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Newly Discovered Caricatures of Kierkegaard

Women fight over one of Kierkegaard’s shirts

One of the most important discoveries Peter Tudvad made when working on his book, Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen), was that the attacks on Kierkegaard in the satirical newspaper The Corsair, were not confined to 1846, as scholars had assumed, but actually spanned the period from 1846 until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855. This makes Kierkegaard’s continued preoccupation with the Corsair, and its merciless caricaturing of him, appear less neurotic than has been assumed. He continued to be preoccupied with the newspaper because it continued to be preoccupied with him. Kierkegaard was hence not exaggerating when he described himself as an object of public ridicule.

The situation was even worse though than scholars have assumed. The Corsair was not the only paper to ridicule Kierkegaard. Another paper, Folkets Nisse (the people’s elf) also published caricatures of or relating to Kierkegaard over an extended period. The drawing above is one such caricature. Apparently, Kierkegaard’s effects were auctioned off after his death. The drawing depicts two women fighting over one of Kierkegaard’s shirts. It’s interesting not simply as an example of a hitherto unknown collection of contemporary caricatures but also because it tells us something about how Kierkegaard was viewed around the period of his death. Scholars have often portrayed him as a marginal figure in Danish history, one whose brilliance was really first discovered beyond the borders of his own country. The drawing makes clear, however, that he had become a kind of cult figure by the time of his death and that there was thus probably far more sympathy with his attack on the Danish Lutheran Church than is ordinarily assumed.

There are many more drawings like the one above in Folkets Nisse. I cannot claim credit for having discovered them. They were discovered by Paul A. Bauer in the late 1990s when he purchased a bound volume of Folkets Nisse from an antiquarian book dealer in Copenhagen. I am indebted to Anne Marie Furbo of the The Royal Library in Copenhagen for tracking down this particular drawing which I had remembered only vaguely but which I wanted to use for the cover of my forthcoming book, Fear and Dissembling: The Copenhagen Kierkegaard Controversy.

If you plan to go to Copenhagen, stop by The Royal Library. I’m sure the folks there will be similarly helpful to you if you want to track down more of these hitherto unknown caricatures.

More on Kierkegaard and Anti-Semitism: The Importance of Historical Context

Once upon a time, before Julia Watkin left Denmark for Tasmania, she and Grethe Kjær used to hold “kaffe aftener” (coffee evenings) for all the foreign, and occasionally also some of the local, Kierkegaard scholars in Copenhagen. The famous Ukranian Kierkegaard scholar, Gregor Malantschuk used to live with Grethe and her husband, so Grethe would sometimes tell stories about Malantschuk, The one that stood out in my mind concerned Malantschuk’s childhood in the Ukraine. I think it had something to do with how badly Ukrainians were treated by Russians. I don’t remember now. What I remember was Grethe’s remark that something like a third of the children Malanschuk had gone to school with had been Russian, a third Ukrainian and a third “Jewish.”

I was immediately taken aback by that remark. “Weren’t the Jewish children also either Ukrainian or Russian?” I asked. Judaism, after all, was a religion, not a place. Of course I knew that Jews had not always been accorded all the privileges of citizenship in the countries where they lived. I didn’t really understand until then, however, how ingrained was the thinking of many Europeans that Jews were a people apart, that they would always be a people apart no matter what the law said.

I don’t mean to suggest that Grethe was anti-Semitic. She never said anything else, in my memory, that would remotely suggest such a thing. I’m sure she was just repeating Malantschuk’s own description of the makeup of students in his classes.  Neither do I mean to suggest that Malantschuk was anti-Semitic. He may have been, of course; I simply don’t know. I’ve never heard that he was though, so I’d like to think he was not.

This brings up an issue, however, that continues to preoccupy Danish journalists: What constitutes anti-Semitism? If speaking about Jews as if they had no nationality, no ethnic heritage, other than a religious one (as if that could make any kind of sense) was acceptable in polite circles during a certain period in history, does that mean it was not anti-Semitic? Does it mean that absolutely everyone always spoke this way, and that no one, not even a Jew, was offended by it? That seems implausible to me. There were opponents of slavery, after all, even when it was still a socially accepted institution. That it was socially acceptable to use racist epithets does not mean that they weren’t racist, or that absolutely everyone used them and that no one was offended by them.

