Saturday, 28 February 2009


So i am posting a good but a bit hard-to-read article:

Eternal Loneliness: Art and Religion in Kierkegaard and Zen
Author(s): George Pattison
Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Sep., 1989), pp. 379-392
Published by: Cambridge University Press



When we compare a thinker as complex and many-sided as Soren Kierke-
gaard with a cultural phenomenon as significant as Zen Buddhism it is
unlikely that we will be able to come up with any simple formula by which
to summarize the results of the comparison. But the value of such compara-
tive studies need not in any case lie in the conclusions we reach but in the
intrinsic interest and importance of the material itself, in the questions and
insights raised by both similarities and dissimilarities. All this is still true if
we confine the field of comparison to a very specific area, as here, where we
are concerned with the relationship between art and religion in Kierkegaard
and Zen. For this is of course no marginal issue: the distinction between the
aesthetic and the religious is fundamental to the whole structure of Kierke-
gaard's authorship while the arts provde one of the main manifestations of
the spirit of Zen. Our line of enquiry may be narrow but it takes us straight
to the heart of the matter and the questions which it raises are crucial to the
overall assessment of both Kierkegaard and Zen and of the relationship
between them.

I have alluded to the likelihood that we will find both similarities and
dissimilarities in the course of our comparison, but at first glance it might
well seem that the glaring dissimilarities far outweigh any possible similarity.
For Kierkegaard it is axiomatic that there is a yawning chasm between the
spheres of the aesthetic and the religious, a chasm which can only be crossed
in fear and trembling by the leap of faith, a leap which brings us to religion
only at the cost of abandoning the aesthetic. The relationship between
aesthetics and religion is thus a matter of Either-Or rather than Both-And, we
cannot have both together but must choose between them. Zen on the other
hand seems to represent an essentially aesthetic form of religion, a religion
which easily and naturally expresses itself in the arts: in painting, in poetry,
in gardening, in flower-arranging, in the ritual of the tea ceremony and in
the martial arts. Here art seems to be regarded as a highly appropriate way
of embodying and communicating the essence of religious experience.
Going one step further we may say that this contrast rests on a more
profound contrast regarding the attitude taken towards the natural world by
Kierkegaard and by Zen respectively. For Kierkegaard's rejection of the
aesthetic is ultimately a rejection of the life of the natural man, the man
whose life is bounded by the materiality of his bodily being, the man who is

subject to all the constraints of finitude: sickness, death, misunderstanding,
the fluctuations of inner feeling and external fate. Zen, by way of contrast,
expresses a delight in naturalness, finding in nature and in the unique
particularity of human life the very key to Satori or enlightenment. Kierke-
gaard, then, represents a style of religion which flees from the imperma-
nence and contingency of this earthly life whereas Zen finds in these very
qualities of impermanence and contingency an unfathomable source of
religious experience and innumerable opportunities for religious awakening.
But in the light of my opening remarks can we really expect this to be the
whole of the story? We must go very carefully here, for when we are making
a comparison between two such different cultures as those of Europe and
Japan we cannot assume that words such as `art' and `religion' carry the
same connotations in each case. How, then, can we assume that Kierkegaard
and Zen mean the same thing when they speak of `art' and `aesthetics'?
And so we have to ask more precisely : what understanding of art is pre-
supposed by Kierkegaard in his attack on the aesthetic or by Zen in its
affirmation of art's place in the religious life? What is the `nature' which
Kierkegaard wants us to slough off and which Zen takes such a delight in?
Is it the same 'nature'? Then we have also to ask whether Kierkegaard's
attitude to art is simply and solely one of rejection or whether there is not
also an element of affiirmation : conversely, is the Zen approach to art and
nature just a matter of unqualified yea-saying or is there also here an element
akin to the Kierkegaardian melancholy and Weltschmerz? In pursuing these
questions we can allow ourselves one certainty: that if either Kierkegaard or
Zen have anything worthwhile to say to us it is because they are capable of
taking into account something of the ambiguity and many-faceted nature of
human life. No out-and-out rejection and no naive affirmation of life, or of
any significant aspect of life such as aesthetics, can give lasting satisfaction
to the mind which is striving for awareness.

I shall arrange the discussion of the issues which this comparative study
raises under four headings: The Aesthetic and The Religious in Kierkegaard ;
Nature and Spirit in Kierkegaard; Art and Nature in Zen; Zen and Eternal
Loneliness. This will then lead on to a few concluding (but not conclusive!)

