M.G. Piety

Posts Tagged ‘Theodor Adorno’

Kierkegaard’s Conservatism

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship, Uncategorized on January 22, 2017 at 4:52 pm
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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.

Danish Scholar’s Review of Controversial Kierkegaard Biography

In Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on September 1, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I’ve mentioned in several earlier posts that I am working on a book entitled Fear and Dissembling on the controversy surrounding Joakim Garff’s book Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005). It will begin with the initial reception of Garff’s book upon its publication in 2000 and then the controversy that arose in the summer of 2004 when another scholar, Peter Tudvad, exposed the book as riddled with factual errors and passages that had been plagiarized from earlier biographies of Kierkegaard. The book will be comprised primarily of English translations of articles from Danish newspapers. There were a couple of reviews, however, that appeared in scholarly journals. I’ve translated both of them and have received permission from the authors to publish excerpts from them on this blog. What follows are a three sections excerpted from a review of by the Danish scholar Johan de Mylius, of the University of Southern Denmark, that appeared in the journal Nordika vol. 19 (2002). De Mylius’ review was written before the revelations about the errors and plagiarisms were made public in the summer of 2004, so the review takes no account of them, but comments on what the reviewer sees as the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the work. The parenthetical references are to the English translations of the biography and the wording of passages de Mylius quotes directly is also taken from the this translation.

Kierkegaard scholarship has gotten a spectacular center in Copenhagen. The primary purpose of the center is the production of the new edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works and papers–on the basis of which this fat biography, Joakim Garff’s bestseller, SAK, was produced. But Kierkegaard scholarship as such has for many years had its center, at least in a purely quantitative sense, elsewhere. This is easily established by a glance an the annual Kierkegaard Newsletter, edited by Julia Watkin (formerly of Copenhagen University, now at the University of Tasmania). As far as the number of books and articles, as well as seminars and conferences on Kierkegaard, the U.S.A. is clearly in the lead by a large margin, with several other nations also performing admirably in this competition.

It is thus a little strange to see how this sizeable new biography of Kierkegaard leaves international Kierkegaard research out of its frame of reference. It can’t be because Garff is unfamiliar with this research. Of course he is familiar with it. There is not a single reference, however, in the entire biography to a work published outside Denmark.

The result is that obvious presuppositions for Garff’s own, predominantly esthetic view of Kierkegaard go unmentioned. This is the case, for example, with respect to Theodor W. Adorno’s famous book Kierkegaard. Konstruktion des Ästhetischen (1993) [Kierkegaard Construction of the Aesthetic] and Louis Mackey’s Kierkegaard, A Kind of Poet (1971), but also with other important books. References to Josiah Thompson’s biography of Kierkegaard from 1973 as well as his Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays (1972), another anthology, Kierkegaard vivant (1966), […] and Sylvia Walsh’s Living Poetically (1994) are conspicuous by their absence.

[….]

The entire biography is actually written in journalistic style. It is lively, often detailed and entertaining. Occasionally, however, the language becomes painfully overwrought as is the case when Garff writes of Johanne Luise Heiberg that she was “a goddess sprung from the proletariat, who, at the age of thirteen had become the object of [Johan Ludvig Heiberg’s] distinguished erotic lust and who was now undisputedly the leading lady of the Danish stage, the dazzling, bespangled muse of the age. Everyone admired her, worshipped her and fell in love with her so thunderously and passionately that they became profoundly depressed, or even–in keeping with the tragic style of the day–committed suicide” (68)(as if there at other times had been cheerful suicide!). It is not surprising that this sort of literary style would involve even the Olympian Goethe being referred to as “in” (74). The objective would appear to be to encourage the poor unprepared reader to tolerate, and even to accept, the view that it is “in” to read about Kierkegaard.

[….]

The biggest problem is that even though Garff wants his approach to Kierkegaard to be aesthetic, he has little to offer when it comes to the literature of the period, the literature which Kierkegaard as a writer plays up against.  One gets no sense of Kierkegaard as a figure in the literary world of the day, with roots in the period that is often referred to as post-romanticism. What was actually going on in Danish literature at that point? And how did Kierkegaard conceive of his role in these developments? To the extent that the literary world is brought in at all, the issue always concerns Kierkegaard’s personal relationships to literary figures. That is too little, that is journalism on the level of BT[1] rather than of a literary biography.

This is only a small portion of the review. The entire review will appear in Fear and Dissembling: The Copenhagen Kierkegaard Controversy (Gegensatz Press, forthcoming).


[1] BT is a Danish tabloid newspaper.