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 on 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 to 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.

Remembering the Dead

9d1af61698cd834326cd38729144efaa--mourning-jewelry-opalineI’m on sabbatical now. My plan had been to use this time to finish Fear and Dissembling, the book I have been working on for many years. I’d conceived that plan, however, before my father died, and since his death I’ve found it hard to get back to that project. I’ve actually found it hard to do anything constructive. I need to do something, though, to occupy my time until my powers of concentration have returned, something worthwhile, so I have hit upon a project that I have so far found very therapeutic. I am translating the chapter from Works of Love entitled “The Work of Love of Remembering the Dead.” My plan is to find a publisher for this little book so that it can be available as a comfort to people who have recently lost someone they love. It will be a very slim volume because the chapter is only ten pages or so long, so even with the original Danish text on facing pages, a translator’s introduction, a preface, and very wide margins, it should come in well under a hundred pages.

I think it should have very wide margins because wide margins make for a more attractive page. The volume I am envisioning will be small and thin and beautiful, something that the bereaved can carry around with them, like a breast-pocket New Testament; something they can find comfort in, not merely because of the words, but because of the beauty of the object itself. There is something comforting about beauty. People realize this at an instinctive level. That’s the reason, or at least part of the reason, for mourning jewelry. That’s also part of the reason, I believe, why there is so much work on the relation between aesthetics and religion.

I have pasted the first two pages of my translation below. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I favor what is known in translation theory as “semantic translation,” or translation that endeavors to preserve the sense of the original, or “source,” text but which tends to be freer than “literal” or “faithful” translation (see Peter Newmark, A Textbook of Translation). Hence I have taken a few liberties in the text below. The term “graveyard” (i.e., Kirkegaard) does not appear in the original. Where I have “go out to a graveyard,” in the second paragraph, the text actually reads “gaae ud til de Døde” ––i.e., “go out to the dead.” My husband thought, however, when I gave him the text to read, that this might be a little disorienting to the reader, so he suggested that for at least this first reference to “de Døde,” I substitute “graveyard” for “the dead.” That seemed to me a good suggestion, so I have taken it.

I have also added, at my husband’s suggestion, more paragraph divisions than exist in the original. The entire text below is only two long paragraphs in the original, and that is also, I fear, a little disorienting.

I used both the Swensons’ translation from 1946 and the older Hongs’ translation from 1962 as guides. The Swensons’ translation is, unsurprisingly, generally superior to the Hongs’, but even it is not without problems as I will explain in detail in the eventual “Translator’s Introduction.” For now, the only translation issue I want to draw your attention to, in addition to the aforementioned one, is my choice of “reduced circumstances” for Kierkegaard’s “indskrænke sig.” That, I hope you will agree, is a clear improvement on both the Hongs’ “cut back,” and even the Swensons’ “restrict itself.”

But read the text and judge for yourself.

When, for some reason or other, a person fears he will be unable to maintain a general grasp of something complicated and complex, he tries to make, or to acquire, a brief summarizing concept of the whole –– to help him maintain his grasp. Death, in this way, is the shortest summary of life, or life reduced to its shortest form. That’s why it has always been so important to those who reflect on the meaning of life, frequently to test what they have understood about it by means of this short summary. For no thinker has such a command of life as death has, that powerful thinker, who is able not merely to think through every illusion, but to grasp it in its parts and as a whole, to think it to nothingness.

If then, you become confused when you consider the many and various paths life can take, go out to a graveyard, there “where all paths meet” –– then the grasp becomes easy. If your head swims from constantly observing and hearing about life’s diversities, then go out to the dead; there you have control of the differences; there in “Muldets Frænder,” “the fellowship of mold,” there are no differences, only close kinship. That all human beings are blood relations, that is, of one blood, this consanguinity is often denied in life, but that they are of one mold, are related through mortality, cannot be denied.

Yes, go again out among the dead, so that you can, from there, get a view of life. This is what a sharpshooter does. He seeks a place where the enemy can’t hit him but from which he can hit the enemy, and where he can have the requisite calm for taking aim. Don’t choose the evening for your visit because the stillness of the evening, of an evening spent among the dead, is often not far from a certain exaltation of mood which strains and “fills one with restlessness,” creating new mysteries instead of solving the old ones.

No, go there early in the morning when the sun peeps between the branches, alternating light with shadow, when the beauty and friendliness of the sea, when the singing of the birds and the multitudinous life everywhere almost allows you to forget that you are among the dead. It will seem to you as if you have arrived in a foreign country, a place unfamiliar with the distinctions and confusion of life, a childlike place, consisting entirely of small families. Here is attained what is sought vainly in life: equality. Each family has a little plot of land for itself, of approximately equal size. Each has more or less the same “view.” The sun can easily shine equally over them all; no building rises so high that it cuts off the sun’s rays, or the nourishment of the rain, or the wind’s fresh breezes, or the songs of the birds, from a neighbor. No, here everyone is equal.

It happens sometimes in life that a family that has enjoyed wealth and abundance must accept reduced circumstances, but in death, everyone must accept reduced circumstances. There may be minor differences, perhaps six inches in the size of a plot, or that one family has a tree, which another inhabitant does not, on its plot. Why do you think there are these small differences? It is to remind you, by means of a profound jest, of how great the difference was. How loving death is! For it is certainly loving of death to use these small differences to remind us, through edifying humor, of just how great the difference was. Death does not say “there is absolutely no difference”; it says “you see there how great the difference was: six inches.”

