A couple years ago, my therapist diagnosed me with emotional abandonment trauma. Initially, I rejected the diagnosis because we’d not discussed any abuse or traumatic event that could be said to be the ‘source’ of the trauma. The very word she was using seemed too extreme and aggressive for what were simply emotional issues, not deserving of a word associated with victims of war and rape. Interestingly, it was in this stubbornness that I found myself playing out a larger dynamic that was not mine alone, and would require rethinking on a couple of levels, both conceptual and personal. But first, a digression.
In the first World War, Ludwig Wittgenstein served in the trenches, and his recently translated notebooks from the period are finally reaching us in English (Wittgenstein 2022), although readers of Ray Monk’s biography will already know it was a profoundly impactful time for him, close encounters with death even giving inspiration for the hints of mysticism in the Tractatus. Readers of Monk’s biography will also know Wittgenstein actually served in the second World War, although not as a soldier but in a number of logistical positions. It was during this time that he encountered Basil Reeve, a doctor with an interest in philosophy, which made him a natural friend to Wittgenstein, although eventually Wittgenstein would eventually become intrigued by Reeve’s medical work.
Reeve was at Guy’s [Hospital] working in the Medical Research Council’s Clinical Research Unit with a colleague, Dr Grant. Early in the Blitz the laboratories of this unit were destroyed by bombing, and, unable to pursue their original studies, Grant and Reeve started studying the plentiful air-raid casualties that were being admitted to Guy’s at this time. Their work was to try and familiarize themselves with the condition of ‘wound shock’, which would occur not only in battle casualties but in any condition of acute traumatic injury. (Monk 1991, 445)
It’s telling that Wittgenstein was also intrigued by Freudian theory at this time, since it was also in response to victims of wartime trauma that Freud had also made a major theoretical breakthrough in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’. In both wars, people were coming back traumatized who’d not always been hurt necessarily, but were instead stuck circling around painful experiences, unable to get out. The question of how to get ‘unstuck’ would haunt Freud throughout his later, more sociological work, but some philosophical aid can come from Wittgenstein:
As Wittgenstein realized when he discussed the project with Reeve, the problem with the theories of wound shock formulated during the First World War was not primarily that their standard of detail was inadequate, but that they were operating with an unusable concept. It was precisely the ‘diatribe against the word “Shock”’ that most interested him. (Reeve remembers that when they came to write an annual report, Wittgenstein suggested printing the word ‘shock’ upside-down to emphasize its unusability.) (Monk 1991, 447)
In a move that would presage Wittgenstein’s later work, he is here starting to realize that some philosophical problems are really pseudoproblems, and all that’s needed is to lead the fly out of the flybottle. The patients who were stuck repeating their own traumatic experiences (albeit often in bizarre, indirect ways) were a mirrored version of the researchers who were stuck circling around a concept that was doing more to hinder than to help. As Wittgenstein would later say, “A picture held us captive. And we couldn’t get outside it, for it lay in our language, and language seemed only to repeat it to us inexorably.” (Wittgenstein 2009b, 53) Clearly a reference to his earlier picture theory of language in the Tractatus, it could just as easily be a statement on the problem of the word ‘shock,’ which suggested mental images inadequate to the task at hand, and also speaks to the broader importance of Wittgenstein’s later theory for trauma itself, which is thankfully more versatile in its modern incarnation than in Wittgenstein’s day, giving us a more dynamic and versatile capacity to name what’s wrong with us, although that’s not to say it was impossible. In fact, I would argue one of the best attempts to describe trauma was published in 1843, exactly a century before Wittgenstein’s wartime discovery, although a different term was used.
