Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 4.1.3 The concept of despair

4.1.3 The concept of despair

I will start out by reflecting on how the self can be understood in relation to shame and will begin with an exploratory investigation of the concept of despair and its relation to the self according to Kierkegaard, because by doing so, in my opinion, this may cast light over the concept and phenomenon of shame. Despair, says Kierkegaard, can be understood as a disparity within the self, and this understanding seems to resemble the understanding of shame as a sickness within the self (Tomkins 1963/2002; Kaufman 1980, 1989; Kaufman and Raphael 1996). I will use my interpretation of Kierkegaard’s concept of despair to cast light upon the concept of shame, and the underlying exploration of how self can be understood will also create a basis for understanding how the self relates to others in the second category.  It must be noted that this is my interpretation and that Kierkegaard has in no way made a direct connection between despair and shame. On the contrary, it seems that Kierkegaard in his works treats these two concepts as distinctly different from each other.

To do this I will begin indirectly, by describing what happens when one is not one’s self. Kierkegaard (1849/1980) describes this condition as despair, and I will therefore describe the relation between shame and self via his concept of despair. Theunissen (1997) argues that Kierkegaard’s reconsideration of the self and his concept of despair have awakened a new interest for Kierkegaard which has paved the way for existential psychology, existential psychiatry, and existential psychoanalysis (Jaspers 1913/1963; May 1950; Hartman 1959; Rogers 1961; Maslow 1969; Laing 1969).

In order to describe the concept of despair, I have explored Kierkegaard’s book Sickness unto Death[1] (1849/1980) which is about the human self. The book is also about despair because it describes what the self is by analyzing what happens when we are not our selves, understood as not willing to be ourselves, and it is this state that Kierkegaard calls despair (Danish: Fortvivlelse). This may seem to be a somewhat different understanding of the concept of despair than that which is commonly used: namely a feeling of hopelessness (Encarta Online Dictionary 2007)

Kierkegaard begins Sickness unto Death by claiming that despair is the sickness unto death. Despair is a sickness of the self and Kierkegaard argues that despair can be threefold:

Despair is a sickness of the spirit, of the self, and accordingly can take three forms: In despair not to be conscious of having a self (not despair in the strict sense); in despair not to will to be oneself; in despair to will to be oneself (Kierkegaard 1849/1980:13).

If shame is to be understood as a sickness of the self, it would seem necessary to have an understanding of what the self is. Kierkegaard gives an indirect description of the concept of the self. He follows up the theme of despair which is understood as not being (or willing to be) one’s self. During the past decades, many people have found renewed insight in what the self is through Kierkegaard’s point of view (Grøn 1997; Pörn 1998). Kierkegaard’s description of the self is so precise and logical that it could be characterized as algebraic in its precision and intensity (Come 1995).

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 13).

Kierkegaard goes on in my opinion to describe the self as:

  1. A set of relations
  2. A relation between the individual and the world around him or her
  3. A relation which relates the self to  itself (self-awareness)
  4. A relation wherein the self relates itself to itself within the relation
  5. A relation which does not relate the self to itself and which does not relate the self to itself within the relation will accordingly be trapped within the double inconsistency of despair.
  6. The self will find its despair completely cured when it rests clearly in the force that created it.

The double inconsistency of despair expressed in point five and the relations expressed in points two and three seem to mean that there are two relationships of shame. The first one relates to one’s self, and the second relates to others. This formulaic presentation reveals that the condition of the self is equivalent to its ability to relate itself to itself. 

Kierkegaard’s analysis of despair can in my opinion cast light upon the concept and phenomenon of shame. Shame, as despair, is in my opinion not just something that happens to a person. The disparity of both shame and despair is something one assigns to the self, i.e. it is a reaction to feeling shame, of being immersed in shame. The two different meanings authentic despair can actually have – not wanting to be one’s self and wanting to be one’s self (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 13) can also be significant for shame. These two meanings are brought together in what seems to be a key formulation; despair, as with shame, is loss of the self (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 61) and this leads to self-hatred (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 62). Losing one’s self means that one hates oneself so much that one does not want to be one’s self anymore, one feels despair and in my opinion also shame over not willing to be oneself, or willing to be someone or something else (Kierkegaard 1849: 52-53). Kierkegaard also describes a third form for despair, where one has lost oneself but is not yet aware of it, and he calls this form for despair for inauthentic despair since all despair in per definition conscious. In the same way it is possible for a person in my opinion to experience the phenomenon of shame but have not yet found words to describe ones shame. One can feel the anxiety of having lost oneself and being in Nothingness, but still lack the words to describe ones loss. Finding these words by telling ones life story is in my opinion an important factor in the healing process of shame as it also is with despair.

