Kierkegaard and Parables: Making Sense of Agnes and the Merman

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Kierkegaard and Parables: Making Sense of Agnes and the Merman
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“I will open My mouth in parables;

I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.”1

In this paper I offer a novel interpretation of the parable of Agnes and the merman in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. The thesis that I defend is that we should read the story of Agnes and the merman first and foremost as a parable, that is, as a story that is written for the purpose of effecting change in the readers. My central claim is that Kierkegaard is not trying to teach us or impart knowledge to us with the parable but rather to cause us, his readers, to repent. Most scholars read the parable as being a part of Silentio’s larger discussion of ethics, or they read it as being a part of Kierkegaard’s soteriology, and to that end the parable never gets its own treatment.2, 3 However, these readings do not take into account the dramatic aspects of the story and fail to take Kierkegaard’s doctrine of indirect communication seriously. My reading has the advantage of both recognizing how the parable fits into Kierkegaard’s larger philosophical context while at the same time appreciating the importance of the form in which Kierkegaard is communicating.

In order to present my argument I begin with an examination of the philosophical content of the parable. In the first section of this paper, I will discuss the parable itself, noting the variations that Silentio adds to the story. The second and third sections will examine the character of the merman in the story, specifically looking at his choices and his actions. The fourth section of the paper will explore the form of parable, and how this form fits in with Kierkegaard’s use of indirect communication. The fifth section then analyzes Kierkegaard’s goals for his authorship and presents the argument that the parable of Agnes and the merman is supposed to cause readers to recognize their own sin and to repent. I read Kierkegaard’s telling of the parable of Agnes and the merman as an instance of indirect communication wherein Kierkegaard addresses his readers as sinners who must repent of sin and not as philosophers parsing the logic of sin. That is, Kierkegaard intends to push us to recognize our sin in the face of Christ, and to repent.

I. The Parable of Agnes and the Merman

When considering the parable of Agnes and the merman, some scholars are quick to point out that Kierkegaard may be telling the story of his broken engagement to Regine Olsen under the guise of Johannes Silentio telling the story of Agnes.4 There are a number of similarities between the story and Kierkegaard’s personal history. In the merman who repents but does not disclose himself to Agnes by revealing his true intentions and thoughts, we might see Kierkegaard who breaks away from Regine without disclosing himself to her. Kierkegaard even claimed that “Fear and Trembling actually reproduced my own life.”5 He broke things off with Regine in 1841, and Fear and Trembling was published in 1843, so it is very possible that he was still coping with his feelings of guilt and regret over the broken engagement.6 Yet, even if in telling the story of Agnes and the merman, Kierkegaard is indeed dealing with his own personal history, it would be a mistake to read it merely as thinly veiled autobiography, for doing so prevents us from interpreting the parable in such a way as to gain wisdom from it. Instead, we should take it as rich in philosophical content, and try to understand it from a philosophical perspective, as this paper does in the early sections. From that perspective, we will be carried, as I will argue, to an understanding that goes beyond a philosophical claim to a spiritual claim.7

Reading the story of Agnes and the merman from a philosophical, not autobiographical, perspective requires that we see the story as contributing to the overall purpose or argument in Fear and Trembling. The main theme of Fear and Trembling seems to be faith, at first glance. Silentio tries to understand the character of Abraham in terms of faith, and he gives the classic archetypes of the knights of resignation and faith.8 Yet, despite this, some scholars wish to dismiss the possibility that Fear and Trembling is a meaningful work on faith because they claim it does not address the issue of sin.9 If this were true, then the argument in Fear and Trembling would be incomplete. Given the importance of sin for the particular Christian concept of religion Kierkegaard praises (Religiousness B), any discussion of faith must include a discussion of sin as well.10 However, Fear and Trembling specifically refers to sin in the discussion of the merman: he is in sin as a seducer, and in order to gain Agnes, he must face not just his guilt but his sin.11 If we are to consider how Fear and Trembling relates to Kierkegaard’s authorship as a whole, we must examine the parable of Agnes and the merman, for it contains both our first serious encounter with sin in Kierkegaard’s authorship, as well as the only discussion of sin in Fear and Trembling.12, 13 Therefore, let us further examine the parable in order to better understand Fear and Trembling as a whole.

