New Book on Kierkegaard and Judaism!

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Some months ago I was contacted by a Swiss scholar, Joanna Nowotny, who wished to thank me for the work I do on this blog. She’d made extensive use of it, she explained, when doing the research for her book, »Kierkegaard ist ein Jude!« Jüdische Kierkegaard-Lektüren in Literatur und Philosophie (“Kierkegaard is a Jew!” readings of Kierkegaard in Jewish literature and philosophy) (Wallstein Verlag, 2018). At some point, when I have the time to construct a “Testimonials” page for this blog, I’ll post her lovely email to it. In the meantime, however, I procured a copy of the book and have begun reading it.

I was intrigued, of course, because most of the recent discussions of Kierkegaard and Judaism with which I am familiar have been connected with Peter Tudvad’s groundbreaking Stadier på antisemitismens vej, Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne (Stages on the way of anti-Semitism, Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) (Rosinante, 2010) which reveals that Kierkegaard had some truly reprehensible attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, particularly toward the end of his life. That doesn’t mean, however, that Kierkegaard has nothing positive to contribute to the Jewish intellectual tradition. George Connell argues, in fact, in his excellent Kierkegaard and the Paradox of Religious Pluralism (Eerdmans, 2016) that “[i]ronically, in [Kierkegaard’s] final years, just when his rhetoric is most negative about Jews, just when he most offensively asserts the utter opposition of Judaism and Christianity, the substance of his thought represents a reaffirmation of Christianity’s fundamental and positive relation to Judaism” (p. 66).

I’ve only just started Nowotny’s book and I haven’t gotten very far yet, so I will hold off making any substantive comments on it until later, after I have finished it. In the meantime, I have taken the liberty of translating the copy from the back cover of the book. This will give you a little taste of what the book is about.

This large-scale study by Joanna Nowotny examines the traces left by Kierkegaard’s writing and thinking in the theoretical discourse and literary culture of Jewish Modernism.

“Kierkegaard is a Jew!” Gershom Scholem noted enthusiastically in his diary in 1915. “Nowhere” is the “core of Jewish sensibility [Weltgefühl] … so experientially formulated,” as in Kierkegaard, writes Max Brod a few years later in “Heidentum — Christentum — Judentum” (Paganism, Christianity, Judaism) (in Der Jude 1, 16-20). Such interpretations of the “Christian author” Kierkegaard are remarkable. They raise the question of how Kierkegaard’s œuvre, which was enormously popular in German-speaking Europe after 1900, offered possibilities for a Jewish interpretation and appropriation in particular. How is Kierkegaard’s thinking in this context made theologically, politically, and literarily fruitful, by poets and thinkers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig and Franz Kafka? Which aspects of his work play a special role? What attitudes [Gestus] underlie the various Kierkegaard appropriations and which functions do they fulfill in the context of discourses on Jewish identity? Joanna Nowotny addresses these questions in her study and shows the traces Kierkegaard’s writing and thinking have left on authors such as Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Franz Werfel, and Franz Kafka.

Looks interesting, eh!

Kierkegaard’s Conservatism

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Advertisement for the Danish movie “A Royal Affair”

Much has been made of Kierkegaard’s political conservatism. Daphne Hampson asserts, for example, that “Kierkegaard held that it was for the king to govern; that was his calling. Thus in many ways politically and socially conservative, Kierkegaard was by sentiment adamantly opposed to what he sarcastically referred to as government by the numerical; democracy” (Kierkegaard Exposition and Critique, 209).

Adorno is even more critical. He claims Kierkegaard stubbornly maintains the “givenness” of the social order, that he is “socially conformist” and thus ready to lend a hand to “oppression and misanthropy. … Sometimes Kierkegaard’s way of speaking of the equality of men before God,” Adorno asserts, “assumes the character of involuntary irony,” as when he observes in Works of Love that “‘The times are gone when only the powerful and noble ones were men and the other people slaves and serfs’ [Works of Love, 74]. The irony cannot escape Kierkegaard’s attention,” Adorno continues, “He uses it as a medium of his religious paradox” (“On Kierkegaard’s Doctrine of Love“).

