Death and Nonsense

Death has been on everyone’s mind for awhile now. I’m presenting a paper on the topic of death in Kierkegaard at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. As regular readers of this blog will know, I recently completed my own translation of the portion of Works of Love that deals with loving someone who has died. (That translation will appear in print soon, from Gegensatz Press in an edition that will have the original Danish and my English translation of that text on facing pages.) I thought I ought to review Kierkegaard’s other writings on death, as well, to help me prepare the presentation.

One such work is the religious discourse “At a Graveside” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions. I don’t know whether I had ever read it before. If I did, then it was either in the original Danish or in a translation that preceded the Hongs’ translation from 1993. Until reading “At a Graveside,” I would have said that the Hongs’ translation of The Sickness Unto Death was the most problematic of their translations. “At a Graveside” may actually have it beat, though, for reasons I will present below.

The first indication I had that it wasn’t a good translation is that it doesn’t read well. Kierkegaard’s writing is not always equally brilliant, but it is never bad. This, is bad, though: 

“Death’s decision is therefore not definable by equality, because the equality consists in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” 

The expression that the Hongs consistently translate as “decision” here and elsewhere in the discourse, is Afgjørelse. The Danish term that most closely corresponds to the English “decision” is not Afgjørelse, however, but Beslutning. According to Ferrall-Repp, Afgjørelse means “finishing, etc., completion; decision, adjustment, settlement.” “Decision” is there. The definition makes clear, however, that an Afgjørelse is a “decision” in a formal, or legalistic sense, such as the decision of a referee or a judge. This explains, at least in part, why the passage above is confusing. 

Dødens Afgjørelse would be better rendered here as “Death’s reckoning.” 

To make matters worse, not only is Dødens Afgjørelse confusingly translated as “Death’s decision” in the passage above, it’s consistently translated that way throughout the entire discourse, even where it is used as a section heading. This, along with additional translation problems I will detail below, makes the discourse anything but “pellucid” in the manner Gordon Marino claims in his essay “A Critical Perspective on Kierkegaard’s ‘At a Graveside,’” in Kierkegaard and Death. 

There’s more to this lamentably translated passage than the unfortunate translation of Afgørelse as “decision.” The preposition ved that the Hongs have translated as “by” is probably better translated as “through.” “By” is listed before “through” in Ferrall-Repp, but the latter is there as well, and I think it is preferable because Kierkegaard appears to be trying to say that we can’t actually grasp death by thinking of it as the great equalizer, because the equality is established through annihilation and we have no better grasp of that than we have of death. That is, he isn’t suggesting we ever attempt to define death as equality, but that we often think we can come to a better understanding of it by thinking of it as, among other things, the great equalizer.

What about the second sentence: “And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” The use of “alleviating” there is unidiomatic. “Alleviating” generally takes a direct object in English. We say, for example, that a particular lotion is good at alleviating itching. We don’t normally speak of something being alleviating for someone. 

The Danish term that is translated as “alleviating” is formildende. Formildende isn’t in Ferrall-Repp. Formilde is though, and it’s defined there as “to soothe, soften, mollify, appease, assuage, alleviate, temper, mitigate.” So once again we see that the Hongs have chosen an English term that could, in principle, be an acceptable translation of the Danish term in question. It just doesn’t work in this passage. 

“And pondering this is supposed to be soothing for the living” is clearly preferable to “And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living.” I’m going to go out on a limb here, however, and suggest that “comforting” would actually be the most idiomatic translation. It isn’t offered as a possible translation of formilde in Ferrall-Repp, but it captures the sense of formildene in this passage. 

Let’s try out our new translation of the passage and compare it with the Hongs’. The Hongs have:

“Death’s decision is therefore not definable by equality, because the equality consists in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” 

We have:

“Death’s reckoning is therefore not definable through equality, because the equality is in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be comforting for the living!”

The Hongs have interpolated “consists” here. That isn’t really a problem, however, in terms of understanding the meaning of the passage. It’s just what Strunk and White would call bad form in that it’s unnecessary. The real problems are with the Hongs’ translations of Dodens Afgjørelse as “Death’s decision,” ved as “by,” and formildende as “alleviating.” The first, I would argue, is both unidiomatic and confusing. The second suggests an equation of death with equality that is clearly not intended in the original, and the third is unidiomatic. 

There are lots more of the kinds of problems described above. Page 86, for example, has four instances of  the same unidiomatic use of “alleviating” as appears in the passage above. This is arguably simply a stylistic problem rather than a substantive one, but not only is it a disservice to both Kierkegaard and readers of the Hongs’ translation to render Kierkegaard’s flowing Danish in an awkward an unidiomatic English, it can lead to substantive problems. That is, readers may wonder what is being alleviated and why Kierkegaard is being so mysterious about it. 

