Ibsen (and Kierkegaard) at Temple

Henrik ibsen
Henrik ibsen

One of the nice things about living in Philadelphia is the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium. The consortium is made up of the philosophy departments of local colleges and universities (including The University of Delaware). The member institutions share information about events of interest to philosophers. Given the number of institutions in the consortium, there’s nearly always something good going on.

On Friday, May 2, I attended a symposium at Temple. Sponsored by Temple’s Department of Philosophy, the Center for Ibsen Studies of the University of Oslo, and The Center for the Humanities at Temple, the two-day symposium was entitled “Staging Skepticism: Ibsen and the Drama of Modernity.” Kristin Boyce and Susan Feagin presented papers on Thursday morning entitled, respectively, “The Method of Doubt and the Willing Suspension of (Dis)belief in Little Eyolf” and “Are Play Scripts Literature?” Frode Helland and Kristin Gjesdal presented papers in the afternoon entitled “The Use and Abuse of Truth: Skeptics and Skepticism in Ibsen,” and “Doubting the Past: Tragedy, Tradition, and Modernism in Ibsen’s Ghosts.”

Unfortunately, I was not able to make the event on Thursday. Fortunately, I was able to make it on Friday and was treated to two very stimulating presentations. The first, by the dashing and handsome Leonardo Lisi, was entitled “Ibsen and the Metaphysics of Doubt,” and the second, by the lovely and sophisticated Toril Moi, was entitled “Hedda’s Silences: Reading, Philosophy, Theater.”

It’s easy for those of us in the fields of philosophy and theology delude ourselves that we have a monopoly on scholarly work on Kierkegaard. This symposium demonstrated clearly, however, that Kierkegaard is of great interest to people in the field of literary theory. I don’t know to what extent Kierkegaard’s thought figured into the presentations the first day, but references to Kierkegaard were much in evidence on day two.

Lisi, whose first book was entitled Marginal Modernity: The The Aesthetics of Dependency from Kierkegaard to Joyce (Fordham, 2012) is hard at work on two new book projects, both of which involve Kierkegaard.

There was a stimulating discussion after Moi’s paper. It ranged far and wide, but the part that I thought would be of particular interest to readers of this blog concerned a problem of translation. Danish has two words that can be translated as “silent”: “stille” and “tavs.” The former is used to refer both to nature and to people. That is, one speaks in Danish of a wood (i.e., forest) being “stille,” just as one could in English refer to it as “still.” But “stille” can also be used to describe people. The expression “ti stille” means “be quiet,” or “be still,” as we also often say in English.

Tavs,” on the other hand is never used to refer to nature alone. There is, as Moi explained, an “element of agency” to it. People, not nature, are “tavs.” The Ferrall-Repp dictionary defines “tavs” as “silent, hushed, discreet,” and the expression “ubrødelig taushed” as “inviolable secrecy.”

This is important because during the discussion after Moi’s paper, one of the participants in the seminar pointed out that while Moi had referred repeatedly in her paper to Hedda’s “silences” in Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler, Hedda is not really silent at all but speaks throughout, and at least occasionally on precisely the topics on which Moi had described her as “silent.” Moi conceded the point but then explained that although Hedda speaks throughout the play, her speech fails to reveal important truths that are relevant to the plot.

To my mind, Moi didn’t need to concede anything to her critic. Hedda is “silent” in the sense in which we often use the expression in English. That is, she is not forthcoming with information that is important to the circumstances of the play. The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following as the second definition of “silent”: “Omitting mention of or reference to, passing over or disregarding, something in narration; containing no account or record.” “Unmentioned, unrecorded; marked by the absence of any record” is also given as a definition.

Another point that may interest readers of this blog. One of the participants mentioned to me during the break between Lisi’s and Moi’s papers that she was curious concerning whether Ibsen’s plays would have been performed in Norwegian in Norway. Many people don’t realize, I suspect, that though Ibsen was Norwegian, he wrote in Danish. Even fewer people realize, however, that all Norwegians at that time wrote in Danish. Danish was simply the written language of Norway. That’s why modern Norwegian (in contrast to “new Norwegian”) is known in Norway as “bokmål.” Modern Norwegian, which is effectively Danish with a few spelling changes, is the language of books (bøker). There were a few spelling differences even in Ibsen’s day, but so few that one could get all the way through a book from that period without realizing that it was actually Norwegian and not Danish. (New Norwegian, or nynorsk, is an attempt to reconstruct a common Norwegian language from the many dialects that were spoken in Norway before the Danes took over there in the sixteenth century.)

