Why is there no fun in Kierkegaard studies?

Søren Kierkegaard enjoying his menneskebad – people bath – in which he indulged most days. Kierkegaard is too often presented as pure doom and gloom, and Kierkegaard studies have exacerbated that caricature a thousand fold. Why?


In what follows below, I make no assertion that the Kierkegaard experts I mention favourably would necessarily agree with the arguments I make. My essential point is that we in the English language speaking world are not seeing enough of what some excellent Danes are saying, and have said, about Kierkegaard’s work. If this is true, it is one more irony to add to the Kierkegaard canon. We can add to that the fact that truly revelatory work by the likes of George Steiner and Stanley Cavell on Kierkegaard barely registers on the mainstream Kierkegaard barometer and I wonder aloud why this is. There is also very little fun around. Why? Kierkegaard was very funny, yet his heavy mind (tungsind) is always stressed. How does this help?

Either a passion for Kierkegaard or dispassion – it’s an Either-Or.

Are animals prone to self-despair? Do animals do metaphor? Is the animal urinating its scent on to a tree capable of imagining or dreaming a new existence into that tree, so that it becomes a god, a forest sprite or giant, a symbol of life? It seems to me that one of the most profound insights that Kierkegaard ever gave us is his idea of human personality. Look into a mirror and you don’t just see an image of a human being, you recognise your own self. The whole basis of the Narcissus myth. In Ireland, and in both English and Irish (Gaeilge), we often differentiate between ‘me’ and myself, you and yourself. If you walk into a house, people will say – is it yourself? There is a saying in Irish: Ag duine féin is fearr a fhios cá luíonn an bhróg air – only the person her or himself knows exactly where the shoe is pinching. This is the basis of all subjectivity – our private feelings and insights. The modern mantra is that we don’t know our own minds but certain experts do. Kierkegaard is the cure for this malaise. Only the Sovereign Individual knows where things are ‘pinching’. We know intimately our own soles. We know intimately our own souls.

Each of us, then, has a unique personality that feels and imagines things. The catalyst for all artistic creation. For our terror and despair also. For Kierkegaard, this personality is intimately linked to our ‘conscience’ – samvittighed in the Danish. Conscience is a central human propensity for Kierkegaard.

If Narcissus emphasises our ancient obsession with our own personality, the Cain and Abel myth stresses human conscience. Cain is the mark that symbolises all of which we are capable. Abel is our collective guilty conscience. Kierkegaard was at once very new and very old.

In one of his myriad daily journal entries – in this instance in 1846 – Kierkegaard says it is human conscience that begets our human personalities. Or we might say that conscience is the most personal part of us – even if only as a nagging possibility – and it is our conviction that this is so, and that conscience is somehow both within us and a higher, external agency, that engenders or constitutes our full possibility of personality. In Tom and Jerry cartoons, the conscience is always outside of us, usually on our shoulder. Somehow we know or intuit, have a conviction anyway, that our conscience is no mere animal attribute. It is ‘within us and without us’ to paraphrase a once popular Beatles song – (‘Within You Without You’ – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band).

Kierkegaard’s 1846 journal entry that human conscience and our awareness of the possibility of conscience forms (constitutes) our personality.

Kierkegaard says that it is God’s embracing of that individual conscience and our awareness of this divine embracing, that leads us to the idea of its constant existence and possibility. This is not a God of any church denomination. We can, in my interpretation, call it the Higher Power, the Divine Nature, the Unmoved Mover, but ultimately I wish to call this affirming power, ‘Grace’. For me, Kierkegaard’s thought is encapsulated by his lore of Grace. All humans know the power of Grace, or call it the Infinite Love that binds creation.

Kierkegaard is the proclaimer of Existential Grace. If we search deeply into our conscience, or are helped to do so, we find not only the blessing of Grace – that we are affirmed as being of the Good – but also that this lifts us to a higher realm of existence. If we acknowledge our conscience and the possibility of Grace, we also acknowledge that everybody else has the possibility of conscience and Grace. Grace, therefore, elevates all of us.

The human struggle is to remain in that state of Grace, which is impossible for almost all of us. Precisely because we are human. The point is that we try. Or want to try. Or ask our own selves why we are not trying. We even get angry at why we are asking ourselves these questions. We resent having to consider others. We resent having to ponder Abel’s fate. Nevertheless, none of us can escape conscience. The choice for the Good – for oneself and therefore the other – is always there waiting for us, isn’t it? This has been called our ‘Vertigo Ethic’. The abyss we cannot face and yet are continually forced to face and look down into. I return to this crucial but rarely mentioned criterion below. But, in short, Kierkegaard’s Vertigo Ethic (Svimmelhedens Etik) was rescued from almost oblivion by the Danish scholar and Lutheran pastor in Denmark, Pia Søltoft. Pia Søltoft rarely features in what we might call mainstream English language Kierkegaard books, even though her work has helped me enormously in clarifying the Socrates/Kierkegaard paradigm, at least to my satisfaction. In her work, she has also further encouraged my long-term interest in Kierkegaard’s ‘Book on Adler’ – Bogen om Adler. And yes you’ve guessed it, and to use an Irish English expression: neither this book is mentioned very much either.

You talking to you? A Janus head sculpture by John Skelton – location: Grange Gardens, Lewes

Proof of the fact that we have a conscience comes in another universal human attribute: we talk to ourselves. Our constant inner dialogue with ourselves. Nobody would deny that we do this. So, as individuals, who exactly are we in dialogue with? Well, yes, we construct scenarios to ourselves all the time, so as to plan and get through life. But our deepest self-conversations can only be with our conscience. Indeed we constantly speak of having a bad conscience, a guilty conscience, a salved conscience, a clear conscience and so on. Moreover, this ethical dialogue is entirely different in each individual. The greatest most powerful computer that will ever be built will never be able to recreate a human’s dialogue with her or himself. So we are talking to ourselves and we have a conscience that reminds us of what we have done and should be doing. Everybody knows ethics, even if they have never heard of them.

