Time to acknowledge Pádraic Fiacc’s poetic genius



Seamus Heaney said next to nothing about his fellow Ulster poet Pádraic Fiacc, whose centenary is being celebrated this year with the publication of two new Fiacc collections – Unpublished poems, and a bilingual (English/Irish) collection, both being released in the run of this spring and summer (2025). Both books are poetic and visual gems. Your author has had a minor role in both books.

Superb poet that Heaney was, he admitted to being the Incertus of Troubles literature. The intriguingly avant-garde, yet eclectic Irish Catholic, Pádraic Fiacc was incapable of such dithering. His only urge was to speak of the visceral truth happening all around him. Whether that suited one agenda or another was irrelevant. The Irish literary establishment preferred not to gaze too deeply at Fiacc’s all-too revealing hall of mirrors.


Fiacc’s ‘The wearing of the black’ (1974) provoked fierce criticism


Just like the 1974 anthology The Wearing of the Black itself – for which Fiacc was the editor – his poem ‘Tears’ in this collection provoked outrage with its graphic description of the shooting of a young girl by way of a stray bullet:


When the ricocheting bullet bites into

The young child who wanted to walk

In her mother’s high heels to push

The doll’s pram, she gives out

A funny little ‘oooh!’

And lets the blood spill

All over her bright new bib …


Fiacc’s effect is the same as the smartphones now relaying the barbarity in Gaza in real time. We are there. And it has, or should have, the same galvanising effect. We – all of humanity – are to blame for this. What happened instead was that Fiacc was castigated for exploiting violence for sensationalist effect. That he was not writing poetry at all.

With its in your face engagement, The wearing of the black, was a watershed moment. Fiacc’s implicit criticism of the “pyjama poets” who skirted around the Troubles, became explicit in his subsequent defence of the anthology, sharpened as it was by the murder of his young protégée, Gerry McLaughlin, just after publication. There was, Fiacc said, an “odour of sanctity” about the Heaney circle (those same pyjama poets), whereas Fiacc’s realm was “The Odour of Blood”. (The Christ Crucified title of his 1973 collection.)


Fiacc’s truth was that the North of Ireland in general and Belfast in particular was a sectarian cesspit and that its inhabitants had been tainted with its poison, including Fiacc himself. His poem ‘The British Connection’ stands with the work of Franz Fanon and CLR James as a seminal text on the trauma and civic strife colonialism unleashes:


And guns under the harbour wharf

And bullets in the docker’s tea tin

And gelignite in the tool shed

And grenades in the scullery larder

And weedkiller and sugar

And acid in the French letter



Editor Michael Mckernon’s achievement, not just with his remarkable ability to visualise Fiacc’s poetry but also in resurrecting Fiacc’s importance cannot be overstated. The very fact that Fiacc bequeathed his literary estate to a visual artist and painter – McKernon – rather than the poetic-cum-academic community is telling. Fiacc felt that he was becoming an obscure curio for academic study, as opposed to the literary lightning rod he actually was.

These new books seek to assert Fiacc’s rightful place as a major, indeed vital, Irish poet, building as they do on McKernon’s 2006 ‘Sea’ edition of Fiacc’s works. They herald a completely new approach to Fiacc, illustrating his cinematic style, adding context and a glossary. Just as was required with much of Joyce, Fiacc is reported to have said that with ‘Sea’ he had been brought back from the dead.

The unpublished collection reveals Fiacc’s growth as a modernist artist seeking to push the boundaries of language and form. Then his disgust at mass market living. The lack of air to breathe. In ‘Night riders’ for example (set in New York):


Into a tinned tight sardine

‘togetherness’, our dead

Silent waiting, train-hooted,

Shunting, not half shrieked for…


In the bilingual English/Irish edition, I particularly like ‘Stormbird/Éan Stoirme’ and ‘Stolen Child/Fágálach’. This latter poem is a direct nod to Yeats and the changeling of Irish folklore:


Your head is a stayed dawn

Will moon not, will never know

Night but child-stay the sandy

Linnet of a winter’s day.


There is tenderness here as Fiacc ponders this child, but also despair in the poem as a whole, like a pall of nausea in the very fabric of Belfast brick, park and pondlife.

‘Stormbird//Éan Stoirme’’ signals Fiacc’s joy in the great outdoors and references to bees and birds abound in his poems. But this bird is an albatross. A bird that famously never settles and is a harbinger of fate. Just like Fiacc himself.

The loneliness of the poet who refuses to look away.


Pádraic Fiacc (born Patrick Joseph O’Connor -15 April 1924 – 21 January 2019)

‘Nietzsche as Educator’ – some initial thoughts on my translation of Mette Blok’s important book

‘The Sun’ (1909) by Edvard Munch adorns the cover of Mette Blok’s book on Nietzsche

‘Poignant’ is the word that sprang to my mind when I finished reading Danish academic Mette Blok’s groundbreaking book on Friedrich Nietzsche some years ago. I have now completed the translation of this book. (A thorough proofing process now awaits). I say ‘poignant’, because on finishing the translation of the book – I had done a great deal of Nietzsche research in the meantime – I was then fully aware of Nietzsche’s efforts to save us from our own follies. How much effort he made. How much he has been, and still is, misrepresented and wrongly maligned. Nietzsche sought to uplift. To help us face each new dawn with joy, despite our pains.

Though a mercurial genius, it was clear to me that Nietzsche retained a childlike quality throughout his increasingly tortured life. He was a ‘pure child’, as we say in Ireland. An adult child who retained a touching innocence. He clearly reacts with effusive glee when he is praised and profound dismay on being rebuked, rejected or ignored. He was barely read in his own lifetime. Sometimes, even people who admired him or cared for him did not know what to make of his new way of writing philosophy. Nietzsche’s adult side, of course, continued with the work that so agitated or enthralled people depending on their own views, perspicacity or bias. He continued because this was his calling and he could do no other, as he well understood. Constantly seeking approval but also ploughing one’s own lonely furrow regardless of opinion is a special form of human self-torture. No god or beast can know of it. It takes human courage, conviction and fortitude. Thankfully, Nietzsche possessed these in abundance.

As is well known, Nietzsche was also tortured by a lifetime of poor and ever worsening eyesight – the greatest fear for any writer. But he was also tortured because he knew he was, and probably always would be, misunderstood: – “Hat man mich verstanden?” Have I been understood? is a recurring question for him and is discussed in the book. That search for approval again. But it is more than that for Nietzsche, because rather than revelling in the death of God – as he is often portrayed – he was horrified at its implications for humankind. He truly cared about us and our fates and could feel desperate sadness sometimes at the thought of human suffering. Not least because much of it was and is needless. He knew suffering intimately.

So concerned was Nietzsche, in fact, at the inevitable prospect of a rampant nihilism (we are close to it now, perhaps) following the collapse of religious faith, he bent his mind, his will and aching body parts to devising a way out that could lead us to the type of new – what we might call – ‘Age of the Sun’ depicted by Nietzsche acolyte, Edvard Munch above. Dawn and the new day are hugely important motifs for Nietzsche. It is quite irrelevant that Nietzsche proclaimed himself to be the personification (in embryo?) of that new dawn and that he wrote in an often vituperative and caustic style. The key issues are: – were his arguments valid; his remedies helpful; and are the persistent claims of his extreme recklessness and ruthlessness true? This book answers all these questions.

Nietzsche’s strenuous efforts in trying to drag us away from barbarism and back to high culture are at the core of Mette Blok’s book and the reason why its title is not Nietzsche as Ethicist, which is the straight translation of its Danish title (‘Nietzsche som Etiker’), but Nietzsche as Educator. For he is indeed our educator, on a par I would argue with Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Karl Marx, in that uplifting mission they all clearly felt was part of their own life-missions. And, without giving too much away, the book’s conclusion even ventures tentatively into ‘Nietzsche as Christian’ territory.

It should be said that this is not the first book every written about Nietzsche that bears the title – Nietzsche as Educator, but it is undoubtedly one of the most important and most accessible. The gift that I have, probably above all others, is to make high-flown academic discourse more accessible to working class people. My people. Thankfully, Mette Blok writes in a very clear and down to earth way and that has made my task as translator and mediator much easier. There are literally thousands of academics who have written, or are at the moment writing about, Nietzsche but very little of this huge output either reaches, or means anything, to ‘ordinary people’. What a pity. Philosophy, and in particular where this book is concerned the discipline of ‘moral philosophy’ is supposed to be about helping us to live our lives more fruitfully and wisely, not to mention more excitingly if we follow Nietzsche’s argument as laid out in this book. Little of the moral philosophy debate percolates down to the masses, yet academics never seem to ask themselves why this is so. It is in this important sense, then, that Nietzsche is, or can be, an educator. For this book demonstrates very clearly the kind of actions Nietzsche believed we must take – and the life-view we should adopt – if we are to self-overcome ourselves. Become the people we truly are, once we establish the answer to that proposition. Nietzsche himself vaunted the idea of his being an educator in his book Ecce Homo in which he states that his book on his mentor Schopenhauer should be really be entitled Nietzsche as Educator, because it is far more about Nietzsche’s journey, rather than Schopenhauer’s.

Edvard Munch’s 1906 (posthumous) portrait of Nietzsche –
a reversal of his ‘Scream’

As is flagged above, where Nietzsche’s undeserved barbarian reputation is concerned, Mette Blok’s book to some extent, and understandably, concentrates on Nietzsche’s reception within the rarified realm of moral philosophy, and in particular refers to a group of Anglophone academics who have been less than careful in their Nietzsche research and have then arrived at sweeping conclusions that accuse Nietzsche of being an immoralist and deliberate wrecker of social harmony. However, part of my reason for immediately wanting to translate the book is that its redemption of Nietzsche has a far wider application. For, quite apart from a brilliant Intermezzo that examines and explains, to my satisfaction, Stanley Cavell’s essential thinking – i.e. that we are continually negotiating moral issues as we go along in life, the book contains the best explanation that I have ever read of the extraordinary dwarf-cum-serpent fable, which lies at the heart of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a work Blok describes as Nietzsche’s “ethics”. A work she rightly places at the heart of her book.

It is strange that Nietzsche experts fail to pay more attention to this fable, at least in most of the books that I have read. For a start, all of us can relate to the idea of a devil or dwarf around our necks, weighing us down and dripping poison into our ears. Zarathustra throws down this dwarf (a metaphor for nihilism) by demonstrating how we can break modern life’s apparently endless and futile circle of logic with our gift for self-overcoming. That we can embrace that line that goes into the past – no matter how difficult that past sometimes was – and then look into the future with joy at every new moment that is just about to come. This idea of seizing the moment is of course very close to Kierkegaard in terms of the understanding of time, repetition and human agency (our ability to grasp time). Therefore, at every moment, we ourselves – we ordinary human beings – become the masters of time and history – a thought that terrifies the dwarf and no few philosophers, academics and high-ordained clerics as well, it seems. The notion that we – all of us – can be masters of our own destinies. Or as it says in the book – “we are no longer engulfed in time’s endless, impersonal cycle.”

A 17th century alchemist’s depiction of the mythical but all too ‘real’ Ouroboros

What then are to make of the serpent that gorges on the shepherd’s innards in that same fable? This is how, in the book, Zarathustra describes this constrictor and the debilitating effect it has upon him. Its hold on prophets and philosophers also:

The great disgust with mankind – that choked me and slithered into my throat: and what the prophet prophesied: “It is all equally futile, nothing is worthwhile, knowledge just strangles.” […] “The man of whom you are weary, the little man, recurs eternally”

Zarathustra cannot drag the slithering, choking beast from the shepherd’s throat and must exhort the man to bite its head off, which he does and then laughs a human laugh of freedom the like of which was never heard before. We see and feel graphically the point. Zarathustra can only give guidance. Only we ourselves can decapitate the vicious, endless cycle of meaninglessness in our own lives. Precisely because each life is different. Only we humans can transcend Eternal Recurrence and bend it to our will in each given moment. So where then does Nietzsche get the reputation of acclaiming the Overman/Superman – the Übermensch – who will ruthlessly dominate all of us with his monstrous ‘will’?

Put simply, there was a need for an English language book of this sort that specifically tackled the theoretical and philosophical arguments around morality and Nietzsche’s alleged ‘immoralism’. The book demonstrates that he was often his own worst enemy with his coruscating language and contempt for the moral guardians of his day, and precisely with his provocatively use of self-descriptions such as an ‘immoralist’ and ‘hammer wielder’. Hence the need to explain exactly what his intentions were when using these terms – that he was in fact proposing a higher set of morals based on our human striving to be our best selves in every regard. (If they were what passed for morals back then, he was against them and their hypocritical adherents.)

Sue Prideaux’s book demolishes once and for all the Nietzsche as Nazi myth

Though it very much stands on its own ground in its arguments and conclusions, I feel that Mette Blok’s book serves as a useful complement and forerunner to Sue Prideux’s ‘novelesque’ biography that completely demolishes the myth that Nietzsche was an antisemite, a Nazi, or proto-Nazi and extreme German nationalist. Prideaux’s achievement surpasses even that of Walter Kaufmann who first alerted the wider world to the nefarious role of Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, in converting her gentle, though rather haughty, brother into a Nazi ‘Blond Beast’ – this ‘beast’ being another unfortunate metaphor used by Nietzsche. As many readers will have noticed, the cover of Prideaux’s book is based on Edvard Munch’s famous painting of Nietzsche (see above) – we might call it the resolution or redemption of Munch’s ‘Scream’, which it obviously invokes and is in discourse with. Tellingly, Nietzsche’s sister prevailed on Munch to also paint her good self, and the resulting full-length portrait captures her dark, scheming nature well in my view.

Nietzsche has recently been proposed as the inspiration
for the terrifying Judge of Blood Meridian

That an urgent need for corrective books such as those by Blok and Prideaux still exists, and that this need goes far beyond the halls of the Academe, is demonstrated by the relatively recent flurry of books about Cormac McCarthy. Blok’s book was published in 2010 (I only began translating it much more recently), and Prideaux’s book in 2018. But here we are in the mid-20s and we still have a raft of otherwise extremely careful and erudite exegetists – of Cormac McCarthy in this case – who are convinced that McCarthy’s baleful judge was inspired by Nietzsche’s lore of a supposedly ruthless and amoral Superman or Overman – I prefer the term ‘Übermensch’ in my translation as it has now entered the English language with sufficient currency.

As some of my readers are aware, I have written a monograph on the understated influence of Kierkegaard in McCarthy’s works, especially in Blood Meridian and this also deals with the misrepresentation of Nietzsche, not by McCarthy, but by his critics – see, “Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’ in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian”: –


In fact, prior to the above monograph, I have had cause to point out to Danish researchers of Henrik Pontoppidan that, though Pontoppidan was undoubtedly influenced by Nietzsche, his depiction in A Fortunate Man (‘Lykke Per’) of the young Per Sidenius in the ruthless stage of his life journey is not a reflection of Nietzsche’s Will to Power concept. And whilst we are in Danish territory, some academic contemporaries of Mette Blok have in very recent times declared Nietzsche to be an anti-democrat promoting an often-inhuman agenda. It seems to me that authors like Pontoppidan and McCarthy, both of whom read Nietzsche at some length, understood Nietzsche better than their respective present-day exegetists. Indeed it seems to be a general rule that literary authors can do philosophers and philosophy better than philosophers or academics. This, in my view, is because fiction and biography authors are much more adept at seeing people in the round and in context. Whereas many philosophers and academics, the ones that I have read and know about at least, have a much more doctrinaire approach. This inflexibility has been exacerbated by an abandoning of nuance and a flattening of debate to an anachronistic labelling of people so that they can be placed in particular boxes. Kierkegaard has been declared an antisemite, Nietzsche a protofascist. Dostoevsky a ‘Russia fanatic’ and so this depressing trend blunders on. It is the opposite of the type of rigorous but generous investigation that is the true calling of academics surely? Infused – may God forbid – with a joy in humanity in all its complexities and contradictions. The kind of entirely human, yet still erudite and ambitious, philosophy and existential thinking Mette Blok does so well in ‘our’ book.

A draft cover of ‘Nietzsche as Educator’ – educating us on Nietzsche


Paul Larkin
Na Doirí Beaga
Tír Chonaill

Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’ in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian’s judge is a primordial force – a malevolent djinn out of the cold fires of void and wrath, not a person

“The true shape in which truth exists can only be the scientific system of such truth. To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title 'love of knowing' and be actual knowing - that is what I have set myself to do.”(The Phenomenology of Spirit, G.W.F. Hegel)

Our eyes, washed clean of belief,
Lift incredulous to their fearsome crowns of bolts, trusses,
struts, nuts, insulators, and such
Barnacles as compose
These weathered encrustations of electrical debris -
Each a Gorgon's head, which, seized right,

Could stun us to stone
.(‘Telephone Poles’, John Updike)

“Today I got Kierkegaard's Buch des Richters (Book of the Judge) As I suspected, his case, despite essential differences, is very similar to mine. At least he is on the same side of the world. He validates me, as would a friend.” - (Franz Kafka)

— On Cormac McCarthy’s point of view for his work as an author —


In what follows I argue that Kierkegaard, by way of Walter Lowrie’s magnificent biography-cum-translation of Kierkegaard’s works, was a guiding text for Cormac McCarthy as he brought both Blood Meridian and Suttree into being, and that the strong evidence for this has either been overlooked, or misunderstood, in all the studies of McCarthy and this groundbreaking novel that have followed since. This lacuna has been widened considerably by the failure to recognise that the ‘Spirit’ of Hegel haunts Blood Meridian.

All the passages quoted from Cormac McCarthy’s works below are quoted directly as published and without emendation.

In chapter fourteen of Blood Meridian, the following are listed – 19th Century Style – as some of the themes for the coming chapter. These refer to the dapper and dainty, yet vast, profane and wicked judge:

An herbalist – The judge collects specimens – The point of view for his work as a scientist.

Anyone who takes more than a passing interest in Søren Kierkegaard will recognise this Kierkegaard clue in an instant. It will strike them like a divine thunderbolt as it did this author. Those fortunate souls will tell you that one of Kierkegaard’s most important works is his The Point of View for my Work as an Author.

Most of the material for Kierkegaard’s posthumously published ‘Point of View’ book came from his private journal entries from 1846 onwards, but especially the 1849 entries which was the year he compiled the book. Though in the end, and after much self-torture – he decided to leave the book to posterity. More importantly for our purposes, Kierkegaard pondered a different title for a book version of his journals from this period: – ‘The Book of the Judge’ – referred to in the Kafka quote above, in its German language manifestation and discussed below.

We now know that as Cormac McCarthy imagined the extraordinary figure of the judge in Blood Meridian into being, he consulted Walter Lowrie’s two-volume biography of Kierkegaard extensively as part of his background research and therefore almost certainly read Walter Lowrie’s very detailed account of the genesis and content of Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View and its alter ego of The Book of the Judge. In fact, the Book of the Judge is deemed so important by Lowrie that he mentions it on the second page of his introduction, in the context of Dr Hermann Gottsched’s publication of Kierkegaard’s journals, with that very title so as to fulfil Kierkegaard’s clear wish:

Gottsched laboured alone, a stranger in Denmark, to bring the five last volumes to completion. Later he published in German a small book of selections from the Journals, entitling it, as S. K. had proposed: The Book of the Judge.

The key thing here is – and regardless for the moment as to whether McCarthy read Lowrie’s Kierkegaard biography from cover to cover – on the second page of the book McCarthy is confronted with the title – The Book of the Judge. McCarthy then went on to write a novel that was another ‘Book of the Judge’, but this time from the ‘Point of View’ of a profane, scientific doppelganger of Kierkegaard.

Can these, what we might call reverse or colliding Kierkegaard confluences be nothing more than coincidence? I doubt it, knowing McCarthy’s exacting care for detail. And, as we shall see, there are a lot more Kierkegaard confluences where these came from.


Walter Lowrie’s 1939 translation of Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’

It has always struck me that more should have been made of this obvious and ‘primary’ connection between Blood Meridian and Kierkegaard’s deeply confessional, but also society-challenging work. The Mephistophelian judge’s ‘point of view’ as headlined in chapter fourteen of Blood Meridian is a verbatim reference to Kierkegaard’s work. McCarthy has even used exactly the same rather awkward construction as translated to English by Walter Lowrie: – ‘point of view for’. Some Kierkegaard translators have subsequently changed this to ‘point of view of’, as I would do.

