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Interview with Peter Tudvad

As I mentioned last week, Peter Tudvad was in New York recently doing research for his forthcoming book on Bonhoeffer. He graciously consented to be interviewed about the controversy surrounding his new book on Kierkegaard and anti-Semitism. The first part of that interview is below. I will post the second part next week.

Piety: Not much is known in the English-speaking world about the controversy over your new book. Can you give a brief summary of it?

Tudvad: That might be difficult as the row lasted for about two months, and was very intense. A newspaper, Berlingske Tidende, published an interview with me about three weeks before the book was actually published. The reporter was shocked by the quotations I had included in the preface, which I let him see, such as Kierkegaard writing that the Jews were typically usurers and as such bloodthirsty, that they had a penchant for money (due to an abstract character, as Kierkegaard supposes), and that they dominated the Christians. As I told the reporter, Kierkegaard was of the opinion that the Jews would eventually kill the European Christians – something which he wrote in an entry in his diary, but which was omitted from the Hong’s translation, I guess on purpose – and that they had an extraordinary sexual appetite and thus many children. They were, according to Kierkegaard, mundane and had no real spirit, no quest for the eternal bliss.

Never mind, the former head of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center at the University of Copenhagen, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, was interviewed too for the very same edition of the newspaper, and he actually agreed with me that what Kierkegaard had said about the Jews was something which we today must term antisemitism. He agreed, too, that the reason that we have seldom discussed this aspect of his theology might be that we were afraid of damaging his image, his reputation, thus losing the prostrate respect many have for one of the few internationally renowned Danish authors. Nevertheless, the day after, in another newspaper, Cappelørn said the opposite. Many other people seemed to be offended by my labelling Kierkegaard as an antisemite and began polemicising against me without ever having read my book. Especially theologians were eager to make the case smaller than I think it is, saying that it was only in entries in Kierkegaard’s private diary that he wrote bad things about the Jews – which, by the way, is not true, even though I don’t see why we should not discuss his “private” antisemitism, when we have discussed so many other “private” aspects of his thoughts. His diaries have always been considered a key to the understanding of his published works, so if one, for example, with the help of his entries can link his antisemitisme with his theology, and vice versa, I think we really ought to discuss the problem seriously

The rest of the interview with Tudvad will appear next week.

Glowing Review of Tudvad’s book on Kierkegaard and Anti-Semitism

Well, finally, we have a review by someone who actually read the book. The literary critic Michael Nielsen reviewed Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews (Stages on the Way of Anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) in Kultunaut an online journal of culture. Here’s what Nielsen has to say:

“Tudvad is first and foremost a driven arkivrotte [this translates literally as ‘archive rat,’ but is probably better translated as ‘scholar’ since we have no idiomatic expression in English that corresponds to ‘archive rat’] who conscientiously combs through original sources and meticulously documents the claims he makes in his books. […] It’s clear, however, in this important book on Kierkegaard’s views on Jews, that Tudvad has striven to write in a more flowing prose and to divide the material in a more reader-friendly manner which makes this book, in my opinion, his best to date.”

“Tudvad is the first [scholar] who has had the courage to conduct an investigation [of the question of Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism] with the sobriety, objectivity and thoroughness it requires.”

“Tudvad presents Kierkegaard’s views in relation to both earlier and contemporary theologians and uses references from his journals and published works to show how his views developed throughout his authorship. All this is extremely competent and convincing.”

This book, Nielsen concludes, is a “must have” for anyone interested in “intellectual history.”

That last point is very important because what many of the early articles on the book seem to miss is that it is an enormously rich resource of information about Jews and Judaism in 19th-century Denmark. There is nothing else like it in Danish and I feel fairly confident in saying that there is probably nothing else like it in any other language. Of course it is not surprising that the early articles about the book missed this, because most of them were written by people who acknowledged that they had not read the book. Now that people have had time to read it, I expect we’ll see more reviews like Nielsen’s.

Tudvad is in New York now doing research for his forthcoming book on Bonhoeffer. I met with him there last weekend and hope to post a short interview with him soon.

 

The Responsibility of Intellectuals, or The Reception, in Denmark, of Tudvad’s Book on Kierkegaard and the Jews

One of the funniest, and yet also saddest, pieces by Kierkegaard is on book reviewers. “The appearance of a book,” he writes in Prefaces (Forord in Danish), “is…an event that promptly sets the reading public in motion. Ordinarily there is an individual who even knows it somewhat in advance. … Such a person is fortune’s child, … welcome everywhere. [He] knows only something ambiguous about the title of the book and what it deals with, but this is precisely what is most endearing about him in the eyes of the reading public, because a rumor carries away the reading public as the muse’s impulse the poet.”

The piece goes on about how reviewers will pronounce judgment on works without even having read them.

I don’t know how most contemporary readers react to this diatribe against book reviewers. I know that when I read it, however, I assumed it was a phenomenon that was more or less restricted to 19th-century Copenhagen. I don’t mean to give the impression that I was incorrigibly naïve. I assumed there were still a few irresponsible book reviewers out there. I just took them to be the exception rather than the rule.

I fear now, however, that I may have been wrong. I haven’t actually counted how many reviews were published of Peter Tudvad’s new book, Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the Way of Anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews), before the book actually came out. The number is sort of overwhelming. This was probably a result, at least in part, of the fact that there appears to have been a “krisemøde på teologi” (damage-control meeting of theologians) as soon as word got out that the book was on its way. The objective, it seems, was to find a way to inoculate Kierkegaard against the contagion of the charge that he was anti-Semitic by discrediting the argument of Tudvad’s book before anyone could actually read it. This, for those readers who do not immediately recognize it as such, is the fallacy known as “poisoning the well.”

The book did not come out until the 9th of November, yet the English theologian George Pattison wrote an article for the Nov. 3rd issue of Kristeligt Dagblad, “Søren Kierkegaard var hverken bedre ell værre end sin tid” (Søren Kierkegaard was neither better nor worse than his times [translated into Danish by Sara Høyrup]), in which he said that “anti-Semitism, in the modern sense, cannot be separated from 19th-century theories of race that are connected with a particular reading of Darwin” and that it is thus “inappropriate and anachronistic to connect the concept of anti-Semitism with Kierkegaard.” This statement, unfortunately, compounds the fallacy of “poisoning the well” with that of “equivocation” in that the first reference is to “anti-Semitism” in the “modern sense” whereas the second is not qualified in this way but is clearly to anti-Semitism in a more general sense. It’s obvious that Kierkegaard cannot be charged with anti-Semitism in the modern sense. No one who lived before Darwin could be charged with anti-Semitism in the modern sense. That does not mean, however, that there was no anti-Semitism before Darwin. Nor does it mean that Kierkegaard could not have been anti-Semitic, or that inquiry into this topic is somehow out of bounds. Pattison must either be shockingly ignorant of world history, prone to committing logical fallacies, or disingenuous.

These are very anti-intellectual times. Academics are under siege. We are constantly criticized and charged, for example, with being lazy and intolerant of views that depart from our own. Dismissing a book before one has even read it only adds fuel to the flames of such criticism. It looks as if many people are simply unwilling to accept that Kierkegaard could have been antisemitic, so they feel no compulsion to examine the evidence to that effect before dismissing the claim. It is precisely such behavior that has brought academics into ill repute. It behooves those of us who like to think of ourselves as intellectuals to do our homework before making public pronouncements on the works of our fellow intellectuals.

I’ll say more about the reception of Tudvad’s book later, after I have said a little more about the content.