Towards the end of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or I, we are given the (in)famous seducer’s diary. In it, we follow it’s writer as he seduces a young woman, convincing her to fall in love with him only to eventually break the whole thing off. There’s apparently something of a scholarly debate over whether they actually ever have sex (IKC III, 161) but ultimately it’s somewhat irrelevant in my view, and the text might actually be stronger if we don’t imagine it ever happened. Instead, the seducer’s goal is not physical but emotional penetration, presenting himself in such a way and in such a situation that he arouses a deeper desire in her, presenting himself as the je ne sais quoi we all spend so much of our lives in search of. The meticulousness is a rather disturbing literary treat. We get a character of high emotional intelligence paired with unending perseverance, who is able to move various people around his world like chess pieces by a virtuoso player. It’s disturbing, but also oddly riveting, watching him carefully plan out his moves and slowly but surely executing his plan.
Much has been written about the aesthetic stance in the book, how the aesthete is unable to commit to anything, so has to be satisfied with intellectual reflections and dreadful mind-games with others. All this would receive a substantial (and in my opinion rather shoddy) critique from Judge William in Either/Or II, but I want to focus on a part of the text I haven’t seen reflected too much in secondary literature (yet; I’m a relative newcomer to Kierkegaard-studies). More specifically, Cordelia the seduced, who we really only see through Johannes’ eyes, knowing full well what he has in store for her. As for her own inner life, it is treated with cold calculation, so it’s safe to say it’s not really acknowledged at all, save for one editorial comment. The only reason we have the diary is that Johannes left his desk drawer open and his roommate stumbled upon it. I’m not sure what sort of agreement the two have about personal belongings, but suffice to say the roommate’s curiosity was piqued enough that they crossed a line or two and read every one, shocked and appalled. Impressively, they seem to understand quite well their own roommate, but it’s the emotional sensitivity extended to Cordelia that has stuck with me. Of her, he writes
it had happened, and for the unhappy one the consciousness of it was doubly bitter because she did not have the least thing to appeal to, because she was continually agitated in a dreadful witches’ dance of the most varied moods as she alternately reproached herself, forgave him, and in turn reproached him. And now, since the relationship had possessed actuality only figuratively, she had to battle continually the doubt whether the whole affair was not a fantasy. She could not confide in anyone, because she did not have anything to confide. When a person has dreamed, he can tell his dream to others, but what she had to tell was indeed no dream; it was actuality, and yet as soon as she was about to tell it to another to ease her troubled mind, it was nothing. She was fully aware of it herself. No one could grasp this, scarcely she herself, and yet it weighed upon her as a disquieting burden.
Such victims were, therefore, of a very special kind. They were not unfortunate girls who, as outcasts or in the belief that they were cast out by society, grieved wholesomely and intensely and, once in a while at times when the heart was too full, ventilated it in hate or forgiveness. No visible change took place in them; they lived in the accustomed context, were respected as always, and yet they were changed, almost unaccountably to themselves and incomprehensibly to others. Their lives were not cracked or broken, as others’ were, but were bent into themselves; lost to others, they futilely sought to find themselves. (KW III, 307)
The psychological insightfulness on display by the editor parallels Johannes himself, both in his actual deed as well as his own essay earlier in the text, ‘Silhouettes’, which unpacks the inner-life of women who’ve fallen for men, only to be disappointed, but the real challenge is that there was not necessarily an event that cause the breakup, perhaps not even in the case of Johannes and Cordelia. The result is that the disappointment and malaise that follows it will be hard to pinpoint in terms of a source or reason. This ambiguous inner movement Johannes calls reflective sorrow, a neverending movement of searching for the source of your sorrow when all there is is apparently...nothing. Instead, there is just constant motion, which both makes emotional peace impossible but is also difficult to depict, perhaps even detect, for “the exterior has at most only a suggestion that puts one on the track, sometimes not even that much.” (KW III, 170) The constant motion makes portrayal in art impossible, and if artists cannot depict it who can? One can posit an object, name a source, in the hopes of putting the matter to rest. One woman might join in with her friends in viciously condemning him, but this is an external solution to an internal problem, and will only cover up rather than cure. (KW III, 181-2)
And it’s this impossibility that Cordelia will have to bear, perhaps for the rest of her life. Not just the actual trauma of what happened, but that fact that nothing happened, at least in her eyes and the eyes of everyone around her. Only Johannes and his roommate know the truth; everyone else will be confused, unable to understand why she cannot simply get over him. We all get our hearts broken, but we all eventually move on. The problem is that Johannes was brilliant enough to spark a flame in her, kick off a deeply resonant echo in her heart, stir the core of her character, which he notes is quite deep and profound. That’s the great risk/reward factor for him; she is not so easily drawn to others, but when she is, she is profoundly pulled in, only to be left spinning around a breakup for the rest of her life over...nothing.
