Symposium Introduction

Philosophical Gothic: Form and Genres of The Hurricane Notebook



Elizabeth M.’s writings were sent to me in the summer of 2014 by Alexander Jech, who had been looking through them over the past year. Alexander had a vision for cleaning up the manuscript well enough to be published as more than just a pile of obscurities. The task seemed monumental, but necessary—a job you can’t say no to, because you’re the only people in charge of deciding whether someone’s story lives or dies. I can honestly say that in the years we have spent working on this book, the labor has been as edifying for us as it has been constructive for the manuscript itself. Any editors of this book, it seems, needed to have been people who would change along the way—people who would change as they worked. We certainly did that.

Some advance readers of The Hurricane Notebook have wondered how to categorize the work into a literary genre. Here, I would like to introduce some clarity on this topic, or explain the lack thereof, before the book enjoys a larger readership. Straightforwardly, there is a real sense in which this manuscript transcends many genres and is not, strictly speaking, within any of them. The content seems to be nonfiction, even though some characters seem not to be obviously identifiable with existing individuals, and many of the conversations seem quite fantastical—vending machine suppliers who double as theologians, and bartenders willing to discuss Kant. So, a nonfiction genre like memoir is not, in my estimation, the correct literary genre within which we should place The Hurricane Notebook. If pressed, I would name three types of literature that the journals of Elizabeth M. can be broadly understood as exemplifying: philosophical dialogue, Southern Gothic, and Greek tragedy.


Although one would be missing much if they understood this manuscript solely as serving a philosophical purpose, its function as a philosophical dialogue is undeniable. The meat of Elizabeth’s journal is the recounting of conversations with her peers, and nearly every one of these conversations is explicitly philosophical in nature. The most important themes draw on existentialist and religious philosophers such as Augustine, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky, but these dialogues often tackle more wide-ranging material, including traditional philosophical figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and themes from contemporary analytic philosophy. There is a sense in which these recorded conversations strike the reader as contrived; it is difficult to imagine such a cast of philosophically adept characters as Elizabeth portrays. Additionally, one often gets the idea that Elizabeth’s interlocutors are sometimes speaking for her, and that her own recorded responses to “their” arguments are the worries and doubts with which she is plagued. Plato never placed himself within any of the dialogues he authored, and even Plato’s Socrates cannot be comfortably assumed to speak for him; Berkeley and Hume follow Plato in this practice, so that, similarly, it’s never entirely certain that Philonous and Philo speak for them. Aristotle and Cicero diverge from this pattern; they appear as characters in their own dialogues whose arguments and ideas do appear to represent the views of their authors. Elizabeth, as an author, falls in between these camps. She writes herself in as a character, yet in such a way that we cannot always be confident that the position the author takes is the view she puts into her own character’s mouth.

This may be due to a difference in function between Elizabeth’s dialogues and those of the aforementioned authors. A philosophical dialogue is a type of narrative in which argument constitutes the action, and the central conflict is a philosophical problem whose solution bears on human life. Thus, in the Socratic dialogues, ethical content predominates, and they continually feature dramatic portrayals of aporia—philosophical angst—over these questions. But an author may write in a philosophical mode either for the sake of teaching something the author has learned, or for the sake of addressing the author’s own confusion and angst. The Hurricane Notebook is a work of discovery of this latter type. Perhaps Elizabeth therefore appears in her own dialogues, then, not as a teacher of some truth she wants to give the reader, but as an illustration of her efforts to discover that truth.


Perhaps the least intuitive of my three genre suggestions is Southern Gothic. This categorization is generally applied to works of fiction, but the notebook often reads so much like a novel (albeit a fragmentary one) that it is difficult to avoid making such literary comparisons. Superficially, there is much to support such a categorization. Elizabeth M. lived in, and wrote about, North Carolina, which, while far from the Deep South occupied by Capote’s and O’Connor’s characters, still retains a whiff of Southern spirit. In this way, The Hurricane Notebook is more aesthetically similar to the work of Thomas Wolfe or Toni Morrison—work that contains a bit of Southern aesthetic, but muted, or sitting awkwardly alongside a more stifling presence of Midwestern starkness. This, in some ways, gives the audience an advantage—a strong regional aesthetic, like a strong accent, makes something interesting but easy to misinterpret. In The Hurricane Notebook, unlike typical Southern Gothics, there is no theme of natural decay; rather, the characters are decaying, while the natural world around them flourishes, unbothered.

Elizabeth’s central concerns—redemption and the human capacity for evil—are paradigmatic Southern Gothic themes. Similarly type-typical is her propensity for discussing universal themes of love, guilt, and human nature, using overtly religious terminology and metaphor. Many of her questions—in fact, her deepest questions—are religious in nature, and her search for penance and redemption, while not confidently Christian, is no secular journey. Here we might make a comparison to writers like Walker Percy, John Updike, perhaps even Flannery O’Connor (though O’Connor’s writing differs from Elizabeth M.’s in most other ways). But while fascinated with God and evil, the writing in the notebook is not what one could call orthodox Christianity; it is haunted by these ideas but reflects a spirit uncertain of how to approach them. Elizabeth was heavily influenced by existentialist philosophy and themes of absurdism, and in these ways carries on the torch of Sherwood Anderson and Cormac McCarthy.

The characters of The Hurricane Notebook with whom Elizabeth discusses these ideas are likely the most obvious markers of the Southern Gothic nature of the work. Unlike her depiction of her sister, Sarah, or her friend, Joshua, Elizabeth’s portrayal of her interlocutors—coworkers, college acquaintances, mysterious strangers—are essentially one dimensional. Among those she debates, only her old mentor, Simon, to a degree, marks a partial exception. Her primary interest in keeping a record of these interactions seems to clearly be the ideas discussed therein. The result is that these characters are, for the reader, reduced to a single idea. If there were real individuals behind these characters, they seem to have disappeared into the single thought that Elizabeth associated with their persons. This is one of the primary identifying features of Gothic literature—featuring “grotesques” to keep the reader uneasy. Unlike a typical Gothic, however, our protagonist does not become more distorted, more grotesque, as the story goes on. Instead, the notebook conveys her attempt to arrest her own movement toward grotesquery.


However, what struck me initially about The Hurricane Notebook, once all the pages were in order and all the shorthand translated, was that it has a very classical structure. In particular, the journals can be read like a Greek tragedy, in which guilt and fate are discovered together. That is, the reader knows of the terrible event that has occurred in Elizabeth’s life, and it’s clear early on from the entries that she is suffering with a sort of depression; yet, beyond these relative superficialities, Elizabeth does not, initially, actually write very much about the event. And so, the impact of the death on Elizabeth is slowly revealed to readers of the journals as Elizabeth acquires greater understanding of life, relationships, and human nature. It is not hard to imagine that this tragic structure was, if not intentional, a natural subconscious effect of her immersion in the classical world. Elizabeth knew Greek and Latin, she knew the great tragedies and comedies, she knew Greek and Roman philosophy; she was already thinking like an Ancient, and no doubt her writing naturally followed suit. It may, in fact, have been intentional—a sort of device for framing her musings, to aid her own investigations into these deep philosophical questions.

For an interesting literary comparison, one might look at Donna Tartt’s inaugural novel The Secret History (1992). Like The Hurricane Notebook, Tartt’s book also has an overtly tragic structure, but in this case expertly transposed into the form of a modern novel—a structure made even more obvious by the fact that the story focuses on a small group of young classics students who meet in Greek class. Also like Elizabeth’s journals, Tartt’s novel focuses largely on the post-tragedy condition of this group of students, especially on their guilt and the subsequent personal unraveling occasioned by this guilt. Despite these similarities, it should be noted that we have no reason to believe Elizabeth M. ever read The Secret History. Throughout her journals Elizabeth M. refers to almost no contemporary literature, preferring to get her fill of fiction from the classics, and such a story of sin and undoing would surely have been mentioned by our author at least once somewhere in her writings.

One obvious, and important, difference between The Hurricane Notebook and The Secret History is the trajectories of the characters. In Tartt’s novel, guilt is shoved under the furniture, and the result is the eventual rotting, a dissolving into something near irredeemable, of each of the main characters. Elizabeth M.’s journals show no sign of such evasive maneuvers; indeed, our mysterious writer forcefully and repeatedly commands herself to face her guilt (or what she believes to be her guilt) honestly—“No lies.” The results of these diametrically opposed responses to terrible guilt are equally opposed outcomes. Unlike Oedipus, she refuses to take her eyes out, and forces herself to see the truth she had suppressed so long. Rather than rotting from the inside out—an ending typical of a classical tragedy—Elizabeth experiences deep intellectual and spiritual growth, even as she walks close to, or perhaps even dances with, madness.


Some readers, after having read The Hurricane Notebook, may want to make a case for other genres. I do not take myself to have covered all, or even most, of the important literary elements of Elizabeth M.’s writings. It is clear, however, that the writings were intended to be a record, not a masterpiece or authoritative statement. It also seems—evidenced by the stylistic changes that progress over the course of the book—that this manuscript was possibly written over the course of years. Such evolutions of style add yet another layer of difficulty when it comes to genre categorization. What begins as almost straightforwardly a philosophical novel is soon punctuated with mysterious letters, ruminations about her friend and sister, flashbacks, poetry, and the slow burn of deepening anxiety. By the end of the manuscript, scenes come at us quickly in the form of four-page chapters seemingly disconnected from the primary narrative. But the connection is, of course, Elizabeth herself. The Hurricane Notebook, ultimately, is a record of an individual trying to pull all the experiences of her life into a story that makes sense to her. And maybe there is not yet a genre for a work like that. Maybe this is the first of a new genre.

Sr. Ann Astell


Mirrors of Freedom, Fatherhood, and Faith in Alexander Jech’s The Hurricane Notebook

In one of the mysterious notebooks included within Elizabeth M.’s notebook, the pseudonymous author “Niakani” remarks, “I’ve been reading Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky like mad, and I feel I am on the verge of working out a solution.” Having co-taught a Philosophy and Theology seminar with Alexander Jech on Kierkegaard and Dostovesky, I cannot resist returning to the three themes we emphasized in that course—Freedom, Fatherhood, and Faith—in my remarks on Jech’s wonderful new philosophical novel, The Hurricane Notebook. From Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Jech has drawn inspiration for the fictional notebook itself with its collection of entries by more than one writer, on a series of topics and in styles suited to different genres. From Dostoevsky, Jech has learned how to juxtapose characters who mirror each other in complex ways, not merely as literary foils sometimes enhance a hero’s stature, but as representatives of different philosophical perspectives and choices and as a means for each other’s growth in self-knowledge. These human mirrors, unlike the glassy mirrors in Sal’s house and the formula-laden mirrors in Elizabeth’s parental home (“The Sacrum Arcanum”), allow Elizabeth M. to see herself, to remember herself, in ways that are ultimately life-giving and life-changing.

When we first encounter Elizabeth, she has isolated herself in her apartment, feels “profoundly alone” (5), lacks any relish in living, walks the empty streets at night, is haunted by the memory of her sister Sarah, a recent suicide. She exemplifies “the sinner curved in upon himself” (102). This isolated existence of Elizabeth’s—monochromatic, monotonous, depressive, guilt-ridden, disgusted—is, in turn, a tragic consequence of her earlier withdrawal from the two relationships of human friendship that had been important, beautiful, and joyous for her: those with Joshua and Sarah.

As Elizabeth explores her memories in the seemingly disjointed fragments of the notebook, we encounter Joshua as Elizabeth’s partner in ballet, the dance whose beauty becomes a means and expression both of their relationship and of Elizabeth’s personal wholeness within it. Through Elizabeth’s love for an idealized Joshua—a love that Niakani (echoing Kierkegaard) would call a “self-making passion”—the teenaged girl has made ballet the “pattern” of her life, devoting herself completely to its practice, despite her realization that her talent as a dancer is inferior to Joshua’s. Bitterly disappointed when Joshua leaves to pursue his study of ballet in New York City, Elizabeth’s life loses its wholeness, the “synthesis” she has “posited” (again to echo Kierkegaard’s and Niakani’s language). She embraces the mathematical beauty of chess-playing as a substitute for the pattern of dance, but even her chess-playing, which had formerly been a means for an open relationship with others, becomes different, aimed instead at winning and control. “In chess,” she admits, “making the other player hear the music is a kind of seduction, to trap him” (196).

Her chess-playing (traditionally a symbol for the combination of necessity and freedom in the human condition) becomes an outward sign, a patterned expression, of her willful adherence to “The Sacrum Arcanum,” the abstract ideal that becomes her new “self-making passion.” Elizabeth transforms the old playroom at home, which had been converted “into a home dance studio,” into “The Sacrum Arcanum,” covering the mirrors on its walls with formulaic assertions written with “a black dry-erase marker” in what became “a kind of private language” (153–55). The handwriting on the glass symbolizes her commitment to two assumptions: “One was that the idea, the ideal, was articulable. The second was that the individual was sufficient for the relation to the ideal” (156). Elizabeth’s commitment to an ideal self-sufficiency—embraced as a protection against disappointment and betrayal in relationships—thus becomes her “destiny,” “her whole relation to the world” (156), with tragic consequences for her younger sister Sarah, who in turn feels abandoned and betrayed, and for Elizabeth herself.

When a bewildered Sarah appears on the scene and asks, “What is it?” Elizabeth replies that she cannot explain it to her, asserting that “The Sacrum Arcanum” is vastly different from the “Arcanum” that the two girls had earlier invented as the secret “Twig Latin” of their childhood friendship and imaginative adventures. “The Sacrum Arcanum” belongs to Elizabeth alone. As children, Elizabeth and Sarah had pledged (making exuberant use of a cross-lingual pun) to “re-dime” / redeem one another; they had opened their souls together to the beauty of the world through surfing, dance, and poetry. Abandoned by Joshua, whose dancing complemented and contributed to their shared sense of beauty, a willfully self-sufficient Elizabeth in turn abandons Sarah, who then, rebelliously and sadly, abandons herself to a decadent life of beach-parties and drink. The two sisters no longer speak the same language, share the same interests, move in the same circles. The hyper-virtuous Elizabeth actively avoids and disdains Sarah’s company. Lacking Elizabeth’s Hyperion autonomy, Sarah clings to the party crowd, but also to the memories of childhood beauty and bliss that her sister has forgotten—a fact Elizabeth subsequently discovers through the heart-rending evidence of a left-behind LP record, a letter, and a poem (237). Sarah’s memories, in turn, allow Elizabeth to remember herself—her guilt, but also the ground of her hope for a renewed life.

The chapter entitled “The Black Swan” brilliantly interprets the human/swan transformations in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as symbols of the perilous transformation of childhood potential (itself a mixture of necessity and freedom) into adult realization. The ballet and the LP recording of Tchaikovsky’s music were important to Elizabeth in her adolescence, inseparably connected to her relationship with Joshua and her memories of him, but also (Elizabeth discovers) to Sarah in her memories of her ideal, her older sister. Elizabeth finds the old LP of Swan Lake, to which she had once danced in Sarah’s company, in her dead sister’s bed—a discovery prompting her compunctious meditation. In the double identity of Odette/Odile, Elizabeth understands herself as one betrayed and betraying. The “joint suicide” (196) of Siegfried and Odette/Odile seems to Elizabeth to have announced “a universal fate” (199), but also the particular, tragic necessities of Joshua’s betrayal of her through withdrawal and of her own betrayal of self and sister. “Swan Lake,” writes Elizabeth, “is my definition, my doctrine of sin, this account of freedom and its loss. . . . Being loved is to kill” (213).

At the novel’s start, Sarah’s suicide by drowning seems to portend Elizabeth’s own (161). The ominous character Sal, Elizabeth’s former classmate, mirrors and exacerbates Elizabeth’s desperate self-sufficiency, her sense of sin and despair. Elizabeth’s glassy mirrors find a diabolic counterpart in his when she attends a “Pirate Festival” party at his seashore home: “There was a room of all mirrors. . . . Every wall was a mirror, and the ceiling as a checkerboard of mirrors and dark tiles” (40). Elizabeth believes that “the soul must be a mirror in which the ideal is reflected” (63), and Sal agrees: “Human beings cannot live without the ideal, greatness, grandeur, whatever you want to call it” (305). For Sal, who’s “Ahab happy” (39), however, the “awful essence” of the soul is self-willed sin (317), and “the self is nothing but freely unfolded necessity” (43). The ideal, therefore, necessitates a grand, all-encompassing embrace of sin: “Sin is truth!” (63). Niakani’s word for Sal’s “oneness” (342) is the posited synthesis of an “infinite hatred or pride” (94). Evil has become Sal’s good, his “truth” (cf. Paradise Lost 4:110).

Elizabeth’s oft-repeated motto, “No lies!” has its disconcerting counterpart in Sal’s demonic “Truth above all things” (342). Elizabeth, who has frequently disagreed with Sal in classroom discussions of Melville’s Moby Dick, does not immediately make any connection between the two rooms of mirrors, hers and his. In a pivotal passage later in the novel, however, she comes to understand that her commitment to individual self-sufficiency in pursuit of the ideal is dangerously close to Sal’s commitment to the grandeur of a Luciferian self-mastery. Sal confesses, “I can tolerate and even approve a criminal who retains his relation to the ideal” (305). Sal, we learn, has driven his girlfriend Sibley to suicide, and “she wasn’t the first” (318). Elizabeth, who blames herself for Sarah’s suicide, suddenly begins to understand where she went wrong and confesses to Simon: “I have done something terrible” (318). Simon, Elizabeth’s mentor and former chess teacher, then glosses Elizabeth’s faltering admission of having done “something terrible” with “the thought of rebellion. . . . The thought of mastering your own fate” (318).

