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.

Bruce Kirmmse’s Shame

Bruce Kirmmse was a key player in the controversy over Joakim Garff’s book SAK (Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography). Kirmmse did the English translation, which inexplicably included many of the errors that Peter Tudvad had already exposed in the original and indeed appeared calculated to cover up some of the apparent plagiarism in the original.  (See previous blog post, as well as, “Rot in the Ivory Tower.”)

Kirmmse also played attack dog, authoring some articles defending the book in the Danish media.  One of them was a scurrilous, defamatory hit piece against me, “M.G. Piety’s Shame,” published in the September 23-29, 2005 Weekendavisen.  I don’t use those labels lightly; when I saw the article, I consulted with a well-known defamation attorney in Philadelphia, who concluded that the article was defamatory. I didn’t pursue litigation because of a lack of funds (the lawyer didn’t want to take the case on a contingency fee, because he didn’t foresee big damages).

The article has never appeared in English.  I present it below.

I’ve decided to republish the piece here because Kirmmse was recently selected as the keynote speaker at the Seventh International Kierkegaard Conference, sponsored by the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf’s College this coming June. I believe Kirmmse’s scurrilous role in the controversy over Garff’s book makes him unfit to be honored in this way.

Two preliminary points: (1) An astonishing aspect of Kirmmse’s piece is that Kirmmse never reveals anywhere in it that I entered the controversy as a result of the fact that the errors and plagiarisms Tudvad had exposed in the Danish edition of Garff’s book appeared uncorrected in his English translation that was published a year later.  Instead, he accuses me of ”resurrecting” Tudvad’s attack, as if out of thin air and out of spite.  That’s deliberately misleading. I knew about the controversy from the beginning but chose to write about it only after it became relevant to people who were forced to rely on Kirmmse’s translation.

(2) Kirmmse also never revealed in the piece his own self-interest. Not only did he do the translation of SAK, he was being considered to head up the new translation of Kierkegaard’s journals, a project that had been conceived by Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, one of Garff’s staunchest defenders, and over which he, Cappelørn, had control in that he could restrict access to the new Danish editions of the journals on which the translation would be based.  Many Weekendavisen readers were likely deceived into thinking that Kirmmse was a disinterested American scholar commenting on the controversy.  Instead, Kirmmse was most likely seeking to deflect attention from Tudvad’s well-documented criticisms of Garff’s book – that is, to deceive and deflect attention from his own complicity and duplicity in his translation of SAK. (See the details in “Rot in the Ivory Tower”) as well as to curry favor with Cappelørn, who had come under heavy criticism for his own role in the SAK controversy.

I realize that I could be accused of not being disinterested in how I’ve translated Kirmmse’s article. So I asked Kirmmse via an email dated 8/22/2012 for the English version of his piece (he didn’t write the article in Danish originally – it was translated by someone else for Weekendavisen).  Kirmmse never replied to my email.  So I emailed him again on 8/29/2012. This time I sent him my version and asked if he had any issues as to its accuracy. Again, he failed to reply. So on September 4, I tried to call him. The only number I had for him was the general number for the History Department at Connecticut College, where he is now emeritus.  The secretary there said she didn’t have a number for him, not even his home number.  She informed me that because he traveled a lot, email was the best way to contact him and reassured me that the email address I had for him was correct and that he was good about responding to email.   Apparently, he doesn’t want to respond.  In any event, I’m confident that I’ve translated this piece accurately.  

M.G. Piety’s Shame

by Bruce Kirmmse

Peter Tudvad expresses surprise, in an article entitled, “SAK Redux” that I, despite my generally positive review of his Kierkegaards København (Books, 2 September 2005) have also been critical of his work. I won’t repeat my review here, but merely point out that anyone who read my article in this paper as well as my longer review in Kierkegaardina 23 (Copenhagen, 2004), will quickly see that in both cases I expressed both genuine praise and serious criticism.

My praise concerns Tudvad’s industry and rigor with respect to uncovering some concrete details that were unknown to earlier scholars. My criticisms were directed at his methodology. His belief in 19th century positivism causes him to believe that one can “discover” the historical truth, and that this exists eternally uninfluenced by “interpretation.” As an historical scholar, I find Tudvad’s methodological assumptions untenable and unsuited to both historical scholarship in general as well as to its sub discipline of biography in particular. Tudvad’s unreflective positivism has, to put it bluntly, caused him to make a category mistake, with the result that he misunderstands the character of biography and it was on the basis of this misconception of the work of biographical authors that he initiated his attack on Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard.

