Lesson 2: The Kierkegaardian Literature

It has become a cliche to refer to Soren Kierkegaard as the Melancholy Dane and, as is often the case with cliches, there are good grounds for it. Certainly Soren's description of his own upbringing does not bring a smile to the mouth of the reader. The youngest child of an elderly father, his childhood was spent in close proximity to his paternal parent. Michael had come to Copenhagen from Jutland where he had prospered. After the death of his first wife, he got a servant with child, married her, and had more children. Soren was the youngest. There is almost no reference to his mother in all his writings, but his father is a dominant, even suffocating, presence. After retirement, Michael devoted himself to his soul, the study of theology, and brooding over his past. What stuck in his mind even more than later events was an episode that had occurred when he was a lad in Jutland, out on the heath shepherding, cold, poor. In a fit of rage he shook his hand at the heavens and cursed God. Years later, as an old man, he became convinced that this event marked him and that he himself was under a curse. When his children began to die, he became convinced that he was condemned to outlive them all. This was the grim religiosity that he sought to pass on to his son, confiding in him that dreadful event of his childhood. Soren referred to his father's revelation about that Jutland curse as the Great Earthquake.

He did well in school and advanced to the university where he seems to have engaged in the usual antics. Obscurely related, there is some reason to think that classmates took him to a brothel. As with his father, this was an event that he brooded over ever after. But he continued to be a fitful student - until his father died. This occasioned a first publication, From the Papers of One Still Living, the title conveying surprise that his father's dread that he would outlive all his children, even Soren, had proved untrue. In a tribute to his father, he began to take his studies seriously and advanced to the Magister's degree - the highest degree, equivalent to the Ph. D. or S. T. D. His dissertation topic was devoted to irony in Socrates as displayed in the Platonic dialogues. What next? His plan was to prepare himself for the ministry in the Danish Lutheran Church.

Another personal event with lifelong consequences was his engagement to Regine Olsen, a girl ten years his junior. She was by all accounts a lively outgoing girl, not at all an intellectual, and perhaps represented for him entry into the natural and domestic as well as an object of romantic love. No sooner had the engagement been announced - it was a quite public and formal thing, with an exchange of rings - than he became convinced he had made a tragic mistake. He was convinced that he had a thorn in the flesh that prevented him from living an ordinary human life as lover and husband. The visit to the brothel? Perhaps. Confiding as Kierkegaard is in his journal he proves quite reticent about such details as that. All that is clear is that he felt there was something in his life, his past, his personality, that acted as an obstacle to marriage. Break the engagement? That would not have been honorable. Rather, what he sought to do was to bring Regine to the point where she would drop him. The obliquity of this approach proved to be characteristic of Kierkegaard's literary efforts. He would always in his published writings try to bring people to the point where they would themselves do what he thought they should, and would do it because it was their desire not his.

The Literature

Nor is this merely a parallel. When Kierkegaard launched what he called his literature, the chief addressee of what he wrote was Regine Olsen. For the rest of his life he would think of her, refer constantly to her in his journal, wonder if eventually they could be reconciled. As for Regine, she married another and went off to the Carribean with her colonial governor husband and when she returned later to Copenhagen, Soren sought her out, not to talk to her, that would have been too direct, but to see her, pass her on the street - all very romantically mysterious. She on her part seems to have been puzzled to hear that he still remembered the long ago event of their engagement. Kierkegaard liked to draw attention to the way in which, for certain minds, there is a disproportion between external events and subjective reaction to them. There is no more massive instance of this in his own case than the discrepancy between what his love for Regine meant for him and what it meant for her.

Apart from two flying trips to Berlin, Kierkegaard never left Denmark, and apart from a few visits to the countryside, he never left Copenhagen. Like his hero Socrates, he was urban through and through, a man of the city. He did not marry Regine, he did not take orders in the Danish church, he did not seek a university job, but his short life was lived in the conviction that he had a mission from God and one that took the form of writing, producing the "literature." What he had inherited enabled him to devote himself entirely to the task he took to be his and, since in the manner of the times he was his own publisher, engaging and paying a printer to bring out and distribute his books, at the time of his death he had pretty well depleted what he had inherited.

There are two basic schools of thought with respect to Kierkegaard's published work. The first takes as its guide the retrospects Kierkegaard himself wrote, particularly those brought together in the posthumously published The Point of View of My Work as An Author. The second takes these self-assessments to be after the fact and scarcely regulative of our understanding of the books as they came out. Moreover, the retrospects were written at a time when there were still more books to come.

The tendency of the second school is to take Kierkegaard as a writer pretty much like any other one might undertake to study. An enormous scholarly industry has thus grown up around the writings of Kierkegaard and as one peruses it it will seem pretty much the same in kind as that which grew up around Kant or Hegel or Scotus or Aristotle. Those who are members of the first school, while marveling at and profiting from this mountain of scholarship, are likely to think that it is a monument to a fundamental misunderstanding of the aim and purpose of the Kierkegaardian literature.

