The accidental is second only to the ideal

The following is Constantin Constantius (a.k.a. Kierkegaard) in Repetition, commenting on the farce (Posse, the German equivalent of vaudeville) performances at the Königstädter Theater in Berlin. The translation is Howard and Edna Hong’s, and I’ve added paragraph breaks.

Two . . . geniuses are enough for a farce theater; . . . The rest of the cast need not be talented; it is not even good if they are. Nor do the rest of the cast need to be recruited according to standards of good looks; they should instead be brought together by chance. . . . No one needs to be excluded even for a physical abnormality; on the contrary, such an accidental feature would be a splendid contribution. . . . That is, the accidental is second only to the ideal.

A wit has said that mankind can be divided into officers, servant girls, and chimney sweeps. In my opinion, this remark is not only witty but also profound, and it would take a great speculative talent to make a better classification. If a classification does not ideally exhaust its object, the accidental is preferable in every way, because it sets the imagination in motion. A somewhat true classification cannot satisfy the understanding, is nothing at all for the imagination, and for that reason it should be completely rejected, even though in daily use it enjoys great honor, because people for one thing are very stupid and for another have very little imagination.

If there is to be a representation of a person in the theater, what is required is either a concrete creation thoroughgoingly portrayed in ideality or the accidental. The theaters that exist not only for entertainment should produce the first. . . . In farce, however, the minor characters have their effect through that abstract category “in general” and achieve it by an accidental concretion.

In this way, one gets no further than actuality. Nor should one, but the spectator is comically reconciled to watching this accidental concretion make a claim to be the ideal, which it does by stepping onto the artificial world of the stage.

This is very perceptive, as the bit about officers, servant girls, and chimney sweeps demonstrates. That haphazard classification does indeed set the imagination in motion in a way that a more systematic attempt would not. Upon reading it, I immediately began to think about which category Kierkegaard himself would fit into, and then to consider myself and various people I know, and it was a very useful and mind-expanding exercise.

Tarot cards, when I first discovered them, had a similar effect on me. Any fortune-telling system is an attempt at a universal ontology of things that can happen. Cartomancy’s implicit claim is that anything that could conceivably happen to the querent can be symbolically represented in the 40-morpheme language which is the tarot deck — and trying to force the cards to make good on that promise sets the imagination in motion like nothing else. And the reason it works as well as it does is that the cards are such a haphazard conglomeration of what-have-you — the virtue of temperance, a conjuror, a tower being struck by lightning, and ten cups, to name a few. The haphazardness is indispensable; my attempts to create an alternative deck with a more systematic structure have been complete failures. I’ve also tried replacing the too-systematic Minor Arcana with an even more haphazard assortment, though (with such cards as “walking the dog,” “glyptodon,” “monkey with a shovel,” and “Zeppo”), and that works just fine.


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Filed under Literature, Tarot

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