These are not the worst problems with the Hongs’ translation of “Ved en Grav” (literally, simply “At a Grave”). The Hongs’ inexplicable choice to translate Afgjørelse as “decision” leads to even greater problems in another passage. This one is on page 97 where, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson would refer to as a foolish attempt at consistency, the Hongs translate Uafgjørtheden as “indecisiveness.” Afgjørt is the past participle of Afgjøre, which, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to finish, complete; to decide; to settle, adjust.” It is, of course, related to Afgjørelse, hence the Hongs’ apparently decided to translate it as “indecisive” in order to preserve in the translation a terminological consistency found in the original Danish text. 

The problem is that meaning was sacrificed here to consistency. The passage includes two references to holding death “in the equilibrium of indecisiveness.” It isn’t at all clear, however, what that could possibly mean. That is, the passage does not concern someone contemplating suicide who can’t make up their mind. It concerns our difficulty in grasping what, exactly, death is.

It gets worse. “To paganism,” reads the translation on page 97, “the highest courage was the wise person (whose earnestness was indicated expressly by his not being in a hurry with the explanation [i.e., of death]) who was able to live with the thought of death in such a way that he overcame this thought every moment of his life by indecisiveness.”

What? How can one overcome anything by indecisiveness? Kierkegaard would never say such a thing. If there was anything of which Kierkegaard was contemptuous, it was indecisiveness. By this point, you can probably figure out for yourself how Uafgjørtheden should be translated here. It refers to indeterminacy, or, more awkwardly, undecidability, not indecisiveness. This is made clear in the text that follows. “The wise person,” the passage continues, “knows that death exists [er til]; he does not live thoughtlessly, forgetting that it exists [er til]. He meets with it in his thoughts, he renders it powerless in indeterminability [Ubestemmelighed], and this is his victory over death.”  

Finally, translators of Kierkegaard should avoid, if at all possible, rendering er til as “exists,” because “existence,” i.e., Existens, is a technical term for Kierkegaard. The passage above would be less misleading if er til were translated simply as “is,” or “is [real]” with brackets to indicate that “real” is an interpolation.

How can Gordon Marino have thought that the Hongs’s translation of “Ved en Grav” was “pellucid”? Portions of it are flat out nonsensical. Kierkegaard and Death, the volume in which Marino’s essay on “At a Graveside” appears, is a collection of essays by various scholars. Many of the essays understandably focus on “At a Graveside.” What is less understandable is that none of them mentions the numerous problems with the translation. 

The strange silence of the contributors to Kierkegaard and Death concerning the problems with the Hongs’ translation of “Ved en Grav” reveals a serious challenge to rigorous Kierkegaard scholarship. It would appear that either the impression that Kierkegaard’s writing is often nonsensical even in the original must be so pervasive among scholars that many don’t bother to check awkward and confusing passages in translations against the original Danish, or that knowledge of Danish, even rudimentary knowledge, is so rare among Kierkegaard scholars that most are simply unable to determine problems with translations even when they suspect they may exist.

Kierkegaard’s Neither/Nor

There was lots of Kierkegaard activity at the AAR this year as usual. The Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture group organized two sessions on the theme of “Kierkegaard, the Problem of Patriarchy, and Related Social Ills.” Somewhat bizarrely, what had originally been slated as Part 1 was scheduled before Part 2, so I am forced to refer confusingly to the Part 2 as “the first session.” 

The first session was chaired by Aaron Edwards of Cliff College and included papers by Frances Maughan-Brown of the College of Holy Cross, Thomas Millay of Baylor University, and Troy Wellington Smith of the University of California at Berkeley. Brown’s paper was entitled “Without Authority: Kierkegaard’s Resistance to Patriarchy.” Millay’s paper was, “An Equal Chance to Make Our Lives Miserable: Kierkegaard’s Paradoxical Feminism,” and Smith’s paper was “Material Traces of a Kierkegaardian Confrontation with the Patriarchy.”

Unfortunately, I was teaching during the first part of the session. Ordinarily, I would simply have cancelled my class. It was the very last class of the term, however, so I didn’t feel canceling it was an option, so I was able to catch only the last paper. That paper was very intriguing, however, and appears part of a more extended research program. Scholars have claimed for years that Kierkegaard’s many female readers engaged almost exclusively with his edifying discourses rather than with the more philosophically oriented pseudonymously published works. Smith’s project is to investigate the extent to which that is true. 