I like Pia Søltoft’s definition of the ethical, after Kierkegaard. She says that, firstly, the ethical embraces how we view ourselves – the decision as to who we actually are – and then, secondly, how we view and treat ‘the other’. And, in an important emphasis, she says that these two things – the self and the other – can never be separated, and she is right. Kierkegaard’s ethics were not selfish ethics.

In Kierkegaard’s vision, human artistic creativity is, or should be, the inspiration that helps us step into our real selves. It has nothing to do with God cracking the whip. In fact it’s the other way round, Kierkegaard often spoke of us having to help God – again rarely mentioned. We all do art. Every single one of us. Art is somehow an act of faith in yourself and in the other.

Dostoevsky’s tormented egoist, Raskolnikov, imagined the possibility of human happiness and bonding in the end. He was lifted by his conscience – kicking and screaming and resisting – to his extraordinary confession and onwards to the shores of love. It is our artistic self that envisages that new universe of possibilities. We might say that art is the paintbrush of conscience.

Like Socrates before him, Kierkegaard said that human life is an art form – Dostoevsky also stressed this idea. In his famous ‘Postscript’, Kierkegaard said:

“The subjective thinker (i.e. all of us) is not a scientist, he is an artist. To exist is an art.”

That we have at least an inkling of who we are in our essence and are called upon – from where? – to compose that true self into being and to have (and enjoy) a life view. This is what Kierkegaard called our life-mission, or task if you like – Opgaven in Danish.

We need to tell more people about Kierkegaard’s exciting news that we all have a calling. This life-mission is a central tenet in Kierkegaard’s thought. And then frustration and even despair set in when we cannot attain that true self and that overall life view. We feel like fakes. We are split. Why are we not doing what we should really be doing? A very modern dilemma. We are angry or tormented with ourselves and with others. One way out is to say to hell with everyone, I will forge my own life, free of all constraints, even kill if I wish to, so as to assert my freedom, as Raskolnikov did in Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Raskolnikov feverishly crazily trying to wrest control of his life from the constant demands of his own Vertigo Ethic from which he wished to flee. But the conscience remained there, niggling away, wherever he hid.

An angel does not do self-despair and neither does an animal. We are unique in that we are of the animal kingdom but can psychologically plummet so far down that down becomes up. But can also reach beyond ourselves to create something new that was not there before, or only there in embryo, or as a vague feeling. George Steiner uses the Latin word invenire in describing Kierkegaard’s recreation of his (Kierkegaard’s) Antigone for the modern age – invenire: to find that which was not yet there. How absurd. A paradox even.

Forging the ethical life from something that is only there as a possibility. The religious – with a ‘small r’ – life, though it will always be a struggle (arduous, exciting and fun) . Humans can make that leap – a poem or artwork is a brief revelation of that – and it brings us close to the realm of the angels. But it takes some sort of faith and faith is regarded as old hat these days. Does the Kierkegaard ‘industry’ as a whole have faith in Kierkegaard? In the way that George Steiner did, for example?

Søren Kierkegaard – the central thinker of modern Western culture. Its Prophet

How best to widen the reception of Kierkegaard in the modern age? I can only speak of the Scandinavian and English language spheres – though I am aware of the interesting work some of my literary translator colleagues are doing in places like Italy and the Czech Republic. Overall, in the English speaking world – I mean those places and peoples that have English as a first language – we have not done a great job of getting Kierkegaard amongst ‘normal people’. The Danes have done it best in recent times, but rather strangely, their achievement has not been recognised abroad outside of certain specialist forums. Almost as if they don’t count on the world stage because they are Danish and therefore partial when we are meant to be dispassionate aren’t we?

In his 1877 Kierkegaard book, Georg Brandes described Kierkegaard as being nonpareil in his own age – (- han havde ingen Overmand).

More specifically where our failure of Kierkegaard transmission is concerned, after thirty years of reading Kierkegaard (almost exclusively in Danish until recent times) as the anarcho-Christian, existential, community syndicalist artist that I am – for want of a better way of describing my own life view – and at the same time reading deep-going analyses of Kierkegaard (in a variety of languages, but mainly Danish and English) I feel that we English language Kierkegaard experts have largely failed to communicate the essence of Kierkegaard to our audience; an audience moreover that is mostly restricted to the academic milieu. Georg Brandes was dong far better back in 1877 and it wasn’t because he was uncritical of Kierkegaard.

I mention the Beatles above, and though this may perhaps be sacrilege, I often find more real Kierkegaard in pop music than I do in ‘Kierkegaardania’. Was there ever a more Kierkegaardian pop song than ‘Bridge over troubled water’? – we have those depths of despair – when evening falls so hard – and then the idea that the Good is there for us – like a bridge over troubled water. Not only that, this force for good tells you that you are unique. That your own star can rise again – your time has come to shine. But we don’t need to go that far back in the history of pop music; take a modern group like ‘Hem’ and their astonishing song – ‘Half Acre’ that cracks the darkest sky wide open for those suffering in the fear and darkness.

Has pop music ever been mentioned in a Kierkegaard book? Not that I know of. Wouldn’t this be of real help to people that are suffering? Why isn’t Kierkegaard discussed in this practical, life affirming way? I am aware that psychotherapists and analysts have turned once again to Kierkegaard. And it’s not just about being practical and helping people, though that is paramount in my view. We are supposed to be having fun here also, are we not? As is well known, Kierkegaard was often very funny, both in his books and in company, but an awful lot of Kierkegaard books seem unnecessarily po-faced to me. Or where humour is attempted, it descends into cynicism. Does the Kierkegaard ‘industry’ as a whole have faith in Kierkegaard?

