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Newsflash– “Piety” is a Real Surname!

I’d like to clear up what may be a confusion in the minds of some of my readers. I got an email a few days ago, from someone who liked the blog, asking me if “Piety” was a pen name. Yes, that’s a natural question, I suppose, especially for a Kierkegaard scholar (I’m sure John Wisdom was always being asked if “Wisdom” was his real name). “I know that word,” people probably think, “and it’s not a name!” That, in any case, was the explanation offered by my friend David Leopold for why the American Academy of Religion spelled my name wrong. That seems plausible. Either that, or they simply didn’t know how to spell “piety” (which, if it were true, would confirm the suspicions of the folks over at the Society of Biblical Literature).

No, “Piety” is my real name. There have been Pietys in the U.S. since before the Revolutionary war. In fact, my ancestor, Thomas Piety, served under Gen. Arthur St. Clair (an ancestor of Jeff St. Clair, editor of the online journal Counterpunch) in the American Army when George Washington was president.

My father, Harold Piety, was briefly the religion editor at the East St. Louis Journal. He used to enjoy answering the phone: “Religion, Piety speaking.”

I changed my name, when I married the legal scholar Brian J. Foley, to “Marilyn Gaye Piety Foley,” so “Piety” is still my real name, or at least part of it. I plan to keep using it too. I think it’s a good name for a Kierkegaard scholar.

Keep checking back. I’ve got some great posts coming up, including one on hitherto unknown caricatures of Kierkegaard, another on my forthcoming book Fear and Dissembling, and, of course, more on Tudvad’s book and its reception in Denmark.

More on Kierkegaard and Anti-Semitism: The Importance of Historical Context

Once upon a time, before Julia Watkin left Denmark for Tasmania, she and Grethe Kjær used to hold “kaffe aftener” (coffee evenings) for all the foreign, and occasionally also some of the local, Kierkegaard scholars in Copenhagen. The famous Ukranian Kierkegaard scholar, Gregor Malantschuk used to live with Grethe and her husband, so Grethe would sometimes tell stories about Malantschuk, The one that stood out in my mind concerned Malantschuk’s childhood in the Ukraine. I think it had something to do with how badly Ukrainians were treated by Russians. I don’t remember now. What I remember was Grethe’s remark that something like a third of the children Malanschuk had gone to school with had been Russian, a third Ukrainian and a third “Jewish.”

I was immediately taken aback by that remark. “Weren’t the Jewish children also either Ukrainian or Russian?” I asked. Judaism, after all, was a religion, not a place. Of course I knew that Jews had not always been accorded all the privileges of citizenship in the countries where they lived. I didn’t really understand until then, however, how ingrained was the thinking of many Europeans that Jews were a people apart, that they would always be a people apart no matter what the law said.

I don’t mean to suggest that Grethe was anti-Semitic. She never said anything else, in my memory, that would remotely suggest such a thing. I’m sure she was just repeating Malantschuk’s own description of the makeup of students in his classes.  Neither do I mean to suggest that Malantschuk was anti-Semitic. He may have been, of course; I simply don’t know. I’ve never heard that he was though, so I’d like to think he was not.

This brings up an issue, however, that continues to preoccupy Danish journalists: What constitutes anti-Semitism? If speaking about Jews as if they had no nationality, no ethnic heritage, other than a religious one (as if that could make any kind of sense) was acceptable in polite circles during a certain period in history, does that mean it was not anti-Semitic? Does it mean that absolutely everyone always spoke this way, and that no one, not even a Jew, was offended by it? That seems implausible to me. There were opponents of slavery, after all, even when it was still a socially accepted institution. That it was socially acceptable to use racist epithets does not mean that they weren’t racist, or that absolutely everyone used them and that no one was offended by them.

People have been arguing that Kierkegaard’s apparently anti-Semitic remarks have to be placed in their historical context. That’s true, of course. Everything has to be placed in its historical context to be properly understood. Well, here’s a little background from Peter Tudvad’s book on the historical context of Kierkegaard’s remarks. Anti-Semitism, as I observed in an earlier post, was so virulent in Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time that the literary attack on the Jews that began in 1813 was followed by a series of riots and physical attacks on Jews in 1819.  It’s clear, however, that most Danes were not involved in the violence. What is even more encouraging is the fact that it became illegal in August of 1813 to refer to Jews as “Jews.” They were to be referred to in official documents as “adherents of the Mosaic faith.” This suggests, unfortunately, that the literary feud had become so ugly that “Jew” had become a racist epithet. (Here it is perhaps important to note, in relation to my post from 1/7, that racism, as such, far predates Darwin.  Many ancient peoples had, in fact, a pronounced tendency to think that they were the only fully human beings and that other peoples, while they might look human, were not.) The positive aspect of this change in Danish law was that, as Tudvad observes, it sent a clear message to the Danish people where the king stood on the Jewish question. “In the same spirit,” writes Tudvad, “the king gave Jews full civic equality, and thus the same protections under the law as were enjoyed by Christians, on the 29th of March 1814” (pp. 33-34).