But for the sake of the science, as it were, let us hesitate before agreeing that this is a very significant ‘pointer’. McCarthy was well capable of throwing in a quote or line into his forensically glossed works just because he liked the sound of them Or, magpie-like, grabbing the shine of these things. So we need to be sure that this blatant Kierkegaard reference has far more than just a ring and sheen to it. That he is engaging with Kierkegaard at a profound level.

One further immediate and crucial clue comes in the fact that the judge is directly described as a “scientist”. The point of view for his work as a scientist. The concept at the heart of Kierkegard’s ‘Point of View’ book finds Kierkegaard stressing that he was a religious author from start to finish. That is, that his work and worldview were not inspired, provoked or enthused by scientific, logical deduction, though he did, in general, give an ethics-based science its due. Kierkegaard was as interested in science – and good at it – as McCarthy was.

One of the examples Kierkegaard sometimes uses to illustrate his attitude to science is the doctor sitting by a sickbed. The doctor is indeed a scientist, but he (usually ‘he’ back then) is ministering to an ailing human being. So human relationships and contingency intervene, as does the idea of the highest good. Right there at the sickbed, the doctor-scientist can make a leap and become a new (existential) form of himself because of what transpires. As can the patient, even at the point of death. Human death is not death. A dead life is death. A life dead to life is death – the real sickness unto death for Kierkegaard. The scientist doctor cannot – with his science alone – rescue the patient from a dead life. Something more powerful than science is required. Something transcendent and therefore absurd to science. This is Kierkegaard’s point of view. He argues against the Hegelian notion that existence can be made a science.

In McCarthy’s Suttree, which McCarthy wrote more or less simultaneously with Blood Meridian, the narrator, who is the elusive soul of the eponymous Suttree and the living ghosts that we all are, declares that: – “death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory.” Was there ever a more Kierkegaardian sentiment expressed in all of fiction? It is a brilliant formulation of Kierkegaard’s idea of existential Repetition. And note well this word “dread” and what I argue below are its links to the word Schrack, as invoked by the German mystic Jacob Böhme, more properly; I think, Schreck or what he calls a Flagrat – a flash, or sunburst, but in my interpretation a fright – Schreck, cognate with Danish skræk. A scare or fright. Dread opens the vista to transcendence. McCarthy interpreter Michael Lynn Crews, whom we discuss below, very perceptively describes McCarthy’s view of our human fate as pilgrims on a life journey that will take us through hell at some point.

In the parable – as Kierkegaard reminds us in A Sickness unto Death – Lazarus is enlivened to a true life and immortality, though he will still die a human death, as we all do. Medicine is a logical science. The lived human life and death are paradoxes. Logic is not messy, contingent life which we live (recollect) forwards and understand backwards. We are sovereign individuals, yet at the same time all of our people. Our divine essence lies in love and our certain sense of that, both in ourselves and for and by the other. A graveyard of the dead is alive life. Such was Kierkegaard’s essential point of view. He is one of the few to take us beyond Socrates. For he saw in Christ’s passion and mercy how each human being could be set truly free. Socrates could only bring us to that place where we can begin knowing ourselves. Christ’s love brought us back to divinity and to the divine self. Divine relations.

But as both Kierkegaard and McCarthy saw, in our fractured modern world, the way back to the good takes us through the gates of hell if we are to forgive and be forgiven. We are still bound by tragedy as in ancient times but have abandoned the gods. All that is left is the now nameless dread. We are desperate for love and a sense of spiritual mercy (forgiveness) as the only way back. By definition, science alone cannot do mercy and love (clemency is McCarthy’s gloss in Blood Meridian). And here lies the challenge to the judge of Blood Meridian and he makes this clear. How to kill clemency. Suttree, meanwhile walks the haunted confines of the once grand house, that is the house of humanity, crying: “Gods and fathers what has happened here. Good friends where is there clemency?”


The judge’s ‘Point of View’


Kierkegaard availed of German translations of Shakespeare and did so with great engagement, not to say wonder


Kierkegaard begins his ‘Point of View’ book with a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry the Fourth (see above in the German) where Prince Henry says: “for in every thing the purpose must weigh with the folly.” In Suttree just before a man is shot to death, the narrator says: “In the act is wedded the interior man and the man as seen.” This is a good summation of McCarthy’s approach as a whole. The verbose and permanently hectoring judge of Blood Meridian is an exception in his fiction – a realm in which all is otherwise foregrounded in what we do rather than emote in torrents of words. Our actions. What we enact and set in train. Human weakness, conscience, doubt, brutishness, stupidity and folly, intervene in all human transactions. The sudden inexplicable twists and leaps of life. It is for this very reason that human life cannot fulfil Hegel’s scientific dialectic of resolution. Certain things are simply never to be resolved opposites. Or we may shrink back from the realm of reason – the imperious towers of law, logic and state. As the stasis of logic cannot salvage desperate hope.

Where our key life decisions are concerned, rather than our inner conflicts being mediated and resolved within a scientific process, we must decide, in an act of desperation or extreme emotion, to leap, carried only by faith, or some great conviction of hope. McCarthy’s Muse aroused and provoked his natural hang to the irrational, doubt ridden and contrary in men. Blood Meridian’s cocksure scientist judge, on the other hand, has no such doubts, concerns or tribulations. We will explore below the judge’s domineering views as a scientist. This glimpse will suffice for now:

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

Granted that there is not the same demonic intent, but is this not, in essence, the spirit, of Hegel’s haughty ambition in the quote at the start of this essay from his famous work The Phenomenology of Spirit? That all things must be – can be – discovered and known by we humans? That human reason can in fact know everything?

In his moving and heartfelt Loves Works – inexplicably translated as Works of Love most often (when it is love that is doing the work) – Kierkegaard paraphrases Paul’s teaching that knowledge inflates our self-importance, whilst love strengthens our souls. The self-important, all knowing, judge is a horrific shapeshifter. He represents the endgame of untrammelled and religion-less, love-less, allegedly neutral, science. He was, and is, there existing in all of time waiting for it. Just like the spirit of war he espouses. It is the very thing Kierkegaard warned of in the sense that we, as humans, can make a choice from the depths of the unfathomable realm of freedom and love which impels us to choose, or we can turn away from that choice.

There is no system for this. We cannot learn it from a book. We can step back from choosing for the good, or we can venture out into depths of seventy thousand fathoms with only faith in love as our lifebelt. This is the direct challenge to Blood Meridian’s judge from Kierkegaard reproduced in a text read by Cormac McCarthy:

“A logical system is possible; but a system of existence is impossible.”

Though very difficult to obtain or achieve, and never guaranteed, for Kierkegaard, just as for McCarthy, our innate sense of, and urgent need of, love and all this implies, our subjective freedom of conscience, will and action – and the self reflections and aspirations, or despair, wedded to these – are the human attributes that separate us from beasts. Another solely human attribute is the gift of language with which we express (or self reflect on) these emotions. A linguistic expression of our striving to be human. It is also our prison. Always we strive to better express and also get beyond language. Get before it. Or after it. This is the basis of art, which preceded language anyway. McCarthy was involved in an endless search for words that could better say what he wanted to say. What he wanted to paint better in words.

The Kekulé Problem – McCarthy’s 2017 exploration of our unconscious and dream-state thought processes

In 2017, McCarthy published an essay based on the dream-state discovery by August Kekulé of the benzene molecule’s structure. As McCarthy explains, whilst asleep, the mythological Ouroboros or self-eating ring-serpent came to Kekulé in a dream when he was attempting to solve this problem and he woke to realise that he had dreamed a ring. The molecule is a ring. His unconscious thought processes, in other words, had solved, or rather helped to solve, the problem.

One of the images that comes readily to my mind with this dream-story about a serpent is the ancient Nordic image of the self-eating snake – also found in many other cultures of course. Not just a symbol of the cyclical nature of time, but also the two ends as the divine and earthly in humankind. In the classic Norse myth, Odin throws the serpent Jörmungandr into the sea, wherein it grew so large it begins to gorge on itself. Perhaps, as with the Kekulé dream, the Ouroboros is actually a symbolisation of the way our unconscious does in fact deal with problems that surround our waking lives, by joining them with our conscious side so that they become ‘in the round’ and digested? McCarthy would probably answer that proposition by pointing out that we no more can know how our unconscious works than we can know how we ended up being the only talking animal on the planet. There are other things we can add to this list and some of these will emerge in what follows, but let us add love and hatred as two opposing propensities. McCarthy does not explore the question of conscience or love in his Kelkulé essay (more’s the pity) yet conscience and love, or their enemies, are crucial currents in his works. Love and hatred. The realm of the human.

Be all that as it may, for now, what McCarthy wishes to say – and he is right – is that we cannot explain how we humans, and only we humans, came to speak and that speech was not a biologically founded progression. Somehow, we got an Ur-language that rapidly spread. Song, rhyme, warnings and games are my own best guess at how it spread so quickly. McCarthy describes the unconscious as a “machine” for operating an animal. This is a rare loose word from him. ‘Attribute’ or ‘propensity’ would be better words, as he accepts that art preceded language and therefore so did metaphor, along with the unconscious.

Both Kierkegaard and McCarthy believe that we aspire to ‘soul’ as we constantly struggle with sin and the examination of conscience implicit in free will and self reflection. This is an important concept, because soul is both within us and without us, to invoke the George Harrison song. This is not dualism – a soul-body split. For Kierkegaard we eternally have the urging possibility within us of being closer to ‘soul’ and thereby to the God-love. For McCarthy there is ultimately only One Soul, an Ur-Soul. “It is not alone in the dark of death that all souls are one soul”, as Suttree has it at a moment of deep reflection. Both Kierkegaard and McCarthy have been influenced by the German mystic Jacob Böhme in these considerations. What they are wrestling with is our temporal state as human beings within our undoubted sense and grasp of (longing for?) the eternal. For love. Or just peace perhaps?

Much has been written about the influence of Jakob Böhme in Cormac McCarthy’s works and life-view but there seems to be no awareness of Böhme’s influence on Kierkegaard. Conversely, and rather perversely, the major Kierkegaard critics have shown scant interest in Cormac McCarthy and this intriguing Böhme/Kierkegaard/McCarthy trinity. It is therefore very much worth our while to look at an 1847 reference to Böhme (and Goethe) by Kierkegaard in his private journals.

The Böhme quote (in the margin) and Kierkegaard’s journal entry are shown below as seen in the Barfod and Gottsched edition of Kierkegaard’s journals or Nachlass (late 1860s to 18981) in which he states that there is no rush with anything but he must be as frugal and detailed with time. As diligent as a beggar with a shilling. There is not space here to explore the text below at any length but Kierkegaard’s praise for the quote from Böhme essentially hails those who both view the temporal as the eternal and the eternal as the temporal, whilst the quote from Goethe praises those who do not just unite art and science in their life-task but also patience and a quiet spirit. This sounds very like the ring of existence to me.

For ease of understanding I will reproduce the above quote from Jacob Böhme in text form, which Kierkegaard precedes by saying: “An excellent adage from Jacob

Boehme (who wrote in German, of course):

Wem Zeit ist wie Ewigkeit,
Und Ewigkeit wie Zeit,
Der ist befreit
Von allem Streit.
(He for whom time is as eternity and eternity as time, is free from all strife.)

The text of Kierkegaard’s journal entry, above the two quotes invokes the paradox of diligent yet keen patience practised within the awareness of an eternal God. The vast, eternal vision of an artist painstakingly achieved. Moment by moment. It could almost be a manifesto for McCarthy’s approach to writing. Such is the human artist’s aspiration to soul. Urgent yet wise. Steadfast. Determined. Brave. Hemingway apparently said that there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

However, both Kierkegaard and McCarthy also believe that we can collapse back to the bestial. Choose the darkness to invoke Böhme. Or perhaps allow it to rise up and consume us. Just like the judge of Blood Meridian, it is there waiting for us. Waiting to drive us away from our life-task of self-fulfilment. To stop us being artists. Sin is not a question of ‘bad thoughts’ or shifting views of immorality but unfreedom. If freedom exists, as it clearly does, well then unfreedom exists. But the choice to be unfree. To choose the dark. That is sin. (This is what Kierkegaard means with his misunderstood word ‘disobedience’.) Something malevolent always lurks. Ready to be invoked. These attributes are, therefore, also the founts of our modern age dread, now that we are unmoored from belief in soul, the gods, or the Trinity, or the divinity, and a settled world vision. Cut off from, faith. Any faith. Cut off from love.

The judge is the Geist of the modern age. His muted antagonist, the kid, eventually comes to fight for humanity. Or rather, if not to fight, then to live quietly, wonder at man’s self-brutalization and savagery to fellow man and beast, and then finally to refuse consent to the judge’s writ and fiat. Refuse to submit to his merciless and remorseless dialectic.

The kid is ‘K’. K for Kierkegaard. For Kafka. The Kid K of Mcarthy’s lineage with Billy the Kid – Henry McCarty, or William Bonner, both sides of Irish stock – Billy the Kid. Small and wiry like the kid. Like all of us now, he is an orphan in this world. Tough. Violent. Lethal with a gun. And sensitive. Such are humanity’s myriad contradictions. Perhaps silent witness and muted revolt are all we have left? Silence is very difficult for a fiction writer to evince and maintain but McCarthy manages that miracle with the kid.

Silence and the obligation to be quiet, and also the oppression of silence and quiet as seen by aesthete types, say, are major themes for Kierkegaard also. Perhaps only artists can save us from a collapse back to bestiality now? Louise Glück’s idea of bearing austere but profound testimony. The new apostles stand between us and the smiling judge. We will come to that through the prism of Kierkegaard’s full presence in Blood Meridian to which we will turn now.


The judge’s battle cry


Michael Lynn Crews reveals Kierkegaard to be an important source for McCarthy

As a theme, the judge’s specifically counter-Kierkegaard ‘point of view’ is completely absent from the large-scale investigations into Cormac McCarthy in general and Blood Meridian in particular. Likewise, the possibility that the kid as a character is at least partly inspired by Kierkegaard himself is never mentioned. The essential problem is that few people in the English-speaking world read Kierkegaard to any great depth, outside of a phalanx of mostly non religiously minded academics. Thus, there is no Kierkegard anchorage that they can readily discern in McCarthy’s works.

However, leaving aside all the general, and often vague, linkages made between McCarthy and Kierkegaard – with Böhme and Nicholas (Nikolai) Berdyaev as, what we might call, supporting acts – and thanks to Michael Lynn Crews and his highly detailed 2017 investigation of McCarthy’s literary sources for most of his works Books are made of Books – a quote from McCarthy himself – we can be absolutely sure that Cormac McCarthy read at least one book about Kierkegaard prior to the publication of Blood Meridian in 1985, and even if it was possibly only one book, McCarthy made an inspired choice with Walter Lowrie’s magisterial two volume Kierkegaard biography. I wonder aloud who alerted him to Lowrie?

By referencing McCarthy’s extensive research notes and manuscript annotations, Lynn Crews does, to a limited extent, highlight the importance of Kierkegaard as an influence on, primarily, Blood Meridian. But this is in terms of background concepts such as father and son conflict and the tautologies of personal dilemmas – to shoot or not to shoot. Either way you will regret it, as Kierkegaard would have said. Kierkegaard’s deeper Hegelian context to these tautologies as laid out in `the ‘Diapsalmata’ section of his Either/Or – that these ‘contraries’ were ridiculously made the touchstones of progress and of life itself – is missed. (We bear in mind that in logic, a tautology is a statement that is true by dint of its logical form.)

 Given his important work in highlighting Kierkegaard’s impact on Blood Meridian it is a shame that Lynn Crews misses the crucial ‘point of view’ Kierkegaard reference in the published Blood Meridian text itself. In his book, he does refer to the ‘point of view’ line for the judge, but fails to link it to Kierkegaard. The fact is, however, that our understanding of Cormac McCarthy must be amended with this ‘Point of View’ reference and other conclusive evidence I recount here.

Reverend Canon Walter Lowrie (1868-1959) – who taught himself Danish at the age of sixty-five so as to translate the works of Kierkegaard


Everything points to McCarthy having read Lowrie’s Kierkegaard very closely. If this is true, we need to be clear, not just about Walter Lowrie’s deep grasp of Kierkegaard’s thinking and dogmatics, but also the vast extent of his own theological and philosophical wisdom. Lowrie has been rather maligned by some modern Kierkegaard experts, allegedly for being too close to his subject. But he knew his Kierkegaard inwardly. As evidence of this, we need only consult his Kierkegaard terms glossary at the very end of his biography. In terms of the concise form in which it is presented, at least, this glossary has never been bettered in the English language. Moreover, if McCarthy read this glossary, as he almost certainly did, he will have gained a very quick but for all that profound insight into the core tenets of Kierkegard’s thinking. Add to this, the very extensive synopses of all Kierkegaard’s works, which is also provided by Lowrie in an appendix to his book, and we can see how it provides a fundamental grasp of Kierkegaard as thinker, theologian and author even before Lowrie’s biography is read in full. Thus we add this to the Book of the Judge idea and the ‘Point of View’ reference in Blood Merid.

Where Lowrie’s Kierkegaard glossary is concerned, even the short resumé list of Kierkegaardian opposites that Lowrie provides at the beginning was grist to McCarthy’s subjective and agonistic mill. His grand vision of a world in a constant ferment of possibilities, temptations, dreams and nightmares, also. Look at the scientific terms on the left as posited against, what we might call Kierkegaard’s freedom-seeking existential terms on the right:

Objectivity - Subjectivity, inwardness, pathos.
Immanence - Transcendence.
Necessity - Freedom.
Actuality - Possibility.
‘The System’ - Paradox.
Speculation - Existence.
Mediation - ‘The leap’

Anyone who is aware of the background to the above ‘contraries’ as Lowrie calls them, will see the link, but for those who are not, they represent the essential argument between Hegel and Kierkegaard specifically and Kierkegaard’s conflict with the prevailing deadening Geist generally in his age. To the left we have essentially static and conceptual positions. To the right we have the swirl and flux of the lived life.

Hegel is discussed in more detail below, but he essentially (after Aristotle) moved God into the rational (the divine gift of reason as he saw it) and conceived the process of dialectical reasoning out of negative and positive positions as arriving at state of resolution via mediation between the two positions – they ended up “in repose”, as Lowrie puts it, before moving on again to the next resolution of conflict.      In other words, God – actually the Trinity in Hegel’s terms – is made a mechanism of the mind (wherever that is) and the Holy Spirit reduced to the role of a social mechanic working for the Prussian State and its King – as did Hegel for which services he was awarded the Order of the Red Eagle. All Hegel’s work was for Prussia’s glory, Germany’s destiny, and that of white bourgeois Europe. All in the name of an abstract idea of human consciousness that was not centred in our actions, in life, but some processes in our heads – anathema to Cormac McCarthy. Our religious conscience, meanwhile, is reduced to a relic from a time of immature longing. Nothing more than a defunct appendix.

As is plain from Lowrie’s glossary alone – and a researching author will always go to the table of contents, index and any glossary first – Hegel’s didactic, though trailblazing, social engineering was anathema to Kierkegaard, also. As Lowrie points out in the glossary, human dialectics for Kierkegaard invoked the etymology of that word as ‘dialogue.’ That is, two stated positions that were in constant flux, to and fro. The OED gives the ancient Greek root of the word dialectic as: – “… ἡ διαλεκτική the dialectic art, the art of discussion or debate.” It is an art, not a science. This has always sounded like real life to me. It also sounds very McCarthian, too. So let us look at what Lowrie says in his glossary definition of Kierkegaard’s famous existential ‘leap of faith’ in the context of this dispute about what dialectic reasoning actually does and can or can not bring about (the use of capital letters is part of Lowrie’s index referencing across his book):

“The Leap” (Springet). It is by this metaphor that S. K. expresses his passionaterepudiation of the smooth transition Hegel sought to effect by means of MEDIATION. S. K. protests that there is no real MOVEMENT in logic, no genuine becoming, and that in EXISTENCE every movement which effects a real change is a ‘leap’, an act of FREEDOM. This applies especially to faith, which is not attained by continuous and gradual approximations but by a resolution of the will, in ‘the Instant’.

