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Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen

Kierkegaards København

I wrote earlier that hitherto unknown caricatures of Kierkegaard had been found a few years ago in a publication called Folkets Nisse (the people’s elf) (see “Newly Discovered Caricatures of Kierkegaard,” post from 1/31/11). Well, those aren’t the only hitherto unknown caricatures of Kierkegaard to have been discovered recently. Peter Tudvad discovered some in the satirical newspaper Corsaren (the corsair).

Yes, we’ve known Kierkegaard was caricatured in the pages of Corsaren, but it had been assumed the caricatures appeared only in 1846. Tudvad discovered, however, that Corsaren continued to publish caricatures of Kierkegaard after 1846 and, in fact, right up until his death in 1855. That is just one of what the then director of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, called the “monumental” discoveries Tudvad published in his best-selling book Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004). Tudvad’s discoveries, asserted Cappleørn, “cast an entirely new light on Kierkegaard’s character.”

“One of the myths among Kierkegaard scholars,” explained Cappelørn in an article in the Danish newspaper Information, “is that Kierkegaard kept monotonously repeating the same criticism against Corsaren for its lampooning of him long after the practice had stopped. People had seen this as a sign of Kierkegaard’s hypersensitivity, as evidence that he was so sensitive that he simply couldn’t forget this brief attack. Now we have to rethink this conception of him.”

How is it that scholars failed to look at any of the issues of Corsaren after 1846? It would appear, explains Cappelørn, that what we have here is a phenomenon “we are familiar with from other areas of scholarship. One reads the secondary literature and simply repeats what earlier scholars have said without going to the original sources.”

That caricatures of Kierkegaard continued to appear in Corsaren long after scholars had earlier assumed they had stopped, is not the only revelation in Tudvad’s book. Kierkegaards København is full of important revelations. Unfortunately, it is also full of beautiful color illustrations so, although I’ve tried to get an English-language publisher interested in issuing it in translation, I have not yet had any luck with that project. I’m afraid that for now, anyway, you are going to have to make do with the Danish edition. I can’t say I feel very sorry for you though. It is an absolutely gorgeous book! Check it out.

Is Christianity Anti-Semitic? Danish Theologian Defends Tudvad’s Book.

“Long before Peter Tudvad’s book Stadier på Antisemtismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne [Stages on the Way of Anti-Semtism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews] appeared, the theological rationalizations were already lined up,” writes Danish theologian Lone Fatum in Kristeligt Dagblad. “No one had read the book, but everyone had an opinion on it. When the book finally appeared, on the anniversary of Kristalnacht, reviewers immediately banded together. ‘Kierkegaard was not anti-Semitic–end of discussion!’”

Tudvad explained in my interview with him, as well as in the Danish media, that he believes that what really incensed critics of his book was less that he had charged Kierkegaard with anti-Semitism than that he had argued there was a disposition toward anti-Semitism in Christianity itself. Denmark, after all, still has a state church, the Danish Lutheran Church. Christianity, for many Danes, is as much a cultural institution as a religious one. Danes have prided themselves, and not without reason, on their historically liberal attitude toward Jews and Judaism. To argue as Tudvad does in his book that Christianity has inherently anti-Semitic tendencies is thus to strike at something that is very near the heart of Danish culture.

Fatum asserts that the numerous efforts to explain away Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitic remarks “appear to support Tudvad’s claim that [the persistence of subtle forms of anti-Semitism] is an problem people are unwilling to face.” Fatum argues, however, that the disposition toward anti-Semitism in Christianity is more pronounced than even Tudvad suggests. All the Gospels, she asserts, were written after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, which many early Christians saw as God’s punishment of the Jews for their having killed Christ. Anti-Semitic sentiment, she asserts, is clear throughout the Gospels, but particularly in John (e.g., John 8: 21-47 where Jesus appears to assert that the devil, not Abraham, is the father of the Jews).

