M.G. Piety

The Phoenix

In Publishing News on April 23, 2014 at 11:54 pm

First German Reader coverI have repeatedly emphasized that I believe it’s important for Kierkegaard scholars not only to know Danish, but also to know German. Some of the best Kierkegaard scholarship is actually in German, just as is some of the best scholarship in other areas of philosophy. It’s difficult, I’ll grant you, to find a place in the U.S. that offers courses in Danish. German, on the other hand, is taught everywhere. Many Kierkegaard scholars undoubtedly learned German when they were in graduate school because most Ph.D. programs until recently, required proficiency in both German and French. The difficulty, of course, is that many people acquired only the most rudimentary knowledge of these languages and then let what little knowledge they had deteriorate through lack of use.

Fortunately, it is now easier to get one’s German back up to speed. The little hand-held dual language translators are absolutely fabulous reading aids. I have a little Sharp PW-E310 Oxford-Duden that I got in Berlin a few years ago. Dedicated dual-language translators appear to be rare these days. I don’t know how good the ones that handle more than two languages are. Fortunately, the Oxford-Duden is still available, though it looks like you will have to order it from Germany. There are lots of free online translation tools as well. I don’t like using my phone for stuff like that, but you may want to try it if you can’t get your hands on a little dedicated electronic translator. You can always use your computer, of course, but who wants to read books sitting at his desk? I do that sometimes, but I like to be able to read other places as well, particularly in bed. I read Heinrich Böll’s Der Zug War Pünktlich in bed with the help of my little Oxford-Duden. (That’s a fantastic book, by the way).

There are, of course, other ways to gain proficiency in German. There’s the good old fashioned way of reading with a regular dictionary at one’s side. I HATE looking stuff up that way though. It is so time consuming leafing through the dictionary and then scanning the page for a precise word. Fortunately, Dover has a wonderful dual-language book called First German Reader. This little book has a great selection of texts including works by Goethe, Lessing, Heine, and Tucholsky. It’s even available in a Kindle edition!

I found the following text that I thought would be of particular interest to Kierkegaard scholars in this little reader. See how much you can understand before you turn to the translation.

 

Der Phönix

Nach vielen Jahrhunderten gefiel es dem Phönix, sich wider einmal sehen zu lassen. Er erschien, und all Tiere und Vögel versammelten sich um ihn. Sie gafften, sie staunten, sie bewunderten und brachen in entzückendes Lob aus.

Bald aber wandeten die besten und geselligsten mitleidsvoll ihre Blicke ab und seuften: >>Der unglückliche Phönix! Ihm wurde das harte Los, weder Geliebte noch Freund zu haben; denn er ist der einzige seiner Art!<<

 

The Phoenix

After many centuries it pleased the phoenix to let himself be seen once more. He appeared, and all the beasts and birds gathered about him. They gaped, they were amazed, they admired and broke into rapturous praise.

Soon, however, the best and most sensitive and compassionate [among them] averted their eyes pityingly and sighed: “The unhappy phoenix! To him fell the hard lot to have neither a loved one nor a friend; for he is the only one of his kind!”

 

I edited the translation just a little to make it read more naturally. It’s a pretty good translation, though, even without my edits. It’s also a pretty good characterization of Kierkegaard, don’t you think?

 

 

 

Great Publishing News!

In Publishing News on April 14, 2014 at 10:12 pm

Old books (cropped)Alastair Hannay has produced a new translation of Kierkegaard’s Concept of Anxiety! This is great news for Kierkegaard scholars, and perhaps even better news for people who are not actually scholars but simply fans of Kierkegaard, because Hannay’s translations are markedly superior to the Princeton translations. Hannay’s new translation was not actually the occasion for this post, however. I’ll have a review of the translation later. The reason for this post is that I was delighted to discover that the translation is available in an ebook edition! Not only that, in preparation for my review, I thought I would see if Princeton had issued an ebook of Reidar Thomte’s translation of Anxiety, and sure enough, they have come around as well!

I know there are still a few people out there who are still resisting the transition to ebooks, so I thought I would take the opportunity once again to try to convince them that ebooks are fantastic! I have lots of beautiful old volumes of late 18th and early 19th-century philosophy and theology that I collected in Denmark and I doubt there are many people who appreciate a beautiful book more than I do. I have to tell you, though, that I am absolutely crazy about ebooks. I was excited about the idea of them when I first heard about them for the simple reason that they are searchable. Once I got a Kindle, however, I discovered that there are lots more wonderful things about ebooks:

1. They take no space. This is very important for me because even with two residences and an office at school, I have no more space for books.