Imagine Cormac McCarthy reading the above manna to his existential ponderings. Hegel argues that the becoming resides in the whole – expressed in the state, its laws and moral code – with the subject as a happily resolved part of that paradigm, but he does thereby leave himself open to the charge of diminishing the individual and glorifying the edifice (the temporal, legal Prussian State in his case). All hail the edifice that lifts us and sustains us.

Kierkegaard, therefore, was not only way ahead of his time in terms of warning of an overweening “system” that claims and accrues all knowledge to itself, just as Blood Meridian’s judge does, he also insisted that contradiction and paradox are inherent in existence. This would be a lightbulb moment for Cormac McCarthy. As it was for Jacob Böhme long before both of them.

Aurora – the German mystic and shoemaker Jacob Böhme’s first book- we might call it ‘Morning redness in the East’ after its full title in German


Cormac McCarthy was particularly taken with the Gnostic Jacob Böhme’s idea of the cold fires of Unground, from which the flames of the good emanate because there cannot be ‘nothing.’ Always always there is a hunger for something. Rather like a metaphysical and metaphorical flower that ever seeks a warming sun, there is a primordial will to be free. It is the sun of being emerging from the imploding dark star. Freedom resides in darkness but hungers for light. We have already seen that Kierkegaard was highly interested in Böhme – in fact he had a modest library of his works.

The issues surrounding the Germanic root of ‘ground’ are crucial to understanding the interplay or rather interaction between a metaphysical and earthly ground. This is lost in the modern English rendition of the word. In its various forms, the Germanic, ‘grund-e-n’ is to ponder, or establish, decide or prove. It is highly active and lends itself perfectly to imagining the mystical realm of Ur-being or what Böhme calls the supersensual.

The ground of being as opposed to nothing must be love, but as we know, or rather grasp and intuit, love is groundless. It is pre-ground. It must be God. It is through love that we, as temporal beings, can know the eternal in time and time in the eternal, as the Kierkegaard quote above demonstrates. Love is offended by void. The cold void, conversely, hates the warmth of love. Though these are my own outworkings of grund/ground, I am grateful to Dr Greg Marcar for clarifying my own thoughts by way of his excellent 2022 essay on the relationship between Böhme and Kierkegaard – ‘The Quiet Lake and the Hidden Spring: Locating the Ground in Kierkegaard’s Works of Love.’

For his part, Michael Lynn Crews is brilliant in his account of how Böhme influenced McCarthy and stresses the importance of Nicholas (Nikolai) Berdyaev’s introductory essay (‘Unground and Freedom’) to Böhme’s work Six Theosophic Points. Lynn Crews centres on a vital word in this debate – ‘meontic’ (meonic), literally ‘not nothing’. This is, as I would interpret it, the nothing that is pregnant with possibility. It is a key but under researched, or forgotten in modern times, aspect of Kierkegaard’s idea of the possible residing in the nothing. Adam pondered the possible – the grounds of original sin, long before Eve plucked the apple. And the only serpent was the serpent within. It is a thing we cannot understand in logic, but can grasp. It must be God and the fact that we can turn away from God, as I grasp and grapple with this unfathomable thing called the possible. Or an expression of God that permeates everything in existence – Evil and Good. God is the ‘not nothing’ that is offended by the cold fires of a void. The self-perpetuating force that seeks to expose to light all that is hidden, She is the womb of all existence impregnated with the possible. Lynn Crews terms her “the cosmic womb.” The matrix. The formless source offended by cold void that carries both the fire of wrath and the pregnant fire of love. Or as Böhme puts it:

The dark world is therefore the ground and origin of the light-world; and the terrible evil must be a cause of the good, and all is God’s

Is this not redolent of Christ coming to us as a sword and viewed as our enemy? That he would illuminate the dark of our lives? The Bible says somewhere that if anyone were to attempt a painting of God, this would have to be a flaming fire of love that filled both heaven and earth. Böhme stresses the potent and fertile nature of Salitter (saltpetre – salt of rock). A matrix of forces (matrix as in womb again) interacting and animating other things. Though he was fascinated by it, Hegel called this theory barbarous. In fact, it sounds to modern ears very like the scientific Big Bang and an innate power of love reacting against the void. It fires our imagination much more readily because we know instinctively that nothing can come from nothing. This celestial Salitter substance is illuminating, fertilising and also explosive in its stinking earthly manifestation. The judge of the Blood Meridian creating the bullets from the bare earth evokes this.

We imagine so easily how Cormac McCarthy was so fired by these striking metaphors and alchemic workings. The danger. Incandescence. Yearning for growth. Questioning. Reacting. Suttree’s life-risking descent into the She-Mother’s pit is decisive. Hugely transgressive with its gerontophilia and reckless search for meaning and how far we can go with the possible. Truly we are at the Unground and the innate desire to test and challenge it. Kierkegaard’s leap across the chasm of what is possible is more profound than even he realised.

Though all this is obviously my own interpretation, when I first read Lynn Crews’s account of Böhme and read Berdyaev’s Unground essay, three words came to me: ‘meontic’ (as already stated), ‘invenire’ and ‘prevenient.’ They all imply what is impending and finding what is not there. The basis of all artistic creation. In the context of ‘invenire’, George Steiner says that Kierkegaard imagined a new Antigone for the modern age who had not been there before in his account of her in Either/Or. Unlike in the days of Ancient Greece, nobody knows or must know her secret. She now carries the burden of existence in her atomised modern self. She is an entirely new myth.

 Unfortunately, Lynn Crews does not take his Böhme/Berdyaev investigation to its ultimate ground, which finds Berdyaev signalling a rejection of the Hegelian idea that the spirit resides, or can reside, in the objective (conceptual). Individual freedom cannot be realised within social structures such as temporal states or cultures. In the context of ‘Theogony’ – the origin of God, or gods – we read words from Berdyaev in this essay that must surely have resonated with Cormac McCarthy. Berdyaev says:

But “theogony” does not mean that God had a beginning and was born in time; Boehme did not mean as did Fichte and Hegel, that God is born within a temporal process, but that God’s interior and eternal life manifests itself under the form of a dynamic process, of tragedy within eternity, of battle against the darkness of Non-Being.

Lynn Crews’s intuition is correct in raising Berdyaev, but we can go much further. Berdyaev went beyond even Kierkegaard in his assertion of human freedom and one feels that his arguments were embraced by McCarthy, likewise. It seems clear to me that McCarthy knew far more of Kierkegaard and Berdyaev, and Nietzsche for that matter, then we have ascertained so far.

With Kierkegaard, Nicholas Berdyaev and Bohme, we are at the very core of McCarthy’s philosophy. For what does McCarthy do? In opposition to the judge, he writes from the core of existence and not about the core of existence. He does not seek to record in a knowledge ledger. He must sing life. Create new life. He writes of reality, not about it. He creates new myth from his own subjective inspiration. Look at what Berdyaev says in The Destiny of Man regarding Hegel’s – and before him Descartes’s – severance of knowledge from the flux of existential reality:

The severance between knowledge and reality is the fatal result of rationalism which has not been thought out to the end. It denies that the act of knowing is an existential act. But if reality stands over against knowledge, there can be no inner connection between the two, and knowledge does not form part of reality. Hence, knowledge is not something, but is about something.

What we know in our hearts, as that key existential phrase interestingly has it, we know before any objective knowledge about it. And this is why w are torn asunder in this age of knowledge 24/7. Knowledge devoid of heart or soul. We are the tragic subjects of an existence in which two great forces struggle for hegemony – the light and the dark. The reference to Eastern Daoist myths is unmistakable.

How could all these alarm bells about Hegel from authors who were favoured by McCarthy be missed in McCarthy criticism? Clearly, the judge is an expression of non-being. Of infernal nothing. Of a form of life that is dead to life and seeks to extinguish it. We are tragic because, though only human, we still persist in existing. Kierkegaard said that we are not animals precisely because we are extremely interested in the question of our own existence. He stresses the vast movement in that single word – inter-est. Between being. On the way to being. Not just an interest in existing but helping others to exist once we get past selfishness. As Walter Lowrie points out, Hegel’s suzerain (note this word) reason wants to say that this is all suspicious nonsense and absurd – yes! Kierkegaard would have cried, as would Camus, another fierce critic of Hegel and supreme German idealism’s effacing of the individual, who was also of great interest to McCarthy.

The very thought that Cormac McCarthy grappled with these counter Hegel lines and then Walter Lowrie’s concise yet game changing anti-Hegel Kierkegaard glossary excites me greatly and here is why: it is not because McCarthy became a ‘follower’ of Kierkegaard, and anyway Kierkegaard rejected the very notion of having followers, rather in the manner that McCarthy refused to do interviews or join the literati circuit. No, it is because McCarthy grounded all his works in real life. In the personal. In dialogue. In physical manifestation and in action. In a character that decides to make a life changing stand. Or do something life-changingly and inexplicably stupid, or sinful. We wince as we realise that Suttree is once more going to descends into that of alcoholic miasma and self-destruction. Would avert our eyes as the young man decides to enter the barbarous lair. In tragedy, there is no repose. There is no Hegelian World Spirit moving us ever closer to a white European Prussian idea of bourgeois perfection. Life is tragic, and cannot be remedied by logic, only by the heroic.

McCarthy’s narrators invariably act as a latter-day Greek chorus to the grimly actual and profound rather than abstract inner life of his characters. In the terror of the possible when acted out, be that bad or good – usually bad. The figure of Socrates strikes me very forcibly in this and through the prism of Kierkegaard’s preference for Socrates over Augustine himself with regard to the sovereign individual’s search for truth. Socrates was a ‘gadfly’. A Provocateur. McCarthy is this, too. A sword of light in the darkness.

Of course, McCarthy wrote astounding descriptions of nature, desert wastes, geological strata, polluted yet very grand rivers, caves urban or mountainous. But there is clear provocation there. Always movement. On earth as there is in his heavens – the real meaning of dialectic when it moves our souls. All that swirl and drag that is in the world. A deep-thinking young man, gazing at the burning stars in the shimmering vault above. The tide of sudden events that defy all logic, precisely because they seem to have been foretold aeons before. The sheer mess of life and how it must be continually lived forwards and learned backwards. But the point is, that the question of becoming something is a human being’s alone. The natural world is not subject to self-doubt and worries about sin (selfishness) and death. The terror of being faced with a choice. The trauma of innate scenario. The inter-est. No shooting star can match the coruscating, entirely illogical fire of first love.

 If you want a classic example of existential writing in McCarthy’s works, as opposed to coldly logical and distancing inner life fiction, take this from Suttree – a scene in which Suttree’s mother unexpectedly comes to visit him in prison. He sees her and wants to turn back to his cell (how profound) but the guard pushes him on:

… Please dont start crying, he said.
See the hand that nursed the serpent. The fine hasped pipes of her fingerbones. The skin bewenned and speckled. The veins are milkblue and bulby. A thin gold ring set with diamonds. That raised the once child’s heart of her to agonies of passion before I was. Here is the anguish of mortality. Hopes wrecked, love sundered. See the mother sorrowing. How everything that I was warned of’s come to pass.

Note how third person becomes first person here and that we must reread these lines to grasp the distorted expression of person and syntax. We are made to work. We and McCarthy are just as tortured as the characters in this drama. Note the muted but hyper-expressive symbolism, also. The ageing process so graphically drawn in a painting rather than attempts at precise description. There are agonies of passion and the anguish in simply being mortal on almost every page of Cormac McCarthy, though there is a lot of humour there as well.

I see McCarthy reading Kierkegaard and grasping his truly existential ‘Point of View’ instinctively. He is fired with this idea of ‘Judge. From various sources, as we shall see. Then he is presented with The Book of the Judge in Lowrie and is gripped. So much so that he ironized this term and made it the judge’s rational, scientific battle cry. Thus, was born the point of view of this dread scientist. We are grateful to Jacob Böhme and Walter Lowrie. Grateful to Nicholas Berdyaev. Grateful to Cormac McCarthy. Grateful to Michael Lynn Crews.


Only love can conquer the judge

The smiling judge is never faint hearted

Understandably, much has been made of the fact that McCarthy chose to introduce Blood Meridian with, amongst others, an (abbreviated) quote from Jacob Böhme’s Six Theosophic Points telling us that death and dying are the very life of the darkness. But the section in Böhme following on from the quote is just as instructive and it invokes the judge’s constant jauntiness. He is never faint-hearted and indulges his wrath. But he fears a great adversary – “the light”, which is his misery and dread. In fact it is our own selves who elevate him and give him credence because faced with the stern might of the eternal light that he has rejected (I paraphrase). He is nothing more than a glorified juggler. A prancer:

He would be lord therein, and yet is but a juggler with the fierceness; although he must act according to the property. And this is also a wonder before the stern might of eternity.

For the judge, who is Lucifer – and to invoke the Mennonite’s warnings near the start of Blood Meridian – war is not man’s natural pursuit in order to conquer our despair, it is the only remedy the judge has for his despair. Lucifer has made his choice to shun the light and then must continually suborn others to his cause so as to justify his fall from grace. He is Macbeth writ large in the cosmos. This ‘real’ objective World Spirit governing humanity is a sinister comedy. It is another direct reference to Kierkegaard and his ridiculing of Hegel’s ersatz and comical tautologies. This same Kierkegaard who was the prophet bar none of modern-day despair. Why else would McCarthy’s Muse conjure a judge who sought to counter Kierkegaard’s view of despair by invoking his own bar-room general ‘Point of View’ remedy and its drums of war with which he baits the kid?

You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar which bonds?

All this underpins a constant theme in McCarthy’s oeuvre – our atavistic and utterly ridiculous banging blood human drive to self-extinction. Human shapes emerging through shrouds of mist “like the last survivors of Armageddon” (The Orchard Keeper) are a constant motif in McCarthy’s works. A theme that is counterpoised by the solemn need of his characters to engage, explore and create beyond themselves. To love. To step into that Antigone space of existential, choice. The leap rather than an orderly transition. John Grady Cole’s love for the indigenous Mexican prostitute is inexplicable in logic. But since when did love do logic? Since when did Tragedy do logic? It is in this human maelstrom that our conscience resides. What English language writer nowadays engages in such deep ponderings of the soul and haunting eschatology, which are – crucially – expressed in extremes of physicality? Actions, words and physical symbols – material phenomena – rather than inner narrative and abstract dialectical reasoning?

All this underpins a constant theme in McCarthy’s oeuvre – our atavistic and utterly ridiculous banging blood human drive to self-extinction. Human shapes emerging through shrouds of mist “like the last survivors of Armageddon” (The Orchard Keeper) are a constant motif in McCarthy’s works. A theme that is counterpoised by the solemn need of his characters to engage, explore and create beyond themselves. To love. To step into that Antigone space of existential, choice. The leap rather than an orderly transition. John Grady Cole’s love for the indigenous Mexican prostitute is inexplicable in logic. But since when did love do logic? Since when did Tragedy do logic? It is in this human maelstrom that our conscience resides. What English language writer nowadays engages in such deep ponderings of the soul and haunting eschatology, which are – crucially – expressed in extremes of physicality? Actions, words and physical symbols – material phenomena – rather than inner narrative and abstract dialectical reasoning?

And what is the alternative to the judge’s ‘false flag’ invocation of our most basic murderous instincts as humans? That is McCarthy’s constant challenge, both to himself and his readers. And no more than Kierkegaard, McCarthy has no ready answers. Nor is providing clear answers the role of a non-didactic author like him. However, his empathy for the lives of those we now call ‘challenged’ people is clear. The social protest element in McCarthy’s works is another feature that is often overlooked in a welter of overtheorizing. I too stand guilty as charged. For there is a seething anger there. A criticism of racism and a defence of the poor and the despised. The message of Christ. That is, McCarthy’s deep love of human beings. At our most basic level of individual human validity – that we are more than just savage beasts, that we reflect on our own existence and coming death, that we have a soul and a sense of eternity. That we seek love and ineffable love seeks us.

In Suttree there is a tender but mostly overlooked moment when Suttree regards his new prison inmate. A pathetic creature altogether. A permanently prepubescent, bony, craving, unlovable, ferreting rodent by the name of Gene Harrogate – the “city mouse” or “city rat”. The passage could be from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot:

Suttree looked up at the boy’s eyes. Bright with a kind of animal cognizance, with incipient good will. Well, he said. It’s getting rough out there, isnt it?

The beauty of Kierkegaard is that – unlike the over-subjective Berdyaev one could argue – via his own sufferings and vison of hope, his incredible psychological insights into the human condition (which have never been bettered – even by Dostoevsky), he points to a path of possibility that can help lead us out of this modern-day labyrinth of tortured questions and despair, our fear of the other also, which is why Walter Lowrie’s Kierkegaard biography is such a seminal influence for McCarthy. Whether or not we choose that path, or can find our way back or forward to it, is the stuff of proper fiction. McCarthian fiction.

Walter Lowrie’s groundbreaking life of Kierkegaard

Walter Lowrie’s Kierkegaard biography was first published in 1938 and then reprinted in the 1960s with additional material. Other abridged versions have followed. McCarthy availed of the original 1938 version according to Lynn Crews. And as we already seen in its green cover above, Lowrie also published a stand-alone version of Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’, the first edition of which came out in 1939. It is without doubt the best Kierkegaard work for those who want a short but deeply engaging overview of Kierkegaard the man, the thinker and his works. To emphasise the importance of this ‘Point of View’ work, Kierkegaard looked far beyond his usual audience, made up of priests, bishops, theologians and, largely, the educated citizens of Copenhagen. In the title page, he called this book a direct report to history. This book, then was – unusually – to be in his own name and for the world to hear. It was meant for posterity’s record.

Michael Lynn Crews tells us that McCarthy made several key references to Kierkegaard in his large-scale notes and jottings for Blood Meridian (this was in the same period he was writing Suttree also), but though these notes cite several different Kierkegaard works, they all refer to Lowrie’s translation extracts from these works in his biography. Kierkegaard’s works do not separately feature in the bibliography of Lynn Crews’s book and there is just one work by Lowrie (his Kierkegaard biography). Yet, rather confusingly, to my mind, Walter Lowrie does not feature in the book’s subject index in which Kierkegaard takes his place, despite the fact McCarthy is clearly consulting Lowrie’s exegetics as well as Kierkegaard’s writings. It would be exciting to discover that McCarthy had also read the individual Kierkegaard works referred to by Lowrie and by extension Lynn Crews – Fear and Trembling (see further below) and Point of View itself, for example. Perhaps future research will unearth such precious facts.

Lowrie’s translation extracts were and are precious jewels in the English-speaking Kierkegaard world and Lynn Crews has done a great service to McCarthy criticism in his forensic examination of McCarthy’s research notes, particularly where Kierkegaard is concerned. However, and as already suggested, Kierkegaard is not given the overtly prominent position he deserves in Lynn Crew’s book. Not even in his chapter on Blood Meridian. A deserved prominence that is not confined to the important points we have discussed so far regarding Hegel, ‘scientism’ and logic vis-à-vis faith and clemency for example. Again, this demonstrates that Lynn Crews was not fully aware of the implications of his Kierkegaard discoveries, because McCarthy’s Kierkegaard notes prove beyond any remaining doubt that Kierkegaard is central to Blood Meridian. Far more central than any other author, I would argue.