If there were not these small differences, neither would death’s grasp be completely reliable. Life returns, in this way, in death, to childishness. Whether one owned a tree, a flower, a rock, made a great deal of difference in childhood. And the difference hinted at what later in life would appear on a very different scale. Now life is over and this little hint of a difference among the dead remains to soften, through humor, the memory of how things were.

“Disciple” vs. “Follower” in Philosophical Crumbs

imagesI’m teaching an upper-level seminar on Kierkegaard this term. The text for the course is my own translation of Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs (Oxford, 2009). We’re reading Crumbs right now. One of my students, Victoria Godwin, asked what I thought was a very good question about the translation, so I thought I would share my answer with readers of this blog.

The Crumbs, as most readers will remember, looks at what Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus) asserts are two exhaustive and mutually exclusive interpretations of how people are related to the truth. The first interpretation he presents is what he calls the “Socratic” one. According to this interpretation, people are assumed basically to possess the truth, but to have contingently forgotten it. They thus need only to remember the truth, not to have it imparted to them by a teacher. This, of course, is the famous Platonic “doctrine of recollection,” or anamnesis. According to this interpretation, the role of a “teacher” in helping a person to remember the truth is merely what Kierkegaard calls “assisting” (105). The teacher and the student/learner/pupil are essentially equal.

The problem, according to Kierkegaard, is that the Socratic interpretation makes both the point in time at which a person “recollects” the truth and the “teacher” who helps occasion the “recollection” unimportant. This is not, in itself, a problem. The Eleatics, and in fact many people throughout the history of philosophy right up to the present have no problem with this. Even Kierkegaard does not suggest that this interpretation of our relation to the truth is inherently problematic. It’s a problem only for a reader who is already committed to an account of existence that attributes decisive significance to the point in time at which one comes to understand the truth, and requires that this understanding be facilitated by a “teacher” of equally decisive significance. This, of course, is precisely what Christianity does and Kierkegaard’s note at the end of the first chapter of Crumbs makes clear that he assumes his readers would immediately recognize that.

That is, Crumbs is a straightforwardly theological work despite what are obviously the disingenuous protestations of Climacus, the pseudonymous author. Hence the “learner” (Lærende) referred to in Kierkegaard’s explication of the “Socratic” interpretation of the relation of the individual to the truth, becomes the “disciple” (Discipelen) on the “alternative” view. From then on, the discussion concerns the relation between the “the god” and “the disciple.”

So back to my student. Victoria asked why sometimes the person whose relation to the truth was in question was referred to as a “learner” and other times as a “disciple.” The answer, of course, is that those two different characterizations appear in the original text. The reason this might be difficult to appreciate is that Howard Hong’s translation of Philosophiske Smuler (Philosophical Fragments, Princeton, 1985) obscures this fact. David Swenson’s translation of Smuler from 1936 translates Discipelen consistently as “disciple,” but Hong’s translation consistently renders Discipelen as “follower.”

“Follower,” isn’t dead wrong, of course, but it’s misleading to the extent that it obscures the explicitly theological nature of the work. Hong appears to have deliberately desired to do this in that he inserts a footnote to explain his preference for “follower.” “The Danish term Discipel,” writes Hong, “means ‘pupil,’ ‘learner,’ ‘apprentice,’ ‘follower,’ and ‘disciple.’ Here and elsewhere in Fragments (except for references to the relation of teacher and pupil or learner), ‘follower’ is most appropriate” (Philosophical Fragments, p. 281 note 38). Hong gives no justification, however, for his preference for “follower” over the English cognate “disciple.” He just claims “follower” is better.

“Disciple” is, actually the third of the three possible translations listed in the Ferrall-Repp A Danish-English Dictionary from 1845 (Hong would appear to have been relying on a 20th-century Danish-English dictionary). The first two are “pupil” and “scholar.” “Follower” is not listed as an acceptable translation, and the context of the appearance of this term in Crumbs makes it clear that “Disciple” is the most appropriate of the three suggested translations. “Pupil” is too close to Kierkegaard’s “Lærende” (i.e., “learner”) and would thus obscure the distinction he was trying to make with the the two terms “Lærende” and “Discipelen,” and “scholar” is obviously wildly inappropriate. So Hong’s claim that “follower” is a better translation of “Discipelen” than is “Disciple” is just wrong. It is worse because it makes the work less obviously theological than it is. Contemporary Western society has become so secular that that in itself makes it difficult for readers to appreciate how thoroughly religious was all of Kierkegaard’s authorship. The Hong translation of Philosophiske Smuler simply exacerbates this problem.

My guess is that Hong hoped to appeal to a broader audience by making the work less obviously theological. I fear that may amount, however, to throwing the baby out with the bathwater in that it encourages misinterpretations of what is perhaps the most central work in Kierkegaard’s corpus. This takes us into the area of translation theory. Should a translator adapt a work to appeal to a specific audience, or should he or she endeavor to represent the work in a manner that most closely approximates its original character? I’m a proponent of the latter approach. If a translator thinks he can improve on an author’s work, I think he should go write his own book!