My overriding feeling is that whilst many ‘experts’ are fascinated by Kierkegaard, they are dispassionate, which is a Kierkegaardian contradiction in terms. They hold him at arm’s length and seek to portray Kierkegaard ‘warts and all’ so as to make their ‘dispassion’ and erudition clear. It does make for a fascinating philosophical discussion but of course passion – lidenskab in the Danish – was the core of Kierkegaard, and if we lose our passion for him we are obviously just left with the warts.

Kierkegaard’s retelling of the Antigone myth for the modern age is central to George Steiner’s enthralling book on the odyssey of the story through western culture.

Compare this ‘coolness’ with the magnificent work on Kierkegaard achieved by George Steiner – essentially a literary critic who took Kierkegaard to heart and stressed his importance for culture and society. For, despite constant portrayals to the contrary, much of the adult Kierkegaard’s own – verbal audience at least – was located in the streets, the coffee shops and country inns.

Where the Dane who invented literary criticism as a Muse, Georg Brandes, is concerned, though he mistakenly overstressed Kierkegaard’s self-obsession and accused him of a narrowness in his cultural interest – allegedly due to his preoccupation with religious works – Brandes did acknowledge, not only Kierkegaard’s incredible psychological insights, but also his life as a flâneur and raconteur. This was as far back as 1877. Have English language biographies of Kierkegaard since ever provided the massively deep engagement and insight of Brandes’s biography? For me, the answer is no. Though to be fair, Brandes was another genius ‘outcast’.

It is interesting that it is, in my view, literary critics who have engaged best with Kierkegaard. The list of such critics is imposing and very long and it includes the late Stanley Cavell, who was a superb film and book critic. Cavell signalled the importance of Kierkegaard’s book on Pastor Adolph Adler, referred to below, as a way for us, not just to find new apostles in an age of cynical Unbelief, but also a rediscovery of what we might call social ethics.

So what was Kierkegaard’s intention, given that this is the precious substance we must infuse into our new Kierkegaard works? It has to be his vast vision of Cosmic Grace and the passion of the Christ figure to carry the cross and all our modern shame, to paraphrase another pop song.

I have never seen this vision and passion laid out in the extremely engaged and successful way that certain Danish Kierkegaard experts have done it, starting with Brandes. And not all of them, by any means, wholeheartedly embraced Kierkegaard’s vision. But of the Danes who have helped me along the ethico-existential road I will mention Georg Brandes, J.L. Heiberg, Peter P Rohde, Johannes Sløk, Villy Sørensen and much more recently the above mentioned Pia Søltoft. Of the English language experts, I have found Jacob Howland and his book on Kierkegaard and Socrates the person most able to combine erudition and discernment with that passion we need. As we shall see, the classical scholar J.L. Heiberg anticipated some of the elements of the Kierkegaard/Socrates dynamic highlighted by Howland. Mention of Johannes Sløk encourages me to recall that he struggled with drink problems amongst other perfectly normal human travails and pointed out that embracing Kierkegaard does not stop you being an alcoholic but it does help you to embrace your self every day as an alcoholic and face in to some decisions that have to be taken, but still affirming your own validity as a human being. From these lines we not only gain great insight but also a right laugh at the irony of it and the honesty. Though I have only read it in Danish, I rarely see the English language version of Sløk’s brilliant book – ‘Kierkegaard’s. Universe’ – translated by Kenneth Tindall – from which I cite this alcoholic motif, mentioned in English language Kierkegaard books. Surely we need to know about this book? It is engaging, wise, insightful and full of the kind of irony that Danes do so well.

Peter P Rohde’s excellent edition of Kierkegaard’s journals (in selection) which includes his highly useful notes

The vanishing of Peter P Rohde

I want to mention Peter P Rohde, because what happened to this Kierkegaard expert may offer another part of the explanation as to where we have gone wrong. Again, he is barely known outside of Denmark. He has largely disappeared even in Denmark, this despite the fact that any Kierkegaard friendly Dane is likely to have Rohde’s 1962 Collected Works of Kierkegaard on their bookshelves and also to even have read some of them. Rohde’s modern day invisibility is surprising given that he once had a high profile in Denmark and even internationally, in the 1960s and 70s at least. So much so that the Danish government commissioned Rohde to write a monograph on Kierkegaard, which was distributed via its embassies and at conferences and so on. Rohde had made an interesting journey from hard-line Stalinist politics to an ethics based ethos and a refined knowledge of antiquity. One of the key things about Rohde, apart from being a gifted linguist, is that he, as an initial devout Marxist, had a very deep schooling in dialectical materialism – the Marxist theory of social and economic contradictions created and worsened to eventual crisis by capitalism. In other words, Rohde’s understanding of dialectics per se was very highly developed. This of course paved the way to a keen under understanding of ironical Socratic dialogue, Hegel’s dialectical reasoning and Kierkegaard’s analysis of all this.

It occurs to me that Rohde is rather like another Kierkegaard inspired Danish author, Martin A Hansen, who also demanded that intellectuals not only develop a set of ethics but also live them proactively in daily life. Both Hansen and Rohde were active in the Resistance and, at one point, Rohde – who was interned as a communist for the early part of the Second World War – was arrested and badly beaten by the Gestapo before escaping. He sustained permanent hearing damage because of this physical abuse. Readers can find brief details of Rohde’s heroic work against the Nazis at the Danish ‘Freedom Museum’ website, which contains a database of all the Resistance fighters, including the cover names they used and the prisons in which they were incarcerated (see below).

I sometimes wonder whether ‘thinker-activists’ like Hansen and Rohde irritate (shame?) academics because they got their hands dirty, so to speak, in defending our freedom. Or perhaps, if it is not irritation, then it is a view that the likes of Hansen and Rohde were nothing more than willing amateurs because they hadn’t done their requisite peer reviewed time in the hallowed halls of the Academe? Or is it because they changed their formerly left wing or liberal views (though not that much). I personally would disagree with Rohde’s turn to Zionism, but understand its context and am still able, and will still, admire and praise his work on Kierkegaard. I will mention in passing that Rohde was highly sensitive to antisemitism in society and never discovered this in Kierkegaard, as a fatal flaw.

