Friday, February 17, 2006

KSRK: Guilty?/Not Guility? (May 5. Midnight.)

The Reading Lesson

The literary recollection for the month of May concerns Periander, the tyrant of Corinth to whom Quidam first alluded back in April. He made the connection pretty personal when he wrote the following:
Nothing I have heard or read has struck me so pointedly and personally as a saying about Periander. It is said of him that he talked like a wise man and acted like a maniac. That this saying applies so aptly to me is proved by the fact that I accept it with the most passionate sympathy, and yet it has not the slightest influence to change me for the better. This way of appropriating it is quite a la Periander. Within my postulate I am shrewd, but the postulate for my actions is so ideal that it turns all my shrewdness into foolishness. If I could learn to discount my postulate, my shrewdness would make a good showing. If I could be shrewd in this way, I should have been married long ago.
A number of familiar themes emerge in this latest tale: (1) the troubled relationship between a father and son; (2) an uneasy alliance of effectiveness with insanity; (3) sexual perversion; (4) politics and/or social welfare; (5) language and its insufficiency; (6) the irony of religious postulates; and (7) death as the only real resolution. There are probably more, and all of these certainly aren’t present in every story, but a pattern has certainly emerged that is worth tracking.

The troubled relationship this time concerns Periander and his son, Lycophron. There is another son as well, Cypselus, though he plays a fairly minor role. Lycophron knows that his father murdered his mother, and when this becomes apparent to Periander, Lycophron is eventually exiled. Though of course the circumstances are much different in each story, this conflict between father and son is an aspect of every entry on the fifth of each month. This time, somewhat unusually, most of the attention is focused on the father, although it is still the son that remains the more sympathetic character. It is also by far the most violent story.

Insanity is a feature of most of these stories as well, and in a few cases can be expanded to include its uneasy alliance with effectiveness. Here this effectiveness is evident in both his wisdom and abilities as a ruler. It’s especially similar to the The Dream of Solomon, in which the king’s ability to rule his country is combined with his wisdom as a speaker. In each story there is the stark reality that even this is not enough to make them good people, however effective they may be as rulers. Concerning Periander, Quidam writes “Of him is is said that he always spoke as a wise man and always acted as a lunatic,” and then give ample evidence to underscore the point. In The Dream of Solomon it is David who is the effective ruler, despite the fact that his son perceives in a dream that the father is an ungodly man: “and to be singled out by God one has to be an ungodly person, and the horror of the dream is this contradiction.” And Solomon suffers under this contradiction as well: “And Solomon became wise, but he did not become a hero; he became a thinker, but he did not become a man of prayer; and he became a preacher, but he did not become a believer …” and the list of contrasts continues. In his life of Periander, these elements are all combined in the one figure of the father, who mercilessly exiles his son not once but twice. When the throne is finally passed from one generation to the next it is instead hereditary sin that wins out in the end, as the son is killed by people who refuse to have the father-tyrant dwell among them.

The twisted section concerns Periander’s “penally culpable relations with his mother, Cratia.” Perhaps notable that the word kratia means ‘power’, the power here perhaps referring to Periander’s wisdom and his status as one of the seven sages of Greece. It is indicated by Quidam that penally culpable relations themselves that occasion one of his wise sayings, “Do not do what ought to be kept secret.” This again is similar to the wisdom of Solomon, whose ability to see through to the truth and articulate it in pithy comments accompanying political decisions existed side by side with an essentially sensuous mode of existence.

Besides their political acumen, the central figures in these stories are often engaged in the betterment of society. In A Possiblility it was the accountant’s philanthropy on behalf of children. In Quiet Despair it was Swift’s hospital. Perhaps the most extreme version of this is in the leper’s self-remove in the February story. Here Periander, for all his moral failings, is able to dig the isthmus (and by doing so abolished taxes in Corinth), and had a reign marked by leniency and justice toward the poor.

Most of the protaganists are skilled with language. Swift was a novelist and poet; the leper’s abilities are self-evident, even if they aren’t recognized by society, and there’s Solomon’s pronouncements are self evident. Only the bookkeeper doesn’t fit the pattern, and this is possibly emphasized when it is said that he “sees the most of all; his observations are sharper and more persevering, just as certain animals have sharper senses than do human beings.” In any case, Periander’s words are comparable to those of Solomon.

The irony of the religious mode so apparent in the story of Solomon is less substantial here: “He stood by his word and gave the gods the carved pillar he had promised, but it was paid for by the women’s jewelry.” Okay, that’s pretty thin, but it’s certainly there.

Many of the stories end in death, and Periander’s is especially violent. At his own behest:
For the last time the wise man and the tyrant were united. His desperate resolve and fear of being overtaken in death by disgrace led his wisdom to find an ingenious escape from lfe. He summoned two young men and showed them a secret passage. He ordered them to come there the next night and to kill the first man they met and to bury him immediately. When the two were gone, he summoned four others and gave them the same order – to wait in the passage and when they met two young men to murder them and to bury them at once. Then he summoned double the number and gave them the same command – to murder the four they would encounter and bury them immediately on the spot where they felled them. Then Periander himself came at the appointed hour and was murdered.
How this may be related to Quidam’s engagement is very difficult to say. How it is related to Kierkegaard is much easier, and that with these parables he is escalating his own troubled state to mythic proportions.


Blogger Jonathan Potter said...

Interesting that the protagonist of A Possibility is an accountant just like you.

I like your list of seven themes. You've got an outline of your dissertation on Quidam. Another theme you could add to the list might be: deceit vs. honesty. (Well, it's obviously an obsession of the entire diary.) In The Quiet Despair, the son deceives himself by reproducing the father's voice. In the Leper's Soliloquy, there is the ointment that seems to heal but only deceptively, on the surface. In Solomon's Dream it is the disjunction (in effect a deception) between David's heroic image and his being a penitent that disturbs Solomon's sleep. In A Possibility the bookkeeper's obsession is a kind of deception -- "when he died, the possibility vanished, it had been nothing but a delirium." And now with Periander, he sets out to deceive history about the circumstances of his own death by concealing it in this ingenious fashion.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Quin Finnegan said...

Yes, spot on, and that could perhaps even be the plate tectonic upon which the entire continent of Kierkegaardland rests; what with all the pseudonyms, the contrast between Upbuilding Discourses and Aesthetic works, and a method that resembles nothing so much as one of those glass ant farms I had as a kid, it is also becomes difficult to figure out exactly where that truth resides. In the judge? in Quidam's Diary? in the lost opportunity, to which Quidam often points? It's a puzzle.

But here in the diary, it is, as you write, a kind of either/or. I think the way you've described 'Quiet Despair' is the most chilling of all. Question: is there a way out of the deceit? I guess that's where I think that death enters the picture in a few of these stories. The bookkeeper dies, as does Periander, his son, and all the poor souls ordered to meet and kill eachother in the passageway. There's no resolution there, as far as I can see. Just that unsettling rift within each solitary individual.

Another question: is this rift simultaneous with the rift that is there between individuals, or is it caused by it? Or does it lead to the rift between individuals. Feels pretty gnostic, actually - or even Parmenidean.

7:41 PM  

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