I have been a member of the steering committee of the Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group of the American Academy of Religion, on and off, for many, many years. Sylvia Walsh Perkins brought me onto the steering committee, as she did Marcia Robinson. Sylvia was always looking out for younger scholars, and especially women, because she knew from experience how inhospitable the world of scholarship could be for women.
I gave a paper entitled “Pulling Ourselves Together: Kierkegaard and the Catechesis of Contagion” at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion last month. Several people told me I should try to publish the paper, but I fear that might be difficult because it is not a traditional academic paper, but actually contains edifying elements. So I decided that rather than racking my brains trying to think of an appropriate journal, I would simply post it to this blog. I haven’t posted the whole paper, though, because while it is short, at ten pages, it is still considerably longer than the average post to this blog. What I’ve done instead is simply posted the first part and then provided a link to the pdf of the entire paper at the end in case you are sufficiently intrigued by the beginning and decide you would like to read all the way to the end.
Vær så god!
“You may have heard,” writes Kierkegaard in “To Preserve One’s Soul In Patience,”
“how someone who had thoughtlessly frittered away his life and never understood anything but wasted the power of his soul in vanities, how he lay on his sick bed and the frightfulness of disease encompassed him and the singularly fearful battle began, how he then, for the first time in his life, understood something, understood that it was death he struggled with, and how he then pulled himself together in a purpose that was powerful enough to move a world, how he attained a marvelous collectedness for wrenching himself out of the sufferings in order to use the last moment to catch up on some of what he had neglected, to bring order to some of the chaos he had caused during a long life, to contrive something for those he would leave behind. You may have heard it from those who were there with him, who with sadness, but also deeply moved, had to confess that in those few hours he had lived more than in all the rest of his life, more than is lived in years and days as people ordinarily live” (Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, p. 181).
Not since the flu pandemic of 1918, which took more lives than WWI, has an illness aroused so much anxiety and fear as the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet this global tragedy is also an opportunity for us to understand, perhaps for the first time, how we struggle with death from the moment we come to understand our mortality, even if we spend most of our lives in denial concerning this struggle. Our current crisis provides us, according to Kierkegaard, with an opportunity to reevaluate our lives, to catch up on what we have neglected, to bring order to some of the chaos we may have caused during our lives, to contrive something for those we will eventually leave behind, to live more than in all the rest of our lives, “more than is lived in years and days as people ordinarily live.”
This paper argues that the confrontation with our mortality that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced upon us can, according to Kierkegaard, be a means of powerful spiritual instruction, instruction on what is truly meaningful in existence and how we may live our lives, however long or short they may be, so fully, so completely enfolded in the embrace of Grace that even the specter of death is no longer frightening.
“Pulling Ourselves Together,” delivered at the 2021 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.
The annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion took place last week. As usual, there were three Kierkegaard sessions. I missed the first session, which was on Kierkegaard and “public philosophy.” The other two sessions were excellent. The theme of both sessions, which were sponsored by the Kierkegaard, Religion, and Culture Group of the AAR, was “Kierkegaard, Contagion, Class, and Corporeal Vulnerability,” so the sessions were timely, with frequent references to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was particularly interested in “Kierkegaard, Emotional Contagion, and Affective Sociability,” a paper by Wojciech Kaftanski, who is affiliated with The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard, a program with which Jeffrey Hanson, another Kierkegaard scholar is also affiliated. (Ironically, The Human Flourishing Program is housed at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. Kierkegaard must be spinning in his grave!).
There was one passage of Kaftanski’s paper in which I was particularly interested. The passage is below, followed by the original Danish text.
“Nowadays…efforts are made in the states to bring about this irrationality, the existence of a prodigious monstrosity with many heads or, more correctly and accurately, a thousand-, according to the circumstances, a hundred-thousand-legged monstrosity, the crowd, an irrational enormity, or an enormous irrationality, that nevertheless has physical force, the force of the shout and uproar, also an amazing virtuosity in making everything commensurable with the hands raised to vote or with the decision of fists lifted up for a brawl. This abstraction is an inhuman something whose power is certainly enormous, but whose enormous power cannot be defined humanly but can be more accurately defined as the power of a machine”
“…sørges nutildags i Staterne for, at dette Ufornuftige finder Sted, at der existerer et eventyrligt Monstrum ||—|| med mange Hoveder, eller (rigtigere og) sandere, et Tusind-, efter Omstændighederne , et Hundredetusind-Been: Mængden, et ufornuftigt Uhyre eller et uhyre Ufornuftigt, som dog sandseligt har Magten, Skrigets og Larmens, item en beundringsværdigt Virtuositet it at gjøre Alt commensurabelt for de til Ballotation oprakte Hænders eller de til Slagsmaal opløftede Nævers Afgjørelse. Dette Abstractum er et umenneskeligt Noget, hvis Kraft dog ikke kan bestemmes menneskeligt, men rigtigere som man bestemmer en Maskines, at den har saa og saa mange Hestes Kraft; Mængdens Kraft er altid Hestekraft.” Pap. Vol. IX B24, p. 324.
