TLS “Kierkegaard Kerfluffle” Continued

The debate in the “Letters” section of the TLS concerning my review of Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart didn’t stop with my reply to Carlisle’s letter (for this exchange see the previous blog post). Two more letters defending Carlisle, both from U.K. theologians, and riddled with fallacies, appeared in the next issue. The first was from George Pattison and the second from Christopher Insole.

The TLS refused to allow me to respond to these letters, despite the fact that Pattison’s letter misrepresents my criticisms of the book and hence leaves TLS readers with a mistaken impression of the substance of my review. The TLS also declined to print any other letters in support of my review, such as this one by Mark Gaige, which I have included here with his permission.

Finally, the TLS declined to inform readers that Pattison was not a disinterested scholar. Carlisle’s book is actually dedicated to him. That means he more than likely read at least some of it, if not all of it, when it was in draft form. Pattison thus has an interest in deflecting attention from the book’s weaknesses, weaknesses that readers aware of his connection to it would naturally wonder how he could have failed to spot.

Pattison begins his letter with what is effectively a claim that anyone can say anything they want about Kierkegaard with impunity. That is, he says “it is often hard to identify the genuine authorial voice behind the sequence of masks.” The same, he continues, “is true of the man. Everything is eminently interpretable.” Unfortunately, for Pattison, that isn’t true. We have literally thousands of pages of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers that make clear in many, if not all, instances what he was trying to do in his various published works. We also have wealth of information concerning the facts of Kierkegaard’s life. So it is possible to establish many of those facts with relative certainty.

Pattison deftly avoids both these issues in his first paragraph. He gets into conspicuous trouble in the next paragraph, however, when he contradicts his own claim that “everything” about Kierkegaard “is eminently interpretable.” That is, he claims in the second paragraph that Kierkegaard’s ambivalence about Christianity is indisputable. So anything goes in interpretations of Kierkegaard — anything except that Kierkegaard was not ambivalent about Christianity.

Unfortunately, not only is Pattison contradicting himself when he says that Kierkegaard’s purported ambivalence about Christianity is indisputable, what he presents as evidence for this ambivalence supports not that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity, but that he was ambivalent about Christendom. Pattison observes, for example, that Kierkegaard “was extremely hesitant in going public with his attack on Christendom.” That’s true, but it’s unclear how that’s supposed to support a claim that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity. What it supports, actually, as anyone familiar with Kierkegaard’s own musings on this issue in his journals will attest, was that he was ambivalent about whether Christendom was completely irredeemable, as well as about whether a direct attack on it would have the proper effect.

Kierkegaard’s criticisms of Christendom go all the way back to the beginning of his authorship and that makes sense given the individualistic, pietist tradition from which his father came and to which he still maintained connections even during later life. These criticisms were always motivated by a deep and unwavering commitment to Christianity. What he could not make up his mind about was just exactly how bad Christendom was, not whether Christianity was true.

Pattison next presents as evidence for Kierkegaard’s purported ambivalence about Christianity the fact that he came increasingly to associate Christianity with suffering. Pattison, a theologian, and hence one can assume familiar with the historical association of the imitation of Christ with suffering, sees Kierkegaard’s views on this as evidence that he was ambivalent about Christianity. “This identification of love and suffering” Pattison observes,

comes to a climax in the very last journal entry that he wrote in which he figures God as obsessed with finding a person who, brought to an extreme condition of suffering, is able to believe both that God is the direct cause of this suffering and that God does it out of love.

“If this is not ambivalence,” asserts Pattison, “I am not sure what is.”

Sadly, it would appear Pattison does not know what ambivalence is because the passage he paraphrases continues

Et saadant Msk. bliver saa en Engel. Og i Himlen, der kan han sagtens lovprise Gud; men Læretiden, Skoletiden er jo ogsaa altid den strengeste Tid.

Such a person becomes an angel. And in heaven he will certainly be able to praise God. The period of instruction, however, of schooling, that is always the most difficult time.

