Death and Nonsense

Death has been on everyone’s mind for awhile now. I’m presenting a paper on the topic of death in Kierkegaard at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. As regular readers of this blog will know, I recently completed my own translation of the portion of Works of Love that deals with loving someone who has died. (That translation will appear in print soon, from Gegensatz Press in an edition that will have the original Danish and my English translation of that text on facing pages.) I thought I ought to review Kierkegaard’s other writings on death, as well, to help me prepare the presentation.

One such work is the religious discourse “At a Graveside” from Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions. I don’t know whether I had ever read it before. If I did, then it was either in the original Danish or in a translation that preceded the Hongs’ translation from 1993. Until reading “At a Graveside,” I would have said that the Hongs’ translation of The Sickness Unto Death was the most problematic of their translations. “At a Graveside” may actually have it beat, though, for reasons I will present below.

The first indication I had that it wasn’t a good translation is that it doesn’t read well. Kierkegaard’s writing is not always equally brilliant, but it is never bad. This, is bad, though: 

“Death’s decision is therefore not definable by equality, because the equality consists in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” 

The expression that the Hongs consistently translate as “decision” here and elsewhere in the discourse, is Afgjørelse. The Danish term that most closely corresponds to the English “decision” is not Afgjørelse, however, but Beslutning. According to Ferrall-Repp, Afgjørelse means “finishing, etc., completion; decision, adjustment, settlement.” “Decision” is there. The definition makes clear, however, that an Afgjørelse is a “decision” in a formal, or legalistic sense, such as the decision of a referee or a judge. This explains, at least in part, why the passage above is confusing. 

Dødens Afgjørelse would be better rendered here as “Death’s reckoning.” 

To make matters worse, not only is Dødens Afgjørelse confusingly translated as “Death’s decision” in the passage above, it’s consistently translated that way throughout the entire discourse, even where it is used as a section heading. This, along with additional translation problems I will detail below, makes the discourse anything but “pellucid” in the manner Gordon Marino claims in his essay “A Critical Perspective on Kierkegaard’s ‘At a Graveside,’” in Kierkegaard and Death. 

There’s more to this lamentably translated passage than the unfortunate translation of Afgørelse as “decision.” The preposition ved that the Hongs have translated as “by” is probably better translated as “through.” “By” is listed before “through” in Ferrall-Repp, but the latter is there as well, and I think it is preferable because Kierkegaard appears to be trying to say that we can’t actually grasp death by thinking of it as the great equalizer, because the equality is established through annihilation and we have no better grasp of that than we have of death. That is, he isn’t suggesting we ever attempt to define death as equality, but that we often think we can come to a better understanding of it by thinking of it as, among other things, the great equalizer.

What about the second sentence: “And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” The use of “alleviating” there is unidiomatic. “Alleviating” generally takes a direct object in English. We say, for example, that a particular lotion is good at alleviating itching. We don’t normally speak of something being alleviating for someone. 

The Danish term that is translated as “alleviating” is formildende. Formildende isn’t in Ferrall-Repp. Formilde is though, and it’s defined there as “to soothe, soften, mollify, appease, assuage, alleviate, temper, mitigate.” So once again we see that the Hongs have chosen an English term that could, in principle, be an acceptable translation of the Danish term in question. It just doesn’t work in this passage. 

“And pondering this is supposed to be soothing for the living” is clearly preferable to “And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living.” I’m going to go out on a limb here, however, and suggest that “comforting” would actually be the most idiomatic translation. It isn’t offered as a possible translation of formilde in Ferrall-Repp, but it captures the sense of formildene in this passage. 

Let’s try out our new translation of the passage and compare it with the Hongs’. The Hongs have:

“Death’s decision is therefore not definable by equality, because the equality consists in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be alleviating for the living!” 

We have:

“Death’s reckoning is therefore not definable through equality, because the equality is in annihilation. And pondering this is supposed to be comforting for the living!”

The Hongs have interpolated “consists” here. That isn’t really a problem, however, in terms of understanding the meaning of the passage. It’s just what Strunk and White would call bad form in that it’s unnecessary. The real problems are with the Hongs’ translations of Dodens Afgjørelse as “Death’s decision,” ved as “by,” and formildende as “alleviating.” The first, I would argue, is both unidiomatic and confusing. The second suggests an equation of death with equality that is clearly not intended in the original, and the third is unidiomatic. 

