More Reviews of Carlisle’s Biography of Kierkegaard

Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 6.37.43 PMA couple more reviews have emerged of Claire Carlisle’s new biography of Kierkegaard Philosopher of the Heart. The first, by Parul Sehgal, appeared in the April 28 edition of New York Times Book Review, and the second by Adam Kirsch, is in this week’s New Yorker.

I’m having the weirdest déjà vu experience. This is uncannily like the time, many years ago when John Updike reviewed Joakim Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard in the New Yorker. I had published some critical articles on Garff’s book before Updike’s review appeared. Updike’s review, unlike the other reviews up to that point, was strangely silent on this issue of the quality of Garff’s book. My guess is that Updike had probably done a little research on the reception of Garff’s book and had learned it was somewhat controversial. Not in a position to judge the facts of the controversy, Updike may well have thought it safest to simply use the book as a point of departure for his own thoughts on the life of Kierkegaard.

Something like that appears to have been the case with these most recent reviews of Carlisle’s biography. Neither actually says very much about the book. Despite this, however, Sehgal’s review is fairly negative. She writes, for example, that

The narrative slips in and out of a breathless present-tense voice with flourishes of soppy characterization: “Writing became the fabric of Kierkegaard’s existence, the most vibrant love of his life — for all his other loves flowed into it, and it swelled like the ocean that crashed restlessly against his native land.” At times Carlisle succumbs to outright fiction.

Kirsch’s review is more positive. The reader has to take it with a grain of salt, however, because it would appear, as will become clear below, that Kirsch hasn’t actually read the book.

Neither of the reviews mentions the errors in it that I pointed out in my own review for the TLS. The problem, I suspect, is the same as Updike’s. That is, my guess is that both Sehgal and Kirsch are aware that Carlisle’s book was the subject of some controversy, but since they are not themselves Kierkegaard scholars, they can’t really take a position on it.

I have to hand it to the TLS, who published my negative review of Carlisle’s book. I’m still annoyed with them for their refusal to let me to respond to George Pattison’s tendentious letter to the editor defending Carlisle, as well as for their failure to disclose to readers that Pattison’s defense of the book was not disinterested (the book’s dedicated to him). Still, the TLS actively sought out someone who was competent to review a biography of Kierkegaard, and even more to their credit, published the review, though it reflected unfavorably on Carlisle, who was one of their regular reviewers. That sort of editorial conscientiousness appears rare these days.

Kierkegaard liked to disparage book reviewers. That always seemed ungenerous to me, given that his own books tended to be favorably reviewed. One of the accusations he made against reviewers was that they didn’t always read the books they reviewed. That, as I mentioned above, would appear to have been the case with Kirsch.

It’s a good idea, if one is going to review a book one hasn’t actually read, to stick to the kinds of vague and general statements that cannot be proven to be false. You know, stuff like that the book is “creative,” or “compelling,” or “an interesting read,” etc.

Unfortunately, Kirsch chose to ignore this time-honored practice of hack reviewers and went right out on a limb too conspicuously cracked to bear his weight. Kierkegaard had ceased his “feverish productivity” toward the end of his life, Kirsch claims in his review. “[I]n his last years,” Kirsch continues, “Kierkegaard truly earned the pseudonym under which he had published Fear and Trembling,” Johannes de Silentio—John of the [sic] Silence.”

But of course Carlisle never said anything of the sort, nor did anyone else who actually knows anything about Kierkegaard’s life because its not merely demonstrably, but spectacularly false.

Kierkegaard never ceased writing. He did not publish any new books between 1852 and 1855, but he continued to write in his journals. More importantly, he ended his life with the same “feverish productivity” with which his career had begun.

Kierkegaard launched his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) attack on the Danish Lutheran Church just before he died. The attack consisted of a number of newspaper articles that actually first started appearing in 1854, and a series of ten pamphlets entitled The Instant (Oieblikket) published in 1855, the year he died.

