Pulling Ourselves Together

I gave a paper entitled “Pulling Ourselves Together: Kierkegaard and the Catechesis of Contagion” at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion last month. Several people told me I should try to publish the paper, but I fear that might be difficult because it is not a traditional academic paper, but actually contains edifying elements. So I decided that rather than racking my brains trying to think of an appropriate journal, I would simply post it to this blog. I haven’t posted the whole paper, though, because while it is short, at ten pages, it is still considerably longer than the average post to this blog. What I’ve done instead is simply posted the first part and then provided a link to the pdf of the entire paper at the end in case you are sufficiently intrigued by the beginning and decide you would like to read all the way to the end.

Vær så god!

“You may have heard,” writes Kierkegaard in “To Preserve One’s Soul In Patience,”

“how someone who had thoughtlessly frittered away his life and never understood anything but wasted the power of his soul in vanities, how he lay on his sick bed and the frightfulness of disease encompassed him and the singularly fearful battle began, how he then, for the first time in his life, understood something, understood that it was death he struggled with, and how he then pulled himself together in a purpose that was powerful enough to move a world, how he attained a marvelous collectedness for wrenching himself out of the sufferings in order to use the last moment to catch up on some of what he had neglected, to bring order to some of the chaos he had caused during a long life, to contrive something for those he would leave behind. You may have heard it from those who were there with him, who with sadness, but also deeply moved, had to confess that in those few hours he had lived more than in all the rest of his life, more than is lived in years and days as people ordinarily live” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 181).

Not since the flu pandemic of 1918, which took more lives than WWI, has an illness aroused so much anxiety and fear as the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet this global tragedy is also an opportunity for us to understand, perhaps for the first time, how we struggle with death from the moment we come to understand our mortality, even if we spend most of our lives in denial concerning this struggle. Our current crisis provides us, according to Kierkegaard, with an opportunity to reevaluate our lives, to catch up on what we have neglected, to bring order to some of the chaos we may have caused during our lives, to contrive something for those we will eventually leave behind, to live more than in all the rest of our lives, “more than is lived in years and days as people ordinarily live.”

This paper argues that the confrontation with our mortality that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced upon us can, according to Kierkegaard, be a means of powerful spiritual instruction, instruction on what is truly meaningful in existence and how we may live our lives, however long or short they may be, so fully, so completely enfolded in the embrace of Grace that even the specter of death is no longer frightening.

Pulling Ourselves Together,” delivered at the 2021 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

The Decline of Editing

The annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion took place last week. As usual, there were three Kierkegaard sessions. I missed the first session, which was on Kierkegaard and “public philosophy.” The other two sessions were excellent. The theme of both sessions, which were sponsored by the Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group of the AAR, was “Kierkegaard, Contagion, Class, and Corporeal Vulnerability,” so the sessions were timely, with frequent references to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was particularly interested in “Kierkegaard, Emotional Contagion, and Affective Sociability,” a paper by Wojciech Kaftanski, who is affiliated with The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, a program with which Jeffrey Hanson, another Kierkegaard scholar is also affiliated. (Ironically, The Human Flourishing Program is housed at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Kierkegaard must be spinning in his grave!).

There was one passage of Kaftanski’s paper in which I was particularly interested. The passage is below, followed by the original Danish text.

“Nowadays…efforts are made in the states to bring about this irrationality, the existence of a prodigious monstrosity with many heads or, more correctly and accurately, a thousand-, according to the circumstances, a hundred-thousand-legged monstrosity, the crowd, an irrational enormity, or an enormous irrationality, that nevertheless has physical force, the force of the shout and uproar, also an amazing virtuosity in making everything commensurable with the hands raised to vote or with the decision of fists lifted up for a brawl. This abstraction is an inhuman something whose power is certainly enormous, but whose enormous power cannot be defined humanly but can be more accurately defined as the power of a machine”

“…sørges nutildags i Staterne for, at dette Ufornuftige finder Sted, at der existerer et eventyrligt Monstrum ||—|| med mange Hoveder, eller (rigtigere og) sandere, et Tusind-, efter Omstændighederne , et Hundredetusind-Been: Mængden, et ufornuftigt Uhyre eller et uhyre Ufornuftigt, som dog sandseligt har Magten, Skrigets og Larmens, item en beundringsværdigt Virtuositet it at gjøre Alt commensurabelt for de til Ballotation oprakte Hænders eller de til Slagsmaal opløftede Nævers Afgjørelse. Dette Abstractum er et umenneskeligt Noget, hvis Kraft dog ikke kan bestemmes menneskeligt, men rigtigere som man bestemmer en Maskines, at den har saa og saa mange Hestes Kraft; Mængdens Kraft er altid Hestekraft.” Pap. Vol. IX B24, p. 324.

