So? Should we be weird and do what Kierkegaard would have done?
–K. Brian Söderquist
In the cool morning of the thirteenth of May in the year of our Lord two thousand and ten, which just so happened to be the Day of the Ascension, a man walked out of Nørreport station with four kroner in his pocket. It would be wrong to say that he was an unusual man, for that would mean that he must be defined by the usual. He wore a light navy jacket, unzipped and blowing in the Copenhagen wind. He walked with a slight limp that originated in a curious S curve in the lower back; whether a disfiguration or a product of his own calculated gestures, I cannot say. Beneath the jacket one could glimpse a t-shirt with his home university’s emblem. His khaki-ed legs swished against each other with purpose; at first glance I would not say those pants suited his demeanor, though those who knew him well found it hard to picture him without them. But the most controversial aspect of his character was the curious hat on top of his head—slate gray, lined with felt, and circled by an opulent ribbon. He walked deliberately but as if he had no place in particular to be. Beneath the hat were two long, symmetrical, mahogany strips of matted hair that nearly met at the chin before curving inwards and tapering off, as if a serpent could have furry fangs. Was he stared at? Yes…though he had grown so used to being an object of derision and prejudice that the muted cackles of surrounding Danes affected him rather little. Quite often, every half block or so, he would stop suddenly in the flow of people and write something in a small black notebook he kept on his person at all times.
The formation of this man had begun one week prior (or perhaps sooner, but we must start somewhere—ahh, mustn’t we!), when he arrived for his last day of classes at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. He had matriculated in a class called “Intro to Russian Literature: St. Petersburg and its Great Stories,” and while feeling no particular obligation to attend he suspected he could acquire some unique occurrences for his note taking. A man named Jon, whom we have met before but whom had not “met” the man you have been reading about, taught this class. Upon entering the classroom Jon approached this man with great curiosity.
“You are Pushkin!” Jon declared, leaning over the man’s seat and pleasantly propping his cheeks between two meaty, manicured hands. To the man’s left, a student started to guffaw at the awkwardness of this cold open. Our hero turned in silent hatred towards this interruption, whom you have also read about before, and whom this man held a white-hot fury for. For our protagonist was now, since the day before, filled with something that had squeezed out most calling cards of empathy, compassion, morals, and a rather oppressive emotion that has pared down perhaps 99% of all material in these posts and which for lack of a better phrase I will call “authorial restraint.” Simply put he saw in this other a lonely, sniveling little brat who had been fully awoken to the most obvious absurdities of social interaction but remained obliviously unaware of Jon’s deliberate role-playing. This other was more comfortable with the safety of conversational obliqueness and snide laughter than the minutely higher level of discourse between Jon and our hero, which lied primarily in a state of mutual irony. But we all most hate those things that are most like ourselves.
“No, I am not Pushkin,” said the man. He told Jon what he was meant to be, and the pedagogue nearly shot into the air.
“That is marvelous. That is immersion. Did he have mutton chops like those?”
“Indeed, he did. All you fools have been assuming for months that I grew these out of blind vanity or post pubescent curiosity, when really I have grown them so as to become…him.”
Jon smiled to himself, as he is wont to do, and as this Other was incapable of doing, needing his sniggers to be seen by at least two people at any one moment, lest his wit be unappreciated, like the moon over the day. He gazed at our man and narrowed his eyelids. “Afternoon, Ebenezer.”
Some of the more dim-witted classmates laughed at this. Our man turned back to Jon. “You see, Kierkegaard is coming in from this direction—” he raised his left hand upward—“and I’m coming in from this other way”—his right hand raised parallel to the other—“and we’re meeting in the middle”—the man’s digits shaking as they come together, an unstable balance achieved. “So that now, I am neither. I am a coelacanth.”
Perhaps this would be the best name for us to use for him. Coelacanth attempted to pay attention to the lecture that commenced, but he just didn’t give a shit. Jon was an idiot—he understood that now. That fortuitous encounter in the graveyard had awoken him to the sheer inadequacies of his compatriots with whom over the last four months he had mistakenly entertained notions of mutual respect and solidarity. He copied down some of these thoughts in his journal:
“None of these idiots understand that I’m not just dressing up as him or acting like him or trying to follow in his footsteps or some other ‘personal field study’ smegma that DIS might plan for its initiates. They could never suspect that I have him inside me, right this very moment, staring out of me at them through my own eyes! How horrifying! How exciting!”
“On another note, an idea: for final Kierkegaard paper, write K.’s name normally and his pseudonyms in quotation marks. Halfway through, start using quotations for K.’s name and write the pseudonyms normally. See if Brian notices.”
Coelacanth was unaccustomed to eating large meals, unlike the American who had used his body before his arrival, so he did not realize until after class adjourned at one o’clock that he had not yet eaten that day. As we all now know, Lagkagehuset has the best sandwiches in town. But if he went all the way there, he would certainly be late to his next class. Such were Coelacanth’s ambivalent thoughts until he realized who he now was, and that he was no longer answerable to anyone, and that he was becoming something that had never existed before and that he was a god among these wannabe Vikings of continental Scandinavia. So he journeyed to Lagkagehuset, picked up a chicken-with-yellow-curry baguette, and calmly threw open the door of “Kierkegaard: Philosophy and Meaning in Life” to face the only man capable of knowing whom he was truly meant to be.
Brian paused mid-sentence, the expectations of his mind’s eye clashing with the reality before him of some snot-nosed Appalachian know-it-all dressed in the image of he who extinguished his Mormon wick, this kid who had a (fucking) limited knowledge of how the world really worked but who had enough gall to interrupt the last day of class with (apparently) a silent song-and-dance routine designed to undermine his authority as a teacher. There was one every semester. The class, more silent after the interruption than they had ever been when the professor opened his mouth, suddenly burst into hushed whispers. “…and there he is,” Brian finished, weakly gesturing to the intruder, who mockingly waved at the crowd and insolently dragged a chair across the room to assume his customary position in the far-left of Brian’s peripheral vision. The poor lecturer refused to make eye contact throughout the rest of his spiel; Coelacanth pitied him, in the same way we all secretly pity Porky Pig’s infinite, though innocent stuttering. Though Coelacanth swore he caught a neurotic glance every now and then that broke this illusion. It was crucial, he knew, that after that show-stopping entrance he must act completely normal—to do whatever Amerigo would have done, so that the facades not become destroyed. “They must not suspect what I have really become…they must continue to believe that I am that old student, who just felt like getting some undeserved attention on this last day of class…they mustn’t know that he and I are now one.”
“Madness…this is far too distracting…I have never been in his presence such as this before…never ‘So let me ask if any of you have any questions about Kierkegaard the man?’ in the act of translating or lecturing or the sheer loneliness of reading him have I been so confronted…how can this little prick wield such ‘I’m not sure if I told any of you, but I live in the same apartment where Either/Or was edited’ preternatural power over me…sickening…the way he splits his notes between an innocent binder and that god damn ‘yes I have a love/hate relationship with him, just as he had one with himself’ little moleskin…and how he’s acting so calm right n—wait! There? No, no, no no no it can’t be…he cannot have absorbed him, not this quickly, not in over twenty years have I succeeded…yet that one-sided incline of the mouth—wouldn’t call it a smirk, no, it’s too much like him ‘Let me just say, don’t write those final papers with your left hand’ for that…how could he have surpassed me so easily…”
And the irony, as you have already guessed, is that Coelacanth was completely in command of the situation, calmly recording these thoughts before they occurred, and devising a flawless parry in the process. “Only I could have absorbed him, as you well know. You suspected it on the way to Jutland; you couldn’t resist telling me, thinking you could crush the molten, glass-blown bulb under the weight of its own promise. Sometimes drowning the Idea tempers rather than shatters it. Shouldn’t have opened that window, friend. Shouldn’t have planted the idea in my mind to carry out the deed…”
After the class was over, Coelacanth approached Caitlin, who had hated his guts ever since he implied that she was in love with John, another classmate who went to Prague and whom we have heard about before as well. Caitlin could not have known, Coelacanth thought, that that had been written as a defense mechanism for Amerigo’s own blossoming affection for her, the same way that six-year olds most mock the playmate they want to share cooties with (bear in mind that Coelacanth had access to all of Amerigo’s deepest, most secret thoughts). Caitlin would not even make eye contact with Coelacanth as she described her final research paper on “The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as well as Kierkegaard’s influence on popular music in the Sixties.” It was an interesting topic, maybe a little too cute for its own good (which she was anxious about, he knew, so no reason to belabor the point), so thus a good microcosm for Caitlin’s own character. “There’s no reason to be clinical with me,” Coelacanth wanted to say. “I know you hated Amerigo. But he’s gone now. Or at least, he will be gone very, very soon. Can’t you like me instead? Aren’t beginnings more fun than your scarred restraint?”
