Debunking the Kierkegaard Myths

kierkegaard2_360x450Kierkegaard kept voluminous journals. It’s reasonable to assume from that that his would be an easy biography to write. In fact, it is fairly easy to write a biography of Kierkegaard and quite a few have been written including David F. Swenson’s Something About Kierkegaard (Augsburg, 1941), Walter Lowrie’s A Short Life of Kierkegaard (Princeton, 1942), Johannes Hohlenberg’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Pantheon, 1954), Henning Fenger’s Kierkegaard, The Myths and their Origins (Yale, 1980), Alastair Hannay’s Kierkegaard: A Biography (Cambridge, 2001), Joakim Garff’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005), Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan, 2016), and most recently, Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart (Allen Lane, 2019). What isn’t so easy is to write a biography that is genuinely revealing, that delves beneath the surface facts of Kierkegaard’s life and his own well-known observations on them to show something of the man behind the biographical myths.

All the existing biographies give essentially the same picture of Kierkegaard, a picture that has been cobbled together from Kierkegaard’s journals and accounts of some of his contemporaries. They present him as a somewhat reclusive, oddly attired, physically misshapen, passionately religious melancholic from a similarly passionately religious melancholic family. There is little question that the “passionately religious” qualification is correct. Kierkegaard came from a devoutly religious family whose spiritual roots were in the individualistic tradition of the Moravian Brethren, and they maintained their connection to this denomination even while enjoying membership in the official Danish Lutheran Church.

The picture of Kierkegaard as a melancholic loner who was the product of an unhappy childhood comes largely from his own observations about himself in his journals. Even Fenger and Garff, both of whom point out how careful Kierkegaard was at crafting the image of himself that he wanted to survive his death, give too much credence to what Kierkegaard writes about himself. Scattered among the many reminiscences of people who knew Kierkegaard are clues that suggest the narrator of the journals is unreliable.

Kierkegaard writes repeatedly that his childhood was unhappy. Observations of the Kierkegaard household, however, by visiting friends and acquaintances invariably describe it as warm and happy, presided over by loving parents who took conspicuous pride in their children’s abilities and accomplishments. See, for example, the reminiscences collected in the section entitled “Barndom og skoleår” (childhood and school years) in Erindringer om Søren Kierkegaard (memories of Søren Kierkegaard) (Reitzel, 1980).

Kierkegaard describes his father as profoundly melancholic. There is little evidence, however, to support that Michael Pedersen suffered from depression until very late in his life after his second wife, and the mother of his children, died and then his children began to die off, one by one, in early adulthood. Kierkegaard’s older brother, Peter Christian, gives a similar picture of the family, and it is well known that he struggled with depression himself. But again, there is little evidence that this was a serious problem until after he lost his mother and siblings to death and after he lost his first wife shortly after their marriage.

The death of a loved one naturally leads to depression and to lose one’s children is reportedly one of the worst kinds of losses. Peter Christian lived through the death of nearly all his siblings, as well as the death of his first wife, and added to the grief of those losses was the undoubtedly disturbing spectacle of his once strong father’s own struggles with grief. That both Kierkegaard’s father and his older brother suffered from depression later in their lives makes perfect sense. That in itself is not sufficient, however, to support that the family had any sort of congenital predisposition to depression, or that Kierkegaard’s childhood home had been characterized by it. My point is not to argue that the traditional picture of Kierkegaard’s family and childhood is necessarily wrong, but simply that there are reasons to doubt it.

Kierkegaard describes his father as authoritarian, yet it is well known, as a contemporary, Peter Munte Brun observes in Erindringer, that the elder Kierkegaard encouraged his children (his male children anyway) to debate with him on points of philosophy and theology. Michael Pedersen may well have been authoritarian in some respects, but most devoutly religious heads of households insist, if they are authoritarian, on conformity on intellectual matters and, in particular on points of theology. So if Michael Petersen was authoritarian, it was not in the traditional sense.

But if this negative view of Kierkegaard’s family and childhood home is inaccurate, why do we find it in Kierkegaard’s journals? There are two possible reasons. The first is that the Romantics tended, paradoxically, to have a positive view of melancholy—it was romantic. Kierkegaard was steeped in the Romantic worldview and appeared to enjoy thinking of himself as a romantic figure. Second, many of his accounts of his family and childhood that support this view were written after the family experienced the tragic losses referred to above, hence Kierkegaard’s later view of his family and this period of his life may well have been negatively affected by these losses in the same way that his brother’s likely was.