These late works, and Kierkegaard’s journal entries relating to them, take up more than 600 pages in Volume XXIII of Kierkegaard’s Writings: The Moment and Late Writings. So it is hardly accurate to describe Kierkegaard’s exit from this life as “silent.” In fact he went out screaming bloody murder at institutionalized Christianity.

The existing biographies of Kierkegaard are so problematic that I’ve decided, finally, that I am going to try my hand at writing one myself. It shouldn’t be too difficult given how low the bar has been set by the more recent contributions to this genre.

I may even have an agent lined up. I’ve twice contacted an agent in relation to another project and each time he responded that he wasn’t interested in the project about which I’d approached him, but that he would be interested in a biography of Kierkegaard. The first time he said this, I responded that I was not a biographer and suggested that Peter Tudvad wold be a more appropriate choice for such a project.

Nothing ever came of that, however, and since it is now apparent that one doesn’t have to be a biographer to write a biography of Kierkegaard, and since it is equally apparent that few people know very much about Kierkegaard’s life, I figure I should take a stab at it. It seems the only way we are likely to get a relatively accurate book-length portrait of the man in the near future.

TLS “Kierkegaard Kerfluffle” Continued

The debate in the “Letters” section of the TLS concerning my review of Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart didn’t stop with my reply to Carlisle’s letter (for this exchange see the previous blog post). Two more letters defending Carlisle, both from U.K. theologians, and riddled with fallacies, appeared in the next issue. The first was from George Pattison and the second from Christopher Insole.

The TLS refused to allow me to respond to these letters, despite the fact that Pattison’s letter misrepresents my criticisms of the book and hence leaves TLS readers with a mistaken impression of the substance of my review. The TLS also declined to print any other letters in support of my review, such as this one by Mark Gaige, which I have included here with his permission.

Finally, the TLS declined to inform readers that Pattison was not a disinterested scholar. Carlisle’s book is actually dedicated to him. That means he more than likely read at least some of it, if not all of it, when it was in draft form. Pattison thus has an interest in deflecting attention from the book’s weaknesses, weaknesses that readers aware of his connection to it would naturally wonder how he could have failed to spot.

Pattison begins his letter with what is effectively a claim that anyone can say anything they want about Kierkegaard with impunity. That is, he says “it is often hard to identify the genuine authorial voice behind the sequence of masks.” The same, he continues, “is true of the man. Everything is eminently interpretable.” Unfortunately, for Pattison, that isn’t true. We have literally thousands of pages of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers that make clear in many, if not all, instances what he was trying to do in his various published works. We also have wealth of information concerning the facts of Kierkegaard’s life. So it is possible to establish many of those facts with relative certainty.

Pattison deftly avoids both these issues in his first paragraph. He gets into conspicuous trouble in the next paragraph, however, when he contradicts his own claim that “everything” about Kierkegaard “is eminently interpretable.” That is, he claims in the second paragraph that Kierkegaard’s ambivalence about Christianity is indisputable. So anything goes in interpretations of Kierkegaard — anything except that Kierkegaard was not ambivalent about Christianity.

Unfortunately, not only is Pattison contradicting himself when he says that Kierkegaard’s purported ambivalence about Christianity is indisputable, what he presents as evidence for this ambivalence supports not that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity, but that he was ambivalent about Christendom. Pattison observes, for example, that Kierkegaard “was extremely hesitant in going public with his attack on Christendom.” That’s true, but it’s unclear how that’s supposed to support a claim that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity. What it supports, actually, as anyone familiar with Kierkegaard’s own musings on this issue in his journals will attest, was that he was ambivalent about whether Christendom was completely irredeemable, as well as about whether a direct attack on it would have the proper effect.

Kierkegaard’s criticisms of Christendom go all the way back to the beginning of his authorship and that makes sense given the individualistic, pietist tradition from which his father came and to which he still maintained connections even during later life. These criticisms were always motivated by a deep and unwavering commitment to Christianity. What he could not make up his mind about was just exactly how bad Christendom was, not whether Christianity was true.