People have been arguing that Kierkegaard’s apparently anti-Semitic remarks have to be placed in their historical context. That’s true, of course. Everything has to be placed in its historical context to be properly understood. Well, here’s a little background from Peter Tudvad’s book on the historical context of Kierkegaard’s remarks. Anti-Semitism, as I observed in an earlier post, was so virulent in Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time that the literary attack on the Jews that began in 1813 was followed by a series of riots and physical attacks on Jews in 1819.  It’s clear, however, that most Danes were not involved in the violence. What is even more encouraging is the fact that it became illegal in August of 1813 to refer to Jews as “Jews.” They were to be referred to in official documents as “adherents of the Mosaic faith.” This suggests, unfortunately, that the literary feud had become so ugly that “Jew” had become a racist epithet. (Here it is perhaps important to note, in relation to my post from 1/7, that racism, as such, far predates Darwin.  Many ancient peoples had, in fact, a pronounced tendency to think that they were the only fully human beings and that other peoples, while they might look human, were not.) The positive aspect of this change in Danish law was that, as Tudvad observes, it sent a clear message to the Danish people where the king stood on the Jewish question. “In the same spirit,” writes Tudvad, “the king gave Jews full civic equality, and thus the same protections under the law as were enjoyed by Christians, on the 29th of March 1814” (pp. 33-34).

That is the context in which Kierkegaard made statements about Jews that were so offensive that, according to Johnny Kondrup, a scholar at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen, the statements were omitted from the English translations of Kierkegaard that were done in the 1970s and ‘80s (“Var Kierkegaard Antisemit? Berlingske Tidende, 26 October 2010. This article is unfortunately not online, but I have a scan of it that I can email anyone who would like to read it).

Yes indeed, Kierkegaard made what would today be considered some pretty offensive anti-Semitic remarks. I’ll confess to you that I am still holding out hope that there is some way of interpreting those remarks that will save Kierkegaard from the charge of anti-Semitism. I’m not certain, however, that placing them in their historical context is going to be enough.


Once Upon a Time in Denmark…

Once upon a time, or to be more precise, back in 1996, when I was still living in Denmark, the English novelist David Lodge gave a lecture on Kierkegaard in Copenhagen. This event, if my memory serves me correctly, was part of the festivities connected with Copenhagen’s status as the official “Culture Capital of Europe” for that year. Lodge’s book Therapy, where both Kierkegaard and Copenhagen figure prominently, had come out the year before.

I don’t remember much about Lodge’s talk except that it was well attended and that Lodge bore a striking resemblance to Roy Orbison.

Both Anthony Rudd and I gave papers that summer at a conference entitled “The Brain and Self” in Elsinore. The conference appeared to have been geared primarily toward people in the medical profession, so the registration was expensive. One of my close friends in Copenhagen (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will become clear below), wanted to attend the conference but couldn’t afford the cost of the registration. He decided, therefore, to crash the conference by forging a name badge.

This, as you can understand, made me extremely uncomfortable. I implored my friend to at least keep a low profile. We were required to introduce ourselves and to mention our institutional affiliation before asking a question of any of the speakers. It was thus important, I explained to him, that he not ask any questions. One of the conference organizers appeared, in fact, to be carrying around a list of the officially registered participants and to be checking the names of attendees against the list. Of course my friend ignored me, to both my consternation and that of the organizer who scanned his list with increasingly obvious anxiety every time my friend stood and held forth on what he perceived to be a problem with the speaker’s position.

Anthony, who is one of the most ethical people I know, was none too happy with this situation either. Tensions in our little group were thus running high when my friend came to us with the revelation that he had seen David Lodge among the conference participants. David Lodge speaking on Kierkegaard was one thing, but David Lodge at a medical conference was something else. Had he seen Elvis too? We had a great deal of fun teasing our friend about his “visions.” We were forced to apologize, however, when, toward the end of the conference, Lodge did indeed appear as speaker. The most memorable thing about Lodge’s second public appearance in Denmark within the space of a year was that he appeared to be reading his presentation. That is, he was looking down at his papers so the moderator could not get his attention and, after repeated attempts to indicate discretely that he was going overtime, began to march back and forth in front of him, dipping and weaving, in vain attempts to attract Lodge’s attention to the sign he had made that must have said something like “Stop!”

This spectacle was so amusing, that it went a long way toward helping Anthony and me get over the guilt we felt at having failed to believe our friend.

I have since then been in the position myself of having to indicate to speakers when they were going overtime. If after the standard “5” “3” “1” “0” warnings, the speaker is still going strong, I’ve found that a quickly sketched scull and crossbones usually does the trick.