2. You can carry thousands of books with you in your pocket everywhere you go so that never again will you be stuck anywhere without something to read. In fact, if you have a smart phone, you can read your books on your phone in the unfortunate event that you have failed to bring your ebook reader along with you. I know that sounds kind of crazy. I never thought I would want to read a book on my phone. It’s surprisingly pleasant though. I think the fact that the phone has backlighting makes it easier to read the small characters so that they don’t actually seem all that small.

3, You can secure a new book instantly, INSTANTLY! Once I was watching a program on mysticism and the narrator referred to a scholar of mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, who sounded very interesting. I was able to download a copy of one of her books before the program I was watching had even finished! This, to me, is just a huge advantage to ebooks. It has been enormously stimulating to my thought processes that I can get books immediately (not to mention that I can search them).

4. It is easy to move back and forth between notes and text. You just click on the note number and you are taken to the note. Click on the back button and you are back to the point in the text where the note appears. This isn’t easier than checking footnotes, of course, but it is much easier than checking endnotes. I hate endnotes, but everyone seems to be doing them now instead of footnotes.

5. I can cut and paste text to my lecture notes for class or for articles I’m working on–and the reference is inserted automatically!

6. You can download free samples of books you are not sure you want to buy and these samples are pretty substantial chunks of text, usually at least a whole chapter.

7. Ebooks are cheaper than regular books, so if you buy as many books as I do, you save A LOT of money buying ebooks.

8. Not only are ebooks cheaper than conventional books, lots and lots of them are actually free! That’s right, lots of books that have gone into the public domain (including lots of older translations of Plato and other philosophers) are available free of charge in the Kindle bookstore (I’m sure Barnes and Noble has something similar for their Nook).

9. Ebooks are easier to read in bed because they are lighter than most regular books and you don’t have to manage the two halves. I used to get very uncomfortable because I sleep on my side so, if I were reading a really thick book either my arm would get tired holding up the thick side or I would have to turn over on my other side every time I finished reading a page.

Ebooks are the wave of the future. Not only are they better in all the ways listed above than conventional books for readers, they make it much easier for people to get into print (meaning e-ink print, of course). The ebook revolution is going to be as big a thing, I think, as was the invention of the printing press. There were books before the printing press, but books (not to mention democracy) really took off after the invention of the printing press. I think ebooks are going to have just as revolutionary an effect on humanity as did the printing press.

Okay, there are some disadvantages with them. Unless you have an iPad, or other tablet computer, you won’t get the full experience of color illustrations. That isn’t such a huge problem for philosophers and theologians, though, because most of our books don’t have big color illustrations. Of course, you need to charge an e-reader whereas you don’t need to charge a book. E-readers actually hold a charge for a long time, however. My Kindle Paperwhite holds a charge for weeks even though it is backlighted. Finally, t is difficult to “page through” an e-reader (you are better off doing a search on a key word).

The advantages of e-books clearly FAR outweigh their disadvantages. Sorry to go on like this but I am so crazy about ebooks. I do this to everyone who tells me he doesn’t like e-books, that to me is like saying you don’t like to read. If you like to read, you will LOVE e-books. Mark my words!

On Being Human

In Conference news, Publishing News on April 9, 2014 at 6:46 pm

MLN Kierkegaard cover.128.5_frontVolume 128 no. 5 of MLN (originally Modern Language Notes) includes a collection of papers from the conference on Kierkegaard that was hosted by Johns Hopkins last September. Leonardo Lisi very kindly sent me a copy as a thank you for my having chaired a session at the conference. I went immediately to the paper by Jonathan Lear because it had been one of my favorites from the conference. The paper, “The Ironic Creativity of Socratic Doubt” (MLN 1001-1018) takes its point of departure in a passage from Kierkegaard’s journals that reads:

Socrates doubted that one was a human being by birth; to become human, or to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily–what occupied Socrates, what he sought, was the ideality of being human (Journals 278).

Lear says he’s going to pursue the suggestion that “we should read the or as exegetical” in the sense that “what follows the ‘or’ explicates what precedes it” (MLN 1004). That is, Lear argues that learning what it means to be human is precisely to “become human.” Learning what it means to be human, Lear asserts, is not “tantamount to acquiring a practical skill” (MLN 1005) because if it were, then it would seem easy enough to do, yet Socrates had difficulty with it and Kierkegaard seems to accept this difficulty as natural for anyone who is sufficiently reflective.

