Years ago, when I was working on my M.A. at Bryn Mawr, I had a friend who was doing his dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania (or Penn, as it is known around here). He was doing his dissertation on Stoicism and his dissertation director was Charles Kahn. Penn no longer required that students pass French and German exams for the Ph.D., but Kahn insisted that my friend learn German. All the best scholarship on Stoicism was in German, he explained.
Well, the same thing could be said about Kierkegaard scholarship. Perhaps not all the best Kierkegaard scholarship is in German, but a great deal of it is, so any Kierkegaard scholar worth his salt needs not only to learn Danish, but also to learn German.
But how is one to know what is being published on Kierkegaard in German and which, among those works, is worth reading? That’s a difficult question. You can always just wait to see which German scholars show up at English-language Kierkegaard conferences or which German works on Kierkegaard get translated into English. That isn’t really a very satisfactory approach to the problem, though, because not many German scholars show up at English-language Kierkegaard conferences, and even fewer German works on Kierkegaard get translated into English.
I have a better idea. For years I’ve been looking for a really good German book review. You know, something like The New York Review of Books. Well, I think I’ve finally found one. I don’t remember now how I found it, but I somehow stumbled across the journal Literatur Kritik. It’s great! Literatur Kritik publishes reviews of everything from novels to scholarly works on topics ranging from art history to zoology. You can get on their mailing list for free. You’ll receive several emails a week with links to the latest book reviews. If you want to search the archives, you really need a subscription though. A subscription is 20 euros per year, or two years for 30 euros. Fortunately, they take Paypal, so you can subscribe in a matter of minutes and then have access to all the articles an not just the current ones.
I found a very interesting review of a book entitled Der witzige, tiefe, leidenschaftliche Kierkegaard: Zur Kierkegaard Rezeption in der deutschsprachigen Literatur bis 1920 (the humorous, deep, passionate, Kierkegaard: Kierkegaard’s reception in German-language literature before 1920) by Christian Wiebe (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2012). The book, according to the reviewer, Dr. Christof Rudek, a professor of comparative literature at Johannes Gutenberg Universität, Mainz, was actually Wiebe’s doctoral dissertation and focuses on the literary reception of Kierkegaard in Germany rather than on the philosophical or theological reception.
Rudek is not entirely happy, however, with Wiebe’s treatment of this reception. The book is divided, he notes, into six chapters that looks at Kierkegaard’s influence on different types of literature. Wiebe defines “literature” very broadly, so examines novels, short stories, essays, diary entries, letters and articles that deal with religious, psychological, and existential issues. Rudek points out that the divisions sometimes seem arbitrary and that material that is considered under one heading could equally well have been considered under another. My guess is that this problem is the result of the fact that the book had originally been a dissertation. Drawing distinctions of the sort represented by Wiebe’s chapter divisions is one of the expectations dissertation committees have of Ph.D. candidates. It is often only later, when a scholar has established his reputation, that he is allowed to acknowledge that such categories are fluid. To make this sort of claim when one is still only a student is to risk the charge that one’s work is lacking in rigor.
That fault aside, Wiebe’s book sounds as if it is worth reading. In any case, Rudek’s review is certainly worth reading. It concludes with the observation that
Die Faszination Kierkegaards für Schriftsteller scheint damit gerade in der Affinität senies Denkens zur Literatur zu liegen; Während die Philosophie sich in Wesentlichen mit der Erkenntnis des Allgemeinen befasst, hat es die Literatur immer mit Besonderen, Individuellen zu tun. Bei Kierkegaard jedoch macht die Philosophie einen Schritt auf die Literatur zu, und das nich nur wegen Kierkegaards stilistischer Könnerschaft und seiner Integration fiktionaler Abschnitte in die Argumentation, sondern vor allem durch die Wahl des einzelnen Subjekts als Erkenntnisgegenstand. Dass Kierkegaard damit bei Literaten auf großes Interesse gestoßen ist, verwundert nicht.
The fascination writers have with Kierkegaard would appear to lie in the affinity of his thought with literature. While philosophy is essentially concerned with knowledge of the universal; literature is always concerned with particular individuals. With Kierkegaard, however, philosophy takes a step in the direction of literature, and not simply because of his masterful literary stile, or because of his integration of fictional, or narrative elements into his arguments, but above all because he chooses the subjective individual as an object of knowledge. It should thus be no surprise that Kierkegaard is of such interest to writers.
That is an excellent point!
Wiebe’s monography on the reception of Kierkegaard in the German speaking parts of Europe is really an interesting and thorough piece of scholarly work. I heard him lecture on the topic in Erfurt in February, bought his book, and arranged with him to lecture on Kafka’s inspiration from Kierkegaard in “Felleshuset” at The Nordic Embassies in May. Brilliant!
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