Welcome to the first installment of Holding History’s Bookbag: a biweekly series discussing the books - and the forms they take - that are getting us through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Today we talk to Ilango Villoth (2019 UW-Madison graduate and former Holding History Peer Mentor) about his copy of Kierkegaard's philosophical novel Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard, widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, wrote Fear and Trembling in 1843, under the pseudonym "Johannes de silentio" - or "John of the Silence." The novel dissects the story of Abraham, tasked by God to sacrifice his only son atop Mount Moriah, in an attempt to understand Abraham's anxiety and isolation on the journey there. Ilango is an NFL journalist and the author of two books, which are available for free on his website: https://www.ivilloth.com. Fear and Trembling is available through A Room of One's Own.
(Holding History): There are lots of ways to hold and read a book. Will you tell us about your tactile experience with Fear and Trembling?
(Illango): I have a badly abused Penguins Classic - probably about 30 years old - edition of Fear and Trembling. I am not one for preserving the book too well - I understand the importance of that for rare editions, but my books end up all bent and coffee stained. This one I’ve read mostly while on walks, so it’s got some of that going for it.
What attracted you to this book?
My project for quarantine was to go through all the things I’ve been putting off but need to get to before grad school - I realized I no longer have an excuse. This is the copy of Fear and Trembling I bought used at a bookstore without really looking into who’s translation it was or anything like that. I’ll try to read it multiple times with different translations, but this was the one on hand.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I am a big proponent of reading outside, largely because if I’m in my house, with my laptop and tv, I’ll get distracted. I might make it through 10 pages, but not 30 plus. So I’ve been trying to find small trails or neighborhoods that don’t have much traffic, if any, going through them. Places where I’m not at risk of crashing into anything, and I will just sort of zone out with my head buried in the book and walk forward. In Madison, I would often walk into traffic.
Would you give Fear and Trembling as a gift (and to whom)?
I feel like this sends a bit of a message if you give it as a gift [laugh]. A fundamental existential philosophy - If I received that as a gift I’d wonder what this person perceives being wrong with me. I think I would. I have a relative in India who teaches a lot of philosophy, but I know that he’s sometimes been annoyed with the process of ordering different translations from overseas and the difficulties of getting them back to our small town in Karula.
Favorite idea or quotation from Fear and Trembling?
Essentially it’s all about the story of Abraham and the Bible, and sort of his idea of reading into it with as much perceived or supposed depth of it as possible, and what you can get out of it that way. I’m finding that incredibly interesting as a way of approaching every text. It’s really nice - if you approach these stories as if they have all of the meaning possible in the world, and you dig that deep into them, you end up finding much more interesting things than if you’re quick to write them off.
Favorite character, object, inhabitant, landscape?
Unfortunately, picking a philosophical text doesn’t help that question too much. Kierkegaard often goes back to this idea of how important it is to remember Abraham’s journey to the Moriah, the big mountain, how it takes three days and how he would have been totally alone - you have to imagine the isolated landscapes he would have seen, just him and Isaac, and how you have to put yourself in his frame of mind. Which was never something I’ve considered about that story.
Imagine going to a rare books archive and finding a few books that Fear and Trembling might converse with. What comes to mind right away?
Other philosophical writings from this era. I know very little about the idea of existentialism. People call this the first existential text. It’s hard for me to believe that’s true. It seems too thought-out and already formulated. So I’d like to see if there are any surviving copies of what sort of pamphlets were lying around at the time, or if anything else got preserved, what ideas were getting thrown around but haven’t made their way back back to our current consciousness.