Part of The Corsair’s merciless caricaturing of Kierkegaard included depicting him as hunch-backed with trouser legs of two different lengths. Was Kierkegaard hunchbacked? Most accounts of contemporaries make no mention of this purported deformity and the medical records from Frederiks Hospital, where Kierkegaard breathed his last in 1855, include no reference to it. There are a few accounts of Kierkegaard from contemporaries that describe him as “slightly hunched” (Erindringer, 67-68), but that’s very different from saying he was hunch-backed. Strangely, even Fenger gives too much credence to the view that Kierkegaard was hunch-backed. There is actually no evidence, however, to suggest that Kierkegaard suffered from anything more than poor posture, or what is sometimes referred to as a “scholarly slouch.” Even that is largely conjecture given that the few references we have to this purported physical characteristic of Kierkegaard date from the period after he was portrayed this way in the caricatures published by The Corsair when people’s memories of Kierkegaard might well have been influenced by those caricatures.

Were Kierkegaard’s trouser legs of two different lengths? Anyone who knows anything about Kierkegaard and gives this idea a moment’s thought will realize that it’s extremely improbable Kierkegaard would ever have appeared in public in such poorly-tailored attire. Kierkegaard was a notorious flâneur whose excessive tailor bills were the bane of his father’s existence. This is likely the reason, in fact, that The Corsair chose to depict him as poorly attired. Nothing would have irked the vain Kierkegaard more than being presented as anything less than impeccably dressed.

I address the myth that Kierkegaard was reclusive in a publication that will appear shortly, so I won’t scoop myself by going into that issue here. Suffice it to say that it makes little sense to suppose that a well-known flâneur could also have been a recluse.

So there you have it. More support could be presented, of course, to challenge each of the prevailing myths about Kierkegaard that turn up in nearly every biography of him like so many bad pennies. Again, my point here is not to argue that there is no truth to these myths, but only to point out that there is reason to suppose that there is less truth than has traditionally been thought.

A Problem with Hannay’s Postscript

I have said before, and I will say again, that Alastair Hannay’s translations of Kierkegaard for Penguin are superior to the Hongs’ translations for Princeton. I will probably do some posts comparing them again. That is not the purpose of the present post, however. I’m teaching a seminar on Kierkegaard now at Haverford College where we’re reading Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs, and his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs. We’re using my translation of the Crumbs from Oxford and Hannay’s translation of the Postscript from Cambridge. In the course of my reading through this new translation of the Postscript, I have discovered a number of problems with it.

The most serious and most perplexing problem is Hannay’s systematically translating Kierkegaard’s Opvakt as “reborn.” Opvakt literally means “awakened.” It comes from the verb opvække, that, according to Ferrall-Repp means “to awake, rouse, excite, stir up.” An Opvækkelse is similarly defined by Ferrall-Repp as an “awakening.” Kierkegaard uses the expression en Opvakt to refer to a follower of the charismatic Danish priest Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (see the commentary to SKS).

One might be tempted to argue that while “awakened” is the most literal translation of Opvakt, it is awkward in English to refer to the members of a particular religious movement as “awakened.” Unfortunately, “reborn” isn’t much better if it is better at all. The idiomatic expression in English would be “born again.”

The more serious difficulty, however, with the translation of Opvakt as “reborn” is that it is misleading, so misleading, in fact, that it is likely to make readers dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard conclude that his thought is incoherent. Kierkegaard speaks in the following passage from the Philosophical Crumbs of a “rebirth” of the individual who receives the condition for understanding the truth from the god in time.

To the extent that the disciple was in error and now receives the truth as well as the condition for understanding it, a change takes place in him that is like the transition from not being to being. But this transition from not being to being is precisely that of birth [Fødselens]. He who exists already can hardly be born, and yet he is born. Let us call this transition rebirth [Gjenfødslen](96).

The expression for “rebirth” is Gjenfødslen. Gjenfødslen comes from adding the prefix Gjen (which comes from Igien, which means “again”) to Fødsel, which, according to Ferrall-Repp. is defined as “delivery, parturation, birth, nativity.”

This “rebirth” is an unqualifiedly positive thing. It is, indeed, precisely the temporal point of departure for a person’s “eternal consciousness” the possibility of which was posed as “the problem of the Crumbs.

