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More Reviews of Carlisle’s Biography of Kierkegaard

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 6.37.43 PMA couple more reviews have emerged of Claire Carlisle’s new biography of Kierkegaard Philosopher of the Heart. The first, by Parul Sehgal, appeared in the April 28 edition of New York Times Book Review, and the second by Adam Kirsch, is in this week’s New Yorker.

I’m having the weirdest déjà vu experience. This is uncannily like the time, many years ago when John Updike reviewed Joakim Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard in the New Yorker. I had published some critical articles on Garff’s book before Updike’s review appeared. Updike’s review, unlike the other reviews up to that point, was strangely silent on this issue of the quality of Garff’s book. My guess is that Updike had probably done a little research on the reception of Garff’s book and had learned it was somewhat controversial. Not in a position to judge the facts of the controversy, Updike may well have thought it safest to simply use the book as a point of departure for his own thoughts on the life of Kierkegaard.

Something like that appears to have been the case with these most recent reviews of Carlisle’s biography. Neither actually says very much about the book. Despite this, however, Sehgal’s review is fairly negative. She writes, for example, that

The narrative slips in and out of a breathless present-tense voice with flourishes of soppy characterization: “Writing became the fabric of Kierkegaard’s existence, the most vibrant love of his life — for all his other loves flowed into it, and it swelled like the ocean that crashed restlessly against his native land.” At times Carlisle succumbs to outright fiction.

Kirsch’s review is more positive. The reader has to take it with a grain of salt, however, because it would appear, as will become clear below, that Kirsch hasn’t actually read the book.

Neither of the reviews mentions the errors in it that I pointed out in my own review for the TLS. The problem, I suspect, is the same as Updike’s. That is, my guess is that both Sehgal and Kirsch are aware that Carlisle’s book was the subject of some controversy, but since they are not themselves Kierkegaard scholars, they can’t really take a position on it.

I have to hand it to the TLS, who published my negative review of Carlisle’s book. I’m still annoyed with them for their refusal to let me to respond to George Pattison’s tendentious letter to the editor defending Carlisle, as well as for their failure to disclose to readers that Pattison’s defense of the book was not disinterested (the book’s dedicated to him). Still, the TLS actively sought out someone who was competent to review a biography of Kierkegaard, and even more to their credit, published the review, though it reflected unfavorably on Carlisle, who was one of their regular reviewers. That sort of editorial conscientiousness appears rare these days.

Kierkegaard liked to disparage book reviewers. That always seemed ungenerous to me, given that his own books tended to be favorably reviewed. One of the accusations he made against reviewers was that they didn’t always read the books they reviewed. That, as I mentioned above, would appear to have been the case with Kirsch.

It’s a good idea, if one is going to review a book one hasn’t actually read, to stick to the kinds of vague and general statements that cannot be proven to be false. You know, stuff like that the book is “creative,” or “compelling,” or “an interesting read,” etc.

Unfortunately, Kirsch chose to ignore this time-honored practice of hack reviewers and went right out on a limb too conspicuously cracked to bear his weight. Kierkegaard had ceased his “feverish productivity” toward the end of his life, Kirsch claims in his review. “[I]n his last years,” Kirsch continues, “Kierkegaard truly earned the pseudonym under which he had published Fear and Trembling,” Johannes de Silentio—John of the [sic] Silence.”

But of course Carlisle never said anything of the sort, nor did anyone else who actually knows anything about Kierkegaard’s life because its not merely demonstrably, but spectacularly false.

Kierkegaard never ceased writing. He did not publish any new books between 1852 and 1855, but he continued to write in his journals. More importantly, he ended his life with the same “feverish productivity” with which his career had begun.

Kierkegaard launched his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) attack on the Danish Lutheran Church just before he died. The attack consisted of a number of newspaper articles that actually first started appearing in 1854, and a series of ten pamphlets entitled The Instant (Oieblikket) published in 1855, the year he died.

These late works, and Kierkegaard’s journal entries relating to them, take up more than 600 pages in Volume XXIII of Kierkegaard’s Writings: The Moment and Late Writings. So it is hardly accurate to describe Kierkegaard’s exit from this life as “silent.” In fact he went out screaming bloody murder at institutionalized Christianity.

The existing biographies of Kierkegaard are so problematic that I’ve decided, finally, that I am going to try my hand at writing one myself. It shouldn’t be too difficult given how low the bar has been set by the more recent contributions to this genre.

I may even have an agent lined up. I’ve twice contacted an agent in relation to another project and each time he responded that he wasn’t interested in the project about which I’d approached him, but that he would be interested in a biography of Kierkegaard. The first time he said this, I responded that I was not a biographer and suggested that Peter Tudvad wold be a more appropriate choice for such a project.

Nothing ever came of that, however, and since it is now apparent that one doesn’t have to be a biographer to write a biography of Kierkegaard, and since it is equally apparent that few people know very much about Kierkegaard’s life, I figure I should take a stab at it. It seems the only way we are likely to get a relatively accurate book-length portrait of the man in the near future.

