Death and Nonsense

Death has been on everyone’s mind for awhile now. I’m presenting a paper on the topic of death in Kierkegaard at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. As regular readers of this blog will know, I recently completed my own translation of the portion of Works of Love that deals with loving someone who has died. (That translation will appear in print soon, from Gegensatz Press in an edition that will have the original Danish and my English translation of that text on facing pages.) I thought I ought to review Kierkegaard’s other writings on death, as well, to help me prepare the presentation.

One such work is the religious discourse “At a Graveside” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions. I don’t know whether I had ever read it before. If I did, then it was either in the original Danish or in a translation that preceded the Hongs’ translation from 1993. Until reading “At a Graveside,” I would have said that the Hongs’ translation of The Sickness Unto Death was the most problematic of their translations. “At a Graveside” may actually have it beat, though, for reasons I will present below.

The first indication I had that it wasn’t a good translation is that it doesn’t read well. Kierkegaard’s writing is not always equally brilliant, but it is never bad. This, is bad, though: 

“Death’s decision is therefore not definable by equality, because the equality consists in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” 

The expression that the Hongs consistently translate as “decision” here and elsewhere in the discourse, is Afgjørelse. The Danish term that most closely corresponds to the English “decision” is not Afgjørelse, however, but Beslutning. According to Ferrall-Repp, Afgjørelse means “finishing, etc., completion; decision, adjustment, settlement.” “Decision” is there. The definition makes clear, however, that an Afgjørelse is a “decision” in a formal, or legalistic sense, such as the decision of a referee or a judge. This explains, at least in part, why the passage above is confusing. 

Dødens Afgjørelse would be better rendered here as “Death’s reckoning.” 

To make matters worse, not only is Dødens Afgjørelse confusingly translated as “Death’s decision” in the passage above, it’s consistently translated that way throughout the entire discourse, even where it is used as a section heading. This, along with additional translation problems I will detail below, makes the discourse anything but “pellucid” in the manner Gordon Marino claims in his essay “A Critical Perspective on Kierkegaard’s ‘At a Graveside,’” in Kierkegaard and Death. 

There’s more to this lamentably translated passage than the unfortunate translation of Afgørelse as “decision.” The preposition ved that the Hongs have translated as “by” is probably better translated as “through.” “By” is listed before “through” in Ferrall-Repp, but the latter is there as well, and I think it is preferable because Kierkegaard appears to be trying to say that we can’t actually grasp death by thinking of it as the great equalizer, because the equality is established through annihilation and we have no better grasp of that than we have of death. That is, he isn’t suggesting we ever attempt to define death as equality, but that we often think we can come to a better understanding of it by thinking of it as, among other things, the great equalizer.

What about the second sentence: “And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” The use of “alleviating” there is unidiomatic. “Alleviating” generally takes a direct object in English. We say, for example, that a particular lotion is good at alleviating itching. We don’t normally speak of something being alleviating for someone. 

The Danish term that is translated as “alleviating” is formildende. Formildende isn’t in Ferrall-Repp. Formilde is though, and it’s defined there as “to soothe, soften, mollify, appease, assuage, alleviate, temper, mitigate.” So once again we see that the Hongs have chosen an English term that could, in principle, be an acceptable translation of the Danish term in question. It just doesn’t work in this passage. 

“And pondering this is supposed to be soothing for the living” is clearly preferable to “And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living.” I’m going to go out on a limb here, however, and suggest that “comforting” would actually be the most idiomatic translation. It isn’t offered as a possible translation of formilde in Ferrall-Repp, but it captures the sense of formildene in this passage. 

Let’s try out our new translation of the passage and compare it with the Hongs’. The Hongs have:

“Death’s decision is therefore not definable by equality, because the equality consists in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” 

We have:

“Death’s reckoning is therefore not definable through equality, because the equality is in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be comforting for the living!”

The Hongs have interpolated “consists” here. That isn’t really a problem, however, in terms of understanding the meaning of the passage. It’s just what Strunk and White would call bad form in that it’s unnecessary. The real problems are with the Hongs’ translations of Dodens Afgjørelse as “Death’s decision,” ved as “by,” and formildende as “alleviating.” The first, I would argue, is both unidiomatic and confusing. The second suggests an equation of death with equality that is clearly not intended in the original, and the third is unidiomatic. 