The entry for Peter P Rohde in the Danish Resistance database published by Denmark’s Freedom Museum

It is true that Martin A Hansen’s fiction has been widely celebrated, but his important philosophical and spiritual thinking vis-à-vis Kierkegaard is invisible in English language Kierkegaard studies. Rohde, meanwhile, doesn’t receive a single mention in the ‘Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard’, even though the collected volumes he published as the latter-day editor in 1962, are referenced in its bibliography, i.e. Samlede Værker (Kierkegaard’s Collected Works). Here Rohde’s name is omitted and only the names of the original editors from 1901-1906 are cited for the 1962 edition. How strange:

Peter P Rohde’s 1962 Collected Works, in which his name as editor is surprisingly omitted from the ‘Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard’ reference.

Rohde has been criticised, sometimes savagely and ad hominem, for the poor presentation of his 1962 Collected Works edition. There are a myriad of typos and the punctuation is wrong. The pagination doesn’t follow earlier editions and so on. But the central annoyance seems to be that Rohde not only included the notes, such as they were, from the previous, much earlier, collected works but also had the temerity to add his own interpretation of the passages to which the notes referred and then build on these elsewhere in the Collected Works. How very dare he! Rohde had been immersing himself in Kierkegaard from the war years onwards and in 1956 published an, in my view, excellent and revealing book on Kierkegaard – Søren Kierkegaard: Et geni i en Købstad (‘Søren Kierkegaard: a genius in a market town’ – the ‘market town’ of the title is often translated as ‘small town’, but a Købstad – from the original Old Norse kaupstaðr – is a market town and Kierkegaard used that specific term when complaining about having to live in one.).

Peter P. Rohde’s 1962 – 1964 edition of Kierkegaard – a familiar sight in many Danish Kierkegaard friendly homes, but has been ignored to death, despite its obvious advantages

In passing we will note that Rohde also included the views of other Kierkegaard interpreters in his endnotes to his 1962 collected works. These were, amongst many others, the aforementioned Johannes Sløk and F.J. Billeskov Jansen. As far as I can see – and I stand to be corrected – absolutely none of Peter Rhodes’s notes, or those of the experts he added to his annotations, have been included in the definitive version of Kierkegaard’s collected works, which is housed at the Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter website (SKS):


The same goes for the really useful glossary of Kierkegaard terms by the brilliant Jens Himmelstrup, which are to be found in the final volume of the Rohde’s Collected Works. What a pity!

Of course, I can see the text-critical reasons for doing this, as we clearly needed a definitive historical-critical corpus. Niels Cappelørn in particular deserves tremendous praise for his trojan work over decades in unravelling and then organising the Kierkegaard corpus to modern text-critical and text-historical standards. I have had the good fortune to meet Niels Jørgen at the Kierkegaard Research Centre in Copenhagen, when it was still partially located there, and he has always been ready with advice and textual guidance whenever I have asked. I also attended Sunday Mass, with Niels as celebrant, at Vor Frelsers Kirke (the Church of Our Saviour), an interesting experience for an Irish Catholic. I can report that the roof did not cave in.

So to be clear, whilst I own Peter P Rohde’s 1962 Collected Works and cherish them, rather as you would an interesting and thought-provoking artefact, if I want to be absolutely sure about a Kierkegaard text and its contents, I use SKS.

However, is it beyond us to incorporate Rhodes’s notes in some way into the corpus? I mean his notes to the 1962 Collected Works and his notes to his selection of Kierkegaard’s journals and also Himmelstrup glossary. Or how about publishing Rhode and Himmelstrup notes separately as on online help to those many people who own the physical 1962 edition and Rohde’s edition of the journals referred to above? Say if a rider were added at the relevant points that his notes, and those of the other experts he included, vis-à-vis the relevant passages are disputed? Take for example, Billeskov Jansen’s note to the very last page of Philosphiske Smuler (‘Philosophical Fragments’). I am going to show readers the original note as it appears in Rodhe’s 1962 Collected Works and then translate it to show non-Danish-reading readers what you are missing by the effective exclusion of these notes from the international corpus:


“Philosophical Fragments has been described as a dialogue between Socrates and Jesus. However ‘The Moral’ that concludes this work demonstrates that its purpose was to go beyond Socrates. Therefore, despite the light touch in its presentation, it is more accurate to describe the book as a cross examination of Socrates by Jesus so as to wrest from him (or his modern counterpart Hegel) the standard by which our ability to discern the truth about ourselves is set. Socrates’s eternity is abruptly severed by the arrival of Jesus in both human history and the history of each individual. It proves, in a transcendent sense, to be a watershed moment in the life of humankind and the human individual. The moment of revelation, when God was in time and became suffused within the individual.”

I cannot see any good reason not to include this note and most of the other new notes from Rhode’s Collected Works in the corpus. Somehow. It seems very strange to me that they have been vanished, not least because with their exclusion from the definitive Danish corpus they have been lost, as far as I can see, to the international canon as well. Rohde is certainly one of the best interpreters and explainers of Kierkegaard that I have ever had the pleasure to read and consult.

But don’t just take my word for it, the Danish Biography Lexicon tells us that Rohde had exceptional pedagogical ability and presented his material clearly and comprehensibly and in a simplified way, but at the same time in a way that opened vistas. That is always the feeling I have with Rohde. So let me repeat this very clearly: Peter Rohde’s works and notes are a very enlightening way in to Kierkegaard’s thought world and his oeuvre for the layperson.

