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Glowing Review of Tudvad’s book on Kierkegaard and Anti-Semitism

Well, finally, we have a review by someone who actually read the book. The literary critic Michael Nielsen reviewed Stadier på Antisemitismens Vej: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews (Stages on the Way of Anti-Semitism: Søren Kierkegaard and the Jews) in Kultunaut an online journal of culture. Here’s what Nielsen has to say:

“Tudvad is first and foremost a driven arkivrotte [this translates literally as ‘archive rat,’ but is probably better translated as ‘scholar’ since we have no idiomatic expression in English that corresponds to ‘archive rat’] who conscientiously combs through original sources and meticulously documents the claims he makes in his books. […] It’s clear, however, in this important book on Kierkegaard’s views on Jews, that Tudvad has striven to write in a more flowing prose and to divide the material in a more reader-friendly manner which makes this book, in my opinion, his best to date.”

“Tudvad is the first [scholar] who has had the courage to conduct an investigation [of the question of Kierkegaard’s views on Jews and Judaism] with the sobriety, objectivity and thoroughness it requires.”

“Tudvad presents Kierkegaard’s views in relation to both earlier and contemporary theologians and uses references from his journals and published works to show how his views developed throughout his authorship. All this is extremely competent and convincing.”

This book, Nielsen concludes, is a “must have” for anyone interested in “intellectual history.”

That last point is very important because what many of the early articles on the book seem to miss is that it is an enormously rich resource of information about Jews and Judaism in 19th-century Denmark. There is nothing else like it in Danish and I feel fairly confident in saying that there is probably nothing else like it in any other language. Of course it is not surprising that the early articles about the book missed this, because most of them were written by people who acknowledged that they had not read the book. Now that people have had time to read it, I expect we’ll see more reviews like Nielsen’s.

Tudvad is in New York now doing research for his forthcoming book on Bonhoeffer. I met with him there last weekend and hope to post a short interview with him soon.

 

Bad News and Good News…

I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that Google, does not, in fact have the complete text of Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs online, but only a portion of it. Also, the site that promises a free ebook version of it is bogus. I’m indebted to Don Anderson for alerting me to these facts. This means that there is no searchable electronic version of this volume, or at least not one in general circulation. I have such a version, but Oxford would have my hide if I started sending it out to people. It was like pulling teeth to get them allow me to publish excerpts in the online journal The Smart Set.

I have a plan though. I am going to make an index for the volume myself and make it available free of charge to anyone who wants it. I probably won’t have it done until sometime this spring. I will let you know, though, when I’ve finished it.

The reason I won’t have the index done until spring is that I am hard at work on my new book Fear and Dissembling: The Copenhagen Kierkegaard Controversy. This book is going to be a collection of English translations of some of the articles that appeared in the Danish media on the controversy over Joakim Garff’s book SAK (GAD, 2000), or Søren Kierkegaard, A Biography (Princeton, 2005). Both Garff and his critic, Peter Tudvad, have tentatively agreed to be involved in the project. I will send each a list of the articles I plan to include for his approval and each is free to recommend additional articles he would like to see included. Garff has also suggested that a few original essays could be appended to the end of the book. I’m all for that if it we can get a good group of contributors and it doesn’t delay the project too much.

I think you’ll like this book. It won’t simply be about Kierkegaard, but about larger issues such as the nature of biography and how difficult it can sometimes be to draw a line between fact and fiction.

Postscript: I have abandoned the idea of doing an index for Crumbs because Oxford has brought out an ebook version that is searchable.

More on Kierkegaard and Anti-Semitism: The Importance of Historical Context

Once upon a time, before Julia Watkin left Denmark for Tasmania, she and Grethe Kjær used to hold “kaffe aftener” (coffee evenings) for all the foreign, and occasionally also some of the local, Kierkegaard scholars in Copenhagen. The famous Ukranian Kierkegaard scholar, Gregor Malantschuk used to live with Grethe and her husband, so Grethe would sometimes tell stories about Malantschuk, The one that stood out in my mind concerned Malantschuk’s childhood in the Ukraine. I think it had something to do with how badly Ukrainians were treated by Russians. I don’t remember now. What I remember was Grethe’s remark that something like a third of the children Malanschuk had gone to school with had been Russian, a third Ukrainian and a third “Jewish.”

I was immediately taken aback by that remark. “Weren’t the Jewish children also either Ukrainian or Russian?” I asked. Judaism, after all, was a religion, not a place. Of course I knew that Jews had not always been accorded all the privileges of citizenship in the countries where they lived. I didn’t really understand until then, however, how ingrained was the thinking of many Europeans that Jews were a people apart, that they would always be a people apart no matter what the law said.

I don’t mean to suggest that Grethe was anti-Semitic. She never said anything else, in my memory, that would remotely suggest such a thing. I’m sure she was just repeating Malantschuk’s own description of the makeup of students in his classes.  Neither do I mean to suggest that Malantschuk was anti-Semitic. He may have been, of course; I simply don’t know. I’ve never heard that he was though, so I’d like to think he was not.

This brings up an issue, however, that continues to preoccupy Danish journalists: What constitutes anti-Semitism? If speaking about Jews as if they had no nationality, no ethnic heritage, other than a religious one (as if that could make any kind of sense) was acceptable in polite circles during a certain period in history, does that mean it was not anti-Semitic? Does it mean that absolutely everyone always spoke this way, and that no one, not even a Jew, was offended by it? That seems implausible to me. There were opponents of slavery, after all, even when it was still a socially accepted institution. That it was socially acceptable to use racist epithets does not mean that they weren’t racist, or that absolutely everyone used them and that no one was offended by them.

People have been arguing that Kierkegaard’s apparently anti-Semitic remarks have to be placed in their historical context. That’s true, of course. Everything has to be placed in its historical context to be properly understood. Well, here’s a little background from Peter Tudvad’s book on the historical context of Kierkegaard’s remarks. Anti-Semitism, as I observed in an earlier post, was so virulent in Denmark in Kierkegaard’s time that the literary attack on the Jews that began in 1813 was followed by a series of riots and physical attacks on Jews in 1819.  It’s clear, however, that most Danes were not involved in the violence. What is even more encouraging is the fact that it became illegal in August of 1813 to refer to Jews as “Jews.” They were to be referred to in official documents as “adherents of the Mosaic faith.” This suggests, unfortunately, that the literary feud had become so ugly that “Jew” had become a racist epithet. (Here it is perhaps important to note, in relation to my post from 1/7, that racism, as such, far predates Darwin.  Many ancient peoples had, in fact, a pronounced tendency to think that they were the only fully human beings and that other peoples, while they might look human, were not.) The positive aspect of this change in Danish law was that, as Tudvad observes, it sent a clear message to the Danish people where the king stood on the Jewish question. “In the same spirit,” writes Tudvad, “the king gave Jews full civic equality, and thus the same protections under the law as were enjoyed by Christians, on the 29th of March 1814” (pp. 33-34).

That is the context in which Kierkegaard made statements about Jews that were so offensive that, according to Johnny Kondrup, a scholar at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen, the statements were omitted from the English translations of Kierkegaard that were done in the 1970s and ‘80s (“Var Kierkegaard Antisemit? Berlingske Tidende, 26 October 2010. This article is unfortunately not online, but I have a scan of it that I can email anyone who would like to read it).

Yes indeed, Kierkegaard made what would today be considered some pretty offensive anti-Semitic remarks. I’ll confess to you that I am still holding out hope that there is some way of interpreting those remarks that will save Kierkegaard from the charge of anti-Semitism. I’m not certain, however, that placing them in their historical context is going to be enough.