Unknown, Unkissed, and Lost Part 5: Kierkegaard & Kaufman


In questioning the human relationship to God and examining what truly characterizes human existence, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard laid the foundation for the existentialist philosophy that would become such an integral part of Kaufman’s films. Kierkegaard and Kaufman each deal with themes of existential despair and the role of faith at the same time as they deconstruct notions of their own authorship.


Under the pseudonym “Anti-Climacus,” Kierkegaard explains the causes and effects of despair in his work The Sickness unto Death is Despair. He suggests that the root of all despair is the “despair to will to be oneself;” one always wishes that they did not have to be themselves (Sickness 14). Even the woman who despairs over the death of her lover is still despairing over herself, as the “self becomes a torment to her if it has to be a self without ‘him’” (20). He thus describes it as “a sickness unto death:” not having a terminal illness, but being “unable to die, yet not as if there were hope of life” (17-8). One continually dies without dying, “self-consuming, but an impotent self-consuming that cannot do what it wants to do;” one cannot fully change themselves as the “power is the stronger and forces him to be the self he does not want to be” (18, 20).

Kaufman’s characters are similarly ruled by neuroses and self-hatred, wanting to change but preventing themselves from doing so. The opening monologue in Adaptation presents this well. The character Charlie Kaufman berates himself with flaw after flaw, saying “I’m way overdue” and “All I do is sit on my fat ass” (Adaptation). In equal measure, he points out all the ways he wishes himself to be different, saying “If I stop putting things off, I would be happier” and “If my ass wasn’t fat I would be happier,” even proposing some ridiculous changes to reinvent himself like “What if I learned Russian or something? Or took up an instrument? I could speak Chinese. I’d be the screenwriter who speaks Chinese and plays the oboe” (Adaptation). Like Kierkegaard describes, Charlie despairs over the gap of who he is and who he’d like to be However, over the course of the film, Charlie fails to act in any of the ways that he claimed would make Adaptationhim happier, choosing to wallow in self-pity and fantasize about how his life could be. This is illustrated most clearly in the three masturbation sequences which blur the lines between fantasy and reality in Charlie’s mind. Charlie is stuck with a self he despises, but when presented with the opportunity to change, he fails to act. For instance, when Amelia is leaving Charlie’s car after their date and he has the prime opportunity to make a romantic move, he squanders the situation; he cannot make himself happy, instead falling back into the cycle of despair.

Even if one were to achieve that which they thought would end their despair, this state of “seventh heaven… would be just as despairing” (Sickness 20). This idea is perhaps best reflected in Kaufman’s Anomalisa. In Michael’s world, everyone has the same voice and facial structures; apart from a few differences in mannerisms, hair, and clothing, they all look and sound the same. Therefore, when Michael meets Lisa, the one woman who seems different, as symbolized by her different voice and facial features, he finds himself in this “seventh heaven,” ecstatic to a point where he constantly asks her to talk or sing and asks her to run away with him. However, once he achieves this relationship goal by sleeping with Lisa and planning their life together, he begins to notice other problems in her mannerisms. Her speaking with her mouth open or clinking her teeth with her fork begins to slowly infuriate Michael, to the point where he begins to hear the voice of Everyone in Lisa’s speech. This amplifies his desperation, leading to the mental breakdown he experiences during his conference speech.

Kierkegaard finds this sense of despair to be “universal,” explaining “there is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest” (22). Similarly, Kaufman’s characters all recognize that despair is a part of the human condition. Michael in Anomalisa states “Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body. Each body has aches. What is it to be human? What is it to ache?” Likewise, Caden in Synecdoche, New York gives out director notes to his actors that reflect “the brutal truth” such as “You felt a lump in your breast” and “You looked at your wife and saw a stranger,” seeing pain as inherent to human existence. Each of Kaufman’s protagonists is consumed by neuroses and a deep-seeded sadness, reflecting Kierkegaard’s idea that despair impacts everyone.


If despair is the problem that plagues humanity, faith is the tool that addresses it. In Problemata I and II of Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes de silentio) explores the idea of a “knight of faith”– one who must suspend the ethical to follow God. The binding of Isaac serves as a prime example of a teleological suspension of the ethical; Abraham chooses to follow God’s command to kill his son Isaac rather than adhere to human ethics, embracing faith over the temptation of the ethical. Kierkegaard contrasts Abraham against figures like Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter to help the Greeks win the Trojan War. These are not knights of faith; although they too undergo serious psychological pain from their sacrifice, they still acted within the ethical bounds of their people, and are venerated and comforted by those people for having acted morally. Abraham, on the other hand, must go through the turmoil of killing his child but without the assurance that he will be accepted for it; as a result, he is “obliged to rely upon himself alone, he feels the pain of not being able to make himself intelligible” (Fear and Trembling 38).

Kaufman’s characters do not discuss God; in fact, religion is rarely mentioned at all in any of Kaufman’s films. Still, however, his characters tend to seek some sort of transcendence, investing faith in their art, personal relationships, or the promise of fame. Much like knights of faith, they also may choose to eschew the ethical in favor of this grander ideal. For instance, in Being John Malkovich, Craig sees his puppetry as the highest form of art, seeking fame and the attention of Maxine above all else. As such, when he has the Malkovich 1opportunity to piggyback off of Malkovich’s fame and use his body to propel his puppetry, he feels justified in locking his wife in an animal cage and forcing John Malkovich’s subconscious to be a spectator in his own life. However, because Kaufman’s characters are so misguided, caught up in unworthy pursuits, they often fail, leaving unfulfilled. In Craig’s case, his pursuit for fame causes him to cling to the Malkovich vessel, thereby pushing his consciousness into the back of Emily’s mind, forcing him to watch his wife and his lover start their happy life together.

