First Reformed

The strange spectres of Kierkegaard and Derrida

Cinema has a strange way of speaking philosophically. First Reformed – a film by Paul Schrader – (2018) is a redux of Ingmar Bergman’s (1963) Winter Light. I had mentioned this film – in passing – in a previous column because it struck me the first time I watched it a year ago. I decided to watch it again to see why the film stayed with me – psychically – for so long. The film brings up deeply theological and philosophical themes. Reverend Toller is a tormented man. He doubts everything. He doubts his calling, his faith, his faith in the institution of the church. His is a life of failure: a failed marriage to a woman he despises, his son killed in the Iraq war, his failed life as a military chaplain and his failings to act when he thought he should in the face of corporate power, greed and the coming of ecological catastrophe.

First Reformed brings up the strange spectres of Kierkegaard and Derrida. Of course, Kierkegaard and Derrida couldn’t be more different. However, First Reformed serves as Le Tiers-Instruit, or the third-instructed – as Michel Serres might put it. This film – as I interpret it – opens a space between Kierkegaard and Derrida; it brings to mind a third way of thinking. Cinema, theology and philosophy and the delayed and deferred meaning of the film – as Derrida would put it through his concept différance – make up that third-instructed hermeneutic. But it isn’t that the three genres in and of themselves reflect the third-instructed, but rather it is the delayed and deferred meaning, the residue left over, the after-thought, the remainder lingering in the psyche, the spectre, not of Marx or Freud (as Derrida has written about both) but the spectre of that third something, that third kind of knowledge that comes at the intersection of an aporia. The film lingers, its haunts. The images – Jung said – are what speak in dreams. The images from First Reformed – somehow intertwine with music – reminiscent of Genesis’ (1974) haunting lyrics ‘Silent sorrows in empty boats’ from the album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Images and words, cinema and music, are not disconnected but rather deeply intertwined. Meaning delayed. A haunting. A repetition. A doubling-back. A haunting film; a haunting album.

Kierkegaard writes about Repetition. But that is not what I address here. Rather, what comes to mind is Kierkegaard’s insistence that ‘truth is subjectivity,’ that truth is ‘inwardness’: his response to Hegel’s ‘misfortun[ate]’ speculative philosophy which puts the human under erasure.

Reverend Toller – the Kierkegaardian ‘Knight of Faith’ – in First Reformed – says that he will keep a diary for one year and will write down everything that comes to mind – no matter how repulsive – as a form of penance. After a year has passed, he says that he will destroy the diary. The diary is a reflection of torment. Although he enacts Kierkegaard’s ‘Knight of Faith,’ he has lost his faith, mostly, in himself. Beckett said: ‘fail better.’ Reverend Toller has, indeed, heeded Beckett’s call to ‘fail better.’

Derrida – in ‘The Future of the Profession or the Unconditional University (Thanks to the “Humanities,” What Could Take Place Tomorrow) – suggests that he is making an ‘appeal in the form of a profession of faith.’ Derrida writes of having faith in the university-to-come, in a Humanities to-come, in what he calls the unconditional university to-come. Yet, the unconditional university has not yet arrived.

The institution of the university – like the institution that is the church – has failed us, or perhaps we have failed the institution. The unconditional university – like the unconditional church – is one that is not beholden to corporate power, to what Derrida calls State powers, to what Derrida calls international capital. Yet both the institution of the university (built on philosophical ideas) and the institution of the church (built on theological ideas) are, in fact, beholden to the powers of capital and the State. Countering that, Derrida’s dream of the unconditional institution is one that is not beholden to the powers of capital or the powers of the State.

The problem is, is that these institutions remain spectres of the impossible, of the conditional. A profession of faith to the professoriate or the priesthood is indeed conditional. These are two impossible professions. Freud said that psychoanalysis was an impossible profession. It still is, and, in fact, it is disappearing altogether as a profession. The disappearance of the professoriate and the priesthood are real and present dangers as the humanities – Derrida’s major concern – is evaporating. ‘Silent sorrow in empty boats.’ Those strange lyrics speak to this silent sorrow of loss and haunting of everything gone wrong with the university and the church.

Derrida – being the Messianic philosopher that he was – had faith in the profession of the professoriate, and he had faith in the future of the university as the possibility of an unconditional university-to come. The freedom to pursue all lines of inquiry, to speak truth to power, to write as truth-seekers – all of this Derrida said was to-come. He hoped for a future that differs from what is in the now.

However, Doubting Thomas hovers in the background. Ingmar Berman’s (1963) Winter Light dealt mostly with the failed profession of the priesthood against the backdrop of nuclear annihilation. After the advent of 1945, continued nuclear proliferation that resulted in the deaths of many in the deserts of Utah, the unleashing of cancer from nuclear labs in California even now, nuclear power plants dotting the American landscape glossed as clean energy, still shocks.

In First Reformed, a young man requests Reverend Toller’s counsel and presence. The young man – a desperate ecological activist – explains that the planet is in peril. The dangers of ecological devastation of catastrophic proportions are upon us. But corporate greed, greenhouse gases, dependency on fossil fuels – at the expense of the very survival of the earth – drives the activist to despair: he dies by suicide the day after he confesses his own failures as an ecological activist to Reverend Toller.

Reverend Toller is plagued by guilt after the young man’s suicide. He asks himself what he could have done differently, how he could have answered him differently. This is reminiscent of the young man who visits with Martin Buber, who, shortly after speaking with Buber, dies by suicide. This suicide – Buber tells us –changed the way in which he worked as an intellectual, a theologian and philosopher. Buber felt that his head was in the clouds – he was too removed from the human. He had not listened to the young man because he did not know how. After that terrible incident, Buber’s philosophical work was radically altered by the young man’s suicide. Buber’s mother abandoned him when he was but a child. He felt – at some level – that he, too, had abandoned the young man who came to speak with him because he did not know how to listen. Repetition compulsion has a way of replaying itself as a haunting impersonal force that is beyond one’s conscious awareness or seeming control.

The young man who requests to speak with Reverend Toller asks: ‘Will God forgive us for what we have done to the earth?’ Reverend Toller responds: ‘Who knows what is in the mind of God.’

A family grieves over the death of their son, who dies by suicide during the COVID pandemic. This violence is a continual fallout over the horrors that we face globally – right now – and for the unforeseeable future. Or do we have a future at all? The young man who requests to speak with Reverend Toller says that pandemics are inter-connected to global warming, over-population, the building of dams, nuclear accidents, the reliance on gas and oil, fossil fuel and the rest. Our pandemic was yet-to-come, as Paul Schrader produced First Reform in 2018. ‘Will God forgive us for what we have done to the earth?’ Or is there a God at all. Doubting Thomas.

A family in grief over the death of their son who dies by suicide addresses the chaplain: why did this happen? How can the chaplain have an answer? The father just wanted an answer. Anything, say anything. Don’t say anything. Let the silence speak. The father begs the chaplain for an answer: Why did this happen? Groping for words, the chaplain repeats the lines from First Reformed ‘Who knows what is in the mind of God?’ The father looks at the chaplain, looks at the ground and crosses his chest. The answer – even though taken from a line in cinema – did something to the father who lost his son by suicide. What that something is, I shall never know.

I was that chaplain. And, yes, this is a story based on something that really happened. And, then, like Reverend Toller, the guilt set in. Was that wrong? Did I say the wrong thing? Couldn’t I have said something I really believed or felt? I had to say something. Or perhaps I could have carried on in silence. But the demand reminded me of Martin Buber’s lack of response to the young man who came to see him, and, shortly afterward, the young man died by suicide. I never charted these words in the medical record, nor did I confide in my supervisor. I felt too guilty that I had done something terrible. But the paradox of the lie – that I really did not believe what I had just said – is that it gave the father a sense of relief as he crossed himself. But giving people relief and consolation is not supposed to be my job. And, yet, I did just that. Like Reverend Toller, I did not know what else to do. To not respond, or to respond? To say nothing, or do something? I felt like I failed. Or did I?

Before Derrida died, he was asked whether being a philosopher helped him to live. Derrida remarks that he never learned to live, nor did he learn how to die. The philosopher’s stone – that we study philosophy in order to know how to prepare for death – is another lie. Neither philosophy nor theology prepares us for the future-to-come. As a chaplain, I have seen so much death, not only because of the pandemic but because there are a million things that lead to death. I have seen things no one should ever see.

I think of the character of Reverend Toller almost every day. The scribe, the loner, the deeply troubled soul. He has seen too much. A failed military chaplain; a son who died in the Iraq war, the war of lies. Reverend Toller said that the military was a family tradition and that he encouraged his son to enlist. But it turned out that we were lied to. There were no weapons of mass destruction. That war raged on in the service of corporate greed, turning profits from the plundering of oil.

And yet. I read Derrida and Kierkegaard – and despite their own (interior) Doubting Thomas(s) – both remain in the third-instructed, ‘Le Tiers-Instruit.’ This is the third space between doubt and the Messianic will-to-believe in the future-to-come, to democracy-to-come, to what Derrida calls his ‘appeal’ to the ‘profession of faith’ –the professoriate, to his faith in the unconditional university – to come. In the paradox of the impossible space of the university and or the church as it is – as staid institutions that mirror all the wrongs of the times in which we live – Derrida hoped that one day, there could be a university and professoriate to-come that could be unconditional; a place where intellectuals could do the work that they were called to do, without the interference of state power or the capital that drives the curriculum in the wrong direction in order only to get more capital and in turn drive the curriculum down the wrong path.

Kierkegaard – who identified with the biblical Abraham – was himself the ‘Knight of Faith’ despite the horrors of what he called Christendom, false piety and Sunday churchgoers who had no idea what Christianity really demanded. The cross signifies struggle, suffering, the weight of living as a seeker of truth. Truth comes hard. And truth comes at a price.

But sometimes the lie is the truth, and the truth is the lie, and it becomes difficult to know which way to turn in an upside-down world where Kant’s categorical imperatives do not always work out for the best and certainly do not make for the best of all possible worlds, as Leibniz put it. Post-truth is not the same – however, as telling a lie that prevents yet another suicide. Often after the death of a child – especially if it is by suicide – the parent, in a move of repetition (as Kierkegaard might call it), turns around and does the same. Sometimes the chaplain has to do things that are counter to the profession in order to save a life. This is a paradoxical situation, to say the least. The life of a chaplain is one of continual struggle and doubt. Did I do the right thing? Did my silence and control really allow the patient to speak? Or do our actions or words matter at all? A chaplaincy without condition is one where options are open and doubt plagues.

Deep in my heart, I have always been a Kierkegaardian. I dabbled in Hegel for a while, but he only gave me a headache. The deeper into the trenches of chaplaincy I went, the farther away I moved from Hegel and the closer I moved toward Kierkegaard, even though I am not a Christian. My unwavering faith in the work of Derrida has only grown stronger as I, too, identify with a man who sought new ways of thinking in a world that was only inhospitable to the new. Derrida – like many of the Hebrew prophets – was excoriated, publicly humiliated, exiled from mainstream philosophy. And yet, there are those of us who have taken up the call that Derrida professed.

I straddle between a Kierkegaardian and Derridean humanism; I have become, in fact, hopelessly humanist. I realize that the appeal to humanism – Derridean humanism – has been in response to my work – not as a professor per se – but as a chaplain in the face of so many deaths. Philosophy and theology both deal with the impossible: with the very thought of death, with the very thought of how one is to live a life. To theorize and philosophize about the things that matter is the matter at hand. And as Adorno once said, philosophy should speak of what it is not; philosophy should speak of its Other. The Other, for me, is cinema and the arts. Although cinema is not philosophy, it raises philosophical and theological issues that do matter. William James once said that if philosophical ideas make no difference to a life, why bother? Like Kierkegaard, James was extremely bothered by the ridiculous drive toward epistemological arguments that were meaningless. His famous example of the squirrel running around a tree – as if it matters why or how the squirrel runs or whether the tree is really standing in one place or moving with the squirrel – is a parody of the very foundation of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Does the table exist? What is a proof for the existence of God? James found philosophical arguments without meaning, simply without merit. James and Kierkegaard have fallen out of fashion, it seems. It is rare to see positions in the Chronicle of Higher Education for either Kierkegaardians or Jamesians, with few exceptions. I was surprised to see a recent position in The Chronicle for an Endowed Kierkegaard Professorship in the United States.

First Reformed is a film worth watching and re-watching. Reverend Toller reads Thomas Merton – the Trappist monk who was also a writer of note; some compare his The Seven Storey Mountain to Augustine’s Confessions. Merton was – strangely – a political activist during the Vietnam War. Toller identified with Merton – a man of many doubts right up to the day he took his vows as a Trappist monk. The Trappists live in silence; they do not speak at meals. Merton felt torn between his profession of Monk and his call to write. He doubted himself all along the way. I, too, identify with Merton, not because I am a Christian, but because I too doubt all along the way. Straddling between the professoriate and the chaplaincy, I live in that third space, ‘Le Tiers-Instruit.’ I live between the theoretical and boots on the ground, facing death, loss and grief in real time. As Adorno pointed out, theory and praxis are not two and to think that they are is to commit the sin of the ‘reification of consciousness.’ It is easier to live in a cut and dry, this or that world: A world of polarized thinking, the kind of thinking Derrida railed against. It is much more difficult to hold two contradictory positions in one’s head at the same time. It is even more difficult to live two contradictory lives at one time. The professoriate and the profession of the chaplain couldn’t be more different. And yet, the commitment to the faith of both professions remains. The professoriate is a tormented calling because Derrida’s unconditional university has not yet come, nor will it come in my lifetime. The university-to come, without condition, is perhaps for the next generation or the generation after that. The humanities-to-come might be a fleeting dream, something that intellectuals can only hope for. The corporatization of the university, the drive toward capital and the demands of the state seem always already in the way of the university without condition, as Derrida put it. Will God forgive us for what we have done to the university, or what the university has done to the professoriate? Even if the professoriate is a calling, fighting the good fight – as Antonio Gramsci put it – seems an impossible task. The professoriate is an impossible profession.

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Full Citation Information:
Morris, M. (2021). First Reformed: The strange spectres of Kierkegaard and Derrida. PESA Agora.

Marla Morris

Marla is Professor of Curriculum, Foundations & Reading, in the College of Education, Statesboro Campus, Georgia Southern University, GA, USA. She studied philosophy at Tulane University, religious studies at Loyola University, New Orleans and Education at Louisiana State University. Her main interests are postmodern philosophy, psychoanalysis, curriculum studies and systematic theology. She has published papers on Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, Michel Serres, Simone de Beauvoir,  drawing extensively on the work of Gaston Bachelard and Donna Haraway. Marla has also worked in Holocaust studies, trauma studies, medical humanities and chaplaincy.