The parable of Agnes and the merman appears in Problema III of Fear and Trembling. In this section, Silentio questions whether or not it was ethically defensible for Abraham to remain silent, that is, for Abraham to have concealed his intentions from Isaac, among others. In delving into this problem, Silentio turns our attention to four different stories.14 The story of Agnes and the merman is the second of these stories, and one that most Danes would be familiar with, as it was well known in Danish tradition. In the fairy tale a merman seduces a woman named Agnes. She desires to go to the bottom of the sea, and he takes her there. She has a number of children with the merman and one day wishes to return to the surface and go to church. The merman knows that if she leaves the sea she will never return, but Agnes does not relent. Eventually she does return to the surface and ends up staying there, leaving her children and the merman all alone in the ocean. This is the most common version of the story known by the Danes, although there are a number of slight variations depending on who is telling it. Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, wrote an unsuccessful musical about Agnes and the merman.15 Kierkegaard, as Silentio, created his own version of Agnes and the merman that broke both with the regular tradition of the fairy tale and with Andersen’s retelling of it. The version of the story that appears in Fear and Trembling has a number of unique characteristics.

In Silentio’s version of the story, the merman is unable to take Agnes. He begins to seduce her, and she willingly submits herself to him, however just as he is about to whisk her away into the sea, she looks at him one last time, “not fearfully, not despairingly, not proud of her good luck, not intoxicated with desire, but in absolute faith and in absolute humility.”16 With this last look, the merman stops; he cannot continue his seduction. The sea is calmed as the wildness within the merman is calmed. Her absolute innocence wins the merman over and defeats him. The merman takes Agnes home and tells her that he just wanted to show her how beautiful the sea can be when it is calm. Silentio begins with this story, and he adds to it to create his particular treatment of repentance and thus of sin, for one can only repent if one has transgressed.

When looking at this initial version, we already get a taste of the central problem—the clash between the innocent Agnes versus the unethical merman. Agnes’s innocence is able to overcome the merman specifically because her innocence is complete. She looks at the merman in “absolute faith and absolute humility.” Agnes is unlike any of the other women that the merman tries to seduce, and in this we recognize the merman’s problem. Agnes wants the merman faithfully, but he only wants her as a captured prize. Part of a successful seduction, for the merman, is winning a woman over despite her reservations. But Agnes has no reservations, and to that extent the merman has not seduced her. So Silentio envisions Agnes as being absolutely innocent, and it is that innocence that the merman cannot overcome. Indeed the opposite occurs: Agnes overcomes the merman.

The innocence that Agnes possesses is not a quality or trait that any real human being could have, and Silentio himself acknowledges that Agnes is an impossible human being. He claims that it would be an “insult” to envision a seduction in which the woman is as innocent as he portrays Agnes to be.17 We must keep this in mind as we work through the story. Agnes represents an ideal of innocence, faithfulness, and humility. In order to overcome the merman’s seduction, we need something drastically non-human.

Silentio then elaborates on some possible outcomes of the parable. If the merman is overcome by Agnes’s innocence, then the merman can do one of two things. His first option is that of mere repentance by turning away from his initial plan to seduce Agnes. If he merely repents he does not communicate to her what his true intentions are, nor does he reveal the depths of his depravity. Instead, he lies to her. He tells her that he only wanted to show her how beautiful the sea looks when it is calm. Given this approach, the merman remains closed, for repentance does not in and of itself include disclosure to Agnes. This leaves Agnes upset, for she loved the merman and was ready to spend the rest of her life with him. The merman too is unhappy, for he loved Agnes but was unable to disclose himself to her and this now carries a new guilt. Therefore repentance alone leaves both of them unhappy, for repentance alone leaves the merman without Agnes.

