M.G. Piety

Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

Ibsen (and Kierkegaard) at Temple

In Conference news, Publishing News on May 12, 2013 at 10:17 pm
Henrik ibsen

Henrik ibsen

One of the nice things about living in Philadelphia is the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium. The consortium is made up of the philosophy departments of local colleges and universities (including The University of Delaware). The member institutions share information about events of interest to philosophers. Given the number of institutions in the consortium, there’s nearly always something good going on.

On Friday, May 2, I attended a symposium at Temple. Sponsored by Temple’s Department of Philosophy, the Center for Ibsen Studies of the University of Oslo, and The Center for the Humanities at Temple, the two-day symposium was entitled “Staging Skepticism: Ibsen and the Drama of Modernity.” Kristin Boyce and Susan Feagin presented papers on Thursday morning entitled, respectively, “The Method of Doubt and the Willing Suspension of (Dis)belief in Little Eyolf” and “Are Play Scripts Literature?” Frode Helland and Kristin Gjesdal presented papers in the afternoon entitled “The Use and Abuse of Truth: Skeptics and Skepticism in Ibsen,” and “Doubting the Past: Tragedy, Tradition, and Modernism in Ibsen’s Ghosts.”

Unfortunately, I was not able to make the event on Thursday. Fortunately, I was able to make it on Friday and was treated to two very stimulating presentations. The first, by the dashing and handsome Leonardo Lisi, was entitled “Ibsen and the Metaphysics of Doubt,” and the second, by the lovely and sophisticated Toril Moi, was entitled “Hedda’s Silences: Reading, Philosophy, Theater.”

It’s easy for those of us in the fields of philosophy and theology delude ourselves that we have a monopoly on scholarly work on Kierkegaard. This symposium demonstrated clearly, however, that Kierkegaard is of great interest to people in the field of literary theory. I don’t know to what extent Kierkegaard’s thought figured into the presentations the first day, but references to Kierkegaard were much in evidence on day two.

Lisi, whose first book was entitled Marginal Modernity: The The Aesthetics of Dependency from Kierkegaard to Joyce (Fordham, 2012) is hard at work on two new book projects, both of which involve Kierkegaard.

There was a stimulating discussion after Moi’s paper. It ranged far and wide, but the part that I thought would be of particular interest to readers of this blog concerned a problem of translation. Danish has two words that can be translated as “silent”: “stille” and “tavs.” The former is used to refer both to nature and to people. That is, one speaks in Danish of a wood (i.e., forest) being “stille,” just as one could in English refer to it as “still.” But “stille” can also be used to describe people. The expression “ti stille” means “be quiet,” or “be still,” as we also often say in English.

Tavs,” on the other hand is never used to refer to nature alone. There is, as Moi explained, an “element of agency” to it. People, not nature, are “tavs.” The Ferrall-Repp dictionary defines “tavs” as “silent, hushed, discreet,” and the expression “ubrødelig taushed” as “inviolable secrecy.”

This is important because during the discussion after Moi’s paper, one of the participants in the seminar pointed out that while Moi had referred repeatedly in her paper to Hedda’s “silences” in Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler, Hedda is not really silent at all but speaks throughout, and at least occasionally on precisely the topics on which Moi had described her as “silent.” Moi conceded the point but then explained that although Hedda speaks throughout the play, her speech fails to reveal important truths that are relevant to the plot.

To my mind, Moi didn’t need to concede anything to her critic. Hedda is “silent” in the sense in which we often use the expression in English. That is, she is not forthcoming with information that is important to the circumstances of the play. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following as the second definition of “silent”: “Omitting mention of or reference to, passing over or disregarding, something in narration; containing no account or record.” “Unmentioned, unrecorded; marked by the absence of any record” is also given as a definition.

Another point that may interest readers of this blog. One of the participants mentioned to me during the break between Lisi’s and Moi’s papers that she was curious concerning whether Ibsen’s plays would have been performed in Norwegian in Norway. Many people don’t realize, I suspect, that though Ibsen was Norwegian, he wrote in Danish. Even fewer people realize, however, that all Norwegians at that time wrote in Danish. Danish was simply the written language of Norway. That’s why modern Norwegian (in contrast to “new Norwegian”) is known in Norway as “bokmål.” Modern Norwegian, which is effectively Danish with a few spelling changes, is the language of books (bøker). There were a few spelling differences even in Ibsen’s day, but so few that one could get all the way through a book from that period without realizing that it was actually Norwegian and not Danish. (New Norwegian, or nynorsk, is an attempt to reconstruct a common Norwegian language from the many dialects that were spoken in Norway before the Danes took over there in the sixteenth century.)

So yes, Ibsen wrote in Danish, but that’s basically the same thing as saying he wrote. Even today Danes and Norwegians rarely bother to try to speak one another’s language. Modern Norwegian, though it sounds very different from Danish, is more like a dialect of Danish than a different language.

