Summer at “The Farm”

Nigerian Kierkegaard scholar Benneth Anozie, American Kierkegaard scholar Vincent A. McCarthy, and Brian J. Foley, Esq.

Bucks County has got to be one of the most beautiful places in PA, if not in the entire U.S. It has long attracted artists and was the home of the famous Bucks County impressionists. I am very fortunate to have a friend, David Leopold, who owns a large property in Bucks County that was once the home of Bucks County impressionist Ben Solowey. David, who is the archivist for both Al Hirschfeld and David Levine, as well as a freelance curator, is also the director of the Studio of Ben Solowey, a small museum and art gallery that was once Solowey’s studio. I house sit for David for several weeks every summer.

I was house sitting this summer when I received an email from Vincent A. McCarthy. McCarthy had met a Nigerian scholar, Benneth Anozie at a conference at St. Olaf College. Anozie, he explained, was eager to meet me because he was working on a dissertation on Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Would I be around to get together with Anozie, asked McCarthy? When I explained that I was not actually in Philly, but at a farm in Bucks County, McCarthy said that would not be a problem, that he and Anozie could drive up there. I was surprised at first by McCarthy’s willingness to undertake such a long drive for a short meeting. Little did I know that McCarthy is a man of extraordinarily refined tastes. He also has a property in Bucks County. “I need to mow my lawn anyway,” he explained. So I told him to come on up and we would make a day of it.

My husband, Brian, and I gave Benneth and Vincent a champagne tour of the then current exhibition Homage: Ben Solowey’s Art Inspired by his Influences. It was a wonderful visit that included a sumptuous meal with more wine. We didn’t talk too much about Kierkegaard. I did get a few minutes, however, to talk to Anozie about Kierkegaard’s epistemology and we are now connected through Linkedin. I was also very fortunate in that Vincent brought me a copy of his new book Kierkegaard as Psychologist (Northwestern, 2015). I’ve only just started it so I can’t say very much about it yet. I can say, however, that the introduction is one of the best short introductions to Kierkegaard that I have ever read. The book, explains McCarthy

is intended to highlight the incredibly rich and deep psychological dimensions of Kierkegaard’s thought, to offer an appreciation and assessment of it, and to serve somewhat as an introduction and commentary on Kierkegaard’s psychology for general readers with an interest in, but not necessarily in possession of detailed knowledge of Kierkegaard’s corpus and Kierkegaard scholarship as such.

That said, a brief survey of the table of contents, combined with an appreciation of the depth of McCarthy’s understanding of Kierkegaard as exhibited in the introduction suggests that the book will be of enormous help to dedicated Kierkegaard scholars as well. There’s a bizarre lacuna in Kierkegaard scholarship concerning Kierkegaard’s psychology. There’s Kresten Nordentoft’s eponymous book from 1972, Steve Evans’ excellent Søren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology: Insight for Counseling and Pastoral Care from 1990, and the essays collected in Kierkegaard’s Truth: The Disclosure of the Self, vol. 5 of a series entitled Psychiatry and the Humanities, from 1981, but that’s not very much given how important human psychology was among Kierkegaard’s interests and how profound are his insights into that psychology.

Kierkegaard’s authorship, asserts McCarthy at the end of the introduction,

stresses what he holds to be a timeless prescription as it engages in a profound analysis of forms of alienation and dis-ease with oneself. The “patients” he selects are modeled on nineteenth-century types, but he quickly penetrates beneath the nineteenth-century surface to reveal souls whose restlessness and discontent Augustine in the fourth century and we in the twenty-first have little trouble recognizing. And it is because of his penetration to a problem that transcends but is not unconnected with any particular age and society that Kierkegaard can seem very modern indeed, that he can sometimes seem a contemporary of Freud and Maslow and not just Brahms and Liszt.

I could not have said it better myself. I can’t wait to read more of this book. I’ll present more thoughts on it in later posts.

McCarthy and Anozie with a self-portrait of Solowey behind Anozie

On Repetition



I’m doing another independent study on Kierkegaard. We’re reading Repetition. My student was having trouble understanding Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition and so he asked me if there were anything about the Danish term that would help him to make more sense of it. It had not occurred to me that knowing something about the Danish might make the concept clearer. I’m so used to thinking about Kierkegaard in Danish, that I forget, sometimes, just how difficult it can be to understand him in translation. In fact, knowing the Danish term for “repetition,” and its meaning can be a significant help, I believe, in understanding Kierkegaard’s concept of it.

