Deceiving into truth

June 26, 1998

CHRISTIAN DISCOURSES. The crisis and a crisis in the life of an actress. by Soren Kierkegaard. 489pp. Pounds 39.50. - 0 691 01649 6.

WITHOUT AUTHORITY. by Soren Kierkegaard. 317pp. Pounds 35. 0 691 01239 3.

THE POINT OF VIEW. by Soren Kierkegaard. 376pp. Pounds 40. 0 691 05855 5.

THE MOMENT AND LATE WRITINGS. by Soren Kierkegaard. 776pp. Pounds 45. 0 691 03226 2

THE BOOK ON ADLER. by Soren Kierkegaard. 480pp. Pounds 45. 0 691 032 0

Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press. ENCOUNTERS WITH KIERKEGAARD. A life as seen by his contemporaries. Bruce H. Kirmmse, editor. 358pp. Princeton University Press. Pounds 24.95. - 0 691 01106 0.

By Habib C. Malik RECEIVING SOREN KIERKEGAARD. The early impact and transmission of his thought. 437pp. Washington, DC:Catholic University of America Press; distributed in the UK by Eurospan. Pounds 53.95. - 0 8132 0878 5.

One of the delights of the Bymuseum in Copenhagen is S?ren Kierkegaard's tall and roomy writing desk. It is pleasant to imagine the most self-referential of philosophers pausing to make a note while pacing round his study, or standing there dashing off page after fluent page. And it is tempting to picture him composing the opening sections of Either/Or at this very desk, back in the winter of 1842.

The preface to Either/Or (which Kierkegaard attributes to a cynical philosophical experimenter called "Victor the Hermit") recounts a painful love affair . . . with a writing desk. "Desire, as is well known, is very sophistical", Victor says. He first saw the desk in a secondhand dealer's window in 1835, and fell immediately under its spell. Soon he was finding excuses for passing the shop every day to cast a lascivious glance at it. He did not need a desk, and he had no money to spare, but it had now "assumed a history" for him. After much prevarication, he entered the shop and paid the price with trembling hands. His prize was carried up to his rooms, and he enjoyed many happy months in its company, getting to know its contours, its intricate runners and compartments, and stowing his treasures inside. "Desire", as Victor remarks, "is very eloquent."

But the affair could not last. Early one morning the following year, Victor was about to leave Copenhagen for a holiday in the country. He could already hear the coachman blowing his horn, but he needed some cash and, try as he might, he could not get the money drawer of his desk to open. "The blood rushed to my head; I was furious, and . . . so I decided to take dreadful revenge." In a fit of jealous fury, he bludgeoned his sweet and uncomplaining companion with an axe. Its drawer stayed stubbornly shut; but then an unsuspected cubby hole sprang open to reveal two bundles of old manuscripts. While begging the desk's forgiveness, Victor also rejoiced at the discovery and the confirmation of what he had known all along: cosi fan tutte, and "the outer is certainly not the inner".

The manuscripts fall into two groups, one in uniform columns on legal foolscap, the other on quarto letter-vellum with generous margins. The foolscap papers are copies of letters advocating an "ethical" life of marriage and good works, and Victor ascribes them to an author he calls "B". The authorship of the quarto papers is more complex, since they include sections presented as transcriptions of the words of others - particularly "The Seducer's Diary", ostensibly a copy of some manuscripts which the author found in an open drawer of a friend's writing desk. Victor dismisses this tale as "an old literary device", where "one author becomes enclosed within the other like the boxes in a Chinese puzzle"; so he attributes all the quarto papers to the same author, an irresponsible sensualist with a poetic streak whom he decides to call "A".

The perspectives of A and B could hardly be more different, but after reflecting for a further five years, Victor is driven to the conclusion - "unhistorical", "improbable" and "unreasonable" though it is - that A and B were one and the same person. And that, he says, is why he chose to give his edition the title Either/Or. Victor's reasoning is rather strained, however: the idea of having to choose between two ways of life loses its sense, if one and the same person can live them both. Moreover, B's letters are rounded off by a sermon arguing that our choices never really matter, since "in relation to God we are always in the wrong". And A's papers include an "ecstatic discourse" on the theme of "either/or": "Marry, and you will regret it; do not marry, and you will also regret it; . . . whether you laugh at the stupidities of the world or you weep over them, you will regret it either way; . . . trust a girl and you will regret it; do not trust her and you will also regret it; . . . hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret it either way." And the same might be said, Victor reflects, of the papers he has brought together under the title Either/Or: "Read them or do not read them," he says, "you will regret it either way."