Here is one of the illustrations Kierkegaard himself gives of such a misunderstanding. A young man is called into the army and, as he stands in line with his fellow recruits, is talking volubly. The sergeant calls out, "Silence in ranks." The young man goes on talking. The sergeant confronts him. "I said silence in the ranks." "Yes, yes, I heard you. And the meaning of your command is that people such as I when lined up as we now are should cease to speak. I understand that perfectly." "Shut up!" the sergeant roars. The point of the anecdote is to show that there is a kind of understanding that amounts to a misunderstanding. The appropriate way for the recruit to show he understands the command is to obey it and stop talking.

Not counting his dissertation and the little book occasioned by the death of his father, Kierkegaard became an author in order to establish one central and commanding thing - what does it mean to be a Christian? Drawing on his own experience, he became aware that one's claim to be a Christian can go hand in hand with a way of living quite out of harmony with that claim. This was or had been true of himself, in some sense always would be, and doubtless it was the case with many others. As a member of the clergy he might have addressed the issue with authority, but he had no such ordained authority. What might one human being do for others, not by invoking the authority of the church or indeed the authority of his own life?

To approach the thing directly would be to invite the misunderstanding-understanding of the recruit. Those Kierkegaard addressed knew all about Christianity; it wasn't information about it they needed, say catechetical instruction. In any case, he is assuming that his reader knows what the Christian task is. The problem is, the way he knows it. He knows it perhaps as the talking recruit knows what the command to be silent means. What was needed was an oblique approach. What was needed was what Kierkegaard called Indirect Communication.

Stages on Life's Way

If Danes who thought of themselves as Christians were not living as Christians, what kind of life were they living? Or what kinds of life? As a residual influence of Hegel, Kierkegaard would ask what categories they were living in.

The first point here is that there is a split or discrepancy between a surface or nominal acceptance of Christianity - we're all baptized, aren't we? -and the real animating springs of one's existence. The most obvious candidate for the latter would be a life lived for pleasure. Aisthesis is the Greek word for touch, the basis of sensuality, so this first and obvious possibility could be called Aesthetic. One who professed to be a Christian actually lived his life in aesthetic categories.

The first work in the Kierkegaardian literature conveys this, as well as the range and variety of what counts as aesthetic. The work is Either/Or. The disjunction is expressed in different volumes - the first devoted to the aesthetic, the second to another non-Christian set of categories, the Ethical.

Leading one's life in ethical as opposed to aesthetic categories (of whatever modality) is preferable, but the point of the literature is that the religious, certainly Christianity, is not to be confused with the ethical. Further works go on to make this point, notably Fear and Trembling.

So here we have what he thought of as stages on life's way. This suggests a progression from one to the other, indeed the assimilation of the earlier into the later, such that one must bring the material of the aesthetic under the law of ethics and then see that the universal canons of ethics are less than the religious and of Christianity, however much the ethical becomes a part of the religious life. The "ethico-religious" becomes a familiar conjunction.

To lay it out like this is of course all wrong. Kierkegaard as an author did not set out to say to his reader: you claim to be a Christian but actually are living in aesthetic categories. Rather what he proposed was this: Let's talk about aesthetics. This led Kierkegaard to become the author of authors. Either/Or is attributed to Victor Eremita - the pseudonyms Kierkegaard devised were not meant to deceive - and the motto of the first volume was taken from the English poet Young: "Are passions then the pagans of the soul, reason alone baptized?" Nothing is more familiar in the history of moral philosophy than the formulation of arguments to show that the pursuit of pleasure cannot be fulfilling for us, cannot be our happiness or ultimate end. What Kierkegaard attempts to show is the existentially self-refuting character of the aesthetic life. It is a life of despair because it is impossible of realization. Call this an internal rather than an external criticism.

The collapse of the aesthetic in the realization that it is a life of despair opens the way to the ethical. But the move is one of freedom rather than the necessary assent a cogent proof demands.

The range of the aesthetic is from the shifting moods of the Diaspalmata with which volume one begins, through the analysis of Don Giovanni as presented by Mozart, ending in the Diary of the Seducer. Pretty racy stuff at times and this masks the overall aim of the authorship, to make clear what it is to be a Christian. By speaking of aesthetics from within the aesthetic sphere and trying to show that on its own terms it is impossible of realization and thus a life of despair, Kierkegaard removes a great obstacle to bringing one's life into conjunction with one's claim to be a Christian.

Suggested Reading

The Point of View of My Work as An Author

Suggested Writing

A book review of Fear and Trembling.


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