Following Lynn Crew’s reference sequence of the McCarthy’s notes for Lowrie/Kierkegaard, we come first to the judge’s terrifying warning to the kid (now the man) in the final orgiastic bar scene that his soul may be required of him that very night. This of course is an invocation of Luke 12:20. But let us look at where Kierkegaard refers to this in his own ‘Book of the Judge’ (his private journals). The version below is from the Barfod and Gottsched editions of the Kierkegaard Nachlass, which were the first ever published as a collection, as noted, in the late 1860s and then onwards until 1881 (a period that saw Gottsched eventually take full charge due to Barfod’s ill health – a happy event at least for German literati like Kafka – as we have seen, as Gottsched went on to publish Buch des Richters in his native Germany):

he above is the earliest ever published version of this remarkable passage from Kierkegaard’s journals, an account (a set of imagined and interlinked scenarios), so anguish ridden and near to his heart that Kierkegaard subsequently attempted to obliterate the passage from the record. Kierkegaard historians have debated ever since whether the whole passage or parts of it should be published. Some do and some don’t. Lowrie did. Here is Lowrie’s translation of the above text that so grabbed McCarthy’s attention:

Then he goes to his berth. It is no great library he has with him, yet he has a Bible. He opens it, and strangely enough he opens it just at the text: This night thy soul shall be required of thee. Strange!

The first scenario in Kierkegaard’s Nachlass from which this Luke reference comes is a large passenger ship – the largest imaginable Kierkegaard says, interestingly. (We are close to Science Fiction.) He clearly means the ship of society. A passenger will subsequently also be referred to. A passenger who seeks to warn the captain that this massive vessel is heading into a terrible storm, which is only discernible by a strong point of light, or ‘speck’, in the far distance. The passenger is clearly Kierkegaard. In Blood Meridian, it is also the kid. It is Cormac McCarthy’s terror writ large. Oblivious to the heightened tension on the ship’s bridge and out on deck where there are things to be lashed and lifeboats readied, the other passengers are revelling with no little frenzy in the ballroom salon. Brecht and the Weimar Republic come readily to mind. Younger readers may immediately think Titanic in the modern idiom.

In the first parable of these three interlinked scenarios, two of which refer to the monster cruise liner, the seasoned captain and crew initiate the requisite, emergency watch procedures – they will be on high alert all night. They are a competent crew overseen by a first-class ship’s master. This captain goes down to his quarters for a moment and reaches for a Bible – one of the few books he possesses. He opens the Bible at a random place and is presented with the very passage from Luke that carries the warning to the rich farmer of his soul being required that very night. As per Böhme and Kierkegaard, one must not only love eternity but also each precious moment of eternity in God’s love and in faith. One must ever be watchful. The rich farmer believes that with all his abundance he can indulge, postpone and negotiate with – ‘mediate’ to use a Hegelian term – this urgent, existential truth. Put eternity off for another day. But a reckoning awaits us all at any and every moment, as every poor and challenged person knows. And God said to the rich man:

You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own all the things you have prepared?

This is the very phrase the judge uses in such a sinister fashion in that gripping final barroom scene in which the shooting of the dancing bear unleashes the final depravities. A Grand Guignol presentation. A macabre Breughel painting that has come alive before our amazed eyes. It is true that the captain’s Bible in Kierkegaard’s parable and the warning of imminent human and social destruction therein has inspired McCarthy to juxtapose the judge and the kid, as Lynn Crews points out. But Lynn Crews is too restrictive here as elsewhere with regard to Kierkegaard, concentrating instead mainly on the personal relationship between the judge and the kid:

These references identify an important source of inspiration for McCarthy’s depiction of the relationship between the kid and the judge.

This downplays the clear political anger on display in both scenes, for both Kierkegaard and McCarthy, and indeed for Jesus. Woe to those who are selfish and decadent as the destruction of society looms. A Socio-psychological nightmare also. The judge being more in the manner of Francis Bacon’s corrupt and screaming Popes. The moral collapse of man in which even, or especially, the supposedly religious defile their calling. We are the heart of the Kierkegaardian nightmare. Lucifer triumphant. The judge in his true realm and all revealed there and we praying the kid will just leave the bar forthwith:

I got to go.
The judge looked aggrieved. Go? he said.
He nodded. He reached and took hold of his hat where it lay on the bar but he  not take it up and he did not move.
What man would not be a dancer if he could, said the judge. It's a great thing, the dance.
The woman was kneeling and had her arm around the little girl. The candles sputtered and the great hairy mound of the bear dead in its crinoline lay like some monster slain in the commission of unnatural acts. The judge poured the tumbler full where it stood empty alongside the hat and nudged it forward.
Drink up, he said. Drink up. This night thy soul may be required of thee.
He looked at the glass. The judge smiled and gestured with the bottle. He took up
the glass and drank.

Lynn Crews is correct to say that the captain and passenger – judge and kid dichotomy relates to Kierkegaard’s previously respectful but increasingly fractious relationship with Bishop (and state primate) Jacob Peter Mynster. But it is not just a father son relationship. In his heart of hearts, as revealed in these private notes, Kierkegaard sometimes goes as far as regarding Mynster as a hypocrite and someone who resorted to the conjuring illusions and deceit – Øjenforblindelse he says in the deleted journal entry – a hint of ‘blindfolding’ and a phrase that goes right back to the trickster Loki of Nordic myth. Kierkegaard says that Mynster engaged not just in politics but in politicking and currying favour with what is now called the mainstream media. Here is this startling attack from the Nachlass as it was published by Barfod and Gottsched. The stir it caused must have been enormous:

Lowrie does not reproduce this character assassination of Mynster by Kierkegaard in his book, but even without it, we are left in no doubt in the book as a whole that Kierkegaard felt that Mynster had abandoned his calling and succumbed to worldliness. It was for this very reason that when the new primate of Denmark, H L. Martensen, described the recently deceased Mynster as an authentic Christian witness to the truth, Kierkegaard initiated his famous attack on the established church.

We need to bear in mind that Martensen was something of a theological superstar in bourgeois Europe and a dedicated follower of Hegel, despite his earlier admiration for Jakob Böhme. Fuel enough, therefore, for Kierkegaard’s incandescent rage. The fact that Lowrie headlined this whole section as ‘Loading the Gun’ – a legend that sits atop every verso (left side) page of the section – must have made a deep impression on McCarthy, bearing in mind that Lowrie correctly explains that Kierkegaard declined to fire his gun at Mynster whilst he was still alive. Michael Lynn Crews does not refer to this headline in Lowrie’s book.

We know of course, and Lynn Crews stresses this, that the sharpshooter kid passed up a chance to kill the judge in the desert. McCarthy made a specific note for this Kierkegaard motif in his manuscript notes. It is this refusal or inability to shoot that fascinates McCarthy. What is the kid’s “fatal weakness” McCarthy asks in another note to the text. As Lynn Crews rightly says, this is a fascinating insight into an author’s imaginings and outworkings as he brings a masterpiece to fruition. And Lynn Crews is once again highly perceptive in noting that the thing the kid cannot do is to go down the path of the judge’s apocalyptic violence.

But the kid is doing far more than just declining to shoot. He is making a lifechanging choice to embark on a different, religious path and he becomes a ‘preacher’ of sorts. And there are other things the kid cannot do. For not only is the kid unable to speak out, he cannot get people to follow his quiet example. The inability to speak is a central theme in Blood Meridian. The kid is clearly an almost silent counterpart to the verbose judge. And by the end, the only thing he can do is to bear silent witness even unto the final sacrifice in a depraved and corrupted world in which the revellers will not listen. This is the moral of these passages from Lowrie that have such bearing for Blood Meridian.

This reading is buttressed by McCarthy’s use of the next twist that Kierkegaard adds in these short parables by imagining instead that the captain, rather than securing his vessel, joins in with the revellers. Not only does he become a dancer like the judge, nobody intervenes to stop him. Society itself has collapsed to the void. What do we do when those in whom we place our trust abandon their posts? The ship’s master, the Pope and his haughty clerics, the scientist who has become suzerain in our times? We are back to our doctor-scientist at the patient’s bedside. And there is more, as Lynn Crews explains, because there is a ‘final’ Kierkegaard parable in which a young army officer can win the war and make himself a national and military legend by directing his battery of canons to a place in the enemy lines that would turn the battle decisively. The problem is that this young officer’s own general is also in the firing line and the officer decides that his ethical values take precedence over his military duty. He will not scalp his friend and mentor. As we have seen, he will not shoot. Thus, we seem to have come to a satisfactory conclusion about these parables and their link to Blood Meridian. Except that we have not. They do not end there.

It is understandable that Lynn Crews describes the young ‘disarmed’ officer story as the last parable, but in fact Kierkegaard does not conclude this parable section at the place where Lowrie stops his translation. There is a final section with yet another short parable and a ‘moral of the tale’ finale. And this final section asserts and confirms an overall theme for these passages that, as I argue it, is underemphasised by Lynn Crews. For the last parable holds another reference to the passenger on this ship who tried to warn the second, dissolute captain of the impending doom and dragged him from the Bacchanal. Twice. The first time the captain is humorously dismissive. The second time he deals roughly with this latter-day Cassandra. The passenger is left in crisis. As we are in crisis right now.

Here then is the very core of the passage not shown by Lowrie in which Kierkegaard directly refers to Mynster as his “general” just prior to the quote below and provides a new ‘lantern’ parable (with my translation-adaptation below it):

It is dark, and there is danger. Someone comes hurrying. He is
willingness and devotion personified and, as he quite rightly should, he holds a lantern aloft. But it soon becomes clear that the people he wants to help do not seek illumination. For if there is light, they cannot avoid being seen – and this they will shun more than anything.

The focus has now clearly shifted. This has nothing to do with any captain or judge or religious primate for that matter. It is about us. All of us. The clear underlying judgement from these passages as a whole is that we must not use the judge’s evil methods – not even to murder the judge. For this is impossible anyway: the cold fires of evil will always be there. We must also be willing to reveal ourselves to the light and take the ethical (religious) consequences. The inescapable and dreadful conclusion is that we must forgive even the base monster both those without and within – and find ways to deal with sin in a way that does not lead to our own corruption.

Rather than there being an inextricable bond between the judge and the kid, as Lynn Crews avers, the kid breaks any bond they had decisively. The Kierkegaardian and truly Christian moral to be derived from the kid’s actions are that the kid’s quiet but steadfast denial of the judge’s hegemony vanquishes him. The kid does this by offering up his very life in that putrid jakes just as Christ the Redeemer did. But nobody is listening. The djinn of the cold fires knows that he must kill clemency. He also knows that if we do not hearken to the kid. If we do not listen. If we do not embrace the warm light of love. We are doomed. Hence the judge’s joy at the zenith of the bloody evening-tide of humanity, as he prances with delight, bows to the ladies, doffs his hat, and celebrates the death of clemency.

His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

The pall of silence from humanity without. The kid is speechless and the people made deaf with their own cacophony of nonsense. It is clear to me that whether read in the original Danish or in Lowrie’s translation of these fascinating passages that, firstly: the hedonistic devil-may-care party going on in the ship’s salon, heedless and uncaring of the coming prefect storm, is a theological, social, political and psychological metaphor for the collapse of existence – starkly and grippingly retold at the end of Blood Meridian; and secondly: that the judge/captain reference goes far beyond the stewardship of Bishop Mynster and refers to society’s embracing of corruption and decadence.

Put simply, the ghastly denouement of Blood Meridian is a homage to Kierkegaard’s vision. A vision so terrible and unbearable for Kierkegaard that he sought to obliterate it from his soul and the record of posterity. Why then has Kierkegaard’s central importance for Blood Meridian in particular and Cormac McCarthy in general been so unreported?

Given my deep, mostly private, engagement with both Kierkegaard and Cormac McCarthy over decades, readers can imagine how enthralled I was as this narrative unfolded, in particular after reading Michael Lynn Crews’s superb book. (A superbly composed and argued book that houses a wonderful display of erudition.) This enthrallment led me to delve further into what might be called Cormac McCarthy’s overall life-view and the issues that moved him in a fundamental way. Poverty, injustice and racism are clearly there as is a keen environmental concern. The drug trade and its corruption of all things obviously became more important to him as time progressed. The Road is a direct continuum to the triumph of the Blood Meridian.

 But in essence, I wanted to explore what exactly it is that makes Cormac McCarthy a, decidedly non-denominational, religious writer and how he offers a possible paradigm for the central role of the artist in the future. The question of sin (unfreedom and the choice to be unfree) is paramount. My worry is that genuine religious authors and artists will increasingly be subject to censorship, either of a ‘soft’ or more blatant and heavy-handed form. The literati have become a constituency that writes about existentialism rather than being existential. The literati seek to shun the existential lantern and are increasingly impatient of its writers.

It should be noted that many thinkers and religious described Kierkegaard’s demands as extreme and indeed inhuman. It is impossible to renounce the world they said. His reply to that was to demand that at least then people should be honest and admit they do not live the principles they espouse. Moreover, he asked, from where will people receive guidance, if our judges are hypocrites? The answer can only be religious authors like him. Only artists can save us.


The human blood meridian of conscience

Outer Dark – possibly McCarthy’s greatest, most profound work

One of the greatest insights that Kierkegaard bestowed to us is that no human being can vanquish sin on his or her own. With my background steeped in both Irish Catholicism and socialist politics, when my self-described atheist friends – and some of them are very dear friends and comrades – hear me speak of sin and religion, they throw their arms out and stare at me in bewilderment. For them, the idea of there being a God is ridiculous. And as for ‘sin’ – most of them, and especially in an Irish context think of sin (when they are aware that they are thinking of it all) has something to do with furtive and forbidding confessional boxes and the infliction of guilt rather than the lifting of guilt. The scandal of clerical sexual abuse has, understandably, only heightened their bewilderment. But the question of human conscience has nothing to do with either church or state, much as those institutions have tried to usurp this primordial gift. If your conscience speaks to you, which it surely must if you are human, then sin and transgression and one’s self-reflection on one’s behaviour and treatment of others is axiomatic. Ergo the possibility of sin exists regardless of any religious belief. If that is the case, then we must find ways to be lifted from self-doubt and a guilty or brutalised conscience.

As we noted briefly above, for Kierkegaard, sin and ultimately despair, is a disorder of the spirit that begins in the realm of the denied possible. It can be an abandonment of hope, a refusal to hope, decision to transgress, and then a building feeling à la Macbeth who decides to do what he fears most – ‘Dread’ is the outrage of the possible. Of the scenario. So that we must sin afresh. Sin and be damned. Sin to feel alive. A perversion of our true selves and a flight from them. Edvard Munch’s The Scream. It is a denial or turning away from the good and a plunging into despair. Dread flees from a nameless thing born out of recrimination and alienation that must – perversely – be enacted.

Outer Dark refers memorably to that realm of sin and transgression. That ‘outer dark’ for McCarthy is both the dark physical world beyond the porch, the primordial Red Riding Hood forest, and then the primordial forest of recrimination and regret, attempts at justification or amnesia, at the sinful deed. It is also, in McCarthy’s context, the realm of a declining genus – the once pioneering, expansionist Anglo-Saxon settlers whose seed is now degenerate, resentful and bitter. Dark and shrivelled fruits. Bitter to taste and memory. It is in this realm that a bearded judge and his gang appears -anticipating the bald judge demon to come. A judge called forth from the outer dark by guilty conscience and yet terribly real and terrifying for all that. What an achievement by McCarthy.

Kierkegaard showed that the power of sin – base selfishness, an avoidance of the other and a collapse to bestial motivations – can only be lifted by a power that is greater than this gripping beast, elemental force for malice that is powered by our own inner torments and wilful collapse as the only way we see to survive. The abandonment of any and every rule is exhilarating. But the moment we have a modicum of peace. the dread returns anew. This is the sickness unto death, which only humans can suffer. Our undeniable, elemental need to confess calls out to us. All of Dostoevsky revolves around these points. The modern-day equivalent is the 12 step AA programme of renunciation for addicts. They need to admit their weakness and must embrace the help of a higher power. A might far greater than them and their addiction. Greater even than their need for the drug that is killing them. Only faith and not reason can bring us there. For Kierkegaard, the opposite of sin is not goodness, but genuine faith. We are human. Therefore, we sin. Faith is the higher power. The alternative is to embrace the blood meridian. Embrace the judge. As Joel Glanton and his gang did.

Regardless of what arrangements we make for social solidarity (and these remain vital), no atomised individual in modern day isolation can break free of despair and the judge’s cynical bestiality without some grand spiritual vision of mercy and grace. And this must emerge, in the first instance, as Kierkegaard rightly argues, from an individual choice for – a faith in – Summum Bonum – the ultimate or highest good.

Ironically and absurdly, our reluctance to do so. Our reluctance to believe that this outrageous paradox of other-forgiveness and forgiveness of ourselves by way of being ‘lifted’ is even possible, brings us to the very vertigo-ledge of faith. Hegel accepts this, but says that it is at that very point that our divine powers of reason step up and carry us across to logical synthesis. He clearly underestimated the ills of capitalism as Marx pointed out. His lifelong knowledge ledger is his own despair.

In this context, I was struck by something else that Jacob Böhme states in the second point of his Six Theosophic Points, which refers to the mixed tree of evil and good:

That which in the dark world is a pang, is in the light-world a pleasing delight; and what in the dark is a stinging and enmity, is in the light an uplifting joy. And that which in the dark is a fear, terror and trembling, is in the light a shout of joy, a ringing forth and singing. And that could not be, if originally there were no such fervent, austere source.

That lantern of light again. The dark for Böhme writing in 1620 posits a “fear (and terror) and trembling.” It is a directly Kierkegaardian phrase but written at the very inception of modern times (presumably after Paul). Again, this is the idea of Schrack or terror, fright (a sudden explosion of light also). Truly this terror and primordial dark suddenly illuminated with dreadful eruptions of light is grist to McCarthy’s existential mill. Suttree is to be found running across swathes of virgin forest, away from his own self and the idea that he might be forgiven, paradoxically embracing the “improbable succour” he believes is denied him and from which he is fleeing. Across the abyss he finally leaps. For there is a sorrow for which there is neither name nor human help. And it is in that final recognition and only in that final recognition that grace and mercy arise. All of humanity knows this truth. It is the place of clemency which the judge cannot scalp. This is the heart of Kierkegaard’s point and human reason alone cannot lift us across that chasm. We need faith. We need Christ’s love and the love that is groundless, because it precedes all things.

For me, Kierkegaard is far more present in Cormac McCarthy, who has no agenda other than sounding the depths of the human condition than any Kierkegaard book I have ever read, and I have read possibly hundreds at this stage. There must be few souls who can listen to Rinthy Holme in Outer Dark and follow her desperate odyssey for her incestual child – her pathetic ‘chap’ – without feeling that they too bleed from her emaciated but panging breasts. Be that tears of salt or milk or blood. Or all of them. How is that possible? How do we do and how did we learn metaphor and this wounding grief that no animal can feel? Though episodic, and perhaps precisely because of that, Outer Dark is in my view McCarthy’s greatest novel. It reaches the level of the incest ridden Antigone myth and is breathtaking. As we have noted, its huge judge is, of course, a dread herald of Blood Meridian’s judge. The harbinger of guilt and haunting retribution at our own foul deeds:

And in the glare of the torches nothing of his face visible but the eyes like black agates, nothing of his beard or the suit he wore gloss enough to catch the light and nothing about his hulking dusty figure other than its size to offer why these townsmen should follow him along the road this night.

With Outer Dark, McCarthy is as deep in the soul of humanity as Kierkegaard in his own version of that ancient Antigone myth in Either/Or. The hanging question of where Redemption is to be found in this waking nightmare? McCarthy is every bit as much a religious author in the non-denominational sense as his fellow heretic Kierkegaard, who pointed out in his ‘Point of View’ that:

Every religious writer, or speaker, or teacher, who absents himself from danger and is not present where it is, and where Evil has its stronghold, is a deceiver.

This challenge, indeed this inexorable call, for artists – for Kierkegaard, true or ‘genuine’ artists – that they must grapple with the most dangerous of subjects, to the extremes of their abilities and to the point of placing their health, wellbeing or safety in danger, puts me in mind of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and his extraordinary vision of the artist (interestingly depicted as an ordinary shepherd) biting the head of the Eternal Recurrence serpent that seeks to gorge his throat to death. The powerful image of the serpent dominating our subconscious once again. This ‘vision and riddle’ challenge is recounted to sailors, whom Zarathustra praises as souls who will take risks, venture out to the very heart of danger.