There are lots more of the kinds of problems described above. Page 86, for example, has four instances of  the same unidiomatic use of “alleviating” as appears in the passage above. This is arguably simply a stylistic problem rather than a substantive one, but not only is it a disservice to both Kierkegaard and readers of the Hongs’ translation to render Kierkegaard’s flowing Danish in an awkward an unidiomatic English, it can lead to substantive problems. That is, readers may wonder what is being alleviated and why Kierkegaard is being so mysterious about it. 

These are not the worst problems with the Hongs’ translation of “Ved en Grav” (literally, simply “At a Grave”). The Hongs’ inexplicable choice to translate Afgjørelse as “decision” leads to even greater problems in another passage. This one is on page 97 where, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson would refer to as a foolish attempt at consistency, the Hongs translate Uafgjørtheden as “indecisiveness.” Afgjørt is the past participle of Afgjøre, which, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to finish, complete; to decide; to settle, adjust.” It is, of course, related to Afgjørelse, hence the Hongs’ apparently decided to translate it as “indecisive” in order to preserve in the translation a terminological consistency found in the original Danish text. 

The problem is that meaning was sacrificed here to consistency. The passage includes two references to holding death “in the equilibrium of indecisiveness.” It isn’t at all clear, however, what that could possibly mean. That is, the passage does not concern someone contemplating suicide who can’t make up their mind. It concerns our difficulty in grasping what, exactly, death is.

It gets worse. “To paganism,” reads the translation on page 97, “the highest courage was the wise person (whose earnestness was indicated expressly by his not being in a hurry with the explanation [i.e., of death]) who was able to live with the thought of death in such a way that he overcame this thought every moment of his life by indecisiveness.”

What? How can one overcome anything by indecisiveness? Kierkegaard would never say such a thing. If there was anything of which Kierkegaard was contemptuous, it was indecisiveness. By this point, you can probably figure out for yourself how Uafgjørtheden should be translated here. It refers to indeterminacy, or, more awkwardly, undecidability, not indecisiveness. This is made clear in the text that follows. “The wise person,” the passage continues, “knows that death exists [er til]; he does not live thoughtlessly, forgetting that it exists [er til]. He meets with it in his thoughts, he renders it powerless in indeterminability [Ubestemmelighed], and this is his victory over death.”  

Finally, translators of Kierkegaard should avoid, if at all possible, rendering er til as “exists,” because “existence,” i.e., Existens, is a technical term for Kierkegaard. The passage above would be less misleading if er til were translated simply as “is,” or “is [real]” with brackets to indicate that “real” is an interpolation.

How can Gordon Marino have thought that the Hongs’s translation of “Ved en Grav” was “pellucid”? Portions of it are flat out nonsensical. Kierkegaard and Death, the volume in which Marino’s essay on “At a Graveside” appears, is a collection of essays by various scholars. Many of the essays understandably focus on “At a Graveside.” What is less understandable is that none of them mentions the numerous problems with the translation. 

The strange silence of the contributors to Kierkegaard and Death concerning the problems with the Hongs’ translation of “Ved en Grav” reveals a serious challenge to rigorous Kierkegaard scholarship. It would appear that either the impression that Kierkegaard’s writing is often nonsensical even in the original must be so pervasive among scholars that many don’t bother to check awkward and confusing passages in translations against the original Danish, or that knowledge of Danish, even rudimentary knowledge, is so rare among Kierkegaard scholars that most are simply unable to determine problems with translations even when they suspect they may exist.

“The Poet and the Reader”

Kierkegaard’s intellectual gifts and literary talents were vast and humbling to aspiring thinkers and writers. Yet the accounts we have of him from contemporaries paint a picture of a man who was far from arrogant. He was, by those accounts, an affable and sympathetic person. He had a particular fondness for children, was a favorite of his nieces and nephews, and enjoyed talking with people from all walks of life that he would encounter on the streets of Copenhagen.

There’s an intimacy to Kierkegaard’s writing that goes along with his lack of pretension. This is evinced in his frequent references to his “reader” in the singular. This sort of authorial intimacy was captured in the poet Louise Glück’s Nobel lecture. The lecture was published under the title “The Poet and the Reader” in the January 14, 2021 edition of The New York Review of Books. Glück explains there that the poems to which she is most drawn “are poems of intimate selection or collusion, poems to which the listener or reader makes an essential contribution.” 

Kierkegaard also preferred writing with respect to which “the reader himself is to a certain degree productive” (Either-Or, Princeton, p. 110). He clearly had what Glück describes as “a temperament that distrusts public life or sees it as the realm in which generalization obliterates precision, and partial truth replaces candor and charged disclosure.” 

