“The Poet and the Reader”
Kierkegaard’s intellectual gifts and literary talents were vast and humbling to aspiring thinkers and writers. Yet the accounts we have of him from contemporaries paint a picture of a man who was far from arrogant. He was, by those accounts, an affable and sympathetic person. He had a particular fondness for children, was a favorite of his nieces and nephews, and enjoyed talking with people from all walks of life that he would encounter on the streets of Copenhagen.
There’s an intimacy to Kierkegaard’s writing that goes along with his lack of pretension. This is evinced in his frequent references to his “reader” in the singular. This sort of authorial intimacy was captured in the poet Louise Glück’s Nobel lecture. The lecture was published under the title “The Poet and the Reader” in the January 14, 2021 edition of The New York Review of Books. Glück explains there that the poems to which she is most drawn “are poems of intimate selection or collusion, poems to which the listener or reader makes an essential contribution.”
Kierkegaard also preferred writing with respect to which “the reader himself is to a certain degree productive” (Either-Or, Princeton, p. 110). He clearly had what Glück describes as “a temperament that distrusts public life or sees it as the realm in which generalization obliterates precision, and partial truth replaces candor and charged disclosure.”
“If one assumes,” writes Kierkegaard
that everyone who reads a book for some contingent reason having nothing to do with the book’s content is not a genuine reader, then there would not be many genuine readers left, even for authors with a large readership, because to whom would it occur in our day to waste an instant on the ludicrous thought that to be a good reader is actually an art, let alone to spend time to become such a reader? This unfortunate situation naturally influences an author, who according to my opinion does well to write after the fashion of Clemens Alexandrinus, in such a way that heretics cannot understand it. (Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, 76.)
Kierkegaard did indeed write in such a way that “heretics” could not understand his writing and that fact has generated incalculable confusion in philosophical and theological circles. It’s not that Kierkegaard’s writing is particularly difficult to understand, it’s that it requires a certain mindset. It required a contribution from the reader: an ear for humor, a suspicion of easy answers and of what Kierkegaard sometimes referred to as “the crowd,” but what we would more likely refer to these days as “group think.”
More than anything, though, understanding Kierkegaard’s writing requires a tendency to double reflection, which is to say a tendency to measure what one reads against one’s own life and experience, to see if it coheres with that experience, and when the writing in question has a prescriptive, or normative dimension, to measure the extent to which one’s life both validates those prescriptions and conforms to them.
Kierkegaard wrote for this sort of rare, doubly reflected reader. He explains in The Point of View for My Work as an Author, that he introduced a “formula” in the preface of Two Upbuilding Discourses (1843), “that later was repeated unchanged: ‘It seeks that single individual whom I with joy and gratitude call my reader’” (Princeton, p. 9).
“Those of us who write books,” explains Glück, “presumably wish to reach many. But some poets do not see reaching many in spatial terms, as in the filled auditorium. They see reaching many temporally, sequentially, many over time, into the future, but in some profound way these readers always come singly, one by one.”
That’s how Kierkegaard’s readers come to him, the ones who stay anyway, the genuine readers —one by one.