It’s rare that Danish scholars venture outside Denmark. So it was a treat to hear Joakim Garff deliver a paper at the 2011 AAR meeting in San Francisco last November. (I’m sorry about the quality of the photo. I didn’t think to bring my camera, so I had to take it with my iPod Touch). Garff is trained as a theologian but his métier is aesthetics and literary theory. There’s been a lot of interest among contemporary Kierkegaard scholars in Kierkegaard’s aesthetics and his relation to art and rightly so. Kierkegaard is a consummate story teller as well as a lover of music. He often disparages art, but he is himself a type of artist, so his relation to art and, in particular to literature as a type of art, is deeply ambivalent. Garff’s paper, as the title of this post indicates, was an argument that Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity can be read as a Christian Bildungsroman.
The paper, Garff explains, presents “a reading of the third section of Practice in Christianity in order to visualize the sophisticated movements that Anti-Climacus performs between an aesthetic-rhetorical mimesis and a specific theological imitatio Christi.” It is Garff’s contention that Practice in Christianity can be read as “a refined and condensed Bildungsroman that constitutes a representation of Christian individuation: An aesthetic image (Billede) of the crucified savior, with which a child is dramatically confronted, is gradually transformed int a religious examplar (Forbillede).” Garff’s analysis, he asserts “testifies to the fact that the aesthetic dimension in Kierkegaard’s theology is a ‘theology of autopsy,’ which seeks to reduce or suspend, through an extensive use of rhetorical tools, the temporal distance between a modern reader and Jesus of Nazareth.”
I’ll confess that I’m uncertain precisely what he means by “theology of autopsy,” or perhaps I should say I’m uncertain why he’s chosen that expression, because the latter half of that sentence makes perfect sense. That is, I think Garff is correct in his claim that Kierkegaard uses his rhetorical skills as a means of creating a semblance of contemporaneity in his reader with the historical person of Jesus. Few scholars would dispute that, though I believe most would argue that establishing what Kierkegaard would consider genuine contemporaneity in the spiritual sense is ultimately beyond the scope of rhetoric no matter how skillfully employed.
The ambiguity of the relation between literary form and spiritual substance is one that runs throughout Kierkegaard’s entire authorship and which thus deserves to be treated in more detail. There are already some excellent works on the topic of Kierkegaard’s aesthetics, including Sylvia Walsh’s Living Poetically: Kierkegaard’s Existential Aesthetics (Penn State Press, 1994), but the topic is far from exhausted.
I would argue that the specific topic of the Bildungsroman in Kierkegaard’s works deserves fuller treatment. Repetition, for example, is clearly a Bildungsroman, and one could argue that the whole of the authorship, particularly in light of Kierkegaard’s own comments on it in The Point of View, could be read as an extended Bildungsroman.
Garff made a comment in passing that was so important it deserves to be repeated here. Someone asked him what he made of the pseudonymity of Practice in Christianity and he replied that he didn’t think it was particularly important. He said he thought scholars made too much of the issue of the pseudonymity of many of Kierkegaard’s works, that in some instances, at least, pseudonyms were last minute additions to works he’d originally planned to publish under his own name. I could not agree with Garff more an that point. Anyone who has spent any time reading Kierkegaard’s journals and papers, as well as the works he published under his own name, knows that the view contained in the pseudonymous works, more often than not, reflect Kierkegaard’s own views. I believe the pseudonyms were an aesthetic device, something to give a particular work a kind of symmetry, or closure, that the name of a real flesh and blood author affixed to them could not do.So there we are, back to aesthetics.
Garff mentioned that he had a new book coming out soon, but would not divulge the topic.