On Death and Dying

Readers of this blog might be interested to know that I often mention Kierkegaard in posts to my other blog The Life of the Mind. The following is one such post that I am re-posting here to give people interested in Kierkegaard an idea of the type of references to Kierkegaard that show up on my other blog. This post appeared first on my blog on July 17, 2013 and was then republished in the online political journal Counterpunch under the title “The Long Journey.” Most recently, if was republished in The 33rd, an anthology of writing published annually by Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences. People seem to like this piece. I hope readers of this blog will enjoy it as well.

One of the most frightening things, I think, about dying is that we do it alone. Of all the natural evils for which one would like to blame the creator, this seems one of the worst. It would have been so much better, wouldn’t it, if we left this life in groups, left perhaps with the people we came in with, with the children we remember from our earliest days in school, and perhaps also with the people we have come to love, if they are suitably close to us in age. If we could go in groups, as if on a field trip, it would be easier.

But we go alone, even those unfortunates who die in accidents that take many lives die effectively alone because they don’t have time, really to appreciate their fates as shared. They say the people who remained on the Titanic sang as the ship went down. That’s what I’m talking about. It would be so much better, so much easier to bear if we were assigned a time along with many others. We could begin to gather a little before that time, all of us who were assigned to leave together, we could begin to gather and prepare ourselves and share with one another the joys and sorrows of our lives. If we did that, I think we would realize that our lives had really all been variations on the same theme, that we were not so different from one another as we had thought.

I’m not certain if I believe in life after death, even though I am very religious. I’m not certain what it would be for. I doubt I will be ready to leave this life when my time comes. I think I’d like to live much longer than I know I will, say three or four hundred years. I think I’d eventually get tired of living though, so the prospect of living forever is not all that appealing.

It seems to me, however, that if there is life after death, that that place where we will all go (and I believe we will all go to the same place because I am a universalist), wherever it is, that we will all actually arrive there together. Even though each of us will die individually, alone, if we go anywhere, it is to eternity and since there is no temporal change in eternity, there cannot be any arriving earlier or later. Where we will go will be where everyone will go at the same time, or where everyone, in a sense, already is. There will be no waiting for the loved ones who die after us. They will be there waiting for us, so to speak, when we arrive, even if they are in the bloom of youth when we leave.

When I think about death, which I do more and more as I get older, I wonder if perhaps part of the point of it, of the horrible specter of that trip one must take alone, is precisely to make us understand that we never really are alone. And by that I don’t mean simply that God is always with us, although I do mean that also. I mean that we are all part of the whole of humanity, that we are connected to everyone and, indeed, to every living thing.

There is a poem I love by Molly Holden that conveys very well this sense of connectedness. It’s called “Photograph of Haymaker, 1890.” It goes like this:

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —
as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.
Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,

That’s not the whole of the poem. I left out the last couple of lines for fear of violating copyright. You can read the whole of it though if you go to Poetry magazine. Of course the poem is about the haymaker in that it’s about mortality which is inseparable, I think from temporality. Time passes, people pass, as they say. The haymaker will pass, just as the grasses he’s cutting down in the vigor of his manhood. And he is gone now of course that man who was young and vigorous in that photo taken so long ago.

I love to read philosophy and learn that others who lived and died long before me had precisely the same thoughts that I have had. I feel suddenly linked to those people in a mystical way. I feel as if they are with me in a strange sense, that we are together on this journey we call life, even though they completed it long ago.

Kierkegaard speaks often about the idea of death and how one must keep it ever present in his thoughts. I did not understand this when I first read it, but I believe I do now. To think about death, really to think about it, to think it through, will bring you right back around again to life and what a miracle it is, and by that I don’t mean your own small individual life, but all of it, life as a whole, and you will be filled with reverence for it. You will be kinder to every creature.

And you will feel less alone.

This piece is for Otis Anderson, February7, 1959 – July 14, 2013.

Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time

Anthony Rudd
Anthony Rudd

This has been a busy year for Kierkegaard scholars. It’s the bicentennial of Kierkegaard’s birth, so there have been a number of important Kierkegaard conferences. The most interesting one by far, I believe, was the one held at Baylor University from October 31st through November 2nd. The conference, which was part of the ongoing series “Baylor Symposia on Faith and Culture,” was entitled “Kierkegaard: A Christian Thinker for Our Time.”

