M.G. Piety

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Ahasverus and Vampires

In Kierkegaard and the Jews on February 25, 2011 at 10:54 am

The second chapter of Peter Tudvad’s Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) deals with the legend of Ahasverus, the “eternal Jew” in Danish, or “the wandering Jew,” in English. Ahasverus is a character who supposedly taunted Christ on the way to his Crucifixion and was condemned, as a result, to wander the earth forever. This chapter, which is more than one hundred pages long, examines the legend of Ahasverus in such detail it could legitimately be published as a monograph on the subject independently of the rest of the book.

Students of romantic literature will eat this chapter up because it is filled with references to that period of literary history. In addition to a general survey of literature on Ahasverus, there is a great deal of interesting material on the history of Kierkegaard’s preoccupation with the concept of the wandering Jew. In fact, the material in this chapter could easily form the basis of a dissertation on the subject. I’ll confess, however, that I found making it through this portion of the book something of a hard slog.

One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter, from my perspective, was the similarity that gradually became apparent to me between the legend of Ahasverus, and the mythical character of the vampire. I promised earlier to come with a post on Kierkegaard and vampires. Given the current popularity of vampires, cynical readers might have interpreted this as a shameless attempt to boost the popularity of my blog. I should confess that that was part of my motivation. There really is a striking similarity, however, between Ahasverus and vampires. First, both are “undead.” That is, both are condemned to live forever and, unlike so many people today who appear to think an indefinite extension of the human lifespan would be a wonderful thing, both see this as a fate much worse than death. Both are melancholy and incapable of forming close emotional relationships with ordinary human beings. Even more interesting is that, according to Tudvad, the character of Ahasverus in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Queen Mab, like the vampire, casts no shadow.

The legend of Ahasverus apparently originated in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages (there is no support for it in Christian scripture). So, it appears, did the legend of the modern vampire. Both were also favorite subjects of authors during the Romantic period. Jungians have argued that the vampire actually belongs to the collection of archetypes inherent in human consciousness. The similarity of Ahasverus to the vampire suggests this figure is simply another instantiation of the same archetype.

There are so many interesting topics to be explored here: What is the historical relation between the two legends? What is the literary relationship? Are they expressions of a single archetype? If so, what does this archetype reveal to us about human nature or about the psyche? So far as I know, none of these questions has been given serious scholarly treatment even though the time is clearly ripe for such treatment.

Please forward a link to this entry to anyone whom you think would be interested in tackling one of these fascinating topics. I can’t wait to read what people are going to write!

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Conference News

In Uncategorized on February 22, 2011 at 11:02 am

Forgive my failure to put up my standard two posts last week. My Drexel email account has apparently been corrupted and I spent the majority of last week working with the tech support people at Drexel trying to fix it. Unfortunately, they have so far been unable to solve the problem, so anyone who wishes to email me should, for the time being, address all emails to my Apple Webmail account: mgpiety@me.com.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that I just returned from the first International Conference on Religion and Spirituality in Society. Unlike many conferences that claim to be “international,” this one truly was. There were just over 100 participants, but these included scholars from Japan, Jordan, Germany, Nigeria, Portugal, the UK and Kuwait, to name just a few of the countries represented. The keynote speakers included internationally famous and widely published indologist Wendy Doniger from the University of Chicago and Steve Shoemaker, host of the popular and critically acclaimed weekly public radio program “Keepin’ the Faith.” Doniger gave a fascinating talk on the issue of whether Hinduism was monotheistic or polytheistic (her answer was yes) and Shoemaker talked about how he got started with his radio program and the kinds of guests he has had (from poet laureates, Imams and Rabbis to student activists), to why he thinks programs such as his are important. In between were many other stimulating presentations the topics of which varied from religion and spirituality in contemporary popular culture to the same in ages past. It was one of the most interesting and stimulating conferences I have been to recently because of the variety of topics covered and because the small size facilitated better discussions.