All shame is per definition conscious, but is it still possible to imagine a type of shame that is not conscious? Kierkegaard differentiates between despair in a less strict sense (unconscious despair) and despair in the strict sense (conscious despair), and in the latter type he differentiates between two forms of despair (not willing to be one’s self and willing to be one’s self). Two questions arise here. What is shame in the less strict sense? How do the two forms of shame in the strict sense relate to each other? Kierkegaard explains that:

This second form for despair (in despair to will to be oneself) is so far from designating merely a distinctive kind of despair that, on the contrary, all despair ultimately can be traced back to and be resolved in it (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 14).

But a little later he seems to say the opposite:

To despair over oneself, in despair to will to be rid of oneself – this is the formula for all despair. Therefore the other form for despair, in despair to will to be oneself, can be traced back to the first, in despair not to will to be oneself, just as we previously resolved the form, in all despair to will to be oneself (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 20).

Kierkegaard argues that this contradiction can be explained by:

The self that he despairingly wants to be is a self that he is not (for to will to be that self that he is in truth, is the very opposite of despair), that is, he wants to tear his self away from the power that established it. (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 20)

The fact that the two forms of shame in the strict sense are connected to each other intensifies the problem. Kierkegaard says that despair, in its mildest form signifies:

A state that – yes, one could humanly be tempted almost to say that in a kind of innocence it does not even know that it is despair. (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 42)

To a certain degree one makes oneself unaware. In unawareness one wills oneself not to know. Kierkegaard describes this unawareness: “There is indeed in all darkness and ignorance a dialectical interplay between knowing and willing” (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 48). A person who feels despair, as with shame, can therefore will himself to be uninformed of his own situation. This unconscious despair is not the basic type of despair on which the self progressively builds. On the contrary this is a very complicated and dangerous type of despair, because it involves not understanding oneself as self, as Kierkegaard explains: “…the anxiety that characterizes spiritlessness is recognized precisely by its spiritless sense of security” (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 44). Kierkegaard goes on to identify selflessness with unconscious despair when he says:

An individual is furthest from being conscious of himself as spirit when he is ignorant of being in despair. But precisely this – not to be conscious of oneself as a spirit – is despair, which is spiritlessness (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 44-45)

There are thus actually two forms of despair according to Kierkegaard, and both involve the loss of the self. In the first form, one feels despair about being unaware of one’s self. In the second, one feels despair about not having a self. The first involves feeling despair about weakness; the second involves a feeling of despair about one’s own weakness. The difference lies in the degree of consciousness. Kierkegaard argues that the internal conflict arises from a disagreement between what one intends to do (to feel shame about a weakness) and what one actually does (feel shame about one’s own weakness). Reaching insight by finding words which describe the unmentionable about this despair as with shame, allows the individual to work through ones despair and shame through recognition and respect. But instead one often holds onto feelings of despair and shame because one lacks the courage to change.

The person in despair himself understands that it is weakness to make the earthly so important, that it is a weakness to despair. But now, instead of definitely turning away from despair to faith and humbling himself under his weakness, he entrenches himself in despair and despairs over his weakness…that he despairs over himself (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 61).

This leads to an unclear self relation; the self “hates itself in a way” (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 62). One does not want to recognize one’s own weakness, but this is because one is “being self enough to love itself” (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 63). One is in a way too proud to recognize one’s own weakness. Pride can therefore be a hindrance to recognition of the self. This indirectness is what Kierkegaard calls reticence[2] (Danish: Indesluttedhed).

This reticence or silence indicates an unclear self-relation, because one does not want to be one’s self and at the same time one has enough sense of self to love one’s self. In an accelerating motion this vagueness increases exponentially: willing to be one’s self and not willing to be one’s self. Dagny describes her shame as a little devil inside of her body with many different faces; it is so abstract that she cannot grasp it.