There are lots more of the kinds of problems described above. Page 86, for example, has four instances of  the same unidiomatic use of “alleviating” as appears in the passage above. This is arguably simply a stylistic problem rather than a substantive one, but not only is it a disservice to both Kierkegaard and readers of the Hongs’ translation to render Kierkegaard’s flowing Danish in an awkward an unidiomatic English, it can lead to substantive problems. That is, readers may wonder what is being alleviated and why Kierkegaard is being so mysterious about it. 

These are not the worst problems with the Hongs’ translation of “Ved en Grav” (literally, simply “At a Grave”). The Hongs’ inexplicable choice to translate Afgjørelse as “decision” leads to even greater problems in another passage. This one is on page 97 where, in what Ralph Waldo Emerson would refer to as a foolish attempt at consistency, the Hongs translate Uafgjørtheden as “indecisiveness.” Afgjørt is the past participle of Afgjøre, which, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to finish, complete; to decide; to settle, adjust.” It is, of course, related to Afgjørelse, hence the Hongs’ apparently decided to translate it as “indecisive” in order to preserve in the translation a terminological consistency found in the original Danish text. 

The problem is that meaning was sacrificed here to consistency. The passage includes two references to holding death “in the equilibrium of indecisiveness.” It isn’t at all clear, however, what that could possibly mean. That is, the passage does not concern someone contemplating suicide who can’t make up their mind. It concerns our difficulty in grasping what, exactly, death is.

It gets worse. “To paganism,” reads the translation on page 97, “the highest courage was the wise person (whose earnestness was indicated expressly by his not being in a hurry with the explanation [i.e., of death]) who was able to live with the thought of death in such a way that he overcame this thought every moment of his life by indecisiveness.”

What? How can one overcome anything by indecisiveness? Kierkegaard would never say such a thing. If there was anything of which Kierkegaard was contemptuous, it was indecisiveness. By this point, you can probably figure out for yourself how Uafgjørtheden should be translated here. It refers to indeterminacy, or, more awkwardly, undecidability, not indecisiveness. This is made clear in the text that follows. “The wise person,” the passage continues, “knows that death exists [er til]; he does not live thoughtlessly, forgetting that it exists [er til]. He meets with it in his thoughts, he renders it powerless in indeterminability [Ubestemmelighed], and this is his victory over death.”  

Finally, translators of Kierkegaard should avoid, if at all possible, rendering er til as “exists,” because “existence,” i.e., Existens, is a technical term for Kierkegaard. The passage above would be less misleading if er til were translated simply as “is,” or “is [real]” with brackets to indicate that “real” is an interpolation.

How can Gordon Marino have thought that the Hongs’s translation of “Ved en Grav” was “pellucid”? Portions of it are flat out nonsensical. Kierkegaard and Death, the volume in which Marino’s essay on “At a Graveside” appears, is a collection of essays by various scholars. Many of the essays understandably focus on “At a Graveside.” What is less understandable is that none of them mentions the numerous problems with the translation. 

The strange silence of the contributors to Kierkegaard and Death concerning the problems with the Hongs’ translation of “Ved en Grav” reveals a serious challenge to rigorous Kierkegaard scholarship. It would appear that either the impression that Kierkegaard’s writing is often nonsensical even in the original must be so pervasive among scholars that many don’t bother to check awkward and confusing passages in translations against the original Danish, or that knowledge of Danish, even rudimentary knowledge, is so rare among Kierkegaard scholars that most are simply unable to determine problems with translations even when they suspect they may exist.

The Meaning of “Ethics” in Fear and Trembling

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I belong to a really wonderful philosophy of religion reading group. We’re reading Eleanor Stump’s Wandering in Darkness. We just finished the chapter that looks at the story of Abraham and Isaac. Stump contrasts her interpretation of the story with Kierkegaard’s, famously put forward in Fear and Trembling. She acknowledges that she is not a Kierkegaard scholar, and that her interpretation of Fear and Trembling is not intended as a contribution to Kierkegaard scholarship, but explains that she’s using the story to “bring out the salient features of [her] differing interpretation.” Readers, she continues “should feel free to take the section of this chapter on Kierkegaard’s reading of the story as only a Kierkegaard-like interpretation” (p. 260).

Unfortunately, Stump’s interpretation of Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham and Isaac isn’t very “Kierkegaard-like.”

“[A]s I understand him,” writes Stump,

Kierkegaard takes Abraham to be caught in a dilemma; but he thinks that that dilemma is resoluble, because he supposes that God’s command produces a “teleological suspension of the ethical” for Abraham. The ethical prohibition against the killing of an innocent child is overridden by God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. That Abraham understands and accepts this feature of his situation is part of what makes him a hero of faith for Kierkegaard (pp. 260-261).

