153. The Demonic, Part 4: The Key is Inside…and How to Retrieve It

In a set of previous posts I explore what I take to be one of the most perceptive and useful accounts of moral evil available, namely, that put forth in chapter 4 of Soren Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) eccentric work The Concept of Anxiety (1844). We have seen that Kierkegaard, via his pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis, 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. This defiant undermining of the good is evil. But what is the good?  The good, for Kierkegaard, is freedom or self-integration; and so the demonic person freely acts in defiance of freedom (for my overview of selfhood and freedom in Kierkegaard go here). I explored this account of the demonic in relation to music and fashion here and here. I also explored its self-defeating and yet inscrutable forms of defiance here. In this post, I want to share a few more insights from Kierkegaard that explore how, on the one hand, the machinations of evil are so hard to unlock and, on the other hand, how there may indeed be a method for unlocking them after all.

According to Kierkegaard the freedom of self-integration comes about through revelatory action in which we communicate, forgive, promise, repent, and forge meaningful interpersonal relationships. Thus it comes as no surprise that the demonic person’s fundamental strategy is to shut himself up with himself to prevent acts of revelation. In The Concept of Anxiety (see the Princeton University Press version) Kierkegaard refers to this as shut-upness or inclosing reserve and notes that the demonic individual “becomes more and more inclosed and does not want communication” (124). Since the expansive, communicating power of language is “precisely what saves” (124), the demonic person ultimately seeks muteness. According to Kierkegaard, “a legend has already represented [Mephistopheles] correctly. It relates that the devil for 3,000 years sat and speculated on how to destroy man—and finally he discovered it. Here the emphasis is on the 3,000 years, and the idea that this brings forth is precisely that of the brooding, inclosing reserve of the demonic” (131).

In my previous post I discussed how the silence of evil is self-defeating since a complete break with communication “is and remains an impossibility” (123). So the demonic self, if there is to be a self at all, cannot avoid language and the intersubjective action that language involves. Of course, this isn’t to say that the demonic individual can’t remain mute, talk to himself, and mime to the extent that, for all practical purposes, the person remains shut up. But complete isolation is incoherent. As a result, we should expect that the goal of muteness may be thwarted by involuntary disclosures. The demonic individual, when confronted with manifestations of the good, may become so anxious that he will unfreely disclose something he has hidden: some cruel remark, some spiteful glance, some odd bodily gesture will betray the weakness of his stronghold. On such occasions we may come to understand what particular form of the good someone is anxious about: love, dialogue, beauty, meaning, truth, trust, confidence in their own abilities, intimacy, etc.

But I also discussed how these disclosures, sudden and unexpected as they tend to be, typically don’t provide much information and are not interpreted accurately. Thus in many cases we will have to accept, as Kierkegaard does in in The Sickness Unto Death (Penguin), that the demonic individual “is like the troll in the fairy-tale who disappears through a crevice that no one can see” (104). One thinks here of the many descriptions given by people who were acquainted with individuals who committed evil acts like “he was so quiet”, “we never knew much about him”, “who would’ve thought he’d do something like that”, “never really talked much”, “I can’t believe it”, “he did say something strange one day but we didn’t know what to make of it”, etc., etc.

But why is it so hard to break into the hidden reserve of evil? I recently discovered Kierkegaard’s answer in a passage from his Stages on Life’s Way (Princeton): “Wrapped in oilcloth provided with many seals lay a box made of palisander wood. The box was locked, and when I forced it open the key was inside: inclosing reserve is always turned inward in that way” (189). This passage appears in Kierkegaard’s piece “Guilty?”/”Not Guilty?” and, given the complexities involved in the narrative, I will refrain from contextualizing it. For our purposes the key is that the evil person, since he is freely seeking to destroy freedom, has locked himself away: the key to the silence of evil is inside. It doesn’t exist somewhere outside the person in the form of some lost good, some act, some family dynamic, some brain function, etc. The outside phenomena might be occasions that led to the reserve and can, upon occasion, generate enough anxiety to invoke an involuntary disclosure. But according to this account, real openness can only come about if the evil person opens up himself.

Now, in the above passage we saw that the box, which can represent a demonic soul, was opened by force. But to use force on someone to reveal their secrets is, in many cases at least, immoral. Luckily, Kierkegaard offers us another method in chapter four of The Concept of Anxiety. Consider these remarkable passages:

“An obdurate criminal will not make a confession (the demonic lies precisely in this, that he will not communicate with the good by suffering the punishment). There is a rarely used method that can be applied against such a person, namely, silence and the power of the eye. If an inquisitor has the required physical strength and the spiritual elasticity to endure without moving a muscle, to endure even for sixteen hours, he will succeed, and the confession will burst forth involuntarily. A man with a bad conscience cannot endure silence. If placed in solitary confinement he becomes apathetic. But this silence while the judge is present, while the clerks are ready to inscribe everything into the protocol, this silence is the most penetrating and acute questioning. It is the most frightful torture and yet permissible. However, this is not as easy to accomplish as one might suppose. The only thing that can constrain inclosing reserve to speak is either a higher demon (for every devil has his day), or the good, which is absolutely able to keep silent, and if any cunning tries to embarrass it by the examination of silence, the inquisitor himself will be brought to shame, and it will turn out that finally he becomes afraid of himself and must break the silence.” (125)

So we see that silence and the eye, administered by someone who is good and has the prerequisite spiritual and physical strength, may offer a method which forces the demonic individual to open himself up from the inside. The key, rather than being sought after outside the person, is waiting inside the person in silence. Perhaps it is no surprise then that it can only be opened with the help of silence.

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