Erasmus Montanus

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Scene from a production of Erasmus Montanus by Bagsværd Amatørescene, Photographer: Flemming Mortensen

There are two places in Kierkegaard’s published and unpublished works where he refers to the earth being “as flat as a pancake.” The first is in his review of H.C. Andersen’s failed attempt at a novel, Kun en Spillemand, that was published under the title of From the Papers of One Still Living, and the second is in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Crumbs

The second reference will no doubt be familiar to Kierkegaard scholars. It is in that passage where Kierkegaard, or Johannes Climacus, the pseudonym under which Kierkegaard published the Postscript, illustrates his claim that the mere utterance of an objective truth is not in itself evidence that the person who utters it is sane. “Let me recount an incident,” he begins, “that without any kind of adaptation from my side, comes straight from an insane asylum.” He then tells the story of a man who escapes from this asylum and on his way into town, finds a little skittle ball lying on the ground. He absent-mindedly picks up the ball and puts it in the tail pocket of his coat. As he walks, the ball gently hits him, explains Climacus, on his “a – “ and presumably, the fact of it’s being a ball, reminds him every time it strikes him that the earth is round. Since he knows that everyone agrees that the earth is round, he decides that the best way to convince people that he is sane is to go about saying continually ”the earth is round!”

“And indeed is not the earth round?” ask Climacus. “Does the asylum crave yet another sacrifice for this opinion as when everyone believed it to be as flat as a pancake?” (Hannay, 164). This reference to the earth being “flat as a pancake” is clearly an allusion to Ludvig Holberg’s play Erasmus Montanus. I cannot remember how I learned this. I could have sworn it was in an explanatory note in either one of the English translations of the Postscript or in the text as it appears in the new Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter. But I have searched in vain for such a note, though SKS does acknowledge that the first appearance of this phrase in Kierkegaard’s works, the one in From the Papers of One Still Living is an allusion to the Holberg play.

Since there are at least two references to this play in Kierkegaard’s works, I felt that I should read it. I didn’t own a copy, however, so I did a google search, in the hope that I could find a copy online. I did. Not only did I find a copy, but I found a download able copy in English translation!

The play is hilarious. The Danes like to claim Holberg as one of their own, but in fact, he was Norwegian. The thing is, Denmark ruled Norway back then, so Norwegians were viewed, more or less, as Danes, particularly if they distinguished themselves the way Holberg did. I’m telling you this because the play is clearly set in Norway, in that it concerns a people in a little mountain village and, well, there are no mountains in Denmark. Back in the 18th century, when the play is set, residents of Norway who wanted a university education typically attended the University of Copenhagen. So Rasmus Berg, the eldest son of a prosperous farmer does just that.

I don’t know if all the instruction was in Latin back then, but at least some of it was. Students were typically taught to argue in Latin and showy Latin disputations were part and parcel of university life. Rasmus Berg returns to his little mountain village as Erasmus Montanus, determined to impress everyone with his new learning. Unfortunately for him, the local deacon succeeds in convincing the poor townsfolk, none of whom know a word of Latin, that he is beating the pants off Berg, or Montanus, in Latin disputation even though the Latin he purports to be speaking is nothing but gibberish, bits and pieces of Latin grammar, and other odd words and phrases that he strings together to form nonsensical sentences that he utters with such passionate conviction that everyone feels sorry for poor Berg, or Montanus, for being shown up that way in public.

That isn’t the worst of it, though. The townsfolk are so scandalized when Berg, or Montanus, informs them that the earth is round, that his future father-in-law withdraws his permission for Berg to marry his daughter. Berg, or Montanus, is forced, finally, to recant his statement that the earth is round in order to win the hand of his ladylove.

Interesting, eh? Not only was Kierkegaard understandably taken with the play, the whole thing is kind of a metaphor for his life. There are lines in it about how the earth must be flat because everyone but Montanus thinks it is, and that truth is in numbers. There is the general backwardness of the mountain people that mirrors what Kierkegaard thought of as the backwardness, or philistinism, of the people in the little market town of Copenhagen. And then there is the fact that Montanus had to surrender his calling as an intellectual, to betray his learning, to betray what he knew to be true, in order to enjoy the pleasures of domestic life. This, as we all know, was a sacrifice Kierkegaard could not himself make.

I have come to believe that there are likely many more allusions to this particular play in Kierkegaard’s authorship than have yet been recognized as such. If you can find one yourself, please send it along. Perhaps we can write a collective paper on the influence this play on Kierkegaard’s works, and if there are enough of us, then everyone will have to admit that our claims are correct –– right?

(Hannay, who is generally an excellent translator of Kierkegaard, has inexplicably rendered the Danish Keglekugle as “skittle bowl” instead of “skittle ball.” Perhaps this is some kind of Anglicism with which I am unfamiliar. The object in question is indisputably a skittle ball, however, as both earlier English translations of the Postscript indicate, no matter what people in the UK call it.)