The second option that Silentio offers is repentance accompanied by disclosure to Agnes. In this scenario, like the first, the merman goes through the motion of repentance. He recognizes the wrongness of his actions and he experiences the unhappiness that comes with that recognition. However, in this case, he does not remain burdened by this guilt. Instead, he discloses himself to Agnes. He tells her of himself, of his treachery, of his indiscretion. But he also tells her of his love, and in this pledges himself to her. He decides to marry her. He overcomes his guilt and does more than repent in the sense of merely turning away from his initial wrongness; he goes further and gains Agnes. This is the expanded story that Silentio gives to us. But why should we focus specifically on the story of Agnes? What unique value does it hold?

II. The Merman as a Seducer

Fear and Trembling is primarily concerned with the account of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac and attempts to understand how Abraham could have acted as he did.18 Abraham is righteous both in the eyes of God and of men. Though Abraham is not perfect, he is nonetheless chosen by God. Abraham can choose sinfully, but he is not currently possessed by sin.19 With Agnes and the merman, Kierkegaard offers the reader a story that bears some resemblance to that of Abraham and Isaac, but one with a number of differences, primary among them the presence of actual sin. The merman is a seducer, very clearly in sin. He wants to seduce Agnes, take her away to the bottom of the sea, and make her his own, but Agnes defeats him through her perfect innocence.

While there is a sense in which the merman overcomes his own sinful urges, he is not the source of this change, Agnes is. Hall claims that it is through the accident of Agnes’s virtue that the merman is saved, and not through his own virtue.20 I agree with Hall’s assertion, though I want to carve out room for an additional claim. It is not the merman’s virtuous self that impedes the seduction, but rather is it Agnes’s. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that the merman has no part in his repentance. Agnes’s innocence makes the merman aware of his need for repentance, but it cannot make him repent. He must make that choice for himself.21 Agnes’s innocent nature brings about a change in the merman that moves him to choose repentance. This is in contrast with Abraham’s faith: Abraham is a man who hears the voice of God and acts; Abraham’s nature does not change when he responds to God. The merman, on the other hand, relinquishes his seductive ways in the face of Agnes’s innocence. He changes himself in order to respond to the essential innocence he sees in Agnes.

Thus the merman repents. He is unable to seduce Agnes and this failure causes him to realize the error of his ways. When the merman recognizes his evil intent and must decide whether to disclose that intent to Agnes, the merman seems to hold a position similar to that of Abraham: after the real sacrifice was made, Abraham has to come to terms with his seemingly evil decision to kill his son and he must decide whether or not to disclose this information to Isaac or Sarah. However, the merman and Abraham are not identically placed. Abraham was chosen by God for his faith; the merman is not even a candidate for faith until after his encounter with Agnes.

Silentio claims that if the merman decides to remain quiet then he enters the realm of the demonic. This new category is something that Abraham did not experience, as it relates specifically to the fact that the merman is in a sinful state. The merman is in the realm of the demonic when he recognizes his guilt, but in such a way that he rejects the possibility of salvation. In choosing not to disclose himself he must now come to terms with his guilt at both wanting to seduce Agnes, and at acknowledging his past as a seducer. The merman, in this scenario, does not accept forgiveness, and he sees this refusal as the only clear sign of his virtue: “Now the demonic in repentance probably will explain that this is indeed his punishment, and the more it torments him the better.”22 The demonic individual bears his guilt alone, refusing to share it with anyone, refusing to burden anyone with it. Bearing it alone isolates him from others and it estranges him from himself. Rather than accept the possibility of forgiveness and salvation, the demonic turns away from them out of warped respect for his unworthiness of them.23

Silentio goes on to describe what one who succumbs to the demonic might do in this situation. The merman will try to save Agnes somehow. Agnes is sad because she loves the merman and now the merman is leaving her. He will try to save her from her sadness, and thus he will endeavor to remove the love that Agnes feels towards him. He might “belittle her, ridicule her, make her love ludicrous, and if possible, arouse her pride.”24 So if the merman remains closed, he enters into this demonic state via a kind of self-imposed suffering.

In this we find Kierkegaard’s first discussion of both sin and the demonic. Interestingly, Silentio sees the demonic as being higher than the ethical.25 The merman must come to terms with the universal and then turn away from it in order to enter into the demonic. Silentio writes, “With the assistance of the demonic, therefore, the merman would be the single individual who as the single individual was higher than the universal. The demonic has the same quality as the divine, namely, that the single individual is able to enter into an absolute relation to it.”26 Speaking of the merman’s demonic approach, Lippitt writes, “Such an orientation does not just fail to express the universal, in the manner of shooting at a target and missing. Rather, the merman demonstrates a self-absorbed embrace of his (demonic) hiddenness.”27

While Abraham embraces the divine directive, the merman instead embraces his desire to remain closed to Agnes. Thus the merman must recognize the universal and intentionally move beyond it. The merman in the demonic stage recognizes the ethical category of existence and purposefully denies it. In this sense he too experiences a teleological suspension of the ethical, quite like Abraham. It is in this respect that the demonic resembles the divine, but the merman’s teleology is quite different from that of Abraham. Abraham’s telos is based on the word of God, whereas the merman’s telos is not. However, were we, as readers, not privy to their innermost experiences, these two men might seem the same. They both recognize the ethical and purposefully choose to move beyond it, for reasons unknown. Only if they disclose themselves can we judge them to be demonic or divine.

III. The Merman as a Knight of Faith

Having considered the demonic approach in which the merman remains closed to Agnes, Silentio turns his attention to the possibility of the merman repenting like before, but this time opening himself to Agnes. In such a case, the merman explains that he was intending to seduce Agnes, but that her innocence has won him over. Silentio writes that in this situation, the merman goes on to marry her. However, this is no simple choice. The merman cannot merely decide on a whim that disclosing himself to Agnes is a good idea. In order to come to the dialectical apex, the merman must first realize his own guilt. That is, he must realize that his sin makes him unworthy of Agnes, for she is perfectly innocent. Given this realization, what is the merman to do? How can he disclose himself and marry Agnes?

For the merman, repentance is what brings about the possibility of faith. He must repent in order to move past his sin. Given his repentance, the merman must then decide whether to disclose himself or to remain hidden. If he remains hidden then he enters into the demonic, but if he chooses to disclose himself to Agnes then he has the opportunity to enter into an absolute relationship to the absolute. In disclosing himself, the merman is making this double movement. As Keeley puts it, “Resignation is the last stage prior to faith, and repentance is a first possible sequel to sin.”28 So when we look at the actions of the merman, we first see him in sin. After sin, he enters a stage of repentance and that repentance can lead him into faith, but it can also lead him into the demonic if he does not disclose himself.

Silentio describes this act of disclosure by the merman similarly to the way that he describes the movement of faith. Speaking of the merman he writes, “Then he marries Agnes. He must, however, take refuge in the paradox. In other words, when the single individual by his guilt has come outside the universal, he can return only by virtue of having come as the single individual into an absolute relation to the absolute.”29 The merman’s guilt takes him outside of the ethical, and he chooses either to remain closed to Agnes, or to open up to her. The only way that the merman can re-enter into the ethical is by overcoming the ethical. Silentio describes this process as “entering into an absolute relation to the absolute.”

This should sound familiar to the descriptions that Silentio gives of the movement made by the knight of faith.30, 31 Indeed, Silentio even describes it as such when he says, “The merman, therefore, cannot belong to Agnes without, after having made the infinite movement of repentance, making one movement more: the movement by virtue of the absurd.”32 So the merman becomes the knight of faith when he discloses himself to Agnes. “But when repentance and Agnes both gain possession of his soul, the merman expressed the more difficult movement. It is this latter movement that is comparable to the movement of faith. In it, he expresses the universal (by marrying Agnes).”33 He becomes the knight of faith because he has no reason to think that disclosure will bring about a positive outcome. Instead, he has faith by virtue of the absurd. It is certainly beyond the bounds of reason to think that the merman would gain the love of Agnes, one who is perfectly innocent, by disclosing to her his sinful past and the perverse desire that he had to seduce her. He believes, for reasons that surpass the understanding, that by disclosing himself he will gain Agnes, just as Abraham believes that he will gain Isaac through obeying God’s order to sacrifice him. So the merman is able to make the same movement of faith that we see in Abraham, though they both are acting under very different circumstances.34 Thus by looking at Agnes, we come to understand both Abraham and the knight of faith to a fuller extent.