Pattison next presents as evidence for Kierkegaard’s purported ambivalence about Christianity the fact that he came increasingly to associate Christianity with suffering. Pattison, a theologian, and hence one can assume familiar with the historical association of the imitation of Christ with suffering, sees Kierkegaard’s views on this as evidence that he was ambivalent about Christianity. “This identification of love and suffering” Pattison observes,

comes to a climax in the very last journal entry that he wrote in which he figures God as obsessed with finding a person who, brought to an extreme condition of suffering, is able to believe both that God is the direct cause of this suffering and that God does it out of love.

“If this is not ambivalence,” asserts Pattison, “I am not sure what is.”

Sadly, it would appear Pattison does not know what ambivalence is because the passage he paraphrases continues

Et saadant Msk. bliver saa en Engel. Og i Himlen, der kan han sagtens lovprise Gud; men Læretiden, Skoletiden er jo ogsaa altid den strengeste Tid.

Such a person becomes an angel. And in heaven he will certainly be able to praise God. The period of instruction, however, of schooling, that is always the most difficult time.

That is, Kierkegaard does not see this suffering as an indictment of God, or of Christianity. Kierkegaard’s association of Christianity with suffering is simply an observation about Christianity, an observation that is, again, not unique in the Christian tradition.

Pattison’s paraphrase of this passage from Kierkegaard’s journals is misleading. The entry, from 25 September 1855, actually begins:

Dette Livs Bestemmelse er: at bringes til den høieste Grad af Livslede

            Den, der saa, bragt til dette Punkt, kan fastholde, eller Den, hvem Gud hjælper til at kunne fastholde, at det er Gud, der af Kjerlighed har bragt ham til dette Punkt: han tager, christeligt, Livets Prøve, er modnet for Evigheden.

The [Christian] determination of this life is: to be brought to the greatest extreme of suffering.

            A person who is brought to this point, [and yet] is able to maintain, or a person who with God’s assistance, is able to maintain, that it is God, who out of love has brought him to this point: he takes life’s test, Christianly understood, [and] is ripe for eternity.

This association of Christianity with suffering may be disturbing to contemporary readers, but it is as old as Christianity itself. Kierkegaard is not citing it as an indictment of Christianity. The emphasis Kierkegaard increasingly placed on what he saw as the relation between Christianity and suffering was likely his attempt to make sense of his own suffering in what he believed was service to Christianity.

In fact, Kierkegaard suffered much more than had previously been thought because the “public humiliation” Carlisle describes him as suffering at the hands of the satirical newspaper The Corsair was not confined, as she claims, to 1846, but began in 1846 and continued, as Peter Tudvad revealed in his book Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen), on and off from 1846 until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855.

Kierkegaard’s first book-length publication, From the Papers of One Still Living, appeared in 1838. Many scholars consider, however, that his literary career really began in 1843 with the publication of Either-Or. Either way, Kierkegaard was subjected to deliberate public humiliation for the majority of his professional life. That isn’t an insignificant fact about him. It’s enormously important. As the years passed, and his suffering increased, his view of Christianity, to which he remained unwaveringly committed, became understandably darker.

Pattison next takes me to task for criticizing Carlisle for inventing thoughts she attributes to Kierkegaard without qualifying them as speculations. “[I]t is quite clear to any sensitive reader,” asserts Pattison, that Carlisle is not claiming to have direct and demonstrable insight into the undocumented workings of Kierkegaard’s mind.” Carlisle uses “these acknowledged fictionalized episodes,” he continues, “to conjure forth a sense of Kierkegaard as a living ‘restless’ human being.”