For Stump, on the other hand, there is no dilemma. “If we read the episode of the binding of Isaac,” she argues, 

in the context of the whole narrative of Abraham’s life, in which Abraham’s double-mindedness about God’s goodness is manifest, and especially if we see that episode against the backdrop of the expulsion of Ishmael, then it is clear that God is not pitting his authority against morality in asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, as Kierkegaard apparently supposed. … God’s demand for Isaac and the requirements of morality are on the same side in this story (p. 303).

“The faith that makes Abraham the father of faith,” she continues, “has its root in Abraham’s acceptance of the goodness of God, Abraham’s belief that God will keep his promises, and Abraham’s willingness to stake his heart’s desire on that belief” (p. 304).

That is, Stump argues that God has repeatedly shown Abraham that he is trustworthy hence ethics requires that Abraham accept God as trustworthy. That, according to Stump, is what ethics demands. There’s no dilemma, no conflict between the requirements of ethics and God’s command. What God commands is precisely what the moral law requires. 

Stump’s interpretation of Kierkegaard is not new. Many people have interpreted Fear and Trembling in the way Stump does. It is arguably difficult not to interpret it this way, given that Kierkegaard himself coined the phrase “teleological suspension of the ethical” (teleologisk Suspension af det Ethiske). Yet, there are ample clues in the work itself that Kierkegaard does not mean to suggest that God’s commands would ever conflict with genuine moral or ethical obligation.

But if Kierkegaard is not trying to argue that God’s command can potentially be in conflict with our ethical obligations and that when it is, our duty to God supersedes those obligations, what is he doing in Fear and Trembling? 

One doesn’t have to know a lot about Kierkegaard to take issue with Stump’s reading of Fear and Trembling. In fact, one only needs to have read the introductions to Alastair Hannay’s and Sylvia Walsh’s translations of the work to get a decent idea of what sort of “dilemma” it presents. 

“The opening pages of each of the three problemata,” explains Hannay 

all follow a uniform pattern. First the ethical is defined as the universal, then a consequence drawn from this, followed by the observation that to accept this consequence is to concede that Hegel’s account of the ethical is right. Thereupon our author claims that if Hegel’s account is indeed right, then Hegelians have no right to talk of faith or to give credit to Abraham as its father, for according to each of the consequences in question Abraham must stand morally (even criminally) condemned. The three consequences of defining the ethical as ‘the universal’ are: (i) that the individual’s moral performance must be judged by its underlying social intention; (ii) that there are no duties to God other than duties that are in the first instance to the universal; and (iii) that it is a moral requirement that one not conceal one’s moral projects or the reasons one has for failing to carry them through. In each of the problemata Abraham is shown to infringe the principle of the ethical as the universal by failing to conform to the consequence, or implicated requirement, in question. Abraham acts as though there were a superior measure of moral performance that made social intentions irrelevant; he supposes himself to have an absolute duty to God that overrides the ethical defined as the universal; and he cannot reveal his intention to the parties concerned. (p. 28)

“Hegel defined ethical life (Kierkegaard uses a Danish expression, ‘det Sædelige’, which is a direct translation of Hegel’s ‘das Sittliche’),” Hannay continues, 

as the identification of the individual with the totality of his social life. The basic idea behind an ethics of Sittlichkeit is that public morality, or the principles of social and political cohesion underlying any actual society, are expressions of universal human goals. If there is a human telos (goal) at all, that is where it finds expression. Thus in order to become moral the individual should conform to, and begin to want to act in accordance with, the principles of public morality that any State must be based on. ‘The State’, says Hegel, ‘in and by itself is the ethical whole.’ This is precisely the idea of the ethical as the universal which the problemata present as a hoop that Abraham must jump through in order to prove the morality of his action. Abraham consistently fails.

It isn’t merely, or even primarily, Hegel that Kierkegaard has in mind, I would argue, when he refers to “ethics in the sense of social convention.” It’s Hans Lassen Martensen, his former teacher and eventual Bishop of Copenhagen. “De Sædelige” is the title of the first section of the first volume of Martensen’s Den christelige Ethik (Christian Ethics). Sædelighed, which according to Martensen, has its foundation in the family unit, is the foundation of Christian ethics. Den christelige Ethik was not published until after Kierkegaard’s death, but Martensen was an ardent follower of Hegel from the beginning of his philosophical career and is repeatedly and mercilessly caricatured as such by Kierkegaard.