We will come to discuss my great mentor John Berger and the question of genuine, existential art of the type created by Cormac McCarthy and asserted by Kierkegaard in the above quote, but let us note in passing what John Berger said, or rather asked about talented artists. In this case, Berger was referencing Jackson Pollack and his question was how far a talented artist can exempt his or her self from the real, ‘dangerous’ reality around them – the decadence of their own cultural environs in which art was turned into a commodity as Pollack was. Highly perceptively, Berger says that Pollack was painting not out of his liberation but his despair. If you want an example of a similarly gifted painter who bravely chose to leap beyond that despair, look no further than the Danish painter Asger Jorn. The same Asger Jorn who, through bouts of severe poverty and ill-health, fully engaged with the issues of his day but never preached in his mature art. The same Asger Jorn who said that art is pre-logical and the innate reflex of our attitude to life.


Who or what is the judge?


Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’– published posthumously by his brother Peter (a Bishop) in 1859


In his posthumously published ‘Point of View’ work, as laid out in Lowrie’s biography, Kierkegaard is revealed as a sensitive, artistic genius plagued by melancholy and a father (Michael Kierkegaard) who, though loving, knew nothing, or perhaps turned away from, the idea of mercy and grace – the miracles Kierkegaard finally embraced. Michael Kierkegaard’s apparent abandonment of faith caused a deep crisis in his son’s life. This record of an utterly human struggle to artistic – existential – selfhood and how others are best helped on that journey (that all that can be done is to enliven them to their own possibilities – come hither to me Lazarus), is the very opposite of the diabolically self-assured judge in Blood Meridian and his arrogant point of view as stated in chapter fourteen in which he claims to be a suzerain.

It is for all the above reasons and other compelling evidence still to be considered that I came to see Cormac McCarthy’s judge character in Blood Meridian as inspired into creation as a demonic doppelgänger and counterpoint to Kierkegaard’s own judge concepts, not least the ethical ‘judge’ who also occupies a major place in the Lowrie biography. This is Judge William, or Assessor Wilhelm (or Vilhelm) as he is in the Danish, and not quite a judge in the usual way it is understood. But then neither is the judge of Blood Meridian in which the kid asks – what he is a judge of?

The expriest turned and looked at the kid. And that was the judge the first ever I saw him. Aye. He's a thing to study.
The lad looked at Tobin. What's he a judge of? he said.

Kierkegaard’s Judge William is an entirely human entity, to the point of being occasionally plodding and tedious, who states clearly that all of us must make an ‘absolute’ (life changing) choice for the good as part of asserting our own human validity as sovereign individuals who aspire to happy union with the God of Love. Blood Meridian’s judge, by stark contrast, comes from nowhere and disappears into nowhere. Or he – in McCarthy’s fiery imagery:

 … like a great ponderous djinn stepped through the fire and the flame delivered him up as if he were in some way native to their element.

Blood Meridian’s judge is not human. He is never injured in battle. He cannot be shot to death and even invites people to try. He engenders war from without. He can even magic bullets from the detritus of the earth – an astonishing chapter that. The projectiles coming from the stinking earthly counterpart to Böhme’s celestial Salitter. Always this judge seeks to smother and defile the good. He himself cannot be scalped as he is completely hairless. Children disappear in his environs. These he will defile and scalp after dandling them on his knee. Innocent men are denounced by him and shot and hacked to death because of these denouncements, though he actually never knew the person so defamed. Mob hysteria again. Such is the nature of this un-thinking. The cold fires of the Unground. The judge is a djinn of the baleful fire from which he emerges. An incarnation of war. He is our reverse mirror choice for evil. The gaze into the mirror at the very stroke of darkest midnight as our nameless dread rises. The blood meridian. A judge for the wicked set against a judge for the good. Just as Kierkegaard’s Judge William describes that fateful choice in Either/Or. This is how Walter Lowrie describes the existential importance of actively choosing the good in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, as it would have been read by Cormac McCarthy:

Judge William, in the second part of Either/Or, insists that the real choice, the genuine either/or, is not a choice between this and that …The essential either/or is the question whether one will choose to make this choice —that is, to choose between the evil and the good.

It is true that McCarthy researched a (possibly) real life scalphunter gang member who went by the nickname at least of ‘Judge Holden’ (though he had other names apparently, as does Old Nick as McCarthy will have observed). As far as I can see, McCarthy’s only human source for this judge was a memoir – My Confession – by a gang member, Samuel Chamberlain, who may, because of his sometime expressions of regret and remorse, be part of the inspiration for the kid character in Blood Meridian. Certainly, the judge sees the kid as someone who would not be suborned to his foul cause. But all this simply adds fire to McCarthy’s imagining of the concept of judge. There are corrupt judges and judges of conscience. The judge haunting, or provoked, from our conscience. From whence does he come?

 Little has been made of the fact that Outer Dark features several judges. There is a boastful squire, a squalid tinker who presumes to judge the life of a young woman, and then most distressing of all, as we have seen, the sinister judge of the shadowy triune – the bearded one, who quietly interrogates incest-begetter, Culla Holme:

What are you? Holme muttered.
He said it again, sullenly.
The bearded one smiled. Ah, he said. Now. We’ve heard that before, ain’t we?
You ain’t nothin to me.
But the man didn’t seem to hear. He nodded as if spoken by other voices. He didn’t look at Holme.
You never did say what you done with your sister.
I never done nothin with her.
Where’s she at?
I don’t know. She run off.
You done told that.
It ain’t nothin to you.
I’ll be the judge of that.

This of course is Culla’s conscience at work. (We bear in mind that Cormac McCarthy has a son called ‘Cullen’ from his first marriage.) The central forces at play here are self-reflection and the drag of conscience that sets us apart from beasts but then reveals and confronts us with our own bestiality or guilt. Let me repeat that Outer Dark is an astounding novel. It manages to make the beasts of our haunted imaginations ferociously real. And Cormac McCarthy ‘s ‘point ‘– always his point – is that regardless of whether you we human beings, know anything of religion, we cannot escape our own self and your own reflection on that self. Nor can the religious author. What are you? What have you done? And what have you failed to do? to paraphrase the Liturgy.

There is no escape for us from judgement. No escape either from what Kierkegaard called Slægten – the lineage – our ancestors who thrum in our very bones and synapses and leave their lasting hereditary marks across all human time. No escape from our imaginations and a need to put form on chaos. No escape, therefore, from the other, even if we kill them. No escape from the need to get beyond pain. The aspiration for something higher. A keynote for Nietzsche, of course.

In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard says that human angst and despair (the sickness, the refusal of faith) is a prerequisite for grace. The proof of soul because we do not suffer death with it. Nor is dread only contracted once. It is there all the time and cannot be healed by any doctor. Socrates said more or less the same thing. Certainly in the sense that no other human being can set us truly free. The highest good – the greatest happiness comes from a divine source to which we clearly have access. Have we come much further than these arguments since? Reading McCarthy, one feels that we have regressed and he would drag us back to the future by enabling us to recollect forwards in time.

It is we humans who fire Blood Meridian’s judge into human form and give him his horrific power and human agency. The banishment of love and empathy. The worship and appliance of scientific extermination to the exclusion of all other considerations. In one of the countless horrible scenes in Blood Meridian the judge inspects the cranium of the brother to an imbecile. A scene very well recounted by Michael Lynn Crews. A collapse backwards into racist eugenics and atavistic, bestial attrition. The judge’s language is mesmerising here. If we allow it to be. If we allow him to blindfold and gag us with his scientific riddling and stentorian invocations. Actually, ridiculous and tabloid Red-Top material if we step back and fully consider it. If we refuse it as the kid finally did.

And here, again, is McCarthy’s own true ‘point of view’ emerging by way of a Kierkegaardian-type ironizing of the judge and our enslavement to his charade. Witness the expriest character’s reference to the proliferation of lunacy in the world and his sardonic view of the judge. For example, in this adjacent dialogue below, he ridicules the judge and makes him more akin to a snake oil merchant. Once again, on discovery of a massive dinosaur bone, the judge pronounces on ancient history and the nature of men to a gullible audience

At all desert watering places there are bones but the judge that evening carried to the fire one such as none there had ever seen before, a great femur from some beast long extinct that he'd found weathered out of a bluff and that he now sat measuring with the tailor's tape he carried and sketching into his log. [..] The judge had been holding the femur upright in order to better illustrate its analogies to the prevalent bones of the country about and he let it fall in the sand and closed his book.
There is no mystery to it, he said.
The recruits blinked dully.
Your heart's desire is to be told some mystery. The mystery is that there is no mystery.
He rose and moved away into the darkness beyond the fire. Aye, said the expriest watching, his pipe cold in his teeth. And no mystery. As if he were no mystery himself, the bloody old hoodwinker.

The judge’s evil is not just the barbarity that is latent in all of existence made manifest, it is the spirit of barbarity when it assumes the shape of human authority and becomes worshipped. The question of authority looms large in Blood Meridian. As it does in Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’. Who speaks? Who has the right to speak? ‘Who judges here?’ – Jesus is said to have asked of Pontius Pilate. And what if silence is the only option left to us? Or what if we are so culturally impoverished, we can no longer speak? Another aspect to the kid that has largely been unexplored. Even though it starkly illumines Cormac McCarthy’s own very richness and sophistication of language. A literary and linguistic dexterity and depth that challenges the literary Geist of our present times. Who now writes like this in English in the West? Which fiction prize winners treat of the agony of existence and the corrupting of souls as deeply as this? Knausgaard is a perfect expression of our present-day angst and self-introspection – I mean a solipsistic, obsession with self with no wider engagement. Jon Fosse, it seems to me, comes closer to McCarthy, but again he does not write in English and whilst his wonderful prose meditations quietly assert the dignity of the human soul, they do not carry the inherent anger of social protest that is ever seething in McCarthy.

Would Cormac McCarthy stand a chance of being published today if he were an unknown just starting out, with his religious iconography and invocation of devils, his use of the blunt language of plain folk in all its prejudice and ignorance? A prejudice the reader understands and places in context but is now increasingly policed by privileged and gated censors much less sophisticated than the readers they are policing.



Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling – there is no escape from your lineage

According to Michael Lynn Crews, and via Lowrie’s translation extracts as we have discussed, Cormac McCarthy consulted one of Kierkegaard’s most soul-searching works – Fear and Trembling – in his research for Blood Meridian. In particular, McCarthy was drawn to the ancient father and son legend of Abraham and Isaac. What is not clear is whether McCarthy also read Kierkegaard’s (as Johannes de silentio) astonishing eulogy to Abraham in Fear and Trembling. Though it is referred to in Lowrie, it does not feature as a translation. It does of course appear in Lowrie’s separate 1941 translation of Fear and Trembling itself – this contains an introduction by George Steiner in the 1994 edition. I would simply entitle the Abraham panegyric or eulogy as: ‘In Praise of Abraham’. This short preamble by Joannes de Silentio – the Silent One – to the Abraham text proper (here in my own translation) would stand just as well as a McCarthian premonition of Blood Meridian:


If we humans had no eternal consciousness. If at the foundation of everything there were only a wildly seething power which, writhing with obscure passions, engendered everything that is great and everything of no consequence. If a voracious bottomless void lay in hiding beneath all things – what then would life be but despair? If it were thus. If there were no sacred bond between human beings that held them together. If each generation rose and fell like the generations of leaves. If one generation replaced the other like birdsong in the forest. If the human race passed through the world as ships traverse the seas. Like a desert wind. A barren and thoughtless event. If an eternal oblivion reigned over our world, ever lurking hungrily for its prey, and there were no power strong enough to rescue us from that abyss – how desolate and comfortless life would then be! But for that very reason, it is not so. As God created man and woman, so too He fashioned the hero and the poet or orator. The poet cannot do what the first among us can accomplish. He can only admire, love and celebrate the hero. […] This is the poet’s achievement, his or her humble work. Their faithful service in the halls of the hero

Who or what can this pall of eternal oblivion reigning over our world that ever lurks hungrily for its prey be other than the blood meridian judge?

Johannes Sløk’s revelatory book on Kierkegaard – a supreme vindication of the sovereign individual’s dignity and eternal validity

Probably the greatest interpreter of Kierkegaard who has ever lived – Danish author and thinker Johannes Sløk, who is barely known outside of Denmark – has described this Abraham eulogy as the basis for all of Kierkegaard’s thinking. Sløk says this in his brilliant Kierkegaard – humanismens tænker (Kierkegaard – humanism’s thinker). Overall, across his huge and definitive lifelong study of Kierkegaard, Johannes Sløk stresses Kierkegaard’s concern that people are living fake lives in comparison to the exhilarating, life enhancing fulfilment they could be enjoying as authentic human beings, who no longer have fear or dread. Not even of death itself, which is seen as the existence continuum it is.

Suttree carries one of the few direct statements to his readers from McCarthy in which he declares: “… nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.” We must not quail before the Devil or dread, for there is a greater light. But there is a shadow side to this bright light – light always casts shadow – where Kierkegaard’s thinking and authorship are concerned and Sløk in Kierkegaard – humanisms tænker shows Kierkegaard’s terror at the void he so lyrically yet starkly paints in the scenarios above. It is Cormac McCarthy’s terror also. Look again at the macabre, prancing judge scene, in particular the final pass in which the judge celebrates his desecration of the kid. Read it again and feel McCarthy’s own Fear and Trembling.

Once again inspired by Jacob Böhme, McCarthy sees there is terror and there is a salvation from terror. McCarthy acknowledges the writhing malicious force that pulses and burns its cold light of fire across all of existence and seeks out characters cold-scorched and illuminated by its dread light. Seeks the story of their collapse. Life as profound tragedy, or heroic resistance or both. Put simply, if there is no love, there must be murderous chaos. In human terms, if this is true, it must mean that war is indeed our natural state as Blood Meridian’s judge insists. But whilst the religious poet does indeed face into evil, he or she searches, ever searches, for the tragic heroic. So it is that McCarthy embraces the smiling judge in the jakes and by doing so destroys him.

 It is with Fear and Trembling and the story of Abraham that we fully arrive at another philosophical terrain traversed by Cormac McCarthy and Kierkegaard. This is a land of parched desert and an elusive oasis. It speaks of the absurdity of faith posed against the apparently undeniable truth of science; the ancient shadow of familial traumas; the passage of time and mankind’s fate within that (are there in fact any heroes?), and then and most importantly for our purposes the question of the poets who record the feats of the hero.

Now here is the essence of the authorship question as expressed by Kierkegaard in ‘Point of View’. We have already seen that Kierkegaard describes authors who shrink back from confronting evil as deceivers. But how then does the religious, or we might say an epic or tragic author, confront evil and place her or himself in the very midst of that maelstrom? Certainly not by writing from the point of view of characters or a narrator who is any better than the perpetrators. Certainly not by a Deus ex Machina intervention of a hero character. No. Such rare religious writers in the modern age simply steadfastly hold their gaze constant at the evil before us. What the religious writer asks is – is this you? Is this us? Is this me?

In key passages of Blood Meridian, the ever-smiling judge demands that the kid look at him or listen to him. Look at him. Don’t turn your gaze away. Look at yourself. Is this you? This is the only way that ancient catharsis can be achieved in our day, in which we the readers of the ‘horror of it’ must be the active participant and the chorus. We do not sit as a unified and culturally cohered group in the Theatron, ready to be shocked and appalled once more by the power of Fate in a story we already know and share. We the fragmented modern audience and the atomized main character or characters no longer carry the whole of culture, all the stories of the Antigone, Oedipus or Odysseus line in our consciousness and it is up to us, each and every person to interpret the story anew. The kid, or Rinthy Holme or Billy Parham are either embraced or abandoned by us. For they have no lineage that we know of. And neither do we. Or rather we do, but have abandoned that lineage. It is in this crucial sense that McCarthy instinctively picks up Kierkegaard’s mantle of indirect communication. An approach discussed at length in ‘Point of View and explained by Walter Lowrie here:

For S. K. would not lecture, and he insisted upon using indirect communication. Imitating the reserve of Socrates, he proposed to teach merely by ‘making people take notice'—of the existence of God, or other prime factors of existence, and especially of the fact of their own existence.

We begin to perceive the role of modern poets who refuse to deceive their audience and rather hold up the blood meridian mirror and invite us to look at ourselves. Enliven us to soul. Louise Glück does the same thing in poetry. False sincerity is the worst authorial sin. We see what Kierkegaard meant when he said that he could not publish his book of judgement – his private journals – whilst he was alive because people would then assume he was speaking ex-cathedra. As if he was supreme to others and knew better than them. For he claimed no authority, sought no followers and – though he predicted it – would have scorned the rise of a secular ‘thought camp’ endowed with his name. He was a ‘judge’ in an entirely different and modernist sense. It is more Louise Glück’s idea of bearing witness. Of providing frank, unadorned testimony. This is the guiding spirit of Cormac McCarthy.

Kierkegaard’s 1849 Journal entry stating that if his journals are published after his death they should be entitled Book of the JudgeDommerens Bog

The reflective author instinctively embellishes and enlarges the most profound evils like spiritual and physical rape (the arch-Seducer) or bestial violence, with the result that we feel the author is a very part of it. Even glorying in it. What happens then is that we, the shocked and appalled readers, are forced to decide what we think, not just of the poet, but also of the horrors thrown into our faces. We will leave aside the fact that this approach does not tend to sell many books, and neither did McCarthy for decades. In this new hall of cracked moral mirrors we are all judging each other. With his silent gaze and pondering heart, the kid in Blood Meridian is the other judge in this gripping fable. He is judge of the judge and we have no stronger witness for that than the judge himself in that mesmerising scene in the prison where the judge appears from nowhere.

The judge smiled. He spoke softly into the dim mud cubicle. You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.

What the judge of shadows is battling here is the bright judge that resides eternally in human conscience. It is also here where clemency for others must reside. Is there anything less scientific than this? The double reflection author does not preach this. He or she simply says – judge for yourself. (Kierkegaard wrote a whole book with this title.). What the kid is battling is the collapse of faith, of belief in anything, and the great draw that the judge’s apparently suzerain authority exudes. We can see the father son relationship referred to by Lynn Crews. Indeed how the judge is a parody of the Great Father of all Fathers. However, a little noticed fact about Fear and Trembling, this famous book of Abraham and his sacrifice of Isaac, is that Kierkegaard’s Johannes de Silentio places Isaac’s age at the time of the planned sacrifice at the highly unlikely figure of thirty years. Actually, Kierkegaard’s age when he published the book. There is no basis for this in the Bible and it is undoubtedly Kierkegaard signalling that he felt sacrificed by his melancholic father who, unlike Abraham, had lost his faith. McCarthy’s intuition is that modern authority has sacrificed its children on the altar of war and false coinage.

By all accounts, McCarthy had a strained relationship with his father and his establishment views. What to do when figures of authority turn to the bad? Or even turn to evil? Blood Meridian is a challenge to the prevailing corrupted authority and its hordes of acolytes. Indeed, the judge in Blood Meridian alludes to his fatherly guise in that same forbidding scene at the jail. A scene that prefigures the Stygian finale to Blood Meridian and holds the reader breathless in its thrall of menace. We are approaching the dark heart of the meridian. The mythical yet ultra-real, slaverous and heart-rending horror of Beowulf, another key text for McCarthy. At the jail, the judge speaks to the kid in the way that a god-demon would speak – Don’t you know that I’d have loved you like a son? But then the judge berates him. A devil coaxing and reprimanding.

You're the one that's crazy, said the kid.
The judge smiled. No, he said. It was never me. But why lurk there in the shadows?
Come here where we can talk, you and me.
The kid stood against the far wall. Hardly more than a shadow himself.
Come up, said the judge. Come up, for I've yet more to tell you.
He looked down the hallway. Don’t be afraid, he said. I'll speak softly. It's not for the world's ears but for yours only. Let me see you. Don’t you know that I'd have loved you like a son?
He reached through the bars. Come here, he said. Let me touch you.
The kid stood with his back to the wall.
Come here if you're not afraid, whispered the judge.
I aint afraid of you.

