Adrift Amid Life's Uncertainties, or Much Ado About Nothing
14 September 1997


As the title of this paper suggests, we are about to witness the inescapable nothingness of being-in-the-world, as a sentient being amidst the tide of circumstances that governs reality.  In the end, the questions, and they are always questions, boil down to how one must live oneís life.  Should one choose, in Kierkegaard's scheme, an aesthetic life, an ethical life, or a religious life?  These 'levels of being' suggest modes of conduct, of behavior, of attitude, of morality (or lack of).  To summarize briefly, Kierkegaard regards these three divisions to be circular in nature with each wrapping around the other.  The aesthetic on the periphery, the ethical in the middle, and the religious taking control of the center, or itself being the telos of humanity's existenceóto be truly religious.  But not religious in the profane sense of the word, but something deeper and more ingrained in the subconscious of being--religious in sensing the deep loneliness, angst-ridden depths of human existence.  Kierkegaard sees the religious as being a momentary look inside our psyche, where we become very afraid of reality and we return outward to our prior mode of existence, be it in the ethical or the more superficial aesthetic level, where humanity spends most of its time, caught up in the merely flat, mundane, cyclical, reflectory images and representations of ourselves as seen by "them," by society.  The ethical level is a deeper understanding of man's role within himself and within the larger context of society.  This is where the individual truly sees himself as an individual, detached from "them" and trying to comprehend the exegetic nature of being.
Abraham Cahan's novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, provides me with an interesting example in which to discuss a possible application of Kierkegaard's scheme in determining where the protagonist of the novel, David Levinsky, lies in his philosophical outlook upon the important questions of existence, of "being-in-the-world" (Dasein ), to use Heidegger's phrase.  A pure application of Kierkegaard here is obviously not prudent, as Kierkegaard himself used the scheme on a merely theoretical level.  But I am going out on a limb here, and if I do not, then what is the point?

Cahan's book, being more than just a history of the rise of one man from poverty to riches, can be seen in many different ways.  One can concentrate on the merely aesthetic levels of narrative, form, content, style, etc.; or one could concentrate on its pure sociological value--a glimpse inside the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience in New York City at the turn of the century; or one can see it as a autobiographical or historical piece of one's trials and tribulations though the long march of life.  The possibilities are endless and every opportunity to explicate some  further meaning from the text is resourceful and valuable to scholarship in general.  My inquiry will take us into the depths of David Levinsky's philosophical weltanschauung, the ability of Levinsky to comprehend the impossibility of comprehending the intensity and complete archaic unity of existence.  What is at stake here is not just understanding Levinsky in time and place within history or even of him being a circumstance to it, but more importantly, to see if Levinsky himself, by his "Either/Or's" replaced himself with a representation of what he was or what he was to become by the process of "Americanization," or as I would like to call it "radical ideological assimilation."   I am going to leave Abraham Cahan, himself a rather enigmatic figure, out of the explication, and concentrate fully upon David Levinsky and the text as my primary source for my discussion.  Involving Cahan the author would invite difficulty in trying to limit the actual scope of the paper, though involving Cahan would obviously 'liven' things up quite a bit!

