On Love, Fear, and Trembling

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 3:21 AM

I've been debating whether to just ignore my last post or write something about it. My style on this blog is generally not terribly personal. There were two things bugging me over the last week, one of which I'll completely ignore at present and the other is a bit more personal than I usually write about — love (of the romantic sort) — but if you'll bear with me, I'm going to muse on it a bit in this post before I return to my normal posting schedule. I am going to go at it somewhat abstractly, just because that seems more comfortable in this medium. I did broach the topic a few weeks ago when Mark's meme inquired about a “significant other.” As I noted then, there is someone I wish had that status to me, but I, in my very Prufrockian style, have failed to act on what I think. Whether that's for good or ill, I'm not sure. The problem was when, last week, I believed I had allowed my inaction to linger too long and I was too late to say something to her, even if I wished. I think I was wrong about that now, but it was a little too close for comfort for me.

Inaction may be too strong a word. Over subtlety may be better. I am doing more than nothing at all, but little enough that she could very well believe, if she read this post (and, as I said before, I think she is a reader of this blog), that I am here writing concerning an entirely different person. Subtly is my art and my enemy. My affinity with Kierkegaard, as well as Dostoevesky's Underground Man, Eliot's Prufrock and Shakespeare's Hamlet largely draws from this. Reading Fear and Trembling made me want to post on the subject even before last week, as I think it is clear that Kierkegaard is expressing not only (and perhaps not even primarily) his religious epistemology but also his theory on love. He is obsessed with metaphors relating to love and marriage in his book and I think it is hard to argue against tying that to the autobiographical fact that the book is in near proximity to the breakup with his fiancée. Off the top of my head, I can think of no less than four major metaphors used in the book that are based on love and marriage. Kierkegaard tried an extremely subtle approach of expressing love to his fiancée, paradoxically in the midst of his bold rejection of her, since we know from the perspective of history that he actually did love her. In a sense, I think Fear and Trembling can be read as a letter to her, explaining what was happening.

If I am sounding analytical and I suspect I am about to sound even more so, I think that is my attempt to sort out myself, I don't feel analytical, so I'm trying to make sense of this thing by at least trying to be. C.S. Lewis comments in Surprised by Joy that one cannot feel a feeling while simultaneously thinking about that feeling; perhaps that is why it seems comforting to write at this moment — it is a reprieve from a sense of despair concerning my own inaction.

So with that said, let's turn back to the thinking: it dawns on me (and this may not, and indeed, probably is not, a new thought) that the stage between falling in love and actually trying to reach out and express that truth to the beloved is a liminal stage, particularly in modern society, since the our modern arrangement hinges on the extremely difficult, risky procedure of revealing this to the beloved. The liminal stage is a stage in which a person is set off from society to allow a new relation to society to be formed. The process of falling in love itself perhaps is the initiation of the liminal stage to some extent, but I would suggest the real core (and perhaps rapid end) of the liminal stage is the revelation of love to the beloved.

First, it is often (usually?) a revelation of absurdity, to sound Kierkegaardian. If the beloved is actually the beloved, it seems likely that she must necessarily seem more worthy to the one who loves than he sees himself. Moreover, for the love to be more than mere emotion, it seems to me that there should be some basis of friendship between the two persons. This sets up the paradox and absurdity. The lover must believe that he is unworthy of the beloved — otherwise would the love truly value the beloved? unworthiness is probably universally true — and the revelation comes as a possible threat to something deemed extremely valuable: the friendship with the beloved. If the friendship is not valuable, then it cannot be love yet, it seems to me. Therefore, for the comfort of taking the unbearable burden of the so far unrequited love out into the open, and the potential for being able to be closer to the beloved, the one falling in love must essentially gamble the entire relationship with the beloved. This seems an absurdity since there is probably a greater chance of rejection (and hence potentially damaging or destroying the friendship) than there is of acceptance.

Hence comes the question: what does the wise man do? Does he bear in silence his feelings, creating a de facto state of unrequited love, but in doing so guarantee the preservation of his friendship with the beloved? Does he state his feelings to escape the terrible oppression of not admitting them and also accepting that while he may wish to not say anything to protect the friendship, she might ultimately feel obliged to end or reduce the friendship when she does find someone? How does the Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith respond to this challenge?

I think he would say something. Here's how I expect Kierkegaard would respond: To not say something is tragic; the one who loves becomes the tragic hero who falls on his own sword, a victim of his tragic flaw. This is highly aesthetic, perhaps, but it seems that it is more important to chase absurdity in faith than to spend time fashioning a tragic fate.


Update: I'm reading the the Daily Bible, and it just so happens that what I read just now, less than an hour after I posted above, is rather fitting: “Better is open rebuke / than hidden love” (Prov. 27:5 ESV).


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