Something on Johannes de silentio

IMG_3634Adam Kirsch’s inexplicable addition of a definite article in front of “Silentio” in his mention of Johannes de silentio, the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published what is perhaps his most famous work, Fear and Trembling (see the post just before this one), got me thinking again about that pseudonym and how little attention has actually been paid to it.

It is generally presented as a straightforward name, like Constantin Constantius, Johannes Climacus, and Vigilius Haufniensis, the pseudonyms Kierkegaard used for Repetition, Philosophical Crumbs, and The Concept of Anxiety, respectively. It isn’t a name, though, at least the de silentio part isn’t. It’s a description. Kierkegaard’s other pseudonyms use upper-case letters to begin what functions as the surname. Johannes de silentio doesn’t. The pseudonym appears in all caps on the original title page, but only “Johannes” is capitalized at the end of the preface (see the illustration for this article).

Part of the reason scholars have missed this, is that translators have missed it. Alasdair Hannay got it right in his translation for Penguin, but both Princeton translations, the first by Walter Lowrie, done in 1941, and the second by Howard and Edna Hong, done in 1983, get it wrong. Unfortunately, the Princeton translations are the ones that have long been preferred by scholars. The result is that this point about the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published Fear and Trembling has gone unnoticed.

Johannes de silentio is typically taken, as Kirsch does in his review, to mean John of Silence, or John who cannot speak. Since, however, the “de silentio” is clearly a description rather than a surname, Johannes di silentio could be interpreted to mean John from silence, which is to say, not John who is silent, but John who is attempting to break a silence, John who is attempting to explain what is perhaps inexplicable: the situation of Abraham.

Hannay actually discusses this in the introduction to his translation of Fear and Trembling. We notice, he writes

that Kierkegaard has given his author the name ‘Johannes de silentio’, which is allegedly borrowed from one of the Grimms’ fairy-tales, ‘The Faithful Servant’. Kierkegaard’s John of Silence is not, however, at all a silent person. If he was he wouldn’t be an author. Nor was the faithful servant in the fairy-tale. He told his master, the young king, of three dangers threatening him, though realizing that in doing so he would be turned to stone. (To anticipate a further connection with Fear and Trembling, when the royal couple later got two sons they gave the lives of these in sacrifice in order to bring Johannes back to life, whereupon Johannes brought the children back to life.) (p. 10.)

Hannay was right. Johannes, the putative author of Fear and Trembling, is far from silent. Like his German counterpart, he warns of three dangers. Kierkegaard’s Johannes arguably attempts, through his description of the situation of Abraham, to warn his readers of three dangers presented in the form of questions that comprise the three Problemata of the work.

The connection between the fairy tale and the subject of Fear and Trembling is even closer, however, than Hannay suggests. The royal couple didn’t volunteer the lives of their sons in order to bring their faithful servant back to life. After faithful Johannes was turned to stone, the king, realizing what had happened, was so grief stricken that he took the stone statue of Johannes and placed it beside his bed.

Once when the queen was at church, the story reads

and the two children were sitting beside their father and playing, he again looked sadly at the stone statue and said, “Oh, if only I could bring you back to life again, my most faithful Johannes,”

Then the stone began to speak and said, “You can bring me back to life again if you will in return give up what is dearest to you.”

The king cried, “For you I will give up everything I have in the world.”

“The stone continued, “If you will cut off the heads of your two children with your own hand, then sprinkle their blood on me, I shall be restored to life.”

The King was horrified when he heard that he would have to kill his own dearest children, but he thought of faithful Johannes’s great loyalty and how he had died for him, then drew his sword and with his own hand cut off the children’s heads. And when he had smeared the stone with their blood, it returned to life, and faithful Johannes stood before him again, healthy and well.

He said to the king, “Your faith [Treue] shall not go unrewarded,” then taking the children’s heads, he put them on again, then rubbed the wounds with their blood, at which they became immediately whole again, and jumped about and went on playing as if nothing had happened.

Kierkegaard was a lover of fairy tales and among his many collections of fairy tales was the second edition of Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen, where the story in question, “Der treue Johannes,” or “Faithful Johannes,” appears as number no. 6.

Kierkegaard was likely taken by the title “Faithful Johannes” (my emphasis), as well as by the strength of the parallel with the Abraham story.

In fact, the fairy tale puts a decidedly Christian slant on the story because in “Faithful Johannes” not only is the king is required to sacrifice the lives of his children if he wishes to rescue Johannes, the king does this because Johannes “had died for him” (für ihn gestorben war).

Perhaps the silence that Johannes, the author of Fear and Trembling, is attempting, in a somewhat cryptic way, to break is the silence concerning Kierkegaard’s severing of his engagement with Regine Olsen. That is, perhaps he is attempting to communicate, not merely to his former fiancée, but to all of literate Copenhagen, the reasons behind what many viewed as his callous and unprovoked violation of social convention, not to mention of an innocent young woman’s trust.

This is not the first time, of course, that such an explanation has been offered for Fear and Trembling. I think it may be the first time, however, that the parallel to the Grimms’ fairy tale has been explored in depth and that the decidedly Christian slant the story places on the requirement of filicide as a demonstration of faith has been exposed.

 

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.