The Lily of the Field and the Snake in the Grass

Arts and Letters is a great website that publishes blurbs about interesting articles that are available online and posts links to those articles at the end of the blurb. I have made it the homepage of my browser so that I can stay up to date concerning what is being published in the humanities. I haven’t been keeping up with it recently, however, because I’ve had so much work to do. I’m home sick today, though, and when I opened my browser to get to Blackboard (the online learning platform Drexel uses) to email my students that I was cancelling class, I was surprised to see a blurb about an article on Kierkegaard.

As it turns out, the article is a review in the Times Literary Supplement of two new books on Kierkegaard, and a new translation of some of his religious discourses. The books are Mark Bernier’s The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard (Oxford, 2015) and Sheridan Hough’s Kierkegaard’s Dancing Tax Collector (Oxford, 2015). The translation is of the discourses published under the title The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air (Princeton, 2016). It isn’t a particularly good review. The titles of the books are intriguing, but there is little indication of their content in the review. In fact, the “review” is basically a very short summary of Kierkegaard’s life and works that isn’t always even correct. Will Rees, the author of the review, identifies Either-Or as Kierkegaard’s “first book.” Either-Or was preceded, however, by first Af en endu Levendes Papirer (From the Papers of One Still Living) (1838), and Om Begrebet Ironi (On the Concept of Irony) (1841).

As a child, observes Rees,

Kierkegaard was sensitive, sulky, ironical and precocious. In other words, he had precisely that youthful temperament which, while not a sufficient condition, is nonetheless a necessary condition for the later burgeoning of genius.

Really, I’m not kidding you. He actually says that. He says that all geniuses are necessarily “sensitive, sulky, ironical, and precocious” as children. It may well be that such traits are more pervasive among people who later prove to be “geniuses” (whatever it is, exactly, that that means). It strains credulity, however, to assert without qualification that all geniuses have such traits as children.

Rees also repeats the trope that Kierkegaard renounced the joys of “earthly life” in order to pursue his vocation as an author. Kierkegaard does occasionally speak this way himself. It is clear, however, that what Kierkegaard actually renounced was the not the joys of “earthly” life, but of a conventional life. That is, he renounced the joys of marriage and a family for those of a literary life. Kierkegaard was no ascetic. He ate well and dressed well. He relied on the services of a personal secretary and lived in relative luxury. In fact, he occasionally justified the expenditures associated with this lifestyle as necessary to sustain his creative productivity.

Rees explains that Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth is subjectivity” is often misunderstood, yet his own explanation of the meaning of this assertion is confusing. It doesn’t mean, he explains, that “something becomes true by virtue of my saying or believing it to be true.” What it means, he continues, is that “beliefs acquire truth only in relation to the individual’s lived orientation toward them.” What’s the difference? Isn’t my believing something to be true more or less equivalent to my having a “lived orientation” toward it? I suppose that depends, at least in part, on what one means by “belief” and “lived orientation.” What is missing from Rees’ explanation is the very thing the omission of which has led to the pervasive erroneous understanding of this statement. Only what Kierkegaard refers to as “subjective truth” requires an individual’s lived orientation toward it. There’s a whole host of objective truths, according to Kierkegaard, as I explain in my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology, that require no such orientation.

The strangest part of Rees’ review, however, is that it fails to indicate the translator of the one translation included in the books being reviewed. Rees mentions the translation is “new,” but not who did it. This is a clear departure from the normal editorial practice of the TLS (see, for example, “They do the war in different voices,” “Storm and stress,” and “Orphaned solemnity,” September 30, 2016). That omission was less puzzling to me after I looked up the book on PUP’s website. The translator is none other than Bruce H. Kirmmse.

Princeton’s website describes Kirmmse as “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars.” If Kirmmse is “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators,” it’s odd that a review of a translation by him would fail to mention that he was the translator. Could it be that the TLS actually wanted to avoid calling attention to the identity of the translator? Readers of this blog are likely aware that there would be a good reason for this. Kirmmse effectively bought the title of “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” with the currency of his ethics.

Kirmmse didn’t become “one of the world’s leading Kierkegaard translators and scholars” until after he translated a controversial Danish biography of Kierkegaard into English. As I explained in an article in Counterpunch back in 2005, there is reason to believe that Kirmmse deliberately tried to obscure that the author of that biography had plagiarized some of the book from earlier biographies. If he didn’t do this, then the anomalies described in the Counterpunch piece in Kirmmse’s translation suggest he’s not a particularly good translator.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography. Let’s assume he just isn’t all that good a translator. Being a mediocre translator isn’t a crime. But even if we assume Kirmmse didn’t try to cover up the plagiarism in the biography, he’s still guilty of failing to support the scholar who exposed the plagiarisms in the Danish media.

Of course failing to act in a way one ought to have done is not so bad as actually doing something one ought not to do. Unfortunately, Kirmmse is guilty of the latter as well as the former crime. He defamed me in an article entitled “M.G. Pietys skam” (M.G. Piety’s shame) in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen, when I discovered that the plagiarized passages remained in his English translation of the Kierkegaard biography Kirmmse had translated and began to write about this. The article is a straightforward piece of character assassination designed to divert the attention of Danish readers from the issue of the problems with the biography and the promise of the author to fix those problems before the work was translated. The piece appeared only in Danish, for reasons that will be apparent to anyone who reads my English translation of the article in an earlier post to this blog entitled “Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame.”

I don’t know whether Princeton knew of the controversy surrounding the book in Denmark when they agreed to publish an English translation of it. They should have, of course, but that doesn’t mean they did. They had learned of the problems with the book, however, by 2006 because Peter Dougherty, the head of PUP sent me a letter in which he explained that the then forthcoming paperback included “some 58 pages of corrections.” That’s a lot of “corrections.” You will search in vain, however, for any indication that the paperback is actually a new, or “corrected,” edition.

So there you have it. There’s good reason why the TLS might prefer that the name of the translator not be mentioned in the review of the translation. Perhaps Kirmmse ought to take a leaf from Kierkegaard’s book and start using a pseudonym.

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.)