The Danish Biography Lexicon refers to P.P. Rohde’s exceptional ability as a teacher and explicator

Rohde has also been accused of taking Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors as being nothing more than literary biographical manifestations of Kierkegaard himself. That is, that the things they say and argue are really Kierkegaard’s own words and arguments. They are not fictional characters in any way. I have read Rhode’s notes extensively and I haven’t found any evidence of that. And where Rohde does see a biographical motif he is by no means the only one. Take Kierkegaard’s gripping ‘Fear and Trembling’, for example, in which Johannes de Silentio – Johannes the silent one – explores the Abraham and Isaac myth from a range of proposed narratives. If they give it a biographical link at all, most modern day commentators identify Isaac as a biblical Regine Olsen (the young innocent woman whom Kierkegaard famously jilted, or ‘sacrificed’ like a latter day Isaac as the argument goes). However Rohde gives good evidence that Isaac was at least a partial metaphor for Kierkegaard himself and Abraham for his father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard. In other words, if we accept Rohde’s view, Kierkegaard based ‘Fear and Trembling’ and its portrayal of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac partly on his own experience of his life as a child having been sacrificed by his tormented father, who failed in his faith just as Abraham did in some of the different scenarios Kierkegaard painted of that gripping scene on Mount Moriah.

I sat bolt upright when I read this in Rohde’s notes many years ago, because that is often how I myself have felt about my biological father. That my innocent childhood was sacrificed on the anger-stone of his frustration as a repressed and supressed artist from a Catholic Irish immigrant family.

In essence, that an oppressive father (or mother for that matter) radically changes the personality of the child and there is then a long road back to regain your true self. Your childhood having been murdered, at is it were.

But that is not the only task that a child so afflicted faces, because at the same time you also wish to save that father from his degraded self so as to assert the dignity of the soul per se (all souls) and in religious terms – if you think that way – to send him finally on his onward journey to heaven. It is impossible for children, who have grown to adulthood, to reassert their own dignity without also cleansing – I mean fully forgiving – the offending parent, or parents even, and thereby saving their souls as well. The preciousness of the soul must be vindicated and it therefore cannot just apply to oneself.

This idea of rescuing our ancestors is very prevalent in Celtic and Jewish traditions, particularly after Ireland’s harrowing and unnecessary Great Famine, and in our folk myths also, The horrifying Holocaust and the slaughter of the Jewish race has of course caused nightmares for subsequent generations and a desire to rescue the slain. The Russian tradition also I think, if I am reading Dostoevsky correctly, places an emphasis on the idea that we can somehow ‘raise the dead’ by deed and intercession. I have never seen this retrieval concept referred to in English language studies of ‘Fear and Trembling’ vis-à-vis his father, but I am no expert on the book. In a way it is a form of human resurrection. Helping God?

‘Fear and Trembling’ seen here in Alastair Hannay’s translation. (Hannay cannot be blamed for the ‘Soren’ on the cover.) Hannay takes the conventional view that Isaac is partly a metaphor for, or symbolic of, Kierkegaard’s sacrifice of Regine Olsen.

In the notes to his 1962 edition of ‘Fear and Trembling’, Peter Rohde draws readers’ attention to the fact that Kierkegaard has Johannes de Silentio placing Isaac’s age at exactly thirty years. The exact same age as Kierkegaard when he completed and published ‘Fear and Trembling’. The Bible states that Abraham was a centenarian (a hundred years of age) when he, against all expectations, ‘got’ Isaac as a son. Johannes Silentio has Abraham drawing that terrible knife up on Mount Moriah when he was a hundred and thirty. Thus Isaac’s age is given by Silentio as thirty. Here is the 1901 text of ‘Fear and Trembling’ (Frygt og Bæven) that gives these specific ages:

There is no basis from the Bible to make Isaac’s age at this exact number of 30, and would Silentio give Isaac the exact age of Kierkegaard when he wrote ‘Fear and Trembling’ by accident? I think not. But like all his other notes, Rohde’s, to my mind significant note has been ‘relegated’. The note in the definitive online Kierkegaard simply says that as Abraham was a hundred when Isaac was born and, therefore, Silentio is ‘estimating’ that Isaac was thirty years of age. But is this not in itself a value judgement? The footnotes for the original 1901 text says there is no known reason why Søren Kierkegaard (not Silentio mark well) places Isaac’s age at thirty:

Translation: – SK seems to have calculated that Isaac was 30 years of age at the time of his sacrifice – the grounds for this are unknown.

To no doubt increased fury on the part of those (small in number I think) who seem to wish to assert that Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors are entirely distinct from Kierkegaard himself, Peter Rohde went further with his allegedly over-literal and biographical obsession and argued that not only was Isaac at least a partial metaphor for Kierkegaard, so was the astounding Antigone figure in ‘Either – Or’. Essentially that Kierkegaard came into the same buried alive category as Antigone. In my reading, there are good grounds for this interpretation. Wasn’t Kierkegaard buried by his family curse and a blinded father who, unlike Abraham, had lost his faith? Or at least his faith in infinite Grace? The very thing with which Kierkegaard sought to resurrect him with his uplifting religious tales, which he continually named after his father? If this is true, it is Kierkegaard who was bound to keep the secret of his father’s blight locked in his psyche, the burden of a whole Universe condensed and sealed in the private subjectivity of a modern human – as we moderns are forced to endure our existence. That is how Kierkegaard portrays his Antigone in ‘Either-Or’. George Steiner’s whole Antigone essay is also based on this premise.

Intriguingly, Georg Brandes agrees with both Rohde and Steiner that Kierkegaard imagined himself as a modern day Antigone. He switched genders. (How postmodern.) In his great work on Kierkegaard (see above), Brandes says that Kierkegaard adored his father but was also made miserable by him because of the dread, angst and sexual guilt that he unloaded upon such an impressionable mind as this boy genius.

Embattled and inveterate atheist that he was, Brandes does not of course mention the father’s refusal to accept the possibility that he could be forgiven by the gift of Grace– a key insight for the mature Søren and the central point of his deeply penetrating and profound ‘Sickness unto Death’; the abyss over which his Vertigo Ethic yawns. But Brandes is clear. Kierkegaard is Antigone.

