The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) put forth an intriguing account of demonic evil in chapter 4 of his 1844 work The Concept of Anxiety. There Kierkegaard claims the demonic person has “anxiety about the good” which means he is both repelled by, and attracted to, the good of free and integrated selfhood. In many people this anxiety leads to cowardice and inaction. But in the demonic person it gives rise to actions that defy the good. This defiance has three interrelated aspects: (1) shutupness or the effort to shut oneself up with oneself in order to be alone; (2) the contentless or the effort to drain meaning from the world in order to remain alone; and (3) the sudden or the disintegration of the self in which continuity gives way to discontinuity. Demonic defiance is evil insofar as it willingly destroys free and integrated selfhood by negating continuity, communication, and meaning. In his book The Sickness Unto Death Kierkegaard argues that this defiance is undertaken to escape the inescapable freedom that lies at the heart of the human condition. This may seem perplexing: doesn’t everyone want to be free? But Kierkegaard points out that freedom requires two difficult things of us: (1) we must face future possibilities for choice which generate anxiety and (2) we must face the past necessities that flow from our choices that bring guilt, remorse, regret, and so on. Demonic people, rather than courageously facing these possibilities and necessities in order to become integrated selves over time, seek to remove them in some way. But the removal of the conditions for integrated selfhood is self-defeating: the more their defiance succeeds the more disintegrated they become.
I go over Kierkegaard’s theory of demonic evil in far more detail here. But this summary will allow us to consider an interesting and overlooked example of the demonic in part 1 (“In Vino Veritas”) of his book Stages on Life’s Way (Princeton, 1991). It is here that we encounter the troubling words of a demonic “Fashion Designer” who seeks to reduce all vestiges of taste, beauty, and virtue to crassness, vanity, and silliness. True style is an authentic expression of one’s individuality. But fashion can be a means of negating the good content of free individuality into something with no individual content at all, something totally superficial, something determined from the outside. Consider these words the Designer speaks to his dining guests:
“Describe, then, the wretched, stunted affection of the fashion-addicted woman, describe this insidious reflection that devours her, and depict the feminine modesty that least of all knows something about itself, do a good job of it and you will also have condemned woman and in reality condemned her terribly. If I ever find a girl who is humble and content and uncorrupted by indecent association with women, she will fall nevertheless. I bring her into my snare; now she stands at the place of sacrifice, that is, in my boutique. With the most contemptuous glance that snobbish nonchalance can exercise, I measure her. She is perishing with dread; a laugh from the next room where my trained minions are sitting demolishes her. The when I have her dolled up in fashion, when she looks crazier than a mad hatter, as crazy as someone who would not even be admitted to a loony bin, she blissfully sallies forth from me. No one, not even god, could dismay her, for she is indeed in fashion.” (70)
The Designer in his boutique, like the Devil in hell with his legion of trained minions, snares virtuous women, sacrifices the humble content of their characters, and sends them into the world of fashion. This world facilitates a fall from grace in which a desire for superficial sameness replaces the desire to be a profound individual. Humans seem to be miraculously transformed into dolls that, despite being objectified, manipulated, and mocked, feel no dismay in their blissful world.
James Ensor, Death and the Masks (1897)
The Designer thinks his successful corruption justifies his cruel treatment of women. He declares that “if a woman has reduced everything to fashion, then I will use fashion to prostitute her as she deserves. I never rest, I, the Fashion Designer; my soul rages when I think about my task; eventually she is going to wear a ring in her nose” (71). And why not resort to prostitution and mockery? After all, “there is nothing so sacred that she does not immediately find it suitable for adornment, and the most exclusive manifestation of adornment is fashion. No wonder she finds it suitable, for fashion, after all, is the sacred” (67). The sacred, which is an end in itself and is never to be used as a means to an end only, is now nothing but a means to vanity. Even “the fear of God is a matter of fashion” (67) and without fashion a wedding “is still an invalid act or else a very plebeian affair” (69). Shouldn’t we join the Designer and rage against such superficial desecrators? Don’t they deserve all the mockery and exploitation they get?
Many a deluded misogynist in this world will say yes. But I think we should reject the Designer’s rationalizations which reveal what he trying to do: he is attempting to remain alone by sucking the meaningful content out of those fellow human beings who can potentially lead him out of his stronghold. He is exemplifying shutupness via the contentless: staying alone by making women into fools with no content. Since such fools can’t be taken seriously let alone befriended and loved, he can remain isolated and avoid confronting the real possibilities and necessities of his existential freedom. Thus we are not surprised when he says: “So do not go looking for a love affair, stay clear of erotic love as you would the most dangerous neighborhood, for your beloved, too, might eventually wear a ring in her nose” (71).
But is the Designer at peace in his loveless isolation? At one point he refers to his victims as “phantoms” (69) and claims their fashion-obsessed lives are the “most devoid of ideas” (67). These phantoms lack what Kierkegaard calls “inwardness” or the development of an integrated self through passionate choice. And without inwardness they are candidates for the sudden or that discontinuity which marks the disintegration of selfhood. But the Designer appears to be a candidate as well: “The other one they called the Fashion Designer, which was his occupation in civil life. It was impossible to get a genuine impression of this man…One moment his behavior was not without aplomb, but the next moment this walk assumed a certain dancelike festiveness a certain floating motion…Even when he was talking most maliciously, his voice always had an element of boutique-pleasantness and polite sweetness, which certainly must have been extremely nauseating to him personally and only satisfied his defiance” (22). These contradictions exemplify a point Kierkegaard makes when discussing the demonic in The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton, 1980): “At one moment it is there, in the next moment it is gone, and no sooner is it gone than it is there again, wholly and completely. It cannot be incorporated or worked into any continuity, but whatever expresses itself in this manner is precisely the sudden” (130). Those marked by the sudden lose that continuous thread of selfhood since “the sudden is a complete abstraction from continuity, from the past and the future” (132). Kierkegaard’s depiction of the Designer suggests that his demonic agenda to isolate himself by corrupting others is self-defeating: in turning others into phantoms he has become a phantom himself. One “cannot get a genuine impression” of him see he is a discontinuous and demonic being. No wonder we find the Designer admitting that he is a “madman” (65).
So we see that Kierkegaard is able to exemplify the three traits of demonic evil through his portrait of the Fashion Designer. His analysis is relevant in our media-saturated society where people have unprecedented opportunities to use images of themselves and others to escape their existential freedom. The Designer, of course, is really all around us: he represents all those forces that draw our focus to superficial sameness in ways that undermine our individuality. As always, Kierkegaard helps us see these forces so we can guard against them in the name of authenticity. But he does something far more important: he helps us avoid becoming what the Designer accuses his dining guests of being, namely, “fellow conspirators” who increase evil in the world through our snobbish mockery and contemptuous glances.
Giandomenico Tiepolo, The Charlatan (1756)
I go over Kierkegaard’s theory of demonic evil in far more detail in a post here.