Denial of the Sickness Unto Death as Definitive of Sin

Before Freud and Lacan, Søren Kierkegaard (SK) provided us with a depth psychology which exceeds secular psychoanalysis in both its powers of diagnosis and its prescription of a cure. SK arrives at a definition of sin which Lacan recognizes is the precursor to his own theory focused on the dynamics of a lie. In Lacanian theory the Subject can only exist under the dynamic (antagonistic) interplay of the symbolic (language or the law) and the ego. The real or the death drive, which describes the inherent alienation of these two realms, is something like the continual negation of a lie as part of the constitution of human subjectivity. There is no dispelling the lie in Lacanian theory as the Subject literally depends upon this deception for existence. SK offers an alternative understanding to the infinite negativity of deception.

In The Sickness Unto Death SK describes how the disease humans have contracted is entangled with death but is not death per se. Like Lacan, he notes that the problem is not so much in death as it is in a certain incapacity to die. Death as the end point of dying does not really get at the problem, which might be described as a dying that cannot attain its end. Both Kierkegaard and Lacan recognize that it is in the incapacity to die that the compulsion to repeat takes hold. Kierkegaard notes, with the case of Lazarus, that though he had died what he suffered from was not the sickness unto death. “Oh, but even if Christ had not awakened Lazarus from the dead, is it not true that this sickness, that death itself, was not a sickness unto death?” Kierkegaard’s point is that a distinction must be made between the sickness and death itself. “But even if Christ had not said these words — merely the fact that He, who is ‘the resurrection and the life’ (11: 25), comes to the grave, is not this a sufficient sign that this sickness is not unto death, does not the fact that Christ exists mean that this sickness is not unto death?” What he rescues us from is illustrated in the resurrection of Lazarus. We suffer from a disease that is much more than the failure of the body.

There is a suffering that we undergo which is worse than death and worse than the suffering and pain which lead up to death. In the Christian understanding, according to SK, death is not the sickness unto death nor is earthly and temporal suffering, in its various phases, the sickness unto death: “want, sickness, wretchedness, affliction, adversities, torments, mental sufferings, sorrow, grief” – none of these are the disease. “And even if such things are so painful and hard to bear that we men say, or at all events the sufferer says, ‘This is worse than death’ — everything of the sort, which, if it is not a sickness, is comparable to a sickness, is nevertheless, in the Christian understanding of it, not the sickness unto death.” The precise nature of the disease is one, according to SK, that can be gotten at only through a Christian understanding. “Christianity has discovered an evil which man as such does not know of; this misery is the sickness unto death.”

SK gives a precise name to the disease – “despair.” Despair can take several forms but in these forms the problem is the same problem: “Despair is a Sickness in the Spirit, in the Self” in which there is a refusal or failure to be a self. This despair has primarily to do with one’s relation within the self – between what SK calls the relation between the body and the soul. “In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul.” What some have taken to be ironic on SK’s part is actually a fairly precise arrival at what Lacan calls the “real.” There is an antagonism built into the human self-relation which is definitive of the human disease and Lacan calls this force of negativity the death drive. Both SK and Lacan assign the primary importance, not to any one element of the relation (soul or body or the symbolic and ego) but to the dynamics of the relation or to the negative unity (death drive) of the Lacanian “real” or to what Paul calls “the body of sin” or “the body of death.” The conflict between the law (the symbolic) and the “I” (the ego) is constituted in the third term: “the body of death” or “the body of sin.” The body of death or death drive is an orientation of the “I” to itself with “itself” objectified through the law.

SK makes a move at this point which psychoanalysis has not and, perhaps, cannot take. Lacan and Žižek give ultimate power to this third term. It is the most mysterious and unapproachable of their three categories but, in its essence, it is an absence or a negative force which accounts for human subjectivity. But in their understanding this is as far as we can go. The psychotherapist can attempt to manipulate this third term but it cannot be undone or positively accounted for.

SK suggests that this absence can be accounted for. “If this relation which relates itself to its own self is constituted by another, the relation doubtless is the third term, but this relation (the third term) is in turn a relation relating itself to that which constituted the whole relation.” He acknowledges that the relation can be constituted in a negative unity (the real, the body of sin or the body of death) but he also offers another possibility: The one “which constituted the whole relation.” “This formula [i.e. that the self is constituted by another] is the expression for the total dependence of the relation (the self namely), the expression for the fact that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation.” The death drive or the real (the body of sin) takes on the look of the infinite in that it is God that is displaced in this negative self-relation. One can either posit an infinite power of absence or the positive power of God as the driving force – the third term within the self.

