Remembering the Dead
I’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.