On Courage (Kierkegaard & Žižek)

“The child does not know what the dreadful is; this the man knows, and he shudders at it. The child’s imperfection consists, first of all, in not knowing what the dreadful is; and then again, as an implication of this, in shuddering at that which is not dreadful. And so it is also with the natural man, he is ignorant of what the dreadful truly is, yet he is not thereby exempted from shuddering; no, he shudders at that which is not the dreadful: he does not know the true God, but this is not the whole of it, he worships an idol as God.
Only the Christian knows what is meant by the sickness unto death. He acquires as a Christian a courage which the natural man does not know – this courage he acquires by learning fear for the still more dreadful. Such is the way a man always acquires courage; when one fears a greater danger, it is as though the other did not exist. But the dreadful thing the Christian learned to know is “the sickness unto death”. (Kierkegaard, the Sickness unto Death, introduction)
“The turn towards an emancipatory enthusiasm takes place only when the traumatic truth is not only accepted in a disengaged way, but is fully lived: “Truth has to be lived, not taught. Prepare for battle!” Like Rilke’s famous lines, “for there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life,” this passage from Herman Hess’s The Glass Bead Game cannot but appear as a weird non sequitur: if the Thing looks back at me from everywhere, why does this oblige me to change my life? Why not rather a depersonalized mystical experience in which I “step out of myself” and identify with the other’s gaze? Likewise, if truth has to be lived, why need this involve a struggle? Why not rather a meditative inner experience? The reason is that the “spontaneous” state of our daily lives is that of a lived lie, to break out of which requires a continuous struggle. The starting point for this process is to become terrified by oneself. When, in his early “Contributions to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Marx analyzed the backwardness of Germany, he made a rarely notice yet crucial observation about the link between shame, terror, and courage:
the actual burden must be made even more burdensome by creating an awareness of it. The humiliation must be increased by making it public. Each sphere of German society must be depicted as the partie bonteuse of that  society and these petrified conditions must be made to dance by having their  own tune sung to them! The people must be put in terror of themselves in order  to give them courage.” (Marx)
Such is our task today, when faced with the shameless cynicism of the existing global order.” (Zizek, Living in the End Times, introduction)
Cover image: Pluto & Charon

About Michael Johnson

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  1. But I gotta say that it is not ‘so much’that people ‘live a lie’ but that there is an experience by which such a lie becomes available to notice, such that there is no longer a hiding place. That after such an experience the operator justifies itself within the omniscient gaze, as such, because she can no longer lie due to the fact an effect of the experience. There is no actual ‘people caught in a lie’.

    • many thanks for your comment – yes, one can notice that they are “living a lie” and look for ways to justify it, but then go on contributing to the lie that we live nonetheless. I think Zizek’s idea is that even if one is constantly aware of the lie, it still takes constant effort and second by second renewal to attempt to break out of the lie. Kierkegaard would note that there is a difference between understanding and the will, and that if one does not consistently will what they understand then they do not always understand. Zizek notes its the “spontaneous” state of our daily lives that is a lived lie; much of our unreflective daily activity and interaction resonates on levels we are not aware – and the resonance to be aware of is always shifting – and that to attempt to raise one’s awareness requires work and active response – and to attempt to live with a raised awareness requires that one be terrified of himself otherwise, because he wound understand himself caught in a lie

      • Perhaps, but I think there is too much agency in this interpretation.

        If I may:

        This is to say that to read Zizek from a position that is ‘outside of’ Zizek equates to the ‘spontaenous’ by which he speaks of the lie. Zizek must be read ‘of Zizek’, and not ‘of Lance (myself) upon Zizek’, so to speak. When this occurs, then one might see that Zizek is not implicating any sort of agency, but is sorting out a situation wherein such and such must be the case. From such a position, what is terrible has already occurred and so there is no inconsistency, no lie: There is no agent that needs to ‘attempt’ or ‘try’ to do anything: The agent occurs ‘outside’ the situation. There is no ‘reflection’. The un-reflection, the spontaneous occurs as a necessary situation to justify the situation itself, the absurd situation, where the operator has been terrified out of such divisions, out of any state of reflection or non-reflection. Within this situation arises a justification, a ‘world’ of the possibility of spontaneity, of some division of human thoughtful attributes, so the operator may speak about it in a sensible manner.

        When we can see a relation such as it seems you bring here, of the similarity of K and Z, in this light, of the consequences of the actual situation of trembling against the ‘mysterious tremendum’ as opposed to merely trembling against the idols of the mystery – the lie is seen, not as some thoughtful introspection upon the possibility of of there being different manners to come upon or behave or appropriate The world, not as if there is indeed some Lie of which Everyone somehow Is dealing with as some sort of grand common human basis – this is the Lie itself, the deception occurring. It occurs as a condition of coming upon the tremendous fear itself, not as some conceptual paradigm.

