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.

APA Report and Book Giveaway

Diptyque_de_Melun_reconstitué
The Melun Diptych

The annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association was in Philadelphia last weekend. I chaired a session organized by the Søren Kierkegaard Society entitled “Kierkegaard on Practice and Inner Strength.” The speakers were excellent and we were very fortunate in that despite the fact that the session was in the very last slot on the very last day of the conference, we had a decent-sized audience and an excellent discussion.

The first speaker was Dylan Bailey, a graduate student working with John Davenport at Fordham University. Bailey’s paper was entitled “Kierkegaard and Socrates on Midwifery and Practical Understanding.” One of the things I particularly liked about the paper is that it didn’t merely look at Kierkegaard and Socrates. It placed the views of both in the context of contemporary work on understanding such as Christopher Baumberger, Claus Beisbart, and Georg Brun’s, “What is Understanding? An Overview of Recent Debates in Epistemology and Philosophy of Science,’ in Explaining Understanding. New Perspectives from Epistemology and Philosophy of Science (Routledge, 2016). Bailey is one to watch. His paper was excellent and he is working with one of the best Kierkegaard scholars in the business!

The second speaker was Kevin T. Di Camillo. Di Camillo’s paper was entitled “Jean Fouquet’s The Melun Diptych: Weaning in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Melanie Klein’s Guilt, Love and Reparation — A Study in Kenosis and Theosis.” One of the things that made the session so excellent was the non-traditional nature of Di Camillo’s paper and its placement between two more traditional papers. I’ve always found it difficult to sit through three dense scholarly papers in a row. Di Camillo’s paper was a departure, however, from the traditional dense scholarly paper. It was dense, but in a different way. It was rich with references to the painting that was its subject, so it required audience members to repeatedly search the two posters Di Camillo had made of the painting for illustrations of his points. That is, it was sort of an audience-participation presentation, made even more enjoyable by the fact that Di Camillo had thoughtfully provided the audience with two transcendently delicious pandoros from his family’s prize winning Di Camillo Bakery. (I’m a big fan of pandoro and panettone. I’m ashamed to say, however, that I had been buying them from TJMax. Never again Di Camillo’s pandorro was a revelation!).

There was a lively discussion of whether weaning was always necessarily traumatic in the way that Klein and Kierkegaard appear to suggest. Chandler Rogers, a Teaching Fellow at Boston College, interjected that Vanessa Rumble points out in “Why Moriah?: weaning and the trauma of transcendence in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling” that Kierkegaard’s impression of weaning was likely influenced by the deaths of sisters as a consequence of childbirth. “Weaning normally calls to mind,” writes Rumble,

the movement of individuation and dawning consciousness/ self-consciousness, a passing moment of separation and mourning. The infant emerges from a state which, retrospectively, will appear as one of unity, plenitude, into the difficult reality of mediating between the necessary and the possible, the real and the ideal, in short, into the reality of our freedom and its limits. In the experience of Kierkegaard and his siblings, however, weaning is tied, through the pronouncements of the midwives, to horrific loss. Milk, the infant’s earliest nourishment, and the mother’s first medium for communicating her love, care and attention, becomes, in the accounts which Kierkegaard heard swirling about his sisters’ deathbeds, a poison which attacks the mother’s brain. The milk that was to join the mother to the child and sustain the child destroys the mother, separating them brutally and definitively. And after the trauma comes the invariable question: what is all this to mean? (259)

Rumble’s paper is one of my all-time favorites. It isn’t just an exceptionally rigorous and insightful piece of scholarship. It is beautiful. If I remember correctly, I heard her present an early version of it at a conference. It can be found now, however, in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: A Critical Guide (Cambridge, 2015) which is available in a very reasonably priced ebook edition.

That brings me to the one really sour note of the conference. I found what looked to be a very interesting new book from Routledge entitled The Kierkegaardian Mind. It’s a big volume with lots of subject divisions and an impressive list of contributors. Here’s the thing: The ebook version is $184! It’s actually more expensive, on Amazon anyway, than the hardcover, which retails on Amazon for $173! There’s no excuse for that. Routledge has a lot of good books on Kierkegaard, but most of them are far too expensive for individuals and not every university library will have them. What that means is that they are not going to be cited as much as they deserve to be. I won’t be citing this one, in any case, unless I can get a copy from Penn’s library and even then, given that I will have it for only a very finite period of time, I won’t cite it so much as I would otherwise.

It’s important that presses such as Routledge publish works on Kierkegaard. Scholars can’t get tenured without publications. They can’t make reputations, however, if people don’t cite their work. An essay in a book that few people ever read and hence fewer still actually cite, will take a career only so far. An increasing number of humanities departments are looking not just at publications when considering tenure and promotion decisions, but also at how often a scholar’s work is cited. That’s not so unfair as it sounds because there are also an increasing number of predatory journals and presses so it is becoming easier for scholars to get their work published in purportedly peer-reviewed journals and books. Few scholars can keep up with the proliferation of such journals and presses and this is even more true of administrators who are not themselves scholars. The thinking is that a scholar whose work is any good will be cited by other scholars. Presses such as Routledge, whose books are astronomically overpriced, are wreaking havoc with that logic. Belt tightening that has effected nearly all institutions of higher education outside the Ivy League has meant that many universities no longer automatically purchase every book that comes out of a university press, not even out of the top university presses. That means lots of excellent scholarship is failing to reach as wide an audience as it deserves.

On the topic of the affordability of scholarly works, I’ve decided to give away five copies of Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010) to graduate students who would like to use the book as part of their research for their dissertations. I got these copies at deeply discounted prices when Baylor came out with the paperback. All you need to do to secure a copy is send me an email with a brief summary of your dissertation, an explanation of the use you plan to make of the book, your dissertation director’ name, and your address, and I will put a copy in the mail to you. I have only these five copies to give away, though, so they will be available on a first-come, first-served basis.

The two papers described above were not the only papers in the SKS session. I am going to save the last paper, Siobhan Marie Doyle’s excellent “Gender and the Practical Dimensions of Kierkegaard’s Existential Philosophy” for my next blog post.

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.