People who know a little Danish history will realize, however, that it is unlikely Kierkegaard considered that remark in the least ironical. This point was driven home to me with particular force recently when I watched the Danish movie A Royal Affair. The movie is about the love affair between Caroline Mathilde, queen consort of the Danish King Christian VII, and Johann Friedrich Struensee, the personal physician to the mentally-ill monarch. Struensee was a German Enlightenment thinker who managed, though his influence with the royal pair to institute a number of progressive political reforms. The movie is fantastic, as nearly all Danish movies are, in my experience. I cannot recommend it too highly, both for its intrinsic qualities and for the insight it can give scholars into the historical context into which Kierkegaard was born.

“From 1770 to 1772, Struensee was de facto regent of the country, and introduced progressive reforms signed into law by Christian VII. Struensee was deposed by a coup in 1772 after which the country was ruled by Christian’s stepmother, Juliane Marie of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, his half-brother Frederick and the Danish politician Ove Høegh-Guldberg.” (Wikipedia). Most of Struensee’s progressive reforms were repealed after the coup, but many were reinstated by his son Frederik VI.

Frederik VI was a very progressive monarch. He went even further than reinstituting the progressive reforms for which Struensee had been responsible: He freed the serfs in 1788! Since Kierkegaard’s own father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard (1756-1838) had been a serf, Kierkegaard’s reference in Works of Love to the fact that the times were gone when only the powerful and noble were men and the other people slaves and serfs must have had special poignancy for him. Had it not been for the progressive views of Frederik VI, Kierkegaard might have been a serf as well and begun and ended his days on the same desolate Jutland heath where his father had herded sheep as a boy.

Frederik VI was the first Danish monarch to select a motto in Danish rather than the traditional Latin. His motto was “Gud og den retfærdige sag” (God and the just cause ). Kierkegaard followed suit by requesting permission to submit his dissertation in Danish rather than the Latin that was required at the time.

Frederik VI ruled Denmark for the first 26 years of Kierkegaard’s life. Given that Kierkegaard lived to be only 42, that means Frederik VI ruled Denmark for most of Kierkegaard’s life. Unfortunately, Frederik became more conservative after the French defeat in the Napoleonic Wars in 1814 and the loss of Norway by Denmark. Still, the Danish society in which Kierkegaard grew up was marked by the reforms of his early years, most notably, again, the abolition of serfdom.

There is no denying that Kierkegaard was politically conservative. That does not mean, however, as it has so often been taken to mean, that he was indifferent to the material conditions of those less fortunate than himself. As I observed in my last post, Peter Tudvad has already shown in his book Kierkegaards København, that Kierkegaard was far from indifferent to the plight of the poor and the needy. Kierkegaard’s undeniable political conservatism was not a symptom of indifference to the situation of such people. It was more an expression of cynicism concerning the ability of what he called “the crowd” to govern themselves humanely. In any case, his conservatism seems less reprehensible when understood in historical context.

Kierkegaard as Cult Figure

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Kierkegaard attacks Berlingske Tidende

Prudence Crowther, a senior editor at the New York Review of Books, saw my blog post on the hitherto unknown caricatures of Kierkegaard in which I mention that there had apparently been an auction of Kierkegaard’s personal effects after his death. Crowther wanted to know the source for that information, as well as for my assertion that Kierkegaard “had become a kind of cult figure at the time of his death.” The NYRB is publishing a review of the British theologian Daphne Hampson’s book on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique (Oxford, 2013) and they were thinking of using the caricature that accompanied that blog post to illustrate the review.

It is fairly well known among Kierkegaard scholars that Kierkegaard had become something of a cult figure by the time of his death. Hansine Andræ, the wife of C.G. Andræ, a mathematician and liberal Danish politician observed in her diary that Kierkegaard had a “large readership” and that his attack on the church at the end of his life “aroused a great sensation” (Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark [Indiana, 1990] p. 483). Many, though not all, prominent Danish intellectuals reacted badly to Kierkegaard’s attack on the church, but there was a great deal of sympathy with it on the part of common people.

Copenhagen is, and was even more so in Kierkegaard’s day, a small town with an even smaller community of intellectuals. Nearly everyone who did not actually know Kierkegaard personally, knew of him, if for no other reason, because he was so often caricatured in popular periodicals such as Corsaren and Folkets Nisse. As I mentioned in the blog post that had drawn Ms. Crowther’s attention, “[o]ne of the most important discoveries Peter Tudvad made when working on his book, Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004), was that the attacks on Kierkegaard in the satirical newspaper The Corsair, were not confined to 1846, as scholars had assumed, but actually spanned the period from 1846 until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855.” The caricature above was published in The Corsair in 1848. It depicts Kierkegaard beating up on the newspaper Berlingske Tidende for its having the audacity to praise him when this, according to Tudvad’s caption to the drawing as it appears in his book, was a privilege Kierkegaard granted only to Bishop Mynster.