It took me awhile to find the text because the first reference Kaftanski sent me was incomplete. He very kindly supplied me with the complete reference, however, after I pointed out the problem. I wanted to use the Danish text in something I was writing, so rather than type it all out from the hard my hard copy of the Papirer, I just typed “Hundredetusind-Been: Mængden” into the search field of the online edition of SKS. The online edition of SKS boasts that it is the complete text of everything, both published and unpublished, that Kierkegaard ever wrote, so I was confident that I would find the text there.
See the screen shot that serves as an illustration for this post. Notice the text in the “Søgeresultater” (i.e., search results) field and the “Ingen resultater funded” (i.e., no results found). That’s right, the text of the passage that is there for all the world to see in the hard copy of the Papirer does not come up when one searches on any of the various phrases from the passage that I tried in my repeated vain attempts to save myself the trouble of retyping all the text.
I had actually considered getting rid of my hard copy of the Papirer since I has assumed everything that I would ever need would be at my electronic fingertips. Good thing I didn’t, eh?
So let that be a lesson to those of you who had assumed, as I had, that you didn’t any longer need to have hard copies of Kierkegaard’s works in Danish.
But back to Kaftanski’s paper. I enjoyed the paper, though I’m at a loss now to summarize it. Wojciech indicated to me, however, that it was roughly the same as a section of his recently published Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity, so I decided to just go ahead and buy the whole book. I can’t weigh in on the book yet. I will do that at a later date. The purpose of this post is to vent about, as the title suggests, the decline in editing at academic presses. There are two problems quite early in Wojciech’s book that an editor should have caught. They are minor, and likely won’t cause any problems in understanding the text, but they’re annoying and should not have made it past an editor. They’re actually on the same page, page 6, according to my ebook version. The first is an anachronistic reference to a “cocktail party.” The sentence is:
“This phenomenon Kierkegaard sees chiefly in the young and privileged who spend their time strolling through the city, visiting department stores, frequenting theaters and amusement parks, but also meeting at cafes or cocktail parties to exchange gossip about the next series of novelties coming to town and discussing whether or not to engage with them.”
The problem is that while the first reference to a “cocktail” appears to have occurred around the end of the eighteenth century, the expression “cocktail party” is much later. The phenomenon of the cocktail party dates from the early part of the 20th century. What Kaftanski meant, I’m sure, was that “the young and privileged” met in cafes and in literary and social “salons” in private homes.
The second problem is a reference to “salaried labor,” when what Kaftanski clearly means is not salaried labor but wage labor. The sentence is:
“In factories, wool mills, and servitude, engaged in salaried labor, people were reduced to performing tedious manual and alienating work, which consisted mainly of producing multitudes of copies.”
The sentence is a little bit labored, beginning as it does with a relative clause. The problem, though, is that 19th-century workers of the sort Kaftanski describes would not generally be spoken of as “salaried.” They would have been paid “wages.” Salaried labor usually involves a contract that specifies the terms of employment. Wage labor typically does not. Salaried labor is generally of a higher status than wage labor. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be in a scholarly work of this sort.
These two minor stylistic problems should not affect the reader’s understanding of the text, but they are still annoying. They aren’t Kaftanski’s fault because English is not his mother tongue. It IS the mother tongue, I presume, however, of the editors over at Routledge. Did the editors even look at the manuscript before they sent it to press? Poor editing is one of my pet peeves. I guess it bothers me so much in part because I’ve had a lot of demanding teachers who have drilled points like those above home to me, and in part because I’ve been a victim of poor editing myself.
There’s increasing talk of reducing the time to both an undergraduate and a graduate degree. The idea, of course, is to save money. I’m sympathetic with the motivation, but concerned that we are losing our grip on scholarly standards as it is. I hate to think of what books will look like that have been produced by editors who are products of accelerated degree programs!