Kierkegaard’s “Gjenfødslen” is a positive phenomenon, indeed, THE positive phenomenon. Kierkegaard has little respect, however, for the followers of Grundtvig, so his references to them as Opvakt are all pejorative.

What is the poor reader dependent on English translations of Kierkegaard to make of this? When he reads the Crumbs, he’ll find that “rebirth” is equivalent to an individual’s encounter with God in the person of Christ. When he proceeds, however, to the Postscript, he’ll read that “[t]he one who is reborn … is not relating to God” (381, emphasis added).

This isn’t the only misleading reference in Hannay’s translation to someone who is “reborn.” There is also a reference on page 383 to “the impudent assurance in the fact of God of the one reborn.” There’s another reference on page 424 to “the one who is reborn impertinently retain[ing] God.” When I did a search on “reborn” on my electronic copy of the book, I got 25 hits. Some of the pages, such as 429, have multiple references because Kierkegaard goes on at some length in those places about what is wrong with the followers Grundtvig –– except that the reader very likely won’t know that’s what Kierkegaard is doing, but will assume he’s critiquing the views he developed himself in the Philosophical Crumbs.

Kierkegaard is not critiquing his own earlier views, or worse, contradicting himself. “Rebirth” is a literal translation of Gjenfødslen. It is not, however, a literal translation of Opvakt, and given that Kierkegaard uses Opvakt only pejoratively and Gjenfødslen only positively, a translator needs to be careful to preserve that terminological distinction in order to avoid confusing the reader and perhaps compelling him to conclude that Kierkegaard just wasn’t all that rigorous a thinker.

I thought it was important to alert readers to this problem because people who read my translation of Kierkegaard’s Philosophical Crumbs will very likely be inclined to read Hannay’s translation of the Postscript since Hannay also translates Kierkegaard’s Smuler as “crumbs.”

Hannay got Smuler right, but he got Opvakt wrong.

Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks–OH NO!

I have only the first volume of the new English translations of Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks published by Princeton University Press and the reason I have that volume is that I was given a free copy by the Scottish Journal of Theology when I agreed to review it for them. The editors include some scholars, such as Alastair Hannay and Vanessa Rumble, who have an excellent command of Danish. I was suspicious, however, of the rate at which they were cranking out the translations.

Translation is hard work. Good translations take some time to produce. It was hard for me to imagine that anyone could translate all of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers in the short time Princeton had projected it would take and actually do a decent job. The first volume in the Princeton series appeared in 2007. Since then, nine of the projected 11 volumes have appeared. That’s more than a volume a year.

I’ve not made a serious study of these new translations of Kierkegaard’s journals, since I did my review of the fist volume. I generally work with the original Danish versions that are available for free in searchable editions online. I’m working on a paper on humor in Kierkegaard right now, however, and I ran across a passage from one of Kierkegaard’s journals that I wanted to use for my article. The late, and venerable George Kline taught me that even if one has an excellent command of a particular language, if there exists a definitive English translation of a work in that language from which one wishes to quote, it is incumbent upon one to use the language of the translation. It’s a courtesy to the reader. If everyone who knew German, for example, did his own translations of Kant when quoting Kant, those poor souls who did not know German would have a hard time locating the passage in question. So I figured that I should use the wording of the new Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks and dutifully looked up the passage that was, fortuitously, in the one volume of KJN that I happened to own. The translation reads as follows:

Humor is irony taken to its maximum vibration. Although the Xn aspect is the real primus motor, there are still people in a Christian Europe who have not come to describe more than irony, which is why they have also been unable to practice the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone.

That sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it? What is “the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone”? That doesn’t even sound like English, does it? I worked for many years as a translator when I lived in Denmark. I also know a little bit about translation theory. If I ever teach translation, or translation theory, which I hope one day to do, I am going to drill home to my students that translations should never sound awkward unless the original is awkward.

As I said, translation can be very difficult. It took me several days to come up with my translation of the passage from Repetition that I referred to in the blog post from 5 December 2015 Since, however, a translation is going to be around for a very long time, haste in seeing it to press is unadvisable. How does that saying go: “Translate in haste, repent in leisure”?

Here is the Danish for the passage in question:

Humoren er den til sin største Vibration gjennemførte Ironie, og omendskjøndt det Χhristelige er den egl. primus motor, saa kan der desuagtet findes i et christeligt Europa Folk, som ikke er kommen til at beskrive mere end Ironien, og derfor hell. ikke have kunnet gjenemføre den absolut-isolerede, personlig-ene-bestaaende Humor, d. 4 Aug. 37.