That is, Kierkegaard does not see this suffering as an indictment of God, or of Christianity. Kierkegaard’s association of Christianity with suffering is simply an observation about Christianity, an observation that is, again, not unique in the Christian tradition.

Pattison’s paraphrase of this passage from Kierkegaard’s journals is misleading. The entry, from 25 September 1855, actually begins:

Dette Livs Bestemmelse er: at bringes til den høieste Grad af Livslede

            Den, der saa, bragt til dette Punkt, kan fastholde, eller Den, hvem Gud hjælper til at kunne fastholde, at det er Gud, der af Kjerlighed har bragt ham til dette Punkt: han tager, christeligt, Livets Prøve, er modnet for Evigheden.

The [Christian] determination of this life is: to be brought to the greatest extreme of suffering.

            A person who is brought to this point, [and yet] is able to maintain, or a person who with God’s assistance, is able to maintain, that it is God, who out of love has brought him to this point: he takes life’s test, Christianly understood, [and] is ripe for eternity.

This association of Christianity with suffering may be disturbing to contemporary readers, but it is as old as Christianity itself. Kierkegaard is not citing it as an indictment of Christianity. The emphasis Kierkegaard increasingly placed on what he saw as the relation between Christianity and suffering was likely his attempt to make sense of his own suffering in what he believed was service to Christianity.

In fact, Kierkegaard suffered much more than had previously been thought because the “public humiliation” Carlisle describes him as suffering at the hands of the satirical newspaper The Corsair was not confined, as she claims, to 1846, but began in 1846 and continued, as Peter Tudvad revealed in his book Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen), on and off from 1846 until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855.

Kierkegaard’s first book-length publication, From the Papers of One Still Living, appeared in 1838. Many scholars consider, however, that his literary career really began in 1843 with the publication of Either-Or. Either way, Kierkegaard was subjected to deliberate public humiliation for the majority of his professional life. That isn’t an insignificant fact about him. It’s enormously important. As the years passed, and his suffering increased, his view of Christianity, to which he remained unwaveringly committed, became understandably darker.

Pattison next takes me to task for criticizing Carlisle for inventing thoughts she attributes to Kierkegaard without qualifying them as speculations. “[I]t is quite clear to any sensitive reader,” asserts Pattison, that Carlisle is not claiming to have direct and demonstrable insight into the undocumented workings of Kierkegaard’s mind.” Carlisle uses “these acknowledged fictionalized episodes,” he continues, “to conjure forth a sense of Kierkegaard as a living ‘restless’ human being.”

If Carlise has “acknowledged” the thoughts she attributes to Kierkegaard as “fictionalized,” why must the reader be “sensitive” in order to appreciate that Carlisle is “not claiming to have direct and demonstrable insight into the undocumented workings of Kierkegaard’s mind”? The answer, of course, is that Carlisle has not acknowledged the thoughts she attributes to Kierkegaard are fictionalized. Pattison just made that up, made it up, apparently, without even realizing, that he is once again contradicting himself in saying both that that the reader has to be sensitive to appreciate that the thoughts Carlisle attributes to Kierkegaard are fictionalized and that she “acknowledges” that these thoughts are fictionalized.

“If a biography is intended to bring us closer to the life of its subject,” continues Pattison, then imagination is sometimes as effective a tool as an assemblage of facts. In missing the element of imagination, Piety is in this case, missing the whole.”

But that’s a straw man argument, designed, again to deflect attention from my real criticisms of the book. I never said Carlisle should not have speculated about what Kierkegaard might have been thinking or feeling at a particular point in his life. I said she should have qualified her speculations as such. Without such a qualification, readers might well think that these purported “workings of Kierkegaard’s mind” had actually been documented. That was my first thought, anyway, when I read Carlisle’s account of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on his journey home from Berlin in 1843. I assumed that Kierkegaard had written down what he’d been thinking on that trip in his journal and that that was how she’d known about it.