Kierkegaard and von Balthasar on Anxiety

41yorNv6sLL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My sister-in-law Kelly Foley is a devout Catholic with a growing interest in theology. She has begun reading Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Christian and Anxiety. (Way to jump in at the deep end. My sister-in-law is no intellectual slouch!) She asked me if I were familiar with the book because it begins with a reference to Kierkegaard. I was familiar with von Balthasar, of course, but not with that particular book. This was obviously a significant lacuna in my theological background, so I promptly purchased an ebook version of it and began reading it.

“Schelling, Hegel, and Baader … were the immediate influences” writes von Balthasar in his introduction,

that prompted the Dane to treat this theme as a theologian, even if only in an introductory manner (as he puts it, “psychologically” rather than “dogmatically”). He never could bring himself to write a dogmatic tract, and he deliberately posed his questions within a psychological framework-intending, of course, to let the inquiry lead eventually into inevitable dogmatic truth. As a result, anxiety remains for him a matter of the finite mind horrified by its own limitlessness, and God and Christ are rarely mentioned explicitly in this work, which was in fact meant to be an exclusively Christian book. (31-32).

“[I]f a theologian is to give this topic the treatment that is due to it,” observes von Balthasar he must “continue along more dogmatic lines the work that Kierkegaard began” (34).

“[I]t will become evident,” writes von Balthasar, “whether the biblical approach can be more instructive and more profound than the great-Danish thinker’s “psychological” approach” (38).

My immediate response to this assessment of Kierkegaard’s treatment of anxiety was the judgment that von Balthasar had failed to take into account what is arguably the companion volume to Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety — The Sickness Unto Death. While the former is indeed described by its pseudonymous author as “a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin” (emphasis added), the latter is described as “a christian psychological exposition for upbuilding and awakening” (emphasis added). That is, The Sickness Unto Death involves precisely the dogmatic approach to the psychological phenomenon of despair that von Balthasar faults Kierkegaard for failing to involve in his analysis of anxiety in his eponymous book.

Ah yes, you may be thinking, but anxiety and despair are different psychological phenomena. But are they? “[D]eep deep within the most secret hiding place of happiness,” writes Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death, “there dwells also anxiety, which is despair” (SUD, 25). Some readers might object that the Hongs’ translation of The Sickness Unto Death is the most problematic of all their translations and that the equation of anxiety with despair there may be the result of an error in translation. It isn’t. The Danish for the passage reads: “[I]nderst inde i Lykkens Forborgenhed, der boer ogsaa Angesten, som er Fortvivlesen” (emphasis added). Anxiety and despair are two different phenomenological expressions of the same ontological state — sin. Anxiety is, arguably, despair that refuses to recognize itself as such.

There is, thus, a limit to which anxiety can be understood when approached merely psychologically. Von Balthasar is right about that. It would appear that he fails to appreciate, however, that Kierkegaard was well aware of this. The very last line of The Concept of Anxiety reads: “Here this deliberation ends, where it began. As soon as psychology has finished with anxiety, it is to be delivered to dogmatics” (CA, 162). That is, arguably, precisely what Kierkegaard did five years later in The Sickness Unto Death where he identifies anxiety with despair.

The introduction to The Sickness Unto Death begins with a quotation from The Gospel of John where Christ responds to the news that Lazarus is ill with the declaration that “This sickness is not unto death” (John 11:4). This clearly indicates the dogmatic, as opposed to merely psychological, nature of book’s approach to understanding the experience of sin. Sin, which is to say despair, is the sickness unto death according to Kierkegaard.

“Sin Is Not A Negation But A Position” is the heading that begins chapter three of The Sickness Unto Death. “That this is the case,” continues Kierkegaard,

is something that orthodox dogmatics and orthodoxy on the whole have always contended, and they have rejected as pantheistic any definition of sin that made it out to be something merely negative—weakness, sensuousness, finitude, ignorance, etc. Orthodoxy has perceived very correctly that the battle must be fought here, or as in the preceding portion, here the end must be fashioned very firmly … orthodoxy has correctly perceived that when sin is defined negatively, all Christianity is flabby and spineless. That is why orthodoxy emphasizes that there must be a revelation from God to teach fallen man what sin is, a communication that, quite consistently, must be believed because it is a dogma (SUD, 96.)

So von Balthasar’s claim that Kierkegaard “never could bring himself to write a dogmatic tract” on anxiety and that “[a]s a result, anxiety remains for him a matter of the finite mind horrified by its own limitlessness” is simply false. The Sickness Unto Death is Kierkegaard’s “dogmatic tract” on anxiety. Von Balthasar failed to appreciate this for the simple reason that anxiety is subsumed there under the larger heading of “despair.”

This brief examination of von Balthasar’s criticism of Kierkegaard’s treatment of anxiety is an example of a new philosophical genre known as “flash philosophy.” Flash philosophy takes its name from flash fiction, which is essentially very short short stories. Flash philosophy is thus very short philosophical articles. I’ve created a website, Flash Philosophy, dedicated to publishing such short philosophical articles. I invite interested readers to take a look at the website and to send me any material they have that they think might be appropriate to publish there.