So yes, Ibsen wrote in Danish, but that’s basically the same thing as saying he wrote. Even today Danes and Norwegians rarely bother to try to speak one another’s language. Modern Norwegian, though it sounds very different from Danish, is more like a dialect of Danish than a different language.

Finally, I may have said this before, but it bears repeating. One of the benefits of learning Danish is that when you get very good at it, you’ll be able to read Norwegian. I keep forgetting that. I had such a good time at the symposium, though, that I’ve decided to read some Ibsen!

You Read Norwegian Too!: On the Danish Language

A reader wrote in response to the post from Feb. 2, where I quoted the Norwegian paper Morgenbladet. “You read Norwegian as well as Danish!” Unfortunately, I had to explain that I was not quite the polyglot I might appear to be. Modern Norwegian, or Bokmål as it is known in Norway, is essentially koine Danish. The Danes ruled Norway for something like 400 hundred years. With the Danes came the Danish language, eventually supplanting, at least in the more urban areas, the various indigenous dialects. “Bokmål” translates literally as “book language/tongue. “Mål,” I was informed by Ebba Mørkeberg, a member of the Danish Modersmåls-Selskabet (Society of the Mother Tongue), is an old Danish word for “tongue”  (though strangely, this is not among the definitions of “mål/Maal” in the otherwise comprehensive online edition of the Ordbog Over Det Danske Sprog [Dictionary of the Danish Language]. I had to go to the first edition of Molbech’s Danish-English dictionary from 1833 to find it.

Bokmål, is simply regularized Danish with a few spelling changes (e.g., the Danish b often appears in Norwegian as p and the Danish d as t, etc.), in contrast to Nynorsk, which is essentially a reconstruction of the older indigenous Norwegian dialects. Bokmål is easy for anyone fluent in Danish. The pronunciation of Danish words is as strange and irregular as is the pronunciation of English words. Bokmål is different though. It’s Danish pronounced the way it looks like it ought to be pronounced. That means, if you know Danish, you will be able to read Norwegian, and even understand it spoken with very little difficulty.

Of course you may fear that you will never master Danish and that the point is thus moot. I’m here to tell you otherwise. The problem with learning Danish does not relate to its inherent difficulty but to the fact that, outside Denmark, it’s hard to find competent instruction in Danish. Danish, while it looks like German, is actually much simpler and can be mastered much more quickly.

One of the biggest problems in Kierkegaard scholarship is how few scholars have even an elementary knowledge of Danish. One doesn’t have to be fluent in Danish. Enormous use can be made even of only rudimentary knowledge, so long as the scholar in question remains conscious of the fact that his knowledge is only rudimentary. Take the subject, for example, of Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Danish, like German, has several words for knowledge: “viden,” “kendskab,” and “erkendelsen” (I’m using the modern spellings here) are the main ones, but there are several other expressions, as I explain in the introduction to Ways of Knowing, that are also sometimes translated as “knowledge.” You don’t have to be able to read an entire passage in Danish to identify which of these words is being used and then to look up its meaning. It can make a great deal of difference in a philosophical sense, which word Kierkegaard uses, so even a little knowledge of Danish can get you on your way to doing some very good scholarship.

The first thing you should know if you would like to learn Danish is that the Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College offers a course every summer specifically designed to teach Danish to Kierkegaard scholars. The second thing is that if you can’t make it to Northfield, Rosetta Stone has a Danish language program. I have no first-hand experience with the program. I have used two different computer programs for German, though, and found them both really outstanding. Most top-of-the-line computer language instruction programs have all the bells and whistles of a standard university-level foreign language course, including the equivalent of a language lab where you can record and play back your own speech. If you can’t find an ordinary Danish class in your area, try a computer course. Finally, don’t rule out Norwegian. You won’t learn to speak Danish, but you’ll learn to read it.