That is the context in which Kierkegaard made statements about Jews that were so offensive that, according to Johnny Kondrup, a scholar at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen, the statements were omitted from the English translations of Kierkegaard that were done in the 1970s and ‘80s (“Var Kierkegaard Antisemit? Berlingske Tidende, 26 October 2010. This article is unfortunately not online, but I have a scan of it that I can email anyone who would like to read it).

Yes indeed, Kierkegaard made what would today be considered some pretty offensive anti-Semitic remarks. I’ll confess to you that I am still holding out hope that there is some way of interpreting those remarks that will save Kierkegaard from the charge of anti-Semitism. I’m not certain, however, that placing them in their historical context is going to be enough.


The Responsibility of Intellectuals, or The Reception, in Denmark, of Tudvad’s Book on Kierkegaard and the Jews

One of the funniest, and yet also saddest, pieces by Kierkegaard is on book reviewers. “The appearance of a book,” he writes in Prefaces (Forord in Danish), “is…an event that promptly sets the reading public in motion. Ordinarily there is an individual who even knows it somewhat in advance. … Such a person is fortune’s child, … welcome everywhere. [He] knows only something ambiguous about the title of the book and what it deals with, but this is precisely what is most endearing about him in the eyes of the reading public, because a rumor carries away the reading public as the muse’s impulse the poet.”

The piece goes on about how reviewers will pronounce judgment on works without even having read them.

I don’t know how most contemporary readers react to this diatribe against book reviewers. I know that when I read it, however, I assumed it was a phenomenon that was more or less restricted to 19th-century Copenhagen. I don’t mean to give the impression that I was incorrigibly naïve. I assumed there were still a few irresponsible book reviewers out there. I just took them to be the exception rather than the rule.

I fear now, however, that I may have been wrong. I haven’t actually counted how many reviews were published of Peter Tudvad’s new book, Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the Way of Anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews), before the book actually came out. The number is sort of overwhelming. This was probably a result, at least in part, of the fact that there appears to have been a “krisemøde på teologi” (damage-control meeting of theologians) as soon as word got out that the book was on its way. The objective, it seems, was to find a way to inoculate Kierkegaard against the contagion of the charge that he was anti-Semitic by discrediting the argument of Tudvad’s book before anyone could actually read it. This, for those readers who do not immediately recognize it as such, is the fallacy known as “poisoning the well.”

The book did not come out until the 9th of November, yet the English theologian George Pattison wrote an article for the Nov. 3rd issue of Kristeligt Dagblad, “Søren Kierkegaard var hverken bedre ell værre end sin tid” (Søren Kierkegaard was neither better nor worse than his times [translated into Danish by Sara Høyrup]), in which he said that “anti-Semitism, in the modern sense, cannot be separated from 19th-century theories of race that are connected with a particular reading of Darwin” and that it is thus “inappropriate and anachronistic to connect the concept of anti-Semitism with Kierkegaard.” This statement, unfortunately, compounds the fallacy of “poisoning the well” with that of “equivocation” in that the first reference is to “anti-Semitism” in the “modern sense” whereas the second is not qualified in this way but is clearly to anti-Semitism in a more general sense. It’s obvious that Kierkegaard cannot be charged with anti-Semitism in the modern sense. No one who lived before Darwin could be charged with anti-Semitism in the modern sense. That does not mean, however, that there was no anti-Semitism before Darwin. Nor does it mean that Kierkegaard could not have been anti-Semitic, or that inquiry into this topic is somehow out of bounds. Pattison must either be shockingly ignorant of world history, prone to committing logical fallacies, or disingenuous.

These are very anti-intellectual times. Academics are under siege. We are constantly criticized and charged, for example, with being lazy and intolerant of views that depart from our own. Dismissing a book before one has even read it only adds fuel to the flames of such criticism. It looks as if many people are simply unwilling to accept that Kierkegaard could have been antisemitic, so they feel no compulsion to examine the evidence to that effect before dismissing the claim. It is precisely such behavior that has brought academics into ill repute. It behooves those of us who like to think of ourselves as intellectuals to do our homework before making public pronouncements on the works of our fellow intellectuals.

I’ll say more about the reception of Tudvad’s book later, after I have said a little more about the content.