The Danish term for “repetition” is gentagelsen (or Gjentagelsen in 19th-century Danish). It’s a compound expression made by combining at tage (“to take”) with the prefix gen, that itself comes from the adverb igen (which means “again”). So gentagelse literally means “to take again.” And that, in a nutshell is what, I would argue, it means for Kierkegaard. The book Repetition is essentially about temporality, about how time flows unceasingly onward, wresting from us every precious moment of our existence like an irresistible tidal force that consigns them immediately to the unrecoverable ocean of the past. It is about how time, unchecked, in a sense deprives us of our lives. We swim furiously toward the future in an effort to save ourselves. But the effort exhausts us, so that we are finally swallowed up by the waves.

That’s a pretty bleak perspective on human existence, I know. The point of Repetition, however, is to make clear that this is not our inevitable fate. The point is that we must learn to check the flow of time, to stop it. Repetition is a movement forward, but it is not one of flight. “Repetition and recollection,” explains Constantine Constantius, “are the same movement, just in opposite directions, because what is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards (p. 3 Kindle Edition).

How does one “recollect” something “forwards” – by making it present again. I often use the example of my obsession with fountain pens to try to make this concept clear to my students. I have a lot of fountain pens, mostly vintage ones that I buy on eBay. I go through periods where I buy a lot of pens. The problem is that the more time I spend searching for vintage pens, the less time I spend using, and hence appreciating, the pens I have. I have had to learn this over and over again.

I have some truly wonderful pens. The prize of my collection is a Pelikan 100, made sometime between 1934-38. It is just gorgeous, in almost mint condition, and writes like a dream. And yet, I have begun to lust after the new Pelikan M101N red that is a reproduction of the old 100N. I have to keep reminding myself that I would not like it so much as I think, that I don’t like any new thing so much as I like genuine vintage things. I have to force myself to get off eBay and go pull out my actual vintage 100 pen. When I do that, each time I do that, I am delighted anew by what a wonderful piece of engineering my old 100 is, what a beautiful object. Each time I write with it, I am charmed anew by the thought of its past. I wonder if perhaps it belonged to some Jewish scholar, or to a member of a resistance group such as Uncle Emile, the one to which the journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich belonged. Sometimes I think perhaps it might have belonged to a Nazi, and then I think I am redeeming it now when I use it write pieces such as the one I wrote on the concept of collective guilt.

When I make myself return to my old Pelikan, all the joy I took it in when I first got it comes back to me. The thing is, I have to force myself to do that sometimes, to go back to my old pen rather than spend my time searching for a new one. That’s a strange phenomenon when you think about it. I know from experience, from repeated experience, how wonderful my pen is and how much pleasure I will take in it if I can only make myself use it rather than search for a new one.

It is a strange fact of human psychology that we seem always in pursuit of the new and the novel, at the mercy of time, of constant flux, unable to learn, or to benefit, from experience, unable to harness it for the purposes of our own self-actualization, or as Jung would put it, “individuation.” I think it’s that aspect of human psychology that’s the focus of Repetition, the subtitle of which is “An Essay in Experimental Psychology.” Constantine Constantius tries an experiment to see if this enslavement is an essential fact of human psychology or if it is possible to liberate oneself from it. I am not going to answer that question for you. You will have to read the book and decide for yourself whether Constantius’s experiment was successful.

No issue could be more important to Kierkegaard than the one that preoccupies Constantius. Our apparent enslavement to the flow of time keeps us from becoming who we are, or perhaps, more accurately from being who we are. We are supposed to be not simply to have been and to become. We have being, however, only in the present and to have the present, we must, in effect stop the flow of time. That’s an act of will, a refusal to let the uniqueness of our experience slip away into the unrecoverable past. Hence the active voice of repetition, to “take” again.

There is more to the concept of repetition than that. Strangely, Kierkegaard does not seem to use the expression much after 1843. I would argue, however, that the concept remains central to his authorship. The “rebirth” of the individual in the “moment” that is spoken of in Philosophical Crumbs is a repetition, of sorts, of one’s original birth and all the promise it implied. The effort to live Christianly, to imitate Christ, involves a constant renewal of faith, a constant renewal of the effort to bring one’s faith to concrete expression. These renewals are, of course, repetitions.

It would be nice to see more scholarly work done on this rich and yet relatively neglected concept in Kierkegaard’s thought. If no one else does it, then perhaps I will do it myself.