“If one assumes,” writes Kierkegaard

that everyone who reads a book for some contingent reason having nothing to do with the book’s content is not a genuine reader, then there would not be many genuine readers left, even for authors with a large readership, because to whom would it occur in our day to waste an instant on the ludicrous thought that to be a good reader is actually an art, let alone to spend time to become such a reader? This unfortunate situation naturally influences an author, who according to my opinion does well to write after the fashion of Clemens Alexandrinus, in such a way that heretics cannot understand it. (Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, 76.)

Kierkegaard did indeed write in such a way that “heretics” could not understand his writing and that fact has generated incalculable confusion in philosophical and theological circles. It’s not that Kierkegaard’s writing is particularly difficult to understand, it’s that it requires a certain mindset. It required a contribution from the reader: an ear for humor, a suspicion of easy answers and of what Kierkegaard sometimes referred to as “the crowd,” but what we would more likely refer to these days as “group think.” 

More than anything, though, understanding Kierkegaard’s writing requires a tendency to double reflection, which is to say a tendency to measure what one reads against one’s own life and experience, to see if it coheres with that experience, and when the writing in question has a prescriptive, or normative dimension, to measure the extent to which one’s life both validates those prescriptions and conforms to them. 

Kierkegaard wrote for this sort of rare, doubly reflected reader. He explains in The Point of View for My Work as an Author, that he introduced a “formula” in the preface of Two Upbuilding Discourses (1843), “that later was repeated unchanged: ‘It seeks that single individual whom I with joy and gratitude call my reader’” (Princeton, p. 9). 

“Those of us who write books,” explains Glück, “presumably wish to reach many. But some poets do not see reaching many in spatial terms, as in the filled auditorium. They see reaching many temporally, sequentially, many over time, into the future, but in some profound way these readers always come singly, one by one.”

That’s how Kierkegaard’s readers come to him, the ones who stay anyway, the genuine readers —one by one. 

Kierkegaard and Existential Psychotherapy

cropped-sketch_1840_regineknippelsbro_iii_a-1.jpgMuch has been written about Kierkegaard and psychotherapy. That makes sense, given that Kierkegaard had a profound understanding of human psychology. 

Irvin Yalom, an existential psychiatrist, discusses Kierkegaard at length in Existential Psychotherapy (Basic Books, 1980). Several more recent works have appeared on Kierkegaard and psychotherapy, including Everyday Mysteries: A Handbook of Existential Psychotherapy (Routledge, 1997), Psychology and the Other (Oxford, 2015), and Therapy and the Counter-tradition: The Edge of Philosophy (Routledge, 2016). 

Anthony Stadlen, an existential psychotherapist working in London has been running a series of international, interdisciplinary “Inner Circle Seminars” for many years. This year he has two seminar series that focus on Kierkegaard. The first series, which focuses on Fear and Trembling, is already underway. The fourth seminar in that series will be given by John Lippitt this May. 

Stadlen has arranged a second “satellite” series to supplement the Fear and Trembling series. This series will examine two other works, Repetition and Three Upbuilding Discourses. The reason for this additional series of seminars is that these two works were published the same day Fear and Trembling appeared, October 16, 1843. Stadlen’s assumption is that the three works should be understood together and that a careful reading of all three could help to make Kierkegaard’s purpose in the notoriously opaque Fear and Trembling a little easier to divine. 

I am very excited to be invited to be part of this seminar because I have a keen interest in the psychotherapeutic potential of philosophy and of Kierkegaard’s thought in particular. I’m actually a certified philosophical counselor and member of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. The series looks like it will be excellent. The seminar leaders, in addition to myself, are George Pattison, C. Stephen Evans, Jerome (Yehuda) Gellman and Mariam Al-Attar. I won’t describe the seminars or the presenters in any detail here because Stadlen has posted an announcement about them that contains all the detail one would want, including his contact information. It will suffice here to say that 

— Pattison’s seminar will focus on Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses. 

— My seminar will focus on Repetition. 

— Evans will talk about “divine command theory” as it relates to Fear and Trembling and Works of Love. 

— Lippitt, who gave the first two seminars in the main seminar series on Fear and Trembling, will focus on the questions of whether there is a “teleological suspension of the ethical” and whether there is “an absolute duty to God.” 

— Gellman will focus on Hasidic interpretations of the Akedah and the light these can cast on Kierkegaard’s treatment of it. 

— Finally, al-Attar will look at “divine command theory” in the Islamic tradition and it’s relation to Fear and Trembling.

More information on the seminars can be found on Stadlen’s blog.