It’s an ambitious project that Smith has begun by examining copies of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works that date from the period when he was still alive to see how many of them have women’s names inscribed in them (on the assumption that these names indicate the owners). He’s found something like a dozen such examples. Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning of the project, because while it seems safe to assume that the books in question belong to the women whose name are inscribed in them, more evidence is required to support that the owners actually read them. It is conceivable, and arguably even probable, that the books were purchased on the assumption that their contents would be consistent in style with the edifying works, and that, of course, was rarely the case. It’s possible that many of these women failed to persevere in their reading of these works, not, of course because they were inherently incapable of understanding them, but because their lack of the relevant philosophical background would have made them very difficult reading. People often abandon books because they find them difficult reading.

What would be required in order to refute the charge that women did not initially engage with Kierkegaard’s more “philosophically oriented” works would be evidence not simply that they owned such works, but that they read and discussed them. Such evidence, presumably, if it exists would be found, among other places, in the correspondence of these women. It’s not clear, however, how much of this correspondence survives. 

Smith is enthusiastic about the project of documenting the early engagement of women with Kierkegaard’s thought. He appears an exceptionally conscientious scholar and acknowledged that he is still only at the beginning of this project, so we can expect that if there is evidence out there to support that Kierkegaard’s female contemporaries read more widely in his authorship than has been appreciated Smith will find it.

The project itself deserves closer examination, however, in that the characterization of Kierkegaard’s literary productivity as consisting of two distinct types of works is misleading. The two alleged types are: edifying works published under Kierkegaard’s own name and “philosophical” works published pseudonymously is misleading.

Kierkegaard undoubtedly had a variety of reasons for publishing some of his works under his own name and others pseudonymously. He makes clear, however, in The Point of View for My Work as an Author, that the distinction has primarily to do with the authority of the authorial voice, not with whether a work was edifying or philosophical. The Sickness unto Death, writes Kierkegaard in The Point of View, appears

pseudonymously and with me as the editor. It is said to be “for upbuilding.” That is more than my category, the poet-category: upbuilding.*

Just as the Guadalquibir [sic] River … at some places plunges underground, so is there also a stretch, the upbuilding , that carries my name. There is something, (the aesthetic) that is lower and is pseudonymous, and something that is higher and is also pseudonymous, because as a person I do not correspond to it. 

The pseudonym is Johannes Anticlimacus [sic] in contrast to Climacus, who said he was not a Christian. Anticlimacus is the opposite extreme: a Christian on an extraordinary level—if only I myself manage to be just a simple Christian. (POV, 199).

There’s a note at * on the purported “distinction between ‘upbuilding’ and ‘for upbuilding’,” or more lyrically between “edification” and “for edification.” The note refers the reader to the Hongs’ translation of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, V 5686, as well as to the original Danish edition of Kierkegaard’s Papirer, IV B 1596. I don’t have the Hongs’ Journals and Papers. I do, however, have the Papirer. The passage in question concerns the difference between “Taler,” or “Discourses,” and “Prædikener,” or “Sermons.” Kierkegaard calls his edifying discourses “Discourses” and not “Sermons” 

fodi dens Forfatter ikke har Myndighed til at p r æ d i k e [extra spaces were used between letters to denote emphasis because Fraktur has no italic font]; “opbyggelige Taler” ikke Taler til Opbyggelse, fordi den Talende ingenlunde fordrer at være L æ r e r. 

because their author has no authority to preach, “edifying discourses” not discourses for edification because the one speaking is not claiming to be a teacher.** 

That is, the distinction between “upbuilding,” or “edifying,” and “for upbuilding,” or “for edification” has nothing to do with substance of the work in question, or the effect Kierkegaard hopes it will have on its reader. It concerns rather the authority with which the work is put forward. 

The characterization of Kierkegaard’s authorship as consisting of works that are either edifying or philosophical is simplistic because it evinces a false dichotomy. None of Kierkegaard’s works is without philosophical content and all, arguably, contain an edifying dimension. That is, Kierkegaard’s works are neither exclusively edifying nor exclusively philosophical. This may take some analytical sophistication to appreciate but analytical sophistication is prerequisite to being a scholar, so it is hard to explain the persistence of this simplistic characterization of Kierkegaard’s works. What makes it even harder to explain is that the actual subtitle one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous works, The Sickness Unto Death, explicitly identifies it as “for edification.” 

This issue emerged during the discussion of Smith’s paper. Hopefully, that discussion, as well as this post, will help to put an end to this simplistic characterization of Kierkegaard’s authorship. 

**[Fordre is ordinarily best translated as “demand” or “insist.” “Claim” is also an acceptable translation, however, according to Vinterberg and Bodelsen’s Dansk-Engelsk Ordbog, anden udgave (Danish-English Dictionary, second edition), Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1966) and “claim” seems most appropriate in this context.]

Kierkegaard on Women

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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!