5. The Demonic, Part 1: Kierkegaard’s Demonic Fashion Designer

The Danish proto-existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) put forth an intriguing account of the demonic in chapter 4 of his eccentric work The Concept of Anxiety (see the Princeton edition translated by the Hongs). Kierkegaard claims the demonic person has “anxiety about the good” which means he is both repelled by, and attracted to, the good. This ambivalent anxiety gives rise to defiant actions that seek to undermine the good in various ways.  But what is the good?  The good, for Kierkegaard, is free, integrated, selfhood; and so the demonic person acts in defiance of freedom.  Indeed, the demonic is “unfreedom that wants to close itself off”.  This closure to the good leads to three interrelated modes of behavior: “shutupness” which is shutting oneself up with oneself in order to be as mute as possible; the “contentless or the boring” in which one seeks to drain meaning from the world and one’s interactions with others; and “the sudden” in which the continuity of the personality gives way to discontinuity: “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”. These modes of action in defiance of the good are evil insofar as they willingly destroy integrated selfhood in oneself and others by negating continuity, communication, and meaning and leaving meaningless disintegration, muteness, and isolation in its wake. Since integrated selfhood presupposes communication and revelation, the more the demonic person’s defiance succeeds—the more he is isolated and shuns modes of salvation and redemption—the more he disintegrates himself and, in the process, may unfreely disclose what was so carefully hidden.

Kierkegaard argues, in The Sickness Unto Death and elsewhere, that this defiance is undertaken to avoid the burdens of integrated selfhood: it is, essentially, an escape from freedom. To exist as a free, integrated self is to be responsible for one’s actions. And with this responsibility comes a heavy burden: the burden of judgment from ourselves and others that brings guilt, remorse, regret, a sense of failure, and so on. To be integrated is also to be revealed to others: people know where we stand.  But this revelation can bring tremendous suffering since, once revealed, people can harm us and manipulate us. Lastly, an integrated self is integrated into the lives of others and is therefore dependent on them to a large extent. But this dependence thwarts the Promethean drive to omnipotence and domination that many people have. Very often demonic defiance is essentially revenge on a world that prevents total domination. The demonic person essentially says: “If I can’t have it all then I will make myself and others as miserable as possible! In doing so I will prove the world is actually a miserable world not worth having in the first place“. This would also apply to individual things as well: if x can’t be controlled then demonic defiance will show x is worthless.

An overlooked example of the demonic arises in Kierkegaard’s book Stages on Life’s Way, part 1, In Vino Veritas (see the Princeton edition translated by the Hongs). 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 this passage from the Designer:

“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 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.”

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 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)

Or do they?  Perhaps the dolls have decided to hide their selves; perhaps they have shut themselves up with some help from the Designer. Perhaps this is why the Designer says 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”.   And why not resort to 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”.  The sacred, usually associated with an experience of subjectivity that is not be used as a means to an end only, objectified, or desecrated, has now become totally objectified and used as a means to vanity and vanishing selfhood. Shouldn’t such demonic women be sacrificed?

The Designer’s rationalizations don’t trick us. He is interested in shutting himself away from others by reducing others to superficial dolls he can control.  He will self-destruct soon enough.  Those of us that want to foster free selfhood may be more generous.  And we can be sure that, despite the rings in the noses, there are still hidden selves longing for freedom amidst the “talkativeness” which “chatters about anything and everything and continues incessantly”. After all, “chattering dreads moments of silence, which would reveal emptiness” (for Chatter, see Kierkegaard’s Two Ages, Princeton version, pp. 97-100). It is typically in those moments of silence that unfree disclosures of emotion will suddenly appear and then disappear.  Whatever the lawless disclosure, we will know there is a human seeking to make a connection (cf. Karin’s confrontation with Maria in Ingmar Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers for masterful illustrations of demonic outbursts).

Of course, in the end, we may find that there is very little left to which we can connect no matter how hard we try. We may find that, in the end, those who have claimed the sacred is nothing but fashion will become exactly what the Designer says they would be become: fashion “phantoms”. But we must be cautious: the Designer wants us to believe that the phantoms of fashion, the public, and the press are all there is.  This way, we don’t even look for the real thing in ourselves and others. This way, we become exactly what he accused his dining guests of being in Kierkegaard’s story: “fellow conspirators” who measure others with those contemptuous glances that snobbish nonchalance can exercise and, in doing so, slowly demolish ourselves.

For part two on the demonic in Kierkegaard, go here.

  1. Brigitte Lowther on

    Hello Dwight.
    I have a question that I have not been able to find the answer to thus far. I found your website asking the question: At the end of Soren Kierkegaard’s “In Vino Veritas”, when he asks (or wrote) “Who am I?”, who is it? Or perhaps what is it? I cannot figure it out… I thought perhaps these answers: Conscience. Truth. God. Would you be able to give me the simplest answer? Thank you very much.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Hi Brigitte

      Thanks for writing! Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way is an exploration of his three stages of life or spheres of existence: aesthetic, ethical and religious. “In Vino Veritas”, the first section of the book, is an exploration of the aesthetic stage. This stage of life, to oversimplify a bit, is essentially characterized by two fundamental motives: pursue that which is interesting and avoid boredom. The enemy is repetition: once some novel experience is repeated boredom sets in. Thus the aesthete must constantly pursue novelty and avoid various things, like marriage (explored in part 2 of Stages), that lead to repetition. The problem is that such a life leads to despair: no new moment can stay and the aesthete is caught in a frantic search for more and more novelty that continually slips away. Moreover, living for novel moments prevents the aesthete from developing a self since selfhood, for Kierkegaard, can only come about if one acts; and action can only occur if 1) one recognizes the conditioning necessity of the past and 2) based on this necessity one chooses from among possibilities of the future. Thus the aesthete, in seeking to live in fantasies of possibilities untarnished by the past, never develops a self. But, of course, the potential for selfhood is there and this potential, in accordance with Kierkegaard’s theological view of the self as a synthesis of necessity and possibility sustained by God, will continue to make a demand on the aesthete and, in some cases, generate so much despair that a leap out of the aesthetic stage occurs (Kierkegaard’s writings seek to precipitate this despair in reader’s who live in the aesthetic stage). Should a leap occur, then the self becomes an ethical self concerned with good and evil and interested in developing a historical continuity from the past into the future, relating to others, taking on obligations that lead to repetitions, and so on.

      Now, with this backdrop we can, I think, see what is going with the mysterious character William Afham. All his comments on recollection, his praise of the solitary life, and his final cryptic comments about being “pure being” betray him as a delusional aesthete who, incoherently, aspires to exist without having any determined existence. Existing as a free self comes through real action that moves forward based on past necessities and cancels future possibilities. But Afham says he is “continually being annulled” in all his relations like the “line with an arithmetic problem” that helps link things but is unaffected by the calculations. He, like Johannes the Seducer in Either/Or, is a watcher who will never have any personality because he never enters into relations with others that affect him. He is in despair.

      I hope that helps a bit. See my post “seduction as destruction” for more on this topic (here) and let me know if you have any questions.

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