It was actually my effort to find the source of that material that initiated my investigation into the book’s haphazard documentation. I was fascinated to think that I might discover something new from Kierkegaard’s journals that I had clearly missed on my many earlier readings of them. But when I checked the reference I discovered that while it was to one of the volumes of the new edition of Kierkegaard’s journals and notebooks and hence gave the impression that it was to something Kierkegaard had written, it wasn’t actually to anything Kierkegaard had written, but merely to a note by the editors explaining the various conveyances Kierkegaard had used on his trip.

Pattison closes, finally, with another straw man argument. I had mentioned in the letter I wrote in response to Carlisle’s that in fact, more criticisms could be advanced against the book than I had done in the review. “How is it possible,” I observed, “to write a biography of Kierkegaard after the revelations of Peter Tudvad’s Stadier på antisemitismens vej (stages on the way of antisemitism) without saying anything about Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism?”

Instead of answering that question, Pattison launches into a sadly ineffectual defense of Kierkegaard against the charge that he was anti-semitic. The defense is ineffectual in that it boils down, basically, to the claim that Kierkegaard was not more antisemitic “than other early to mid-nineteenth-century theological writers” which is faint praise if ever there was any. It amounts, in fact, to the conspicuously fallacious:

All nineteenth-century theological writers were antisemitic.

Kierkegaard was a nineteenth century theological writer.

_____________________________________

Therefore, Kierkegaard was not antisemitic.

This unfortunate effort to rescue Kierkegaard from the charge that he was antisemitic is beside the point, however, because I didn’t fault Carlisle for failing to address the issue of Kierkegaard’s purported antisemitism. I faulted her for failing to look at Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism.

I’d like to think Kierkegaard was not antisemitic, but he says some truly offensive things about Jews and Judaism and why he does this, and does it with increasing frequency and ferocity toward the end of his life, given that his own father was arguably philosemitic, ought to be addressed in any biography that purports to “conjure forth a sense of Kierkegaard as living ‘restless’ human being, thinking, feeling, and reacting to experiences and events in ways that other human beings do.” What was it about Kierkegaard’s experiences that led him to have such negative views of Jews and Judaism, views that were unquestionably more negative than those of many “other human beings,” if not all other human beings, of his day?

“It is not even obvious,” concludes Pattison, “that this was a main theme in his work at all.” I agree. What Pattison has done here is present yet another straw man argument because I never said this was a main theme in Kierkegaard’s work, but simply that it was an issue that any biographer of Kierkegaard ought to address.

Pattison clearly put his letter together in haste. It is self contradictory, riddled with straw man arguments, casts doubt on his grasp of the history of Christianity, as well as on his understanding of the term “ambivalent,” and contains a conspicuously fallacious argument that is offensive not only to reason but to morals.

Write in haste, repent at leisure.

Pattison’s, as I mentioned, was not the only defense of Carlisle’s biography to appear in that issue’s “Letters” section. Christopher Insole stepped up as well. I’ll look at his much shorter, and more humorous, defense in another post.

 

 

 

 

 

New Book on Kierkegaard and Judaism!

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Some months ago I was contacted by a Swiss scholar, Joanna Nowotny, who wished to thank me for the work I do on this blog. She’d made extensive use of it, she explained, when doing the research for her book, »Kierkegaard ist ein Jude!« Jüdische Kierkegaard-Lektüren in Literatur und Philosophie (“Kierkegaard is a Jew!” readings of Kierkegaard in Jewish literature and philosophy) (Wallstein Verlag, 2018). At some point, when I have the time to construct a “Testimonials” page for this blog, I’ll post her lovely email to it. In the meantime, however, I procured a copy of the book and have begun reading it.