“The general thrust of Protestant liberal thought from Kant to Hegel,” observes C. Stephen Evans in his introduction to Sylvia Walsh’s translation of Fear and Trembling (Cambridge, 2006), 

has been to understand genuine religious faith in ethical terms. Kant himself had closely linked true religious faith to the ethical life: “Apart from a good life-conduct, anything which the human being supposes that he can to do to become well-pleasing to God is mere religious delusion and counterfeit service of God.” When Kantian ethics is converted by Hegel to Sittlichkeit then the equation of faith with the ethical sets the stage for the triumph of Christendom and the identification of religious faith with social conformism. (p. xxix)

“Kierkegaard thinks that genuine faith,” continues Evans, “requires an individual relation with God that is personally transformative.” According to Kierkegaard, argues Evans, faith in God “is not reducible to fulfilling one’s social roles.” Such faith serves as the basis, he observes, however, of a renewal of the self and of social institutions. 

Only ethics in this new, specifically religious sense really counts as ethics for Kierkegaard because only through a transformation of the individual is there any hope of that individual’s conforming his or her will to the substance of the moral law. Outside of Grace, guilt is too debilitating, to corruptive of the subjective determining ground of the will. 

Hannay’s own view is that Kierkegaard “envisages some alternative” to the Hegelian principle of morality whereby there is no genuine conflict between what ethics requires and what God commands. Not only that, Hannay goes so far as to assert that Johannes de silentio, the pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling, envisages such an alternative. 

Evans doesn’t give Johannes de silentio so much credit as Hannay does, but they agree that the view of ethics that equates it with Sittlichkeit/Sædelighed was not one to which Kierkegaard himself subscribed. Such a view is amply supported by the repeated qualifications of “the ethical” in Fear and Trembling as “the universal,” and at least one completely unequivocal reference to “the ethical in the sense of social convention” (Det Ethiske i Betydning of det SædeligeSKS 4, p. 153/SV, 2nd ed. III, p. 123). Unfortunately, the allusion to Hegel is obscured in both the Hongs’ and, more surprisingly, Hannay’s own translation of the relevant passage. The Hongs have “[t]he ethical in the sense of the moral” (p. 59) and Hannay has “[t]he ethical in the sense of ethical life” (p. 88). 

That Kierkegaard envisages an alternative to the Hegelian view of ethics is widely recognized by scholars. Kierkegaard is a famous opponent of Hegel on this point, as well as on many others. Scholars are familiar with Kierkegaard’s hyphenated expression “ethical-religious.” Ethics cannot ultimately be separated from religion, according to Kierkegaard, in the manner that both Hegel and Martensen try to do. More particularly, ethics cannot be separated from Christianity, as is clear in, for example, Kierkegaard’s ethical treatise Works of Love. 

If there is a God, then there is a way that God wants his creatures to relate to him (or her or it). That is, if there is a God, then the proper relation to God is the individual’s telos and insofar as the proper relation to God is going to involve relating in a particular way to the rest of creation, then ethics is subsumed under religion which means there cannot be any conflict between ethical duty and religious duty. The two are the same. 

One doesn’t need to be a Kierkegaard scholar to appreciate this. Not only is the logic of the above identification of ethical and religious duty unassailable, Kierkegaard has left ample clues in Fear and Trembling to indicate that “the ethical” as it is presented there ought always to have quotation marks around it in that there is another higher ethics in the background, an ethics not unlike the one that Stump defends in her effort to provide an ethical justification for Abraham’s apparent willingness to sacrifice his son. 

Except that Abraham isn’t actually willing to sacrifice his son, on Stump’s reading. His faith is that God won’t actually ask him to do it in the end. 

Stump’s reading of the Abraham story has some very compelling elements, including the creative and original use she makes of Abraham’s earlier effective sacrifice of Ishmael. I would argue, however, that if Abraham’s faith was simply that God’s goodness would mean that he would not, in the end, require the sacrifice of Isaac, then Abraham comes off not as the father of faith, but merely as a really nice guy, unwilling, as Rhett Butler observes of Melanie Hamilton, to think ill of anyone she loves.

More Reviews of Carlisle’s Biography of Kierkegaard

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 6.37.43 PMA couple more reviews have emerged of Claire Carlisle’s new biography of Kierkegaard Philosopher of the Heart. The first, by Parul Sehgal, appeared in the April 28 edition of New York Times Book Review, and the second by Adam Kirsch, is in this week’s New Yorker.

