BY JUDITH THURMAN
William James liked to quote Søren Kierkegaard’s famous assertion that
“we live forward, but we understand backwards.”
Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher of subjectivity, would have been two hundred years old on May 5th, and, looking back, we can see that ironic, angst-ridden modern literature begins with him. Strindberg, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Kafka, Borges, Camus, Sartre, and Wittgenstein are among his heirs—and without him, where would Woody Allen be?
Kierkegaard did most of his seminal writing under assumed names: Victor Eremita (“Either/Or”); Johannes de Silentio (“Fear and Trembling”); Anti-Climacus (“The Sickness Unto Death”); Hilarious Bookbinder (“Stages on Life’s Way”); Vigilius Haufniensis (“The Concept of Anxiety”). The point of these impostures, he explained, when he finally acknowledged them, was to disavow, or—to use a postmodern notion that he pioneered—to “destabilize” his authority as a narrator. “Revelation is marked by mystery,” he wrote, “eternal happiness by suffering, the certitude of faith by uncertainty, easiness by difficulty, truth by absurdity.” It was not for him to dictate the meaning of a text (Kierkegaard’s meanings are contradictory), but for his readers to exercise their autonomy in apprehending it.
The name “Kierkegaard” means “graveyard,” and “Søren” is an affectionate Danish moniker for the Devil. Søren’s father, Michael, was a former shepherd from Jutland who became, improbably, one of the richest merchants in Denmark.
He had cursed God as a young man, and he later became guiltily religious. His pietism and depression (“tungsind,” Kierkegaard called it, heaviness of spirit) had a Jupiterian gravity that his son struggled all his life to escape.
In his attacks on the Danish Church, and his heretical writings as theologian, Kierkegaard called for the individual to reject Christian dogma, and to embrace God with a “leap of faith.”
The patriarch’s shadow falls darkly on his son’s work (the story of Abraham and Isaac is central to it), but Kierkegaard’s mother, Ane, is never mentioned. She had been the family housemaid before Michael married her.
They had seven children (Søren was the youngest) and lost five of them. Søren’s surviving sibling, an older brother, became a bishop. His own existence as a dandy and an esthete (though also as a self-publisher) was financed, grudgingly, by his father. By the time of his death, at forty-two, in 1855, of mysterious causes, Kierkegaard had, in both senses, exhausted his patrimony.
* * *
Kierkegaard’s bicentennial is being celebrated with a show of his manuscripts at the Royal Library, in Copenhagen, that runs until September, and with readings, conferences, online forums, and a contemporary radio drama, “The Kierkegaard Syndrome,” about an anguished Web designer. But there has been nothing like the multi-million-dollar extravaganza that the Danes staged eight years ago, when Hans Christian Andersen turned two hundred and Tina Turner was flown in to jazz up the festivities. Instead of a rock diva, Paul Holdengräber, a host of literary conversations at the New York Public Library, was imported to moderate a panel on Kierkegaard with the American novelist Siri Hustvedt; the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner; and René Redzepi, the celebrity chef of Noma, the only native.
Andersen, of course, has always been a global crowd-pleaser, who, as the Danes like to say, writes about “the galoshes of happiness,” while Kierkegaard, who writes about “the place where the shoe hurts,” is famously, if not perversely, difficult.
Part of his allure for what a friend calls “all those smart-ass, hyper-intellectuals in Paris and Brooklyn” maybe that he makes the average reader feel stupid. But even Wittgenstein could say, with awe, “He is too deep for me.”
When I was learning Danish, I tried to read him in the original, but he is one of those rare stylists whose thought and diction are so unpredictable and rife with paradox that you can never guess a word that you don’t know from its context.
“People understand me so little that they do not even understand when I complain of being misunderstood,” Kierkegaard wrote in his journal.
This predicament was satirized, with apt impiety, by Politiken, the leading Danish newspaper, which, on May 4th, published a sort of “Kierkegaard for Dummies” in cartoon form. A “Parental Advisory” warned readers about “explicit content,” and not only because the cartoons were raunchy (one of the characters, a buxom female television presenter, trades oral sex for commentary from a Kierkegaard expert who looks like a monkey), but because “correct reading of this section can lead to irreversible enlightenment.”
If your soul has bunions, however, reading Kierkegaard may inflame them: he invented self-doubt in its modern form.
“Either/Or,” for example, ought really to be subtitled “Neither.” Kierkegaard, who has often been called the father of existentialism, champions the examined life, and the conscious choice that informs it—yet he mocks choice as futile.
“I see it all perfectly,” he wrote. “There are two possible situations—one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it—you will regret both.” (The advice was proffered, originally, to anyone contemplating marriage. In the cartoon supplement, a duck holds forth on the either/or of putting croutons in your salad.)
* * *
Before my recent visit to Copenhagen, I was last at the Royal Library in the mid-nineteen-seventies, when I spent two summers doing research for a biography of Karen Blixen. (Blixen, i.e., Isak Dinesen, probably comes third on the list of Danish writers best known to den store verden—“the great world”—as the Danes call the real estate beyond their borders.
The dialectic that Kierkegaard elaborates in “Either/Or”—a conflict between the “ethical” and the “sensuous-esthetic”; the instinctual and the moral life; the artist and the bourgeois—had shaped the Scandinavian culture in which she came of age.) The grand old reading room hasn’t changed, except for the ubiquity of laptops—I worked on index cards, with a pencil, as ink wasn’t allowed. The Kierkegaard show, however, occupies a basement gallery in the 1999 extension to the 1906 edifice, which is known as the “Black Diamond.” (It is a sharply angled, trapezoidal excrescence of smoky glass and marble that overlooks the water.)
Vitrines that reverently display yellowed manuscripts covered with minuscule handwriting and doodles do not, generally, make for an exciting show, but Cristina Black, who designed the installation, and its curator, Bruno Svindborg, have created a dynamic, eerie spatial narrative that reminded me (sort of) of “Sleep No More.”
You descend into a long hall, claustrophobically narrow and deep. This corridor is lined with thirteen mysterious doorways, each about twelve feet high. The hand-hewn pine doors are outlined by neon-orange molding. Each leads to a darkened chamber with a surreal feature or special effect—a mirrored floor; crumpled papers strewn about; a giant empty chair; electronic plopping sounds; random bric-a-brac (a toy revolver, a light bulb, rubber spiders, a Rubik’s Cube) dangling from the ceiling—that pertains to a period or to a theme.
In the room dedicated to Kierkegaard’s tormented romance with the teen-age Regine Olsen (his behavior as an “out and out scoundrel,” as he put it, forced her to break their engagement, and she married someone else, but they continued to love each other), the illumination comes from a blue window.
But are you inside or outside? That is one of Kierkegaard’s essential questions—about the individual in relation to society; the mind in relation to its productions, and the nature of self.
Kierkegaard was a sublime tease, like his alter ego Johannes, the narrator of “The Seducer’s Diary.” It is said that he did ultimately confide the meaning of life to a scrap of paper, but that scrap has never been found. Or perhaps it is sitting in a vitrine behind the last door in the corridor at the Library. You try the handle to no avail, then you notice the plaque: “Ingen Adgang” (“no entry”).
Illustration by David Hughes.
KEYWORDS BOOKS; PHILOSOPHY
SØREN K.’S TWO-HUNDREDTH BIRTHDAY
Thurman makes a couple of major omissions.
First, she fails to mention what is perhaps Søren Kierkegaard's greatest work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (to the Philosophical Fragments), under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus.
Climacus was an ancient Christian saint also known as John the Ladder, which in-turn evokes a major work cited by Thurman, Stages [steps in the ladder] on Life's Way.
What made SK the father of existentialism was the role he assumed as the un-Hegel. SK's lifelong attacks on the established Danish Lutheran Church and on George W. F. Hegel, the dominant voice of nineteenth-century continental philosophy, were of a piece.
Hegel found truth in reason -- "what is real is rational, what is rational is real". Hegel believed we could know God through the workings of history, the end of which is the unification of the world with God.
SK was outraged by this humanistic hubris, and you can feel the outrage in Concluding Unscientific Postscript, in which he sarcastically refers to Hegel as "Herr Professor."
SK not only rejected "what is real is rational, what is rational is real" as a mere tautology, but asserted the contrary, that the necessary condition for being real, or in human terms, authentic, is absurdity and that truth is only found in subjectivity.
This is why existentialism became not only a philosophy but a literary genre, why so many existential works are literary: you can only communicate indirectly, i.e. not by precept but by example, by story, which is what SK was trying to illustrate with his different versions of the Abraham and Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. Non-fiction is about facts; fiction (or myth) is about truth.
Thurman's second major omission is common to many SK commentators.
There are not two human states -- the æsthetic and ethical -- there are three, the third state being the religious.
I have a feeling modern commentators deliberately omit SK's third state because they are of the atheistic inflection of existentialism and don't want to desecularize their narrative.
But you can't understand SK without this vital third state of being.
The æsthetic life is the sensual life, the life in pursuit of repetition, which is a kind of flight from the angst that defines the human condition. Nor can the ethical life, where one must subsume his identity in The Law, lead to authenticity -- which is where SK rebelled against the established Danish church. Neither kind of life is existence in the human sense.
One can only break the bonds of inauthenticity and truly exist by transcending both the sensual life and the ethical life. How does one do this? Well, here is where SK goes kind of Eastern. Those familiar with the chakras of Kundalini yoga know that the seventh chakra is the highest state of being, it is the closest to unity with God. Crudely put, it is "illicit love".
I won't explicate further except by invoking Kierkegaard's spiritual successor, none other than that old atheist himself, Nietzsche:
"What is done out of love is beyond good and evil". "Love is the answer" is not just some sappy platitude.
It is what made Søren Kierkegaard, as much as he was a philosopher, a theologian, because admission through the "ingen adgang" door is quite simple: God is love.
NewYorkerWebEditmoderator3 days ago
@jmrThank you so much for this insightful and moving elucidation of Kierkegaard's thought--and of his humanity. --Judith Thurman
@NewYorkerWebEdit @jmr Your kind words do me great honor. It's ironic that as recondite and difficult as he is, SK is trying to speak to us intimately and passionately.
You learned Danish, which means you've spent time in Denmark. (I lived next to Rungstedlund but never channeled Karen.) Rebel that SK is, he is still a Dane. The proto-existentialist was Hamlet.
Live in Denmark, and you begin to understand where SK is coming from. Indirect communication!
By the way, I always thought that when Sartre said, "Hell is other people," he was just being French.
Kierkegaard is indisputably one of the progenitors of existentialist doubt and angst but it is inaccurate to characterize Nietzsche as one of his heirs. Nietzsche was made aware of Kierkegaard's writings by the Danish philosopher George Brandes yet never read Kierkegaard because Kierkegaard stubbornly wrote in Danish though German was regarded as the official language of philosophy in the 19th century. Kierkegaard embraced a sort of radical antinomianism in his interpretation of Christianity which would seem to be in sharp contrast with Nietzsche's emphatic rejection of Christianity. Yet both brilliant thinkers independently realized the limits of language and rationality as expressions of love and embraced the mystical as an alternative. Karl Jaspers wrote a remarkable essay detailing their similarities and they have exerted a profound influence on 20th century arts and letters, despite the difficulties of translation and understanding.
Thank you Ms. Thurman for celebrating Kierkegaard's birthday. He and Nietzsche are eminently worthy of our consideration in the 21st century.