More on “the Corsair Affair”

SK beats BerlingskeI promised in an earlier post that I would look more closely what scholars refer to as “the Corsair affair,” which is to say the bullying and harassment of Kierkegaard in the pages of the satirical newspaper Corsaren (the corsair) and the effect it had on him. The illustration above is from the February 11, 1848 issue of Corsaren. I have taken this image from Peter Tudvad’s Kierkegaards København. The text that accompanies it reads:

Corsaren had already promised its readers as 1846 drew to a close, that the paper would not dream of forgetting Kierkegaard, who, with his frequent appearances in the paper that year had helped to increase circulation. The promise was kept. Kierkegaard was flayed more than once by the paper through the use of what was then the entirely novel device of satirical drawings. If Copenhageners forgot how strange Magister Kierkegaard looked, Corsaren once more did them the service of reminding them with a depiction [signalement] on February 11, 1848. The drawing by Peter Klæstrup shows Kierkegaard in the process of attacking Berlingske Tidende because the paper had had the audacity to praise him — a privilege Kierkegaard reserved for only Bishop Mynster.

Corsaren is known today primarily as a satirical paper, or as the Danish scholar Johnny Kondrup observes in an article on Meïr Goldschmidt in Kierkegaard and his Danish Contemporaries, “even a gutter paper.” In fact, however, it was a left-wing political paper. “This was thus the situation when The Corsair was created,” explains Kondrup.

The reading public … had become political and polarized. In the press several conservative, royalist newspapers stood opposite a few liberal organs of opposition, which were distinguished among themselves by their degree of nationalism but were united in their demand for a constitutional monarchy. With The Corsair there arose something new: an organ which was independent of party interests and critical of both the government and the opposition. … Moreover, the paper’s program lay far to the left since it wanted to see the creation of a republic.

Kondrup observes that

[i]n Kierkegaard research it has often been claimed that The Corsair discontinued its persecution of Kierkegaard when Goldschmidt, in October 1846, sold the paper. This is, however, incorrect. First, there were new teasing jabs at Kierkegaard from October 23 and to the end of 1846, although they were few and subdued. Second, the campaign continued in the following years, in the first instance until February 1848, and then very sporadically until the paper ceased publication in March 1855.

“In our perspective,” Kondrup continues however, “the Corsair controversy … concludes with Goldschmidt’s departure from the paper, and this seems to have been Kierkegaard’s perspective as well. He was little exercised by the post-Goldschmidt Corsair and found it harmless” (pp. 112-113).

Kondrup cites as support for this some remarks Kierkegaard wrote as part of the draft of an unpublished article entitled “A Frank Word about Myself as an Author.” Here is the text of the passage in question:

Med den Udbredelsens Proportion, som »Corsaren« nu har, med saadanne Redakteurer, som den nuværende, anseer jeg den for ufarlig, tilmed da der jo nu er saa megen Begivenhed i Danmark. Derimod holder jeg mig fuld forvisset om, | at med den næsten vanvittigt uproportionerede Udbredelse den i sin Tid havde, med et Talent som G. og et saa intriguant Hoved som P. L. M. til Redakteurer var yderst, yderst farlig. Det er min Dom, at der vare Andre, som vare nærmere end jeg forpligtede til at handle under saadanne Omstændigheder: det bliver deres Ansvar, at de taug.

With the circulation [Udbredelsens Proportion] Corsaren now has, with the editors such as those it has now, I consider it harmless [ufarlig], in addition to the fact that there is so much commotion now in Denmark. I am certain, however, that with the exaggerated circulation it had in its time, with a talent such as G[oldschmidt] and a schemer such as P.L.M[øller] as editors, it was extremely, extremely dangerous [farglig]. In my judgment, there were others who had a greater responsibility to take action under such conditions: they are responsible for having remained silent.

The passage is clearly about the potential of Corsaren had in its heyday, to create social and political havoc, not about its pillorying of Kierkegaard or the effect that this pillorying had on him. Kondrup’s interpretation makes no sense when one looks at the passage as a whole. That is, the “danger” to which Kierkegaard refers cannot have been to himself personally, because prior to his public criticism of the paper, neither he nor anyone else had any reason to believe that Corsaren represented any sort of “danger” to Kierkegaard personally.

The “danger” to which Kierkegaard refers was to Danish society. Kierkegaard felt a responsibility to take some kind of action to weaken what he saw as Corsaren’s “dangerous” influence on the public and took this action, because though there were others whose responsibility in this regard he felt was even greater, they failed to act.

Hence when Kierkegaard says he considers the post-Goldschmidt Corsair “harmless,” he means to the general public, not to himself. And indeed, as has been well documented, Kierkegaard continued to complain about Corsaren’s treatment of him from 1846 when it began its attack on him until shortly before his death in 1855.

The kinds of personal attacks made on Kierkegaard by Corsaren amounted to a type of bullying. We typically think of bullying as a problem that is restricted to childhood. Studies increasingly show, however, that the bullying of adults is equally pervasive and can have similarly damaging psychological effects. Most the research on adult bullying has been on what is known as “workplace bullying.” For children, bullying typically occurs in school. For adults, on the other hand, it is typically in the workplace. For an author, whose workplace does not bring him or her into contact with other people, bullying takes place in the media.