There was one more class that day—“Church and State: Religion and Politics in Europe”—which Coelacanth took pride in attending. His vacant professor, trying to foster an “organic” debate between class factions on the burka’s position in secular theory, mistook our mutton-chopped man for Thomas Jefferson. “How fascinating,” Coelacanth thought. “All these actors think the role I’m playing is whichever one most corresponds to their own field. What a filter over reality! How can one learn anything, if all foreign fixtures can only illuminate yourself, and never things as they are?”
These thoughts continued apace for the next several days, as Coelacanth went down farther and farther into himself, as his hapless host family re-evaluated their decision to harbor a student this semester. Finally, on that thirteenth of May, the man stepped out of Nørreport and into the unknown. It would no longer be fair to call him Coelacanth…honestly, I don’t know who or what he was, that day. He walked to a large bank in the Latin Quarter of the city, which bore a plaque commemorating the birthplace of Denmark’s most famous philosopher. Somehow the metal slab annoyed him, as if it were laying claim to that figure rather than merely marking his former presence. Etched in that way, as if that story was somehow finished… “We couldn’t help being born here,” the man thought. “And once you label us you negate us. The sign simply says, ‘right here, on this spot, a sign was put up’. How pathetic. And yet in a strange way, also so dignified, for we are all just signs that point to our own put-up-ness.”
He traveled to the Research Center established in his honor, but it was closed to him in celebration of the Christian holiday being celebrated that day. “Such is Christendom,” he thought grimly.
There was a statue of a famous theologian nearby at which he paused in silent, ambivalent contemplation.
He then found a café, ordered a glass of white wine, turned inward to his journal, and wrote down very strange thoughts:
“…Visit Brian during his office hours. Confess that the difference between fiction and reality is no longer completely clear. Laugh awkwardly and slap myself across the face, as if to awake myself from the nightmare. Start crying. At this point he will say something sappy and trite. Write down this spiel and attribute it to Kierkegaard in my final paper. If he confronts me: accuse him of stealing it from Kierkegaard with confidence, erudition. He will give in. If he does not: write a blog post in which he does.”
“…Write a short story in which Jon wakes up one morning to find he has forgotten how to speak Russian. Divorces his wife, becomes estranged from his children, etc. Disperse the short story to some big publishers. Win a Pushcart prize. Give the award to Jon and whisper: ‘I am sorry for your loss.’”
The man placed a large tip on the streetside café table, and began to walk down Strøget. He received many stares from the passers-by; so be it. “It is better that they notice me in this way; that I be visible to the crowd as a member among them but differentiated from them, that I remain the exception but in an unthreatening way,” the man mused. “In that way they must relate themselves to themselves with me as the intermediary; I set the standard which cannot be met but which itself sets the others. Only through this method can anyone be improved—improved or destroyed…God, is not the most static thing also the most intolerable?”
