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“Kierkegaard and German Thought”

“Kierkegaard and German Thought” was the title of a conference held last Thursday and Friday at the University of Oregon. The conference was sponsored by the Department of German and Scandinavian and organized by Michael Stern, an associate professor in the dept. It was one of the most interesting and stimulating conferences I’ve been to in years. The speakers included David Kangas and Vanessa Rumble, both highly esteemed Kierkegaard scholars and regulars on what one might call the Kierkegaard circuit (I was on the program as well, but modesty precludes my referring to myself as “highly esteemed”). All the papers were excellent though and it was particularly stimulating to me to hear papers from people with whose work I am less familiar. The other speakers were (in the order of their appearance on the program): Gantt Gurley (Oregon), Charles Scott (Emeritus, Vanderbilt), Michael Stern (Oregon), Michelle Kosch (Cornell), Daniel Conway (Texas A&M), Leonardo Lissi (Johns Hopkins), the aforementioned David Kangas and Vanessa Rumble, and Jeffrey Librett (Oregon).

Gurley (who seems to know as many languages as the fabled Thorleifur Gudmondson Repp) spoke Thursday on Kierkegaard and “The Concept of Byrony.” Scott, whose paper was entitled “The Force of Life and Faith,” spoke on Kierkegaard and Niezsche. Michael Stern, whose paper was entitled “Clouds: The Tyrany of Irony Over Philosophy,” spoke about Socrates in Aristophanes and Kierkegaard. Michelle Kolsch, whose paper was entitled “Fichte and (Wilhelm) on Practical Reasoning,” made a convincing case Fichte was the philosopher Kierkegaard had in mind when writing the second volume of Either/Or, rather than, as some have argued, Kant or Hegel. Daniel Conway examined Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on resentment. I talked about Kierkegaard and German mysticism. (Yes, you will notice I’ve left off mentioned the paper titles. I feared that was becoming monotonous.)

Friday began with Leonardo Lisi’s paper “Antigone’s Silence: Tragedy and the form of History in Kierkegaard.” (Okay, I’m back to paper titles. So long as I’m luxuriating within these parenthesis, I’d like to add that Lisi and Librett have two of the finest speaking voices I’ve ever heard. I’d listen to them talk about anything just to hear those lovely voices. Plus, they’re both scary smart, so they’d be worth listening to no matter what they were talking about). Kangas’s (I think the simple s’ is an affectation. I mean, would anyone say “Kangas’ paper”?)  paper was entitled “Of Spirit: On Being Human in Kierkegaard’s Late Discourses.” Kangas’s paper was a particular favorite of mine, not because it was better than the others but because so much of it was directly relevant to my own interests, both in Kierkegaard and in life more generally. Librett went next, though he was listed as last in the program. His paper was entitled “Modalities of Anxiety in Kierkegaard and Heidegger” as was so expertly crafted that it actually made me, if only briefly, want to read Heidegger.

My hands-down favorite paper, however, was Vanessa Rumble’s “Stirrings: Fichte and Kierkegaard on Fate, Freedom and Fault.” The paper was an interpretation of Fear and Trembling as a meditation on trauma that focused more on the various accounts of weaning in the book than on the treatments of the Akedah (for those of you unfamiliar with this term, it refers to the binding of Isaac). I found it absolutely compelling.

The campus of the University of Oregon is beautiful. It is was gorgeous and green, lush with spring folliage and many of the buildings appear to be in the architectural style known as “prairie school.” (The picture above is of Stern at the podium of the room in which the conference was held. Okay, there’s more of the room than there is of Stern, but the room was just gorgeous. The picture doesn’t do it justice.) Conference goers were housed at the charming Excelsior Inn just next to the campus and treated to a delicious gourmet breakfast each morning in the inn’s restaurant. There was a banquet the last day at an excellent restaurant called Marché. The wine was wonderful and the company was even better. I’d like to thank all the folks at U. of Oregon for their hospitality, but especially Mark T. Unno from the Department of Religious studies, who introduced my paper. Professor Unno gave me the loveliest introduction I’ve ever received (which included some nice words about this blog).