Simon’s own experience allows him to understand both Elizabeth’s predicament and Sarah’s. As the hurricane bears down upon the house—Sal’s house—where Elizabeth and Simon have taken refuge in Sal’s absence, Simon shares the burden of Elizabeth’s blame, revealing that he had witnessed a brief, worrisome exchange between Sarah and her mother without making any subsequent attempt to reach out to Sarah: “It wasn’t just you who failed Sarah. I, too, share that blame” (338). He goes on to confess that his inaction had a double root in his past lack of success in helping others and in the pain of his continued sense of responsibility for them: “because once I grasped for someone, I could never let them go again” (337).

Not unlike Elizabeth and Sarah, Simon has withdrawn from close relationships with others. In his young manhood, a “self-making passion” to love and serve others had led Simon to embrace the “pattern” of the priesthood, but he had left the seminary before ordination due to disappointment in himself, the self-betrayal of his own, inescapable incoherence. He had wanted to love, to help others—Bruce, Luis, etc.—but he had failed, had made matters somehow worse, and that tormented him. Simon did not know how to reconcile the lasting attachment to beloved people, the friendship for which he longed, with the love of God, and he then thought (wrongly, as he now understands) that loving God meant ceasing to love others “faithfully” (337).

Like Sal and Elizabeth, Simon understands all people (and himself especially) to be sinners who fall short of the ideal. No lies! The “pattern” of his life as a criminal investigator reflects the synthesis Simon has posited on the basis of that recognition, the “prosecutor” substituting for the “priest.” Whereas Sal has accepted a criminal existence, Simon associates himself with criminals, reads their minds, but sides with justice against evil.

As the novel draws to its powerful, enigmatic conclusion, Simon endeavors to help Elizabeth to remember and to reconsider the synthesis she has posited with tragic effect and to hope for a new synthesis, the grace of a new and needed friendship: “The self-making passion is an act of grace” (339). In the process of the philosophical dialogue amidst the storm, Simon himself is transformed and seems to reclaim the priestly vocation he had set aside years before in an hour of crisis. The belated response to his vocation, made concrete in the call to save Sarah and Elizabeth, gains expression in a biblical word: “I see now that I have never escaped the call, for ‘here I am’” (338).

In the context of a chess game with Elizabeth, Simon symbolically topples his king, acknowledging a chessboard defeat by Elizabeth that signals a spiritual victory (319, 354). The symbolism, too rapidly explained by Simon to Elizabeth as the storm winds howl, becomes obvious through a remembered conversation between Simon and Fr. McBrien, in which the old priest provides what is, in effect, a theological translation of the philosophical model Niakani has borrowed from Kierkegaard. As Simon recalls, Fr. McBrien “said that in every soul there is a prophet, a priest, and a king, but the king must die and a new king take the throne” (333). The prophet (Simon explains to Elizabeth) sees the ideal, the priest seeks to serve and to save others as a pattern of life, but the result will inevitably be a misprision of the ideal and a selfish mode of service if the “old king”—the “awful essence” of egotistical self-rule—does not die and yield to the new king, Christ, whose love embraces the sinner and uses sinners to save sinners. “The king in the soul is the master factor that unifies everything, a kind of ruling and subordinating principle,” Simon teaches Elizabeth—a principle that “would purify, not replace, the prophet and the priest” (339).

Simon exercises his fatherly priesthood when he goes to his probable death on the waters, yielding the small place in the wall closet in the tunnel to Elizabeth, in the hope that she will survive the hurricane there. The Christlike nature of his sacrifice is underscored in their parting words, but also in Elizabeth M.’s dreams on the island, wherein she—like Mary Magdalene on Easter morning—greets him as “Teacher!” and hears him say, “Don’t hold on to me, but go and find the others” (369). Elizabeth’s ultimate survival of the hurricane is left in question at the novel’s end, but through the notebook itself she seems to fulfill the quasi-apostolic task given her in her dream: “Well, Simon, I’ll save it, if I can, and if someone finds it, they’ll at least know that you saved someone” (373).

Sheltered in Sal’s accustomed hideout, perhaps among the supplies that Simon has left for her, Elizabeth finds “Brooklyn, Once” the memoir of Simon’s conversation with Fr. McBrien, written in “a neat, spidery cursive script” (editor’s note, 347). The contents of the memoir indicate Simon’s authorship. Who but he could recount this story, which matches what Simon has earlier reported to Elizabeth? The handwriting indicates that whoever wrote “Brooklyn, Once” also wrote the “extended philosophical analysis” that “Niakani” earlier sent to Elizabeth, “a document written by hand in a neat, almost spidery cursive script” (85). Simon’s casual remark, “I wonder what handwriting analysis would show?” (85), his knowledge of the Delacroix case to which Niakani refers, his prescient remarks about why Niakani’s meditation suddenly breaks off, his benevolent attitude toward Elizabeth—all these evidences point to Simon as the mysterious Niakani, whose thinking “a decade or more in the past” (85) seems consistent with Simon’s (somewhat revised and perfected) current way of thinking.

In yet another mirroring, however, readers of The Hurricane Notebook glimpse what may be the handwriting of Niakani and of the author of “Brooklyn, Once” in a notebook owned by Sal. Elizabeth reports that Sal’s notebook, which he often carried on his person, “was filled with spidery writing by someone or other, as well as copious notes in Sal’s own hand” (310). In answer to Elizabeth’s direct question about the notebook’s content, Sal calls it “a true history of the human soul,” which, he says, he obtained “in Brooklyn, once . . . in some dusty bookstore in Brooklyn” (310–11). Since both Simon and Sal studied at NYU, albeit years apart, The Hurricane Notebook hints at the diabolic possibility that Sal has studied Simon’s soul through this misplaced or stolen memoir and reached his own conclusions about the problem of evil in part through an analysis of another’s temptations and crisis of conscience. The editors of The Hurricane Notebook, Alexander Jech and Megan Fritts, give no indication that the black-ink script of “Brooklyn, Once,” a manuscript inserted within Elizabeth’s notebook, is accompanied by the blue and red markings (disappearing ink?) that Elizabeth recalls seeing in Sal’s notebook.

If, in fact, the reader of The Hurricane Notebook is reading what both Sal and Elizabeth read—“a true history of the human soul”—then Alexander Jech is presenting this book’s audience with contrastive models for making an ethical decision. With what motive am I reading what Elizabeth wrote, what Niakani/Simon wrote? Sal hoards the notebook he has somehow procured, whether by purchase or theft or even perhaps through its author’s well-intentioned sharing with the younger man, whom he had (again perhaps) sought to help. (Simon does, after all, seem to know Sal and his way of thinking very well.) Sal uses the notebook he has obtained inimically as a problem to be solved secretively for his own selfish gain (310–11). Niakani, by contrast, generously sends Elizabeth his treatise, “written in beautiful cursive script on bright, white paper” (9), in the express hope that she may find it useful (85), and she welcomes it amidst her confusion, albeit with the question: “Who is this Niakani and why did he write me?” (9). And we may ask, “Who is this Elizabeth who has written to us through the mediation of Alexander Jech?”

Knowing Alex as a teacher and having witnessed his rapport with students, I imagine that “Elizabeth M.” is representative of people he knows and loves: the gifted young philosophers who sit in our university classrooms; who read Pascal, Kant, Kierkegaard, Plato, Hegel, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Eliot, and Dostoevsky (as Elizabeth has); and whose personal philosophizing (like hers) has often taken a serious turn through some trauma. Temptations to suicide are frequent enough among this young population, which strives for high ideals and radiates beauty, but which also experiences manifold, searing disappointments in themselves and others. Like Niakani/Simon, Elizabeth’s fatherly teacher and friend, Alexander Jech is sending them and us something that may be very useful. Indeed, The Hurricane Notebook, an unexpected relic of the recent storms, gives the lie to the dictum that philosophy is dead. Through it, a personified Philosophy can cry out, as Elizabeth does to Sarah, “I want to live” (374).

  • Alexander Jech

    Alexander Jech


    Reply to Sr. Ann Astell

    My replies are sequential: each builds upon the previous reply. As such, they develop a continuous “argument.” However, I recognize that not everyone may wish to read through the entirety of the comments and responses. Therefore, I have attempted to make it possible to begin with any one of the four by developing the argument in such a way that the concepts discussed in earlier responses enriches these concepts as they appear in subsequent responses, but the later responses do not presuppose the earlier to be understood.

    Sr. Ann Astell, in closing her beautiful and attentive reading of The Hurricane Notebook, refers to my editorial role in terms of “mediation.” This is an apt word, and I will dwell upon it. Mediation, like editorship, is a daunting task. It requires someone to present another’s message faithfully, yet also to adapt it in various ways for the intended recipient. It requires that one provide loving attention both to the speaker and to the recipient, and a third type of attention, a faithful attentiveness to the message itself. Mediation can be for the sake of reconciling two parties or for the sake of delivering what one party wholeheartedly wishes the other to know. It can be for the sake of freeing the second party from a false sense of what the first party is presumed to want or expect. Mediation can be for the sake of any of these things, and can be for the sake of reconciling the recipient with himself, for the sake of freeing him from false expectations he has placed upon himself. Loving attention presupposes that the object of attention is a mystery, and mysteries do indeed hide themselves even as they disclose themselves, but the mystery of another person is precious in a way that invites and warrants the loving attention required for him or her becoming known.

    It will perhaps not be believed that Elizabeth M., or her message in The Hurricane Notebook, could be of this sort; for, the objector may think, even if she is real, she has hidden herself behind a poetic veil so thoroughly that even her traces may as well be illusions as truths. Hence it is impossible to be attentive to her—for she is either real or unreal; if unreal, she is a poetic illusion; and if real, she has left us only poetic illusion, a mystery that hides itself in disclosing itself, because here the “disclosure” and “concealment” are simultaneous, even identical. And if there is no author we can know, how can there be “mediation”? Without the first term, do we not simply have a pseudo-editor, a pseudo-mediator, who wants to take no responsibility for a message for which he really, after all, has full responsibility? In that case, would not “mediation” be awfully like the kind decried by Kierkegaard, the tacit and illicit presupposition of the “presuppositionless” philosophy of the Danish Hegelians: at best an empty process of thought thinking itself and getting nowhere fast, at worst a blank deception?

    But perhaps no idea is more central to Elizabeth M.’s Hurricane Notebook than that of mediation and loving attention. Her drive to understand herself with “no lies” at times sends her spinning like a top, seeming to shift almost too rapidly for us to follow her, but like a dancer, she spins and keeps her balance because in her spinning she maintains a single object in her sights, which she takes in with each revolution: her guilt. But the rapid revolutions of her thought could equally be likened to the rotations of an apple being peeled, in which the blade of her guilt is being used to remove another strip of exteriority with each revolution until only the meat of the apple remains. There is no doubt that this type of stripping away of exteriority is exactly what Elizabeth M. aims for in her writing, and in her darker moments, she seems to hope to keep the process going to the point of stripping herself of all existence entirely—to strip away not only the peel, but the meat too, until there is nothing left but a core, or just a few seeds. In this sense, the revolutions cease in the discovery she makes in “Golden Slivers,” in the two memories—one of Sarah, one of Joshua—she presents in parallel columns.

    Elizabeth does not explain her purpose in presenting the memories this way. Let me be the first to admit that her writing often raises questions I do not know how to answer. Yet here it seems to me that the form she has adopted and the idea she wishes to convey are one and mutually reinforcing: that she was the link, the knot, between the thread of Joshua’s life and the thread of Sarah’s life. What seemed nothing but an isolated episode—the end of an adolescent friendship—became much more than that because, in responding to that friendship’s failure and the failure of the concomitant self-making passion in the way that she did, she became a different sort of person, and this change, this alteration for the worse, reverberated through her other relationships, above all, her relationship with Sarah. The vibration of one knot’s being undone was carried on and undid another knot as well. Elizabeth’s guilt lay in her role as a “mediator” who conveyed her disappointment with Joshua, her sense of abandonment, all too faithfully to her sister, so that Sarah, too, felt abandoned, disappointed, unable even to articulate what she had lost or wanted, despised by the one to whom she had opened her soul. Why did this happen? The Elizabeth of “The Black Swan” seems to think about it this way: What links one thread to another is love. What love does is provide resilient connection with another person, in virtue of which every beloved person provides, ipso facto, a mediation of their own condition to those who love them and depend upon them. But our own condition is necessarily flawed, marked by freely chosen self-contradictions, self-contradictions that also place us in contradiction with each other. This self-war, this despair, is what we necessarily communicate, via love, with one another. What ties the great tapestry of humanity together with each other, love, is also what will cause that tapestry to disintegrate, allowing the flame consuming one thread to burn all the others until the entirety is reduced to ashes.

    Niakani noticed the tragic failure of love to redeem in The Idiot. It could just as easily be applied to Tolstoy’s attempt to reconfigure Christianity solely around Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. This led him to an impossible impasse, the “cockroach’s problem,” where his dialectic could no longer advance against the objections that it raised against itself, just as Elizabeth’s own ideas led to the impossible philosophy of “The Black Swan.” We do not know precisely what ideas lay in the most recent developments of the Sacrum Arcanum, but my hypothesis—developed in footnote 82—is that there were at least two major strands of thought that she struggled to unite, one strand centered on the idea of the soul as a “mirror” of ideality, which it could concretize within itself, and the other strand focused on the idea of developing conscience through a series of simple, uncontroversial “either/or” binaries, through which she could pinpoint the precise nature of conscience and self-unraveling, but that these ideas ran afoul of each other.1 There are hints of these ideas in “The Black Swan,” in any case, where “the ideal” is treated in terms of “the music” that the dancer is to convert into idealized movement. For in dance the body is the mirror of the music, but instead of concretization, there is movement; and in dance she found, not the expression of conscience as the conjunction of a few simple properties but instead the idea of conscience as an ideal power laying at the furthest horizon of dance, something it cannot properly treat but can only presuppose, hiding it as it hides all things behind a veil of exaltation, and so she, too, accepts conscience and its judgments in all their idealism.

    From a certain standpoint, what makes love so useless is its inability to modulate relative to sin—see, e.g., Katya’s love for Dmitry in The Brothers Karamazov, Sonya’s love for her father in Crime and Punishment, Prince Myshkin’s love for Nastasya in The Idiot—since it is difficult to see how a virtuous person may love a less virtuous person without sacrificing either love or virtue. In contemporary philosophical work, we see this same futility in Anne Jeffrey’s “Why Not to Stop in the Name of Love,” where she presents the example of a woman who discovers that her sister, an aspiring ballerina, is taking diet pills. In this case we are conflicted. Should she throw away her sister’s pills, showing love for the person but disrespect for her intentions and character? Or should she do nothing, and risk becoming complicit in her sister’s self-destructive behavior? Understood this way, the Elizabeth of the Sacrum Arcanum, who considered herself “hyper-virtuous” in Sr. Ann Astell’s well-chosen phrase, could not have helped Sarah because any interaction between them would have been premised on Elizabeth’s titanic, Hyperion-like pride and Sarah’s abasement before her sister. But the lesson of “The Black Swan” is that this dilemma is rooted in an earlier perplexity, in the impossibility of selfhood. Our relational natures—our essential function as mediators to one another—means that we communicate our self-contradictions to one another.

    I once asked an Orthodox priest, who had served both in the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, what he thought about certain ideas in Dostoevsky. (This is a profoundly helpful step, by the way, and I recommend it to all who find some of Dostoevsky’s religious language hard to interpret—one must know what is a completely ordinary thing for an Orthodox believer to say to know what in Dostoevsky is distinctive and in what way it is distinctively his own.) The priest mentioned that the Eastern Church was more focused upon “relationality” than the Western one was, and that whereas the Western Church has tended to focus on the communion of the individual soul with God, the Eastern Church’s view could be summarized in the proverbial saying, “Everyone goes to hell alone, but we go to heaven together.” One thinks of Dostoevsky’s Ivan’s characterization of the resurrection in terms of “universal harmony.” Another way of getting at this is that in discussing the imago Dei, the important idea that humanity is made in the image of God, the Western Church most often debates whether this is most exemplified in mind or in will, whereas the Eastern Church might want to say we should consider the Trinity in terms of God’s essentially relational nature, and understand ourselves as the image of that relationality.

    Elizabeth rejects the idea of being saved through our relational nature, as I mentioned, because of the doctrine contained in “The Black Swan.” However, she rejects it because, qua idea, it possesses no saving power. Perhaps the weakest aspect of Pete’s hypothetical Christianity is that it seems very likely that the Christian way is, according to his model, more beautiful only if it is true, something at odds with the “beautiful wager”; it is not more beautiful for the fish to try to enact their original patterns in their current condition. It is only possible for them to live this new way if the sacrifice has indeed been made and the fire seeds have indeed been spread through the bloody and painful process of piercing and restoration. The idea of relationality is not itself a relationship through which one can receive the piercing; it is the thought thinking itself, the empty mediation, a dream of salvation that Elizabeth might justly fear would lead only to further self-deception and self-enclosure. The divine does not break in through the idea of it breaking in; when the divine breaks in, one may well assume it does so with thunder and lightning, with a crack, with the breaking of the heart, not as a pleasant, melancholy imagination. The word of grace that comes to us from without is qualitatively distinct, possesses a wholly different nature, from a word of grace we offer ourselves.

