Chutzpah, Self-abnegation, Creation



s creation, in the arts, or elsewhere, a matter of chutzpah or daring — perhaps of overweening pride?

images-1It often is.  And sometime it’s a matter of humility, stepping aside, letting another speak through one. Thus the Odyssey begins,

Sing in me muse, Sing of the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course

This makes the poet almost incidental to the creation. Can we generalize here?  No doubt some poets are models of humility and self-abnegation, while others are insufferable egotists.

Thinking of this matter of creation, I remember a Rabbinic anecdote passed on by Martin Buber. We’re told that we should always carry two notes in our pockets. BeyoncéThe note in the left pocket will say:

       The world was made for me 

The note in our right pocket will say:

        I am but dust and ashes

The test is to know when to reach into which pocket.  One counteracts excessive self-abnegation. The other counteracts excessive self-inflation.

Novelists, entertainers, dramatists, philosophers are obviously at the center of the worlds they create.

It takes extreme egotism and self-assertion to do what Kierkegaard does – force worlds from the tip of his pen, or announce of Fear and Trembling that it will make his name immortal. It takes extreme egotism to create off-hand throwaway titles like Philosophical Crumbs, or its monstrous sequel, the 600 page Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Crumbs.

The full weight of the entire title of this 1846  tome is one of the wonders of the literary-philosophical world — or perhaps one of its titanic disasters. Either way, it’s never fully remembered or fully cited:

Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Crumbs: A Mimic, Pathetic, Dialectical Compilation, an Existential Contribution

Is this title evidence of a flamboyant, over-inflated ego? Or is it instead a wry and modest parody of scholars who like to encompass and to reproduce entire cultural worlds?

We are caught, I think, between conflicting options: burlesque or chutzpah, majesty or a tinge of the carnivalesque.

Yet  writing is not only an egotistical platform for Kierkegaard’s wit, invention, and surpassing intelligence. It also involves acts of extreme self-abnegation.

He keeps walking off stage, each time he adopts a new pseudonym or amends a previous work. He wants to be famous and wants simultaneously to have only his words have presence for us — on their own, almost anonymously.

He is both present and absent, both everything and nothing, both the epitome of self-assertion and the epitome of self-emptying and self-sacrifice. He is a world maker (like Bach) and yet can acknowledge his nothingness, his nullity before the worlds he creates and then abandons.


There are works that seem more or less anonymous, like The Odyssey, Lascaux cave paintings, or Cajun fiddle tunes. With them we have no impulse to seek out the flesh-and-blood historical actor responsible – we know that venture is doomed from the start. And so the matter of ego never arises.

einstein5But once we have discrete creators on stage, everything changes. Then the writer or musician can exemplify extreme self-centeredness or self-assertion, perhaps even the demonic. Or she or he can exemplify extreme self-emptying (or self-sacrifice).

The full resonance of the Postscript title can oscillate  between tasteless over-inflation and stunning magnificence — the author nowhere in sight. Just so, any writer or reader, aunt or uncle, can take their existence as wondrous, the most important thing ever to happen — and yet know themselves as a speck of dust in the scheme of things.



To simultaneously see the ordinary and extraordinary requires double vision. To see it as Mimical, Pathetical, Dialectical, and Existential requires multiple-vision.

Add to this seeing it as Crumbs, as Concluding, and as Unscientific: well, for this we need a shifting, multiple-event carnivalesque vision (I’m thinking of Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque).

To see the mimicking spectacle of Postscript vaults us far from seeing it as just another book with an egregious title.

To let all this happen, the actual author must get out of the way, let words speak for themselves. In that way, she or he sacrifices the self-importance of a creator that so frequently accompanies acts of writing or creation. Easily enough, creation upstages the creator.  It’s not unlike a serene view of a slip between docks that upstages the viewer.


In a sense it’s a miracle that you, or I, or your uncle or my neighbor are here at all – that we exist at all. We matter, and that puts us, in a sense, and in the moment of recognition, at the center of the universe.

imagesSimultaneously, we know our angle of perception can change, and that each of us can seem as dust, as nothing. And everything between.

One way to understand the Christian passion story is as a moment when even a God-man is little more than dust and ashes (he is humbled, and we are humbled – and outraged — at the sight of his humbling); yet here we can have double vision too – someone humble and humbled is simultaneously triumphant in weakness.


In short, we are never quite sure which little note to take from our pockets:

The world was made for me

I am but dust and ashes.

—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

See his Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009

Credits: The Odyssey, Robert Fagles translation [slightly amended], Penguin, 1997. Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, [short title], Princeton,  1992, original Danish edition, 1846. Neither the Wikipedia article on Kierkegaard nor the amazon listing give the full title. In Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber relays an oral teachings attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa. It goes like this: Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the world created.”  But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.” See Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters, Schocken Books, 1948, pp. 249-250.

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