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Kierkegaard by Josiah Thompson


by Josiah Thompson

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If anybody is interested in the life and writings of the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, this is your book. Josiah Thompson, American philosopher and Kierkegaard scholar, provides a detailed overview of Kierkegaard, the man and the thinker, from his childhood to his death at age 43, an odd, most peculiar life, to be sure.

We read how frail schoolboy Søren dressed in an old-man’s wool jacket and pants, defended himself by his sharp tongue amongst his schoolmates and how, when at home, an old guilt-ridden, melancholic, rigidly religious father stripped his son of his childhood, refusing to let young Søren leave the house to play with other children, demanding Søren remain indoors, walking back and forth with him in his study, taking imaginary journeys to far off locations, journeys they co-created in their mind’s eye.

And after such an oddball boyhood, we then read how as a young man Søren’s over-active imagination and unending reflections drained all vitality from the present moment. For example, picture yourself sharing a meal with your friend. You exchange words but instead of focusing on the actual conversation you imagine five possible conversations rapidly, almost concurrently; you try to remain attentive to what is being said but your imagination can’t turn itself off – for every verbal exchange, you invent a sting of others. And not only do you continually invent multiple possible realities, you are forever in a melancholy mood, so each of these possibilities is coated with a film of gray. And, if this isn’t bad enough, beyond the borders of each gray-coated possibility looms a philosophical concept that holds the gray possibility like a fishing net holds a flapping fish.

What would be the way out of such a mental quagmire? For the remainder of his short life Kierkegaard turned to writing, writing where he wrote feverishly under multiple pseudonyms with names like Constantin Constantinus, Johannes the Seducer, Judge Wilhelm, Victor Eremita, Father Taciturnus, William Afham, Johannes Climacus, and my personal favorite, Hilarius Bookbinder. Additionally, Kierkegaard kept a daily diary where he penned his on-going commentary. What a literary output! Two dozen books and enough diary entries to fill a dozen thick volumes.

And what were Kierkegaard’s physical circumstances enabling him to live such a life? Thompson writes how Kierkegaard’s wealth via an inheritance from his departed father enabled him to live in a large, many roomed apartment with the temperature regulated just so, to buy rosewood and mahogany furniture and a writing desk for each room, to go for his carriage rides whenever he liked, not to mention purchasing fine food and drink aplenty for his specific taste. We read, “In the years following his break with Regina (the beautiful young woman he was engaged to marry but Søren broke the engagement), Kierkegaard came to withdraw further and further from the world. Like street noises muffled by shuttered windows and many layers of curtains, the affairs of the world came only faintly to his indifferent ears. Insulated from the harsher realities by the comforts of wealth, his life took on the shape of an aesthetic hermitage . . . “

By such an aesthetic withdrawal, to my mind Kierkegaard shares much in common with the sickly jaded aristocrat Des Esseintes from Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel “Against the Grain”, a novel serving as a cult favorite among the 19th century French Decadent literary school. Here is a line from the 1st chapter of Huysmans’s novel, “Already, he was dreaming of a refined solitude, a comfortable desert, a motionless ark in which to seek refuge from the unending deluge of human stupidity.” Sidebar: Des Esseintes encrusted a tortoise in exotic gems; Kierkegaard encrusted his personal copy of each of his books in gold ornamented black leather so the book looked like a small coffin. – Josiah Thompson handed me one of these coffin-like books when we shared an evening together at his home in the early 70s. What a statement about the contents of SK’s books!

Back on Thompson’s book. Although Kierkegaard did leave his aesthetic hermitage to take his eccentric walks on the streets of Copenhagen, he did so on his own terms, one term being that he wasn’t really committed to conversation in the conventional sense; rather, he used his forays and personal interactions on the streets as raw-material for his writing. And what are these pseudonyms like? Here is what Thompson has to say, “Like their author they seem inordinately “ghostly,” purely mental, never rooted in the physical world through their bodies, without physical desire or suffering. They all are disembodied hermits lacking parents or home, wife or job, appetite or fear.”

One more quote to give a flavor of Thompson’s keen insights, “The ambience of all these works is that of duplicity, and their essential theme is the inherent volatility of human consciousness. In their elaborate hoaxes and sudden surprises, in their trickery and satire, there is an underlying black humor. For finally the joke is on the reader, and the smarter he is, the sooner he realizes it. But to see through all the pseudonyms, to recognize that the vision of any one is not to be preferred to that of any other, is finally to join Kierkegaard in his cloister. It is to share with him that peculiarly modern laceration – “I must believe, but I can’t believe” – which since his time has become even more painful. The essentially duplicitous character of the pseudonyms is, then, essential to their meaning, and is founded on the simple yet all important fact that in the pseudonyms, Kierkegaard is absent.”

The above quotes and observations are but a sampling of the quirky life and rich authorship of the man who came to be known as ‘the father of existentialism’, a thinker who anticipated the phenomenology of Husserl and the existentialism of Sartre and Camus and Heidegger. For a more complete understanding of Kierkegaard, I highly recommend this fine book by Josiah Thompson.

( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |

This collection of eleven essays on the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard edited by Josiah Thompson includes well-researched papers by a number of Kierkegaard scholars as well as essays by Jean-Paul Sartre and John Updike. Reading essays on Kierkegaard is most helpful since the Danish philosopher was anything but straightforward; rather, he used a series of pseudonyms for many of his books, names like Constantin Constantinus, Johannes the Seducer, Judge Wilhelm, Victor Eremita, Father Taciturnus, William Afham, Johannes Climacus, and my personal favorite, Hilarius Bookbinder. This multiple authorship and literary hide-and-seek was very much in keeping with his tact of indirection, duplicity and irony.

Attempting to figure out Kierkegaard and his philosophy is like trying to get to the bottom of an entire series of bottomless wells. What can be said for sure is that he wrote obsessively and feverishly for twenty years, from the age of twenty-two until he collapsed on the street at age forty-two. However, considering his bizarre upbringing at the hands of a melancholic father, Kierkegaard's writings could have flowed from the pen of an old man, so the twenty years are more like from age sixty-two to eighty-two. Indeed, his biography is one of the most intriguing a reader will encounter. Anyway, when wealthy merchant father Michael Kierkegaard died, he left youngest son Søren a fortune, thus freeing Kierkegaard from any need to pursue a conventional career; rather, he turned to writing, lots and lots of writing, enough writing to fill several dozen volumes.

This collection of essays will give a reader unfamiliar with Kierkegaard a good introduction to the richness of his mind and the expansiveness of his authorship. A more experienced reader of Kierkegaard will also find the book useful since there are not only five essays treating Kierkegaard's general themes, but also six essays with a more specific focus, addressing, for example, Kierkegaard on ethics, skepticism, authority and revelation. For a taste of what's contained in these pages, below are several quotes along with my comments taken from the 46 page essay written by Stephen Crites entitled "Pseudonymous Authorship as Art and as Act".

Crites concentrates on Kierkegaard's reflections on two key topics: human consciousness and human possibilities. He writes, "Human being have a form of consciousness capable of entertaining possibilities. They do not exist purely in a succession of external changes and movements. Nor are they merely sensitive instruments registering simultaneous happenings in their vicinity. They are spatially and temporally located along with other physical realities, but they remember, they anticipate, they scheme, their fear, they fantasize, they ventilate their localized reality with myriad forms of possibilities." With this focus in mind, Crites continues: "Kierkegaard had a particularly keen eye for the futility and the comic vanity of human projects. . . . The capacity to pursue the possible was in Kierkegaard's view the source of all human achievement, which he thought generally modest, as well as the source of the follies and depravities, which he thought colossal. . . . Both the heights and depths of human existence are aerated with possibility." And then, "There is no way short of lobotomy for consciousness to rid itself of possibility."

Anybody familiar with the history of 20th century continental philosophy will hear two familiar rings with Kierkegaard's emphasis on consciousness and possibility. First, we have the idea of human consciousness as the key in Edmund Husserl's development of phenomenology. Second, the central importance of human possibilities (that is, human freedom) in the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. This is precisely why the interest in Kierkegaard's thought was reawakened nearly 100 years after his death. Indeed, when Crites writes the following about Kierkegaard he could very well be writing about Sartre: "(Man) makes his own path, being himself formed in the process. He does not merely become, but becomes himself. The self he is to become is not predetermined, but will be formed by his own act of becoming."

So, what can humans do with their human consciousness and all their possibilities? Crites relays how Kierkegaard outlines three different modes of being, starting with the aesthetic. Crites writes: "The aesthetic man is not necessarily an artist or thinker by profession. The aesthetic way of life is a strategy for giving life coherence of a sort. It is a strategy modeled on the work of art, extending that model so far as possible to one's experience as a whole. Here Kierkegaard has in mind the romantic ideal of making life into an art." As by way of example, we can think of our own experience of being completely wrapped up in a film or novel or piece of music. For that time we are lifted out of the grit and grime of our own lives and experience a sense of completeness and clarity, even luminosity. Kierkegaard enjoyed art and aesthetic experience but saw how there is a danger if people try to use aesthetic experience as a complete, unending escape from their own lives and the need to make meaningful choices. This, of course, happens in our modern world - many people refuse to do anything other than sit in front of their television screens and many other people walk around in a bubble, imagining themselves as the star in their own movie or television show.

Crites writes on how Kierkegaard viewed the next two modes of being: the ethical and the religious. Both of these modes of being deal with our making important choices in our own lives (what Kierkegaard terms our `subjective truth' or `existential truth'), choices that will influence not only our present but also extend into our future. Crites writes, `Truth is subjectivity', the point of that much-understood slogan is simply that an existential truth has a conscious human temporality for its medium, and not propositions, images, or any other aesthetic form. It is not an object of reflection, in which consciousness comes to rest, but the movement of a conscious life projected toward the future." And how does all this existential truth play out in our lives? When it comes to Soren Kierkegaard, the answers are never easy or simple. Stephen Crites and the other essayists in the collection make for an excellent read, but to approach a more complete understanding one must be prepared to tackle Kierkegaard's actual writing directly. ( )
  GlennRussell | Feb 16, 2017 |
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