If Carlise has “acknowledged” the thoughts she attributes to Kierkegaard as “fictionalized,” why must the reader be “sensitive” in order to appreciate that Carlisle is “not claiming to have direct and demonstrable insight into the undocumented workings of Kierkegaard’s mind”? The answer, of course, is that Carlisle has not acknowledged the thoughts she attributes to Kierkegaard are fictionalized. Pattison just made that up, made it up, apparently, without even realizing, that he is once again contradicting himself in saying both that that the reader has to be sensitive to appreciate that the thoughts Carlisle attributes to Kierkegaard are fictionalized and that she “acknowledges” that these thoughts are fictionalized.

“If a biography is intended to bring us closer to the life of its subject,” continues Pattison, then imagination is sometimes as effective a tool as an assemblage of facts. In missing the element of imagination, Piety is in this case, missing the whole.”

But that’s a straw man argument, designed, again to deflect attention from my real criticisms of the book. I never said Carlisle should not have speculated about what Kierkegaard might have been thinking or feeling at a particular point in his life. I said she should have qualified her speculations as such. Without such a qualification, readers might well think that these purported “workings of Kierkegaard’s mind” had actually been documented. That was my first thought, anyway, when I read Carlisle’s account of Kierkegaard’s thoughts on his journey home from Berlin in 1843. I assumed that Kierkegaard had written down what he’d been thinking on that trip in his journal and that that was how she’d known about it.

It was actually my effort to find the source of that material that initiated my investigation into the book’s haphazard documentation. I was fascinated to think that I might discover something new from Kierkegaard’s journals that I had clearly missed on my many earlier readings of them. But when I checked the reference I discovered that while it was to one of the volumes of the new edition of Kierkegaard’s journals and notebooks and hence gave the impression that it was to something Kierkegaard had written, it wasn’t actually to anything Kierkegaard had written, but merely to a note by the editors explaining the various conveyances Kierkegaard had used on his trip.

Pattison closes, finally, with another straw man argument. I had mentioned in the letter I wrote in response to Carlisle’s that in fact, more criticisms could be advanced against the book than I had done in the review. “How is it possible,” I observed, “to write a biography of Kierkegaard after the revelations of Peter Tudvad’s Stadier på antisemitismens vej (stages on the way of antisemitism) without saying anything about Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism?”

Instead of answering that question, Pattison launches into a sadly ineffectual defense of Kierkegaard against the charge that he was anti-semitic. The defense is ineffectual in that it boils down, basically, to the claim that Kierkegaard was not more antisemitic “than other early to mid-nineteenth-century theological writers” which is faint praise if ever there was any. It amounts, in fact, to the conspicuously fallacious:

All nineteenth-century theological writers were antisemitic.

Kierkegaard was a nineteenth century theological writer.

_____________________________________

Therefore, Kierkegaard was not antisemitic.

This unfortunate effort to rescue Kierkegaard from the charge that he was antisemitic is beside the point, however, because I didn’t fault Carlisle for failing to address the issue of Kierkegaard’s purported antisemitism. I faulted her for failing to look at Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism.

I’d like to think Kierkegaard was not antisemitic, but he says some truly offensive things about Jews and Judaism and why he does this, and does it with increasing frequency and ferocity toward the end of his life, given that his own father was arguably philosemitic, ought to be addressed in any biography that purports to “conjure forth a sense of Kierkegaard as living ‘restless’ human being, thinking, feeling, and reacting to experiences and events in ways that other human beings do.” What was it about Kierkegaard’s experiences that led him to have such negative views of Jews and Judaism, views that were unquestionably more negative than those of many “other human beings,” if not all other human beings, of his day?

“It is not even obvious,” concludes Pattison, “that this was a main theme in his work at all.” I agree. What Pattison has done here is present yet another straw man argument because I never said this was a main theme in Kierkegaard’s work, but simply that it was an issue that any biographer of Kierkegaard ought to address.