Here is my translation:

Humor is irony taken to its maximum vibration. Even though Christianity [det Xhristelige] is the genuine primus motor [prime moving force], it is still possible to find peoples in Christian Europe who have come no further than describing irony and who are hence incapable of achieving the absolutely isolated, uniquely personal humor.

My wording of the first sentence is identical to the wording of KJN. After that, the two translations diverge. There is nothing in the Danish that corresponds to KJN’s “aspect.” That’s an attempt on the part of the translator, or translators, to make sense of Kierkegaard’s “det Xhristlige” which translates literally as “the Christian” where “Christian” functions as an adjective. The thing is, there is no noun that it qualifies, so the translator simply added “aspect” without indicating that it was added. That in itself is no great crime (though it is a crime, interpolated material should be enclosed within brackets). The problem is, that it is actually misleading rather than helpful.

All genuine humor, according to Kierkegaard, has its foundation in Christianity. I won’t try to defend that claim here, suffice it to say in this context that it does. Kierkegaard is not talking here about some aspect of humor being Christian. How could some “aspect” of irony or humor be the “prime mover” that propels irony into the territory of humor? The prime mover has to be fundamental to the thing in question, not merely an “aspect” of it.

The “a” in front of “Christian Europe” is literally correct, but it’s unnecessary. What other kind of Europe was there? Danish, like German, uses articles more often than does English so to include them all in a translation is not only unnecessary, it yields a translation that is unidiomatic.

“[D]escribing” is a toughie. The Danish term in question is “beskrive,” a cognate of “describe.” It appears, in this context, to mean “describe” in the sense of “describing an arc.” That is, it appears to mean something like “exhibiting,” or better, “performing.” In fact, I think it means something closer to “understanding,” I was, therefore, tempted to use “understanding” instead of the more literal “describing.” What decided me against that was the fact that an astute reader could figure that out by him, or herself. Generally, a translator should not interpret the text for the reader unless that is the only way of making it comprehensible. There are often instances in which that is the only way to make a text comprehensible, but this did not seem to me to be one of them.

“Folk” unequivocally refers, however, to “a people,” and not to “people.” It’s a stab at the Danish people as a group. They are the “Folk” in “Christian Europe” to which Kierkegaard is snidely referring. If he had meant “people,” he’d have written “mennesker” (or “Mennesker” given that he was writing in the nineteenth century).

The worst problem with this translation, however, is the very last part: “the absolutely isolated humor that subsists in the person alone.” Really? That’s the best this august translation team could come up with? It doesn’t even sound like English. The minimum criterion for an English translation, it seems to me, is that it should sound like English, even if the translator needs to be rather free in the translation in order to achieve that effect. What is bizarre about the KJN version of this passage is that it is not, in fact, as one might expect, a literal translation. The Danish is: “den absolut-isolerede, personlig-ene-bestaaende Humor.” That translates literally as: “the absolutely isolated, uniquely personal humor.” Really, I kid you not. “[P]ersonlig” you can probably figure out for yourself, and “ene-bestaaende” translates as “unique.” Don’t take my word for it. Type it (or the contemporary “enebestaende”) into Google translate.

My guess is that the translators elected to use “subsists in the person alone” rather than the literal “uniquely personal” because Kierkegaard’s text has “personlig-ene-bestaaende” rather than “personlig enebestaaende.” That is, Kierkegaard appears to want to highlight the root words of “enebestaaende”: “ene” (which according to Ferrall-Repp means “alone, by oneself, solely”) and “bestaaende” (which according to Ferrall-Repp means “to consist in; to consist – be composed of; to subsist, exist, continue, endure”).

This shows the limits, however, of translation because while Kierkegaard can emphasize the parts of “enebestaaende” without losing the whole, a translation cannot do this. The translators, in this instance, appear to have elected to emphasize the parts, with the effect that they have lost the whole. Not only have they lost the whole, they’ve diminished what one could call the music of the text in the process. It is the chief sin of the Hongs’ translations, I believe, that they very often lose the music of the originals. Unfortunately, this would appear to be a problem with these new translations of Kierkegaard’s journals as well.

I don’t mean to suggest here that all the text of the new KJN is as bad as this particular passage. It isn’t. It is very disappointing, however, to see stuff like this in new translations when the point of producing new translations is precisely to make improvements on earlier translations.