Georg Brandes asserts that Kierkegaard’s extraordinary modern day Antigone adaptation is based on his own self – translation: “in her breast he (Kierkegaard) implanted his own soul-afflictions via the insight into his father’s dark secrets.”

All this terrible insight may well have revealed the abyss that is the dark side of the human psyche to the young Kierkegaard and thereby implanted his unique grasp of such horrors but it is also a debilitating form of oppression.

Any argument that dismisses all thought of a biographical element in the works of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authors seems plain daft to me. We should at least listen and officially note the views of people like Brandes, Steiner and Peter Rohde surely?

I should record that Rohde received a vindication of sorts in the highly enriching ‘Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard’ in which he is in fact credited for his 1962 Collected Works and the author of the relevant essay, Steen Tullberg, points out that Peter Rohde achieved an impressive feat despite huge time pressure, which was clearly a major factor impacting on the presentation of Rohde’s Collected Works.

To conclude – some translation fun

New York Review of Books will publish my translation of Martin A Hansen’s seminal ‘The Liar’ in 2022

I translate literary fiction and write novels because, in the first instance, I enjoy it. If it was a good enough excuse for William Faulkner ,,, yes, It can be fraught with difficult decisions and there are other pressures, but overall it is great fun. So just for the hell of it, it occurred to me to share some passages about, or by, Kierkegaard that I have translated recently.

I have mentioned already that many Kierkegaard people seem to take themselves very seriously. There is not much levity about. Are they reading Kierkegaard properly? One of the reasons I like Steen Tullberg’s essay in the ‘Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard’, referred to above, is that, whilst it is extremely precise and erudite, there is a real engagement there, and an acknowledgement that Kierkegaard enjoyed life. Here Tullberg is describing how Kierkegaard gathered his thoughts by speaking them out whilst walking the streets of Copenhagen and engaging with common folk in the early part of the day so as to arrive at his “verbal formulations” once back at his desk:

“The verbal formulation could very well have taken place during Kierkegaard’s daily strolls through Copenhagen, where he had an extraordinary ear for the things being said on the street by everyday folk such as servant girls, coachmen, stablemen, beggars, and drunkards. And in fact, in his journal, Kierkegaard gives explicit evidence of the importance of his walks in the streets of the city.”

In that same ‘Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard’, veteran Kierkegaard translator, Alastair Hannay, has suggested that we need Kierkegaard translators who not only can write well themselves but are also infused with the Socratic ideal (the requirement of being highly knowledgeable about Kierkegaard and 19th Century literature in Denmark and beyond is a given).

Of course nobody can hope to exactly match the sheer range of styles, the verve, the elan, the deep and complex dexterity of Kierkegaard’s writings but I do think that Hannay has a point in terms of translating Kierkegaard in a more expansive way so as to reflect his essence, his passion. But, as I hope I have shown, improving Kierkegaard translations, though very important, is not the heart of the problem, as I see it.

Liv og Død i Græsk Belysning – (Life and death by Ancient Greek Lights)

A 1915 University Festschrift by the brilliant philologist and Kierkegaard expert –J.L. Heiberg

Earlier I mentioned J.L. Heiberg who, in his day, was a world famous philologist, and one of the editors of the original 1901-1906 Collected Works of Kierkegaard. J.L. Heiberg is not to be confused with his younger brother P.A. Heiberg who wrote more extensively about Kierkegaard and was one of the editors of the first collected journals. Part of the reason I mentioned J.L. Heiberg is precisely because of that engagement with, and passion for, Kierkegaard; this despite the fact that Heiberg was not favourably disposed to arguments about religion and faith.

So as my first bit of translation fun, I am l going to show you what Heiberg wrote about Socrates’s idea of having a ‘higher view’ in life and how the idea of the Sovereign Individual’s life mission developed (see Opgaven above), which Heiberg placed in the context of Kierkegaard’s salute to Socrates as the midwife of ironic subjective reflection. The process by which we first discover our sovereign selves with all the profound choices that implies and entails. Look:


“(It is every) person’s life mission to become self-aware as to her/his role in life and in accordance with that role bring their essence to full and all-round expression and ethical development. This life mission is eternal. It is sufficient to fulfil one’s whole life, and the work itself in bringing this life mission to fulfilment is the true mark of human happiness and fortune, which no one can take from us. Moreover, this life mission can be successfully fulfilled by anyone who ponders and takes command of their own lives. In their nature, people cleave to the Good …”

What’s not to like? What’s to be cynical about?

Svimmelhedens Etik – the Vertigo Ethic

I have mentioned Pia Søltoft’s work on Kierkegaard and I would like now to show just a tiny sliver of her work, though it is an important sliver, as it is her definition of Kierkegaard’s Vertigo Ethic. It is a great shame this excellent book, which is her PhD Paper, has not found its way into English. Certainly the second part of the book, which looks at the Vertigo Ethic in detail through the prism of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous authorship, and also some works that he declared as entirely his own, should be translated. Once I have translated Mette Blok’s superb book on Nietzsche, and if no other translator steps into the breach in the meantime, I will begin translating this crucial work on Kierkegaard.

Pia Søltoft’s ground-breaking book on the nature of Kierkegaardian sin (selfishness) and the redemption from which we would hide.

In his 1915 Festschrift cited above, J.L Heiberg marks the seminal moment when Kierkegaard re-interpreted Socrates’s ironic discourse and effectively declared it to be the birth of modern subjective mankind. By his art of ironic conversation, his merciless questioning, taunting and teasing (a device loved by Kierkegaard, not always a nice trait), Socrates brought his interlocutors to the brink of self-realisation. Then Socrates walked away or went quiet, or anyway, it was not within him, or it was not the time to declare the saving nature of infinite Grace. So burgeoning modern mankind was left to stew, as it were, with itself, with a new self-awareness and subjectivity – Pia Søltoft’s ‘first ethic’ – but with no wherewithal, no ‘second ethic’, as yet, to bring her or him to the distant shore where redemption and the ‘communal we’ awaited. It is at this literally time bending moment that the Time Lord Søren Kierkegaard – he was a master time bender – reached into the past and pointed out to the future that it will never get beyond Socrates without the saving redemption of Grace, so that we can look forward to hope as well as backwards in recollection to wisdom.

