For Søren Kierkegaard, there is an ever-present anguish in us, a craving for individual meaning and purpose underneath both our survivalist dogmas and our more idiosyncratic disappointments. It is a deep yearning, that in a moment “awakens in [man’s] soul a concern about what meaning the world has for him and he for the world,” the balm for which is not a system or body of knowledge, but a different kind that “does not remain as knowledge for a single moment but is transformed into an action the moment it is possessed.” This knowledge is a kind of subjective quenching, one that goes on to govern our lives; the opposite is ideology, frozen in the abstract world of concepts.
Kierkegaard goes on to say this knowledge entails a faith in the absurd, a trust in a kind of god that is manifested as a “strengthening in the inner being.” But to dive adequately into that would entail a lengthy disquisition; instead, I wish to focus on his diagnosis (a correct one, I think) of man’s existential flailing in an arbitrary world, the disappointments that can lead to blind cynicism and bottomless despair, and the levels of remove at which modern man finds himself in relation to solving this question.
There are three levels of cognition when it comes to addressing this issue. First, there is the most important, that which Kierkegaard details as the recognition of absurdity, and self-propulsion out of it. In essence, that “even if he does not find the explanation, he nevertheless did find the explanation: that he should wait for the explanation.” This process of realization and subsequent acquiescence (for we can hardly ever be “all in”) to try, as T.S. Eliot says, is vital. This deep atonement to the absurd and to our singular ability to create meaning is the most fundamental and existence-altering plane of consciousness. The second level of cognition lies in the everyday, extrinsic disappointments: law school rejections, spousal strife, etc. Addressing these does not really account for the full existential problem. It tries to use external minutia for internal teleology, which is an unsatisfying impossibility.
The third and most superficial level of cognition is the media landscape. The splintered, attention-grabbing niches we bury ourselves in online serve as bromides twice removed from an internal effort. They are a cheap, hyper-ignorant distraction. The perverse, inevitable irony of our society finds its present home in this fragmentation of attention, and the modern self, as catalogued by Joyce, Kafka, et. al., is stretched to its newest extreme, the ironic second abstraction of inner complication. Through the internet and its endless options, the fragmented self performs its second grave rubbing to create a grand irony, wherein its facile machinations fail so uniquely as to create their own cosmos. The halfway-investigative everyday disappointments, the first remove from Kierkegaardian existentialism, are then lightly traced and abstracted again in the internet’s ironization of this concept, that of fractious attention. It is a manifestation of society’s natural desire to ignore subjective issues, and remains so deeply troubling because it is an obvious, insecure, compensatory mechanism of denial. As we go down the rabbit-hole of content, we fly up and away from the “strengthening of the inner being” that all humans fundamentally desire. The lives of silent desperation that Thoreau told us about make even more superficial noise.
The less we open ourselves up to subjective inquisition, the more fervent our search for objective understanding and the more absorbed we become in facile distractions, the harder it will be to eventually deal with our existential despair. We have relinquished Kierkegaard’s “concern” so whole-heartedly that it may be difficult to find. Nonetheless, we must attempt, if we care about our health even in the slightest, to seek it. Every person undergoes a continual existential struggle, and “to save his soul in this inner strengthening,” Kierkegaard says, “remains the one thing needful for a person.” Or not.