Pattison clearly put his letter together in haste. It is self contradictory, riddled with straw man arguments, casts doubt on his grasp of the history of Christianity, as well as on his understanding of the term “ambivalent,” and contains a conspicuously fallacious argument that is offensive not only to reason but to morals.

Write in haste, repent at leisure.

Pattison’s, as I mentioned, was not the only defense of Carlisle’s biography to appear in that issue’s “Letters” section. Christopher Insole stepped up as well. I’ll look at his much shorter, and more humorous, defense in another post.

 

 

 

 

 

The Biblical Foundations of Kierkegaard’s Monarchism

There’s been much discussion recently of Kierkegaard’s political views. There was even a panel on this subject at the most recent annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. The panel was organized to honor the work of the late Robert L. Perkins, a giant in Kierkegaard scholarship and an early proponent of the view that Kierkegaard’s thought has positive social implications. I was honored to be a part of this panel. My paper was entitled “Kierkegaard’s Apocryphal Politics: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff.” The other participants were John Davenport, whose paper was entitled “The Crowd and Populism: Was Kierkegaard Correct that All Politics is Profane?,” C. Stephen Evans, whose paper was entitled “Kierkegaard on Putting the Modern State in its Place,” George Pattison, whose paper was entitled “Stepping Forward in Character — But onto what Stage? Arendtian on Kierkegaardian Anti-politics,” and Lee Barrett, whose paper was entitled “Can Love Be Political?” There was also a respondent, Christopher Nelson, who did a wonderful job of bringing all the papers together in his response. The papers were excellent and the discussion afterward was enormously stimulating. It was one of the best sessions I have ever been a part of. You don’t have to take my word for that, though, Mercer University Press, for whom Bob Perkins worked for many years as the editor of the International Kierkegaard Commentary series is publishing a volume of the papers.

The occasion of this post is not simply to advertise that volume, but to develop one of the points I made in the paper that will appear there in more detail than I made in the paper itself. It is well known that Kierkegaard was a monarchist. “Government [by] royal power is representative,” he writes in a journal entry from 1847, “and to this extent Christian (monarchy)[.] The dialectic of monarchy is world-historically both well-established and unchanging.”

This is an odd assertion for a thinker who insists on a sharp distinction between what he calls “worldliness” and Christianity. It seems likely that it is an allusion to Romans 13:1-7 where Paul asserts that “[e]veryone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (New Living Translation). That is, Paul appears to be saying that a monarch represents God, however imperfectly, in his or her role of governing a people in that the authority a monarch has over his or her people is analogous to the authority God has over all people.

The qualification “however imperfectly” is important, however, because there is no reason to suppose that Paul thought all “governing authorities” were equally good. The meaning of Romans 13:1-7 is more likely, as David Papineau has argued, that any government is better than no government in that it is a force for order, order without which human flourishing is impossible.

“Even a bad state,” observes Papineau,

is much better than none at all. When the hated regimes of Eastern Europe and South Africa collapsed at the end of the last century, their populations had the good sense to carry on recognizing the existing police, courts, and other state institutions until new constitutional arrangements could be made. By contrast, the misguided disbanding of the defeated Iraqi army and police by the US authorities in 2003 created a vacuum for mob rule, and is viewed by many commentators as the main source of the subsequent chaos in the Middle East. (David Papineau, Knowing the Score [Basic Books, 2017] 58.)

Paul reputedly twice escaped imprisonment, torture, and possibly even death by asserting his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:35-40 and Acts 22:24-29). That is, it was the authority of Roman law that enabled him, in those instances, to escape incarceration and hence to continue his ministry. If these accounts are true, they explain, at least in part, why Paul would have had the view of temporal authority that he did and, I believe, by extension why Kierkegaard would have held a similar view.

The view that temporal authority has a divine source commits neither Paul nor Kierkegaard to the view that all temporal authorities are equally good. But the positive role that almost any authority has in establishing the order necessary for human flourishing makes the respect for authority that each of them had make at least a certain amount of sense.