I was intrigued, of course, because most of the recent discussions of Kierkegaard and Judaism with which I am familiar have been connected with Peter Tudvad’s groundbreaking Stadier på antisemitismens vej, Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the way of anti-Semitism, Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010) which reveals that Kierkegaard had some truly reprehensible attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, particularly toward the end of his life. That doesn’t mean, however, that Kierkegaard has nothing positive to contribute to the Jewish intellectual tradition. George Connell argues, in fact, in his excellent Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious Pluralism (Eerdmans, 2016) that “[i]ronically, in [Kierkegaard’s] final years, just when his rhetoric is most negative about Jews, just when he most offensively asserts the utter opposition of Judaism and Christianity, the substance of his thought represents a reaffirmation of Christianity’s fundamental and positive relation to Judaism” (p. 66).

I’ve only just started Nowotny’s book and I haven’t gotten very far yet, so I will hold off making any substantive comments on it until later, after I have finished it. In the meantime, I have taken the liberty of translating the copy from the back cover of the book. This will give you a little taste of what the book is about.

This large-scale study by Joanna Nowotny examines the traces left by Kierkegaard’s writing and thinking in the theoretical discourse and literary culture of Jewish Modernism.

“Kierkegaard is a Jew!” Gershom Scholem noted enthusiastically in his diary in 1915. “Nowhere” is the “core of Jewish sensibility [Weltgefühl] … so experientially formulated,” as in Kierkegaard, writes Max Brod a few years later in “Heidentum — Christentum — Judentum” (Paganism, Christianity, Judaism) (in Der Jude 1, 16-20). Such interpretations of the “Christian author” Kierkegaard are remarkable. They raise the question of how Kierkegaard’s œuvre, which was enormously popular in German-speaking Europe after 1900, offered possibilities for a Jewish interpretation and appropriation in particular. How is Kierkegaard’s thinking in this context made theologically, politically, and literarily fruitful, by poets and thinkers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Franz Kafka? Which aspects of his work play a special role? What attitudes [Gestus] underlie the various Kierkegaard appropriations and which functions do they fulfill in the context of discourses on Jewish identity? Joanna Nowotny addresses these questions in her study and shows the traces Kierkegaard’s writing and thinking have left on authors such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Franz Werfel, and Franz Kafka.

Looks interesting, eh!

Part I of the Preface to Tudvad’s book Stadier paa antisemitismens vej


Stages on the Way of Anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews

By Peter Tudvad

 

Preface

I ran across a couple of articles on Søren Kierkegaaard from the beginning of the 1940s while doing research for a book about a Danish nurse in the German Red Cross during the Second World War. To stumble on article on Kierkegaard was in itself not surprising. What was surprising was that they were in National Socialisten [the National Socialist] and Jul i Norden [Jul in the North], two strongly anti-Semitic publications associated with the Nazi party in Scandinavia.

“Søren Kierkegaard is without question the greatest genius the Danish nation has produced” began one of the articles. Moreover, continues the author, “his writings contain the best instructions for the liberation of the Danish people from the spirit of Judaism which has come increasingly to dominate Denmark and which he saw himself as called by providence to fight. One could thus to this extent be justified in asserting that Søren Kierkegaard was the first Danish National Socialist.”[1]

The author would not have been able to support such a claim, even if he had done extensive research, given that Kierkegaard was vehemently opposed to every form of both nationalism and socialism. On the other hand, there is something to the claim that Kierkegaard wanted to free the Danish people–or preferably all of Christendom–from “the Jewish spirit” which he, like the Nazis, viewed as materialistic, and which he increasingly portrayed as essentially in opposition to Christianity.

A limited agreement with a later political ideology does not, of course, make Kierkegaard responsible for what was committed in its name, but when the agreement consists of an anti-Semitism that indisputably belongs to the historical and cultural presuppositions for the Nazi’s attempted extermination of the Jews, it should at least serve to dampen some of the hitherto unreserved enthusiasm for this national icon. Such, however, does not appear to have been the case in that Danish Kierkegaard scholarship–which the Nazi author, Richard Geill, disparages for other reasons–has rarely acknowledged the pronounced anti-Semitic tendencies in Kierkegaard’s authorship.