A result of this category mistake was that Tudvad was not entirely clear about what he was doing when he initiated his attack on Garff’s biography. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about Marilyn Piety, who decided over the course of the summer to resurrect Tudvad’s year-old attack. Piety knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s an assistant professor of philosophy at a technically oriented educational institution in Philadelphia, has a good knowledge of Danish and had published some articles on Kierkegaard. Her real specialty, however, is the writing of polemical exposés of what she believes is “nepotism” and “corruption” in the academic world, in particular in connection with Danish universities.

It’s clear from her article in The Philosophers’ Magazine (nr. 31, 2005) as well as from her subsequent pieces in the Danish press and her contributions to the public debate on the internet, that she doesn’t have anything new to say. It’s clear that when she ventures out on thin moral ice with, for example, her repetition of Tudvad’s claim of academic misconduct or plagiarism, she attempts to protect herself by asserting that the accusation of academic misconduct “was not my accusation,” that she is “only repeating” Tudvad’s accusations. This morally questionable mode of attack makes it possible for her to do damage while at the same time distancing herself from it. It is worth noting that she earlier conducted herself in precisely the same manner.

In the beginning of the 1990s, when Marilyn Piety lived in Copenhagen and was working on her dissertation at the University of Copenhagen, the rector of the university, the neurologist Kjeld Møllgård, was accused of scientific misconduct in connection with a twenty-year old study. The charge was taken seriously and brought before the Board of Ethics (etisk råd) the body that has jurisdiction over such cases in the Danish academic world. They transferred the case to the Committee on Scientific Misconduct [Udvalget Vedrørende Videnskabelig Uredelighed] who thoroughly investigated it and concluded that all charges against Møllgård proved “groundless.”

Even though Piety lived in Copenhagen in 1994 and thus must have been aware of all the facts surrounding the case–i.e., both the charges against Møllgård and the fact that Denmark’s highest authority for academic ethics had found all the charges “groundless”–she nevertheless publicized them in a full-page article in 1997 (15 August 1997) entitled “Nordic nadir for nepotism” in the Times Higher Education Supplement. She mentioned the charges against Møllgård to support her own charge of pervasive corruption in the Danish academic world, but failed to mention that he had earlier been cleared of all charges. She formulated, in fact, her presentation of the case in such a way that the reader got the impression that the question of Møllgård’s guilt was still an open one. Piety’s behavior in this case was so extreme that the Committee on Scientific Misconduct wrote to the  Times and demanded they print a retraction which was then printed in the paper on the 17th of October 1997.

So far as anyone knows, Piety has never herself issued a retraction or made any public apology for having spread false accusations of scientific misconduct on the part of Rector Møllgård, even though she knew he had been cleared of these charges three years earlier. And even though the charges of academic misconduct that have been advanced against Garff have never reached the stage of a formal investigation (there was no reason for such an investigation), two prominent Danish academics, Thomas Bredsdorff and the director of the Center for Søren Kierkegaard Research, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, investigated Garff’s work in the ligt of Tudvad’s charges and declared publicly that the charges were groundless.

Garff has, in addition, publicly reacted to some of Tudvad’s criticisms, refuted some and promised to take others into account, particularly those concerning concrete historical facts, when the book appears in a new edition. Piety must have known about Garff’s public reaction (both his disagreement with elements of Tudvad’s critique and his willingness to correct some of the errors in a new edition of the work), and she undoubtedly was aware of Professor Bredsdorff’s and Centerleader Cappelørn’s public refutation of Tudvad’s complaint [of academic misconduct]–just as she knew when she wrote her article in 1997 that Møllgård had been cleared of all charges in 1994.

But just as she failed to issue either a public retraction or an apology for her backstabbing of Møllgård in 1997, so is it unlikely that she will do so in connection with her backstabbing of Garff in 2005. As she puts it herself “they are not my accusations,” “I’m merely restating” what others have said. This is a clear pattern in Piety’s behavior. Her method of backstabbing others through insinuation is morally condemnable and should not be taken seriously. Has she no shame at all?

After having unapologetically smeared Møllgård eight years ago by simply “repeating” charges made against him by others, she is now attempting to do the same thing to Garff in an effort to support her claim that there is “something rotten in Denmark” especially in the Danish academic world. Danes have long been sensitive to these words of Shakespeare’s and this is perhaps the reason that the Danish media were willing to publicize Piety’s views without checking her sources. The best way to react to such behavior is perhaps to answer with another quotation from Shakespeare: “Oh shame, where is thy blush” [Hamlet, III iv].