Lots of conferences purport to address the issue of the relevance of Kierkegaard to contemporary life, but few deliver on that promise. This one did. There were over 400 attendees for the three day event and the topics ranged from “American Religion,” and “Kierkegaard as a Profit to the Church Today,” to “Some Contributions of Kierkegaard to Medical and Psychiatric Practice.” As with so many conferences, there was an embarrassment of riches in the form of many concurrent sessions each with a theme so interesting that it was very difficult to choose from among them.

There’s no way I could summarize all the papers I heard, let alone all the papers presented at the conference, so I’m going to give only a few highlights and direct interested readers to the website for the conference for more complete information.

The highlights for me on the first day were the presentations by Jan and Steve Evans. Jan Evans is a professor of Spanish at Baylor who specializes in the work of Miguel de Unamuno. Unfortunately, I know very little about Unamuno. Fortunately, Evans’ paper gave me a little insight into the respects in which Unamuno was influenced by Kierkegaard. I’m not going to take up space here discussing that issue, however, because Evans has a new book out on that very topic, entitled Miguel de Unamuno’s Quest for Faith: A Kierkegaardian Understanding of Unamuno’s Struggle to Believe (Wipf & Stock, 2013) so if you are interested you should check it out. You can even get it in a Kindle edition!

C. Stephen Evans is one of the most important Kierkegaard scholars working today and an absolutely mesmerizing speaker. I knew his talk, “Kierkegaard on Natural Theology: Why We Can know There Is a God Without Proofs,” would be good, but I was concerned that I might have difficulty following it since it was in the evening. I find it really challenging to listen to more than a couple of presentations in one day. I like to think that it’s because I become so mentally preoccupied with issues raised in those papers that it becomes hard for me to concentrate on new material, but it could well be that I just can’t process that much information in so short a time.

I needn’t have worried, though, that I would have difficulty following Evans’ paper. It was absolutely absorbing in terms of substance and was delivered in such an animated and apparently spontaneous manner that it was as if Steve were holding forth in one’s living room after a particularly pleasant meal. The time flew by.

I understand that there will be a volume of selected papers from this conference. This is going to be a must-buy for every Kierkegaard scholar, not simply because of the enormous variety of wonderful material it will contain, but also because the fact that Kierkegaard believed we could know there was a God is still not widely appreciated by Kierkegaard scholars and this is a serious obstacle to progress in the field. I’m going to return to this issue, in fact, in my second post on this conference where I will examine in some detail one of the papers delivered in a session on Saturday entitled “Kierkegaardian Challenges to Epistemology.”

The highlights for me on Friday were a panel discussion in the morning entitled “Kierkegaard as a Prophet to the Church Today,” and Anthony Rudd’s “Featured Presentation” in the afternoon entitled “Kierkegaard’s Christian Platonism.”

The first session was a panel discussion of Kyle Roberts’ book Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Wipf & Stock, 2013) (also available in a Kindle edition). Roberts is an associate professor of systematic theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul Minnesota and his book is, as one may have gathered from the title, about the significance of Kierkegaard for the contemporary religious phenomenon that is generally referred to as “emergent Christianity.” Roberts confesses in the preface to the book that he is “neither an emerging church leader nor a recognized emergent theologian.” He is deeply sympathetic he explains, however, to the movement and has gotten a great deal of exposure to it through observing the gatherings at an emergent church in Minneapolis known as Solomon’s Porch. The book, he explains, is his “attempt to bring Kierkegaard’s religious thought into dialogue with postmodern expressions of Christianity (i.e., the emergent, or emerging church).”