Either/Or was published in February 1843, and the ironies of its title were accentuated by the five other books Kierkegaard published that year: Fear and Trembling (over the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio), Repetition (by "Constantin Constantius") and three volumes of Upbuilding Discourses which appeared over Kierkegaard's own name. All these works testify that tertium datur: that beside the flippancy of A and the solemnity of B there lies the way of Job and Abraham, the way of "faith". Neither either, you might say, nor or.

Kierkegaard was to publish nine other pseudonymous works between 1844 and 1850, and the humorous plot of his elusive alternatives thickened exponentially. But from 1851 to his death in 1855, he gave up on polyonymy: his denunciations of the insipid Danish state Church would lose their sting, if readers did not realize who had written them. The onslaught on the recently deceased Bishop Mynster would not have been half as shocking, if Mynster had not been known to be a friend of Kierkegaard's father, and if his own elder brother, Peter Christian, had not himself been an ambitious pastor on his way to becoming a bishop. But the signed works of Kierkegaard's last period can still flash with paradox; he explains that you must love your enemy, for instance, because, humanly speaking, God is your "most appalling enemy", and yet you have to love him all the same.

It might seem that for Kierkegaard's readers the real either/or lies between the poised indirections of the ironical pseudonyms and the savage lunges of the fundamentalist behind the mask. That is certainly how Kierkegaard was inclined to see it. In 1847, he contemplated giving "a little series of lectures" to explain "my entire work as an author". He wrote hundreds of pages towards this great authorial confession, fantasizing that he would publish it as a final testament, and then die. But he also hesitated: "I must be careful about the idea of dying," he wrote in 1849 (he was thirty-six at the time), "lest I go and do something with the thought of dying in half a year and then live to be eighty-two." Furthermore, it was preposterous for an author to lay down the law about the interpretation of his books: "a single word by me personally in my own name", he wrote, "would be an arrogating self-forgetfulness."

The only publication which Kierkegaard extracted from this agonizing was the pamphlet On My Work as An Author which came out in 1851. At first, its argument seems crystal clear: his work, Kierkegaard says, expresses a progress from the riddling "communication in reflection" of the early pseudonymous writings, towards the "directly religious" simplicity of the works that carried his own name - "from 'the poet', from the esthetic - from 'the philosopher', from the speculative - to the indication of the most inward qualification of the essentially Christian". But then, like a child scribbling over his own drawing, Kierkegaard adds that his works were "religious from first to last", with the problem of "becoming a Christian" as their only theme. Indeed, it was the "indirect" and apparently irreligious works that were most authentically Christian, since they alone could enter into the corruption of everyday Christendom and provoke it to "reflect" itself out of itself and into the simplicity of true Christianity. They were a noble lie, designed to deceive into truth.

Kierkegaard also drew attention to a worldly essay, "The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress", which examined the notion that actresses are best when young. It was, of course, his own work, and he hoped that by acknowledging it he would shock his readers out of their "lazy and pompous" habit of thinking he had grown "earnest". But in that case we must also ask whether On My Work as An Author is not itself "indirect" rather than "direct", or indeed whether the distinction is not itself a cunning deception designed to confound us into truth.

Kierkegaard had been confidently expecting death for nearly ten years when it eventually caught up with him in 1855, when he was forty-two. But there can be few writers - even Sylvia Plath - who have contrived to leave so much awkward business behind them. It seems to have given him some pleasure to think of the perplexity that would be created by the thousands of pages of manuscripts and the thirty-six notebooks and journals stashed in and around that mighty desk. His posthumous publications might even, he imagined, create a useful occupation for academics intent on petty careers:

"And yet it is futile . . . : the assistant professors will still make something profitable out of me, will teach directly, perhaps adding: the singular character of this is that it cannot be taught directly."

On his death, all Kierkegaard's papers reverted to his brother Peter Christian, who - having already given speeches criticizing the excessive enthusiasm of his unruly younger brother - was a decidedly reluctant inheritor. After becoming Bishop of Aalborg in 1856, however, he began to explore the materials and, discovering the fully prepared text of The Point of View for my Work as an Author, had it published in 1859. According to Habib C. Malik's richly informative study of the early reception of Kierkegaard, The Point of View "could not have appeared at a better time". The memory of Kierkegaard as an enraged invalid battling with mediocre officials of the Danish Church was already fading, and The Point of View replaced it with the image of a calm and subtle Christian, whose contemporaries - including his brother - had always misunderstood him because they did not realize that his authorship comprised two totally different kinds of work - those of his left hand and those of his right:

"with my left hand I passed Either/Or out into the world, with my right hand Two Upbuilding Discourses", Kierkegaard had written; "but they all or almost all took the left hand with their right."

