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.