Pia Søltoft’s brilliance in her book ‘The Vertigo Ethic’ is to home in on that ethical time shift and reject the view that Kierkegaard had a stages view of ethical development, because by definition this is a self-centred view predicated on the individual’s ethical relationship or mis-relationship with God alone. What is so exciting about the second part of Søltoft’s book is that she shows – definitively to my mind – that a thematic reading of Kierkegaard’s writings reveals that he arrived at a new criterion for the ethical in human ethical relations vis-à-vis the Divine. This new criterion lying under the surface of (mainly) his pseudonymous texts, she says, is the Vertigo Ethic and it has a preeminent and sustained significance both for the subjective self’s relations to itself and her/his relations to the other.

I am at a loss to understand why this hugely important text by Pia Søltoft has not broken through in any major way to mainstream English language discourse on Kierkegaard. (She is of course well known in that constituency otherwise.) The Vertigo Ethic is thereby invisible in mainstream discourse, outside of Denmark. Hence my reason for including my translation of Søltoft’s explanation of the Vertigo Ethic, one of them anyway, below.

Please bear in mind that my translation is an adaptation of the passage, as I want to show what can be done with a translation, the better to show the author’s intent. The passage is in no way an official text agreed with its author or the publisher, though I did mention to Pia Søltoft recently that I was writing this essay. Here it is:

Page 353 Svimmelhedens Etik – The Vertigo Ethic defined.

“Thus the person-to-person ethical relationship becomes a relationship in which one of those persons separates her/himself to become a being against the other. In this way, the Sovereign Individual attains her/his own subjective individuality and responsibility. However in the flux of this same dynamic, the Sovereign Individual also becomes aware of her/himself as constituting a being that is with the other and defined by the relationship with that other. This means that a person is bound to the other within the sphere of ethical responsibility that defies our inherent aversion to the Good. Preserving one’s own individual validity and fulfilling the life-mission that is implicit in the fact that human subjectivity is a continual becoming in time, is only possible by retaining that identification with the other, which is the foundation of creation. This foundation is shaken to its core by sin (selfishness), and vertigo arises in the daunting chasm of self-conflict, which then opens between creation and the possibility of redemption. This vertigo is finally lifted via the person’s belief that God is a reality for whom anything is possible. The awareness that God is Love. And then, the awareness that God first showed that Love through both creation and the possibility of redemption, allows the individual human being to believe in Love, even when the Good seems to be absent in a person’s life. The profound dynamic of Kierkegaard’s Vertigo Ethic is to transform the belief in this dizzying possibility into a firm reality in relation to the other.”

Finally …

The length of Kierkegaard’s Trousers

One of the savage caricatures of Kierkegaard – note the length of his trousers – that appeared in the Corsaren satirical review during 1846; a decisive year and a decisive moment for Kierkegaard’s overall thinking. His ‘Book on Adler’, in its final form, was a direct result of these ‘tabloid’ attacks.

In the spirit of Alastair Hannay’s call – if I understand him correctly – for more literary translators who also have a keen knowledge of Kierkegaard, to translate him, I provide just such a, very short, example below. As already hinted, Hannay, a fine Kierkegaard translator himself, made this call in the aforementioned ‘Oxford Handbook of Kierkegaard’. He thereby makes a link between the kind of Socratic translations he wants to see and the ability to write well. The latter being quite an advantage when translating such an extraordinary writer like Kierkegaard. I take ‘Socratic’ to mean discursive and this word summarises my general approach to translation work, though it does depend on the original author’s own approach.

I doubt there is a better example anywhere of an author who cannot be translated ‘straight’, than Søren Kierkegaard, because there is so much going on in the subtext. Not even the genius Samuel Beckett could translate his own works from French to English as word for word reproductions and neither did he want to. It is impossible. And those who – with regard to translation – cry: the text is sacred!, are really thereby saying that authors and their essential purpose and intentions are not sacred. With a coruscating writer like Kierkegaard, for example, if you don’t break the text open to some extent, so as to give the context to what he is saying. and the culture from which he is speaking, the translator will dilute his essence. I had an example recently of a brilliant Danish text in which the action and characters are to be found in Denmark late in the evening of Midsummers Eve (the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist, 24th of June – Sankthansaften,23rd of June). Now nowhere in this text is it explained that daylight basically does not leave the sky in this period of the Scandinavian summer. Why?

Because the author knows that the whole readership already knows this from their mother’s milk onwards. But a translator must contextualise this fact, in the most subtle of ways of course – this usually only takes a word or two extra. Without this tweak, the uninformed, or forgetful, reader will wonder why the scene is being described as midnight but it’s still obviously broad daylight. The context and author’s worldview is sacred!

My Kierkegaard translation extract below is of the 1846 introduction to the Adler book with the Danish text taken from the Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter website. The SKS has now, therefore, produced the definitive Adler book except that it has not, as far as I can establish, published the fascinating 1848 ‘longer preface’ – there were three formal prefaces in the end as Kierkegaard struggled with the text and continually drew back from it due to the fact that he and Adler were acquainted and had gone to the same school. The Book on Adler was actually not published until well after Kierkegaard’s death, so long after November 1855.

