Fun: Kierkegaard, Rilke and J.P. Botel(from Things that Happen when Reading Rilke)
Turning thirty, the gloomy Dane prepared himself for his second visit to Berlin with ataraxia, a technique devised by Epicurus to empty the mind of all thought. In truth, his brain needed a period of perfect blankness. Unfinished manuscripts were mounting. Either/Or, Repetition, and Fear and Trembling were in blockage. He could only complete Four Edifying Discourses, a dutiful achievement as a potential pastor.
Kierkegaard’s hoped that the vacuum would be filled with a replay of his last visit as it should have been. Back in Copenhagen he had regretted staying studiously in his room with his ‘quiet despair’. He could have been out on the town at the vaudeville of Bechmann and Grobecker in the Talisman theatre. Instead he was struggling with conceptualising reality. Although it gave him a ‘decisive theory’ – ‘To be objective to himself and subjective to others’ in order to ‘live an idea’ - putting it into practice was something else. ‘Living an idea’ proved too willed, a handle to close the door on the world so he could write about it. That it would be a seminal contribution to a mutation in western thought did nothing for his immediate existence. And so he decided to give himself a good time.
In Berlin, he likened Friedrich Schelling’s prolix lectures to ‘the Rhine which had become stagnant at its mouth’. When the father of Transzendentalen Idealismus invoked ‘reality’, he sat up. But what followed was never more than an abstraction on an abstraction. In short, Schelling’s Subjective Conscious Self was what Kierkegaard was trying to get away from, the ego unified with Nature by his father’s Spiritual Power.
He sloped off to the Talisman theatre, satisfied that his own ‘decisive theory’ had turned Schelling’s on its head. The evening’s entertainment re-opened him to the laughter and song that was ‘sitting in his mind’ since his student days, and it stood up to dance.
It could be said that the lively spirits that underscore his great middle period were a rejuvenation due to Beckmann and Grobecker. Their timing brought time back into his life, and their miming gave him space for the self to live an idea without thinking about it. That is, until afterwards. Then he could be objective with himself when writing it up.
The evening at the Talisman marked a temporary truce with self-consciousness, and a rise to a place where knowing and belief are at one. As you know who you believe your are. He was making the existential leap to self-knowledge through letting himself go.
Kierkegaard was living ‘the life’, and even though it didn’t last, the experience stood to him in good stead. Enjoying life to the full is the most human of the imponderables. Like death, God and (Im)mortality, and the lesser Ineffables, love, grief and joy, it can only be explained figuratively, as an event under description. Still it can be celebrated. It keeps poet-singers of the less maudit kind busy. There may be grief in its joy as it’s transient. But that’s for retrospect. In sum, he was putting his ‘decisive theory’ into practise, ‘repeating forward something transformed anew by a novelty’. This state of renewal hadn’t a name. But sixty years later it was given one, Existentialism. Its inchoate origins are contained within an evening out without reflective complexes. That a vaudeville act realised it is an irony that humanises philosophy. Living the life is not just an idea. It’s fun.
If happiness can be considered ‘an amateur concept’, fun certainly is. Its presence in Kierkegaard is no surprise to readers of his Journals. But in Rilke it comes as a surprise. It’s written all over the early diary sections of The Notebooks of Laurids Brigge. It brings ‘unconfined joy’ to the young poet’s painful progress. His existence is not in vain, ‘On with the dance’. It is perhaps one of the reasons why it’s regarded as the first novel written in the existentialist vein.
‘What exactly is Existentialism’, Welsh asks me as a conversation stopper. Late that night I wait outside the office of Le Journal with a cigar. When JP Botul appears I give it to him to loosen his tongue, and pose Welsh’s question. He spits out the squat end. ‘Existentialisme is when being and time merge to make space for the ‘I’ and ‘thou’ to become ‘me’’. Drawing on the fat Cuban (made in Reunion), he adds, ‘Certainly the aesthetic life lived to the full is the Nirvana of Havanas’. And he tells me the latest fait divers about the Beauty contest that had turned ugly when, in the middle of it, Miss Perpignan, and her mother, disappeared without a trace, and her father, a Foreign Legion recruitment officer, committed suicide leaving a video for Paris Match proclaiming his existential innocence. ‘I’m just a simple soldier’, he said. Apparently several of his former mistresses had similarly disappeared.
‘Some people here, alas, live death to the full’, JP says. ‘Subjectivity to others in the simple soldier’s case eradicated objectivity to himself’. And he proceeds to retail in gory detail les disparu of Perpignan. Young girls who disappeared without a trace in the vicinity of the railway station in the 1990s. Local fingers inculpate a Peruvian doctor, subsequently shot dead in Lima. JP went for a ‘neo-Gnostic philosopher reconciling, through tacit knowledge, the carnal and the spiritual’.
But events describe themselves when least expected. An unemployed janitor resident in the area has just claimed responsibility. JP is convinced, ‘Kicked out by several wives, I reckon the sot had an idea of love, and when he couldn’t live it, identified its source and killed the girls in cold-blood. Being objective to himself, he had the sang-froid to get away with it for twenty years. And gave himself up so others could be subjective to him. We all have disappointments in love’. It was a long cigar.