    Yet this, like many of Elizabeth’s rejections, has to be considered in a certain way. Her rejections have a specific character. She rejects the opportunity to understand herself in light of a certain theory, and she does so when she senses that doing so cannot be reconciled with what she knows of herself and her guilt. Perhaps if she did create the Notebook as a “poetic illusion” this was because it was the only way she could think the thought of her guilt purely, by temporarily placing it within a poetic frame, without, however, losing sight of the fact that she had to face her guilt in actuality and reconcile it there—not in her Notebook. For no scribbling could erase the guilt she had over Sarah. Elizabeth M. is not Briony Tallis, the brilliantly conceived narrator of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Elizabeth M. knew that poetic speech-things have no saving power. Gripped by despair, she possessed no power to retell her own story without it going awry again—that was what she meant in saying that despair empties not only the future but the past of possibility. So she rejected the opportunity of understanding herself in light of these ideas.

    Now what I think we have to say is that Elizabeth clearly encountered something other than an idea, and it was this encounter, rather than any of the ideas she examined, that prompted her transformation from the self-gnawing bitterness of “I have always felt profoundly alone” to the awakening expressed in “Oh Sarah. I want to live.” What a self-consuming, self-gnawing person needs is something interposed between them and themselves, something that would remove their jaws from their leg, so to speak. Whatever she encountered, and it was not an idea, provided that interposition. No longer did she see herself in a mirror, whether glassy or formula-laden; she saw instead—what? The only way I can interpret “The Rose Garden” is to say that she had a profound encounter with divine grace. That encounter was mediated by creaturely existence and, although this made it ambiguous, its concreteness gave it undeniable power. Perhaps she also lacked the power to articulate what she encountered in that moment; at least, she could not articulate it in the form of an idea, a set of propositions, or the conclusion of an argument. Perhaps the only form in which she could articulate it was the Notebook. In this way, then, the Notebook became her attempt to stand as mediator herself, to “mediate” what was mediated to her, not in the form of an idea, but in the form of a crisis and an encounter, which she could provide to others. She would, then, have the opportunity to reverse the painful realization of “Golden Slivers”: just as through her self-forgetting she was a mediator of pain and betrayal, so through her Notebook she could mediate the power of that grace which she encountered.

    Similarly, as editor, I have taken it as my task to provide access to this encounter, despite its ambiguity and difficulty; I hope that those who read Elizabeth’s words will find some kind of grace there as well.




    1. Elizabeth M., The Hurricane Notebook, ed. Alexander Jech (Wilmington, NC: Wisdom/Works, 2019), 302n82.

John Davenport


Self-Making Passion, Betrayal, and Recovery

A Personal Response to The Hurricane Notebook

I.         Three Aspects of an Infinite Pathos

The Hurricane Notebook, which I will abbreviate HN, is a remarkable work on several levels, including its vivid attempts to illustrate and explain central Christian ideas concerning sin and redemption. The story of the fishes in the “Matin Sea” sticks with me the most. But I could never do justice to these aspects of “Elizabeth’s” narratives, edited by Alex Jech, or even adequately discuss the Kierkegaardian and Dostoevskian themes found throughout. So I will focus more specifically on the ideas of “self-making passion,” crisis, and hatred, especially as described in a letter that Elizabeth receives from one “Niakani”—an unknown correspondent whose points challenge some of Elizabeth’s principles (9).1

These themes run throughout HN, because Sarah has despaired due to some perceived betrayal by Elizabeth, and Elizabeth hopes to find in Niakani’s letter a diagnosis of what went wrong (10). This betrayal of her sister, apparently through total contempt for her lifestyle (or refused empathy), is the sin from which Elizabeth cannot recover. Her recognition of this is a crisis that makes wholeness in personality and purpose unreachable, but apparently not because she devoted herself to something incompatible with her facticity—the “historical, biological, and social” factors in personal identity, including temperament and aptitudes (94). In fact, Elizabeth seems remarkably suited for her philosophical work, and for dance at least as a hobby. Rather, her crisis is due to having caused Sarah’s crisis by refusing to love her, or failing when she was in a unique position to help Sarah through her crisis (148).

Niakani is right, I think, that people need a self-making or “infinite” passion to give overall direction to their identity, or an overall orientation that integrates their concerns (97). Without such a passion, people can muddle on, but always with a suppressed sense of stuntedness or incompleteness that gnaws at whatever sense of meaning they have found. A self-making passion has three conditions according to his explanations.

(1) It involves being “opened” to the world by finding persons, places, or things worth loving for their own sake. The young lad’s devotion to his princess in Fear and Trembling is a ready example: Kierkegaard (Silentio) calls this an infinite pathos because it concentrates the lad’s soul. Christianly understood, these calling are “God’s intermediary to us” (98–99). Goods worth treasuring are disclosed, and we are revealed to ourselves in discovering them, starting to care about them, and eventually committing ourselves to them. This explains why mystic transport out of this world is not the solution. The fishes may peek above the water, but they are meant mainly to focus on the world within their sea; trying to live forever on the surface is neglectful (171–72). This world is not a mere cave to be transcended, even if its design was somehow marred against its creator’s will (as some stories say); it has inherent values waiting to be transfigured or shown in their true light.

(2) But to be adequate, a self-making passion must not ignore important elements of our selves (96), even if they are inconvenient in some respects, e.g., if they are potentially unpopular perhaps even shocking to others. These “rogue” elements (as I will call them) might be potential talents, or nascent interests, or basic psychic tendencies that are already within us before “opening” to related aspects of the world calls them forth in concrete ways. Or they might involve bodily or historical facts, such as an unusual physical difference or a disturbing family legacy that calls for response (and all of the above may pertain to Kierkegaard’s fear of marriage, although it was a mistake to break his engagement).

I am going beyond what the text says here, but these seem like plausible extrapolations. Such elements seem “rogue” because they can make us feel out of place in our assigned groups, as when Ferdinand the Bull loves flowers. Or they can make us feel out of place with ourselves, because are especially hard to understand, or to square with other aspects of our lives. But they have to be worked into the volitional cord that synthesizes our motives (123). Rogue elements are distinct from some psychic inclinations or tendencies that are simply harmful and should be opposed (e.g., some kind of appetite for gratuitous violence). Instead, rogue elements can contribute something; when cultivated, they may attune us to values that significant others overlook. Thus the romantic notion that a private vision or inner inspiration may be worth devotion (179). As Martin Buber said, the thou that calls uniquely to me may be an idea given for me to embody; in that case, devotion to it is not mere narcissism.2

(3) Still, despite its concrete devotion to particular goods, Niakani’s infinite or self-making passion has a regulative role. By definition then, we can have (at most) one of these at a time, because it must inform and help govern our other emotional responses and willed devotions, even while they are responding to values and facts in the world outside the self. An infinite passion

[EXT]possesses the power to define, shape, or realign every aspect of the person, thereby giving a single concrete form to the person’s will and inner being. It assigns other passions their function, direction, and meaning, and they allow it the right to condition their role within the individual’s overall life. It gets into everything the person is and draws this together into a combination that makes sense. It holds this dynamic power at all times, and so it is a power whereby a person can attain unity. (97)[/EXT]

This way of qualifying all other pursuits and concerns makes the unconditional concern (Tillich’s term) more like the basis for “purity of heart” in Kierkegaard’s sense. But the more robust we make this regulative role, the more the object of one’s infinite pathos must itself take on infinite value, as distinct from the combination of earthly goods that it is our task to love, in our own unique way. Otherwise the object of infinite pathos cannot adequately support its regulative power.

In short, there is a tension between Niakani’s conditions. If purity of heart can be sustained only in willing “the Good,” as Kierkegaard put it (in his Socratic “religiousness A” terms),3 then it is not identical with the finite goods that refract facets of the Good, or somehow participate in it. Then it is easy, as Kierkegaard sometimes did, to imagine that the only sustainable infinite devotion is to an eternal goodness at war with everything appealing in this world. But that cannot be right; it leads to the illusion, found in Diotima’s ascent, that all values we find worth loving in the universe or other persons are merely cracked or stained windows onto another good—so we mistakenly think we love our spouse’s loving spirit, the wondrous sea life on coral reefs, or the marvels of string theory when really love the divine instead.

The HN rightly rejects this solution (97, 179–80), but that still leaves us with the problem that right infinite passion, i.e., one that is right for us individually, must still be able to point a way forward when the more particular objects or subjects of our devotions collapse or become inaccessible—which can happen for a host of possible reasons. How can we love Beatrice herself, not just something else that she symbolizes, and yet, within devotion to her for her own sake, also love “the figure of Beatrice”? In other words, how can we remain true to what was worthy in the actual Beatrice when she has permanently gone from us, or has even rejected us? Although she is unique and irreplaceable,4 we must somehow still be able to find analogy or similarity of theme in other possible loves (romantic, filial, and familial) if our identity is not to be irretrievably distorted. Perhaps there is no sufficiently earnest way to express the loss of a Beatrice except to let part of ourselves be permanently lost with her, but that cannot be the whole story. Plato’s Symposium is not entirely wrong.

II.        The Crisis, Existential Luck, and Modes of Recovery

Obviously this brings us to Niakani’s worry about the crisis. Without the “interconnection with being” or openness, we are curved in on ourselves in sin. To love, and thus to become a self in the full sense, we must allow this relation to specific persons and goals to establish our identity through a “pattern” that will run throughout our participation in the “pageant of life” (101–2), a description I really like. But this requires risk of existential unraveling or collapse (106). Elizabeth imagines Gilgamesh betrayed by an inauthentic Enkidu, or Plato betrayed by a false Socrates; and Christ was surely wounded more by Peter’s denial than by the spear. In this crisis, all sorts of other possible devotions seem viable, when before they were almost “unthinkable” in Harry Frankfurt’s sense. Infinite hatred is one possible response, when the victim focuses on the harm done to her or his self (107), likely with vengeance as a new purpose. The Henri Delacroix case suggests that this can happen even without long-nurtured malice (129).

The challenge here is that the crisis so understood implies that the self-forming passion that was right for a particular individual—without which she cannot be true to significant callings and given aspects of himself—can be destroyed by contingencies ranging from death to misunderstanding and faithlessness, including his own betrayal of another (especially if that drives her into crisis). Call this existential luck. No doubt there are large quantities of existential luck in variations across persons: some just have a much easier set of ingredients to “cook up,” while others have more unusual callings and more recalcitrant rogue elements to develop in some positive way. However, if there were only one type of pattern or infinite passion that fits us, and it could be destroyed by contingencies, then human persons would be subject to more radical existential luck. That is different than our pattern being sinfully destroyed by defiant refusal to love rightly, or to accept given vocations, until it is too late (99). Even if the sense of “original sin” implies paradoxically that such defiance is inevitable despite being free, that is distinct from radical existential luck.

The problem, in short, is that Niakani misconstrues self-making love/devotion as an absolute bond to a particular person or calling. Thus a Plato betrayed by Socrates has nothing else to fall back on: Socrates runs throughout his identity (105). The betrayed one may respond with infinite malice because he “had already allowed her [his betrayer] to define every aspect of himself” (111). Thus Simon’s reaction that Niakani’s “self-making passion” only makes the problem of sin worse: if he betrays his beloved or is betrayed by her, that wrong comes to define everything in him (126). Then of course Henri Delacroix must be completely destroyed by his wife’s perceived betrayal (131). This is the inevitable conclusion if we are defined by a devotion to Beatrice so total that it excludes the “figure” that she imperfectly embodied. Elizabeth’s own dark conclusion from Swan Lake that human love is “our way of trapping each other” into an identity that must destroy us is, I think, a symptom of Niakani’s error (210–13).

To avoid this repugnant conclusion, we have to envision ways that the individual can restore himself with a new self-forming pathos that remains true to enough strands of his previous pattern. Not without loss, as I have conceded, for then the love that was betrayed or fruitless would not have been real; much in the new pattern may still remind him of what was lost. Nor do I mean that the individual can do this all by herself, without any help from others or from God; but that qualifier applies to forming the first infinite passion as well.5 There may be a variety of ways that recovery can happen, to the extent possible for someone who truly cared about what was lost; but I will only mention a few suggested by great literary works.

First, the victim might consider whether they were mistaken or misinterpreted; Othello, for example, was manipulated into believing that he was betrayed. A little more humility and trust in his beloved might have saved him. Similarly, even if he were certain about his wife’s affair, did Delacroix consider that maybe she was under duress, maybe the other man was even threatening his family? Human beings are not God, and we cannot trust in them against all evidence without limit. But sometimes great humility is needed.

Second, even if the perceived offense is real, there is always the possibility that it was more justified than the victim recognizes. Although Elizabeth badly erred, did Sarah recognize any fault on her own side? In The Scarlet Letter, Chillingworth views Hester as totally in the wrong, and his response is precisely the infinite hatred described in HN (107). And yet, as flawed as Hester may be, it was really he who abandoned her. Similarly, Saliari in the movie Amadeus is clearly wrong to think that God has betrayed him by ruining his self-defining passion for music. He becomes a “Knight of Malice” in Niakani’s sense, hating being as a whole (113), when he could have remained true to what was right in his career as a composer by aiding Mozart and training new musicians. But he resisted such a humble reinterpretation of his calling, and insisted on interpreting it only in a greatness-focused way that was “betrayed” by Mozart’s arrival.

As this illustrates, sometimes even a rebuke or rejection that forces us from the path that guided our journey may communicate precisely what we most need to learn. Recognizing this also opens a way of covering a multitude of others’ sins that is consonant with Myshkin’s recognition of complexity in people’s motives (109). Although we are sometimes genuinely innocent, as Job insisted, we always have more to learn. From a providential view, one’s truest calling may be very hard to discern rightly; and there may be more than one self-making passion that could integrate us, with all our flaws. The guiding pattern that is best for us might only be discoverable in the wake of tragic failure or deep betrayal (by others or by ourselves).

We must be careful not to be satisfied with solutions that are too easy or dismissive here. Existential luck is real, and betrayal can shock a person to their core. Imagine that the heir to a throne who prepared all his life for devotion as head of state discovers that he is a changeling substituted in by his “parents” when their original son died in an accident. The total spiritual vertigo that would ensue, as his whole conception of his place in the social fabric is turned upside down, would approximate to the infinite self-doubt that Niakani describes (105). Recovery in such a case will certainly require a lifeline, or hesed, from others.

Yet the crisis need not refute the person’s most central purpose or the deepest values underlying that purpose. In the movie Braveheart, when William Wallace discovers that Robert Bruce has secretly joined King Edward I’s attack on Scotland, he is cut to the quick, unmoored. But his calling to free Scotland cannot refuted by this cruelest stroke. This is an example of remaining true to the principle in our infinite pathos even through a crisis.

In such recoveries, love from a human person, like Myshkin’s, can be enormously helpful, especially if the collapse of our self-defining project is not (mainly) our fault. But what if the betrayal was our own: what if, when the chips were down, we violated our own deepest commitments? Here too, an impression that this is so can be mistaken. The hero of Ordinary People needs to learn that he was not really at fault for his brother’s death. In Sophie’s Choice, Sophie is also not at fault. And yet one can understand, and even agree with, Sophie’s collapse. For she has come in contact with an evil so enormous, so infinite in both reach and depth of malice, that no recovery might be imaginable without some higher level of grace. This is the most painful of examples, in which the betrayals of others force one to (seemingly) betray oneself. I do not attempt to answer the challenge posed by this case; for me, it encapsulates a grief for all humanity, a sorrow like the girl’s at Matin Lake, deeper than the well of the worlds.6

Third, even when staring into the abyss of one’s dreams or the evaporation of hopes through betrayals, the discovery of new goods itself may be able to provide an unexpected ladder. Although this sounds like luck or grace, maybe this possibility is always somewhat accessible, because our self-making passion can never encompass the fecundity of this world and it creatures within it (as Myshkin’s view of nature, which is also found in the Brothers Karamazov, suggests—91). The best literary exploration of this theme that I know is found in Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, to which I turn next.

III.      Covenant’s Crisis and Recovery

Donaldson’s first Chronicles is an epic fantasy trilogy that rivals Tolkien’s in depth with more Dostoevskyian vision.7 The hero, Thomas Covenant, begins as an anti-hero. He was a bestselling author, but his wife has abandoned him and taken their child after he mysteriously contracts leprosy. Although his inspiration for writing collapses, he does not give into the temptation of infinite hatred; he hangs onto his wedding ring despite its utter futility (and the numbness and impotence caused by his disease).

When Covenant enters the fantasy realm—not through a wardrobe but instead through an accident that knocks him unconscious—he awakens in a world in which all the values that Myshkin perceives are tangible to everyone who has been touched by the power that runs through this Land. But he diagnoses these “cleansed doors of perception” (Blake) as easy escapism, because he does not trust himself: he insists that this must be a wish-fulfillment dream. Betrayed by life and spouse, he thus betrays the world that offers him friendship and reverence: he rapes Lena, the young woman who personifies the Land’s goodness and its covenantal offer to him.

This crime has a cosmic significance in Donaldson’s narrative, and it is Covenant’s personal nadir. But although the crime cannot be undone, the Land is full of grace; while the young woman’s parents are unable to avoid self-consuming hatred in response, many others still believe in Covenant, by “virtue of the absurd,” it seems. Bit by bit, this irenic support allows him to face the reality of what he has done: whether Lena is merely a dream or not, rape is a mortal evil.