He leaned against the exterior granite of the street’s Burger King and began staring at every red-haired woman that passed—a number impressive by American standards but hardly exceptional for Scandinavia (“hence, an appropriate channel for observation,” he wrote in the journal). One woman at random he began to follow back down the street, walking in step with her, allowing her to catch glimpses of him by occasionally tripping into her peripheral vision. When he sensed the look in her eyes transition from bemusement to rape-alert status, he made a u-turn towards the old city hall. “Yet how many of these women,” he thought, “in some secret way want to lie with me, in all my mystery and philosophic zest? To produce a love-child of possibly demonic origin? And how many of these children are already running down the streets of Copenhagen through the avenues of their mothers’ lecherous minds? How many of these bastard ideas will live miserable, half-conceived lives?”
There was a statue by the old town hall that was surrounded by Koreans, a seated figure with cane and a top hat only mildly more impressive than our hero’s. “Of course the joke, the grand joke, is that all these people and statues and buildings are here as a part of my costume. They have been placed here for me to see them in this way as a part of me. Everything is inside me. But unfortunately the joke is so large that it ends up not being funny, the dialectic is ruined for absorbing its own opposite and again becoming bland “Truth”, and again I am the object of laughter rather than the true punchline.” Unfortunately it so happened that our hero hated this statue, along with the man it depicted, with unbridled passion–the only Dane able to usurp his glory. He took notes by the bronze titan, and allowed the Chongs to take his picture.
So he continued down H.C. Andersen Boulevard to a small business that drew his curiosity for being a quite recent addition to the Copenhagen religious world. He removed the hat as he entered, knowing that some battles are not meant to be fought, fidgeting it nervously with his fingers behind his back. A small woman who he somehow implicitly knew had dual Danish-California citizenship (I would guess because of the Capri pants, which are a dead giveaway, though I was not there) manned the reception desk, surrounded by books with the same shiny golden title font and a raging volcano on the cover. “Excuse me,” he began, “I’m looking for some information on…I believe it is called Scientography?”
“Scientology? Ja tak.” She pointed around her at the books. The man smiled.
“Jeg taler engelsk, unskyld. I was hoping you could describe to me its main tenets. You see I am on a budget, and cannot afford a copy, although I have a curious mind.”
The bluntness confused her in an edifying way, and our hero received such pleasure from this that he was beside himself—literally, able to look at himself with glee. She tried her darndest: “Well…we believe it’s all about energy, I suppose?”
“Fascinating. Continue, please.”
“There is energy that is everywhere, and some of it gets inside you and stays there for a long time, and so we want to help you find out what’s inside you and see if you can overcome it.”
“I see. Thank you for that clarification of some awful rumors I have heard. It so happens I have worked very hard to place something inside me, having overcome the vacuum that was there previously. But I will remember your teachings should a reversal prove appealing.”
He replaced his hat on his head, nodded at the poor frumpy dame, and exited.
His final destination was a location well known to him, and which we have read about twice before. Fortunately the graveyard was not crowded, and the man was able to approach his own grave in relative peace.
I would call this an “out of body experience” except that our hero was very much embodied at that moment, though the grave angered him unexpectedly. “Not that I ever felt at rest, no. It looks nicer from the outside than from within. My brother ensured a good send-off, I will say that. But it was not on my terms…the clergy were there. Is it any better now? Can I reclaim my resting place for myself, as an observer rather than as the interned? There is again strife for me; this body I inhabit has more than enough. What a short-sighted epigraph I had chiseled above me! I no longer walk and experience as myself, but as myself in he-who-has-become-himself-through-myself, and this is not at all the same thing.” He wrote:
“Meet Richard Gilbert and Kathy Krendl (cf. ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’) for some Continental traveling. Dress as Tom, talk like him, act like him in the same self-conscious, shy way, etc. Before going to bed each night bow to them and say, ‘Excuse me, I must rest eight hours between performances.’ Charge them for an encore.”