I was sorely tempted to attend the session on Kierkegaard’s contribution to medical and psychiatric practice because I am very interested in the philosophy of psychology and psychotherapy. Unfortunately, that session ran at the same time as Anthony Rudd’s presentation “Kierkegaard’s Christian Platonism.” Anthony is a dear friend and Plato one of my favorite philosophers, so I couldn’t really pass on that session. I had read an early version of a paper Rudd had done on Kierkegaard and Plato and found it fascinating. I think Plato had a much greater influence on Kierkegaard’s thought than is generally appreciated. Rudd is beginning what I hope will be an avalanche of work on this topic and not only did I want to support my friend, I wanted to get in on the ground floor of this new direction in Kierkegaard scholarship.

Rudd’s presentation was outstanding and generated a very lively discussion afterward because a couple of people in the audience thought Rudd had given short shrift to the distinction Kierkegaard occasionally makes between Plato and Socrates. Since Rudd was a “featured speaker,” his presentation will very likely be part of the volume that will come out of this conference so readers will be able to judge for themselves whether they think this was a weakness in Rudd’s argument. I don’t think it was. I think Rudd’s position was not just convincing but really exciting in that it is certain to generate much more work on this hitherto neglected but clearly very important topic.

I will say more about the conference in a later post.

Kierkegaard Repetitions: An International Conference Celebrating the Bicentenary of Kierkegaard’s Birth

Dinner at the Danish Embassy
Dinner at the Danish Embassy

I just returned from one of the most stimulating and interesting Kierkegaard conferences I have been to in many years. The conference was hosted by the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University, with support provided by the Office of the Dean of the Zanvyi S Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Max Kade Center for Modern German Thought, and the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at Johns Hopkins.

The conference ran all day Friday and Saturday, Sept. 20th and 21. Peter Taksøe-Jensen, the Ambassador of Denmark to the United States, and Katherine Newman, James B Knapp Dean of the Zanvyi S Krieger School of Arts and Sciences gave the opening addresses on Friday after which there were four papers. The very first speaker was Pia Søltoft, the director of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center (formerly an independent institution but now part of the University of Copenhagen). It was a rare treat for me to see Pia. I had done some translation work for her when I lived in Copenhagen, but despite the fact that I have been back to Denmark many times since I left in 1998, twice even for conferences, our paths hadn’t crossed. If there were fashion awards for scholars, Pia would win one. She is always fabulously turned out!

The title of Søltoft’s talk was “The Transparency of Self-Love? Kierkegaard vs. Frankfurt.” Søltoft summarized both Kierkegaard’s and Frankfurt’s positions on the nature of love and self love and argued that Kierkegaard departed from Frankfurt in that his account of love did not involve an identification of the lover with the interests of the beloved. I pointed out during the question period, however, that I believe this position rests on a conflation of desire and interest. What Søltoft pointed out was that Kierkegaard does not believe that simply giving someone what they profess to want is necessarily loving. Sometimes people desire things that will be injurious to them, hence, according to Kierkegaard, to endeavor to satisfy such a wish is not loving. Søltoft is absolutely right there. It is simply mistaken, I would argue, to take desires to represent interests.

The second presentation was by Hent de Vries of Johns Hopkins. The title of his talk was “The Kierkegaardian Moment: Dialectical Theology and its Aftermath.” De Vries talk, and the first talk of the afternoon “Constantine Constantius Goes to the Theater,” by another professor from Johns Hopkins, Michael Fried were both erudite and informative.

Leonardo Lisi and Jonathan Lear
Leonardo Lisi and Jonathan Lear

Following Fried was Jonathan Lear from the University of Chicago. Lear’s talk was entitled “On a Possible Use of Disjunction in the Late Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, 1854-1855.” Lear began by explaining that his title was meant to be humorous and proceeded to give a really wonderful presentation on the difficulty of understanding what it means to be human, with special emphasis on Socrates and irony. Lear has a new book entitled A Case for Irony that is rich in references to Kierkegaard and hence must reading for serious Kierkegaard scholars. Given the quality of Lear’s book on Freud, which I finished reading just before the conference, I’d say that pretty much anything Lear writes is well worth a read. Lear is a self-professed long-time Kierkegaard lover and often includes references to Kierkegaard in his works.

There were six papers on Saturday. The day began with a paper by Michelle Kosch from Cornell. Her paper was entitled “Moral Ideals and ‘ought implies can.'” The paper opened with what Kosch identified as one of her favorite passages from Kierkegaard:

Where, then, is the boundary for the single individual in his concrete existence between what is lack of will and what is lack of ability; what is indolence and earthly selfishness and what is the limitation of finitude? … Let all the dialecticians convene – they will not be able to decide this for a particular individual in concreto. (VII: 426.)

Ekart Förster and Michell Kosch
Ekart Förster and Michell Kosch

Kosch’s paper opened with an anecdote which, if I remember correctly, goes like this: One day the chair of her department was one his way in to school for a meeting when he fell down the stairs in his house and had, according to his own words, “the wind knocked out of him.” He made it to the meeting, however, despite the accident, and learned only later that he’d actually suffered several cracked ribs and a collapsed lung.

If he had called in to say that he could not, in fact, make it to the meeting, explained Kosch, no one would have questioned the statement. Everyone would have accepted his claim that he was simply unable to make it to the meeting because of his accident. And yet, he had actually been able to make it to the meeting. So where does that leave us with respect to the project of determining the relation between what we can do relative to what we ought to do? This was the subject of Kosch’s fascinating presentation. She said in conversation afterward that she thinks the presentation is too rough at this point to try to publish. If that’s true, then her standards are indeed high because I thought it was extraordinarily rigorous and that the topic it addresses is one of the most important in ethics/action theory, if not in philosophy more generally.

After Kosch came Vanessa Rumble who spoke on Kierkegaard and Schelling.  Rumble’s work is always interesting and this paper was no exception. Next was Lore Hühn of the University of Freiburg. Hühn gave an equally interesting and informative presentation on “negativity” in Hegel, Kierkegaard and Adorno. I enjoyed both these papers immensely, and was particularly pleased to meet Professor Hühn because in addition to being an excellent scholar, she is the president of the International Schelling Society.

David Kangas, of Cal State Stanislaus, gave the last paper before lunch, entitled “The Nowhere of Truth: Kierkegaard’s Discourse on the Occasion of Confession.” Kangas is one of the few scholars giving serious analytical attention to Kierkegaard’s religious discourses. It’s strange that these works have not received more attention given that Heidegger considered they contained more philosophical substance than anything else Kierkegaard had written. Kangas’ presentation, which developed the idea that the act of confession was not really an act at all, but a particular kind of inaction (for want of a better word), was one of the most original and thought provoking of the entire conference.

I was honored to chair the last session of the conference where the first presenter was my long-time friend Edward Mooney of Syracuse. It was Mooney who approached me about translating Kierkegaard for Oxford, and Mooney who did the introduction to that book, so I was very grateful to be able to thank him publicly for his long friendship and support. The title of his presentation was “Dependence and its Discontents: How Self is Sustained by Another” and was a lyrical exploration of its subject in the spirit of Kierkegaard’s own writing. This was not surprising given that Mooney is a published poet as well as a scholar.

The last speaker of the conference was Michael Finkenthal of Johns Hopkins whose paper was entitled “Kierkegaard in Romania before WWII: Reception and Rejection.” There were several scholars from Johns Hopkins on the program. What distinguished Finkenthal, however, was that he is not a philosopher, theologian, or literary scholar–he’s a physicist! He’s in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins. He’s published extensively in that field, but has somehow also managed to publish several works of philosophy and or intellectual history including one on Cioran, another on Shestov, and a third on Benjamin Fondane.

The highlight of the conference, however, was the dinner on Friday evening. Peter Taksøe-Jensen, the Ambassador of Denmark to the United States, invited all the conference participants to a dinner at the Danish Embassy in Washington. It was by far the best conference dinner I had ever been to and a lovely gesture on the part of the Ambassador and the Danish government more generally. The embassy is absolutely beautiful, decorated in the impeccably understated style specific to the Danes. No one has so well developed a sense of style as the Danes!

Special thanks have to go to the other session chairs: Ruth Leys, Paola Marrati, and Eckart Förster of Johns Hopkins and Kristin Gjesdal of Temple University, and, finally, to Leonardo Lisi of Johns Hopkins, who organized the conference and shepherded the participants about the beautiful campus. I can only imagine how much work must have gone into that!