As every good reviewer knows, one should never judge a book by its cover. If one were to ignore that rule then the Penguin Great Ideas edition of Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard would garner the highest praise. The cover design of slightly embossed text is plain but beautiful and, unlike many publishers these days, Penguin employs typesetters who understand the importance of ligatures. This is a book that feels wonderful and is a joy to look at.
No, one should never judge a book by its cover. The only sound way to review a book is by its smell. Open it up and bury your nose in its pristine pages – only then will you truly know whether the book in your hand is worth a second glance. A book may have many smells: knowledge, excitement, adventure, romance, paper, ink and glue. Mainly paper, ink and glue I concede. Try it for yourself. Grab your favourite novel and, lets say, the Microsoft Windows user manual. The Windows manual will probably have you reaching for a bucket – which is entirely appropriate considering the subject matter. Fear & Trembling, on the other hand, smells unexciting but mind expanding which I put down to the high solvent content of its raw material.
I mentioned earlier that Fear and Trembling is a joy to look at. It isn’t, however, a joy to read. That isn’t to say that it’s not interesting – but it is a bit of a headful and it’ll take longer to read than its diminutive 152 pages suggest. I’m a fast reader, I can polish off the Lord of the Rings in a week (although I admit that I do tend to skip the dire poetry and the boring battles, which helps). It took me the same amount of time to read Fear and Trembling, because I’d reach the end of a section and, realising that I hadn’t fully grasped the concepts, have to reread it. If you have no interest in philosophy and theology then you probably won’t want to put the necessary effort in and if, like me, you’re an amateur in the field then you’d be better off dipping into it rather than reading it in one go.
It’s a dangerous book too, because it doesn’t present a cut-and-dried philosophy for the reader to accept or ignore. It retells and then dismantles the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, subjecting it to the kind of forensic analysis that’ll boil the blood of any dyed in the wool ‘it’s in the Bible so it must be true’ zealot. It considers whether Abraham’s faith was justified and whether or not he was on ethically sound ground. There are people who attempt filicide today, claiming that their offspring are demonically possessed or that they were acting under orders from God. We, rightly, lock them up for the loonies that they are, but how are they any different from Abraham? Of course, the Bible, and the Old Testament in particular, is full of nasty, violent, prejudiced and contradictory claptrap. The intelligent mind questions it and excises the poison from the basic worthwhile message, but one can understand how the socio and psychopathically inclined (think of Alex from A Clockwork Orange or any number of real life cult leaders) are drawn to it like flies to rotting meat. All Kierkegaard does is shine a light on this paradox. According to Kierkegaard, Abraham chooses faith (do as God says, unquestioningly) over morals (thou shalt not kill). In doing so, Abraham surrenders free choice and becomes an automaton for another Mind. Even today, there are zealots in every creed who claim that, like Abraham, their faith is the most important thing in their lives. Like Kierkegaard I’d argue that they are dangerous and that the world would be better if they lived their lives morally instead. A truly faithful person can abdicate responsibility for their actions and commit the most appalling atrocities.
I’ve long believed that one should never accept only one point of view and that everything should be questioned – and Kierkegaard goes far beyond my own limited enquiries. Fear and Trembling should be read by anyone, of any faith, who claims to have any interest, however limited, in religion. It is not an easy read but, if nothing else, it’s laid out nicely and it smells quite pleasant.