After recognizing his crime, Covenant is still too afraid, too broken by his wife’s and his own faithlessness, to devote himself to the Land’s defense.8 But goodness is seductive, as Kierkegaard has said. His heart is not cold enough to hold out against this much plenitude of value. The marvels wrought by the Land’s leaders using the Earthpower that runs through their world chip away at the emotional wall he has built around himself. Yet Covenant clings to a cynical view of love not unlike Elizabeth’s: he is convinced that if he gives in to his blossoming love for the Land—which is symbolically embodied in the figure of Lena—then he will both lose himself and risk destroying those he loves. His friends—Lord Mhoram, the giant Foamfollower, and Bannor, who helps lead a set of warriors bound by a magical vow to the Land—make increasingly urgent appeals for his help; but with a couple exceptions, he tries to remain an observer, convinced that he can only do harm. He is terrified that he will destroy the Land in a second great “desecration” worse than the one that maimed it a thousand years earlier (coincident in our time with the onset of his leprosy).

So Covenant keeps looking for others onto whom he can shift his responsibility to redeem the Land from the doom gathering around it. In particular, he helps his own daughter, Elena, reach a power that she believes might destroy the Land’s demonic enemy. He eventually realizes that this is a betrayal which imperils her, and repents it at the last moment, trying to get her to withdraw. But he is too late: she is determined to use this power. Its destructive results are a further ramification of the evil embodied in the rape.9

In the wake of her death, Covenant finally accepts full responsibility. Although he is unravelling, he is able to muster enough strength to save a little girl in our world who has been bitten by a rattlesnake. Mhoram attempts to call Covenant back into the Land just as he is trying to help this girl (a minute in our time is correlated with many weeks in the Land’s time). But Mhoram hears Covenant’s appeal and lets him go,10 seemingly risking the Land’s destruction so that Covenant can save the girl. This great act of faith, along with Foamfollower’s abiding friendship, changes Covenant when he returns in The Power That Preserves. Although he still hates himself for his crimes (which were partly a manifestation of self-hatred), his resistance is broken: he begins to love the Land with the infinite devotion that it deserves.

Clearly Donaldson’s themes are Dostoevsky’s, and Niakani’s.11 Step by step, Covenant learns to love again. Lost and badly wounded after Lena (now an old woman) dies, Covenant is rescued by a Healer with no name. Her use of Earthpower is a kind of substitution that heals his bodily injury, and then the self-hatred rotting his core.12 This sacrifice, which costs her life, enables Covenant to use his power for the Land’s sake, rather than out of hatred for its demonic enemy. He recognizes that there is no way to restore all the good that was lost due to original crime and later reluctance to help, but there are possibilities beyond this horizon.

“Something there is in beauty, which grows in the soul of the beholder, like a flower,” Lena sings when he first enters the Land. While the beauty may die, or the whole world may die, “the soul in which the flower lives survives.”13 This may sound like infinite resignation but its point is actually like the “figure of Beatrice.” When our flower is lost, we can still remain true to the value disclosed in it. Lena’s song means that there is always more we can love. So, with grace, even a soul shattered by crisis, or numbed by horror, can love again. We must make some volitional effort to meet this offer halfway, to risk a new infinite passion that will have to operate in poignant recognition of past failures. Yet, even though our sins may be tremendous, and to some extent irreparable, the goodness of that worth loving transcends past loves that are now out of reach.

On the whole, Donaldson’s story is about as good a case for restorative justice as one could make. Beyond this interesting civic application, it is an argument that existential luck is not the sole determinant. Even when the crisis is not (entirely) of our own making, there is a way through it. Covenant is willing to try faith where Kierkegaard could not (or would not) risk his beloved and/or his vocation as a writer. He opens to love and life again.

Of course, sometimes recovery barely has a chance to begin, because the betrayal leaves the victim with no adequate response but to lay down her or his life rather soon afterwards. As I have introduced fantasy examples, let us envision a different ending to Frodo and Sam’s tale in The Lord of the Rings—arguably the ending towards which the narrative development really points. Gollum’s final act of taking the ring and accidentally falling into the fire of Doom is motivated with many foreshadowings throughout the text, and it is the sign of grace. But the story would be even better if Sam had formed a resolute response to Frodo’s great “betrayal.”14 Without Gollum, Sam would surely have decided, in infinite sorrow, to grab Frodo and take them both together over the brink. Had Sam attempted this action, he would have illustrated a “recovery” that takes on the costs of betrayal—whether or not he was then stopped by Gollum. This act would have remained true to “the figure of Frodo,” even when betrayed by Frodo at the bitter end.

In conclusion, HN is right about existential crisis and its spiritual dangers. However, the kind of infinite passion needed to fully integrate a self is compatible with recovery from the crisis, because, beyond the finite goods to which it opens us, it also orients us towards infinite goods that govern how we should pursue the finite ones. Even when Lena is lost, the figure of Lena and her flower survives.


  1. All my references to the Hurricane Notebook are given by parenthetical page numbers.

  2. Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Scribner, 1970), 60–61, 83–84, 130 on divine vocation.

  3. See Soren Kierkegaard, “On the Occasion of a Confession,” in Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits, trans. Howard A. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton University Press1993).

  4. While Plato missed this nonfungibility of the beloved, Kierkegaard recognized it: Regine could never merely be his “muse.” His mistake was to imagine that he had to choose between Regine and “the figure of Regine.”

  5. This is similar to the problem of narrative continuity through radical character-change and related questions about penance and redemption (184–86). The response to the crisis that I am defending here is anticipated in my Narrative Identity, Autonomy, and Mortality (Routledge, 2011), 124–27, 146.

  6. Very likely I cannot articulate recovery for Sophie because for me, this case has come to embody something central to my own self-making pathos, which must always have some roots that are obscure to us.

  7. Stephen Donaldson, Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War, and The Power That Preserves (Ballantine, 1977–79). I cited the one-volume paperback reprint, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (HarperCollins, 1996). There is a second trilogy and also a third series of four books (The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), which I do not discuss here.

  8. Donaldson, Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, 293–302.

  9. Donaldson, Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, 760–68.

  10. Donaldson, Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, 828–29.

  11. Donaldson’s story also draws many mythic motifs from Wagner as well, but for purposes entirely the opposite of Nietzsche’s.

  12. Donaldson, Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, 1006–9.

  13. Donaldson, Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, 57–58.

  14. I use the quotes because Frodo’s act is technically a choice, yet it is also meant to be a foregone conclusion for mortal beings (because it represents original sin).

  • Alexander Jech

    Alexander Jech


    Reply to John Davenport

    In John Davenport, Niakani seems to have found the sympathetic ear for which he wished. Davenport rightly emphasizes “self-making passion” and puts his finger on the difficulty neither Niakani nor Elizabeth seem able to solve: the fact that the “right infinite passion, i.e., one that is right for us individually, must still be able to point a way forward when the more particular objects or subjects of our devotions collapse or become inaccessible.” He analyzes the reason this poses a problem for Niakani and Elizabeth and then proposes, through a fascinating reading of Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a possible way of solving the dilemma.

    Donaldson is, as Davenport mentions, heavily influenced by Wagner. This provides a fruitful network of connections among authors and influences. Wagner’s primary philosophical influence was Schopenhauer. Of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard said that Schopenhauer “astonished” and “interested” him, despite their considerable differences.1 He considered him a “significant author”2 and regarded his writings as a “counter-poison” that the theology students of his day ought to take each day to cure them of “nonsensical optimism” and “Danish Epicureanism.”3 Schopenhauer’s ethic of compassion and recommendation of asceticism bore much resemblance to Kierkegaard’s “Religiousness A,” but Kierkegaard strongly objected to the fact that Schopenhauer recommended what he did not practice—he always regarded as a failure if an ethical teacher could not practice what he taught—and Kierkegaard connected this with the fact that Schopenhauer, who wanted to scorn the “Thou shalt” and the eternal punishments associated with Christianity, yet “always praised” Brahminism. “But those ascetics,” Kierkegaard points out, “he himself must admit, are determined by a consideration of eternity . . . and it presents itself to them as a religious duty.”4 That is, Kierkegaard believed that Schopenhauer, in trying to purify Eastern philosophies into a secular ethic, had robbed these of something essential to their life-power.

    On the other hand, beginning again with Wagner, we find that Wagner in turn influenced the Russian composer Tchaikovsky. The latter despised Wagner for his pomposity and self-regard, but could not help admiring and being influenced by his music. This influence is on full display in Swan Lake, which, of course, holds an important place in the thought of Elizabeth M., defining her “doctrine of sin.” One of Wagner’s principal ideas is the conviction that in opera, music is meant to display inward pathos. It is meant to portray the reality behind the appearances, the psychological, existential life of the characters. The reason he can, and must, slow down the action and events of his “music dramas” as much as possible is to allow himself space to fully portray the emotions and inward movements he finds within his characters. Everything ordinarily termed “dramatic” is dropped for the sake of portraying inward life. The idea of using music to portray the truth hidden by words and appearances is not new; in one form or another, it was the common faith of opera from the Florentine Camerata up to Wagner’s own time. What was distinctive about Wagner’s approach was the degree to which he emphasized and insisted upon this element at the expense of all others, aiming not only at psychological depiction but at something more like psychological “Truth.”

    Tchaikovsky was receptive to such ideas, but no fanatic; and we can learn many interesting things about Swan Lake if we approach it not only from the standpoint of the drama, but also from the standpoint of the music. It is interesting that Elizabeth does what so few do, and interprets Swan Lake from the standpoint of the heroine; this move should be obvious, since we know that Tchaikovsky consistently identified most strongly with his heroines and invested them with the psychological weight necessary to form the center of his ballets and operas.5 This allows her to see Odette/Odile with the same doubled vision with which Tchaikovsky saw himself, and to view herself in the same light, as both betrayer and betrayed, sinking into the moral ambiguity of being fated to fall—fated, and therefore not responsible, yet by choice, and therefore responsible, for allowing oneself to be loved in the selfish, vain hope that one might yet escape the cycle of destruction. Yet Elizabeth does not think very much about music—she feels it and loves it, clearly, but there is no hint that she has a musical education. Otherwise, she might have highlighted the way that Tchaikovsky organizes his music around the Circle of Fifths in order to express the duplicity of Swan Lake.

    Musical keys are considered “close” the closer their key signatures—their pattern of naturals, flats, and sharps—are to each other on the circle, and “distant” the more differences there are between these key signatures. Thus, even a rudimentary analysis along these lines reveals the disturbing fact that Odette’s theme, played both at her arrival and death, is in A minor, which has the same key signature as C major, Von Rothbart’s “owl” theme. Similarly, we find that Siegfried’s melancholy is expressed in A♭ major, which shares its key signature with F minor, one of the principal keys used for Von Rothbart and Odile in Act 3. Less disturbing, but still interesting, directly opposite A♭ major lies D major, the key used for Siegfried’s birthday party. Tchaikovsky’s use of opposite key signatures to characterize a single personality—similar to Dostoevsky’s customary pairing of apparently contradictory traits in his characters—allows Tchaikovsky to communicate Siegfried’s psychological depth and complexity, along with his inwardness and detachment from his external environment. But D major shares its key signature with the B minor “Swan Theme.” Thus one comes to associate Siegfried’s coming of age with his going hunting for the swans with his birthday present, the crossbow; yet since Siegfried’s life occupies two opposite keys he is just as closely associated with the enchanter as Odette is, that is, his inner melancholy, not his outward environment, is inextricably tied to Von Rothbart, whereas with Odette it is just the opposite. Her second theme—the theme of her solo—is expressed in E major, a key with no obvious connections, either of closeness or of opposition, to any of Von Rothbart’s or Siegfried’s themes. But the “love theme” between Siegfried and Odette is expressed in G♭ major, a key lying directly opposite the main Von Rothbart theme in C major, but therefore also opposite the first Odette theme.

    Since Tchaikovsky did none of this by accident, clearly he saw human life, and the human heart, as filled with contradictions and reversals that were difficult, perhaps insuperable, obstacles to overcome. We cannot know what conclusions Elizabeth would have reached had she thought along these lines in writing her “doctrine of sin.” Perhaps finding the contradictions in the music itself would have robbed her of the ability to express the idea she did express there; she may have found, in the musical relationships of the ballet, an even deeper duplicity than the one she described, a duplicity in the music. Hence, if dance is the mirror of the music, then we arrive back at Elizabeth’s problem, but are we one step too soon? Did the duplicity lie in the dancer’s failure of self-transcendence, or in the composer, that is, in the first and primary author of the work? (And Tchaikovsky may be the first composer of ballet music of which this may be said; certainly before Tchaikovsky choreographers rarely felt the need to re-choreograph the dance so as to match the music more intimately, rather than vice versa, which is what Lev Ivanov did in 1895 when he modified Petipa’s original choreography in order to provide us with the elegant, beautiful delicacy of the swan dances in Acts 2 and 4.) She verges upon this topic in the opening of “The Analysts,” in her discussion of Petipa’s habit of designing choreography upon a chessboard, using this to compare the debates of “Gnothi Seauton” to a dancer who has no way of detecting that she has been set to dance in such a way as to avoid a particular square of floor, but she does not again take up this idea. Perhaps this would have led to a new charge against her author, but Elizabeth, I think, would not have wished to do so. This idea would be similar to the thought she rejects in “Gnothi Seauton,” the thought of a creator who has created us so that we will inevitably go wrong so that we will deserve punishment. Her one certainty is her guilt, and from that standpoint, to accuse God is merely avoiding accusing oneself.

    Tchaikovsky and Wagner represent an opposition within the common ground of “operatic psychology.” Someone might profitably pursue a sustained analysis of this difference in terms of a pairing of Swan Lake with Tristan und Isolde and a second pairing of Sleeping Beauty with Parsifal. I, unfortunately, cannot pursue such an analysis here; I am not well enough equipped in the discipline of music to make more than a few desultory remarks. Being, however, more bold than prudent, I will here set these forth in a series of remarks and let the reader judge what it might be worth to pursue these thoughts further. Tchaikovsky and Wagner consider human existence to be haunted by melancholy or yearning of some kind, themes developed at length especially in relation to Siegfried in Swan Lake and in relation to Tristan in Tristan und Isolde.6 Melancholy yearning meets its object in love, but love itself is ambiguous, promises the end of yearning while also being so mixed with sensuality that even the purest love seems to combine in itself both redemption and temptation. Tchaikovsky and Wagner then boldly seize both possibilities at once: Swan Lake and Tristan und Isolde possess tragic structures, but their tragic conclusions express the hopeful expectation that the lovers now finally have what they dreamed of and are finally united without the veil of sensuous distraction to separate them from each other.

    Parsifal and Sleeping Beauty, instead of beginning with yearning and internal division, begin with the unity possessed by an innocent, self-sufficient protagonist. This innocent then, at a decisive moment, falls into temptation and danger. By the end, these innocents are redeemed and restored, and their restoration spreads out from them to their kingdoms. This surface similarity however belies their different visions of the human condition. In Parsifal, sin forms the thematic backdrop to the story. The Grail King, Amfortas, suffers from a wound that will not heal. Amfortas has lost one of the sacred relics of the Grail Knights, the spear that the Roman soldier had once used to pierce the side of Christ. In a fight with Klingsor, an evil sorcerer and former Grail Knight, he was tempted by Kundry, a sorceress that Klingsor makes do his bidding through his own more powerful enchantments. Amfortas’s failure to resist Kundry’s temptation provided Klingsor with the opportunity to steal the spear and strike Amfortas with it. Only by regaining the spear and finding a pure innocent can Amfortas—and the order of the Grail Knights—be saved. When the “innocent fool” Percival blunders into the lands of the Grail King, he shoots a forbidden swan with his bow. Percival’s error is excused by his extreme ignorance and lack of worldly knowledge—and the hope that this might be the pure innocent they are waiting for. Yet when he is brought into the Grail Castle, he understands nothing of what passes there—for, being innocent, he has no understanding of sin, and that is what Amfortas’s wound is: the unhealing wound of sin—and he is expelled. This innocent failure is followed by a second failure, a felix culpa that eventually leads to redemption, when Percival wanders into the lands of the evil sorcerer Klingsor. He is initially so innocent he cannot even understand the temptations offered him, unable to grasp what is meant when a temptress asks him if he would like to “play” with her. Kundry, made to do Klingsor’s bidding once more, is more crafty; she approaches Percival with a tale of sorrow, appealing to his sympathy, before finally eliciting from him a single kiss—but in that moment, three things appear to happen: Percival experiences passion; he suddenly perceives what sin is; and he recoils from it—understanding, finally, that he is the one who can save Amfortas. He recovers the spear and destroys Klingsor, but it is many years’ wandering before he again finds the Grail Castle. When he does, he is made leader of the Grail Knights, redeems Kundry, and saves Amfortas—thereby also saving the Order of the Grail.

    What is the difference between Tristan and Percival? Tristan cannot separate the “yearning” of existence from his passion for Isolde. He believes that somehow he can fulfill this yearning in, or through, Isolde—by possessing her in a physical sense. Percival, however, has purified this yearning, freeing it from passion and desire. When he kisses Kundry the second time, during Act III, the kiss symbolizes forgiveness and compassion only. He has learned not to desire. Wagner made the fact that the Grail Castle cannot be found by any who desire to find it into a symbol of the ascetic ideal.

    The Grail Theme, an unevenly ascending scale that sounds like nothing so much as a heavenly ascent out of physical existence and into the heavenly Empyrean, perfectly expresses the essence of Percival’s purity and salvation.

