From the Sickness Unto Death to Finding the Drug Lord in the Desert
Kierkegaard famously characterized despair as the “sickness unto death.” Clearly, Walter White is in despair, but how would Kierkegaard have understood this despair? According to Kierkegaard, there are three kinds of despair, and each of these corresponds with a stage along life’s way. The three stages are the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious.5 Because the aesthetic stage (associated with the perennial “libertine and seducer” Don Juan, depicted, for example, in Mozart’s 1787 opera Don Giovanni) may be characterized in terms of a willingness toward self-destruction, Kierkegaard suggests this is not “despair in the strict sense.” Thus, there are two forms of despair in the strict sense. The first coincides with the ethical stage, and an individual in this stage is known as the “Knight of Infinite Resignation” (KIR). The second coincides with the religious stage, and such an individual is known as the “Knight of Faith” (KOF).
Kierkegaard’s explication of these two forms of despair provides his understanding of the “self.” According to Kierkegaard,
A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. ... thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self. [Lastly,] such a relation that relates itself to itself, a self, must either have established itself or have been established by another. (Kierkegaard, 1980: 13).
We want to be clear on three points from the above. First, Kierkegaard indicates two different answers regarding the identity of the self. On the one hand, the self is a relation that relates itself to itself. This will be the first strict form of despair and the KIR. On the other hand, the self may be the relation that relates itself to itself while in relation to an absolute unchanging dimension. Whereas both types of selves may relate to others, only the latter enters into a relation with a being that does not change, that is, God.6
Second, because Kierkegaard understands human being to be spiritual, the relation between the “soul” and the “body” is “under the qualification of the psychical.” In other words, the body ultimately expresses the soul and the soul’s activity; therefore, concern for the soul takes primacy over concern for the body. Though it is true that for Kierkegaard, “Death erases all distinctions.,”7 the soul retains the quality (developed through embodied existence) of its relation to the absolute.8 Third, then, to the extent that the relation does not relate to the absolute, then the self has either “established itself” or allowed itself to be “established by another.”
What does this mean for Walt? With the terminal prognosis functioning as a kind of catalyst, it is as if Walt’s relations to the world and others become volatile, that is, de-stabilized. This crisis manifests as despair for Walt; however, he will ultimately need to choose which kind of despair it will be. Because he determines the meaning of his existential crisis in non-absolute terms, his self must be established by the “either/or” of itself or another. This is not the “lowest” third form of despair because he is not in despair that he has a self. Rather, he is “in despair not to will to be oneself.” In other words, Walt’s self may be characterized from a non-absolute perspective as a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher and “family man.” Walt’s decision to understand his existential situation in terms of the effect his death will have on his family ultimately constitutes his position as the KIR. That is, Walt resigns himself infinitely to tasks for, and duties to, others that have been established by his roles as a chemistry teacher and family man.
What would it look like for Walt to be characterized from the absolute perspective? This would entail his thinking of himself in terms of his relation to God, thereby accepting the primacy of that relation over worldly embodied concerns. This is, of course, easier said than done. Had Walt understood love and death absolutely in terms of harmonizing his will with the absolute, that is God willing his death, he would have taken the position of the KOF and could have understood his death as an act of absolute love. That is to say, in the religious stage the self is established in absolute terms by its relation to God, but in the ethical stage the self is established in relative terms in relation to worldly beings. In the aesthetic stage the self is characterized nihilistically in terms of its resistance or reluctance to be characterized at all, that is, it is neither the KIR nor the KOF.
The ambiguity, and perhaps even the ambivalence, of the aesthetic allows for it to be understood as a resistance to both the KIR and the KOF. But if the aesthetic is characterized in terms of “de-stabilization,” then it would be appropriate to characterize it as the “shadow” of the KIR, not of the KOF. This is important not only because the KOF may also be understood as a de-stabilization of the KIR, but rather because in echoing the aesthetic as the “lowest” type of despair (non-strictly construed), it allows us to recognize the KIR as the “shadow” of the KOF. Thus, as the KIR, Walt resigns himself to a position in the shadow of the KOF, and in this shadow, Walt decides to cook methamphetamine.
According to Kierkegaard, had Walt occupied the aesthetic stage, he would have spent the remainder of his time merely pleasing himself without excessive concern for the well-being of others. Had he occupied the religious stage he may have understood his situation in terms of the “idea so frequently stressed in Holy Scripture for the purpose of elevating the lowly and humbling the mighty, the idea that God does not respect the status of persons.” 9 Yet, in the religious stage, Walt could not have justified the emergence of Heisenberg and his actions in relation to the worldly concerns of his family, since, “only when the single individual fights for himself with himself within himself and does not unseasonably presume to help the whole world to obtain external equality, which is of very little benefit,”10 for example, reading “external equality” here as referring to the desire to make his family materially equal to some social status. In other words, as the KIR, Walt could not have justified the emergence of Heisenberg and his actions in relation to the worldly concerns of his family. Thus, rather than appropriately directing his love to God, Walt becomes “melancholically enamored” as Heisenberg and “pursues one of anxiety’s possibilities, which finally leads him away from himself.”11 We will re-visit this theme after approaching Walt’s transformation in terms of Jung’s psychodynamics and philosophical alchemy.
Hence, from the perspective of Kierkegaard’s stages, it is as if Walt assumes the KIR position by understanding his self, his death and his love for his family in relative and worldly terms. According to Kierkegaard, the “infinite” aspect of this relation, though ultimately still in regard to the relativity of the world, makes the individual aware of the possibility of an absolute relation. It is as if the KIR is the “shadow” of the KOF’s relation to the absolute, and so in full light of the absolute, the resulting ego-stabilization would even allow our protagonist to see “Walt” as merely a relative worldly characterization of himself.