“The Poet and the Reader”

Kierkegaard’s intellectual gifts and literary talents were vast and humbling to aspiring thinkers and writers. Yet the accounts we have of him from contemporaries paint a picture of a man who was far from arrogant. He was, by those accounts, an affable and sympathetic person. He had a particular fondness for children, was a favorite of his nieces and nephews, and enjoyed talking with people from all walks of life that he would encounter on the streets of Copenhagen.

There’s an intimacy to Kierkegaard’s writing that goes along with his lack of pretension. This is evinced in his frequent references to his “reader” in the singular. This sort of authorial intimacy was captured in the poet Louise Glück’s Nobel lecture. The lecture was published under the title “The Poet and the Reader” in the January 14, 2021 edition of The New York Review of Books. Glück explains there that the poems to which she is most drawn “are poems of intimate selection or collusion, poems to which the listener or reader makes an essential contribution.” 

Kierkegaard also preferred writing with respect to which “the reader himself is to a certain degree productive” (Either-Or, Princeton, p. 110). He clearly had what Glück describes as “a temperament that distrusts public life or sees it as the realm in which generalization obliterates precision, and partial truth replaces candor and charged disclosure.” 

“If one assumes,” writes Kierkegaard

that everyone who reads a book for some contingent reason having nothing to do with the book’s content is not a genuine reader, then there would not be many genuine readers left, even for authors with a large readership, because to whom would it occur in our day to waste an instant on the ludicrous thought that to be a good reader is actually an art, let alone to spend time to become such a reader? This unfortunate situation naturally influences an author, who according to my opinion does well to write after the fashion of Clemens Alexandrinus, in such a way that heretics cannot understand it. (Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, 76.)

Kierkegaard did indeed write in such a way that “heretics” could not understand his writing and that fact has generated incalculable confusion in philosophical and theological circles. It’s not that Kierkegaard’s writing is particularly difficult to understand, it’s that it requires a certain mindset. It required a contribution from the reader: an ear for humor, a suspicion of easy answers and of what Kierkegaard sometimes referred to as “the crowd,” but what we would more likely refer to these days as “group think.” 

More than anything, though, understanding Kierkegaard’s writing requires a tendency to double reflection, which is to say a tendency to measure what one reads against one’s own life and experience, to see if it coheres with that experience, and when the writing in question has a prescriptive, or normative dimension, to measure the extent to which one’s life both validates those prescriptions and conforms to them. 

Kierkegaard wrote for this sort of rare, doubly reflected reader. He explains in The Point of View for My Work as an Author, that he introduced a “formula” in the preface of Two Upbuilding Discourses (1843), “that later was repeated unchanged: ‘It seeks that single individual whom I with joy and gratitude call my reader’” (Princeton, p. 9). 

“Those of us who write books,” explains Glück, “presumably wish to reach many. But some poets do not see reaching many in spatial terms, as in the filled auditorium. They see reaching many temporally, sequentially, many over time, into the future, but in some profound way these readers always come singly, one by one.”

That’s how Kierkegaard’s readers come to him, the ones who stay anyway, the genuine readers —one by one. 

Kierkegaard and Existential Psychotherapy

cropped-sketch_1840_regineknippelsbro_iii_a-1.jpgMuch has been written about Kierkegaard and psychotherapy. That makes sense, given that Kierkegaard had a profound understanding of human psychology. 

Irvin Yalom, an existential psychiatrist, discusses Kierkegaard at length in Existential Psychotherapy (Basic Books, 1980). Several more recent works have appeared on Kierkegaard and psychotherapy, including Everyday Mysteries: A Handbook of Existential Psychotherapy (Routledge, 1997), Psychology and the Other (Oxford, 2015), and Therapy and the Counter-tradition: The Edge of Philosophy (Routledge, 2016). 

Anthony Stadlen, an existential psychotherapist working in London has been running a series of international, interdisciplinary “Inner Circle Seminars” for many years. This year he has two seminar series that focus on Kierkegaard. The first series, which focuses on Fear and Trembling, is already underway. The fourth seminar in that series will be given by John Lippitt this May. 

Stadlen has arranged a second “satellite” series to supplement the Fear and Trembling series. This series will examine two other works, Repetition and Three Upbuilding Discourses. The reason for this additional series of seminars is that these two works were published the same day Fear and Trembling appeared, October 16, 1843. Stadlen’s assumption is that the three works should be understood together and that a careful reading of all three could help to make Kierkegaard’s purpose in the notoriously opaque Fear and Trembling a little easier to divine. 

I am very excited to be invited to be part of this seminar because I have a keen interest in the psychotherapeutic potential of philosophy and of Kierkegaard’s thought in particular. I’m actually a certified philosophical counselor and member of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. The series looks like it will be excellent. The seminar leaders, in addition to myself, are George Pattison, C. Stephen Evans, Jerome (Yehuda) Gellman and Mariam Al-Attar. I won’t describe the seminars or the presenters in any detail here because Stadlen has posted an announcement about them that contains all the detail one would want, including his contact information. It will suffice here to say that 

— Pattison’s seminar will focus on Kierkegaard’s edifying discourses. 

— My seminar will focus on Repetition. 

— Evans will talk about “divine command theory” as it relates to Fear and Trembling and Works of Love. 

— Lippitt, who gave the first two seminars in the main seminar series on Fear and Trembling, will focus on the questions of whether there is a “teleological suspension of the ethical” and whether there is “an absolute duty to God.” 

