Friday, February 12, 2010

existential angst, part II

The example provided by Haufniensis (Kierkegaard), and often cited online, to explain the concept of existential angst is from his book The Concept of Anxiety: 
"Anxiety may be compared with dizziness.  He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy.  But what is the reason for this?  It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down.  Hence anxiety is the dizziness of freedom…"
- Kierkegaard, Søren (1980), The Concept of Anxiety, Princeton University Press, page 61
This selection alone says little about “the lure of vertigo” or how “the eye which looks down into the abyss both fears and desires it”.  (An earlier English translation of the book contains the word “precipice” in this section.)  The metaphor of “the fall” is rich, and John M. Hoberman in his essay "Kierkegaard on Vertigo" explores it very well.  After reading his essay I learned that Sartre adopted Kierkegaard’s example and gave it a slightly different meaning, the one that I, and most other people with a casual interest in philosophy, associate with it. 
"First we must acknowledge that Kierkegaard is right; anguish is distinguished from fear in that fear is fear of beings in the world whereas anguish is anguish before myself.  Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid of not falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over.  A situation provokes fear if there is a possibility of my life being changed from without; my being provokes anguish to the extent that I distrust myself and my own reactions in that situation." 
- Sartre "Being and Nothingness" trans. pub. 1966 pg. 65 or 2001 pg. 29
Hoberman comments on this selection in his essay, further illuminating it:
"Sartre's primary interest is to show the fact of human freedom and the flight from freedom, the nostalgia of the for-itself for the condition of the in-itslf (a nonhuman stasis).  The temptation, as Kierkegaard points out in the second journal entry on vertigo, is to construe a pressure that comes from within as one that comes from without.  To avoid anguish and vertigo, says Sartre, it is necessary "that I apprehend in myself a strict psychological determinism."  Kierkegaard is far less interested both in the illusion that such a determinism represents and in the attendant wish to reify oneself.  It is not Kierkegaard but Sartre, with his affinity for images of petrification, whose gaze is transfixed by the Biblical "heart of stone."
This is exactly the meaning I took from the description of existential angst I read that was attributed to Kierkegaard, a description that may owe more to Sartre’s reworking of it (though that attribution seems largely absent online).  So it was very refreshing to find a citation I could locate within a work which confirmed my understanding of the concept.  It is hard to tell if Hoberman takes a dim view of Sartre here, though his language seems to suggest so.  But I agree with Sartre about the flight from freedom to a “in-itself” condition being a common human desire.  What else is this but existential angst?  I understand the desire to “apprehend in myself a strict psychological determinism” to avoid feeling that same existential angst.  (Religions address this desire, but inappropriately I believe.)  And I can see how imagining throwing myself over the precipice would be a quite effective way of reacting to the uneasy feeling of vertigo, the symbolic representation of existential angst.  Sartre seems to have certainly understood the need to grapple with these powerful internal feelings in a creative way. 
For an evaluation of Sartre's debt to Kierkegaard, see William McBride's "Sartre's Debts to Kierkegaard: A Partial Reckoning," in "Kierkegaard in Post/Modernity" ed. Martin Matustik and Merold Westphal 1995 pp. 18-42 [I have only seen this reference, but not read it.]

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