But are the Gospels really that anti-Semitic? There is no question that Fatum is correct in her claim that there are numerous passages throughout the Gospels that lend themselves to interpretation as anti-Semitic. According to many New Testament scholars, however, there was a great deal of ambivalence among early Christians concerning their relation to Judaism and this ambivalence is reflected, I would argue in at least the synoptic Gospels, if not in the entire New Testament canon.

There can be no dispute, however, concerning the presence of strong anti-Semitic tendencies among the early church fathers and later Christian thinkers such as Martin Luther, just as there can be little doubt that Kierkegaard was influenced by these thinkers. It is less clear whether Kierkegaard’s anti-Semitic attitudes came directly from this tradition or whether their evolution had a more subtle and complex origin. That’s part of what makes Tudvad’s book such an important work. He attempts to trace the evolution of Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism. Scholars who actually engage with his arguments may come to have legitimate disagreements with him and one hopes that other treatments of this important topic will eventually emerge. For now, though, all we have is Tudvad book. It is nice to see that it is beginning to receive the recognition it deserves.

Yet Another Review of Tudvad’s Book by Someone Who Hasn’t Read It?

Well, OK, I can’t really be certain that Trond Berg Eriksen, whose review “Antisemitten Kierkegaard?” appeared in the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet, didn’t read the book. If he did read it though, he appears to have a very different edition than the one I have. He claims Tudvad charges that Kierkegaard was a Nazi, but I haven’t come across that charge in my copy of Tudvad’s book.

The review starts off well. Eriksen acknowledges that Tudvad’s presentation of anti-Semitism in Danish politics and literature in the first decades of the 19th century is “thorough, long overdue, and groundbreaking,” and that his “presentation of Jews and Judaism in Kierkegaard’s thought is not bad either,” but complains, in a manner that clearly begs the question, that the two things have nothing to do with each other.

Tudvad acknowledges, in the beginning of the book, that Kierkegaard was far from the worst anti-Semite of his day. His argument, he explains, is that many of the things Kierkegaard says about Jews and Judaism would be deeply offensive to Jews of any period and that they should thus be acknowledged as part and parcel of an anti-Semitism that was pervasive in Europe in the 19th century and which was thus a forerunner to the more virulent form of anti-Semitism that came to such horrific expression in the rise of National Socialism. That’s a relatively modest thesis and Tudvad marshals what appears to be more than enough evidence to support it.

That Kierkegaard was anti-Semitic should not surprise us, because, as many scholars have pointed out, anti-Semitism was pervasive during the period when Kierkegaard lived.  What is surprising is the number of scholars who have used this historical fact to try to discredit Tudvad’s position. The argument goes something like this: Everyone was anti-Semitic back then. Kierkegaard was just like everyone else. Ergo, Kierkegaard was not really anti-Semitic.  The flaw in that logic is so obvious it needs no explanation.

Eriksen’s review, as I observed, starts off well, but then, it appears, he was struck down by some sort of spontaneous brain disease. Not only does he use the same obviously flawed logic described above in an attempt to discredit Tudvad’s thesis, he also undermines his own fallacious argument with the even more bizarre charge that “anti-Semitism,” along with “racism,” is a concept that belongs to a later period. Say what? Anyone who knows anything about history knows that anti-Semitism is as old as Judaism. And, as I explained in an earlier post (see 1/7/11), racism as both a concept and a phenomenon obviously predates Darwin.  Our concept of race changed after Darwin, but the concept goes back at least as far as ancient Greece and is probably as old as human history.

Eriksen’s whole review is a straw man argument in that it is directed at discrediting a much more extreme position than the one Tudvad advances in his book. But then Eriksen, apparently still in the grip of the aforementioned ailment, admits this himself when he acknowledges, toward the end of the review, that Tudvad does not actually make any of the outrageous claims that have so incensed him, but only “insinuates” them.

Enough said.

Stay tuned. There was an excellent article on Tudvad’s book in Kristeligt Dagblad Today. I’ll have a summary of it for you soon!