Now what, you are undoubtedly asking yourself, does this have to do with Kierkegaard? Well here’s the thing: the call for papers is already up for next year’s conference in Vancouver and it seems to me that this would be a great opportunity for Kierkegaard scholars to present their work and to meet and exchange ideas with other scholars in related fields. Check it out!

More about Dictionaries

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on February 15, 2011 at 8:38 pm

I did the junior year abroad thing when I was an undergraduate, except at my college it was actually a six-month program. I chose the Germany-Austria program because I was a philosophy major and everyone told me that all philosophers had to know German.

Learning German was rough, particularly during the Austria half of the program. I took a German language class at the Dolmetscher Institut at the University of Vienna and my professor was brutal. He used to walk up and down the rows, standing directly in front of the person whose turn it was to do the exercise in question. You got one chance to look at your book and then you had to look up at him and do whatever it was the exercise required (e.g., changing the tense of the verb or the number of the subject). I remember once some poor guy in the row behind me made the mistake of trying to look down at his book a second time. Wham! The professor slammed his book down on top of the poor guy’s book obscuring the page.

That class was always suspenseful because the professor also liked to make fun of students who had done the exercise correctly but whom he suspected did not understand the meaning. He’d try to strike up a conversation on the subject of the exercise with the sole purpose of humiliating his victim by exposing the person as shabby automaton, with no real understanding of what he was doing.

Now what does all this have to do with Kierkegaard, you ask. Well, I will tell you. That sadistic German professor insisted that we throw out our bilingual dictionaries and begin, as soon as possible, to work exclusively with a German-German dictionary. He was right.

I know I directed you to the wonderful Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary, and you will certainly want to use it as your primary Danish-English dictionary. There is a lot to be said, however, for working with Danish-Danish dictionaries as well. Christian Molbech’s Dansk Ordbog from 1833 is available as a pdf from Google books. That’s the dictionary most Kierkegaard scholars have traditionally used when contemporary Danish-English dictionaries failed them. Molbech’s dictionary is certainly useful (with the 1859 edition being the more useful of the two given that dictionaries tend to document usage from a slightly earlier period than their publication date). An even better resource, however, is the monumental Ordbog Over det Danske Sprog, the Dane’s equivalent of the OED. Unfortunately it takes up an enormous amount of bookshelf space and is prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, the Danes are more egalitarian than the Brits, so the ODS is actually freely accessible in a searchable online version. I guarantee it will help your Danish, plus, it’s a lot easier than trying to use the pdf of Molbech because it is searchable, while Molbech, because it is in Fraktur, is not. Check it out!

New English translation of German Book on Kierkegaard’s Epistemology!

In Publishing News on February 11, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Richard Popkin begins his essay “Kierkegaard and Skepticism,” by quoting Hume. “To be a philosophical skeptic,” asserts Hume at the end of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, “is, in a man of letters, the first and foremost essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.”

Popkin begins his essay with this quotation because Kierkegaard is known as something of a skeptic. Skepticism, as a philosophical position, is defensible, however, only against the backdrop of a particular, and relatively compelling, epistemological theory. That is, skepticism is essentially an account of the limits of knowledge, so any skeptic worth his salt has to have a fairly sophisticated account of the nature of knowledge and it limits. One would thus expect that there would be a fairly large body of scholarship on Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Strangely, there are only three books on Kierkegaard’s epistemology: Anton Hügli’s Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivitåt und die Objektivität des Erkennens (knowledge of subjectivity and the objectivity of knowing) (Basel, Switzerland: Editio Academica, 1973), Martin Slotty’s dissertation from 1915, Die Erkenntnislehre S. A. Kierkegaards (the epistemology of S. A. Kierkegaard), and my Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2010).