— Gellman will focus on Hasidic interpretations of the Akedah and the light these can cast on Kierkegaard’s treatment of it. 

— Finally, al-Attar will look at “divine command theory” in the Islamic tradition and it’s relation to Fear and Trembling.

More information on the seminars can be found on Stadlen’s blog.

Something on Johannes de silentio

IMG_3634Adam Kirsch’s inexplicable addition of a definite article in front of “Silentio” in his mention of Johannes de silentio, the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published what is perhaps his most famous work, Fear and Trembling (see the post just before this one), got me thinking again about that pseudonym and how little attention has actually been paid to it.

It is generally presented as a straightforward name, like Constantin Constantius, Johannes Climacus, and Vigilius Haufniensis, the pseudonyms Kierkegaard used for Repetition, Philosophical Crumbs, and The Concept of Anxiety, respectively. It isn’t a name, though, at least the de silentio part isn’t. It’s a description. Kierkegaard’s other pseudonyms use upper-case letters to begin what functions as the surname. Johannes de silentio doesn’t. The pseudonym appears in all caps on the original title page, but only “Johannes” is capitalized at the end of the preface (see the illustration for this article).

Part of the reason scholars have missed this, is that translators have missed it. Alasdair Hannay got it right in his translation for Penguin, but both Princeton translations, the first by Walter Lowrie, done in 1941, and the second by Howard and Edna Hong, done in 1983, get it wrong. Unfortunately, the Princeton translations are the ones that have long been preferred by scholars. The result is that this point about the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published Fear and Trembling has gone unnoticed.

Johannes de silentio is typically taken, as Kirsch does in his review, to mean John of Silence, or John who cannot speak. Since, however, the “de silentio” is clearly a description rather than a surname, Johannes di silentio could be interpreted to mean John from silence, which is to say, not John who is silent, but John who is attempting to break a silence, John who is attempting to explain what is perhaps inexplicable: the situation of Abraham.

Hannay actually discusses this in the introduction to his translation of Fear and Trembling. We notice, he writes

that Kierkegaard has given his author the name ‘Johannes de silentio’, which is allegedly borrowed from one of the Grimms’ fairy-tales, ‘The Faithful Servant’. Kierkegaard’s John of Silence is not, however, at all a silent person. If he was he wouldn’t be an author. Nor was the faithful servant in the fairy-tale. He told his master, the young king, of three dangers threatening him, though realizing that in doing so he would be turned to stone. (To anticipate a further connection with Fear and Trembling, when the royal couple later got two sons they gave the lives of these in sacrifice in order to bring Johannes back to life, whereupon Johannes brought the children back to life.) (p. 10.)

Hannay was right. Johannes, the putative author of Fear and Trembling, is far from silent. Like his German counterpart, he warns of three dangers. Kierkegaard’s Johannes arguably attempts, through his description of the situation of Abraham, to warn his readers of three dangers presented in the form of questions that comprise the three Problemata of the work.

The connection between the fairy tale and the subject of Fear and Trembling is even closer, however, than Hannay suggests. The royal couple didn’t volunteer the lives of their sons in order to bring their faithful servant back to life. After faithful Johannes was turned to stone, the king, realizing what had happened, was so grief stricken that he took the stone statue of Johannes and placed it beside his bed.

Once when the queen was at church, the story reads

and the two children were sitting beside their father and playing, he again looked sadly at the stone statue and said, “Oh, if only I could bring you back to life again, my most faithful Johannes,”

Then the stone began to speak and said, “You can bring me back to life again if you will in return give up what is dearest to you.”

The king cried, “For you I will give up everything I have in the world.”

“The stone continued, “If you will cut off the heads of your two children with your own hand, then sprinkle their blood on me, I shall be restored to life.”

The King was horrified when he heard that he would have to kill his own dearest children, but he thought of faithful Johannes’s great loyalty and how he had died for him, then drew his sword and with his own hand cut off the children’s heads. And when he had smeared the stone with their blood, it returned to life, and faithful Johannes stood before him again, healthy and well.

He said to the king, “Your faith [Treue] shall not go unrewarded,” then taking the children’s heads, he put them on again, then rubbed the wounds with their blood, at which they became immediately whole again, and jumped about and went on playing as if nothing had happened.

Kierkegaard was a lover of fairy tales and among his many collections of fairy tales was the second edition of Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen, where the story in question, “Der treue Johannes,” or “Faithful Johannes,” appears as number no. 6.

Kierkegaard was likely taken by the title “Faithful Johannes” (my emphasis), as well as by the strength of the parallel with the Abraham story.

In fact, the fairy tale puts a decidedly Christian slant on the story because in “Faithful Johannes” not only is the king is required to sacrifice the lives of his children if he wishes to rescue Johannes, the king does this because Johannes “had died for him” (für ihn gestorben war).

Perhaps the silence that Johannes, the author of Fear and Trembling, is attempting, in a somewhat cryptic way, to break is the silence concerning Kierkegaard’s severing of his engagement with Regine Olsen. That is, perhaps he is attempting to communicate, not merely to his former fiancée, but to all of literate Copenhagen, the reasons behind what many viewed as his callous and unprovoked violation of social convention, not to mention of an innocent young woman’s trust.

This is not the first time, of course, that such an explanation has been offered for Fear and Trembling. I think it may be the first time, however, that the parallel to the Grimms’ fairy tale has been explored in depth and that the decidedly Christian slant the story places on the requirement of filicide as a demonstration of faith has been exposed.