He continued to wander the tombs, looking for something in particular–a person whose grave he thought he kept almost seeing in the corner of his eye, but which always rested in a corner of his mind. A tour guide passed in an unbelievable outfit, the stuff that bull’s wet dreams are made of, shouting exaggeratedly soft d’s and ø’s to a group of lens-zooming Århus tourists. He approached her in fear and trembling.
“Unskyld. I am looking for Regine Olsen.”
She gasped knowingly, sensing but, for her own sake, not fully examining who stood before her, and instead simply pointed down the path to a location that, he pleasantly noted, rested not so far from his own internment. He looked down at the gleaming marble that bore her name: of course, she was also buried with that other man, but the residual pain that dwelt within him was tempered by decades of thought over her betrayal. He knew she had wanted a safe life. But she had also tolerated his eccentricities, both in life and on paper once he lay under the earth. The paper stuff she had even ensured would be published.
He picked some daisies nearby, cemetery regulations be damned, and placed them on the manicured ivy tendrils atop her supine corpse.
He remembered how young she was. He remembered how she would play the piano, bent over the keys at a forty-five degree angle, focused on the music and not the way his cane trembled and slipped as he rolled it between his wrists, watching her. He taught her and tutored her in one moment, while that Schlegel fool did first one and then the other, failing at both. Succeeding only in turning her into a governess in some far off land…though in spite of himself, our man had learned the importance of going abroad.
But coming up on his left side was another man, one who was not so easily intimidated as so many others by an American in a top hat. He approached our man without trepidation, leaning against a nearby obelisk, smiling crookedly. There was nothing exceptional about his looks: perhaps in his mid-twenties, jeans, a neon yellow t-shirt that was now quite faded. He took long draws on a cigarette, exhaling its smoggy refuse as one would with a pipe. He began: “What is it you are doing, exactly?”
And our hero knew exactly what was going on. “I am qua you.”
“Are you? Am I no longer needed?”
“Of course you are. But I am fulfilling that role now.”
“This endeavor of yours has incurred opprobrium as enormous pride and arrogance.”
“Yes. But for a higher end. For love of the neighbor.”
“I must tell you, I do not think it is so much love for ‘the neighbor’ which drives you, but instead an unasked for—though I must say, retroactively appreciated—affection for me.” He paused. “Do not think I appear for just anyone.”
“You don’t know…you cannot know how much I admire you. How many others would have dared to keep you inside them, as I have?”
The stranger suddenly went rigid before our protagonist, with an intellectual arousal so great I hesitate to differentiate it from fury.
“What is the difference, then, between an admirer and an imitator? An imitator is or strives to be what he admires, and an admirer keeps himself personally detached, consciously or unconsciously does not discover that what is admired involves a claim upon him, to be or at least to strive to be what is admired.”
“That is asking too much. I—“ He stops, bowing before this stranger, who has somehow so quickly deconstructed what is inside him. “As much as one man may embody the spirit of another, be fascinated by another and through that fascination discover him, work himself into him until he becomes parallel with him—allow me to be that!”
The new entrant smiles. “You should have known by now that I ask much more of my disciples than that. You cannot facetiously follow in my footsteps, eat at my haunts, or live in my abodes (or more pathetically, the abodes of my literary attaches) and expect to be in any transcendent way closer to me. You cannot merely keep me inside you. You must become me. You must remain yourself and yet also allow my mask to go right to your core.”
He removed our hero’s top hat. “Did you really think the masquerade would not end? That we would never hear the chimes of midnight? You are answerable to your own country and family. DIS will soon end. And I am not some fetish for you to carry around or act as, at will. I must instead always be inside you, so that in the final equation, you are also inside me.” He took one last draw and held the smoking stick before the man’s face.
Søren Kierkegaard’s cigarette bored into my skull and skewered his own essence from within, which it extracted from my recesses—and I had not realized how unexamined my own were, so that upon the removal the sound of bubbling heat filled my mind, a throbbing of nothing, and I turned back into myself for the first time in four months.