Geill asserts that “Jews in Denmark do their best to keep the [Danish] people ignorant about Kierkegaard by presenting a distorted and misleading picture of [Denmark’s] greatest son.”[2] He is referring here to a few Jewish scholars who had distinguished themselves in Kierkegaard research in the period before the war. Even after the war, however, the overwhelming majority of Christian scholars appeared not to find sufficient grounds for concerning themselves with the anti-Semitic side of Kierkegaard’s authorship. One can only speculate about the motives for such neglect. It seems reasonable to suppose, however, that there was a general reluctance to turn a critical eye on this aspect of Kierkegaard’s work and thus, and perhaps more importantly, on the theology that profited from the esteem in which Kierkegaard was held.

….

I realized to my own shame, after reading these two articles, that I had also been all too willing to ignore, or to explain away, Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitism. I thus wrote an article on this topic for the magazine of Jewish culture, Guldberg. I cited Kierkegaard’s references, just as had Geill, to a Jewish editor as a “Jøde Dreng” [Jew-boy] and to “en trællesindet Jøde øvende Herskermagt” [a servile Jew exercising power] as well as his observation concerning this same editor and the distribution of his paper that  “only a Jew could be fitted for this most equivocal of all tyrannies, even more equivocal than that of a usurer (to which the Jew, however, is best suited).”

Kierkegaard, a philosopher ordinarily critical of the status quo, can also be accused of evincing the stereotypical view of the Jews’ purported “Forkerlighed [predeliction] for money” as well as for the assertion that death, in that it was like a merciless usurer, was “worse than the most bloodthirsty Jew.”[3]

….

The limitations on space placed on an article for a popular cultural magazine did not allow for a full treatment of the issue, but the issue clearly requires such treatment. “Kierkegaard’s relation to Jews and Judaism is an astonishingly neglected area of research”[4] noted a Norwegian philosopher and intellectual historian in 1996. At that time there was, to my knowledge, only one American historian who had done research on this issue and published the results of this research in an article in Kirkehistoriske samlinger (an anthology of church history) in 1992 and latter in two derivative pieces, first in ALEF-tidskrift for jødisk kultur (a magazine of Jewish culture) and then in Kierkegaardiana two years later.[5] “Kierkegaard is and remains one of the most profound and important thinkers for the present age,” he asserted, “but we need to look honestly at his remarks concerning Jews and Judaism. This may be unpleasant, but we must do it despite this.”[6]

He’s right. I believe, however, that even this historian shies away from recognizing the consequences of the premises he’s presented to the extent that he refers to Kierkegaard’s allegedly ubiquitous irony as if his anti-Semitic statements were not really meant seriously. He thus interprets Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitic remarks as camouflaged critiques of the Christianity of his contemporaries. They certainly were meant in this way. Kierkegaard could use Jews and Judaism as a caricatured picture of Christianity, however, only because his anti-Semitism is genuine. The credibility of this historian is further impugned when despite the fact that he asserts Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitism was intended to be ironical, he praises it for its straightforwardness in contrast to the feigned tolerance, that serves only to conceal an arrogant contempt for Jews, who it is assumed, will in the end convert to Christianity, or at least reject their antiquated religion.

“But to demand a pluralistic tolerance–i.e., a tolerance which the present age considers real, genuine tolerance–is perhaps too much, it’s perhaps to demand something that would have been anachronistic” continues this historian, as if a thinker one ordinarily praises for being ahead of his time was unable to transcend given boundaries, and as if there were no one during this time who gave more than lip service to a defense of tolerance, when in fact there were genuine defenders of tolerance during this period.