Levinsky begins by proclaiming his rather self-interested view of himself as being "recognized as one of the two or three leading men in the cloak-and-suit trade in the United States."   We see his insistence upon being recognized by his performative social position and the value annointed to him by this position.  But in the same paragraph, in fact, in the very next line, Levinsky deems it necessary to tell us of his main quandary in life: "My present station, power, the amount of worldly happiness at my command, and the rest of it, seem to be devoid of significance."   With this proclamation, we find the true "Either/Or" that is facing Levinskyóeither he can disregard the ontological truth of his existence and doubt for the rest of his life, or he can enjoy his Platonic pleasures, the "good life" he has created for himself, and the reality of his situation.  The rest of the book is, more or less, a rumination upon this theme, and develops into a rather interesting critique of capitalism and description of the American business environment at the turn of the century.
Levinsky, living under harsh rule in Russia, spends many of his waking hours studying the Talmud and preparing to be a Talmudic scholar.  His insistence in following this path is further reinforced by his devoted and giving mother who spends all her energy in providing for David's welfare.  This is not lost on the young Levinsky, as he willfully does everything to please his mother and further his standing within the scholarly atmosphere of Antomir, his town of residence.  His means are few and he survives on bare essentials, rarely getting the nourishment necessary to grow healthy and strong, as the Gentiles' and aristocrat's children do.  He is amazed by spectacle, especially the show of intellect.  For example, he would be "spellbound" by the military parades performed by the two regiments that were stationed in Antomir.  He was also rather jealous and competitive with those who's intellectual capacity or retaining power was greater than his.  David was so impressed by a Polish boy who could recite one thousand pages of Talmudic verse, that he challenged the boy to a competition and worked even harder in remembering and deciphering his passages.  In the end, his belligerent nature got him into a scuffle with the boy, in which Reb Sender, David's teacher and confidant, had to intervene before Levinsky and the Pole beat the living daylights out of each other.  David's insistence upon being the "best" and letting everyone know he is the best, is one of the important characteristics that remained with Levinsky throughout his life.  He insisted upon destroying and conquering all competition, be it in the scholastic realm or the business realm.  This turned out to be a important asset in the cutthroat garment industry in New York and allowed him to rise to the pinnacle of his trade.  But again, this is of superficial, aesthetic value because it remains a base characteristic in David's being.  It devalues his ethos and places him squarely in the realm of  the ordinary.  He made his decision early on in his youth, even before he came to America and transformed himself (or let himself be transformed) into the fierce robber baron of the garment industry.  The entire final Book of the novel is devoted to his ruminations over the unhappiness of his existence, though he is materially very wealthy and his stature in the garment industry is at its peak.

David was also keenly aware of the temptation of the aesthetic  by his constant meandering into erotic fantasy and his devaluation of women into either possible resources to be exploited, or soulmates that never panned out in reality.  His fantasy's, though innocent as they were, seen in the Talmudic tradition were temptations of Satan.  But Levinsky's outlook changed when he came to America and realized, in a  general, material view, that behind every man was a woman.  He necessarily adopted this stance in accordance with the popular, Americanized version of the female.  To become more American, which was his ultimate goal, he would have to adopt the secular relationships that men and women had with one another.  This meant that seeing every woman as a "fuck" was a normal, "American" thing to do.  Carefully eyeing every woman that passed, peering at their faces and figures, women, for Levinsky, took on the role of pure satisfaction of the most animal of instincts that remained somewhat dormant in him while in scholastic training in Antomir.  American ideology, along the lines of "whatever you can imagine you can achieve or have" also meant that all women were also within the realm of possibility.  Everything and everyone is up for grabs, and those who have the cunning of the aesthetic can achieve revelations beyond one's own imagination.
This myth of America, though seemingly real for Levinsky, is in synch  with his mental representation of the "spectacle" of America that began with reading letters in Russia to his actual physical entrance into New York Harbor and seeing the Statue of Liberty.  His incessant preoccupation with being, or becoming American does have some credence.  Levinsky wants to be the truest American he can possibly be.  This transformation entails changes in both his physical and mental "appearance" though he remains thoroughly entrenched in the Talmudic tradition of analysis, critique, self-examination, and constant reappraisals.  He, in a sense, uses Talmudic philosophy instrumentally in his everyday world view, though he is moving farther and farther away from the actual prescriptions that the Talmud imposed upon its believers.  Not only does this divide his inner soul even more, making him fragmented and rather self-conscious, but it allows him to give credence to the most superficial and trivial events that occur to him.  David relies on Talmudic analysis and applies it to his business, and to a greater extent his material success.  He deciphers the complex market economy of capitalism and sees its inherent flaws and works around them to maximize profits, while curtailing losses.  Levinsky has shrewd understanding of supply and demand, to the point where his tactics, resembling his youthful competitive drive (with some Spencer and Darwin thrown in for good measure) become ruthless and monopolistic.  He is becoming a "true" American and realizes that he has drifted farther and farther away from his heritage and his roots and closer to a simulacrum of himself.  His care for the people around him have diminished to the point where he views people as resources and as a market, and people view him, in the time-honored American way, as capital.  David concocts images of himself in others' heads, becoming his other and objectifying himself to himself, thus seeing the shallow man he has become.  But this is irrelevant to him because he is now an American.  He has attained the high level of wealth that defines American ingenuity, Yankee blood and sweatóthe aesthetic ideology realized in himself.
But Levinsky is also sharply divided to the point where he can no longer understand himself at all.  He has permutated in to an ethical apparition, whereby he has induced his own state of being in to one that cannot understand the loneliness of existence.  He peers over the precipice into nothingness and turns away confounded by what he sees.  He longs for a nostalgic return to his scholarly self, and wishes he had made the move to attend college and become an intellectual.  But in the same sense, whether in business or intellectual pursuits, one who does know himself is doomed to become a ghost of himself, getting blurrier and blurrier, until all he sees of himself is a car on the racetrack, going round and round, but not really getting anywhere.  Levinsky's entrance in to the ethical realm is wholly devoid of true reflection and relies simply upon the basis of performative grandeur.  Would I have been a better intellectual?  Or a doctor?  Or a lawyer?  He questions happiness only at the end, and this boils down to happiness as an opiate, an elixir to quell the hardships of reality, to live the "good life" (though not the Socratic "just life").   Levinsky never peers into the his religious core.  He was closest to it in his youth while seriously questioning possible motivations and ways of being.  But the material realities of life, as they always do, bore down upon his soul and he chose to follow his "Either/Or" into the oblivion of American success.
This view into the religious center of one's being is very difficult endeavor, for it exposes one's soul to oneself.  It illuminates the essential character of human existence which is the fact that we are all alone I the end.  We are born, we create lives and then, always in the horizon as the telos of human existence (as far as we know empirically), is the specter of death.  This realization is not made by everyone and is singularly different, according to Kierkegaard.  This move from the ethical realm to the religious realm is but a moment within time and space and remains, even to its executor, a mysterious event that sometimes cannot be explained without recourse to some ontological argument.  That is why Kierkegaard refers to it as the religious realm of being.  I don't believe that Levinsky actually made this move into the religious because of his concentration upon his lack of happiness.  That is purely on the aesthetic level for Kierkegaard and it remains until some underlying suppositions are questioned (i.e. the nature of happiness, which Levinsky never fully comprehends or even questions).  For Kierkegaard, the move from the ethical to the religious is a very difficult move because it entails destruction of the unconscious self, or at least a partial revealing.  He uses the example of the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac (father told to murder son because God says so, even though he loves his son more than life itself) to show what Kierkegaard calls the "teleological suspension of the ethical," or that momentary glimpse into the religious realm of being.

What would Levinsky see if he peered in to his own unconscious religious being?  Would he disdain his nothingness? Would he fear and tremble in its wake to the point of suicide (which for Kierkegaard is the ultimate price to pay for the moment of the religious)?  I don't know and any conjecturing on my part is a moot point.  But it is interesting to think about one how Levinsky might possibly react to a moment of complete and utter fear that shakes him to his core of being and demoralizes any sense of reality that he understands.  His equation of happiness to not being lonely is doomed to failure because as Kierkegaard would respond, if one does not know himself he will never be happy with another (this tenet is a major cause of angst in Kierkegaard's own life as he turned down the woman he loved for the life he led in lonely contemplation) and will justly cause nothing but pain for himself and the other.  One must always be comfortable with oneself before being able to comfort [an] other.  And this I believe is the major flaw of Levinskyóhe never took the chance to know himself before himself (himself as judge, jury, and executioner) and this in the end led to his "unhappy" pursuit  of being American and his longing for some nostalgic being-in-the-world that never culminated into the true "rise of David Levinsky."

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