In his retrospective survey of his authorship entitled The Point of View of my
Activity as an Author Kierkegaard explicitly claims that the whole strategy of
his work had been to devise a way by which to lead people from the aesthetic
attitude (which he assumed was actually the prevailing attitude of contem-
porary society) to the standpoint of Christian faith. Although his charac-
terization of this aesthetic attitude makes it clear that it does not necessarily
involve an overriding concern with art as such the fact that he deliberately
chooses the term `aesthetic' does point to an analogy between the aesthetic
attitude (in the wider existential sense) and the sort of attitude appropriate
to involvement with the arts, whether as creators or recipients of art. It
follows that if we want to understand what he meant by describing the
modern age as aesthetic we have to look at how he understands the aesthetic
in the narrower sense, that is, in relation to the world of the fine arts. I cannot
attempt a full exposition of his aesthetic theory here, however, but shall
limit myself to highlighting those aspects of it which are relevant to the
comparison between Kierkegaard's thought on this matter and Zen.'

Kierkegaard's view of art took shape within the horizon of contemporary
idealist aesthetics. For Hegel, one of the most formative influences on the
aesthetic theory of the period, art depends on man's need `to strip the
external world of its inflexible foreignness and to enjoy in the shape of things
only an external realization of himself'.' It follows that `owing to the feeling
and insight whereby a landscape has been represented in painting, this work
of the Spirit acquires a higher rank than the mere natural landscape'.' This
is true even if the painting is, critically considered, mediocre or even bad art.
As art, as the product of a free human agent it is `higher' than any `mere'
natural phenomenon because it is imbued with consciousness, with the
conscious intentionality of the human subject who does not just exist as rocks
and plants and trees and even animals exist but who wills to be conscious of
himself in his existence, something that is beyond the capacity of any natural
being. By means of artistic activity humanity projects itself out of the un-
conscious stream of wordly life in which it would otherwise be totally
immersed. Art thus reveals the possibility for creative initiative on the part of
the human subject or self. In doing so it also gives order, harmony and unity
to nature as it draws the spatial and temporal dispersion of experience into
the definite form of an artistic representation. In using the external matter
of nature to express its own spiritual life it suffuses that matter with the inner
life of the spirit. Art therefore points in two directions, towards nature and
towards spirit and it represents the unity of these, bringing together external
and internal reality, matter and form. This is its value and dignity but also,
for Hegel, its ultimate inadequacy: because of its dependence on the external
and material world art can only represent spirit in a form foreign to itself. A
truer form is provided by philosophy which expresses spirit in the truly spiritual medium of pure thought.

Kierkegaard shared a number of these presuppositions. Art, at least art as
it exists in the modern age, is not a product of naive `natural' genius, of
nature unconsciously and spontaneously expressing itself through the artist
as its passive instrument or channel. Art is permeated by reflection, con-
ditioned by and grounded in spirit, i.e. self-consciousness. It is invariably the
expression of an idea, and ideality for those like Kierkegaard who had passed
through the school of Kant and Fichte meant that which was rooted in the
unconditioned productivity of the human mind. But though it is ideal in this
sense art is also constrained by the limitations of its material form. These
limitations ultimately restrict art to expressing human reality in spatially-
determined categories - whereas for Kierkegaard the most significant dimen-
sion of human existence issues from the essential temporality of selfhood,
from our possibility of concernful being-for-the-future. Human life is dia-
chronic, running through time, but art can only express itself synchronically
by freezing the flow of time into a fixed and definite form. This may be more
obviously the case with regard to the plastic arts of sculpture, architecture
and painting in which materiality and spatiality are present in the finished
art-work itself, but Kierkegaard argues that even in the temporal arts of
music and poetry, in which the sensuous form is reduced to the status of a
means to the end, the work is, so to speak, slowed down by the burden of its

material means and cannot express the full actuality of temporal life. All art, he claims, even music and poetry, tends towards the moment, compressing the flow of time into a timeless spatiality.' As in idealist aesthetics generally art comes to stand between two worlds, neither purely natural nor fully spiritual. It is `higher than finitude and yet is not infinite'.2

Kierkegaard makes two fundamental criticisms of art. These are speci-
f i cally directed against Romanticism and against the Romantic theory of
art. But because he sees Romanticism as the philosophy of art par excellence,
articulating the premisses which underly aesthetic productivity in general,
these criticisms can be taken as being directed against (or rather as setting
limits to) art as such.