In this way, Kaufman’s characters serve as failed knights of faith. When Abraham chooses to act unethically out of faith to God, his unethical act itself still brings him closer to God; however, when Kaufman’s characters choose to act unethically out of their faith to their aspirations (art, civilization, relationships, etc.) they find themselves no closer to achieving what they set out for. For instance, Caden has faith in the power of his art to express the whole truth of life, endlessly perfecting his art. Kierkegaard describes the knight of faith as being “all to himself” and “kept sleepless, for he is constantly tried” in the same way that Caden isolates himself from his family to pursue his art and never feels content with his project, constantly feeling a need to re-envision the project and come closer to “truth” (Fear and Trembling 37). However, while the knight of faith can successfully use his faith to “[find] repose in the universal,” Caden cannot find solace in his art, proposing new ideas for his project up until his very last breath (37).


Just as important as the existential themes these authors dwell on are the means by which they express them. In different ways, both authors challenge traditional ideas of authorship.

One of the most unique aspects of Kierkegaard’s writing is his extensive use of pseudonyms in his aesthetic works. Rarely did he attribute his philosophical works to the name Søren Kierkegaard, instead taking up personas such as Johannes de silentio, Constantine Constantius, and Anti-Climacus. He did not use these other names as a means of masking his identity; rather, Kierkegaard felt that “he could achieve ‘indirect communication,’ a kind of communication that would make people aware of their lives lost in illusion” by his adopting an alternative point of view (LaRocca 273). Since truth is not simply that which can be proven through experimentation or enumerated by logic, Kierkegaard saw subjectivity and conflict between multiple viewpoints as central to finding truth. He insisted that these pseudonyms were not him; instead, they served somewhat as characters for exploring different sides of an argument. Authorship became incidental; the interplay between the texts came to the forefront.

While Kaufman has used pseudonyms before, e.g., premiering his play Anomalisa under the pen name Francis Fregoli, he seems more interested in deconstructing authorship through another means: autobiography. This technique is most blatant in the character of Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, which blurs the lines between author and character, story aadaptation1nd reality. Adaptation’s tension between truth and fiction is amplified the more real the film presents itself, as “The difference is made obvious by the fact that the names are identical; if Kaufman had based his characters on these actual people and given them different names it would be easier to suggest a correspondence between the story and real life” (Evans 24). The film itself becomes ouroboros (the image of a snake eating its own tail) that Charlie describes, with the film trying to imitate truth while representing actors writing the film script as the film itself unfolds.

Others of Kaufman’s characters are also seemingly autobiographical. Nearly all of Kaufman’s protagonists, for instance, are middle-aged self-loathing white men, many of which are artists or creators of some kind. This makes it appear easy to interpret Kaufman’s films as representations of his struggle; however, this would be a misguided approach.

In the same way that Kierkegaard insisted that none of his pseudonyms are him, so do none of Kaufman’s seemingly autobiographical characters speak for him or serve as mouthpieces for Kaufman’s personal philosophy; even the Hollywood screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman is distant from our reality, having a fictional twin brother Donald and embracing cliché in a way the real Kaufman never seems to do. Instead, they show in exaggerated measure the struggles of writers like Kaufman, exposing in equal measure the flaws and issues.

While Kierkegaard and Kaufman outline many of the same existential problems, Kaufman’s characters fail to come to terms with their confusing lives in the faith-filled way that Kierkegaard would have recommended, instead falling deeper into their despair. Both authors frame these philosophical explorations in studies of art and form by deconstructing what role the author plays in a work. The result for both authors is two bodies of work that simultaneously analyze the world and themselves.


Works Cited

Adaptation. Dir. Spike Jonze. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. 2002. DVD.

Being John Malkovich. Dir. Spike Jonze. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Perf. John Cusack and John Malkovich. 1999. DVD.

Evans, K.L. “Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter.” The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman. Ed. David LaRocca. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky, 2011. 23-45. Print.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. Translated by Walter Lowrie, 1843. Yggdrasil’s WNLibrary.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness unto Death: a Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Translated by Howard Vincent Hong, Princeton University Press, 1980.

LaRocca, David. “Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter.” The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman. Ed. David LaRocca. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky, 2011. 269-94. Print.

Synecdoche, New York. Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. 2008. DVD.



  1. spattanayak says:

    Hey Teddy, I think it’s great you’re looking at the work of Charlie Kaufman! He was actually my inspiration to get into screenwriting after I watched Eternal Sunshine. Looking at Kierkegaard is a very good start, because there’s always some sort of soul-searching in his movies, especially Synechdoche, New York.

    I was wondering, what research besides looking at Kierkegaard’s writings did you do? Kaufman himself has done a lot of interviews about screenwriting and directing. There’s also some good analysis by a lot of movie buffs. The youtube channel YourMovieSucksDOTorg has been doing an ongoing analysis of Synechdoche for a while now.