I’m going to lobby U. of Oregon to do this every year!

Joakim Garff on “Kierkegaard’s Christian Bildungsroman”

Garff at the 2011 AAR meeting in San Francisco

It’s rare that Danish scholars venture outside Denmark. So it was a treat to hear Joakim Garff deliver a paper at the 2011 AAR meeting in San Francisco last November. (I’m sorry about the quality of the photo. I didn’t think to bring my camera, so I had to take it with my iPod Touch). Garff is trained as a theologian but his métier is aesthetics and literary theory. There’s been a lot of interest among contemporary Kierkegaard scholars in Kierkegaard’s aesthetics and his relation to art and rightly so. Kierkegaard is a consummate story teller as well as a lover of music. He often disparages art, but he is himself a type of artist, so his relation to art and, in particular to literature as a type of art, is deeply ambivalent.  Garff’s paper, as the title of this post indicates, was an argument that Kierkegaard’s Practice in Christianity can be read as a Christian Bildungsroman.

The paper, Garff explains, presents “a reading of the third section of Practice in Christianity in order to visualize the sophisticated movements that Anti-Climacus performs between an aesthetic-rhetorical mimesis and a specific theological imitatio Christi.” It is Garff’s contention that Practice in Christianity can be read as “a refined and condensed Bildungsroman that constitutes a representation of Christian individuation: An aesthetic image (Billede) of the crucified savior, with which a child is dramatically confronted, is gradually transformed int a religious examplar (Forbillede).” Garff’s analysis, he asserts “testifies to the fact that the aesthetic dimension in Kierkegaard’s theology is a ‘theology of autopsy,’ which seeks to reduce or suspend, through an extensive use of rhetorical tools, the temporal distance between a modern reader and Jesus of Nazareth.”

I’ll confess that I’m uncertain precisely what he means by “theology of autopsy,” or perhaps I should say I’m uncertain why he’s chosen that expression, because the latter half of that sentence makes perfect sense. That is, I think Garff is correct in his claim that Kierkegaard uses his rhetorical skills as a means of creating a semblance of contemporaneity in his reader with the historical person of Jesus. Few scholars would dispute that, though I believe most would argue that establishing what Kierkegaard would consider genuine contemporaneity in the spiritual sense is ultimately beyond the scope of rhetoric no matter how skillfully employed.

The ambiguity of the relation between literary form and spiritual substance is one that runs throughout Kierkegaard’s entire authorship and which thus deserves to be treated in more detail. There are already some excellent works on the topic of Kierkegaard’s aesthetics, including Sylvia Walsh’s Living Poetically: Kierkegaard’s Existential Aesthetics (Penn State Press, 1994), but the topic is far from exhausted.

I would argue that the specific topic of the Bildungsroman in Kierkegaard’s works deserves fuller treatment. Repetition, for example, is clearly a Bildungsroman, and one could argue that the whole of the authorship, particularly in light of Kierkegaard’s own comments on it in The Point of View, could be read as an extended Bildungsroman.

Garff made a comment in passing that was so important it deserves to be repeated here. Someone asked him what he made of the pseudonymity of Practice in Christianity and he replied that he didn’t think it was particularly important. He said he thought scholars made too much of the issue of the pseudonymity of many of Kierkegaard’s works, that in some instances, at least, pseudonyms were last minute additions to works he’d originally planned to publish under his own name. I could not agree with Garff more an that point. Anyone who has spent any time reading Kierkegaard’s journals and papers, as well as the works he published under his own name, knows that the view contained in the pseudonymous works, more often than not, reflect Kierkegaard’s own views. I believe the pseudonyms were an aesthetic device, something to give a particular work a kind of symmetry, or closure, that the name of a real flesh and blood author affixed to them could not do.So there we are, back to aesthetics.

Garff mentioned that he had a new book coming out soon, but would not divulge the topic.