Firstly, Romanticism absolutizes human creativity. This absolutization is
carried to an extreme in the Romantic doctrine of irony, of the complete
transcendence of material externality by the creative Ego. By arguing for the
complete freedom of the self in this way the Romantics thought they they
were securing the unity and coherence of the self. But, Kierkegaard argues,
this is not so. Human beings do not possess an absolute independence from
the given reality in which they find themselves, and it is utterly mistaken to
claim or to assert such independence. We are free to choose ourselves absol-
utely but not to create ourselves. There is a dimension of givenness which any
sane view of life must take into account. By ignoring this the protagonists of
irony cut themselves off from reality. Although he imagines himself to be
supremely free and unqualifiedly creative the Romantic artist has in fact
simply turned away from the reality of life. Actually he is impotent in the
face of life's problems and far from being the master ends up as the victim
of life's constantly changing moods and circumstances. In The Concept of Irony
Kierkegaard laid the conceptual basis for this critique of Romanticism and
in Either-Or and other aesthetic works gives a more descriptive account of
what such an ironic attitude to art and to life leads to. The aesthetic ironist
fails to become a self in the full sense of the word, that is, one who accepts
himself and possesses himself in all the concreteness of his actual situation in
life. He may be powerful in the realm of imagination but he cuts a pretty
poor figure in the real world.
Secondly, but closely related to the first point, art not only fails to come
to terms with the conflicts and contradictions of existence but is essentially
a way of avoiding them. The arrogance of the ironist is in fact a compensation
for his inability (or, literally, unwillingness) to come to terms with the suffering
that characterizes the human condition. The artist's concern to create an
image or appearance of order, harmony and unity is motivated by the desire
to hide from himself the actual disorder, discord and dispersion of life. The
timelessness of art is in this respect a flight from the recognition of the
implications of our radical temporality : decay, dissolution and death. It is an
attempt to take revenge on time, to destroy the process that will ultimately
deprive us of our being.' This desire to conceal the truth about ourselves is
only conscious in extreme cases. Usually the artist is what Kierkegaard calls
an `unconscious sacrifice" and the liberation which religion brings with it
is precisely the liberation that comes from gaining insight into our subjection
to suffering and death and from fully and humbly accepting the situation.
Because religion offers an awareness of our predicament it is also able to offer
us the possibility of a genuine and thorough-going deliverance from it.
The most decisive contrast in Kierkegaard's authorship is therefore not
that between the decadent young aesthete `A' portrayed in Part I of Either-
Or and the ethical optimist Assessor William whose view of life is expounded
in Part II. It is rather the contrast between the aesthetic stance and the
radical Christianity of, e.g. Kierkegaard's later pseudonym Anti-Climacus,
a form of religion which puts suffering (rather than ethical resolve) at the
centre of the religious map. At the heart of this radical Christian view is the
conviction that the whole burden of human salvation comes to rest on the
believer's relation to Jesus Christ as the Saviour, the God-Man. In Training
in Christianity (ascribed to Anti-Climacus) Kierkegaard emphasizes that
Christianity will always contain the possibility of causing offence to the
natural man who is guided by the standards of this world. For the sign by
which the Christian God makes himself known is what Kierkegaard calls a
`sign of contradiction'. Because a sign is not that which it signifies all signs
stand at a certain distance from their signfcatum, but in the case of a sign of
contradiction the possibility of misunderstanding (which the distance of the
sign from the signified always contains) is increased enormously. Here the
sign is not merely distinct from but is actually in contradiction with that
which it signifies. Jesus Christ is such a sign of contradiction for two reasons.
Firstly, because as a human individual he also claims or is claimed to be
God; secondly, because his life as a human individual was characterized by
betrayal, rejection and, humanly speaking, the failure of the cross.' The
mystery of the inner life of Christ was concealed under an external appear-
ance which contradicted who he really was. This contradiction makes it
impossible for art to portray him, since art depends on the congruence of
inner and outer, spirit and form.' The basic structure of art, as the synthesis
of spirit and matter, or as the idea in sensuous form, makes it impossible for
art to provide an adequate representation of the crucified Saviour. Recog-
nizing the distance which all sign-making presupposes, art nonetheless seeks
to achieve as direct and as appropriately expressive a relationship between
idea and form as possible. With regard to Christ, however, this is not possible
at all, and Christianity can only ever be communicated indirectly, by con-
fronting human consciousness with the scandal of the cross. The meaning of
Christianity can never be identified with the meaning of any set of direct
signs, symbols or ceremonies, and it is the fundamental failing of Christen-
dom, of established religion, that it does not see this and tries to communi-
cate the faith by direct teaching. But whatever can be communicated
directly is not Christianity.

Eternal Loneliness: Art and Religion in Kierkegaard and Zen
Author(s): George Pattison
Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Sep., 1989), pp. 379-392
Published by: Cambridge University Press

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