Finally, I may have said this before, but it bears repeating. One of the benefits of learning Danish is that when you get very good at it, you’ll be able to read Norwegian. I keep forgetting that. I had such a good time at the symposium, though, that I’ve decided to read some Ibsen!

Once Upon a Time in Denmark

In Once Upon a Time in Denmark, Publishing News on May 4, 2013 at 1:35 pm

j9987For as long as I can remember I’ve had what Kierkegaard would call “an extraordinary hankering” to get into The New York Review of Books. In fact, my entire literary and scholarly production: my translation, my book, my many articles and two blogs, has been one long and elaborate attempt to attract the attentions of Robert Silvers, the editor of the Review, in the hope that my work would so impress him that he would decide to add me to his stable of reviewers. So when I saw that Princeton University Press had released a new edition of Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary with a foreword by John Updike, I was immediately reminded of the one time I did actually make it into the NYRB–sort of.

I’ve been an avid reader of the NYRB since I was a child. My father, who was an editorial writer for a newspaper, used to get it at work and bring it home for me to read. I loved the NYRB. The articles were always so interesting and so well written. I would read nearly the whole thing, cover to cover.

Naturally, I tried to keep up with it even during the years lived in Denmark. I don’t remember whether I subscribed to it then, or whether I simply collected my father’s old copies on my occasional trips to the U.S. Somehow though, I kept up with it, despite the fact that it was nearly impossible to find a copy on a newsstand in Denmark (a detail that will be important later in this story).

I was pleased, one day in 1997, to see an article by Updike on “The Seducer’s Diary” portion of Kierkegaard’s Either-Or in the May 29, edition of the Review. Updike is a wonderful writer, so I knew the piece would be good.

I was disappointed, however, to see Updike cite the apocryphal story that Kierkegaard had once visited a brothel as if it were well-documented historical fact. Most Kierkegaard scholars know that the story is pure speculation, but almost no one knows how the speculations got started. That is, no one except my then boyfriend Paul A. Bauer who, though I don’t think he had read any Kierkegaard when I met him, had spent the seven years we’d been living together in Denmark acquainting himself with the more arcane facts surrounding Kierkegaard’s life and writings.

“God I wish I knew how that story got started,” I complained to Paul.

“I’ll tell you how it got started,” he answered placidly. “P.A. Heiberg started it. [Heiberg was one of the editors of the first edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works.] Heiberg decided,” Paul continued, “that Kierkegaard’s account in the book Stages on Life’s Way of a man who visits a prostitute and becomes obsessed with the idea that he might thus have fathered a child was autobiographical. He didn’t have any real evidence to support this theory though,” Paul explained. “All he had in the way of ‘support’ was a few drafts of that passage from Stages and the fact that there was a gap in Kierkegaard’s journals of about six to seven weeks from the end of April until the beginning of June in 1836. Heiberg figured the brothel visit had occurred around the beginning of that period and that it has so traumatized Kierkegaard that he couldn’t write again for weeks.”

Paul knew this because among the arcana that made up his growing library was a monograph by Heiberg entitled En Episode i Kierkegaards Ungdomsliv (an episode in Kierkegaard’s youth) from 1912 and a book entitled Et Segment af Søren Kierkegaards religiøse Udvikling (a segment of Kierkegaard’s religious development) from 1918 where Heiberg presented these speculations, and Paul, unlike probably anyone else alive today, had actually read both these works.

Ecstatic at the realization that I was more knowledgeable about something than was John Updike (well, okay, Paul was the one who was really more knowledgeable), and that maybe I could leverage this knowledge to get into the NYRB, I suggested we write a letter to the Review pointing out Updike’s error in presenting mere speculation as fact.

We drafted the letter and sent it off directly to the NYRB. I assumed we’d be notified if they decided to print the letter, which I was initially confident they would, since revealing as it did for the first time in modern memory, the source of this famous story about Kierkegaard, it promised to create something of a stir in scholarly circles.

Weeks passed.  The whole thing had faded from my memory when my eyes unexpectedly lit upon my own name in a sort of “Heard About Town”column entitled “Dyt-båt” (that’s supposedly the sound of an old Model-T horn) in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen.

“Two University of Copenhagen students really took it to John Updike in the most recent edition of The New York Review of Books” the column blared.

I leapt right out of my chair.

“We’ve got to get a copy of The New York Review of Books!” I exclaimed to Paul.

I can’t remember now how long it took us to find a copy. I do remember, though, that we combed almost the entire city looking for one. When we finally found one, we went immediately to the “Letters” section at the back. There it was, our letter in all its lengthy erudition. My joy at this triumph was somewhat short lived, however, because following our letter was a disappointingly curt reply from Updike, who appeared to think that our objection to the brothel-visit story had been motivated by some kind of prudishness.

So there you have it. That is the story of how my longtime ambition to appear in the pages of The New York Review of Books was finally realized–sort of.