Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

When did Kierkegaard change my life?

Posted on: April 22, 2021

At what moment does the butterfly spread its wings and change the history of the world?

How does the moment of conception determine which soul shall live?

Now that lockdown is being lifted and many off us are so fortunate as to be vaccinated, my eldest daughter came inside my flat and we looked at my oil paintings, the oldest of which was a portrait of Kierkegaard which I painted in about 1971, copied from a drawing by Niels Christian Kierkegaard, the philosopher’s cousin. My signature, Gillian Pressman, is on the picture, the only one of my paintings to be signed with my maiden name.

I reminded my daughter that this picture led to her birth.

I was an undergraduate, living in the women’s block of a hall of residence. Late one night, early in th autumn term of my final year, I walked along to the communal kitchen, to wash up some coffee cups. Two girls and a boy were in the kitchen. The girls looked young and schoolgirlish to me, a seasoned twenty-two year old, but the boy, who wore tie dyed jeans and had long dark blond hair, watched attentively from an oblique stance. One of the girls introduced him as Robert and he spoke with a New York accent saying, ‘I come here over here sometimes to talk about Kierkegaard…’

‘Kierkegaard!’ I repeated., pouncing on the name. ‘I’ve painted him. The picture’s in my room; come and see it.’

In my memory, the two girls melt away and I’ve never known if they were friends of Robert or if some other consideration had brought him to our communal kitchen. The upshot was that he came to see the picture; we drank some whisky and talked until the sun rose.

The next morning my friend Hilary and I were walking in a nearby park where you could see wallabies. There we ran into Robert and his friend Phil. These were our husbands to be and eventually ex-husbands to be.

My first born daughter was conceived in the very room where the picture of Kierkegaard was displayed. I graduated, married Robert and we had two daughters during our not very long marriage. Subsequently, Robert made a happy remarriage and lives at present in New York, speaking by phone or zoom at least once a week to our two daughters and grandson here in London.

What if there had been no painting of Kierkegaard? Would some other elective affinity have brought us into each other’s orbits? Within the first half minute, the evidence was that Robert was a Jewish intellectual with a slight resemblance to Gustav Mahler whose looks I greatly admired. And to Robert, who was younger than me, I was no doubt the kind of wordy, worldy woman he had hoped to meet since his recent arrival at this English university.

Why had I painted Kierkegaard? When I was fourteen, I bought myself an introductory book about existentialism, in Foyles Bookshop. I wanted to study philosophy, especially those existentialists: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger and Sartre and, when the time came around, I did study philosophy, but in the UK in the 1970s they liked the Anglo-Saxons: Russell, Moore, Ryle, Austin, Hare, Strawson, Winch, Putnam – who are not really household names now, except perhaps for Bertrand Russell.

The brightest star in the firmament of the Philosophy Department was, for me, Dr Wolfe Mays, who had been a student of Wittgenstein in Cambridge and who now taught phenomenology, as well as philosophy of science. In my final year, I did Dr Mays’s course on Heidegger’s Being and Time and indefensibly used to fill his room with my cigarette smoke, causing him to open the window while uttering a polite cough. There were four or five of us in the group and, in our spare time, we delighted in beginning the most banal of sentences with the phrase ‘Proximally and for the most part…’ lifted from the MacQuarrie and Robinson translation of Sein und Zeit. Dr Mays introduced us to Dr Angela Rose, not much older than us undergraduates, who ran a course on Kierkegaard which we attended although this was not for examination or academic credit.

My painting must have been in existence by that time as I painted only in my second year when I was living in a student house and not at all in the hall of residence, in my third year.

Why, at fourteen, did I buy a book about existentialism? Was it because my friend’s impressive older brother had books about existentialism on his bookshelves? Was this the butterfly wing: my perusal of books belonging to my friend’s brother, who had attractive grey eyes?

In truth, everything is a butterfly wing, creating worlds and begetting peoples.

Certain philosophical questions seem to me to be beyond the ken of philosophers, despite the libraries of books written about them. One is free will and determinism. Some will say everything is determined down to the last detail, others that such determinations have little to do with the lived experience of making choices. In the Pirke Avot tractate of the two thousand year old Mishnah, the sages say: ‘Everything is foreseen but freewill is given.’

הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה (Avot 3:15)

They observe the paradox, while accepting that it can’t be side-stepped.

Another question which is open to eternity is how it is that we each inhabit our own life and only that life. We may be more fully invested in the life of others, for reasons of love or something else, but we live and die in one body. ‘The being who asks the meaning of being’ is how Heidegger described humans, the Dasein for whom its own existence is an issue, who cares and is consumed with anxiety over the matter of its being and inevitable non being.

Proximally and for the most part, these questions and his answers, such as they were, didn’t result in Heidegger leading a moral or altruistic life, so what was the point, I’d like to to know.

2 Responses to "When did Kierkegaard change my life?"

Proximally and for the most part your blog is thought-provoking and informative as always. Thank you for sharing.

Knowing you is one of the few positives I take from my brief experience of Twitter. God bless you!

Thank you Keith, glad you read and liked it. Proximally and for the most part, Twitter continues to be a hellhole.

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  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thank you Keith x
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thank you Keith, glad you read and liked it. Proximally and for the most part, Twitter continues to be a hellhole.
  • Keith Marr: Proximally and for the most part your blog is thought-provoking and informative as always. Thank you for sharing. Knowing you is one of the few pos
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