    The Grail Theme:

    The Tristan chord:

    The “Yearning” Theme from Tristan:

    Nothing could be more different from the famous Tristan chord and the associated “yearning” theme, which introduces a double dissonance and then, in place of a resolution, resolves only one dissonance, leaving the listener in continued tension until they finally found the consummation of their yearning in the darkness of death. The music of Tristan communicates the agony of unbearable longing. The music of Parsifal communicates an unbearable purity of joy.

    Love has been cleaved into passion and compassion. Compassion for each living being endures; physical passion is abandoned.

    Let us compare this with Tchaikovsky’s tale of redemption, Sleeping Beauty. Most are familiar with some version of this tale: the king and queen, after much delay, finally have a daughter; they invite “everyone” to celebrate the birth, but this “everyone” neglects some evil fairy or spirit who makes her appearance at the celebration—performing a curse so that by her sixteenth birthday the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. Another fairy or spirit uses her gift to change the curse: rather than dying, the princess, and the whole kingdom, will fall asleep instead, to be awakened when the prince will arrive whose kiss can save the princess from the curse. The sixteenth birthday arrives. Alas, so does the spindle. The princess’s finger is pricked—the evil fairy laughs in triumph, and the kingdom falls asleep. In the fullness of time, the destined prince arrives—he kisses the princess—and the kingdom is saved.

    Tchaikovsky’s ballet follows the main line of this familiar outline. Let me focus upon three distinctive scenes of his ballet, the features of which display substantial insight.

    First, during the giving of the gifts in the Prologue, the six good fairies each provide the princess Aurora with some distinctive component of talent and personality, such as musicality, beauty, or curiosity. Multiple interpretations have developed so that the precise list of gifts varies. Each fairy has a distinctive dance and it is part of the genius of the ballet’s choreography that Aurora’s dance manifests a combination of each dance within a more complex form. Within the language of Kierkegaard, the fairies represent Aurora’s finitude, her defined features, the elements or ingredients she will need to “cook up” in the recipe of the self; her ability to unite them all in a single dance is her “positing” the synthesis of herself.

    A second notable feature of the Prologue is that the Lilac Fairy, which was to give her gift sixth, is forced to delay her gift by the arrival of Carabosse, the evil fairy. The original gift of the Lilac Fairy would have been wisdom. Because of the curse, the Lilac Fairy has to change her gift, and now instead provides the possibility of rebirth or resurrection.

    What is odd is that it does not seem as if wisdom could be an element of finitude. It is not something that can be given at birth, and since it includes the ability to manage finitude well, for it to be one of those elements is confusing. Yet we also see that it is not given. Perhaps indeed it could not have been given—perhaps the Lilac Fairy knew that Carabosse would intervene, the curse would be laid on the princess, and that the required gift would be not wisdom but resurrection. Whether the Lilac Fairy knew this or not, Tchaikovsky did; and his meaning seems to be that, unlike Jesus, we do not become wise the same way we become tall.7

    Now we turn to Act I. It is the Princess Aurora’s birthday. Suitors have arrived. The scene in which Aurora greets the suitors is quite stunning when done well. The ballerina is called upon to balance on pointe in arabesque in such a way (rotating in pique) as to show that she does not need to “lean” upon any of the suitors. The arabesque position itself communicates wholeness and her balancing upon the toe of one foot throughout the entire scene displays her self-sufficiency. This serves to emphasize that when she falls victim to the curse, it is not because she lacks anything or possesses some tragic imbalance within her finitude that she has failed to rectify within her finished personality. Rather, it reinforces the distinctive element of the Act: it is Aurora’s birthday; the theme is temporality; and why is the sixteenth birthday important? It is arbitrary—but what non-arbitrary event does it represent and stand in for? An individual’s coming of age, a person’s coming into possession of her own personality and “self.” The fact that she pricks her finger on a spindle—a symbol of time—reinforces that the key element in Aurora’s curse is temporality. As a temporal being, she acquires a self in time. Elizabeth M. of course would nod. We are back in the world of “The Black Swan.” Even the perfect Aurora cannot complete the transition to adulthood successfully! Is this fact peculiar to just cursed princesses, or to all of us? The whole kingdom falls asleep; the fate is universal.

    Finally, let me skip over Act 2 and the kiss—a kiss that is like neither Parsifal and Kundry’s first kiss nor their second—and instead come to Act 3, the wedding. This scene seems over-full, overly abundant with fairy tale characters and dances. The whole world of fairy tale characters seems to have been invited here. Isn’t this rather silly, after all? Once again we can imagine Elizabeth M. saying that the silliness is just the point—the real fate of humanity is to fall victim to the curse, and to die. The sleep is only a pious delusion. Yet in this scene one particular moment really catches the eye—the dance between Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. In the realm of fairy tales, this is the lion lying down with the lamb. This wedding, apparently, represents a cosmic union, and the new kingdom will, apparently, represent a total transformation of the world as we know it—a global harmony of the kind for which Dostoevsky has Ivan returning his ticket.

    In Tchaikovsky’s view, then, the fatal element in human love is not desire, but some mystery of temporality; and the solution is a cosmic renewal that would invade from some kingdom beyond our borders and usher in a radical harmony of all creatures. Love is not split apart into passion and compassion; no, the prince’s kiss is a saving kiss, but it is also a wooing kiss, both compassionate and passionate. Tchaikovsky’s envisioned salvation is opposite Wagner’s.

    Elizabeth M.’s conception of sin is based on Swan Lake and not Tristan; would she agree with the solution offered in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant? The answer to this question is elusive. Both Elizabeth and Covenant are oppressed by the conviction that they bring harm with them and therefore will not allow themselves to love. Both of them are remade by grief and the sacrifice of another bringing them to see the futility of resisting love and, finally, choosing life, and love, again. Finally, it is clear that Niakani and Elizabeth’s accounts of love and selfhood need supplementation of some kind to provide the resources necessary to enable rebirth. Simon’s idea about loss of self is one such form of supplementation. Donaldson’s idea of “the figure of Lena” is another. Possibly each of these are incomplete or themselves in need of supplementation. The Tristan doctrine of sin, as I will call it, suggests that a primordial compassion and response to beauty can be derailed by the desire for (sensuous) possession and consumption of beauty; that this desire is itself based in a root yearning in human nature for completion in another; and that the false step of pursuing beauty for the sake of possession and consumption can be corrected by allowing the seed that this selfsame beauty plants within the human heart to grow and come to fruition. The Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty doctrine of sin, on the other hand, posits temporality and finitude rather than possessiveness per se as the root of human troubles.

    We pause to note here that this difference goes all the way back to differences between the Eastern and Western Churches; traditionally the Western Church has often attributed sin to concupiscence, the Eastern Church to our finitude. They need not conflict, but they are different. What the Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty conceptions of sin require is a way of rolling back time, “undoing” temporality by undoing a specific moment when one went wrong. Thomas Covenant would surely agree—and he would agree that he needs not just a way of going back and “undoing” the rape, but undoing the self-making he had done that made him the sort of person who would commit the rape. Yet when the rolling back is done, one retains the need for a new, positive motivational factor that will allow one to move forward in a new direction—what is the point of reversing the moment if one follows the same path? As Sal would say: If the self is freely unfolded necessity, what is the point of stepping back to that moment when you went wrong? For “time present and time past / point to one end / which is always present.” But then we see the problem: if the person went wrong even in possession of the ideal—“the figure of Lena”—the first time, then why expect a new result the second time?

    Yet here perhaps is where “the figure of Lena” shows its strength. Simon added grief as an essential element both for recovering the self and as the necessary ground of believing one could posit a better self, created in profound awareness of one’s sin. If “the figure of Lena,” Lena precisely as the betrayed one, is a permanent factor within the person, motivationally attractive yet grief-laden then it can perform two simultaneous functions: it can guide the person in forming the self properly both by revealing the self that the person ought to be in the loveliness of its devotion, and by revealing temptation to mar the self for what it is in its absolute ugliness—thus simultaneously providing both appropriate attraction and appropriate aversion. “The figure of Beatrice” does play both roles for Dante, though not perhaps in quite the way described here. A more significant difference is that the figure of Beatrice draws Dante toward heavenly existence, but does not connect him with earthly existence. In Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Niakani’s conception, at least, this was an essential function of the self-making passion—that it provide a person with a concrete self that was involved with the world. The figure of Lena, by way of contrast, does provide Thomas with precisely this kind of concrete involvement, viz., by causing him to love and preserve the land.

    How must the transfigured self-making passion be related to the original figure or object through which it was awakened? That is, how must it be related to Lena, to Sarah or Joshua, to those through whom we learned how to be and to love? The reader might think that this relation will be essentially the same as the infinite resignation described by Johannes de Silentio, in which a person’s object of passion is transfigured into an idea or ideal, a spiritualized figure that unifies the individual at the cost of giving up “finitude,” that is, a concrete relation to concrete existence. There may be some real similarity; but there is a significant difference: here, the relation to concrete existence is preserved through the eternal consciousness of guilt, and the guilt is held not against the idealized figure, but the actual object of passion. Covenant’s guilt was not against “the figure of Lena” but against Lena, and it is this guilt that “the figure of Lena” must always remind him of. Therefore we have here something different from infinite resignation, yet complementary to it, a completion of it that leads to reengagement rather than retreat from the world.

    Now, in saying this much I think we remain within the area established by Parsifal. The second kiss Percival shares with Kundry expresses purified, redemptive passion. What remains to be said from the side of Tchaikovsky? I think two things. The first is that surely we hope for more than Percival and Kundry’s second kiss; we hope for Aurora’s kiss: a kiss that initiates the world of wonder that we glimpsed and for which we yearned when we first loved, a kiss that announces “Behold, the Kingdom of God has come upon you!”8 The purity of the Grail Theme is wonderful, but don’t we long not just for purification, but for resurrection?

    But if there is a “third kiss,” a resurrection kiss, then that kiss must have a supernatural character. What the Sleeping Beauty ballet expresses is hope, or longing, for the coming of a kingdom other than the earthly one to which we belong. It doesn’t summon us to a new, ethereal realm, it promises no darkness within which we consummate our love; instead it promises the renewal of this earth, this kingdom, and the restoration of our entire finitude within a new harmony of the world. There is no movement we can make to bring about that kiss, however. For it we must merely wait, with faith and hope that there is indeed a love transcending our own governing the world.

    Now, when I said in response to Sr. Astell that Elizabeth’s theme was love and mediation, I hope it will be understood what I meant: Surely there was some word she could not communicate, and if she poeticized herself, if she volatilized everything to such an extent that the essence of every detail became confused in the steam of her poetics, then it was for sake of “mediating” the incommunicable word that she did this. What is this word? What, but something like “Oh! That supernatural kiss”—words one may very well say, yet without saying anything at all.

    1. SKS 25, 352, NB29:95 / KJN 9, 356.

    2. SKS 25, 352, NB29:95 / KJN 9, 356.

    3. SKS 25, 352, NB29:114 / KJN 9, 380.

    4. SKS 25, 357, NB29:95 / KJN 9, 358.

    5. See Roland John Wiley, Tchaikovsky’s Ballets (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991).

    6. This theme is also given sustained attention in Tchaikovsky’s short “coming of age” opera, Iolanta, which is rarely staged but was originally performed back-to-back with The Nutcracker; its action is explicitly focused upon the peril of desiring an unknown object whose possession promises either wonder or ruin.

    7. Just as Luke says that Jesus grew “in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52).

    8. Luke 11:20.

J. Aaron Simmons


Why We Write (and Why It Matters that We Do)

When you think about it, that human beings have developed the written word is actually a strange fact. Socrates was famously opposed to the idea of written philosophy because it didn’t allow for the spontaneity required of truth seeking—namely, we need to be able to change our views in light of new evidence and arguments. For Socrates, writing problematically stabilized one’s position in ways that actually eliminated the possibility of further thought. And yet, it is only because Plato (and a few others) wrote about Socrates that we have a record of his critical view of philosophical writing.

Though I am glad that Plato didn’t listen very well to his teacher on this particular point, I also think that Socrates is probably right about the dangers of writing. Kierkegaard says somewhere that life is the moment of decision. I love that description of the lived condition. We are always, at every moment, navigating the world in order constantly to become who we will end up having been. Yet, whatever we write will only stand as a reflection of a particular moment in that becoming. In this way, writing seems to function the way that photographs did prior to the new technology that allows you to hold down a picture and see a few seconds of video on either side of the image that has been captured. Like pictures, no written text will ever be adequate to the lived experience itself. Life is fundamentally excessive, and attempts to domesticate it so that it is easily framed (whether by some strips of wood to hang on the wall, or by front cover art and back cover endorsements) are bound to meet with difficulty.

And yet we write. What might this say about us as the peculiar sorts of beings that we are? I think that it speaks to our fundamental vulnerability. If we were immortals, then we could always write our great book . . . tomorrow.

But we are not immortals.

I think we write because it is the closest thing that we have to permanence in light of essential existential contingency. I think we write because it is what invites others to know that we existed. From “Aaron was here” crudely carved into a desk or a tree, to multivolume academic treatises, writing is a way of making an impact that will hopefully outlast us. Interestingly, though, I don’t think it is primarily about our words living after we pass away, but about us leaving a particular narrative of who it is that we were. We write in order to become authors of our own lives.

I love that line in the movie about C. S. Lewis, Shadowlands, where Lewis comments “We write in order to know that we are not alone.” This idea gets it exactly right. If we were alone, then we would not feel the need or have the desire to try to tell our stories (much less to tell them in particular ways). Writing is a historical phenomenon reserved exclusively for relational beings. The same is true of reading—by definition, really. We read in order to know that others have existed and that it mattered that they did. This realization gives us hope that our lives might also be worth something—worth being read about by others. Importantly, when we read we are not just learning about others, but learning to care about ourselves in the right sorts of ways. As Anne Lamott says in her book about writing, Bird by Bird, “writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around” (xii). As she goes on to explain, reading and writing teaches us to pay attention.

David Foster Wallace would likely remind us at this point that we are always paying attention to something, but the problem is that we rarely own up to the fact that we are responsible to choose wisely about what is really worthy of our attention. In other words, there are so very many stories to be read, so very many events to be witnessed, so very many conversations to be had, so very many values to be held, so very many words to be used. Writing is hard work because it requires us to be intentional about all of this. Reading is hard work because it requires us to develop patience in relation to the intentionality of others who decided to write what they did.

So perhaps we do read so that we know that we are not alone, but so too we write so that we can figure out what we think, what we believe, what we value, and why it matters that we do. Simply put, I think we write so that we can figure out who it is that we want to be. We write to introduce ourselves to others after first meeting ourselves in the words that we write.

In The Hurricane Notebook, we are introduced to Elizabeth M., a young woman who is struggling to find herself, having lost her sister, Sarah. Not having accomplished anything truly significant (in the culturally normative sense of the term), not having done anything really distinctive, not having experienced anything all that unique, not being anyone really all that worthy of our attention, Elizabeth M. ends up being radically singular precisely in that she is universally interchangeable.

She is us.

I am her.

Perhaps that is why her story is so valuable. She took the time to write about the conversations that she had because they were the opportunities for her to come to figure out where she stood—about God, evil, providence, nature, and responsibility. She took the time to put her thoughts on paper, to stabilize them even while they likely remained tossed about by the waves of existential storms. By doing so, she records the reality of those storms themselves. There could be no better title for Elizabeth’s story than The Hurricane Notebook because her narrative serves as something of a calm place from which to then see the waves and wind that have passed and that which is yet to come. This book is less about her own life than it is an opportunity for Elizabeth, perhaps unintentionally, to invite us to sit awhile, to pay attention to where she was and why it matters, so that we can then better figure out how to put down the book and get back to the hard swimming required in our own existential storms.

Kierkegaard often comments that faith is like being suspended above 70,000 fathoms. I have often wondered what it is to which Kierkegaard imagines us clinging at that moment. Is God meant to be something like a life-preserver that just happens to be thrown down to us? If so, then why didn’t whoever threw the life-preserver just throw us a rope and get us out of the water? Is God meant to be something like a log that happens to float by and to which we can gain some much-needed buoyancy? If so, then it seems like everything is more a matter of luck, than love.

Eventually, I came to realize that Kierkegaard’s point is not that we should cling to something on the surface, but instead that faith is the fact that we can avoid drowning only by swimming straight down—by diving into the depths, in trust, in hope, and yet not without risk. The Hurricane Notebook is Elizabeth M.’s attempt to dive into the depths of her own life with all the trauma, the uncertainty, the confusion, and yet also the small joys, the beauty of fleeting conversations, and the lasting truth to which those conversations might lead. Thankfully she does the hard work required to invite others to travel with her into these depths. She writes because she is not alone. We read because she invites us to be with her. She invites us out to where we find ourselves suspended above 70,000 fathoms and yet then calls to us from the depths, telling us that the water is fine.

Perhaps in reading her story we can begin to understand why ocean lifeguards dive under waves—because the water is calmer beneath the surface. The depths are scary because they are dark, but they are also where the effects of the storm can be minimized. As she writes at the end of her text, “One way or another—when the storm comes, I will be swimming. I would rather do the diving myself” (373). We don’t avoid the storm by clinging to the floatation device on the surface, but instead by diving deep and risking drowning by learning how to breathe underwater.

In many ways, we might say that Elizabeth’s life is defined by full investment—no half measures. She is either diving beneath the waves or surfing above them, never simply treading water. As she recounts her sister, Sarah, telling her: “But when I’m surfing, God, M, when I’m riding one of those big waves, I feel like I can handle anything else life has for me. You know?” (323). Her sister goes on to wax poetic and yet profoundly existential: “Beauty is a dance of finitude upon the edge of infinity, and the waves are so, so big. I love you. You are utterly beautiful” (323). Notice the emphasis on vulnerability (our finitude as contrasted with the sublimity of infinity) and yet the resolution in concrete relationship: I love you. In this section we find Elizabeth telling two stories at the same time (the page is split into the left column being this memory of her sister and the right column being a memory of a walk with her friend, Joshua). Her memory of her sister ends with the phrase “Up above, the stars shone down upon us, and when we looked back up, they seemed to smile at us with their infinite happiness” (323). The memory of Joshua ends alternatively, and simultaneously, with her words to him: “This is the best moment, Don’t ever forget” (323). In an almost performative rejection of the “benign indifference of the universe” to which Meursault testifies in Camus’s The Stranger, Elizabeth stresses the importance of relational memory. Our identity is a matter of what we have not forgotten about the world and our experience of it. Elizabeth writes so that she won’t forget, but by writing she encourages us not to forget her, and in so doing to become ourselves.

It is interesting that so much of her book is devoted to recounting very technical philosophical conversations about the problem of evil. I admit that initially I struggled to figure out why she would spend so much time doing so—having taught over three thousand college students myself I can’t imagine very many of them devoting so much time to such an activity. Yet, at the end of the book, it all made sense. Her final few lines are as follows:

[EXT]When the pattern goes down, it comes back up dark, bloody, twisted, and we write our life in that blood.

Mom and Dad. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for you to lose both daughters. That’s another crime for which I’m not big enough.

Joshua, if you ever read this, I forgive you for not knowing how to answer my questions. Please have a wonderful life. What could you ever have said? I don’t know what I wanted or what I want now. I’m sorry I couldn’t have been better. Play something sad. You’ll know what. Just this one, though: Don’t laugh.

Oh, Sarah. The storm is coming. I want to live. (373–74)[/EXT]

Pay attention to what she is saying here.

She doesn’t end with any grand realizations about the meaning of life or the realities of death. Instead, she ends by admitting that the mystery remains, and yet the beauty does too: of finitude on the edge of infinity. She commits to swim, to dive, and to dance as the storm rolls in. Channeling almost a Whitmanesque demeanor she grasps the answer: “that life exists, and identity” (Whitman, “Song of Joys”). By writing, she has “contributed a verse.” By reading, we get to hear it. Rather than concluding the book with some QED at the end of the argument, she ends with continued desire. Desire is always risky. Hope is always difficult. But, only in the context of her long recounting of the conversations about the problem of evil are her words now not simple resignation. They shift past the first movement of faith into the second: an embrace of finitude as meaningful. She is not now speaking about playing a sad song because nothing matters in light of eternity, but because everything does. As the band, The Gaslight Anthem, writes in their song, “The ‘59 Sound”:

[EXT]Well I wonder which song they’re going to play when we go.

I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow.

When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms,

I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life. (The Gaslight Anthem, “The ’59 Sound”)[/EXT]

With what she realizes might be her last words, Elizabeth reaches out to those that she loves. She tries to make amends, to ask forgiveness, to give it, and to dive deep into the risky hope that defines the fragility of the human condition.

Kierkegaard says that the knight of faith is able to find the sublime in the pedestrian. In so doing, he, like Elizabeth, realizes that the song being played at your funeral is not somehow disconnected to the deep conversations about theodicy. Instead, wherever one comes down on the problem of evil, we should choose that song well in order to let the song of our lives continue to invite others to dance (even if sad, please don’t laugh—don’t miss the importance of paying attention to where you are and why it matters).

With these last words, she encourages her reader to use their words well. As she prepares to swim out into the storm, she reminds us that we are always, already swimming.

In the end, even if Socrates was right about the potential problems of writing, I am glad that his view has not carried the day. We write not in spite of our being mortal and dynamic, but precisely because of it. We write and read in order to know that we are not alone. When we realize that we are not alone, we should go invite others to become part of our story. Elizabeth’s book is not simply an opportunity to learn about her life; it is a call to become invested in our own. Like Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms, Elizabeth speaks to us because it doesn’t really matter if her story is historically true (maybe this story is an invention of the mind of the editor, Alexander Jech?), it is existentially true. It is true in the way that matters most. It does not give us answers to questions that we ask, but instead puts us into question so that the lives that we live (and write) might become the answer we are willing for others to read.


Works Cited

The Gaslight Anthem. The ’59 Sound. SideOneDummyRecords, 2008.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

M., Elizabeth. The Hurricane Notebook: Three Dialogues on the Human Condition. Edited by Alexander Jech. Wilmington, NC: Wisdom/Works, 2019.

  • Alexander Jech

    Alexander Jech


    Reply to J. Aaron Simmons

    Aaron Simmons begins with a reflection on Socrates and the relationship between philosophy and writing, asking why we write, and thus also why Elizabeth M. wrote. He especially notes that Elizabeth, in the volitilization effected through poeticizing herself, has also made herself universal. It was especially for this reason that, in my introduction to the work, I suggested that Elizabeth had learned the lesson that Kierkegaard mentions in his literary review of the Baroness Thomasine Christine Gyllembourg-Ehrensvärd’s final novel, Two Ages. She published all of her works anonymously, and he praises her literary ability in terms that also reflect upon how he understood himself as a writer:

    Anyone who experiences anything primitively also experiences in ideality the possibilities of the same thing and the possibility of the opposite. These possibilities are his legitimate literary property. His own personal actuality, however, is not. His speaking and his producing are, in fact, born of silence.1

    What Kierkegaard praised was Baroness Gyllembourg-Ehrensvärd’s ability to both grasp the “primitive” elements of her experience and to present these in the form of “possibilities” that had been stripped of her personal actuality. The “universality” of Elizabeth M. depends, I surmise, upon the fact that she has attempted to do the same, and perhaps because authentic self-knowledge depends upon knowing oneself precisely in this way, distilling one’s primitive experiences and knowing how to return with them to one’s actuality.

    Did Elizabeth M. write only for the sake of acquiring self-knowledge, however? I think it will be worth looking a bit more closely at what Socrates says in the Phaedrus to see how Elizabeth might understand herself in relation to what Socrates reports about the Egyptian king Ammon’s criticism of writing:

    SOCRATES: Well, then, those who think they can leave written instructions for an art, as well as those who accept them, thinking that writing can yield results that are clear or certain, must be quite naive and truly ignorant of Ammon’s prophetic judgment: otherwise, how could they possibly think that words that have been written down can do more than remind those who already know what the writing is about? (275c–d)

    The best way to understand this claim, I suggest, is to begin with the word “remind” (ὑπομνῆσαι, hypomnesai). Socrates says that written words can only remind someone of that which they know (εἰδότα, eidota) about the word’s subject. The word for “know” is cognate to the word for “form” (εἰδός, eidos). Indeed, Socrates has just explained to Phaedrus that Eros has a similar value: the beloved’s beauty of body and soul reminds the lover of divine objects of which they are replicas. Phaedrus is a bit slow on the uptake in this exchange, not catching Socrates’s drift; but here we see Plato simultaneously critiquing and defending writing. What is the value of writing? Its power to remind someone of what is already known. That is, the right kind of writing can stimulate recollection. Recollection, in the Platonic sense, however, is a power for recovering knowledge of the highest things, divine things, the eternal Forms that are the true objects of all knowledge. Thus the right kind of writing—Plato’s sort of writing—is nothing at which to scoff. A piece of writing focused upon disclosing someone’s accidental “actuality,” in the sense that a diary might—“Monday: Ate lunch at M.— / Tuesday: Thought about going skiing / Wednesday: Was briefly melancholy, listened to a sad song on the radio / . . .”—would indeed be incapable of reminding someone of anything worthwhile. Accumulating knowledge of such writings would be a useless enterprise. Yet writing that was attentive to the primitive possibilities of life could enable a reader to recollect things that were fundamental and important to their life. Thus, far from indicting writing, Socrates here seems to ascribe it a peculiarly significant power.

    This comment is followed immediately by another critique:

    SOCRATES: You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support. (275d–e)

    Socrates here again speaks against writing, yet his attack is again peculiar; on the surface, it is indeed a defect of writing that it cannot explain itself as an individual engaged in discussion can. Instead, it “continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” But this means that writing shares an important quality with the Forms, objects that—unlike material beings—also go on being the same things forever; material objects “become.” The Forms “are.” Written words are material objects that, somehow, share in the immortality of the immaterial Forms of which they also function to remind readers.

    The second criticism, that written words reach everyone, likewise seems ambiguous. That is, if it is characteristic of material objects to exist for only a limited period of time, and only within a limited space, then words seem uncommonly enduring but also uncommonly non-localized in space. Now, Socrates does not criticize this divorce from spatial locality itself, but the fact that the words end up in the hands of those who do not know what to do with them and mistreat them. Written words are orphaned words. They cannot defend themselves against misinterpretation or mistaken attacks. However, the very form of Socrates’s discourse might make us wonder: is the Phaedrus itself—is the philosophical dialogue—subject to the critique just as it stands? The dialogue form presents ideas precisely in the context of being challenged, defended, questioned, and explained.

    Jesus said, “Cast not your pearls before swine” (Matt 7:6). In this way he explained his use of parables to express lessons. He could express his message in public in a form that was striking and memorable, yet also resistant to the misappropriation of his words by others. Plato’s use of the dialogue form functions similarly. What are Plato’s views? It is notorious that Plato does not appear within his own dialogues, and it has therefore always been possible to question whether he has expressed any of his own views. The Phaedrus includes a passage in which Socrates and Phaedrus sit down under a “lofty plane tree,” a species of tree that in Greek was named for its exceeding broad crown; “broad” in Greek being rendered by the stem “plat-,” this is a “ὑψηλοτάτην πλάτανον”—a lofty Plato tree, a detail that is as suggestive as it is deniable. Was Plato trying to say that he was about to deliver his own thoughts, that Plato would soon deliver a wisdom of his own? Or is this just an accident, a coincidence? Something in between—for they are going to sit in the tree’s shadow? The tantalizing ambiguity hangs over the dialogue, shaping the mood in which we receive its rich panoply of images and arguments. Plato’s words are orphaned in a more profound sense; one cannot attack them as Plato’s words, because one does not know which of them, if any, he means and intends. Nor does his character, Socrates, clearly stand by his words; he constantly claims to be ignorant and to be stating only what seems to him to have the best case, and to be approximately true, or at least the most truth his interlocutor can handle; in the passage under discussion, he is introducing his view via a manifestly fictional account of an interview between an Egyptian king and the god Thuth, a point even Phaedrus notices, saying, “Socrates, you’re very good at making up stories from Egypt or wherever else you want!” (275b). In criticizing writing, Plato indirectly emphasizes the benefits of the dialogue form in general, and especially those benefits that follow his particular type of dialogue—one in which the dialectic springs, as it were, from nowhere, the “author” is a constantly retreating presence, and the reader is left with the task of recollection.

    The dialectic, then, is an airy presence, “volatilized” as Kierkegaard’s Silentio would put it,2 arising from fictional situations penned by an author whose most noteworthy form of presence is his absence. Those who would attach themselves to “Plato” find themselves instead drawn to his character, his teacher, Socrates. Plato clearly means for his readers to fall in love with Socrates, Socrates the model questioner rather than Socrates the exponent of some particular view, and many do. But the dialectic spurs recollection and therefore, if successful, the discourse lives on in the soul of the reader—or as Socrates says, “It is a discourse that is written down, with knowledge, in the soul of the listener; it can defend itself, and it knows for whom it should speak and for whom it should remain silent.” He then goes on to speak of a man who knows what is “just, noble, and good” using writing as a way of “amusing himself” and “storing up reminders for himself” and “for everyone who wants to follow in his footsteps” (276d). That is, while supposedly denigrating writing, Socrates moves from a trivial application of writing (amusement) to progressively more serious ones (reminders to oneself regarding the Forms, reminders to anyone following in his footsteps). Writing, it seems, or at least the right kind of writing, writing that can indirectly spur recollection, will be useful indeed.

    In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus famously asked whether there was a knowledge beyond recollection. He used “recollection” as a paradigm for philosophical knowledge in general, since philosophical knowledge has the essential property of being accessible to “all” in some important sense of “all,” whether that means Platonic recollection, innate ideas, the common features of empirical experience, etc. He concluded that if there was such a knowledge, it would be because we were resistant to truth, because we were in “untruth” and opposed to knowing the truth. Now it is clear that Elizabeth M. has a similar problem in mind, for she asks what would have happened if Socrates had discovered that he was complicit in a monstrous crime, specifying “not ignorantly complicit,” a qualification that makes sense only on the assumption that the crime has been disguised through self-deception—otherwise one cannot speak of Socrates both discovering his complicity and yet not being ignorant of it. Elizabeth, of course, is speaking of herself; despite seeming so “hyper-virtuous” to herself, she has found herself complicit in a crime she knew, but did not know, she had committed. Ordinary recollection will not be enough to draw out such knowledge. Neither, perhaps, would even the Platonic dialogue be capable of exposing it—for such knowledge is too inward. Even describing it would require a character to be inwardly invested and to express themselves in the form of a soliloquy, diary, or journal.

    Such a writing—Elizabeth M.’s writing—would necessarily gravitate toward and revolve around a decisive moment in the person’s life, that decisive moment in which untruth was broken by Truth. Simmons says, “Whatever we write will only stand as a reflection of a particular moment in that becoming” and that “no written text will ever be adequate to the lived experience itself,” and this is true, and doubly true for an experience of truth breaking untruth. For even if it is true that we are all in untruth, or have been in untruth, it does not follow that we will be reminded of it by another’s writings or be capable of recollecting Truth if we are in a state resistant to its recollection. Such can, of course, still sometimes provide the function of spurring recollection—at least for the author—but if Climacus is right about the limits of philosophical knowledge, then no narrative of someone’s discovery of their own condition of untruth can free another from that condition. For recollection, ex hypothesi, lacks that power. In that case, we would have to say that such writing could only act as a witness, not a teacher, of the profound experience it indirectly mediated to the reader.

    I too have often wondered what the person out over 70,000 fathoms of water is supposed to be hanging on to, or floating upon. Perhaps Sarah wished for a surfboard, but did not find it—a way of remaining above the depths, skimming eternity’s surface; and Elizabeth would have wished to stand an observer upon the shore, behind glassy windows or perched high in a tree, as if to absorb infinity within a single eye, but instead found herself compelled to act—and so, we hope, dove. No one can be “suspended above 70,000 fathoms” for another person, since the image presupposes that the individual is out upon the water alone, but each person can, if they have experienced this, stand witness to what they experienced. Neither Elizabeth M. nor anyone else—not Socrates, or Plato, or Kierkegaard—can dive into the depths for us; and neither can they spur a recollection in the reader’s soul “reminding” them of such diving, for by hypothesis, that would require crossing the wall of self-deception that separates truth from untruth, a power that recollection lacks. What Elizabeth M. then seems to have endeavored was, by poeticizing herself into universality, or universal possibility, to create the conditions in which she could mediate as much of her experience as could be recollected and then, finally, to stand not as reminder but as witness of the final, decisive moment—the moment of the divine kiss and the dive into the waters, with an outcome known to none perhaps but her and God alone.

    1. Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: A Literary Review, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 98.

    2. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling / Repetition, trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 117.

Sylwia Wilczewska


In Praise of Open Endings

In her introduction to The Hurricane Notebook, Megan Fritts enumerates the genres to which the book might be thought to belong: philosophical dialogue, Southern Gothic, Greek tragedy, and, notably, “philosophical Gothic” (THN, xi), finally suggesting that the reader is being presented with a specimen of an entirely new genre. At the same time, there are reasons to think that the book intends to exemplify one of the oldest literary genres in existence—namely, wisdom literature, understood broadly enough to include fictional narratives such as The Pilgrim’s Progress. While the diary of the mysterious Elizabeth M. is, in terms of the genre, simply a diary, publication transforms it from a personal document to a novel, making it a vehicle of an existential message which the reader is urged to embrace. Though various authors are alluded to in the text, it is clear that Elizabeth’s favourite thinker is Kierkegaard, whose philosophy runs through the book. Because of that, I will focus on the Kierkegaardian themes.

Wisdom literature is a genre naturally fraught with difficulties, since, in the words of Keats, “we hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket” (86–87). One way to avoid the reader’s distrust is to provide him with some evidence in the form of authentic experience, so the origin of The Hurricane Notebook makes its task easier. The decision to make it accessible to a broader audience is easy to see as an exercise in indirect communication, recommended by Kierkegaard as a way of pushing someone from aesthetic into religious perspective. According to the author of Fear and Trembling, the first and default stage of life is the aesthetic one, characterized by the focus on fulfilling one’s desires and collecting experiences, so that one is guided by what is interesting and fulfilling rather than what is morally good or commanded by God. In order to move to the ethical and ultimately religious stage, one needs to acknowledge one’s moral responsibility and thus guilt, from which only God can liberate. That, in essence, is what happens to Elizabeth, which makes her story a perfect tool of changing the mind of the reader who, like Elizabeth long before the beginning of the book, is stuck at the aesthetic stage—so as “to win and capture him completely by means of an aesthetic portrayal and . . . to introduce the religious so swiftly that with this momentum of attachment he runs straight into the most decisive categories of the religious” (Kierkegaard, 51). That this is the intention of the author (or the editor) is confirmed by the book’s dedication to “the learner,” a Kierkegaardian figure of an addressee of this existential message, but also by the formal and thematic structure of the book, reflecting that of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

As noted by Peter Lamarque and Stein Haugom Olsen (332–33), the statements literature might make concerning human condition tend not to be a subject of debate—a feature which differentiates literature from philosophy, which makes claims in order to invite an argument. This suggests that attempts to argue with the message of a literary narrative are by definition uninvited (perhaps especially so in the case of a personal diary). However, things are different when it comes to philosophical dialogue, a kind of conversation favoured by Elizabeth M. and her friends and filling a large part of the book—especially that I share the suspicion of the editors that its characters are fictional. (Though I would venture the hypothesis that Simon, with his complex personality and internal contradictions, is someone Elizabeth really met). At the same time, sharing Kierkegaard’s conviction that a literary work cannot be discussed without taking into consideration its aesthetic characteristics, I will discuss said message in relation to its literary context, drawing my premises from comparing The Hurricane Notebook with another book. What I will say is going to touch upon the issues of sin and the Fall—both of them crucial to the book’s take on Christianity—but I will avoid entangling myself in doctrinal details, focusing on the two literary universes and leaving to the reader the assessment of possible theological consequences of my position.