Some additional points:

–At the end of his article, Kirmmse argues that the entire Danish media somehow failed to spot my alleged errors. They didn’t spot them, I submit, because there weren’t any as the Danish media well knew because they had been covering the controversy over the biography for approximately a year by the time my first piece on it appeared.

–Kirmmse never disputes the correctness of any of the points I made in the material I published on Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard. It’s curious as well, that he attempted to discredit my efforts to inform readers of the problems with the English translation of the  book by charging that my points were not “new.” As I explained above, I decided to “resurrect Tudvad’s year-old attack” when the English translation of Garff’s book came out a year after the original Danish edition and I discovered that the problems Tudvad had identified in that edition were in the English edition as well. Kirmmse’s charge that my claims were not “new” was simply an attempt to deflect attention from that fact by invoking a well-known and widely discredited rhetorical technique frequently invoked by the public relations industry and discussed, for example, in Rampton and Stauber’s excellent Trust Us, We’re Experts (pp. 68-69). It is never an indictment of a claim, or argument, to point out that it is not “new.” Many excellent arguments (e.g., those in favor of freedom of expression and equal protection under the law) are not new, but they are excellent arguments nonetheless and bear repeating despite their lack of novelty.

–Kirmmse criticizes me for my pointing out that the charges against Garff’s book were Tudvad’s, not mine. It would have been inaccurate, however, if I had said they were mine. In fact, it would have been plagiarism if I’d repeated Tudvad’s points in print claiming that they were my own. Far from being “morally questionable,” as Kirmmse charges, my identification of the points as having come from Tudvad was morally obligatory. Tudvad was the one who deserved credit for identifying the problems with Garff’s book and I endeavored to be conscientious in making that clear.

–Kirmmse is correct when he claims that I never issued “either a public retraction or an apology” for my purported “backstabbing” of Møllgård in my 1997 article. The Times pressured me repeatedly to do this, but I stood my ground. I wasn’t mistaken in my presentation of the Møllgård case and I wasn’t sorry I had presented it.

–As for checking facts, neither Kirmmse nor Weekendavisen can have checked the facts in the Møllgård case, because if they had, they’d have discovered that the charges of scientific misconduct had been brought against Møllgård, not twenty years after the fact as Kirmmse suggests, but while Møllgård was working as a post doc at the University of California at Berkeley. The investigation had been inconclusive.

–Yes, the Danish Committee on Scientific Misconduct “cleared” Møllgård of all charges relating to the case. I didn’t know about this, however, because it was not widely publicized. Had it been, someone might well have pointed out that a Danish committee did not have the authority to clear someone of charges that had been brought by a U.S. committee.

–It’s unlikely Kirmmse even read my article “Nordic nadir for nepotism.” If he’d had he’d have seen that it was not an attack on Møllgård. Møllgård receives only passing mention in the piece. The subject of the article was, as the title indicates, nepotism in higher education in Denmark, and the point of the mention of Møllgård was that it would be difficult for him to do anything about this problem because an unresolved case of purported scientific misconduct in his past would make him vulnerable to blackmail. In fact, the reason I was aware of the case, which was twenty years old, as Kirmmse rightly pointed out, by the time it made the Danish newspapers, is that someone had apparently dredged it up in an effort to sabotage Møllgård’s candidacy for the position of rector of Copenhagen University. Hence my speculation that the scientific misconduct case would make it difficult for Møllgård to take a hard line on corruption within the university, was well supported.

–Compare the tone of my article “Nordic nadir for nepotism” to the tone of Kirmmse’s “M.G. Piety’s Shame” and ask yourselves which article is more properly described as a piece of character assassination. Kirmmse so misrepresented the content of my article that either he condemned me for writing an article that he had not in fact read and in this way violated academic and scholarly ethics, or he had read the article but deliberately misrepresented its content and in this way violated pretty much every code of ethics.

So anyway, there you have it. Not Kirmmse’s most distinguished work, but perhaps more relevant than some of his other pieces to the issue of whether he’s an appropriate keynote speaker for an international conference on the centennial of Kierkegaard’s birth. It’s a shame the library didn’t pick someone more appropriate, someone such Edward Mooney, the current president of the Søren Kierkegaard Society, or Robert Perkins or Sylvia Walsh Perkins, both of whom have devoted their lives to Kierkegaard scholarship and produced outstanding work, or C. Stephen Evans who’s work on Kierkegaard is unsurpassed, or Alastair Hannay whose Kierkegaard translations for Penguin are some of the best that have ever been done, or, finally, Peter Tudvad, who in a very Kierkegaardian way, has endured a great deal of personal abuse and repeated ad hominem attacks in the service of the truth.