Look at this crucial passage again. Quite apart from its strong tincture of paedophilia and its Dostoevskian tension, we have heard the judge himself describing the kid as a judge. Just as crucially the Faustian shape-changer that is Judge Holden denounces the kid for his crime of conscience – “You sat in judgement on your own deeds.” I do not feel it is too wild a notion to state that Blood Meridian is Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Point of View’ work. His book of dogmatics. And Kierkegaard is at the heart of it. Inspired by Kierkegaard, McCarthy’s urge is to sing out the diabolical judge’s ‘point of view’ in chapter fourteen and its demand for the mastery of Mother Nature and all of knowledge. In Suttree the poet-chorus sings:

The sound of morning traffic upon the bridge beat with the dull echo of a dream in his cavern and the ragman would have wanted a sager soul than his to read in their endless advent auguries of things to come, the specter of mechanical proliferation and universal blight.

Hold. dear readers. Cormac McCarthy’s idea of mechanical proliferation. It is very obviously McCarthy’s nightmare vision of where we are going as a human race. Where we have gone. The choice for evil that we have made. It is the Armageddon of McCarthy’s The Road. It is the sudden absence of “the godmade sun” and the blazing false dawn that heralds nuclear extinction in The Crossing. The flash of stencilled shadow on the walls of our collective retina, our scourged hearts and souls. It echoes Ondaatje’s The English Patient to come. It reverberates Kierkegaard’s declaration that the world, and especially the religious and spiritual world, was engaged in a flight from conscience. From the good. From Love. From any notion of mercy and grace. His warnings of the coming time of atavistic mob rule, also.

Fascism stalks all over Europe once more and in the USA the mob has stormed the centre of power itself in an attempt to overturn democracy.

Jarrod Owen’s extraordinary triptych of Toadvine, the kid and the judge

This – now in full – is what the judge says in his ‘Point of View’ sermon to the roughneck, Toadvine, who has questioned the judge’s constant mapping and logging of all the flora, fauna, geology and terrain traversed by Blood Meridian’s scalphunter gang:

Toadvine sat watching him as he made his notations in the ledger, holding the book toward the fire for the light, and he asked him what was his purpose in all this.
The judge's quill ceased its scratching. He looked at Toadvine. Then he continued to write again.
Toadvine spat into the fire.
The judge wrote on and then he folded the ledger shut and laid it to one side and pressed his hands together and passed them down over his nose and mouth and placed them palm down on his knees.
Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.
 He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he'd collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men's knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.
What's a suzerain?
A keeper. A keeper or overlord.
Why not say keeper then?
Because he is a special kind of keeper. A suzerain rules even where there are other rulers. His authority countermands local judgements.
Toadvine spat.
The judge placed his hands on the ground. He looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.
Toadvine sat with his boots crossed before the fire. No man can acquaint himself with everthing on this earth, he said.
The judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.
I dont see what that has to do with catchin birds.
The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I'd have them all in zoo

To fully grasp the import of this scene, we have to understand McCarthy’s underlying antipathy to the judge’s ‘Point of View’. Though fascinated by it, just as he is fascinated by the judge, he is completely against the over-mechanisation of the world and the destruction of individual liberty that goes with that voracious, relentless excavator. McCarthy’s father worked as a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was busy developing this previously remote region in the name of ‘progress’.   As McCarthy critics have described very well, much of McCarthy’s oeuvre is a lament for the destruction of wilderness and individuality in human ways. McCarthy’s heroes, or primary characters, are the misfits and rebels who naturally cleave to independence of thought and action. In this he very much invokes Emerson, Thoreau and Melville, of course. For Blood Meridian’s judge, on the other hand, everything must be exploited and there must be no subjective autonomy. There must be no religious superstition. We must all join the science. All hail ersatz ethic-less science.

 In Blood Meridian, it is the scum of the earth, the outcasts, the dregs who challenge the judge. The branded and earless ‘Toadvine’. Then the disgraced ‘expriest’ who significantly describes the judge as a “hoodwinker.” And then there is the kid himself who is the judge’s potential nemesis. But Mcarthy’s point, and it is also Kierkegaard’s point, is that nobody has the language, the cultural armaments, let alone the faith, anymore with which to cap the inexorable blinding rays of value-free science. The inexorable devouring of the earth and all its secrets – and humans with them. The human drive to self extinction haunts all of McCarthy’s works. The God of Attrition has trumped the God of Empathy. The moral decline of the West is mirrored by its cultural and spiritual decline.

 So what do we do? It seems that Kierkegaard and Cormac McCarthy have similar answers to that question, which is rather surprising given their apparently differing views on Christianity. But if we look closely at what McCarthy’s characters actually enact, we find a shared Kierkegaard/McCarthy vision that centres around the dignity of each sovereign individual and implicit within that is the freedom of the will to act. In other words, to imagine the possible, no matter how difficult it might look. This in turn must mean that there is some agency that seeks to nullify the human possible that aspires to ‘Soul’. This agency is obviously the judge. It is this malevolent judge who will snuff out our light and condemn us to living death. Kierkegaard and McCarthy both say that it is not final human death we should fear but being dead to life whilst our souls are both of human time and immortality, a feat no god can accomplish. See, even in nothingness stirs the possible. McCarthy’s characters are agents of the possible who constantly gauge their lives against their conscience.

Of course, within the possible lies the forbidden also. More than anything, we are beings of the scenario and permutation in all their endless possibilities. This surely is both the guarantee of our freedom – individual sovereign autonomy- but also the space in which temptation and transgression arises. This is the realm of conscience, therefore. Louise Glück whose recent passing we mourn at the moment captures this brilliantly in her essay on false (or forced) sincerity amongst poets. As the first amongst truth-witnesses Glück is highly germane to our McCarthian purpose here. For in her ‘Against Sincerity’ essay she asserts a difference between what she calls actuality and truth. This of course is an age-old dichotomy, but one that must be repeated for each age that rises then falls.

Hegel’s great fault was to attempt to place human truth – the lived human life – within global concepts such as the state, law and logic, all of which were supposedly vehicles of world progress. But these ‘statutes’ can never tell us how to live our lives. Subjective human truth is not rational reasoning. It is not even deliberate attempts at honesty or sincerity, for these are worked by reasoning that is looking for definitive proof. But there is no scientific proof for what we know in our hearts. The poet’s truth, as Glück brilliantly reveals, lies in what is hidden. This is what makes it so hard. The profoundest truths are unearthed not by a mechanical excavator – be that brain or digger – but by a spiritual process not even the poet can explain. The deepest truth, as McCarthy and Kierkegaard have revealed, lies in the realm of dread, or angst, or lies and half-lies, in strange occurrences that lie dormant waiting for their appearance on the stage. Only a decision to leap, from a sense of dread or shock at the vision that visits us and some conviction (faith) arising from this wonder and mystical awe that convinces us that something is true for us. Listen to Glück:

There is, unfortunately, no test for truth. That is, in part, why artists suffer. The love of truth is felt as chronic aspiration and chronic unease. If there is no test for truth, there is no possible security. The artist, alternating between anxiety and fierce conviction, must depend on the latter to compensate for the sacrifice of the sure. It is relatively easy to say that truth is the aim and heart of poetry, but harder to say how it is recognized or made. We know it first, as readers, by its result, by the sudden rush of wonder and awe and terror.

“Fierce conviction” can only be faith.


The ‘Point of View’ of Inexorable Scientism

Hegel’s ‘Folk, State and History’ – an authorised text in the Nazi state.
After the Second World War, the title was changed to Law, State and History

I believe I have demonstrated sufficiently that Cormac McCarthy’s true debt to Kierkegaard has gone largely unreported. But this omission has a much wider significance, because it is compounded by apparent confusion over a number of other great thinkers, not least of those is Friedrich Nietzsche as we shall see shortly. And, as I have been building up to, in misunderstanding or undervaluing Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, amongst others, many otherwise highly perspicacious McCarthy commentators – there are too many of them to mention in full – have misunderstood McCarthy’s fascination and extreme discomfort with the figure of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel who looms large and forbidding in Walter Lowrie’s biography of Kierkegaard.

For all Nietzsche’s arrogance, Hegel was far more of an Übermensch (if we follow the widespread distortion of that concept for a moment) than Nietzsche ever was. This would have been fine if Hegel had simply worked his inner Übermensch around his own path of self-discovery. Kierkegaard said that if Hegel had confined himself to applying his philosophy to his own life and actions it would have been a magnificent experiment. Applied to humanity as a whole, it becomes a monstrous comedy.

As is well known, there have been some famous attacks on Hegel by the likes of Karl Popper in his work The Open Society and its Enemies who was also scathing of Marx for the same determinist historicism reasons. But given that Hegel was the preeminent modern age prophet of rational entelechy, the idea that the potential form or function of a substance will be expressed in a final form – i.e. that it has an internal telos or mission – he was a major target of Popper’s critique. Critics of Popper have described his onslaught against Hegel as a caricature given that Hegel painted a, one might argue, enthralling vista of social cohesion, but an accurate caricature can often tell us more about a subject in a few deft strokes than a whole book.

Likewise, McCarthy’s remarkable portrayal of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian is undoubtedly a caricature of imperious scientism. But imperiousness is a cap that fits both Hegel and the ever smiling, arrogant judge very well. Abstract speculation in itself is harmless. People can think whatever it occurs to them to think and we all do just that. It is what we do with those thoughts when we seek to enact them in life that is the crucial issue. Nature’s innate drive towards form is entirely logical, in as much that it can be logged and calculated. It is a beautiful realm. Indeed, Cormac McCarthy’s scientist friend and confidante, Guy Davenport, wrote a fine book entitled Every Force Evolves a Form about form and precedence. But it is no use with regard to how we humans should live our lives. The personal is not just political. It is existential. The form-imperative is not, or should not be, a philosophy for social engineering and human existence and Cormac McCarthy was extremely aware of this problem. For a perfect example of how McCarthy could consider various strands of philosophy and then draw his own conclusions regardless of personal allegiances, look at where his Muse brings him in Suttree via his ponderings over form. This is in the remarkable scene where Suttree seeks out the voodoo witch figure that is Mother She. Abandon all reason, ye who enter here:

He saw a pool of oil on a steel drumhead that lay shirred with the pounding of machinery. He saw the blood in his eyelids where he lay in a field in a summer noon and he saw young boys in a pond, pale nates and small bald cods shriveled with the cold and he saw an idiot in a yard in a leather harness chained to a clothesline and it leaned and swayed drooling and looked out upon the alley with eyes that fed the most rudimentary brain and yet seemed possessed of news in the universe denied right forms, like perhaps the eyes of squid whose simian depths seem to harbor some horrible intelligence. All down past the hedges a gibbering and howling in a hoarse frog’s voice, word perhaps of things known raw, unshaped by the constructions of a mind obsessed with form.


The point here is that there is an intelligence – in both senses of that word as intellect and news – that goes beyond rational inference and deduction. And more importantly prefigures them. We know things long before science or psychiatry or the media explain them to us. If art is pre-logical, where did it come from? McCarthy is no irrationalist but he clearly sees the irrational as a sacred space. His interest in Carl Jung is well known, as is Jung’s interest in Jacob Böhme. Like clemency, the irrational is a human attribute that is anathema to Blood Meridian’s scientist judge. Our ‘obsession with form’ – with framing knowledge and insight – is our genius and also our curse. The corralling, mapping, enfolding actions and verbosity of the judge overwhelm us. The silence of the kid, who refuses to even face him, is inexplicable. It is preverbal resistance. It is human dignity restored.

Michael Lynn Crews’s discussion of Wyndham Lewis’s influence on McCarthy is one of the best sections of his book. He rightly states that McCarthy depicts the human individual as a tragic figure caught between a yearning for freedom and the inexorable homogenizing forces of the modern age. However, he misses an essential point regarding McCarthy’s defence of the irrational in that our subjective – we might say Kierkegaardian – selves source our authentic essence in that same allegedly irrational realm. The reason why he makes this mistake is that he misunderstands the arguments made by the likes of Wyndham Lewis against Time-philosophers like Bergson and Whitehead. This may be because Lynn Crews fails to spot that Wyndham Lewis also criticises Hegel – the Time-philosopher par excellence – who placed becoming in the services of the temporal state and society, whereas Kierkegaard, Berdyaev and Nietzsche, for example, placed becoming within the soul of the individual. Hegel and all the other Time-philosophers argue for a World-spirit rather than a subjective spirit, but Lynn Crews wrongly places McCarthy in their camp. Look:

The fragility of goodness is related to McCarthy’s tragic sense of the transience of all things. This melancholy preoccupation with transience, in the final analysis, puts him in the camp of Lewis’s despised “Time-philosophers.” McCarthy believes, like Bergson and Whitehead, and like Spengler, that the unstable flux of time carries all along with it, that process, rather than stasis—becoming, rather than being—constitutes the fundamental reality.


Lynn Crews is correct to say that becoming, rather than static being, constitutes the fundamental reality for Cormac McCarthy but that ‘becoming’ for McCarthy (and also our repeated failures to fully become), is situated within the soul of the individual and not as Hegel and his subsequent time-historicists argued in the world process as whole. In my view, McCarthy was alert to dangers of an argument that reduces the individual to nothing more than a conduit for carrying the march of history forward. Hegel called Napoleon “History on a Horse.” This is precisely the role of Judge Holden as he rode the West to destruction. That bald judge who says that man must subsume himself to the purpose of the group and that individual qualms (to invoke the Kierkegaardian kvaler of the Danish) are an affront to that group and the march of science.

In that same book Time and Western Man, which Lynn Crews correctly says is an important source for McCarthy, we read Wyndham Lewis describing Hegel’s philosophy as a repulsively technical one and why does he say this? It is because Hegel places reality (being) in the abstract – in concepts and what might eventually come – and not in the reality for the individual. I believe this mistaken reading of McCarthy is quite widespread, as evidenced by its being expressed by a brilliant McCarthian like Lynn Crews. This ‘wobble’ stems from faulty readings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. McCarthy is searching for and exploring ways in which we deal with, or don’t deal with, modern despair. As already noted, the judge of Blood Meridian states directly, as if in direct reply to Kierkegaard, that War is the way humans must deal with despair. But – and if I may put it as crudely as this – McCarthy does not see a final solution to anything, whereas the time-historicists essentially do. And we all know where final solutions lead.

The apologists for Hegel say that his vison saw a future framed within a communal whole that was informed by the spirit of wisdom. This is about as far from Cormac McCarthy’s vision as one could possibly go. McCarthy held no truck with the idea that permanent harmony could ever be established in this world. What he envisioned instead was the human soul’s struggling in the face of disharmony and trying to assert their eternal validity. (And not always succeeding as happens with most of us.) We see the suffering face of Christ surely? The compassion also. The way even the lowest of the low are given dignity. The tragic decision to embrace one’s fate, past, present and future. Amor Fati being a key Nietzschean concept. The same Nietzsche who was consulted by McCarthy and who criticised Hegel’s idea of existence having a goal. A telos. We must each forge our own goals in this now godless world.

Just as McCarthians have often missed the Kierkegaard influence and misunderstood Nietzsche, they have forgotten or overlooked Hegel. It is true that there are no records, at least not yet, of McCarthy having specifically read Hegel, nor Karl Popper for that matter, but a glance of all the sources mentioned in Books are Made of Books alone reveals a welter of authors who treat of Hegel in a significant and often questioning way. Not just Walter Lowrie and Wyndam Lewis, as we have seen, but also Camus, Joseph Brennan, and Nicholas Berdyaev, for example. However, as far as I know, very little of the modern Hegel debate sparked by Popper and so many others has found its way into McCarthy criticism, which for the purposes of this study is another lacuna because Popper placed Kierkegaard’s ‘Point of View’ at the heart of his defenestration of Hegel’s whole edifice. In his groundbreaking book, Popper specifically refers to Kierkegaard’s ‘Book of the Judge’ as a key anti-Hegelian text with its references to the Hegelian mind’s “infamous spirit of corruption.”


For Hegel, all reality (being) is ultimately rational


We forget that it was Hegel, not Nietzsche who first killed God and he did this as he raised the Prussian state to the status of a perfectible apogee of our social structures. With his gigantic Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse in three volumes from 1817 to almost Hegel’s death in 1831 – a highpoint for an already lofty German idealism, he sought to explain the whole of ‘reality’ and how human reason can know it. The intention of his grand, not to say ecstatic, vision of the fulfilment within his all-encompassing system laid out mankind’s destiny was far removed from the science of extermination that was to come, but Kierkegaard warned of the dangers of making (wo)man and religion nothing more than a cognition in a machine serving the state’s purpose. Kierkegaard was right. We see a fine, imposing edifice there, but also the emerging neo-Roman columns and lockstep dialectic that came with the massed rallies of historically necessary fascism. It is also fake. ersatz, hoodwinkery. Mass hysteria.

            Of course, human logical deduction is a wondrous – not to say useful – capacity and the Holy Spirit now earthbound and moving amongst us, anointing and inspiring us to great works and a civic ethos, is a beautiful idea, but Hegel’s system ultimately depends to a fateful extent on the civically minded bourgeoise and their equally enlightened counterparts in the Church to carry his World Sprit forward. Marx pointed out that these power blocs, as the ruling classes, were just as infused with, and happy to enforce, the laws of production and exchange and pertaining cultural norms as any other power broker and would act accordingly in the Capitalist system. Therefore, they were not ever going to be an apogee of anything, except their own hegemony. Kierkegaard agreed in as much that he said Hegel’s system moves authentic religious ethics to the realm of temporal morals, law and state structures. Wither therefore human freedom? The undeniable momentum and direction of all this, described as historically necessary by Hegel, is to scalp miracle and metaphysical metaphor. Science as man’s ultimate destiny is a hoodwinkery to which we become slaves (again echoing Marx). Feel we must curry its favour. It is Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and our worship of the bomb come true. The judge’s perverted science has become the judge and arbiter of all and we have become its craven acolytes.

            Let us return to that literally striking scene in Blood Meridian in which the wounded, anesthetized and raving kid sees the vast judge standing by his rough surgery pallet. This judge in fine clothing and behind him an artisan and coldforger. It is we who are the coldforgers here, indicted and self-exiled in our false lives as we hammer desperately at false coin in the pay of the malevolent djinn for whom science is just one more devious device. Yet science itself has neither explanation nor remedy for this same judge. The judge is the doctor scientist at the sickbed who has no love for the patient but wishes to measure his skull for the purposes of ridicule and dehumanization. Human science can no more comprehend this most desolate of primal matter – this judge demon – any more than it can understand a leap of faith. For there is no logical record, no system by which the human scientist can reckon this judge’s ‘commencing’ – “whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing. Science cannot fathom its own Ur-Provenance. Look:

In that sleep and in sleeps to follow the judge did visit. Who would come other? A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.

In his (the kid’s PL) delirium he ransacked the linens of his pallet for arms but there were none. The judge smiled. The fool was no longer there but another man and this other man he could never see in his entirety but he seemed an artisan and a worker in metal. The judge enshadowed him where he crouched at his trade but he was a coldforger who worked with hammer and die, perhaps under some indictment and an exile from men's fires, hammering out like his own conjectural destiny all through the night of his becoming some coinage for a dawn that would not be. It is this false moneyer with his gravers and burins who seeks favor with the judge and he is at contriving from cold slag brute in the crucible a face that will pass, an image that will render this residual specie current in the markets where men barter. Of this is the judge judge and the night does not end.


The primal matter of malevolence – in its Judge Holden manifestation or otherwise – is unfathomable. McCarthy’s Muse quite clearly signals this. And his night does not end. There is no science of knowledge that can help us here. And as Kierkegaard asked – can science explain that God entered time as Christ? Of course not. It is as absurd as McCarthy’s “agony of trees.” It is as absurd and as true as this judge figure. What then can save us if Christ’s love is dead and science is shown to be exactly what it always was – an empirical device whose value depends entirely on who is wielding it? This device can neither reckon the judge nor protect our individual validity. God is dead, Hegel declared. Both Kierkegaard and McCarthy ask – now what? As did Nietzsche of course.

As Nietzsche has been mentioned several times now, it is a great pity that Lynn Crews’s philosophical and theological awareness, at least where Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are concerned, does not match his overall textual hermeneutic abilities. He wrongly and anachronistically links Nietzsche with fascism and racist eugenics and for these reasons links the merciless judge, not with Hegel, but with Nietzsche. For example

“The noxious bouquet of Fascism can be detected in Nietzsche’s rhetoric, as it can in the judge’s.”