Dagny:                        I had this feeling in my body that ((makes a movement with her hand and mouth as if she is vomiting)) that’s shame…Shame is weird. There’s a little devil in your body that we call shame, and it can have many different faces and many different ways of showing itself (.) in different situations. That’s what makes it special. You can’t put your finger on it, not where it is or what it is. It’s a strange feeling. It’s so abstract that you can’t grasp it. That’s it.
This silence, not being able to find the words to describe ones feeling, culminates in what Kierkegaard calls demonic despair, which is “…the most intensive form of the despair: despair of being a self” (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 73). In demonic despair one holds on to one’s despair, one keeps it “locked up in an inclosing reserve [Indesluttethed]” (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 73).

Grøn (1997) argues that there are clearly methodological similarities between the figures of consciousness in Sickness unto Death (Kierkegaard 1849/1980) and Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807/1977). In all of Kierkegaard’s works written under pseudonyms, phenomenology plays a decisive role. But in Sickness unto Death phenomenology becomes in my opinion more specific; it is manifested in descriptive and analytical representations of figures of consciousness which progressively show what despair is. It is expressed through the figures themselves, because in the representation there is interplay between what we see and what the figures themselves mean.

Kierkegaard describes a conscious self in the process of talking about him-/herself. What keeps the self together is consciousness. Here Grøn (1997) finds a difference between becoming a conscious self in Sickness unto Death (Kierkegaard 1849/1980) and in The Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel 1807/1977). Sickness unto Death (Kierkegaard 1849/1980) develops negatively. The negative, interrupted quality of the process is related to the fact that these are not simply figures of consciousness. The big difference between the former book and The Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel 1807/1977) lies in the fact that the different faces of shame consist not only of figures of consciousness but also of figures of will. The basic connection between consciousness and the will in relation to shame exaggerates the process of the development of the self in order to attain insight into what it means to feel shame. The conclusive factor in shame is the will or reluctance (lack of will) to be one’s self.

Theunissen (1993) argues that one must experience (German: Erfarung) suffering if one is to feel despair. Theunissen uses the German word Erfarung (Erfaring) which is translated as experience in the English text. The German word Erlebnis (Opplevelse) also means experience in English. Erfarung and Erlebnis are two different forms for experience. While Erfarung denotes the knowledge gained through experience, Erlebnis denotes the adventure of an experience. Gadamer (1960/1975) in my opinion also makes a point of this distinction. The shades of meaning inherent in these two forms of experience are lost in translation.

Kierkegaard starts by describing feelings of despair about something and ends with feelings of despair about not willing to be one’s self. The core in the analysis of despair as with shame is that despair materializes through the subjects’ reflection about itself. The strength of despair is that “The person in despair understands that it is weakness to make the earthly so important, that it is a weakness to feel despair” (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 61). But one still goes on feeling despair and shame, in spite of ones self-understanding:

His whole point of view is turned around: he now becomes more clearly conscious of his despair, that he feels despair over the eternal, that he feels despair over himself (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 61).

Kierkegaard claims that this new form of despair comes from within the self. Despair as with shame is actually rooted within the self, but the difference now is that it is all about the person who feels shame.

When Kierkegaard claims that despair is a disparity in the self-relation, the questions is what kind of self relation is manifested in this lack of correspondence. The presupposition that despair as with shame is the result of a faulty self-relation, demands a closer stipulation of what this despair involves within the self-relation. When one feels despair as with shame, one sees oneself as hopeless, and Kierkegaard understands this state of despair as involving a feeling of desperation, and a hopelessness, which he describes as follows:

The torment of despair is precisely this inability to die. Thus it has more in common with the situation of a mortally sick person when he lies struggling with death and cannot die. Thus to be sick unto death is to be unable to die, yet not as if there were no hope of life; no, the hopelessness is that there is not even the ultimate hope, death. When death is the greatest danger, we hope for life, but when we learn to know the even greater danger, we hope for death. When the danger is too great that death becomes the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 18).

Here, despair is equated with hopelessness. To “…have lost the eternal” (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 61) seems to mean having lost hope in that which rescues and restores.