Later philosophers such as Heidegger (1929) and Sartre (2020) would eventually try to tease out the actual nature of this nothing, and psychoanalysts will talk endlessly about that ambiguous (e)x in your life that’s causing so much trouble, but Kierkegaard has described it with a vividness I haven’t seen elsewhere, partly because he places it in the middle of narratives of human intimacy, the parts of our lives where we are often at our most vulnerable. Cordelia is slowly made to open up, to put her sincere trust in someone, to hope in spite of herself, and the rug is pulled out from under her. But there was no rug, no rugpull, at least not any visible ones; the motions were invisible, even to her. The waves will crash against her conscience, but she cannot see the earth’s rotations which set the water in motion.
It’s not a bit ironic that such emotional and psychological sensitivity would be displayed for the plight of women, although it doesn’t take a genius to realize that Kierkegaard is partly responding to his recent breakup with Regine Olsen. Oddly (and disturbingly) enough, Kierkegaard was also known to play various games with her, at one point sending her a letter by messenger after not speaking to her for some time, only to walk by her house shortly after. The postscript of the letter read “At this moment I am walking past your window. If I look at my watch, it means that I have seen you. If I do not look at my watch, I haven’t seen you.” (Garff 2005, 184) One can only imagine the struggle she must’ve gone through, being attached to someone who first drew her in only to leave her behind, and one can hear echoes of Either/Or I in many of his recollections of their breakup, perhaps most interestingly once in Church where she nodded to him, which disappointed him greatly since he thought it meant she still hoped they might get back together. “She doesn’t believe that I was a deceiver after all, she has faith in my. What ordeals now await her!” In fact, she had been looking for a sign of blessing for her more recent engagement to Fritz Schlegel, of which he knew nothing about at the time. (Garff 2005, 228-9) While a humorous misunderstanding in retrospect, the episode does speak to Kierkegaard’s sensitivity to the richness and complexity of the inner lives of those around him, and his awareness of the potential for damage, intentional or not.
And this sensitivity is easy to misunderstand, to mess up, to simply not recognize. Such was the case of filmmaker Ingmar Bergman in some of his less renowned work, most frustratingly his first film Crisis (1946). Kierkegaard’s influence on Bergman seems quite obvious (his most famous film literally follows a knight of faith to the edges of belief and rationality), although in the case of Crisis, it is completely misunderstood. The film follows a small cast of characters, the young Nelly, her mother Jenny and the seductive aesthete Jack. Nelly has been raised in the countryside, but her mother arrives in the beginning to take her to the city, where she excitedly gets a job in her mothers beauty salon. Initially enraptured by city life after her quiet, rural town upbringing, she is eventually seduced by Jack who mirrors Johnannes so much it’s impossible to imagine Bergman didn’t have him in mind. His speech to Jenny at the train station where he says he feels as if he is too light and transparent to have any real existence in this world mirrors Johannes’ claim that he is able to doubt everything and believe nothing (KW III, 23). After seducing Nelly, he is caught by Jenny and leaves the two of them, only to kill himself in the street. This would be traumatizing for anyone, especially a young woman only recently brought to the city who’d been excitedly making friends and finding herself, only to have such a catastrophe interrupt the whole process. It’s disturbing, but also undeniably good drama, and we can see hints of Bergman finding his authorial voice, his ability to pose profound existential questions in the form of personal narratives, to open spaces for sincere doubt and soul-searching without demanding easy answers. It wasn’t quite there though this early in his career, as the film ends with Nelly returning to her small town, having had enough of the city and so deciding to return to the simplicity of rural living. The final scene shows her out on a friendly walk with her friend Ulf, who had confessed his interest in her at the beginning of the film and encouraged her to stay with him. He’s established and emotionally stable, and so Nelly returning to the small town to pursue the stable banker is, to put it lightly, a change of plans after her hectic and adventurous fling with the city.