It took me awhile to find the text because the first reference Kaftanski sent me was incomplete. He very kindly supplied me with the complete reference, however, after I pointed out the problem. I wanted to use the Danish text in something I was writing, so rather than type it all out from the hard my hard copy of the Papirer, I just typed “Hundredetusind-Been: Mængden” into the search field of the online edition of SKS. The online edition of SKS boasts that it is the complete text of everything, both published and unpublished, that Kierkegaard ever wrote, so I was confident that I would find the text there.

I didn’t.

See the screen shot that serves as an illustration for this post. Notice the text in the “Søgeresultater” (i.e., search results) field and the “Ingen resultater funded” (i.e., no results found). That’s right, the text of the passage that is there for all the world to see in the hard copy of the Papirer does not come up when one searches on any of the various phrases from the passage that I tried in my repeated vain attempts to save myself the trouble of retyping all the text.

I had actually considered getting rid of my hard copy of the Papirer since I has assumed everything that I would ever need would be at my electronic fingertips. Good thing I didn’t, eh?

So let that be a lesson to those of you who had assumed, as I had, that you didn’t any longer need to have hard copies of Kierkegaard’s works in Danish.

But back to Kaftanski’s paper. I enjoyed the paper, though I’m at a loss now to summarize it. Wojciech indicated to me, however, that it was roughly the same as a section of his recently published Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity, so I decided to just go ahead and buy the whole book. I can’t weigh in on the book yet. I will do that at a later date. The purpose of this post is to vent about, as the title suggests, the decline in editing at academic presses. There are two problems quite early in Wojciech’s book that an editor should have caught. They are minor, and likely won’t cause any problems in understanding the text, but they’re annoying and should not have made it past an editor. They’re actually on the same page, page 6, according to my ebook version. The first is an anachronistic reference to a “cocktail party.” The sentence is:

“This phenomenon Kierkegaard sees chiefly in the young and privileged who spend their time strolling through the city, visiting department stores, frequenting theaters and amusement parks, but also meeting at cafes or cocktail parties to exchange gossip about the next series of novelties coming to town and discussing whether or not to engage with them.”

The problem is that while the first reference to a “cocktail” appears to have occurred around the end of the eighteenth century, the expression “cocktail party” is much later. The phenomenon of the cocktail party dates from the early part of the 20th century. What Kaftanski meant, I’m sure, was that “the young and privileged” met in cafes and in literary and social “salons” in private homes.

The second problem is a reference to “salaried labor,” when what Kaftanski clearly means is not salaried labor but wage labor. The sentence is:

“In factories, wool mills, and servitude, engaged in salaried labor, people were reduced to performing tedious manual and alienating work, which consisted mainly of producing multitudes of copies.”

The sentence is a little bit labored, beginning as it does with a relative clause. The problem, though, is that 19th-century workers of the sort Kaftanski describes would not generally be spoken of as “salaried.” They would have been paid “wages.” Salaried labor usually involves a contract that specifies the terms of employment. Wage labor typically does not. Salaried labor is generally of a higher status than wage labor. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be in a scholarly work of this sort.

These two minor stylistic problems should not affect the reader’s understanding of the text, but they are still annoying. They aren’t Kaftanski’s fault because English is not his mother tongue. It IS the mother tongue, I presume, however, of the editors over at Routledge. Did the editors even look at the manuscript before they sent it to press? Poor editing is one of my pet peeves. I guess it bothers me so much in part because I’ve had a lot of demanding teachers who have drilled points like those above home to me, and in part because I’ve been a victim of poor editing myself.

There’s increasing talk of reducing the time to both an undergraduate and a graduate degree. The idea, of course, is to save money. I’m sympathetic with the motivation, but concerned that we are losing our grip on scholarly standards as it is. I hate to think of what books will look like that have been produced by editors who are products of accelerated degree programs!

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.