In Sickness unto Death Kierkegaard indirectly describes a third meaning of the disparity of despair. The self-relation involves more than self-reflection. One feels disparity within one’s self and this makes one want to do away with oneself. But this is no easy task. One can in my opinion say that shame in such a double relationship involves the desire to do away with oneself and the inability to do so. One is bound to one’s self in spite of oneself. This is expressed through the eternal:

He cannot throw it away once and for all, nothing is more impossible; at any moment that he does not have it, he must have thrown it or is throwing it away – but it comes back again, that is, every moment he is in despair he is bringing his despair upon himself. For despair is not attributable to the misrelation but to the relation that relates itself to itself. A person cannot rid himself of his self, which, after all, is one and the same thing, since the self is the relation to oneself (Kierkegaard 1849/1980: 17)          

Kierkegaard argues that it is not possible to speak of the “true” self. The problem with a normative identity lies in the peculiar circumstance that identity can involve negation of the self. Not being one’s self creates disparity, a lack of conformity with oneself. Kierkegaard’s argument, however, becomes even more radical. His negative method is grounded in the belief that the normative goal of becoming a self cannot be reached directly, because of the self-relation. The task of becoming a self lies not only in the future, but engulfs the past – what has already been – and also includes relationships in the present. The problem of becoming a self is therefore complicated because it is not a chronological, ideal task.

Kierkegaard writes that the problem begins already when one wants to be someone other than oneself. In other words, the problem is that the individual has an ideal representation of the self that one strives to fulfil. Such ideal representations prevent the individual from acknowledging the self. Our ideal representations make it possible for us to be someone other than we are. Ideal representations can lead us away from the task of becoming ourselves.

When Kierkegaard speaks of despair as a disparity in the self-relation, it becomes obvious that one’s interpretation of who one is does not correspond to the representations one has of who one should be. But Kierkegaard says the problem is deeper, it is rooted in what the person desires to be. The disparity of shame is thus established as a consequence of the ideal representations people construct. The problem is not that we lack ideal representations about what we can be, but that we want to be something other than we are. The Kierkegaard researcher Kellenberger (1997) draws an interesting connection to Nietzsche here when he writes that:

For the “Ubermensch” to come, for his vision to be realized – for human beings to become conscious creators of their values and meanings – he [Nietzsche] saw that God must die at even the deepest psychological level. (Kellenberger 1997:  79)

This means in my opinion that the problem of the normative is doubled. According to Kierkegaard, we cannot directly construct a normative process for the development of human subjectivity. It must be done indirectly. In addition to developing subjectivity through the negativity of despair as with shame, it must be negotiated through the problematic ideal representations of the self which we construct for ourselves. In short, the normative process involves a critique of these ideal representations. A person’s ideal representations of the self must be deconstructed before one can become oneself.
Kaare T. Pettersen

[1] The subtitle in Sickness unto Death is A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. In the English translation by Hong and Hong the term psychological is understood as denoting a philosophical anthropology or a phenomenology of human possibilities (Sickness unto Death 1980, Hong and Hong translation,  p 173). The book has been described as Kierkegaard’s most mature piece of work and even his masterpiece (Come 1995; Grøn 1997). The first part of the book is called The Sickness unto Death is Despair and the second part Despair is Sin. The book was written under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus. Kierkegaard used several different pseudonyms in his authorship. Anti-Climacus is the last of the pseudonyms invented by Kierkegaard and has a different character and function than the others.  He invented the name Anti-Climacus so that he could say what he wanted to say as a Christian who was keenly conscious of the gap between the ideals he wanted to express and the actuality of his experience. Anti-Climacus thus does not say anything which Kierkegaard would disagree with, although he does say a number of things which Kierkegaard sees as implicating him for his own failings (Evans 2006). When I refer to Kierkegaard’s writings, I will use Kierkegaard’s name rather than his pseudonym, but it must be noted that Kierkegaard not only often disagreed with the views of the personae he uses, he also disclaims their opinions:
Thus in the pseudonymous works there is not a single word by me. I have no opinion about them except as a third party, no knowledge of their meaning except as a reader, not a single private relation to them, because this would be impossible to have to a double-reflecting message. (Kierkegaard 1846/1992: 286)

[2] The Hongs translate the Danish word Indesluttethed with “inclosing reserve” in Sickness unto Death. I prefer the concept reticence.

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