Fritts suggests that The Hurricane Notebook displays similarities to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, another “story of sin and undoing” (THN, xviii)—and, it can be added, another account of leaving behind the aesthetic stage of life while learning classic Greek. I will propose another point of comparison: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. Hawthorne’s work, just like the story of Elizabeth, revolves around the themes of evil, repentance, art, memory and the past, presenting moral failure as a path to self-knowledge and personal transformation; among the main characters, each one of whom represents a different attitude to life and God, is a brooding young woman tormented by an indefinite sense of guilt. The turning points of both stories take place in the minds of the characters, not in the half-fantastic physical worlds which surround them—to the degree that some elements of the plot are left unclear. While Hawthorne explains that he wanted to write a romance rather than a novel, “philosophical Gothic” seems to be an equally fitting label for the genre of The Marble Faun: Miriam and her friends are “spokesmen for various elements of Hawthorne’s self-divisive view of his total world” (Brodtkorb, 258), just like the friends of Elizabeth M. look “as if perhaps Elizabeth herself had dreamed them all up merely for the sake of expressing in an external form her purely private spiritual crisis” (THN, viii). This makes both works reflect Kierkegaard’s idea of drama as a form of art in which the spectator finds “a vehicle for the mirroring in an external form of the myriad possibilities latent in his own (emergent) self-consciousness,” so that “the real action . . . takes place in the medium of the imagination” (Pattison, 113).

In spite of all these analogies, the resolution and message of the Hawthorne’s book is the opposite of those in the story of Elizabeth. By developing a paradox mentioned by Kierkegaard, I will show why The Hurricane Notebook would be better off without definitely condemning the perspectives of some of its characters—perspectives whose crucial elements are depicted more favourably in The Marble Faun. (The latter, known as Hawthorne’s most complex work, has been read in very different ways, and, since justifying my interpretation would divert me from the main topic, I will openly admit I am choosing the reading which best suits the purpose of illustrating my case.)

When we encounter Elizabeth M., she has already crossed the line dividing the aesthetic and ethical stages of life after the tragedy which befell her sister. Before that, she was Kierkegaard’s “reflective aesthete,” striving to fulfil her personal ethical and intellectual ideal, but also struggling with boredom and hidden despair. To cope with her sense of guilt, she examines different existential options related to religion, gradually ruling out the attitudes towards herself and God which do not take into account the necessity of submitting to judgment and complete transformation. The people whom she meets during her journey help her reach her conclusion by gradually showing their true colours and, presumably, the true colours of their ideas: the man who chooses to stay at the aesthetic stage is revealed to be selfish and irresponsible, an existentialist rebel admiring Melville’s Ahab turns out to be a Satanic figure, and a stern teacher-cum-lawyer ends up a self-sacrificial saviour. When the symbolic hurricane ends, nothing of the aesthetic perspective is left in Elizabeth, and her approach to evil and human nature has shifted from mildly Pelagian to decidedly Augustinian; she is open to receiving God’s saving grace and becoming a Kierkegaardian true Christian. During her journey, she reflects on such themes as friendship, abandonment, self-knowledge, the nature of artistic performance, and the relation between the student and teacher. I will focus on Elizabeth’s, and the novel’s, conclusion concerning the nature of evil in the context of the aesthetic perspective. Kierkegaard’s idea of the aesthetic and of its relation to the ethical and religious is complex and my reasoning is bound to involve some simplifications, but the gist of it is independent of the points of interpretative controversy.

In The Marble Faun, darkness creeps into the seemingly idyllic life of the four main characters when one of them, Donatello, kills a mysterious man following and visibly frightening his beloved Miriam, a young painter with unknown past who has recently moved to Rome. The rest of the story focuses on the complex changes in the personalities and relationships of the four friends resulting from their encounter with evil (the alternative title of The Marble Faun was Transformation). The characters in Hawthorne experience this encounter as much more inevitable than Elizabeth M.: they find themselves immersed in darkness in spite of their best intentions, and thus experience tragedy rather than guilt. This is especially true about Miriam—a refugee from fate—but also about Donatello, who kills in defence of the woman he loves, and Hilda, who rejects Miriam’s friendship in order to preserve her own innocence. Hilda’s fear of Miriam highlights the fact that in The Marble Faun evil functions like a contagious disease, easily passed on to those who care for the already affected. Miriam, just like Elizabeth M., feels burdened with the death of someone she did not kill—but, unlike Elizabeth, who fully embraces guilt and responsibility for what happened, remains “blackened by evil beyond words and yet somehow still innocent” (Dunne, 34).

As a result of their perception, Hawthorne’s characters, though in various ways changed by the realization of the reality of evil, to some degree retain the aesthetic perspective. While Donatello’s transformation, ending with his free choice to go to prison, can be described in terms of moving from the aesthetic to ethical stage of life, he seems to experience the whole process as a tragic necessity—and Miriam, embracing the sorrow resulting from her personal tragedy, is a classic instance of Kierkegaard’s melancholic aesthete. Where Elizabeth M., determined to reach the truth about herself, is convinced that “hope is the principal means by which someone is caught by a lie” (THN, 47), Hawthorne’s characters are interested in hope much more than in truth, seeing themselves and each other through the lenses of the narratives inspired by the surrounding works of art—like the portrait of Beatrice Cenci, with whom Miriam seems to identify. The vision of God shared by all four is ambiguous, varying between fearful rebellion and the hope that he will somehow free them from judgment and restore their lost happiness—two attitudes firmly rejected by Elizabeth but in their position entirely understandable.

In short, the perception of Elizabeth M. and the characters of The Marble Faun—especially Miriam—reflect two sides of the coin which is the experience of evil: as, respectively, intrinsic and external to humans, connected to agency and guilt on the one hand and necessity and tragedy on the other. Such diagnosis would, of course, be vehemently rejected by Elizabeth, who would argue that the perspective opposite to hers results from the absence of self-knowledge, natural at the point where no effort has been taken to purify the judgment clouded by the original sin. But the original sin and its consequences are constantly at the centre of attention of Miriam and her friends, who “are forced to self-knowledge in order to fulfil themselves as participants in the drama of a fallen humanity” (Hall, 93). The process of self-cognition undergone by Miriam and Elizabeth is similar, but they cannot help finding different things at the end of it. If Miriam’s conviction that her position is tragic is less real than Elizabeth’s certainty of guilt, it is only because Miriam is fictional—but, if we remember that both stories take place in a universe created as the stage for an existential drama, Miriam’s experience may not be necessarily less authentic. This symmetry may serve as evidence that the aesthetic perspective on God and evil deserves equal treatment—or at least equal hearing.

Additional reasons to take the aesthetic perspective into account turn up when the existential message is conveyed by literary means. According to Kierkegaard, indirect communication of ethical and religious truths by means of literature is so difficult because literature belongs to the sphere of the aesthetic, naturally inimical to the ethical and religious perspective; this creates a complex paradox, present in every work of art which tries to convey an ethical or religious message. In the summary of Gabriel Josipovici (112–13):

Kierkegaard wished to draw our attention to the fact that aesthetic objects have a property which makes them absolutely different from the real world, and that we should beware of ever blurring the distinctions between the two. . . . In life we have to make choices (which implies renunciation) whereas in art we do not. The sphere of the ethical, says Kierkegaard, is that of either/or; that of the aesthetic is and/and. . . . Now if Kierkegaard is right, he is faced with a real problem. For how can he argue his case against books, when he has only books to argue his case with?

According to Josipovici, Kierkegaard’s diagnosis can be applied to contemporary literature in general, which (unlike pre-modernist fiction) is full of undetermined states of affairs, making up universes which cannot correspond to physical reality. Let us note that without this property of literature philosophical Gothic would not be possible: a literary universe reflecting a personal drama of an individual can only operate within the aesthetic framework of open possibilities and suspended judgments, diverging from literary realism. This, in turn, suggests that the refusal to take the aesthetic perspective into account, while making use of the modern literary toolkit—which The Hurricane Notebook utilizes with gusto—carries with itself the risk of sounding false or at least artificial. (A further-reaching conclusion would be that the openness and suspension characteristic for the aesthetic stage of life are natural, inevitable elements of human condition as subjectively perceived—provided that literary depiction of the latter, exemplified by the diary of Elizabeth M., can be faithful at least to some degree.)

It is the idea of suspension that forms the core of The Marble Faun’s answer to the classic objection against the aesthetic perspective, namely, that it is amoral—which in The Hurricane Notebook is signalled by Joshua’s decision to break up his relationship with Elizabeth for a “beautiful life” of a professional dancer. While it is debatable whether Hawthorne’s book, as some critics insist, centres around the idea of felix culpa, the experience of moral failure, in spite of all the suffering it brings, does have some positive impact on the characters, imbuing them with maturity and wisdom; the core of this wisdom is the reluctance to judge and condemn. In Hawthorne’s book, paradoxically, the decision to abandon a friend is made as a result of the preoccupation with morality rather than not minding it. “The pure, white atmosphere, in which I try to discern what things are good and true, would be discolored” (TMF, 162–63), says Hilda to Miriam as an explanation why she cannot be her friend any longer—a decision which contributes to Miriam’s despair. In Hawthorne’s literary universe, being good to others results from embracing the vision of evil as tragedy rather than guilt; when it comes to the latter, the book suggests, it is best to suspend judgment—a message highlighted by the fact that the reader never learns whether Miriam was guilty of any crime. Hawthorne’s decision to make her guilt ambiguous is consistent with the book’s openness, embodying the aesthetic perspective. As an example of this kind of openness, Josipovici mentions Kafka’s reluctance to tell the reader whether Josef K. is guilty; notably, Josef’s “How can a person be guilty anyway?” (Kafka, 152) sounds like the opposite of “Everyone is guilty” (THN, 83), in The Hurricane Notebook the motto of Simon. As a sidenote, we may mention that it is not obvious that the sentiment of Miriam (and Josef K.) constitutes a departure from Christianity: as noted by David Parker (5–6), the tendency to abstain from moral judgment is exactly what may be expected from the literature written in the society significantly influenced by the Christian view of the world.

Importantly, The Marble Faun does not call for the rejection of the ethical but for the preservation of the aesthetic within it or along with it. Once Donatello killed the man from the catacombs, neither he nor his friends can remain consistent aesthetes—but they, along with the reader, are invited to keep seeing the world to some degree from the aesthetic viewpoint. As a result, the universe of The Marble Faun is ambiguous: in Kierkegaard’s terms, suspended between the aesthetic and the ethical. The critics suggest that it is exactly this suspension and ambiguity that, in spite of the gloomy ending, provides the book with the element of optimism, since the events take place in “a world where ‘might’ allows the reader to assume both ‘is’ and/or ‘is not’” (Auerbach, 105). This gives rise to a hope stemming from the uncertainty surrounding guilt—the hope to which Miriam clings with the intensity equal to that with which Elizabeth rejects it. Whichever one of them is right, I hope to have shown that Miriam is not without her reasons.

From the perspective of Hawthorne’s characters, it makes sense to hope that God will make things right in the end without the necessity of any further sacrifice on the part of already broken human beings—the view of Max from The Hurricane Notebook. It also makes sense to fear that God who judges and transforms may be humanity’s mortal enemy, which in The Hurricane Notebook is the attitude of Will and Sal, Will’s more menacing philosophical cousin, who insists that “one must imagine Ahab happy” (THN, 6–7). While the views of Hawthorne’s characters do not exactly correspond to those of Sal, Max, and Will, there are enough common points for the analogy to be illustrative. If such views stem from authentic experience, then—a very Kierkegaardian implication—they may lead to alternative roads to God. But, independently of that, if the experience of Hawthorne’s characters reflects a part of reality, behind the views of the characters such as Max and Will is something more than, respectively, naivety and pride—and perhaps the story of Elizabeth would be more convincing if they were not dismissed so easily. This is so especially that the message of the novel—if Josipovici’s remarks about modernist fiction can be extrapolated so sweepingly—goes against the general tendency dominant in contemporary literature. The Hurricane Notebook can be compared to some works of J. R. R. Tolkien in that it invents a new genre in order to, in some respects, resurrect an old standpoint—an impressively ambitious goal and precisely because of that in need of considered justification, so as to show that the spirit of the times is taken seriously as an opponent. One way to achieve this would be to make the ending, already wide open in terms of a plot, more open in the philosophical dimension, by signalling that the stories of Elizabeth’s philosophical opponents—especially Sal, more credible as an advocatus diaboli than as the figure of devil—might somehow end well and that this does not require that they entirely exchange their views for that of hers.

What I said does not amount to an argument with clear premises and conclusion, but I hope it gives some support to the view that some of the corollaries of the views dismissed by Elizabeth M. are worth more attention than she gave them—even in the light of Kierkegaard’s philosophy and especially in the literary context. Of course, every book has the right to have whatever message it wants, and I am not saying that I wish The Hurricane Notebook agreed with The Marble Faun, or that it should forever suspend its judgment on the matters on which they differ. I just think that, given how clear is the book’s desire to influence the views of the reader, balancing this desire with a less harshly definite message would make it easier to fulfil. One does not have to imagine Ahab happy—but perhaps it would be good to try, at least part of the time? After all, as Paul Brodtkorb (266) says about The Marble Faun, “it is of course possible to argue that the ending is not as either/or as it seems.”


Works Cited

Adamson, Jane, et al., eds. Renegotiating Ethics in Literature, Philosophy, and Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Auerbach, Jonathan. “Executing the Model: Painting, Sculpture, and Romance-Writing in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun.” ELH 47.1 (Spring 1980) 103–20.

Brodtkorb, Paul, Jr. “Art Allegory in The Marble Faun.” PMLA 77.3 (June 1962) 254–67.

Dunne, Michael. “‘Tearing the Web Apart’: Resisting Monological Interpretation in Hawthorne’s Marble Faun.” South Atlantic Review 69.3/4 (Fall 2004) 23–50.

Hall, Spencer. “Beatrice Cenci: Symbol and Vision in The Marble Faun.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25.1 (June 1970) 85–95.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Marble Faun (TMF). Edited by Susan Manning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Josipovici, Gabriel. The Lessons of Modernism and Other Essays. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. Translated by Mike Mitchell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009

Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats. Edited by Grant F. Scott. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Lamarque, Peter, and Stein Haugom Olsen. Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

M., Elizabeth. The Hurricane Notebook: Three Dialogues on the Human Condition (THN). Edited by Alexander Jech. Wilmington, NC: Wisdom/Works, 2019.

Pattison, George. Kierkegaard: The Aesthetic and the Religious; From the Magic Theatre to the Crucifixion of the Image. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

  • Alexander Jech

    Alexander Jech


    Reply to Sylwia Wilczewska

    Megan Fritts observed, in her introduction to The Hurricane Notebook, that while Elizabeth M.’s notebook bore a resemblance to works in several genres—philosophical dialogue, Greek tragedy, Southern Gothic—it might be best to describe it in terms of a new genre, “philosophical gothic.” Sylwia Wilczewska provides a further apt characterization of the Notebook: it “invents a new form in order to resurrect an old one.” That is, Elizabeth M. could be said to have invented the philosophical gothic genre form in order to resuscitate and reinvigorate the philosophical dialogue form, a literary form whose fortunes have waxed and waned but whose last significant period of usage seems to have been the Enlightenment, when David Hume (in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) and Denis Diderot (his youthful The Skeptic’s Walk and the two great works written in his maturity, Rameau’s Nephew and the three dialogues grouped together as D’Alembert’s Dream) both used the form for the sake of exploring difficult and explosive ideas in the realm of religion and morals. When surveying the contemporary philosophical scene, the dialogue form seems to have been relegated to a form of textbook in which interlocutors are, for the most part, meant to do little more than illustrate various ideas and points of view—positions that have been developed in the ordinary realm of articles and monographs—and to rehearse what the author regards as the best current arguments and objections for those positions. These works do not, for the most part, even rise to the level of such minor dialogues as Schleiermacher’s Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Incarnation, a dialogue that does not break much new ground, but which allows its seven characters to have personalities and idiosyncrasies and to do more than just act as houses for conflicting points of view. Christmas Eve is content to allow these different characters to have their say and, after attempting to persuade each other of their points of view, different ways that individuals might relate to the unfathomable mystery of the incarnation—it allows these positions to remain present for the reader as un-negated possibilities.

    I take it that it is because Elizabeth M. does not allow her opponent’s positions—especially Sal’s—to remain as such possibilities that Wilczewska criticizes the Notebook, or perhaps the philosophical gothic form. For if Elizabeth M.’s purpose in creating the new, philosophical gothic form was to resurrect the dialogue form, then the degree of closure she progressively develops—a momentum of closure as possibilities are negated again and again, until finally even Sal’s rival philosophy, never refuted, comes to appear diabolical, or even an expression of a monstrous, Satanic pride—serves to undermine literary norms it ought to preserve. One thinks also of Kierkegaard’s statement, quoted both in my own introduction to the Notebook and again in my response to Simmons, that an author’s “legitimate literary property” consists of “possibilities” borne of primitive experience.1 The literary work, then, leaving behind the hard and harsh particularities of actuality, becomes invested with the soft, diffused glow of possibilities.

    Wilczewska connects this to the fact that literature is governed, not by the earnest strictures of the Ethical and the Religious, but by the different laws of the Aesthetic. She further interprets the Notebook as displaying a Kierkegaardian progression in Elizabeth’s life from the Aesthetic through the Ethical to the Religious existence sphere. One worry I have about this line of interpretation is that it is not obvious to me that Kierkegaard is, as Wilczewska argues, Elizabeth M.’s favorite philosopher. She represents herself as learning about Kierkegaard only rather late, via Niakani and then Simon, for whom it may fairly be said that Kierkegaard is indeed his most significant philosophical influence. Elizabeth’s most decisive influences, on the other hand, seem to be philosophers of earnestness and the ideal like Plato, Pascal, and Schiller. She represents the fortuitous or providential discovery of Kierkegaardian ideas as a corrective to her own native tendency toward such other-worldly idealism.

    Does pre-crisis Elizabeth inhabit the Aesthetic existence sphere? Would Kierkegaard assign that pre-crisis Elizabeth to that sphere? Would the Elizabeth of “Jouska” and “Macrina” assign herself to that sphere? I think the answer to that question is not obvious; operatic archetypes such as Don Giovanni and Kierkegaardian pseudonyms like A, Johannes the Seducer, and Constantine Constantius are “pure” personalities, who fully occupy a single existence sphere and illuminate our own psychological life possibilities by casting light upon extreme possibilities that actually existing individuals would at most only partially occupy. Is Elizabeth similarly “pure”? It seems to me ambiguous whether the Elizabeth of the Sacrum Arcanum is an example of an aesthete or of ethical earnestness. One could easily tally as many signs of the one as of the other, and this goes along with Kierkegaard’s general sense that among the Greeks these spheres are regularly confused, as evidence by the fact that the highest ideal was the kalon, a single, powerful word indicating both the beautiful and the noble. Was her development of the Sacrum Arcanum a bold and decisive decision, a choice embracing the sharp cutting power of an either/or, aut/aut in Judge Wilhelm’s sense, or something more like a retreat into her own most comfortable pastures, a move from dangerous actuality to comfortable fantasy? I do not know whether there is a clear answer on this score, and the answer may depend upon what we make of Elizabeth’s later development; for the sense of self from which she acted later was the self she forged in that decisive moment.

    The form of The Hurricane Notebook is accelerating disintegration yielding decision—and it is the nature of the moment of decision to exclude what is not chosen. However, it is worthwhile to examine the Notebook in comparison with an extremely sophisticated contrary model of such openness in the genre that Elizabeth sought to resurrect, namely, Plato’s Symposium. In the Symposium, seven speeches are given in praise of love. These can be divided into three groups: two groups of three and one outlier. The first three speeches each seem rather one-dimensional. Those in the second set of three are more sophisticated; first comes Plato’s brilliant send-up of Aristophanes, then we get Agathon’s beautiful but empty praise of love, and finally Socrates delivers his speech, in which—characteristically—not Socrates, but another figure, the priestess Diotima, instructs a young Socrates in a very otherworldly account of love as an ascent to “the Beautiful itself.” Yet Socrates is not the last to speak; instead that honor goes to Alcibiades, who speaks of his love for Socrates. Formally, the dialogue is unusual for a Socratic dialogue, in that it features a series of speeches, rather than featuring Socrates’s cross-examination of one, two, or three interlocutors. Yet the speech that Socrates gives allows him to reconstruct his favored context by beginning with his cross-examination of Agathon and then proceeding to Diotima’s cross-examination of Socrates. Diotima’s account of love includes elements of each previous speech and integrates these into a new and sophisticated account of love. Then comes Alcibiades, entering “You must not flinch, but drink,” he says, “and if I advance anything untrue . . . please interrupt me, and convict me of misrepresentation, for I would never willingly speak falsely” (213e, 214e).

    The dialogue flirts with becoming a bit too neat when it sets up the simple idea of one speech containing all of the others. Alcibiades’s entrance reopens possibility and confronts the reader anew with two fundamentally different ideas about love, one strongly universalist and the other strongly particularist. Does Diotima’s account of love actually capture the aspect of love as devotion precisely to this individual—an element that Aristophanes’s account (in which lovers each form half of a single original whole) had already emphasized even before Alcibiades’s drunken entrance? Alcibiades speaks not of “love” in the abstract but of his particular love for a particular person, Socrates, which pushes this element to the fore. His entrance also shifts the geometry of the speeches. What had been two sets of three, or five and one, now forms a set of seven, with Aristophanes—thanks to his sneezing fit—occupying the enviable middle position. On the whole, Alcibiades’s entrance is so disruptive that the reader may, as Simmias does at the end of the Phaedo, admit to “some private misgivings” regarding Socrates’s argument. Socrates affirms this response, stating that “our first hypotheses require clearer examination” (107a–b).

    Even this too brief accounting for one of the most perfect philosophical dialogues we possess raises several questions about Elizabeth’s procedure in The Hurricane Notebook. Her work has a shadowy likeness to the former dialogue, a likeness that can fade in and out of focus and make it unclear whether she did, after all, intend to “rewrite” the Symposium or echo it in some way. It, too, can be forced into a structure with two sets of three and a seventh outlier (Morgan, Will, and Harper; Niakani, Rufus, and Pete; then finally Simon), but let me highlight two important interpretive facts: first, despite the momentum of rejection that Elizabeth creates, is it in fact clear that she disproves the viewpoints of those she cross-examines? To take one example, is Morgan’s conviction that God is capable of finding and actualizing the one infinitely unlikely possibility in which he wins a person’s love actually ruled out? Second, no matter how we analyze this structure, it reveals how important Sal’s philosophy is: Sal is not an interlocutor like the others. What he offers is not “material” for Elizabeth to synthesize as the others do, but a rival synthesis.

    In labeling Elizabeth “Hyperion,” the Titan of light, Sal suggests that he himself found Elizabeth ambiguous. No doubt his suspicious eye, always eager to spy signs of despair, fracture, or hidden darkness in others, was on the lookout for such signs in Elizabeth; calling her “Hyperion” seems to indicate that he both found no such signs and yet also predicted her downfall precisely in her embrace of the light, perhaps in the titanic pride associated with that sun-like fire she possessed, a pride he certainly identified with. One could indeed construct a fascinating portrait of Elizabeth and her problem by isolating her encounters with Sal and then reconstructing both his philosophy and what seems to be his implicit interpretation of Elizabeth and her problem. It may of course end up that what one finds is that too much of Sal remains mysterious for this to be fully accomplished.

    Completing an analysis of this kind would require more space than even the generous allowance I have made myself in this space. Let me restrict myself to the first two encounters with Sal described by Elizabeth, both in “Gnothi Seauton.” The first of these is an encounter upon the Riverwalk. In it we find that Sal valued Elizabeth for the competition she provided him in chess competitions. It is unclear whether he values competition more than competing with her, specifically, or the reverse. He is inwardly preoccupied and communicates that winning, without opposition, is valueless, dull. He craves a different, more exciting, form of experience. He ceases self-preoccupation only when Elizabeth mentions that she has neglected chess for the sake of investigating evil and discovering how to overcome it. This simultaneously arouses his interest and causes him pain, and it is this revelation on Elizabeth’s part that leads him to both reveal his preferred “name” for Elizabeth—Hyperion—and his epigrammatic adaptation of Camus’s “Sisyphus happy” as a favored name for his own philosophy, “Ahab happy.”

    The second appearance in “Gnothi” occurs during Elizabeth’s conversation with Harper. Here, we find that Elizabeth is the one who, struck by the possibility of forgiveness and redemption from hell—a hell in which she does not even know whether she believes—is simultaneously pained and interested. She remembers her sister and is reminded of a conversation with Sal during a “very strange” party at his house. He singles Elizabeth out to engage her in what seems to be a confession of sort, that the party is an excuse to pursue “science,” which seems to involve carefully and minutely observing his guests and gauging their responses to various stimuli (perhaps in comparison with some kind of control, his knowledge of their behavior under ordinary circumstances?—there is no explanation). He is convinced that human beings are more complex than ordinarily admitted and possess so many motives and desires wrapped up in one another that even the “brutes” possess some exceedingly fine and noble desires among their “brutish” ones. Left unsaid is the reverse, what he must think of Elizabeth herself: that even someone with as fine and noble of tastes as “Hyperion” must have a darker, more brutish side, some secret spot in her soul, the spot of “yin” at the heart of her so very “yang” existence. But what draws his interest this time is her answer to his question, “Name one thing you would never part with”—to which she responds, “Myself.” When Elizabeth expands on this and seems to agree with his idea of “knotted beings,” Sal again shows his distinctive grimace/smile, his happy sorrow, his grieving happiness. Sal seems particularly pleased that, in Elizabeth’s glossing of the “knotted being” idea, she treats the difficulty as involving not only the conflict between “brutish” and “lofty” desires, but another conflict between our yearning for self-sufficiency and our necessary rootedness in society. (This duality is even present in the duality of Elizabeth’s favored literary form, the combination of first-person journal entries with philosophical dialogue.)

    But Sal becomes disappointed when he detects a certain naïveté in Elizabeth’s answers to his questions regarding sin and freedom. For he wanted to know whether, for example, a monster is born that way, or becomes that way; and Elizabeth thought it was a matter of freely making something from your materials, whereas Sal argued for a self as “freely unfolded necessity,” a necessity and freedom that can be fully actualized by grief.2 That is, Sal thought that opportunities for action were opportunities for actualizing what was already present in the self, not for imposing a new form arising from who knows where. Or perhaps he worried, and was particularly competitive with Elizabeth, precisely because she represented, for him, the opposite possibility: the possibility of a pure creativity that did not owe its power, not even to the smallest degree, to some dark root.

    Why did Sal gravitate toward Ahab? And why imagine “Ahab happy?” Moby-Dick is dominated by the analogy of “sea and land.” This analogy is a replacement, among other things, for Plato’s allegory of the cave. The land is the realm of human conventions, as the cave is likewise. The sea, free and infinite, is the realm of reality, corresponding to the world outside Plato’s cave. The sun represents in both images an ultimate knowledge of the Good, a knowledge which would, it seems, permit someone to know how the world hung together and to return to the land with the true names for things, but more importantly, with an accurate understanding of how he, himself, fit into the whole. The whaler is a model of the philosopher, someone who makes his living from the sea and returns to land only to provide “oil,” that is, the source of the artificial light animating the land. Ahab is the greatest of the whalers and in his determination and wholehearted pursuit of truth is a disturbing mix of Plato’s portrait of the philosopher in Republic VI and VII, who is made whole and complete by his one love for wisdom, and his contrary portrait of the tyrannical soul in Republic IX, a soul that is destroyed by its complete devotion to a lawless desire. Moby Dick, who symbolizes everything and nothing, also symbolizes that which stands between Ahab and that ultimate knowledge that the philosopher desires, a figure whose indefinability and resistance to interpretation poses a final, tantalizing torment to anyone who, like the philosophers, looks for an ultimate answer, a Logos or Tao that would answer and explain everything. Ahab, contemplating the gold doubloon he had earlier nailed to the mast, observed:

    There’s something ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty things; look here,—three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self. Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it cannot solve itself. Methinks now this coined sun wears a ruddy face; but see! aye, he enters the sign of storms, the equinox! and but six months before he wheeled out of a former equinox at Aries! From storm to storm! So be it, then. Born in throes, ’tis fit that man should live in pains and die in pangs! So be it, then! Here’s stout stuff for woe to work on. So be it, then.3

    In Melville’s treatment, Ahab becomes a diabolical figure, a characterization confirmed when he “baptizes” his harpoons in the blood of pagans, solemnized in a ceremonial mockery of the baptismal formula in which the name of God is replaced with the name of the devil: Ahab shouts out, “Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!”4 This is because he rebels against the sun, which he understands precisely in Plato’s sense, because of how it torments him with its unknowability and its indifference or malignity toward him. Sperm whales turn their head toward the sun when they die, and observing this one day, Ahab observes to himself, “life dies sunwards full of faith; but see! no sooner dead, than death whirls round the corpse, and it heads some other way.”5 A little later, he rejects the “sun” as embodied in science and the too-small knowledge afforded by the quadrant:

    Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heaven, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched with thy light, O sun! Level by nature to this earth’s horizon are the glances of man’s eyes; not shot from the crown of his head, as if God had meant him to gaze on his firmament.6

    Ishmael rejects the “unity” project that defined Ahab. He acquired a pragmatic flexibility of mood that did not insist upon answers to ultimate questions. Sal must have rejected Ishmael’s solution, that is, Melville’s solution. We might imagine him thinking: “If the Pequod must go down with an archangelic shriek, then let me utter the heaven-rending shriek.”7 He similarly rejected what we might call Nietzsche’s solution, which requires rejecting the sun altogether; once the sun is gone, gone also is the obstruction provided by Moby Dick; now there is only the free, infinite sea, to be defined as one sees fit, to the limit of one’s strength. Why did he reject Nietzsche? I hypothesize that he saw this as a rejection of what pleased him in Elizabeth’s answer, namely, that we cannot escape our yearning for the infinite horizon, but nor can we escape our rootedness at home; likewise, insofar as there is no escape from our brutish and lofty desires, there is no escape from that which defines them thus, which is not our will, but some power beyond our will, some external, unknowable standard—the sun, object of ever imperfect recollection. And what does one find when one is alone out upon the water with the sun?8 Here we see Melville’s tale of poor Pip, who, in one of the accidents “common in that fishery,” is cast overboard in the midst of the boats’ combat with some whales:

    It was a beautiful, bounteous, blue day; the spangled sea calm and cool, and flatly stretching away, all round, to the horizon, like gold-beater’s skin hammered out to the extremest. Bobbing up and down in that sea, Pip’s ebon head showed like a head of cloves. . . . Stubb’s inexorable back was turned upon him; and the whale was winged. In three minutes, a whole mile of shoreless ocean was between Pip and Stubb. Out from the centre of the sea, poor Pip turned his crisp, curling, black head to the sun, another lonely castaway, though the loftiest and the brightest.

    Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer as to ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it? Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea—mark how closely they hug their ship and only coast along her sides.

    But had Stubb really abandoned the poor little negro to his fate? No; he did not mean to, at least. Because there were two boats in his wake, and he supposed, no doubt, that they would of course come up to Pip very quickly, and pick him up. . . .

    But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb’s boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip’s ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

    Sal seems to have accepted the premise of Melville’s and Nietzsche’s perspectivism—the claim that all knowledge occurs via interpretations that are infected by an eradicable egoism that makes knowledge both of oneself and of the world impossible—but rejects the idea that we can escape from the recollected sun or the yearning for the infinite. He therefore came to view Ishmael and Nietzsche as each offering a contrary, too easy simplification that was incompatible with human nature as it revealed itself to him in his studies—these “studies” being, however, I think only for the sake of finding out whether others were like him or not. For surely the original basis for his quest was some disturbance he discovered in his own soul, some dissonant resonance or restlessness that recurred no matter how often he tried to cleanse himself of it.

    Sal thus seems to have concluded that we are all Ahab, potentially or actually, and self-knowledge and knowledge of the ultimate correspond as knowledge of our awful essence and our impossible fate. The only thing left to us is to pursue the impossible quest, knowing its impossibility will destroy us, yet happy anyway—knowing it will destroy those on the quest with us, yet still, after all, happy—but what he means by “happy” is by no means clear, so I do not mean to have taken myself to have elucidated that final point. I, no more than Elizabeth, do not know what he meant by that point, and I am inclined to agree with her that even he did not know what “happiness” in such existence means. Perhaps he meant that actualization of the self is itself a sort of happiness, even if that actualization reveals the awful essence in its ambiguous glory and horror, even if that actualization always costs us what we value most.

    It is up to Sal to write some better account of his philosophy if he wishes it to be presented more fairly and completely than this, or than the account given it by Elizabeth M. I think it is fair to say that Elizabeth, given her experience of the divine kiss, Aurora’s kiss, did not find his synthesis compelling—and even found it diabolical. Yet, as I argued above in response to Simmons, the kiss that breaks untruth cannot itself be the subject of recollection, and though she is its witness, she cannot mediate it to the reader in the strict sense. It is therefore important to note that, whereas Elizabeth’s interlocutors are refuted even though many of their ideas inform or at least are not ruled out by her final position as it seems to stand in “Macrina,” with Sal it is the reverse: her decision rules out his philosophy, but he himself is never refuted.

    1. Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: A Literary Review, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 98.

    2. Elizabeth M., The Hurricane Notebook, 43.

    3. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979 [1851]), 441–42.

    4. Moby Dick, 497.

    5. Moby Dick, 502.

    6. Moby Dick, 506.

    7. “A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it” (Moby Dick, 575–76).

    8. For the development of this imagery, see Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Josefine Nauckhoff, ed. Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 120.

Verified by ExactMetrics