“[T]he adult brand of bullying,” explains Stacey Colino in an article in U.S. News, “can include … publicly belittling or humiliating someone, social ostracism or undermining him or her.” Corsaren’s attacks on Kierkegaard did all three things, and not for a few months in 1846, but on and off for years. It publicly belittled and humiliated him. It caused people whom he did not know to openly ridicule him and people he knew to avoid his company. It was clearly designed, as Tudvad explains, to undermine Kierkegaard’s base of support in the less affluent and cultivated contingent of society in that it presented him as arrogant and indifferent to the plight of the common man.

Given Kierkegaard’s frequent positive references to the common man, his penchant for striking up discussions with manual laborers, tradespeople, and servants (a practice not common at the time for a person of his social station), his numerous and keen observations on the plight of the poor, and what Tudvad discovered were his generous contributions both to needy individuals and to charitable causes (see Kierkegaards København, pp. 370-377), it’s likely Corsaren’s campaign to make Kierkegaard appear indifferent to the plight of the poor that is responsible for the fact that this view of him is still widely held. See for example, Peter Gordon’s review of Daphne Hampson’s Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique, as well as Terry Eagleton’s review of Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard had reason to complain about Corsaren’s treatment of him. An appreciation of the extent of Corsaren’s campaign against him makes Kierkegaard appear a lot less self-pitying and a lot more deserving of sympathy.


More on Kierkegaard and Anti-Semitism: The Importance of Historical Context

Once upon a time, before Julia Watkin left Denmark for Tasmania, she and Grethe Kjær used to hold “kaffe aftener” (coffee evenings) for all the foreign, and occasionally also some of the local, Kierkegaard scholars in Copenhagen. The famous Ukranian Kierkegaard scholar, Gregor Malantschuk used to live with Grethe and her husband, so Grethe would sometimes tell stories about Malantschuk, The one that stood out in my mind concerned Malantschuk’s childhood in the Ukraine. I think it had something to do with how badly Ukrainians were treated by Russians. I don’t remember now. What I remember was Grethe’s remark that something like a third of the children Malanschuk had gone to school with had been Russian, a third Ukrainian and a third “Jewish.”

I was immediately taken aback by that remark. “Weren’t the Jewish children also either Ukrainian or Russian?” I asked. Judaism, after all, was a religion, not a place. Of course I knew that Jews had not always been accorded all the privileges of citizenship in the countries where they lived. I didn’t really understand until then, however, how ingrained was the thinking of many Europeans that Jews were a people apart, that they would always be a people apart no matter what the law said.

I don’t mean to suggest that Grethe was anti-Semitic. She never said anything else, in my memory, that would remotely suggest such a thing. I’m sure she was just repeating Malantschuk’s own description of the makeup of students in his classes.  Neither do I mean to suggest that Malantschuk was anti-Semitic. He may have been, of course; I simply don’t know. I’ve never heard that he was though, so I’d like to think he was not.

This brings up an issue, however, that continues to preoccupy Danish journalists: What constitutes anti-Semitism? If speaking about Jews as if they had no nationality, no ethnic heritage, other than a religious one (as if that could make any kind of sense) was acceptable in polite circles during a certain period in history, does that mean it was not anti-Semitic? Does it mean that absolutely everyone always spoke this way, and that no one, not even a Jew, was offended by it? That seems implausible to me. There were opponents of slavery, after all, even when it was still a socially accepted institution. That it was socially acceptable to use racist epithets does not mean that they weren’t racist, or that absolutely everyone used them and that no one was offended by them.

People have been arguing that Kierkegaard’s apparently anti-Semitic remarks have to be placed in their historical context. That’s true, of course. Everything has to be placed in its historical context to be properly understood. Well, here’s a little background from Peter Tudvad’s book on the historical context of Kierkegaard’s remarks. Anti-Semitism, as I observed in an earlier post, was so virulent in Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time that the literary attack on the Jews that began in 1813 was followed by a series of riots and physical attacks on Jews in 1819.  It’s clear, however, that most Danes were not involved in the violence. What is even more encouraging is the fact that it became illegal in August of 1813 to refer to Jews as “Jews.” They were to be referred to in official documents as “adherents of the Mosaic faith.” This suggests, unfortunately, that the literary feud had become so ugly that “Jew” had become a racist epithet. (Here it is perhaps important to note, in relation to my post from 1/7, that racism, as such, far predates Darwin.  Many ancient peoples had, in fact, a pronounced tendency to think that they were the only fully human beings and that other peoples, while they might look human, were not.) The positive aspect of this change in Danish law was that, as Tudvad observes, it sent a clear message to the Danish people where the king stood on the Jewish question. “In the same spirit,” writes Tudvad, “the king gave Jews full civic equality, and thus the same protections under the law as were enjoyed by Christians, on the 29th of March 1814” (pp. 33-34).

That is the context in which Kierkegaard made statements about Jews that were so offensive that, according to Johnny Kondrup, a scholar at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen, the statements were omitted from the English translations of Kierkegaard that were done in the 1970s and ‘80s (“Var Kierkegaard Antisemit? Berlingske Tidende, 26 October 2010. This article is unfortunately not online, but I have a scan of it that I can email anyone who would like to read it).

Yes indeed, Kierkegaard made what would today be considered some pretty offensive anti-Semitic remarks. I’ll confess to you that I am still holding out hope that there is some way of interpreting those remarks that will save Kierkegaard from the charge of anti-Semitism. I’m not certain, however, that placing them in their historical context is going to be enough.