Unfortunately, two of these three works are not only in German, they’re out of print, and that has meant they’ve been more or less ignored by Anglo-American Kierkegaard scholarship, to its detriment. Fortunately, Ways of Knowing makes much of the substance of these works available for the first time to scholars who do not have a sufficient mastery of German to read the originals. Better still, Gegensatz Press is going to publish an English translation of Slotty’s work. This is wonderful news for Kierkegaard scholars, because Slotty’s is by far the more accessible of the two German works. It enjoys the distinction of being the very first work, so far as I know, in any language on Kierkegaard’s epistemology and as such it is something of a general introduction. It should be required reading for every Kierkegaard scholar, especially those who do not want to go on to tackle the larger and more substantive work by Hügli. I don’t know whether Gegensatz takes preorders. My advice is to write them and inquire.

Is Christianity Anti-Semitic? Danish Theologian Defends Tudvad’s Book.

In Kierkegaard and the Jews, News from Copenhagen on February 9, 2011 at 1:42 pm

“Long before Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier på Antisemtismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne [Stages on the Way of Anti-Semtism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews] appeared, the theological rationalizations were already lined up,” writes Danish theologian Lone Fatum in Kristeligt Dagblad. “No one had read the book, but everyone had an opinion on it. When the book finally appeared, on the anniversary of Kristalnacht, reviewers immediately banded together. ‘Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic–end of discussion!’”

Tudvad explained in my interview with him, as well as in the Danish media, that he believes that what really incensed critics of his book was less that he had charged Kierkegaard with anti-Semitism than that he had argued there was a disposition toward anti-Semitism in Christianity itself. Denmark, after all, still has a state church, the Danish Lutheran Church. Christianity, for many Danes, is as much a cultural institution as a religious one. Danes have prided themselves, and not without reason, on their historically liberal attitude toward Jews and Judaism. To argue as Tudvad does in his book that Christianity has inherently anti-Semitic tendencies is thus to strike at something that is very near the heart of Danish culture.

Fatum asserts that the numerous efforts to explain away Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitic remarks “appear to support Tudvad’s claim that [the persistence of subtle forms of anti-Semitism] is an problem people are unwilling to face.” Fatum argues, however, that the disposition toward anti-Semitism in Christianity is more pronounced than even Tudvad suggests. All the Gospels, she asserts, were written after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, which many early Christians saw as God’s punishment of the Jews for their having killed Christ. Anti-Semitic sentiment, she asserts, is clear throughout the Gospels, but particularly in John (e.g., John 8: 21-47 where Jesus appears to assert that the devil, not Abraham, is the father of the Jews).

But are the Gospels really that anti-Semitic? There is no question that Fatum is correct in her claim that there are numerous passages throughout the Gospels that lend themselves to interpretation as anti-Semitic. According to many New Testament scholars, however, there was a great deal of ambivalence among early Christians concerning their relation to Judaism and this ambivalence is reflected, I would argue in at least the synoptic Gospels, if not in the entire New Testament canon.

There can be no dispute, however, concerning the presence of strong anti-Semitic tendencies among the early church fathers and later Christian thinkers such as Martin Luther, just as there can be little doubt that Kierkegaard was influenced by these thinkers. It is less clear whether Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitic attitudes came directly from this tradition or whether their evolution had a more subtle and complex origin. That’s part of what makes Tudvad’s book such an important work. He attempts to trace the evolution of Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism. Scholars who actually engage with his arguments may come to have legitimate disagreements with him and one hopes that other treatments of this important topic will eventually emerge. For now, though, all we have is Tudvad book. It is nice to see that it is beginning to receive the recognition it deserves.

Yet Another Review of Tudvad’s Book by Someone Who Hasn’t Read It?

In Kierkegaard and the Jews, News from Copenhagen on February 5, 2011 at 9:09 pm

Well, OK, I can’t really be certain that Trond Berg Eriksen, whose review “Antisemitten Kierkegaard?” appeared in the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet, didn’t read the book. If he did read it though, he appears to have a very different edition than the one I have. He claims Tudvad charges that Kierkegaard was a Nazi, but I haven’t come across that charge in my copy of Tudvad’s book.

