Something on Johannes de silentio
Adam 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.