I’m having the weirdest déjà vu experience. This is uncannily like the time, many years ago when John Updike reviewed Joakim Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard in the New Yorker. I had published some critical articles on Garff’s book before Updike’s review appeared. Updike’s review, unlike the other reviews up to that point, was strangely silent on this issue of the quality of Garff’s book. My guess is that Updike had probably done a little research on the reception of Garff’s book and had learned it was somewhat controversial. Not in a position to judge the facts of the controversy, Updike may well have thought it safest to simply use the book as a point of departure for his own thoughts on the life of Kierkegaard.

Something like that appears to have been the case with these most recent reviews of Carlisle’s biography. Neither actually says very much about the book. Despite this, however, Sehgal’s review is fairly negative. She writes, for example, that

The narrative slips in and out of a breathless present-tense voice with flourishes of soppy characterization: “Writing became the fabric of Kierkegaard’s existence, the most vibrant love of his life — for all his other loves flowed into it, and it swelled like the ocean that crashed restlessly against his native land.” At times Carlisle succumbs to outright fiction.

Kirsch’s review is more positive. The reader has to take it with a grain of salt, however, because it would appear, as will become clear below, that Kirsch hasn’t actually read the book.

Neither of the reviews mentions the errors in it that I pointed out in my own review for the TLS. The problem, I suspect, is the same as Updike’s. That is, my guess is that both Sehgal and Kirsch are aware that Carlisle’s book was the subject of some controversy, but since they are not themselves Kierkegaard scholars, they can’t really take a position on it.

I have to hand it to the TLS, who published my negative review of Carlisle’s book. I’m still annoyed with them for their refusal to let me to respond to George Pattison’s tendentious letter to the editor defending Carlisle, as well as for their failure to disclose to readers that Pattison’s defense of the book was not disinterested (the book’s dedicated to him). Still, the TLS actively sought out someone who was competent to review a biography of Kierkegaard, and even more to their credit, published the review, though it reflected unfavorably on Carlisle, who was one of their regular reviewers. That sort of editorial conscientiousness appears rare these days.

Kierkegaard liked to disparage book reviewers. That always seemed ungenerous to me, given that his own books tended to be favorably reviewed. One of the accusations he made against reviewers was that they didn’t always read the books they reviewed. That, as I mentioned above, would appear to have been the case with Kirsch.

It’s a good idea, if one is going to review a book one hasn’t actually read, to stick to the kinds of vague and general statements that cannot be proven to be false. You know, stuff like that the book is “creative,” or “compelling,” or “an interesting read,” etc.

Unfortunately, Kirsch chose to ignore this time-honored practice of hack reviewers and went right out on a limb too conspicuously cracked to bear his weight. Kierkegaard had ceased his “feverish productivity” toward the end of his life, Kirsch claims in his review. “[I]n his last years,” Kirsch continues, “Kierkegaard truly earned the pseudonym under which he had published Fear and Trembling,” Johannes de Silentio—John of the [sic] Silence.”

But of course Carlisle never said anything of the sort, nor did anyone else who actually knows anything about Kierkegaard’s life because its not merely demonstrably, but spectacularly false.

Kierkegaard never ceased writing. He did not publish any new books between 1852 and 1855, but he continued to write in his journals. More importantly, he ended his life with the same “feverish productivity” with which his career had begun.

Kierkegaard launched his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) attack on the Danish Lutheran Church just before he died. The attack consisted of a number of newspaper articles that actually first started appearing in 1854, and a series of ten pamphlets entitled The Instant (Oieblikket) published in 1855, the year he died.

These late works, and Kierkegaard’s journal entries relating to them, take up more than 600 pages in Volume XXIII of Kierkegaard’s Writings: The Moment and Late Writings. So it is hardly accurate to describe Kierkegaard’s exit from this life as “silent.” In fact he went out screaming bloody murder at institutionalized Christianity.

The existing biographies of Kierkegaard are so problematic that I’ve decided, finally, that I am going to try my hand at writing one myself. It shouldn’t be too difficult given how low the bar has been set by the more recent contributions to this genre.

I may even have an agent lined up. I’ve twice contacted an agent in relation to another project and each time he responded that he wasn’t interested in the project about which I’d approached him, but that he would be interested in a biography of Kierkegaard. The first time he said this, I responded that I was not a biographer and suggested that Peter Tudvad wold be a more appropriate choice for such a project.

Nothing ever came of that, however, and since it is now apparent that one doesn’t have to be a biographer to write a biography of Kierkegaard, and since it is equally apparent that few people know very much about Kierkegaard’s life, I figure I should take a stab at it. It seems the only way we are likely to get a relatively accurate book-length portrait of the man in the near future.