        The ‘greater’ humanity that deals with this Lie as if at some times they have to not deal with it, or deal with it as some sort of transformative catalyst innate to the common humanity: This is the Idol that Kierkegaard is speaking of. The activity of ‘raising ones awareness’ is part of the idolatry, and this idolatry is part of the situation that … “takes place only when the traumatic truth is not only accepted in a disengaged way, but is fully lived…”

        When we begin to see this, then we can begin to se a type of Hegalian movement of history, indeed, see ourselves beyond the daily struggles of phenomenalist living, of want and psychological agency that involve such idols. Indeed, once the idols have been set aside and the traumatic truth is accepted because the only way one has to deal with it is to disengage from it, then there is no struggle. There is only conditions, only occasions to speak and do.

        But the actual situation is that there is no transformation to be had: This is the offense of which Kierkegaard speaks. The resentment of which Nietzche speaks: That to talk about how there is no conceptual bridge, no act of agency, that will get one ‘beyond the idol’ is the very situation that is ‘sin’, that is our ironic situation, our absurd situation.

        And Im not entirely sure how you intend you meaning, but: There is no courage to be had; to stand before the mysterium tremmendum all courage is obliterated. Any courage that may be effectively enacted is courage that faces only idols. The trauma of which Z is speaking, cannot be mitigated by some rationality, some conceptual strategy; any strategy he might be speaking of is merely a condition of the situation that has already occurred that applies no strategy of itself.

      • so if the terrible has already occurred because of an inevitably limited agency then the non-lie is consistent with the Lie? I think there is always a compensation of error – any case we try to build toward an understanding is dependent upon the limits we impose on our construction of understanding. Perhaps courage at a certain point is a paradox; one cannot be aware of themselves as couragous or they cease to be agents enacting the external concept of courage. Rather, if one is self-aware they are in a sense trapped inside one’s ‘world’ of divisions and possibilities and incapable of courage, forever in despair because each instant presents spontaneous occurrences that are reacted to, these reactions make one into an agent that occurs outside the situation unreflected until the event becomes past at which point it’s too late and we justify our worlds over and over.

        so maybe the place we are getting to is: we are not capable of enduring terror of the self, and just about everything we do prevents us from engaging with the black hole. The other side of Courage is the Black Hole – black hole is maybe another version of the mysterium tremendum – “every angel is terrifying” – or a notion of non-being. each instant prevents self-terror (which is the courageous self absorbed into the black hole) by keeping our awareness grounded on a plane of compensation and justification, each instant bringing spontaneous occurrences from ‘outside’ the situation that overwhelm the agency into becoming the situation unreflected, the agency constantly turning away from the idols, a repetition incapable of reaching an end, never self and never non-self.

        (yeah, i know i’ve already muddled the case with agency, but any brief coherence or communication is like a gasoline rainbow or the shape of a fire)

        some (in)stability:
        i see two distinct ideas torn down: one is the thought that if we each become mirrors for each other in a way that is active, aware, courageous we can somehow make the lie begin to lift or levitate and attempt to form bonds on a higher plane – but this thought is revealed as an illusion and an elaborate compensation of the error of attempting to construct an understanding of becoming ‘greater’ or a ‘higher plane’. the other idea that you express is to reach the state of disengagement by accepting the traumatic truth and setting idols aside, at which point we become agents of conditions and occasions. in which case each situation has always already occurred and applications of strategy are always retroactive compensations and justifications.

        and yeah, we are more often upon and hardly ever of – but that’s the task all over again isn’t it? another crime to sort out…

      • Then perhaps the courage lay implied in Badiou’s ‘keep going’. Yes. But I must say that if we ever got to that point, where Badiou is a welcomed agreement, then we cannot but keep going, and the courage is really an ironic ‘encouragement’ for what has and is already occurring.

      • many thanks for your thoughts & for a lively exchange – I will spend some time with Badiou – until next time…

      • (I didn’t see the rest of the second before last reply). The two situations you outline well. And indeed it would seem a next step would be to ‘be honest’ with one another, act ‘as mirrors’, to then no longer have a mystery but rather a sorting out of the elements of the crime. The evidence has been recorded; we need to be allowed to present the case that has never been heard.

        If I may be honest: I occupy the minority position; settled in the lie in order to expose it’s parameters. There is no lie, but I must use the lie, speak its language, in this attempt. I thereby de facto “am lying” in my attempt to expose the truth. This, I see, is the condition of ‘living in the end times’. Like some Chinese emperor. Manipulating the law but no one can notice it.

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