The Point of View was the first work by Kierkegaard to attract a large and admiring readership, abroad as well as in Denmark. It enabled evangelicals to salute him as a valiant soldier in Christ's army, a "spy in a higher service", while sentimentalists could commiserate with the delicate misfit who wanly recalled that "my only joy . . . was that no one could discover how unhappy I felt". And it encouraged the widespread belief (erroneous, as Malik shows) that the violently self-certain hero of Ibsen's Brand can be taken as a portrait of Kierkegaard. The new enthusiasts of the 1860s paid no heed, however, to the new either/or of The Point of View: "be silent or speak: both are equally wrong."

Meanwhile, Peter Christian Kierkegaard engaged an assistant to prepare his brother's papers for publication. The first two volumes of Efterladte Papirer appeared in 1869, and included records of Kierkegaard's courtship of the seventeen-year-old Regine Olsen, their engagement, and then his tormented decision in 1841 to break with her, as he thought, for her own good.

Kierkegaard now acquired a new group of readers, who would speak knowingly of "Regine" as the focus of his life's work. Malik deplores these "biographical-psychological" vultures, but given the games of hide-and-seek that Kierkegaard played with his readers, the line between trivial gossip and respectful commentary is sometimes hard to draw. It is salutary, however, to have some glimpses of Kierkegaard as others saw him, and Bruce H. Kirmmse's fascinating anthology of personal recollections reminds us of an amazingly industrious professional author, hilarious, patient and convivial, at least as long as he was not mocked for his twisted, spindly gait, or praised for his piety or wisdom. According to one of Kirmmse's reports, Kierkegaard received a visit one day from a German scholar seeking conversation with the intellectuals of Copenhagen. Kierkegaard welcomed him courteously, but soon sent him on his way: "my brother is an exceedingly learned man, with whom it would surely interest you to become acquainted," Kierkegaard explained, "but I am only a beer-dealer."

It is often said that if Kierkegaard had written in German instead of Danish, he would have taken his place beside Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche in the histories of philosophy. He may never satisfy those who stipulate that philosophers must "solve problems" or "invent concepts", since he was content simply to ring the changes on classical ideas of irony, eternity, love, individuality and finitude. He once said that his hope was "to produce in prose a stronger lyrical effect than in verse", by insisting "on thought in every word", and it is the world's loss that, for the best part of a century, the range and depth of Kierkegaard's joyful, colloquial artistry were known only to those who could read Danish.

Danish is not confined to Denmark, however, and Habib Malik has discovered that the Scandinavian diaspora in the Midwestern United States has a Kierkegaardian tradition reaching back to the 1850s. In 1898, a student called Donald Swenson came upon a copy of Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift in a Minnesota public library, read it from cover to cover, and set out to become the first serious translator of Kierkegaard into English, his work being completed and perfected after his death by Walter Lowrie.

In 1970, a new force entered the field of Kierkegaard translation. Having already translated Works of Love and a seven-volume them-atic selection of Journals and Papers, Howard and Edna Hong of St Olaf College in Minnesota began work on an edition of all the works Kierkegaard prepared for publication, with historical introductions, notes, indexes and lavish supplements drawn from the posthumous papers. As befits a translation project of such comprehensive ambition, their policy was to prefer precision and word-by-word consistency to the relaxed readability favoured by Swenson and Lowrie. (They insist on using "upbuilding" rather than "edifying" for opbyggelig, for instance, and they always translate elskov as "erotic love" to distinguish it from kaerlighed, though at the cost of leading our minds to the newsagent's top shelf; see M. G. Piety on Kierkegaard in English, TLS, April 18, 1997.) After a quarter of a century's labour, the metre-high edifice in twenty-five volumes was topped off (except for the cumulative index) this spring. All honour to the Hongs: Kierkegaard's Writings is one of the outstanding achievements in the history of philosophical translation.