In any case, Kierkegaard in no way shared lukewarm liberal tolerance and his remarks can thus be offensive and even shocking. On the other hand, there is perhaps an advantage in such offensiveness in contrast to the insidiously “tolerant” forms of anti-Semitism that, each in its own way, furthers the gradual and unacknowledged disappearance of Judaism. Kierkegaard’s rhetoric is provocative. It forces us to take a position. And by taking the issue seriously we come to understand that however offensive the rhetoric may be, it has relatively little to do with Jews or Judaism but is primarily Kierkegaard’s confrontation with the lukewarm and irresponsible form Christianity had taken in his day.[7]

This convenient and self-contradictory apology has since been more or less sanctioned by two short and uncritical references to it by a church historian in an otherwise thorough and rigorous work on the relations between Christians and Jews in a period of Danish history that corresponds closely with that of Kierkegaard. He says first that ‘Kierkegaard’s references to the Jews were much harsher than those of other intellectuals of the period, but then that it is believed that he identified himself with Jews whom he thought were fundamentally unhappy.”  He observes later that Kierkegaard emphasized “Judaism was the enemy of Christianity, but most of what he objected to in Judaism was precisely what he criticized contemporary Christianity for.”[8]

Once again, the reader is instructed to appreciate that despite Kierkegaard’s apparent anti-Semitism, he was not anti-Semitic in that his overarching purpose was an attack on the Christianity of his day rather an attack on Judaism, and it is in this light that one must understand his possible identification of himself with Jews as an unhappy people.

Even though there is more than a grain of truth in this, it is far from being a satisfactory answer to the question of to what extent Kierkegaard was anti-Semitic, whether he became increasingly anti-Semitic with time, and the respect in which his views on Jews and Judaism influenced his theology and vice versa. So far as I know, no one until now has answered these questions, despite the fact that a Danish scholar touched on aspects of the reciprocal relationship between Judaism and Christianity in Kierkegaard’s authorship in 1999.[9]

 


[1]Richard Geill, “Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne. Kronic” (Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews. Chronicle), National Socialisten (the national socialist), 17 Feb. 1940, nr. 4f, p. 10.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Tudvad, “Stadier paa antisemitismens vej–Søren Kierkegaard og jøderne” (stages on the way of anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews), Goldberg, nr. 10, Nov. 2008, p. 34. See also NB 3: 20, SKS 20, 255, 14; NB3: 20, SKS 20, 255, 11f.: NB 10: 51, SKS 21, 283, 5-7: FF: 187, SKS 18, 111, 3 and Stadier paa Livets Vei (stages on life’s way), SKS 6, 308, 11.

[4] Håkan Harket, “Kierkegaards evige jøde” (Kierkegaard’s eternal [or wandering] Jew), Innøvelse I Kierkegaard. Fire essays (Practice in Kierkegaard. Four essays), (Oslo, 1996), p. 134.

[5] Bruce Kirmmse, “Kierkegaard, Jødedommen og Jøderne” (Kierkegaard, Judaism and the Jews), Kirkehistoriske samlinger (collections of church history) (Copenhagen, 1992), pp. 77-107. Also, “Kierkegaard, Jews and Judaism,” Kierkegaardiana, nr. 17, 1994, pp. 83-97, and “Søren Kierkegaard og det jødiske. Var filosoffen antisemit?” (Søren Kierkegaard and Jewishness. Was the philosopher an anti-Semite?) ALEF–tidskrift for jødisk kultur (magazine of Jewish culture), nr. 8, 1992, pp. 25-33.

[6] Kirmse, “Kierkegaard, jødedommen og jøderne (Kierkegaard, Judaism and the Jews), p. 96.

[7] Ibid. 98.

[8] Martin Schwarz Lausten, Frie jøder? Forholdet mellem kristne og jøder i Danmark fra Fridhedsbrevet 1814 til Grundloven 1849 (Free Jews? The relation between Christians and Jews in Denmark from the charter of 1814 until the constitution of 1849), Kierkehistoriske studier, 3, nr. 10, 2005, p. 134.

[9] Klaus Wivel, Næsten Intet. En jødisk kritic af Søren Kierkegaard (Almost Nothing: A Jewish critique of Søren Kierkegaard) (Copenhagen, 1999).