One Reason Why Kierkegaard Still Makes Me Tremble

Something written by Kierkegaard aroused me this evening from an intellectual slumber. Kierkegaard insisted that prayer does not provoke God but rather directs a change in man. From this, I would presume that Kierkegaard does not have in mind the sort of prayer that the worshiper recites in order to shield himself from the fear of death. In other words, Kierkegaard is not providing obsessives with the sort of intellectual armor required to justify repetition and ritualism for the sake of avoiding the anxiety that makes us human. On the contrary, for Kierkegaard, prayer only occurs amidst the fear and anxiety – prayer, then, is another name for courage: when an obsessive atheist prays he is finally participating in an authentic act: he is acknowledging the space of the Other, the intervention of the Other, the place of the unconscious itself. The courage of the obsessive atheist, by way of prayer, occurs when the atheist finally comes to terms with the fact that he is not a master – he is possessed by something foreign.

On this point, I find myself inclined to disagree with a point that has been made repetitively by today’s most sublime obsessive, Slavoj Zizek:

Recall that Lacan’s basic claim about the treatment of obsessional neurotics was that (1) they actively repressed the intrusion of the Other through ritualism and repetition, and (2) the analyst must situate himself as an overbearing Other. What this means is that the Analyst, as Other, must force himself into the obsessive’s discourse by endlessly beating him down – the Analyst must make his presence felt so that the analysand can no longer deny the fact that there is an Other in the same room as him. What this means is that the moment of victory is when, finally, the obsessive begins to accept the fact that the Other is an intrusive force and that, therefore, he is something that must be questioned.

This is why I have maintained that Zizek is wrong to claim that an authentic act does not occur when a person – presumably an atheist – is moved toward prayer when faced with the possibility of death. According to Zizek, the truly ethical act occurs when an individual avoids prayer and replaces it with a telephone call. The ethical act, as he explains it, thereby occurs when one calls one’s loved one on the telephone so as to inform him or her that the love between them was never really there, that it was a long-lasting sham. The first question we should ask ourselves is: why, if the individual does not love his wife, does he call his wife before dying at all? If the person who makes the telephone call believes his or her partner to be dumb enough to not ask this question then his lie would probably strike the widow/er as sweet but nonetheless insulting. Zizek, of course, provides a compelling answer: it is to help her move on in life. I accept the sentiment. 

However, I can not accept the claim that prayer in the face of death – especially by an atheist – is not authentic act. On the contrary, I maintain that it is the authentic act par excellence precisely because the atheist finally speaks his truth. Recall that analysis ends when the analysand approaches the truth of his desire. Moreover, it is often a desire that occurs as a result of castration (especially if we are dealing with the masculine side of sexuation) by one – a god figure – who is not castrated. This moment of prayer marks the atheist’s discovery of his own desire. The moment of prayer, for an atheist, is a moment of accepting the limitations of self-mastery.

The hidden current running deep within today’s atheist discourse is one of self-mastery. Is it any wonder, then, that many of today’s most prominent atheists are also libertarians? Libertarians preach the discourse of self-mastery, of the self-made man – they actively deny that there is an Other, in the form of a God, speaking and acting through them. This is why today’s atheism is secretly also a form of obsession. And, if we return to Freud’s thoughts on the matter we would note that obsessives tend to be inclined toward the religious. Thus, I maintain that today’s atheists are in fact steeped in the religious, and perhaps to a greater extent than those religions they seek to dismantle.


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