The Hongs' introductions to each volume make it clear that they interpret Kierkegaard in terms of his last and most vehemently Christian writings, seen in the perspective of The Point of View. Perfidious readers, however, may not be quite persuaded. Perhaps we can sympathize with the Kierkegaard of Late Writings when he casts a cold eye on the idea that Christianity is "reassuring" and denounces it as "a villainous preacher-lie", but still we may regret the unforgiving shrillness that now distorts his tone. And when we turn to the Hongs' 250 supplementary pages, we may suspect that in his last months he was losing control of his concepts as well as his composure. The old either/or is no longer dappled with colourful paradoxes:

"everything is at stake," he now writes, "heaven/hell, everything at stake, to the point of hating father, mother, one's own child - either/or."

In his very last religious pamphlet, however, Kierkegaard returned joyously to his intellectual first love. "The only analogy I have before me is Socrates", he wrote; "the only true martyr of intellectuality . . . how I long to be able to speak with you for only a half hour, far from those battalions of thinkers that 'Christendom' places in the field under the name of Christian thinkers." He never suppressed his devotion to Socratic irony for long - even in the The Point of View, which, we should remember, he contemplated publishing pseudonymously to prevent it being read as a simple confession. "This is my limitation", as he wrote in his journal: "I am a pseudonym."

The "Socratic task", as Kierkegaard understood it, consisted in giving instruction by patiently allowing oneself to be used by others as a means to their enlightenment. True teachers are like great actors; they put themselves body and soul at the disposal of their public. They teach by selflessly existing, like the lilies of the field or the fowls of the air; "you wonderful teachers", as Kierkegaard wrote in reference to this favourite text, "if one learned nothing else, if one learned to instruct, how much one would have learned!" But by what right can anyone presume to teach? On what authority? That is the ultimate Socratic challenge, and it is the question Kierkegaard flung in the face of church officials in his final polemical writings, as well as the crux of all his pseudonymous books. It is also the issue he wrestled with in one of his deepest but least-known works, The Book on Adler, which cost him even more anxiety and labour than The Point of View. It is about a real person, Adolph Peter Adler, but Kierkegaard decided that it could not be published, not even pseudonymously, for fear that "the whole thing will be understood to be about me". Adler was four years younger than Kierkegaard, but he had already finished his dissertation on "isolated subjectivity", published a book on Hegel, got married, and secured a living as a pastor when Kierkegaard was still struggling to obtain his degree and sort out his relations with Regine Olsen. It was as though he was Kierkegaard's monstrous spiritual twin, an unnerving reminder of neglected vocations and roads not taken. And Adler could teach with authority.

In 1843, a few months after the publication of Either/Or, Adler produced a volume of sermons. Like Kierkegaard, he had a problem with his authorship, but for different reasons. He had been on the point of finishing his second book on Hegel when a strange feeling crept over him. "That same night a hideous sound descended into our room; then the Saviour commanded me to get up and go in and write these words: the first human beings could have had an eternal life, because when thought joins God's spirit with the body, then life is eternal . . . ." The quotation, which continued for half a page, is unexceptional waffle in itself; but if Adler was right, it had been dictated directly by Jesus, who has great authority in such matters.

Adler quickly lost his position in the Church, but he never accepted that he had done wrong. In a series of books he argued that Jesus' opinions as revealed to him that night coincided with the latest findings of Hegelian philosophy, and that if a rational providence shapes the ultimate outcome of world history, then it could also have guided his own pen. But as Kierkegaard pointed out, Adler's rationalizations had the effect of transmuting a priceless paradox - "that God once came into existence in time" - into the dross of a plausible, timely and comforting hypothesis. Adler's appeals to the authority of revelation and the authority of philosophy only betrayed the weakness of his faith and his incapacity as a teacher. "He wants to convince himself", Kierkegaard says, "by convincing others."

The Book on Adler makes a severe distinction between "essential authors", whose individuality teaches us to reach genuine conclusions, and "premise-authors", whose sophistical averaging merely saves us from our consciousness of doubt. Premiss-authors, Kierkegaard says, come by the gross, like matches: "one takes an author like that, on whose head, just as on matches, a phosphorescent substance has been placed . . .; one takes him by the legs and strikes him on a newspaper, and then there are three or four columns . . . ." Each premiss-author goes off "in a puff", but in combination they speak reassuringly to contemporary readers, backed up by the authority of their age. Essential authors, on the other hand, take care to speak always "without authority". Without authority, essential authors find contemporaries in ages other than their own - as Kierkegaard now does, complete in English translation at last.

Jonathan Ree is co-editor, with Jane Chamberlain, of Kierkegaard: A critical reader, 1998.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments