SKC Project Seminar: Frances Maughan-Brown

Frances Maughan-Brown

The Lily’s Tongue: Figure and Authority in Kierkegaard’s Lily Discourses

In the four years between 1847 and 1851, Kierkegaard wrote four texts on figural language: each text presents an original reading of the Gospel of Matthew 6:24-34, on the lily and the bird. The cycle of discourses investigates the authority with which it is possible for a text to speak to, to comfort, to teach, us. The authoritative text, for Kierkegaard, the Gospel, is that text to which we respond in obedience. I argue that Kierkegaard shows, in these discourses, that “direct communication” is a myth: there is no authority that can leap the abyss separating a text from a reader, no authority that can compel a reader directly from a text, unless that reader already belongs to the text, believes in it, grants it the power to speak to her. And yet, such an act of reading can still never make communication “direct.” The Lily Discourses demonstrate that there is no language – not even Christ’s in the Gospel – that doesn’t need to turn to the lily in order to teach. This necessary detour through the figural dimension of speech is not a matter of romanticizing metaphor, however. Instead of a traditional or nostalgic account of metaphor as mimesis, Kierkegaard’s notion of the figural is non-mimetic, allegorical, and active. It is in this way that these texts never allow us to lose sight of the risk that the text's authority may always be lost, the text may stop – may never have been – speaking to us.