The genesis of Kierkegaard’s Book on Adler is labyrinthine and I will refrain from attempting to unravel it here, But essentially the book started life as Kierkegaard’s response in private notes, tracts and memos to Pastor Adolph Adler’s claim to have been blessed with a visitation from the Saviour in the early 1980s – a Revelation. The subject gained urgent impetus in 1846 when Kierkegaard was attacked in the Corsaren satirical review. Kierkegaard saw a nexus between Adler’s rush to print and the media gossip and ‘mob’ culture that had made him a virtual prisoner in his own home for a period. At the heart of all this, of course, was the question of authority – who can speak with genuine authority and who can claim to be chosen. Who can claimed to be a serious artist and to have a calling also, as Stanley Cavell was to put it later. By 1848, Kierkegaard had a set of chapters that constituted the Adler book in the form of what he called ‘a cycle of ethico-religious treatises’. Though I have read the Adler book in Danish, of the two translations of the Adler book I have studied in English, I much prefer Waler Lowrie’s rather than the overwhelming Hong’ version, which though well translated proves the maxim that Kierkegaard has been annotated to death.

Everyman’s excellent 1994 edition of Kierkegaard’s ‘The Book on Adler’ (and ‘Fear and Trembling), which includes George Steiner’s profound essay on Kierkegaard, with its reference to his father’s looming and oppressive persona. A reason perhaps why it is never quoted in Kierkegaard studies?

Lowrie’s translation and presentation is quite straightforward and his book in its three editions (that I know of), from the 1940s and then (posthumously) up to the Everyman edition in the 1990s includes the 1846 introduction and then all the main prefaces – in one place – that a reader would wish to read, including the fascinating 1848 preface in which Kierkegaard gives his politico-philosophical views on that momentous year of revolutions and turmoil. The same year of course as Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto. As noted above, this 1848 preface is not included in the official SKS canon, as far as I can see. However, missing from all English language editions of the Adler book is the hilarious, poignant and profound – ‘my immortal trousers’ – section from the 1846 introduction. (The Hong version does include this but it is thrown into the welter of introductions and prefaces, and scraps of same, at the back of their Adler book.) Readers of Danish will be delighted to hear that Kierkegaard’s trousers have been returned to him in the definitive Adler text at SKS.

Thus I am doing the world – the English language Kierkegaard world at least – a small service in translating this text as it has not seen the light of day in English in this form, with the equally humorous and ironic scenario of St Paul engaging in dissembling bluster directly above it. I am literally putting the fun back into Kierkegaard.

Here is how a literary translator, though remaining a humble critic, translates Kierkegaard:

(Extract from Kierkegaard’s 1846 Introduction to his book on Pastor Adolph Adler)

“If anybody were to ask me who on earth I am, and what gives me the right to do this, I can only reply that I am simply a humble critic; a lowly person, who has nothing more than that ethical justification all human beings possess when considering an author’s work.

Unless we are going to dismiss this whole commotion with Magister Adler as nothing more than a piece of trivia that is best ignored, it is important that it is discussed properly. Because it is rather unsettling that such a dizzily brilliant author does not himself know how being witness to a Revelation should be interpreted. Moreover, it is unfortunate that the scintillating brilliance of our greatest books of philosophy actually leads our thoughts away from what is decisive in all this. By contrast, I have absolutely no doubt, as is clearly evidenced by his writings, that the Apostle St. Paul would in no way have taken offence if someone were in all seriousness to ask him whether he really had experienced a Revelation. And I also have no doubt that Paul, with all the brevity that such a profundity invokes, would have reflected for a moment and then simply answered: yes.

But if Paul (and may he forgive me for what I am now saying – but a small falsehood must be uttered to reveal a greater truth), instead of answering briefly and solemnly – be that yes or no – had launched into a longwinded speech that went something like this: “yes, well you see … I have, of course, actually pointed this out myself … Revelation is perhaps putting a bit too strongly. But something definitely happened. Something in the genius category at least …”

Now, that changes everything. Geniuses I can handle fairly well. With God as my judge, if we really are in the presence of a genius, then with all requisite aesthetic decorum, I will be the first to express my reverence for the superior mind from whom I am learning. But that I should show him religious subservience; that I should relinquish my judgment in obedience to his divine authority? No, that I will not do. And no genuine genius would require that of me.

So when a man blithely wishes to explain away a previously claimed apostolic existence into that of being a mere genius, without revoking the first claim—well then, he throws everything into great confusion.

These are the central issues any critic is obliged to continually bear in mind, as I shall do in this modest book. Not so as to cause even more confusion, but precisely so as to – if possible – illuminate certain religious categories and in order thereby to enlighten the times in which we live. It is no idle boast, I think it is fair to say, that those who read this book with due care will indeed find enlightenment. For I am not exactly unacquainted with our present age and the great matters that are stirring within it. I follow its passage with interest, like someone sailing in the same ship and yet having a separate cabin; not in terms of being on the upper decks, as though I had some sort of authority and rank. No. Rather in the way of an individualist who has anything but authority.

I have never attained any sort of authority, neither when beginning as an author, nor subsequently; just as I have never had any particular significance for this momentous age in which I live – that is except in one regard, and that is by way of my trousers, which have caused such a first class sensation and attracted the attention of the more culturally refined elements of the populace.

All this has the air of witchcraft about it in our highly cultured mid-19th Century. Like the ‘1001 Nights’ except that it is a pair of old, grey trousers that cast a spell of amnesia over all else. And witchcraft it is, because no one knows that this spell is abroad. And not only that – those things yet to come are similarly hexed. The high minded and zealous opinion formers who, in the name of a cultured populace, and with a stern rigour of which Cato Censorius himself would approve, invoke the demands of our present age and pronounce judgements on, yes, it is true – the question of a man’s trousers. And they have frequently concerned themselves with mine. One minute they are too short, the next too long. But ach and alas! Those trousers remain the same battered old grey ones.

Such a real-life phenomenon in this age really does have significance. It is a phenomenon that superbly epitomises our cultured public’s judgment, and that, surely, is also of significance, which is precisely why it deserves its own modicum of immortality – both as a contribution to the history of our age, and also to record what lofty matters occupied the minds of Copenhagen’s populace at this time. For, as one of our great sages has said, that which consumed a moment entirely will live forever. Thus, when my writings are long forgotten, my trousers, though long since worn to death, will live on through all eternity.”

Paul Larkin


September 2021