The review starts off well. Eriksen acknowledges that Tudvad’s presentation of anti-Semitism in Danish politics and literature in the first decades of the 19th century is “thorough, long overdue, and groundbreaking,” and that his “presentation of Jews and Judaism in Kierkegaard’s thought is not bad either,” but complains, in a manner that clearly begs the question, that the two things have nothing to do with each other.

Tudvad acknowledges, in the beginning of the book, that Kierkegaard was far from the worst anti-Semite of his day. His argument, he explains, is that many of the things Kierkegaard says about Jews and Judaism would be deeply offensive to Jews of any period and that they should thus be acknowledged as part and parcel of an anti-Semitism that was pervasive in Europe in the 19th century and which was thus a forerunner to the more virulent form of anti-Semitism that came to such horrific expression in the rise of National Socialism. That’s a relatively modest thesis and Tudvad marshals what appears to be more than enough evidence to support it.

That Kierkegaard was anti-Semitic should not surprise us, because, as many scholars have pointed out, anti-Semitism was pervasive during the period when Kierkegaard lived.  What is surprising is the number of scholars who have used this historical fact to try to discredit Tudvad’s position. The argument goes something like this: Everyone was anti-Semitic back then. Kierkegaard was just like everyone else. Ergo, Kierkegaard was not really anti-Semitic.  The flaw in that logic is so obvious it needs no explanation.

Eriksen’s review, as I observed, starts off well, but then, it appears, he was struck down by some sort of spontaneous brain disease. Not only does he use the same obviously flawed logic described above in an attempt to discredit Tudvad’s thesis, he also undermines his own fallacious argument with the even more bizarre charge that “anti-Semitism,” along with “racism,” is a concept that belongs to a later period. Say what? Anyone who knows anything about history knows that anti-Semitism is as old as Judaism. And, as I explained in an earlier post (see 1/7/11), racism as both a concept and a phenomenon obviously predates Darwin.  Our concept of race changed after Darwin, but the concept goes back at least as far as ancient Greece and is probably as old as human history.

Eriksen’s whole review is a straw man argument in that it is directed at discrediting a much more extreme position than the one Tudvad advances in his book. But then Eriksen, apparently still in the grip of the aforementioned ailment, admits this himself when he acknowledges, toward the end of the review, that Tudvad does not actually make any of the outrageous claims that have so incensed him, but only “insinuates” them.

Enough said.

Stay tuned. There was an excellent article on Tudvad’s book in Kristeligt Dagblad Today. I’ll have a summary of it for you soon!

M.G. Piety’s Website is Up and Running!

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on February 3, 2011 at 1:39 pm

I said, when I started this blog, that I would let readers know when my website was finished. Well, it’s finished. The web address is mgpiety.org .  (The backslash is important. You will find there a complete list of my publications along with another more general interest blog.

There are a couple of publications on my website that will be of interest to Kierkegaard scholars. The first is an article entitled “What’s in a Face” that I published in the now defunct Lingua Franca back in 1995. It’s about portraits of Kierkegaard, or more specifically, about what have sometimes been taken to be portraits of Kierkegaard that are actually portraits of his contemporaries. There are copies of these portraits in the article.

The other piece that will be of interest to Kierkegaard scholars is entitled “Some Reflections on Academic Ethics.” This is one of the earliest articles I published on the controversy over Joakim Garff’s critically acclaimed biography of Kierkegaard.

The blog on my website, Reading Notes, while not about Kierkegaard, will address topics in the philosophy of religion, among other things, so it may be of interest to many readers of this blog. I plan to post on that blog about once a week. The post I have up there now is about publishing. I’m planning a post for next week though on religion, so if that’s a topic that interests you, check it out next week.

Finally, I’ve got some good posts coming up on this blog, including one on Kierkegaard and vampires, another on more online resources for Kierkegaard scholarship and one on my new book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology.