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Filtering by Tag: Kierkegaard

Columbo and the Melancholy Dane

Christina Lee

PETER FALK In a chapter of Works of Love entitled “Love Believes All Things –And Yet is Never Deceived,” Kierkegaard describes two levels of love: the lower level, self-love, which seeks out self-affirmation and is easily deceived, and the higher level, the level he tells us we must reach — a love so strong that it wards off all deception.

I’ve read this chapter many times, but it never quite clicked for me. Until I started binge-watching “Columbo”. God bless Netflix.

Let me tell you a little about Columbo. First of all, I adore him. At this point, I’ve logged so many hours with the old codger that he seems like a dear uncle. He’s a mess: he drives an old beater, he wears a ratty raincoat, and he never combs his hair. He’s stingy, groveling, and usually hungry. And he always gets his man.

As for the plot of the show, the formula never wavers: a murder is committed in the first few minutes, on-camera. Columbo shows up at the scene of the crime. He slinks through the crowd, often being mistaken for a bum or the help. Soon, he’s sniffed out the murderer — usually a vain, powerful and smooth-talking fellow

As Kierkegaard points out, “Do you know any stronger expression for superiority than this, that the superior one also has the appearance of being the weaker? Consider someone who is infinitely superior to others in understanding, and you will see that he has the appearance of an ordinary person.”

The murderer dismisses Columbo because of his clothes, his shoes, his height, his propensity to bring his dog on assignment or to ramble on about his extended family.

Columbo just doesn’t care. He knows where his self-worth lies — not in their opinion, but in unearthing the truth.

Since we, the audience, have witnessed the crime, we side with Columbo, no matter how he appears to bumble. We’re in on the joke. We understand Kierkegaard when he writes, “True superiority can never be deceived.”

As the plot unfolds, the murderer grows more confident, just as Kierkegaard describes those embroiled in self-love: “The cunning deceiver, who moves with the most supple, most ingratiating flexibility of craftiness — he does not perceive how clumsily he proceeds.”

This is the joy of the show — watching the murderer simmer in his pride. It doesn’t hurt that, since the show is 30 years old, the murder’s “slick” persona is often laughably dated.

Kierkegaard claims that once we view love in the right way, not as a currency to be hoarded and stolen, but “precisely in not requiring reciprocity,” we’re freed of the danger of deception. We’re freed into a love that “believes all things — and is never deceived.”

It is when you have this love, this truth, that appearances stop mattering. Love is no longer a currency, something to steal or sell. It is just there, as solid as truth. A constant. Kierkegaard’s point is that those who can’t see this look as foolish as Columbo’s smooth-talking, designer-bell-bottom-sporting, doomed murderers. Those who get it are freed of all fear of deception and of judgment, freed to don wrinkled raincoats and scuffed shoes and the “courage to endure the world’s judgment that it is so indescribably foolish.”

At the end of the chapter, Kierkegaard admits that reaching this higher understanding of love is really, really hard. Even if we can grasp its goodness, we’ll still approach it like “a dog, which can indeed learn to walk upright but still always prefers to walk on all fours.”

Maybe that’s why Columbo did so well — for an hour a week (or, these days, as many hours as you’ve got to plop in front of your computer) you’re automatically on the right side, lifted to the higher level. The natural temptation to be suckered in by vanity, self-deception, and a well-groomed mustache is gone.

When I first read Works of Love, I interpreted this higher view of love as total detachment. But Columbo actually posits something a bit more complicated.

Columbo is not freed of caring. He’s just freed of caring about the wrong thing. Columbo is obsessed with justice. He doesn’t give a rats-ass about what people think of him. And I think that’s the goal — understanding the nature of love frees us to practice that love.

Arcade Fire: Transcendence in a Suburban Wasteland

Eric Fullgraf


Arcade Fire deserves our attention, because they ask the biggest questions, and, like Jacob, are not afraid to wrestle with God. Their latest album Reflektor brings together such influences as the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Haitian rara music and Søren Kierkegaard. At first listen, these elements appear to be a hodge-podge. But Win Butler has a master plan and it works.

In the song “We Exist,” Butler describes a highly intelligent father, preoccupied by his own lofty thoughts. “Walking around head full of sound / Acting like we don't exist / Walk in a room stare out through you / Talking like we don't exist / But we exist.” Butler indicts the Deus absconditus. Reversing the demand of the Heavenly Father to believe in Him, mankind pleads with God to believe that we exist and deserve His attention.

Win Butler acknowledges his debt to Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard argues that God is holy and wholly other. We must not expect him to respond to our pleas that “we exist.” God may even redeem us through the blood of Christ, but He will never involve Himself in our daily struggles. Every man must grope around in the darkness alone. Like the miserable children in “We Exist,” Butler feels stranded in a vast suburban sprawl with all its drab, quotidian details. Since their 2004 debut album Funeral, Arcade Fire has returned regularly to the theme of growing up in the suburbs. Butler’s love/hate relationship with middle class life is a struggle for the transcendent when everything about our surroundings militates against eternal concerns.

The title cut of Reflektor is another Kierkegaard reference, specifically Two Ages (1846). In this work, Kierkegaard laments the corrosive effects of democracy on our culture. The modern leveling of society makes it nearly impossible for any man to aspire to greatness. Ours is a “reflective age,” because equals can only reflect each other, but never rise to be exemplary. “[W]hen the age is reflective and passionless and destroys everything concrete, the public becomes everything and is supposed to include everything. And that again shows how the individual is thrown back upon himself. [...] No longer can the individual, as in former times, turn to the great for help when he grows confused.”

This tug-of-war between the transcendent and the shabby is key to Win Butler’s aesthetic. Butler’s antidote to this duality is Art. In the original Orpheus and Euridice myth, a peasant girl named Euridice is bitten by a snake and dragged down to the Underworld. Orpheus, her lover, follows her and charms Hades with his beautiful music. He convinces Hades to release Euridice from the Land of the Dead, but as Orpheus emerges into the Land of the Living, he looks back to make sure Euridice is not falling behind, and watches in horror as Euridice recedes back into Death. Art is mankind’s best chance for overcoming death, but it always fails because of human frailty.

Butler casts himself as Orpheus and his wife Régine Chassagne as Euridice. In the song “Awful Sound (Oh, Euridice)” Butler sings, “You fly away from me, but it's an awful sound when you hit the ground.” Chassagne responds with “It’s Never Over (Oh, Orpheus).” This is not merely the struggle of Orpheus and Euridice. It is the struggle of humankind. How do we find heroes in a reflective age? How do we reach for the Divine in a lost and sin-cursed world? Has God abandoned us to an earthly hell of strip malls, used car dealerships and convenience stores? Is God aloof or “a very present help in trouble?”