Kierkegaard on Women

View of Dublin

As I explained in my most recent post, I chaired a session at the last annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. The session was sponsored by the Søren Kierkegaard Society, so all the papers were on Kierkegaard and they were all excellent. My last post looked at two of the papers. This post will look at the third paper “Gender and the Practical Dimensions of Kierkegaard’s Existential Philosophy,” by the Irish scholar Siobhan Marie Doyle. Doyle’s was one of the best defenses of Kierkegaard against the charge of sexism that I have ever heard. It also raises a very important philosophical question concerning what it means to charge someone with an -ism. What is sexism? What is antisemitism? Are occasional sexist remarks enough to qualify one as “sexist”? The question is equally pressing, of course with respect to the issue of antisemitism. Kierkegaard, as has been well documented by the Danish scholar Peter Tudvad, made some truly horrific remarks about Judaism, but many scholars are reluctant to classify him as antisemitic because there appears to be no foundation in his thought for such a charge. Does a person need to have a world view in which the gender, race, or religion in question figures as deeply flawed, or can genuine prejudice exist alongside an essentially egalitarian world view as a kind of psychological anomaly? These are important questions that deserve more attention than they have been given.

I’m not going to look at those questions now, however. What I want to do now is to summarize for you Doyle’s excellent paper. The paper is divided into two parts. The first part looks at what Doyle keenly observes is Kierkegaard’s “apparent ambivalence toward the feminine throughout the course of his authorship.” Sometimes he praises them and other times he excoriates them. It is indeed hard to figure out what his general view on women is, if, indeed he has one. The second part of the paper looks at Kierkegaard’s “call for the equality of all people, as presented in his ethical work: Works of Love.” Doyle is clearly using “ethical” here in the sense of Kierkegaard’s Christian ethics, rather than the ethical as the state of existence that precedes the religious. Christianity does indeed have its own ethics according to Kierkegaard and Doyle is correct in that it is the ethics of neighbor-love as expressed in Works of Love.

Doyle draws heavily on deliberation II A, B, and C in Works of Love as providing “solid evidence of [Kierkegaard’s] personal belief in the equal status of women and men.”

For Kierkegaard, she writes, “our apparent dissimilarity is merely ‘a cloak’ that disguises our actually similarity.” She then quotes a passage from Works of Love to illustrate this

Take many sheets of paper, write something different on each one; then no one will be like another. But then again take each single sheet; do not let yourself be confused by the diverse inscriptions, hold it up to the light and you will see a common watermark on all of them. In the same way the neighbor is the common watermark, but you see it only by means of eternity’s light when it shines through the dissimilarity (WOL, 89.)

If we are to take this passage seriously, and Kierkegaard clearly meant us to do that, then it becomes very difficult to argue that Kierkegaard considered women as inherently inferior to men, or indeed that he considered people of other races, cultures, or religions, including Judaism, as inherently inferior to white Europeans Christians. Nowhere does Kierkegaard ever suggest that there could be anything about a person that would exclude him or her from the category of “neighbor.” He is a humanist, in the religious sense of that term, through and through because he believed that all human beings were created by God and hence were equally valuable as God’s creations.

So why, then, does he say the terrible things he sometimes says about women? And why does he say the terrible things he sometimes says about Jews? In the first instance, it appears that what Kierkegaard generally takes aim at in his negative remarks about women is more the socially-constructed category of the feminine rather than what one might call the essentially feminine. That doesn’t excuse what he says, of course, but social constructions of gender have been problematic throughout history so it is possible to have a certain sympathy with his occasional attacks on “the feminine” understood that way.

His attacks on Judaism, on the other hand, are harsher and hence more disturbing. They arguably go beyond what would have been considered socially acceptable in 19th-century Denmark. There are negative references to Judaism early in his authorship, but they are relatively mild. His view of Judaism early on appears to have been that, like aesthetic and ethical world views, it was incomplete. His views turn more negative, however, toward the end of his life. Scholars have tended to ignore the virulently antisemitic remarks Kierkegaard made late in life out of a sense, perhaps, that they were anomalous. They certainly do not fit with the beautiful passage Doyle quotes from Works of Love. So where do they come from?

My guess is that they are a product of the persecution Kierkegaard experienced at the hands of the satirical newspaper Corsaren. The attack was initiated by Meïr Aaron Goldschmidt, the editor of Corsaren and a Jewish intellectual for who Kierkegaard had a great deal of respect. The attack has long been thought to have been confined to 1846. Tudvad revealed, however, in his book Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) that, in fact, the attack extended from 1846 right up until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855! Few people would be able to maintain their psychological equilibrium under such conditions. It appears that that may have been a battle that Kierkegaard lost, finally, in the end.

I examine this issue in more detail in an essay entitled “Kierkegaard: The caricature or the man?” in the January 2020 issue of the Dublin Review of Books. I thought it would be appropriate to draw your attention to this essay in my post on Doyle’s excellent paper because Dublin is her home town!