Silentio’s descriptions of the merman after he has disclosed himself are strikingly similar to those that he gives of the knight of faith. In the act of disclosing himself to Agnes, the merman makes the movement of the absurd, which is precisely what Silentio targets as being the unique identifier of the knight of faith, for it is what separates the knight of faith from the knight of resignation. Describing the merman who discloses himself Silentio claims, “then he is the greatest human being I can imagine.” He goes on to say, “The merman, therefore, cannot belong to Agnes without, after having made the infinite movement of repentance, making one movement more: the movement by virtue of the absurd.”35 Silentio describes the knight of faith in much the same way.36 The knight of faith makes the infinite movement and then continues on to make the movement of the absurd.

If Silentio claims that he can, “understand the movements of the merman,”37 then by connecting the merman with the knight of faith, we have made the knight of faith understandable, which is something that Silentio explicitly denies as a possibility when he also denies that his parables could help us understand Abraham.38 Thus we have an apparent incongruity in that the portrayal of the merman pegs him as a knight of faith, but the claim that we can understand the merman disqualifies him as a knight of faith.

I see two possible resolutions to this problem. The first, and least appealing, is to claim that Silentio simply is being inconsistent. Maybe we can understand the knight of faith and the character of Abraham even though he claims we cannot. Similarly, maybe he’s doing a very poor job at describing the merman, who is less intelligible than Silentio indicates. While this is a distinct possibility, it feels like a cop-out: if we are to take Kierkegaard seriously then we should begin by seriously considering the possibility that apparent misunderstandings reveal more about our own understanding and less about the shortcomings of the thinker.

The second way to resolve this problem is to distinguish between what we can and cannot know about the merman. Even when Silentio describes the merman’s act of disclosure, he describes it as an act of the absurd, which is to say that it is an act that defies reason or the understanding. To that end, some of the actions of the merman cannot be understood. Try as I might, I cannot fully understand why the merman would disclose himself. However, I can understand the rest of his predicament in a way that I cannot understand Abraham’s. The merman is in sin, a condition with which all humans are very familiar. So I can understand, to an extent, the path that the merman took though I still cannot understand the movement by virtue of the absurd, the movement that is unique to the knight of faith. Thus, with the merman, as with Abraham, I am only left in amazement, a sentiment that Silentio echoes when he claims that the merman is “the greatest human being I can imagine.”

Examining Agnes also gives us some insight into Silentio’s thoughts concerning salvation and its relationship to sin. By moving from sin into faith the merman achieves his salvation.39 We first encounter sin in the merman parable, but we also first encounter salvation, for salvation only appears when one needs to be saved from sin. The merman’s movements seem to belong both to him and to Agnes. While he is the one who repents, his guilt is only apparent when he faces her innocence. He could not have recognized his sin and entered into guilt were she anything less than perfectly innocent. Agnes appears to be responsible for giving the merman the “condition” that Climacus later describes in Philosophical Fragments.40 Given this condition, the merman repents and then decides to make the movement of faith. But how is this accomplished? Silentio writes, “He can make the movement of repentance under his own power, but he also uses absolutely all his power for it and therefore cannot possibly come back under his own power and grasp actuality again.”41 Silentio here remarks that though repentance is within our power, salvation is not. It takes all of the merman’s power to repent. He cannot make the movement of the absurd once he has repented, for he has already done everything in his power. This movement is made from outside of him. We can imagine Agnes coaxing out a confession from the merman once he has repented. He tells her that he only wanted to show her the sea, and she asks if that is all. She tells him that he can trust her, that if he has to admit something to her, he can. The merman is at a loss once he has repented, but Agnes is not. Agnes can still bring the merman to faith by transforming the merman from a closed individual to an open individual via her own openness and the promise of forgiveness. In this possible exchange we are able to glimpse Silentio’s thoughts concerning salvation and its relationship to sin: Repentance combined with disclosure is an act of faith, the response to which is the possibility of salvation.

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