This ending is terrible, and Bergman at what I would argue is his worst. The film as a whole is compelling, probing engaging characters bouncing off one another in situations of psychological and moral ambiguity, but the final scene abandons it all in favor of a simplicity that is not earned. Bergman is not ready to maintain the ambiguity and uncertainty of The Seventh Seal or Through a Glass Darkly, but the positive ending is not earned as in A Winter’s Light. The ending is not a climax so much as an entirely new film stitched onto the end, and the tonal shift is so abrupt I am tempted to say it’s meant to be taken ironically, as in Ibsen’s Pillars of the Community. Wittingly or not, however, what this ending does is erase and cover up what Kierkegaard was trying to uncover. Nelly, like Regine Olsen or Cordelia or Johannes’ ‘silhouettes’, has been stimulated, invested in the city, modernity, Jack, only to have it all collapse, bringing her in with it and setting in motion a ceaseless searching for what happened. Perhaps this is Bergman’s acknowledgment of the fact that this reflective sorrow is unportrayable in art, but the retreat still feels cowardly.
And the unportrayability seems false, or at least misleading. Kierkegaard found a way, albeit an abstract and indirect one (writing out a commentary of other texts under a pseudonym as a way of processing his own life), and even if the attempt doesn’t reach a final closure (how could it?), it at least gives us scaffolding on which to work with, to start looking for a motion that gives few, if any, external signs, as well as seeing pain in those we assumed simply had nothing to say. For the longest time, this was me, circling around failed relationships and missed emotional opportunities, unable to say anything about them but undeniably held back by the motions they had quietly set off. Those motions can be powerful and destructive, but they are not eternal or inevitable, so long as we know where and how to look for them.
The difficulty of finding these motions is again brought up a couple years later in Stages in Life’s Way. The first two sections mostly repeat the same themes of Either/Or, so don’t need to be discussed in great detail here. The truly ‘new’ content of this book is another found diary, this one belonging to some unknown ‘anyone’ (the author is referred to as Quidam, Latin for nobody, or a person of no significance). It is found in the bottom of a lake, one filled with reeds so that it’s difficult to actually paddle in and see through. The box is accidentally stumbled upon by a fishing lure, pulled to the surface and found to be locked. Upon being forced upon, the key is found inside: of this, the commentator adds “Inclosing reserve is always turned inward that way.” (KW XI, 189) This term deserves attention, since it will appear throughout the diary, but the original Danish, Indeslutethed, mirrors the description of the lake it was found in, an area that appears to be inclosed (indesluttet) by all the overgrown reeds. The story in the diary bears this out, again written by a young man wrestling with a doomed love, although this one is not doomed out of malice but goodwill, the writer suspecting that their persona, their melancholy, their inclosing reserve, makes them unsuitable for marriage. The young girl’s best interest in mind, he aspires to push her away in such a way that she will decidedly not be stuck circling around the memory of him for the rest of her life. While there’s a hint of sexism here as well (much more worrying to me than the usual target essay “In Vino Veritas”), read sympathetically and philosophically, we get the development of the idea that Kierkegaard is deeply concerned for our capacity to wound each other, even unintentionally, and the near undetectable forms those wounds can take.