Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Existential Cigar

Kierkegaard, his vocation as a philosopher in the Socratic spirit, his belligerence against the values of the bourgeoisie, and the smoking of cigars went hand-in-hand. This is an odd mixture, since this rather unique existentialist philosopher was said to suffer from pyrophobia, fear of fire. But his fear of fire must have been overcome by his love of cigars. In fact, according to his biographer, Kierkegaard sketched himself in 1835, while still a young man, "dressed in modern attire, wearing glasses, and with a cigar in his mouth."* (Alas! I haven't been able to locate this sketch.) But perhaps it was just this unsettling aspect of the cigar, the fear and trembling that each cigar caused him, that led him to devote his life to the pursuit of philosophy, knowing that life, like a cigar, is pleasant, though, like all contingent being and contingent good, fraught with danger, and is . . . for a time only. Every cigar, like every human, has an end. And it is both the wonder of life and the concern with death that are the impetuses of philosophy. Aristotle says that wonder drives philosophy. "Philosophy," Aristotle says in his Metaphysics, "begins with wonder." Schopenhauer says that death is the "real inspiring genius or musagetes of philosophy, and for this reason Socrates defined philosophy as 'thanatos melete' (rehearsal for death)."** Cigars and cigar smoking, and life and death, then, appear to have some linkage to which Kierkegaard was attuned.

One of Kierkegaard's favorite techniques was to write under the names of aliases. Sometimes a direct link between Kierkegaard's personal life and experience and his characters can be made. In the instance of the cigar and it generating Kierkegaard's calling to be a philosopher who opposed himself particularly to the bourgeois muffling of the Christian message, we have such a link.

First, we might look at Kierkegaard's Journals. In one of his journal entries,*** Kierkegaard describes his situation this way:
It is three years now since I got the notion to try my hand at being an author. I remember it quite clearly, it was a Sunday afternoon; I sat as usual in the café in Frederiksberg Gardens and smoked my cigar.

Statue of Kierkegaard at the Frederiksberg Gardens in Copenhagen

Of this event, his biographer says the following:
Kierkegaard loved the [Frederiksberg] gardens; he often sat there absorbed in his cigar and the in the sight of the serving girls, whom he sketched masterfully in a lengthy passage in "The Seducer's Diary," wehre the girls from Nyboder take top honors because they are "buxom, voluptuous, fine-complexioned, merry, cheerful, sprighly, talkative, a bit coquettish, and above all, bareheading, wearing, at most , something as endearing as a "saucy little cap."†
But we're not here to talk about buxom girls in saucy caps, but about Kierkegaard. (The cigar, by the way, also features also in Kierkegaard's In Vino Veritas (The Banquet), but we're not here to talk about that either.)

Kiekegaard's experience documented in his Journal is elaborated under an alias, "Johannes Climacus," in one of Kierkegaard's works, where the character realized that his job was--unlike the mass of men about him whose task was to make things easy for their fellows and get rich in the process--going to be something like a neo-Socrates, "to make difficulties everywhere." Using his frequent aliases, Kierkegaard depicts himself as a certain Johannes Climacus in Concluding Unscientific Postscript as thoughtully smoke a cigar and assessing his situation. As the biographer Graff puts it:
[Kierkegaard] (alias Johannes Climacus) sat thoughtfully smoking a cigar and attempted to take stock of his situation. He was no longer quite young, he had passed the time with a bith of studies about one thing or another, but he had not been of any use to the human race. And this pained him. For he saw himself surrounded on every side by energetic people who were doing everything they could to make existence more tolerable: "Some by means of railroads; others with omnibuses and steamships; others with the telegraph; others with easily understood surveys and brief bulletins about everything worth knowing; and finally, the true benefactors of the age, who by virtue of thought make spiritual existence systematically easier and easier, yet more and more meaningful. And what about you? Her my introspection was interrupted because my cigar was finisehed and I had to light a new one."

No sooner was the cigar lit than Climacus hit on the idea that his contribuiton to the modern world could be to make everything more and more difficulty, thereby supply existence with its lost gravity.††

Søren Kierkegaard

*Joakim Garff, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 54.
**Musagetes is an epithet of Apollo, the "leader of the muses."
***Journals and Papters, Vol. 5, 5756, VA111, n.d., 1844, p. 262.
†Garff, 304.
††Garff, 465 (internal quotes are from Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

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