Exorcist. He makes Christianity heroic. 

I first came across Kierkegaard and The Exorcist when I was an undergraduate. Fear and Trembling came out in Penguin Classics and a friend, for some reason bought a copy and then lent it to me. The Exorcist was still banned back then in the 70s/80s, but someone had come across a copy and we watched it in a room full of students, from a distance quite far away. The video cassette presented a quite atrocious copy of the film, but it didn’t matter.   Both of these events, reading Fear and Trembling and watching The Exorcist had a lasting importance for me.

I have to confess when I first read Fear and Trembling, I was a bit embarrassed by the Christianity. I thought Kierkegaard would be great if only he didn’t go on about God so much. At the time I was quite a militant atheist. But something made me want to read further. I realised that there was something here for me. Here was something different that I had never come across before.  I found most of the philosophers that we studied extraordinarily dull. They were concerned with problems that were at best abstract, at worst artificial. After I’d got over the initial thrill of Descartes’ scepticism, the whole debate turned out to be sterile and lacking in importance. Perhaps, this is looking at events from a future perspective. It’s always difficult to reflect back on the version of yourself who lived some years ago, without using the present perspective as the lens through which to interpret. Anyway, I resolved to do my undergraduate dissertation on Kierkegaard. We’d actually had a little course on his Philosophical Fragments, which must have been unusual at a British university at that time.  I took that as my point of departure and set out to read the Concluding Unscientific Postscript to those Fragments. These two works formed the basis of what I wrote. I read very little secondary literature apart from the bare minimum to play the game. As an alternative to reading dull books about my chosen author I tried to come up with some of my own ideas simply by reflecting on the texts that I was reading. It is necessary to choose not to respect great people too much if someone is ever going to write anything original. You have to choose to write your own ideas or else you will forever repeat those of others. I have never been much of a scholar as it is fundamentally uninteresting.

After graduating I decided to study Kierkegaard further and went to Cambridge for this purpose. Along the way I learned Danish. I started with an evening class, once a week and worked my way through a ‘teach yourself’ Danish book. I then set off to read one of Kierkegaard's books in Danish and chose Repetition, because it was short and because I liked it. It is not about repetition in the ordinary sense of the word, but in a sense that is quite extraordinary. Repetition is to be for the first time again.  I looked up nearly every word on the first page, but persevered and by the end could read Kierkegaard reasonably well. I first went to Denmark that summer before going to Cambridge. There I began to speak and to understand better, for Kierkegaard is really much better in Danish. Where most philosophers write ugly prose, he wrote as well in Danish as anyone ever has.

Over the next four years I read nearly all of Kierkegaard, much of it in Danish, or at least I checked the text when it seemed necessary. I frequently had to provide my own translations as at that time, not everything had been translated and some had been translated poorly.

I also found rather that I had come to believe. I can’t point to a moment when this happened, but occasionally I would go to Kings College chapel. I rather liked their style, performing every year a requiem mass for Henry VI who founded the college. They had a debt to pay and repaid it. I’ve never been much of a church goer, but somehow I found that I had a sort of faith. I find the only way to really understand someone is to put myself in their shoes, so that the problems that they describe become my problems. If the issue is not real to me, how can I really think about it in an interesting way? Not everyone uses such a method, just as not every actor using ‘the method’, but it was perhaps through treating the study of Kierkegaard existentially and personally that I found one day that I had leapt, without quite knowing when it had happened or how.

Kierkegaard had provided the answer to my doubts with perhaps the only answer possible. Accept them. His discussion of faith was perfect for a sceptic. If I thought that Christianity was absurd and ridiculous, he agreed. But he showed the possibility of believing anyway. I grasped that possibility through him. Moreover, he showed Christianity to be brave. Here was an abyss. Here was the need to leap over that abyss. Here was risk. Here was the need for courage. Here were heroes who were called ‘knights of faith’. It was all just impossibly romantic. Reader, I swooned.

I had always associated Christianity with wetness. An Archbishop spoke in a funny voice, all vacillation, and tremulous modulation. The Christianity I had heard before was just left-wing politics with a little bit of God added to the mix. If something was hard to believe, like the Virgin birth, it could easily be watered down. If a part of the Bible didn’t fit in with modern life, it could be dropped. It all seemed so weak and I had wanted nothing to do with it.

But always in the back of my mind was The Exorcist . Here once more was something a little more heroic.  And I began to rethink it in Kierkegaardian terms. Here was a priest, Father Karras, who was like a boxer. He trained as if he was going to go 15 rounds with some middleweight. He was intelligent. But this man was going to fight the Devil, literally the Devil. He, too, had to make a leap of faith, for in the beginning he did not even believe in exorcism. The idea of possession to his modern mind, trained in psychiatry, seemed preposterous, something from the Middle Ages. So he, too, had scepticism. 

With the arrival of the exorcist, Father Merrin, we meet another sort of Christian heroism. This man believes in possession and despite his physical weakness, his heart condition, despite the fact that he knows the exorcism may kill him, he takes on the Devil.

Each priest fights in his own way and each gives up his life, a martyr for his faith. Here, despite the film’s trappings of horror, I began to realise was an attractive form of Christianity. Here were heroes, not weaklings.  

I think, it was for the same reason that Kierkegaard emphasised going back to early Christianity. For at that time it was not easy to be a Christian. There was constantly the risk of martyrdom. Witnessing to the truth meant standing up to be counted. It meant proclaiming ideas that were treated by contemporaries as either offensive or folly. This was no easy life. It was the opposite of the comfortable, dull, bourgeois ‘Christian’ life that he found in 19th century Copenhagen, which preached one thing on Sunday and then ignored it for the rest of the week.

The vision of heroic Christianity portrayed by Kierkegaard and The Exorcist is not the whole story. It is certainly not the whole story in Kierkegaard. For his emphasis in the end is on practical Christianity and living a Christian life. But the idea that Christianity might require bravery of me, which is an important strand in Kierkegaard’s thought, at least made the whole thing more attractive than the Christianity that had always been presented to me up until that point. Here were people I could admire.  By emphasising the difficulties involved in Christianity, Kierkegaard makes it something that is worth having. Moreover, by presenting a vision of Christianity which is not watered down, which follows the traditional view of Christianity literally, which takes the Bible seriously, he doesn’t tame it and make it domesticated for the present age. His idea is that if we find something in Christianity difficult, it is up to us to change. I should not expect that Christianity should accommodate itself to my difficulty.  Rather I must change to fit in with Christianity. The same goes for The Exorcist. The present age is sceptical about demonic possession, but it is Father Karras who must change. The traditional view of Christianity prevails. Demonic possession is another absurdity. How could anyone believe such stupid superstitions? But Father Karras quite literally leaps and in the end is a true knight of faith. 

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