Kierkegaard also enjoyed a certain popularity with the common people because of his edifying writings, his pietist leanings, and his skewering in his writings of important Danish cultural figures. So Kierkegaard was known either personally, or by reputation by nearly everyone. This was likely the reason for the crowd at his burial, as well as for what Flemming Chr. Nielsen refers to as the “scandal” (Nielsen, p. 7) and what I have heard other scholars refer to as the “riot” caused by Kierkegaard’s nephew, the physician Henrik Lund, when he made a speech during Kierkegaard’s burial protesting that Kierkegaard had not wanted a church burial. It wasn’t actually a riot, according to Tudvad’s description at the end of his Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004 [pp. 483-484). Rioting is a little extreme for Danes. The muted applause with which Lund’s speech was met by some in the crowd is about as close to rioting as the Danes get.

So it seems relatively safe to say that Kierkegaard had become something of a cult figure in Denmark by the time of his death. I realized, however, after I received Ms. Crowther’s email, that I had no source for my observation that there was apparently an auction of Kierkegaard’s personal effects, no source, that is, other than the caption of the drawing. It says, literally, “Scene at the Auction of Søren Kierkegaard.” Well, okay, “efter” doesn’t usually mean “of.” It usually means “after.” Still, the meaning of the caption is pretty unambiguous. Realizing, however, that I had no other evidence to substantiate the claim that there had been an auction of Kierkegaard’s personal effects, I wrote to Peter Tudvad, to see if he could enlighten me on this point. Scholars have long known that Kierkegaard’s books were auctioned off after his death, though they know as well that Kierkegaard began divesting himself of certain of his books before he died, so the facsimile of the auction catalog that one can purchase from the Royal Library in Copenhagen is not the final word on whether Kierkegaard ever owned a particular book. Until I saw the caricature of two women fighting over one of his shirts, however, I had not heard anything about his personal effects being auctioned as well.

They were. Tudvad sent me a link to the book Alt Blev Godt Betalt: Auktionen over Søren Kierkegaard’s indbo (Everything was Paid For: The Auction of Kierkegaard’s Personal Effects) by Flemming Chr. Nielsen (Holkenfeldt, 2000) an annotated version of the auction catalog of Kierkegaard’s personal effects from which I quoted above. My curiosity was piqued, however, so I didn’t want to wait for the book to arrive from Denmark. As luck would have it, the library over at the University of Pennsylvania had a copy.

Kierkegaard apparently had little of real value, just the sort of comfortable furnishing anyone in a similar situation would have (although he had lots of curtains, apparently because, he worried about the effect of bright light on his eyes [Pap. X3 A 144]). He had a few other peculiarities such what his personal secretary, Israel Levin, described as an “unbelievable number of walking sticks” (Nielsen, p. 30) and 30 bottles of wine (quite a cellar for a small apartment such as the one in which he was living when he died).

There was nothing really out of the ordinary among Kierkegaard’s personal effects, yet the sale netted more than twice the amount it had been estimated it would, and that lends further support to the view that Kierkegaard had become something of a cult figure in Denmark by the time of his death.

Nielsen made an interesting discovery when doing the research for his book on the auction. It concerns a framed print that it appears Kierkegaard’s older brother, Niels Andreas, must have sent to him from the U.S. where he’d emigrated in 1832. Nielsen actually wrote a whole book on Niels Andreas Kierkegaard, Ind i verdens vrimmel: Søren Kierkegaards ukendte bror (In the tumult of the world: Søren Kierkegaard’s unknown brother). I’ve never read that book, but now I am curious about it, so I ordered a copy from abebooks.com. I’ll do a post about the book, and about the print Niels Andreas apparently sent to Kierkegaard, after I have had a chance to read it. If you are interested in reading it yourself, abebooks still has one more copy available.

That book has to make its way over here from Denmark, however, so it will be a while before I can post about it. Hampson’s book, on the other hand, is available as an ebook, so I’ve already started reading it and will be posting about it soon.