M.G. Piety

On Death and Dying

In Kierkegaard and Psychology on September 29, 2014 at 11:49 am

Readers of this blog might be interested to know that I often mention Kierkegaard in posts to my other blog The Life of the Mind. The following is one such post that I am re-posting here to give people interested in Kierkegaard an idea of the type of references to Kierkegaard that show up on my other blog. This post appeared first on my blog on July 17, 2013 and was then republished in the online political journal Counterpunch under the title “The Long Journey.” Most recently, if was republished in The 33rd, an anthology of writing published annually by Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences. People seem to like this piece. I hope readers of this blog will enjoy it as well.

One of the most frightening things, I think, about dying is that we do it alone. Of all the natural evils for which one would like to blame the creator, this seems one of the worst. It would have been so much better, wouldn’t it, if we left this life in groups, left perhaps with the people we came in with, with the children we remember from our earliest days in school, and perhaps also with the people we have come to love, if they are suitably close to us in age. If we could go in groups, as if on a field trip, it would be easier.

But we go alone, even those unfortunates who die in accidents that take many lives die effectively alone because they don’t have time, really to appreciate their fates as shared. They say the people who remained on the Titanic sang as the ship went down. That’s what I’m talking about. It would be so much better, so much easier to bear if we were assigned a time along with many others. We could begin to gather a little before that time, all of us who were assigned to leave together, we could begin to gather and prepare ourselves and share with one another the joys and sorrows of our lives. If we did that, I think we would realize that our lives had really all been variations on the same theme, that we were not so different from one another as we had thought.

I’m not certain if I believe in life after death, even though I am very religious. I’m not certain what it would be for. I doubt I will be ready to leave this life when my time comes. I think I’d like to live much longer than I know I will, say three or four hundred years. I think I’d eventually get tired of living though, so the prospect of living forever is not all that appealing.

It seems to me, however, that if there is life after death, that that place where we will all go (and I believe we will all go to the same place because I am a universalist), wherever it is, that we will all actually arrive there together. Even though each of us will die individually, alone, if we go anywhere, it is to eternity and since there is no temporal change in eternity, there cannot be any arriving earlier or later. Where we will go will be where everyone will go at the same time, or where everyone, in a sense, already is. There will be no waiting for the loved ones who die after us. They will be there waiting for us, so to speak, when we arrive, even if they are in the bloom of youth when we leave.

When I think about death, which I do more and more as I get older, I wonder if perhaps part of the point of it, of the horrible specter of that trip one must take alone, is precisely to make us understand that we never really are alone. And by that I don’t mean simply that God is always with us, although I do mean that also. I mean that we are all part of the whole of humanity, that we are connected to everyone and, indeed, to every living thing.

There is a poem I love by Molly Holden that conveys very well this sense of connectedness. It’s called “Photograph of Haymaker, 1890.” It goes like this:

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —
as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.
Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,

That’s not the whole of the poem. I left out the last couple of lines for fear of violating copyright. You can read the whole of it though if you go to Poetry magazine. Of course the poem is about the haymaker in that it’s about mortality which is inseparable, I think from temporality. Time passes, people pass, as they say. The haymaker will pass, just as the grasses he’s cutting down in the vigor of his manhood. And he is gone now of course that man who was young and vigorous in that photo taken so long ago.

I love to read philosophy and learn that others who lived and died long before me had precisely the same thoughts that I have had. I feel suddenly linked to those people in a mystical way. I feel as if they are with me in a strange sense, that we are together on this journey we call life, even though they completed it long ago.

Kierkegaard speaks often about the idea of death and how one must keep it ever present in his thoughts. I did not understand this when I first read it, but I believe I do now. To think about death, really to think about it, to think it through, will bring you right back around again to life and what a miracle it is, and by that I don’t mean your own small individual life, but all of it, life as a whole, and you will be filled with reverence for it. You will be kinder to every creature.

And you will feel less alone.

This piece is for Otis Anderson, February7, 1959 – July 14, 2013.

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!

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