Lear’s essay is extraordinarily rich and I cannot hence to justice to it here. I want here only sketch Lear’s thesis and point out what I believe is problematic about it. That is, I’m going to argue that while Lear presents a beautifully persuasive reading of Plato’s Symposium, this reading cannot unproblematically be attributed to Kierkegaard.

Lear uses Diotima’s discussion of “pregnancy” from Plato’s Symposium to gain insight into what might be the difficulty involved in learning what it means to be human. This is indeed, I would argue, a fruitful approach to the problem because though Kierkegaard skips over this part of Diotima’s speech in The Concept of Irony, the metaphor of pregnancy becomes very important to Kierkegaard.

Diotima’s speech is about love. “[L]ove,” she asserts, “is wanting to possess the good forever” (206a; Lear’s emphasis). But the only way we are going to be able to do that, observes Lear, is if “we create it ourselves.” “The ‘real purpose of love,’ Diotima say, ‘is giving birth in beauty whether in body or in soul’” (206b; Lear’s emphasis) (MLN 1010)

“What we lack and seek,” asserts Lear, “is not the missing good object… Rather what we lack and seek is the beautiful environment–the beautiful other–in which we can then give forth something from deep within ourselves” (MLN 1010). Lear acknowledges that ordinarily we associate the erotic in Plato with a kind of lack and that. “No doubt,” he observes, “there are passages that support that though. But here in the heart of the Platonic Socrates’ discourse on eros, he says that the erotic encounter is the occasion to experience ourselves as full. Since Socrates says he is persuaded by Diotima’s teaching (212b),” continues Lear, “he cannot here be thinking of himself as empty” (MLN 1011).

It is not necessarily the case, however, that the “lack” traditionally associated with erotic love in Plato is equivalent to “emptiness.” That is, the “lack” that the lover seeks to fill through the possession of the beloved in not incompatible with his experiencing himself as full in some other respect. A lover may be filled, for example, with a wonder at creation and yet lack a beloved to share it with. Alternatively, the fullness the lover experiences may simply replace the lack that served as the impetus to love. That is, the traditional Platonic conception of erotic love as related to a kind of lack in the lover is not necessarily incompatible, in the manner Lear suggests with Diotima’s view of love as a kind of fullness that issues in birth.

This point is not essential, however, to Lear’s thesis. His thesis is actually that human life has a “characteristic activity.” This activity, he explains is “pregnancy and giving birth in the beautiful. That is, it is the creativity in the presence of –or in the presence of a memory of–a beautiful other person who stimulates and inspires us. Try to imagine,” Lear continues, “a human being who has no pregnancy in them whatsoever: no ability to reproduce biologically nor even a spark of creative impulse. If one can imagine this at all, one is imagining someone at the far end of an autistic spectrum. This is not just another instance of a human being, but an impaired one” (MLN 1014).

“We see from the inside,” continues Lear, “that human being is characterized by creativity stimulated by our encounter with others–and that a biological instance of the kind that lacked that creativity would be a problematic instance. This,” asserts Lear, “is not an arbitrarily high standard; it is a constitutional condition” (MLN 1015). I like this definition of what it means to be human, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is what Kierkegaard had in mind. Lear asserts that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity” and that “[l]earning what it means to give birth in the beautiful just is the self-conscious understanding that we acquire in giving birth in the beautiful” (MLN 1015). But if a human being who is unable to do this and hence to gain an understanding of it is, as Lear asserts, someone “at the far end of an autistic spectrum,” then it is difficult to understand why Kierkegaard would believe that “to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily.” That is, if Lear is correct in his claim that “giving birth in the beautiful is our characteristic practical activity,” then learning what it means to give birth is this way would be something that everyone did as a matter of course.

One might be tempted to argue, that when Kierkegaard says “learning what it means to become human does not come that easily,” what he means is more that it is painful rather than that it is rare. Perhaps, after all, that is what Lear means. Lear is a practicing Freudian analyst, so it’s unlikely that he would want to exclude from the category “human” the vast number of individuals Kierkegaard’s gloss on Plato’s text suggests would be excluded. This can’t be what Kierkegaard means, however, because he clearly does, ironically, want to exclude vast numbers of human beings from the category “human.” We are supposed to be “human,” according to Kierkegaard, in the manner Lear describes, but in fact, most of us are not. [T]he ideality of human being” that Socrates sought is impossibly high according to Kierkegaard, in that it is not something we can achieve without God’s help. That’s the irony. We cannot become who we are, according to Kierkegaard, in the beautiful environment of human love, but only in the beautiful environment of divine love.

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