In this sense, despair can be seen as the worst possible condition but also as a pointer to something beyond itself. “So then it is an infinite advantage to be able to despair; and yet it is not only the greatest misfortune and misery to be in despair; no, it is perdition.” The capacity for the infinite makes despair something on the order of a negative infinite force that informs about or points to the nature of the absence. This negative force is one which is continually being leveraged or enacted by the one in despair. SK differentiates despair from a disease in that a disease is contracted and then runs its course. Despair, however, is continually being contracted by the orientation of the one in despair. With despair, every actual instant of despair is contracted in the present tense: “nothing comes to pass here as a consequence of a bygone actuality superseded; at every actual instant of despair the despairer bears as his responsibility all the foregoing experience in possibility as a present.” In more prosaic terms, the past is immediately brought to bear on the present through a continual act of the will contracting the disease of sin.

SK compares the torment of despair to the situation of the moribund “when he lies and struggles with death, and cannot die.” Freud refers to it as “moral masochism.” The continual punishment which one brings to bear on himself is a continual pronouncement of the death penalty on one who cannot obtain the goal of paying the price of the penalty. To be sick unto death is not to be able to die so that “even the last hope, death, is not available.” “When death is the greatest danger, one hopes for life; but when one becomes acquainted with an even more dreadful danger, one hopes for death.” When the suffering is so great that death has become one’s last hope, “despair is the disconsolateness of not being able to die.” It is this disconsolateness taken up into the self and continually repeated or enacted which constitutes despair. SK refers to it as an “agonizing contradiction.” “For dying means that it is all over, but dying the death means to live to experience death; and if for a single instant this experience is possible, it is tantamount to experiencing it forever.” This infinite despair, as SK describes it, seems to follow both Paul and John in their depiction of suffering under the law of sin and death as a continually enacted fear or self-torment. This fear is its own punishment continually enacted upon the self by the self.

In the Lacanian description of the death drive it is the continual repetitive attempt to escape the death drive. In SK’s description, despair can no more be put to death than “the dagger can slay thoughts.” One would slay the thoughts or be consumed by this despair but “this worm dieth not and this fire is unquenchable.” It is an “impotent self-consumption” in which the appetite to consume the self is infinite. It is this that keeps the gnawing pain alive and keeps life in the pain: “he cannot consume himself, cannot get rid of himself, cannot become nothing.”

SK designates despair as a universal sickness. If this is the case one wonders why many people do not acknowledge that they suffer from this sickness? Kierkegaard explains that despair is a sickness that can remain hidden due to self-deception so that the one who is sick does not know about his or her sickness. Part One, section C.B.a. of Kierkegaard’s book deals with the despair that is ignorant or deceived in regard to being in despair. Deception in regard to despair creates indemnity against the possibility of rescue from despair. Deceived despair is the most dangerous form of despair because “the individual who in ignorance is in despair is in a way secured against becoming aware—that is, he is altogether secure in the power of despair.” Kierkegaard argues that one cannot deceive oneself without being guilty of it, for the confusion about oneself is caused by oneself. Self-deception involves ones will at the cost of one’s self-knowledge. Anton Hügli has called self-deception in Kierkegaard “an intentional not-wanting-to-know-that-ones-will-is-in-conflict.” This intentional not-wanting-to-know “supposes that I continuously have a consciousness and thus a knowledge of what I do not want to know?” Žižek refers to this as the primordial deception in that the very constitution of the self is in the conflict between the symbolic (or the law) and the ego. The deception is a necessary deception in that full recognition of the conflict would also expose the fact that one is conceived through conflict.

In SK’s description “to keep oneself in the dark” involves one in a life of evasive activities or diversions such as work and busyness. One’s entire effort is aimed at generating blindness to despair so as to “sink the soul into darkness.” The state of one’s consciousness is under contention in SK as one has willfully refused to know the truth. There is a dialectical interplay between knowing and willing that reflects Paul’s description of the wretched man unable to carry out what he wills and having a knowledge which he cannot act upon. In SK’s description the will is pitted against the knowing so that one remains ignorant. Merold Westphal has called this unconscious despair the despair of bad faith.

In this understanding, sin is primarily an affliction of despair allowed to exist under the guise of a deception. Truth, in this light, is the very specific truth which exposes this deception. Christ as truth or as the light penetrating the darkness exposes the despair of the sickness unto death. Enacting a resurrection life now is, in SK’s understanding, to displace the negative unity with the positive unifying power of the One which constituted the whole relation.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.