Author Sue Prideaux demolishes the
Nietzsche as Nazi myth
– she is by no means the first

Though it is true that Nietzsche was an “aristocratic radical” as Georg Brandes famously called him when he introduced him to wider Europe (as he did with Kierkegaard also), Nietzsche not only rejected antisemitism and German chauvinism, he broke with the man he had previously worshipped – Richard Wagner – over those very issues. It is true that Nietzsche had initially argued that a new culture-society could be built around supposedly classic German concepts of a folk as myth-bearers, invoking Wotan (Odin) and the Ring Cycle after Wagner. And also that – as quite an accomplished pianist and music love – Nietzsche retained his admiration for Wagner’s compositions, but he clearly broke with Wagner over the question of narrow nationalism and German militarism. This was very well known outside of Northern Europe as far back as the 1970s when the very useful biographical compendium to the arts, Brief Lives, could say the following:

“The two broke with each other, however, on Wagner’s establishing a chauvinistic, anti-Semitic cult at Bayreuth.”

Author Sue Prideaux, meanwhile, has more recently again demolished the Nietzsche as Nazi myth. Nietzsche also rejected Hegel’s central idea referred to above that mankind’s destiny would be realised by its spirit of inquiry – via logical reasoning – and the human fulfilment of world history via the World Spirit – as expressed in the Prussian State. Hindsight without context is always unfair but the problems with these ideas were obvious even in Hegel’s day. The goal that life on earth can be fully mastered and expressed in man’s suzerainty and control of existence, to paraphrase the judge, is Hegel’s. Nietzsche declared this aim to be downright ludicrous and comical. A perfect example of man exaggerating his own importance. He echoes Kierkegaard, though they would have disagreed about Socrates.

Nietzsche is clear that the human world neither has an ultimate purpose nor any final goal. As the excellent Danish Nietzsche researcher Mette Blok has pointed out, Nietzsche called this lack of meaning or purpose in the world – “die Unschuld des Werdens” – the world’s innocence. (I have almost finished translating her book on Nietzsche – Nietzsche as Educator.) Though he agreed with Hegel that man is a social being and that God was dead, what Nietzsche did was to say we hadn’t yet grasped the harrowing implications of this. Moreover, he was far more in tune with Kierkegaard when he said that every single individual had to personally reconcile themselves with life’s meaningless and the Eternal Recurrence that was the fundamental element in all existence and that they must do this with creativity – lebenskunst. That is, that every single person has the potential to live a ‘holy’ life if they grasp the essentially tragic nature of existence and become completely reconciled with this life and therefore transcend to a higher understanding. It is a yea-saying to your life, as it was, is now and will be. Is there not a religious character to this quasi-transcendental decision? It is this movement that is Nietzsche’s – famous or notorious, take your pick – ‘Will to Power.’

This is not an urge to become an oppressor but an urge to being reconciled to self-overcoming (after Spinoza) towards the highest thing we can be as super-humans. Rather than being a fully conscious, personal human will, it is an urge, a force of nature that the individual embraces on the way to being reconciled. All living things have this urge to full completion – fully reconciled natures. Not, for humans, as logical form fulfilment but as a tragi-heroic subjective transcendence of that form – now that we have no awareness of the divine. An oft forgotten point is that Nietzsche argued that we are creatures of worship – we like to worship. From whence this drive? Nor does our self-overcoming come, for humans, by being reconciled with the Polis or State alone.

This is obviously an attempt by Nietzsche to return us to the high cultural awareness of ancient Greece. It is in these senses of life as tragedy and personal dilemma, and also that primal forces are at play in existence that Cormac McCarthy reflects Nietzsche. The wicked judge who will expunge all notions of ‘clemency’ and personal transcendence has no Nietzschean traits whatsoever. Lynn Crews applies a human Will to Power – and a decision for evil – to the judge but how can this be when McCarthy has made clear that the judge is of primal matter? The judge is not taking personal decisions. He can no more stop murdering and corrupting than Don Juan can stop seducing. There is no existential choice made here. The judge simply is.

The Gay Science in Walter Kaufmann’s 1974 translation – in which the Nietzsche as Nazi myth is demolished

It surprises me that Lynn Crews holds such an antiquated view of Nietzsche. Walter Kaufmann demolished the Nietzsche/Nazi/Superman myth in the period just after the Second World War. In fact, where Kaufmann is concerned, Lynn Crews tells us that McCarthy read, or anyway quotes, amongst other Nietzsche books or texts in his research notes – The Gay Science and Twilight of the Gods, presumably both in Walter Kaufmann’s translations. Where Nietzsche’s The Gay Science is concerned, it is the 1974 Walter Kaufmann edition that Lynn Crews refers to in the bibliography, in which Kaufmann says the following in the introduction:

Hence he (Nietzsche – PL) goes out of his way in The Gay Science no less than in Beyond Good and Evil and The Antichrist to dissociate himself from every kind of proto-Nazism; and he does this scathingly. usually in sections that deal with the Germans; for example. sections 134, 149, and 377 of this book.

If Cormac McCarthy also read Twilight of the Idols, it would have almost certainly been in Kaufmann’s Portable Nietzsche (the edition source is not referenced in the Lynn Crews’s book), and if that is the case, he would have read Kaufmann’s famous demolition of the Nazi/fascist smear against Nietzsche, viz:

“ .. no other German writer of equal stature has been so thoroughly opposed to all proto-Nazism - which Nietzsche encountered in Wagner's ideological tracts, in his sister's husband, Bernhard Forster, and in various publications of his time. If some Nazi writers cited him nevertheless, it was at · the price of incredible misquotation and exegetical acrobatics.”

Put simply, if Cormac McCarthy read any Walter Kaufmann book about Nietzsche, he would have been left in no doubt that Nietzsche was neither a proto-Nazi nor a fascist. Lynn Crews seems unaware that Nietzsche did not call for man to master the world and enslave all the Untermenschen, but rather to bravely take mastery of his own life. His own destiny. (He usually said ‘he’, though he was less of a chauvinist than he is often portrayed, as Prideaux also shows.)

Michael Lynn Crews does in fact refer to Hegel in Books are Made of Books but as I have already pointed out fails to spot the Kierkegaard clue and takes a wrong turn over Nietzsche when linking him to the judge and Nazism. To be fair, it seems that most of the leading McCarthy critics see the judge as an expression of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, but again, this is to misunderstand Nietzsche and misunderstand the judge who is not a human being but a force of existence itself.    There is only one leading McCarthy commentator that I know of who specifically links the judge with Hegel and that is Ty Hawkins who makes a telling point in his excellent book, Cormac McCarthy’s Philosophy when he argues that McCarthy’s underlying writerly impulse is to explode not just the prevailing dialectic:- “between modernist assumptions about progress and their shadow of postmodern scepticism,” but also the core of this false dialectic – as Kierkegaard argued – which stems from Hegel. There is never a happy arrival at any synthesis of life’s contradictions:

At the heart of this is McCarthy’s rejection of the Hegelian idea that such a thing as History exists. We already have seen Blood Meridian deconstruct the judge’s argument for the same.

Hawkins correctly identifies the judge character as an expression of Hegel’s state-historicism, as I would describe Hegel’s ‘history’, and Blood Meridian as a deconstruction of ‘Judge Hegel’ – this latter my own phrase again. Unfortunately, Hawkins does not mention Kierkegaard at all in his book. What I think Hawkins intuits is the tension in McCarthy between a classic literary disposition with regard to the construction of form – like many Irish people, McCarthy was a natural builder – and the cry for freedom, and the breaking of all normative bonds, that arose first with Romanticism (with a young Hegel to the fore) and then the full-blown modernism of Pound, Eliot and Joyce. As Hawkins noted, McCarthy’s innate classicism grated both against shallow notions of harmony, modernity and progress on the one hand and a faux destructivism on the other.

Vereen Bell’s 1988 book on Cormac McCarthy is probably still the best insight into this work

There is another McCarthy critic who comes close to marking Hegel as an important context for Blood Meridian’s judge – Vereen Bell was the first to attempt an exegesis of McCarthy’s works and underlying philosophy with his 1988 biography, which covers The Orchard Keeper (1965) through to Blood Meridian (1985). He has rarely been surpassed since. What Bell correctly insists is that McCarthy foregrounds the lived life before the world of ideas and abstractions. The dialectic in a novel like Suttree, he says, is: “not Hegelian.” Human life in the abstract does not have a specific goal. Rather, the lived life with all its conflicts and tragedies great or small is philosophically tragic and a novel like Suttree celebrates everyday heroes who struggle through these tragedies and try despite everything to help each other. That is the goa. Or we often try and often fail. Try to fail better. It is here where McCarthy’s ‘Point of View’ resides. It is perhaps because McCarthy’s works offer no ready-made solution to these ills in the way that, say, Jack London did (Socialism) or Dickens (liberal charity) that McCarthy critics have been slow to detect the muted rage at social injustice and racism that lies at the heart of McCarthy’s novels.

            Thus, and as I have argued, despite not having any deliberate agenda of sincerity to invoke Louise Glück once again, there is an underlying Ur-Christian thread through McCarthy’s works that speaks of the poor as blessed – far more likely to help people, wise beyond their own ken and the bearers of ancient cultural tidings. A primordial intelligence. We find here the vision of Dostoevsky that sees the poor as the receptacle of Christ’s passion and understanding. Where the Christ figure himself is the pathetic ‘Saviour’ arraigned before the Grand Inquisitor who scorns Jesus’s choice for human freedom – and therefore trust in their clemency – over the worldly delights proffered as temptations by the Devil. Jesus, Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor says, does not understand base human nature and the Church does. And how does Christ answer him? He says nothing. He as silent as the kid. His only answer is to place a kiss on the Inquisitor’s bloodless lips. Is it perhaps the kid who embraces the judge in that jakes?

The conventional view of this gripping scene from The Brothers Karamazov is that the Grand Inquisitor is the bad guy, but this perhaps underplays how difficult it is to follow Christ’s example and take up his cross of suffering. It is a severe, almost inhuman demand. This is the reasonable charge that was thrown at Kierkegaard, as noted. Nicholas Berdyaev answers this problem by arguing that each individual must find their own way to carry the Cross and strive to follow Christ’s example. This seems to me to be more like Cormac McCarthy’s chosen path. Life is a struggle to hold on to love. Sutree and other McCarthy characters do indeed carry a cross of personal freedom and freedom for others and it is for this reason, I think, that in his brilliant preface Vereen Bell speaks of McCarthy’s profound moral seriousness and “humane cosmic stoicism.” And crucially, he points out from the very start of his book that McCarthy makes followers of Aristotle – the father of rationalism, who spoke of our rational souls – uneasy. This is a highly perceptive insight.

            In setting out McCarthy’s guiding authorial ethos, Bell goes on to say something that, for our purposes here, can be seen as a direct riposte to and rejection of the judge’s all-encompassing scientism and Hegel’s assertion of a science of existence and a telos of reason:

… that absolute certainty is always a form of unfreedom; that an administered world is, for the individual, a deprived one; that ideas and systems, the pursuit of essences and of first principles, are as dangerous and as reifying as imposed social orders.

This could almost be a manifesto for Kierkegaard as well. Crucially, in the context of Blood Meridian’s judge, Vereen Bell writes that McCarthy kicks against our modern-day anthropocentrism, which argues that humans are the centre of existence: 

What the judge says and he and his confederates act out eventually seems like an only slightly demented revival of Enlightenment philosophy, and the judge’s intellectual imperialism may be read finally as an instance of what happens if Enlightenment doctrine is pressed to its logical conclusion.


He is thus the Lucifer-Judge who presides imperiously, not merely over the American West but of Western rationality as a whole. This is not only the core of Clive James’s harangue against Hegel, which we will come to shortly, it is a key element of Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel. We are left rueing once again the fact that another fine McCarthy critic didn’t know enough about Kierkegaard.

Another excellent McCarthy critic does come tantalisingly close to linking the cold-eyed judge to Hegel, or rather to Hegel’s Anglo Saxon World Spirit driven system, in the context of the judge’s invocation of war as the expansionist white man’s rapacious and anti-ecological natural habitat and life-arbiter. In his book, Cormac McCarthy, Robert L. Jarrett debates the judge’s possible “Hegelian teleology of the Spirit driving history or the mind’s apprehension of that history.” A brilliant summation. And quoting Vereen Bell’s important work, Jarrett correctly perceives the danger in the idea that mankind is little more than a vehicle for a historical world process, which is precisely the charge Kierkegaard lays at Hegel’s door.

Robert L. Jarrett comes very close to sourcing the Hegel fault line in Blood Meridian

However, and again because of this confusion over Nietzsche’s Will to Power concept – where it is wrongly perceived as being simply the human prerogative of an oppressive Übermensch – Jarrett ends up chiming with Lynn Crews’s position that the judge is expressing a Nietzschean will to dominate all things. It is indeed unfortunate that Nietzsche often wrote in quick, often scathing, harsh and merciless aphorisms that are easily lifted from their overall context and put to use by whatever protagonists that wished to appropriate them – his fascist leaning sister for example.       Nietzsche was often his own worst enemy and his constant and savage attacks on morality meant he was branded as an immoralist. But as Mette Blok points out in her book, Nietzsche was not anti-morals per se, he just hated the hypocrisy of a society that lauded one thing and did quite another. Going back to that higher sense of tragic awareness that Nietzsche called for, we could call Nietzsche’s new moral code a higher wisdom infused with the sense of life’s essentially tragic nature.

By my reading, and ironically if true, this is very much Cormac McCarthy’s philosophical terrain. There are, then, more than just straws in the wind here indicating that the judge is the Hegelian, scientific march of human history when it reaches its exultant blood meridian and he is declared immortal and we raise him up on the pedestal of ultimate guru. There is an ecstatic, triumphant tone in Hegel – as if he has cracked the Code of Doom itself. Here come the Judge …

The thrust of my argument, then, is not only that key references to Kierkegaard have been missed or misunderstood by McCarthy critics, but also that the books Cormac McCarthy consulted for his research did refer to Hegel, some of them at length, and that his judge figure in Blood Meridian is an expression of a malignancy that arises from there and quickens McCarthy’s interest in a monster that was a scientific judge of all things. The judge is Hegel, expressed as an inexorable World Spirit of all consuming knowledge appropriation. He got this idea from Kierkegaard.

If what I have discerned about the presence of Hegel’s essentially secular and scientific system and thought is at least possible, there is even less reason to link the overweening and sinister judge figure with Friedrich Nietzsche. We saw right at the beginning that Hegel expressed the ambition that, through his gargantuan efforts, philosophy could become the science that explained everything. Blood Meridian’s Judge-Scientist expresses the same ambition and he is framed in a Kierkegaardian context. His ‘Point of View.’ Elsewhere in The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel talks of the final conclusion to this process, when Spirit is made manifest within human reason it becomes “absolute knowing”. And he goes on to finish paragraph 798 (the emphasis is Hegel’s):

Spirit, manifesting or appearing in consciousness in this element, or what is the same thing, produced in it by consciousness, is Science.

Surely Cormac McCarthy saw his judge character taking greater shape in all this talk of absolute knowledge and consciousness itself becoming ‘Science’? He already had a scalphunter judge. He had a kid who was in some way beholden to the judge but broke away. And in this conflict writhes the blood meridian. As is raised above, what if bad people take command of the science? Man is literally made stone age. A specimen to be logged then scalped out of existence.

 In a scathing pen portrait of Hegel, that master of deadpan irony, Clive James, nailed the fact that Hegel took nature of the whole universe into consideration but left out human nature. (I paraphrase.) The very charge Kierkegaard lays at Hegel’s door. It bears stating that Walter Kaufmann defended Hegel from these charges just as much as he defended Nietzsche, but he is on far less secure ground here.

Clive James questions Hegel’s legacy in his book Cultural Amnesia

Clive James – a Germanophile – had a brilliant mind and a natural inclination to admire sophisticated thinkers. However, in his book Cultural Amnesia he describes Hegel’s iron system of dialectical logic as being housed in “towering systems of thought” and with his glorification of the Prussian state as the perfectible zenith of culture and scientific inquiry, had left the philosophical door open to Lebensraum fanatics looking for a system upon which to append their bloodlust and system of annihilation. Essentially the Ur-philosophy that underpins Blood Meridian. McCarthy’s nightmare of the pale judge expressing a mad Teutonic vison of ever proliferating war in which the rapacious Teutons themselves disintegrate. Look at this from the opening of Suttree (who is himself described as “the reprobate scion of doomed Saxon clans”) with its reference to Aryans:

… and beyond the country rolls away to the south and the mountains. Where hunters and woodcutters once slept in their boots by the dying light of their thousand fires and went on, old teutonic forebears with eyes incandesced by the visionary light of a massive rapacity, wave on wave of the violent and the insane, their brains stoked with spoorless analogues of all that was, lean aryans with their abrogate Semitic chapbook reenacting the dramas and parables herein and mindless and pale with a longing that nothing save dark’s total restitution could appease.

As Michael Lynn Crews has pointed out, McCarthy was very influenced by ideas surrounding the decline and degeneration of the West, Oswald Spengler looms large here. And lo and behold, in The Decline of the West, Spengler spends much time discussing Hegel’s view of history as the self-expansion of the world spirit, in which by the way – as Hegel makes clear – lesser beings from the dark continents are not even considered. Racism, and a sustained, understated opposition to it, is a key undercurrent in both Suttree and Blood Meridian, and also later works like Cities of the Plains.

The key word one feels is rapacity. What exactly is carrying Hegel’s World Spirit of destiny forwards to the completion of history? It can only be men, as the only possible earthly purveyors of Spirit, ideas and divine reason. White men. Teutons. Aryans, McCarthy calls them. But by the time these waves of men have reached the Wild West they are a spent force and their science and technology have brought them no nearer to happiness. (A theme Knausgaard is now exploring.) In fact, the reverse. We can understand why he was so confident, but Hegel was wrong to say that the World Spirit and human reason’s grasping of that spirit was man’s destiny – actually Germany’s destiny. We are not up to the job and will always need grace and clemency to intervene. Or to quote Clive James on Hegel and his adoption by the Nazi regime:

Unfortunately, their sleepwalk towards destiny fulfilled Hegel’s prediction of what the right people might one day do: he just hadn’t guessed that the wrong people would do it.

It seems to me that, with his antipodean contrariness and sense for the vernacular, his poet’s mindset and vast cultural passion also, Clive James unerringly worked his way to that same existential fault line in Hegel’s system as McCarthy did. Some lines from McCarthy’s Suttree always reveal that same chasm to me – something entirely soulless, arid, legalistic and distant haunts his world.

In my father’s last letter he said that the world is run by those willing to take the responsibility for the running of it. If it is life that you feel you are missing I can tell you where to find it. In the law courts, in business, in government. There is nothing occurring in the streets. Nothing but a dumbshow composed of the helpless and the impotent.

 The above lines could be written by Hegel himself. The helpless and impotent in the streets referred to here are those who suffer from what Hegel called “unhappy consciousness.” His cure for this was reason and logic as the sufferer realises in his or her ponderings that this very same capacity for reason opens the vista of the historical process and marries their negative antithetical; hesitancy to the positive thesis of objective reality – the universal expressed as the Prussian state. And so we move on. Happily resolved in the scientific synthesis. We are simply bit parts in this process and, as we have seen, Kierkegaard says that there is actually no movement at all in Hegel’s system. Though both agree that doubt and self-doubt are crucial moments, Kierkegaard rightly argues that these do not remain in the logic of reasoning. If we move – transcend – it is a leap.

 That psychological and spiritual movement resides in our awareness and terror of the possible. We are always on the move. That is, human beings are on the move. Nature is on the move. On the other hand, abstract concepts such as Logic, The State, the Law are fixed ideas. In all his torment, the eponymous Suttree protests. Don’t tell me who I am. I am me. Elsewhere in the novel, Suttree’s “subtle obsession with uniqueness” troubles all his dreams. This man who, like McCarthy himself, chose the ‘outer dark, rather than the bourgeois comforts that might have been available to him. To invoke Kierkegaard: only the wearer knows precisely where the shoe is pinching. There is scientific reason and there is subjective truth. Only an artist can envision the human pinch and reveal to all of us. Only artists can save us now.

Blood Meridian – the Book of the Judges

In conclusion:

The Bible looms large in Blood Meridian as it does in many great works of art in the West and Cormac McCarthy does a very Biblical thing – in his creations, he turns people to stone. Just as in the Bible, men turned to stone is a constant motif for McCarthy. In Outer Dark, we meet travellers who could be “stone figures quarried from the architecture of an older time.” Provoked out of the absolute rock. There is neither past nor future for the elective marauders of Blood Meridian. They are a host of moving statues who, like an appalling horde emerging from some sheer rockface in a Greek fable, extinguish all that is behind and all that is ahead of them. All of human time is snuffed out in their expunging trail. A two hundred million year old “Gondwanaland” of the present is established by this gang, which can only invoke those cataclysmic times of vast rock fission, as its members have no future. Their hearts are turned to stone and their future light is extinguished just as quickly as their dread purpose enters it. They are the ghoulish outworkings of our worst despair. They cannot, and do not wish to, look forward to anything. Nor backwards. Another inversion of Kierkegaard, who, as we have seen, says in Lowrie that transcendence (via repetition of what was and will be) is “forward looking recollection.”

In Blood Meridian, all lineage, tribe, clan, sept, family, offspring, child, is scoured and scalped from the canvas. Wherever the Glanton gang travels, it extinguishes the past in its wake and ploughs on into the void it creates ahead of it. Make no mistake. This savage society is all of us in extremis and the judge is our ever-lurking Geist that rises constantly from the primordial unground of the cold void. Yet, in human terms, McCarthy’s riders of the Apocalypse go further still. For they are also mute. They are returned to the bare rock and cold fire of nothingness. Bereft of the human wherewithal of choice or voice.

As the great philosopher of making a human choice, Stanley Cavell, has pointed out, we humans are users of language. If we cannot speak – that is, choose not to speak to others, not to be of community – we are inhuman. Deciding to, or making efforts to speak, is a constant becoming. Just as we must decide again and again to be human. Not at any point does this gang speak as they scalp. The original purpose of scalping, of course, is to prevent the dead soul from returning to haunt the scalper.

The kid is only ever fluent with a gun but moves in silence. Still he breaks with them. Continually tries speech of a sort. Holds out for some vestige of humanity. The mute Bible seemingly a desperate token of this almost forlorn hope. Our forlorn hope. Who reads the Bible anymore? Blood Meridian’s savage canvas agitates and enlivens our dormant complacent souls in its scourging catharsis. A Biblical tale of a cursed and damned people. We cling on to we know no longer what. Hope? Deliverance from somewhere? Faith? The reader comes to see that faith – some kind of desperate leap – is the only hope against Judge Holden. The kid can’t speak. Still he offers himself up in silent protest. For all our sakes.

Who then is left to speak with genuine authority? With the voice of prophecy? I hope it is clear by now that the proclaimers of that desperate hope. The apostles for our age of self-inflected pestilence, degeneracy and despair are, and can only be, our poets and artists.

Cormac McCarthy is certainly one such prophet. In a landmark essay on authority – on being an authentic judge, proclaimer and witness – Stanley Cavell invoked Kierkegaard as a sort of John the Baptist to the apostles for the new age and harbinger of that race of visionaries who can light our path out of dark despair. We note that Cavell was another tacit Kierkegaard acolyte who consulted a Walter Lowrie translation when writing on Kierkegaard and that very subject of authority – Lowrie’s 1955 edition of On Authority and Revelation: The Book on Adler, or a Cycle of Ethico-Religious Essays. One of the keynotes of Cavell’s essay, from his famous book Must we mean what we say?, is that Kierkegaard distinguished between ‘premise’ authors and ‘genuine’ authors and Cavell’s exegesis (echoing Louise Glück) is central for our understanding of genuine (religious) authors like McCarthy. See:

I do not suppose Kierkegaard meant to suggest that a genuine author has to have, or claim, God’s authority for his work, but his description of the apostle’s position characterizes in detail the position I take the genuine modern artist to find himself in: he is pulled out of the ranks by a message which he must, on pain of loss of self, communicate; he is silent for a long period, until he finds his way to saying what it is he has to say (artistically speaking, this could be expressed by saying that while he may, as artists in former times have, begin and for a long time continue imitating the work of others, he knows that this is merely time-marking – if it is preparation, it is not artistic preparation – for he knows that there are no techniques at anyone’s disposal for saying what he has to say); he has no proof of his authority, or genuineness, other than his own work …


John Berger. A ‘genuine’ artist – people speak of his books as spiritual experiences

The people who now inscribe the Book of the Judge in our hearts and seek to lead us back to common humanity are artists, who follow Kierkegaard’s path when he said that our lives are not lived as a science but as an art. It is art that judges the judge. Look at what John Berger said after Thatcher’s defeat of the mining communities in Britain in the 1980s:

I can’t tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that often art has judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past suffered, so that it has never been forgotten. I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it
makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts, and honour.

Art will hold judgement, as I am doing here. Do you all see the Ur-Hamlet emerging once again here? The primordial tale of the fake fool exacting revenge on the upper class of usurpers. We see now how in Blood Meridian art judges the rapine and callousness of the age – with true justice. With Soul. Michael Lynn Crews writes insistingly and correctly that whilst Cormac McCarthy availed of many, often esoteric, words, expressions, turns of phrase and motifs sourced from other authors, his supreme artistry transmuted all these things into his own pure art. It was he, this supreme artist of both Eros and the Logos, Apollo and Dionysius, who spun this rough warp and weft to new gold. For this is what only artists can achieve in this age of cynicism. Or as Kenneth Clark put it so memorably in Landscape into Art: – “Facts become art through love, which unifies them and lifts them to a higher plane of reality.”

 A problem arises in this process of course. Though the nature of that problem is different – or appears to be different – depending on whether you are the creating artist who achieves that higher plane with your art, or the critic who seeks to interpret that higher plane. The critic wants the artist to have an overall theory or ideology that can then be picked apart and analysed in digestible explanations or soundbites. The problem is that the apostle artist neither thinks nor creates in that way. The moment of full clarity and an overall God’s eye view comes, if it comes at all, at the moment of creative revelation. The artist must then work, Sisyphus like, to regain those heights anew. This is Louise Glück’s argument against sincerity. The artist does not have a programme or system, other than being true to their art and therefore themselves.

In Cormac McCarthy’s case, as we saw with his Kekulé essay, he was much exercised by the inability of words to capture the full reality of consciousness. Or rather, we might say to capture the conscious and unconscious processes that were clearly human attributes long before we became able to compose our thoughts in forms of words and to speak intelligibly to each in the way we do today. As with all great artists, there is a lot of mime, dumb show, and symbolism in McCarthy’s work. This not only demonstrates his view of words as being incapable of expressing all of existence – another denial of Hegel – but also his fascination with the irrational and the subconscious. If there are words in dreams they are only in our own minds and never constitute the full revelation.

 Fired by his vast imagination, his supreme intellect, his – as I argue it – Catholic mysticism, and his fears of the relentless march of technology and knowledge for knowledge’s sake – the Pandora’s Box of ultimate Nature-Control – McCarthy envisions the Scientist Judge from Hell. Nothing answers this faux dominion of cacophony better than mute witness. It is for these very reasons the creating artist can only be a silent judge of testimony. Just as the kid is silent. In fact, the kid’s silence is the clinching factor in our consideration of Kierkegaard’s influence on Cormac McCarthy. It is yet another unreported factor. For with regard to Pastor Adler – see the Cavell reference above – who claimed that Jesus revealed Himself to him and gave him instruction, Kierkegaard’s proof that this didn’t happen is that Adler did not retreat into profound meditation and silence, but rather proceeded to publish a plethora of books, which sold very well thank you. A tabloid, premise artist personified.

Samson and the destruction of the Philistines – the most famous story from Judges

This is where this short book came to me, An image of desolate and cursed peoples looking for guiding visions of hope. And I recalled this was the terrain of the ‘Judges’ in the Old Testament as retold in the Bible’s Book of Judges. A series of stories in which the People turn from God, are punished, and then delivered to their enemies. God then appoints a wise judge to lead the people back to righteousness. So the role of these judges was to save people and religious institutions from idolatry – corruption, self-aggrandizement and the worship of false gods. These judges were artists.

 McCarthy himself is a judge. Just as Kierkegaard is and proclaims himself to be. Interestingly, in his freehand account of the Biblical tale, the Israeli author David Grossman portrays the most famous Biblical judge of all, Samson, as an artist seeking – perhaps – to forge his own individual path and therefore cutting across lineage, clan, tribe, race and possibly even destiny and God himself. He insisted on marrying and dying with the Palestinians (Philistine) in his own way. This resonates with Nicholas Berdyaev’s view that revelation comes from within us and via our own divine interpretation. We are in ourselves the house of God. Just in the way that Suttree tells the priest that his church is not the house of God. Did McCarthy read Berdyaev’s seminal The Meaning of the Creative Act? Here, Berdyaev posits the creative act as being integral to the Epoch of the Spirit. The era in which we find ourselves now. The era that calls on us to forge a new spiritual era by way of our own human propensity for revelation.

 Only artists can now hold court over the all-prevailing cynicism that haunts our times. We search, therefore, for genuine artists. The kid is the extraordinary judge who was previously nothing more than a slave to the profane judge but whose inner humanity – his deep soul – called him forth to bear witness, even unto a death, which was no death because he made an absolute choice and chose absolutely his own eternal validity and therefore of all humankind. His almost certain death is simultaneously a work of art and a strike for freedom from a dead life.

 There is a memorable quote from the character ‘Black’ in McCarthy’s 2008 two-character stage drama The Sunset Limited, a straightforwardly Kierkegaardian work McCarthy also called “a novel in dramatic form. The dramatic dialogue is Socratic in approach, except that there is even less of a firm conclusion between the arguments of the Christian ‘Black’ (a poor black man) and a suicidal ‘White’ (a white, middle-class man). Once again it is each individual observer who must decide the truth for themselves, as must the artist:

      It aint as big a heresy as sayin that a man aint all that much different from a rock. Which is how your view looks to me.
     It’s not my view. I believe in the primacy of the intellect.

Of course, and as per Louise Glück above, the work of art is autonomous. It creates its own sacred space. Goes beyond the artist creator. Suttree divests himself of all amulets and an ancient ‘godlet’ he had found in river silt. In the end he chose his simple heart as his talisman and this seems to be McCarthy’s own life-view. But Suttree, we knew by then, was the ‘son of Grace’ (metaphorically and because Grace is his mother). He is also ‘Buddy’ – a friend. A Buddy who continually seeks out the lonely and destitute to establish their welfare. Christ’s message that it is the poor, for all their faults and crimes, who truly share and comfort each other is emblazoned across almost every page of Suttree. Yet Christ, as the historical person Jesus of Nazareth, is only mentioned once in the whole of Suttree. McCarthy has no overt agenda, yet Cornelius Suttree is graven in our hearts, As he is for the half-sister of Gene Harrogate, who had heard reports of his kindness to her near-imbecile brother. This same stoic and ‘unchristian’ Suttree who has moments of such ecstatic lucidity that he embraces the whole “fidelity of this earth he inhabited” and bears it a “sudden love.”

The boy at the construction site near the forest who brings the water of life to Sutree on his Path of Truth (the passage to cosmic matter/heaven – all of life flashing before him in the miracle of elastic time and forgiveness embracing him) is the younger Suttree. He is John Grady Cole. Billy Parham. She is Rinthy Holme. He is Black he is White. He is the kid who beholds himself “in wells of smoking cobalt, twinned and dark and deep in child’s eyes, blue eyes with no bottoms like the sea.” A long sad train horn cries a lament across the hills for Suttree as he awaits his passage on a country road to eternity, as we all must. But see … also at the denouement is the Devil, ever seeking prey. Ravening for souls and he tires not. “Fly him and his hounds.”

The denouement of Suttree is an undeniable resurrection. He is waked, succoured, embraced finally, by a black transvestite. ‘Coloured’ youths helping to free the departing corpse-ambulance from river mud declare that “Old Suttree aint dead.”

Indeed, he is not. He is risen. Hosanna in the highest.


Praise Kierkegaard, who splintered Hegel’s creed
Upon the rock of Existential need,
Praise Barth, who told how saving Faith can flow
From Terror’s oscillating Yes and No

‘V. Conclusion’, John Updike


Paul Larkin
Tír Chonaill
Completed All Hallowtide, 2023 – (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints Day All Souls Day)

Martin A Hansen’s ‘The Liar’ and Johannes Lye – What is his heart’s truest desire?

Dear readers

I reproduce below some fascinating insights into my translation of Martin A. Hansen’s Løgneren (‘The Liar’, New York Review of Books Classics, 2023). These reviews appear on the Goodreads website and are therefore ‘public’, but nevertheless will be missed by most people outside of that sphere. Most of these English language reviews seem to be from members of the New York Review of Books Book Club. The Liar was chosen as the ‘NYRB’ book club choice for the month of May. I have retained the icons or avatars that the reviewers use as their ID tag, for no other reason than the fact they appeal to me. To my mind, as the translator/author of the book, the first reviewer – ‘Joy’ – asks the question that lies at the heart of the novel – perhaps any novel:

“What is his heart’s truest desire?”

I have not edited the review texts in any way, even for possible ‘spoiler’ lines, though I have omitted the Danish language reviews and a small number of other reviews that offer little insight. However, all the reviews can be read here:


I offer my thanks to so many people who took the (worthwhile) trouble to read the book, but then to publish their thoughts about it.


Løgneren by Martin A. Hansen premiered to a captivated Danish audience in 1950 first over the radio, then in serial broadsheet newspaper format and finally in book form. Thought to be Hansen’s best work (he died in 1955) and one of the most luminous of Danish literary works, Løgneren has never been out of print through the years. NYRB’s 2023 English edition with Paul Larkin as translator and introduction by Morten Høi Jensen opens this psychological literary gem to English readers. The setting is Sand Island*, a small island off the coast of Denmark. It’s March, there’s sea ice blockading the island, preventing the ferryboat from arriving with passengers, supplies and mail. Migratory seabird sightings are anticipated and there are slow but sure signs of spring. Our narrator is Johannes Lye*, schoolmaster of the only school on the island and parish clerk (he is often addressed as Deacon). Johannes is a ‘blow-in,’ which means he is not local to the island but from the mainland. Nevertheless, he has been there for seven years and become a common fixture. People come to him to unload, to confess, for problem solving, he is trusted as a pillar of the community. With a title like The Liar, of course the reader would be alert to deception and fabrication. Johannes is an unreliable narrator yet his motives and backstory are hidden to us even as we are privy to the thoughts he is addressing to an imaginary confidante Nathan. His reason for leaving the mainland is also ever-changing, he deliberately muddles up the details. Pigro, his pointer setter dog, is his constant companion.

The Liar is a product of its time in showing apprehension about technology and questioning the meaning of life postwar. Some characters, like the young engineer Harry from away, are all about looking to the future and innovation. The engineer regards Johannes as a relic ‘fusty and musty.’ Others, like Frederik (richest man on the island), life is about accumulation of wealth. Frederik’s wife Rigmor wonders about the pointlessness of it all. Johannes has a bird’s eyeview of their lives’ goings-ons and personalities, he often compares the island inhabitants to birds by appearance and behaviour, which is quite amusing.

I love psychological tautness in a novel and was riveted especially in the last third. The intention and subconscious planning by Johannes keep the reader alert to feints and misdirection. Johannes is drinking heavily and fancies himself ‘an amateur psychologist.’ He is clearly learned and talented, knowing an impressive amount of Scandinavian history and mythology not to mention linguistics, theology, music and ornithology. Yet we wonder will he use the trust and insider knowledge to twist things to his advantage? What is his heart’s truest desire?

*The island is originally named Sandø in Danish and the last name of Johannes is originally Vig, which the translator notes the similarity to the Danish word svig meaning ‘deceit’ or ‘guilt’. In addition, Jensen in the introduction informs us that the Nathan Johannes is addressing is actually the disciple of Jesus Nathanael said to be incapable of deceit.

Quotes: “The island has immeasurable chapters of time in her. Vanished time and times that are yet to come. Against all this, a human’s age and memory are no more than a speck. The oldest legends now cling to human life by the most brittle and frail of roots and are best known by a schoolmaster who is a ‘blow-in’ to the island. But none of these legends are anywhere as old as the ancient barrows and dolmens. The language that was spoken at that time has been blown away.”

Kevin Adams

I could feel the bleakness of Sand Island. I could feel the loneliness of Johannes in every sentence. And I was wowed at what Martin Hansen gave us in a mere 240 pages. I can see why this is a big deal in Danish literature. Loved.

Svenni Sensational

You can’t trust the narrator, but it still manages to be a real truthful book


I first read this book as an exchange student in Denmark–apparently required reading there. It’s a lovely novel, and while considered a psychological novel, the sense of place and nature seems to me just as important–you can feel and hear the spring thaw as you read.

Taylor Lee

Elliptical, dissimulating, ruminating. If there is some place, time, region to which our narrator Johannes Lye is bound, clearly it is the opaque and existential post-war years, a nonetheless probing, inquisitive, novel just as much myopically idiosyncratic as broadly metaphorical. Flights of existential consternation and malaise may be for some source for rolling of eyes, for others matter into which, as though we spoke on pudding and spoon, to plunge, context is here as always, of course, key.


The island of Sandø, which is the setting of this novel vaguely reminds me of Summerisle from The Wicker Man (1973). This is because of passages like this: “The sea is never so wild and strong as when it has just taken a human sacrifice” (pg. 96) or “At last I’ve come to realize it, and it seems to me that I’ve stepped into a pagan rite, where humans are sacrificed” (pg. 125). The narrator of the novel is Johannes Vig who writes to a fictional friend named Nathanael. I particularly enjoyed passages like “I can feel you getting closer, my strange friend. In a way, you’re getting closer than I like. You would like to pry into my dark mind; you would like me to show you more of myself, be more open and frank with you, tell you everything, particularly what is disgusting and not so nice about myself” (pg. 69). It feels as though Johannes Vig is speaking directly to the reader who is indeed wanting to hear a confession. I would recommend this book to people who like Søren Kierkegaard and other epistolary psychological novels like Doctor Glas (1905) by Hjalmar Söderberg.

Anne Lydolf

While the writing style does provide some beautiful descriptions of the island this story takes place on, the story itself leaves much to be desired. The characters are somewhat flat, there is no clear focus point and the ending is very inconclusive.

Carol (cls929)’s profile

I just reread this Danish classic (in English), and am fascinated by Martin A. Hansen’s exploration of what is true and what is not. His main character doesn’t seem to think of himself as ethical and kind, but his actions are often selfless. Hansen was strongly influenced by Kierkegaard, and I can see elements of The Diary of a Seducer in this novel from right after the Danish occupation during WWII.

Brett Glasscock

“Just as an awful lot is now too late. And it’s all remembered and must ever be remembered.”

“The Liar” reads as an affecting chronicle of life on a small, isolated scandinavian island. it is peppered with beautiful moments and musings on memory in the face of post-war modernization. a personal favorite of mine is the story of a man who was killed by an underwater mine while boating. no part of his body was recovered. johannes, his former teacher and the titular liar, ruminates on the loss while looking at a boat the man had carved into his desk as a student. in lieu of a body, johannes asserts that that childhood carving is the only remembrance of him, his grave and gravemarker.

if the whole book were moments like that, it’d be an all time favorite. as it were, the book is held back by some moments of dostoeyevskian teeth gnashing and pontificating on ~the soul~, along with a weirdly pointless metafiction of johannes lying in his narration, which never amounts to much of anything.


Is he a liar or not? If he is, then there’s a few others that belong to the club as well. This book has ratings all over the place, but for me, it is one I will revisit. Why? The pace, the tone, the ideas explored, the setting, and that old dog. Yes, him too.


Extraordinary. Johannes’ confessed “lie” is a literary device: writing the bulk of the novel more than a year after events transpired. I didn’t care: a minor transgression, particularly where entire conversations, geographical paths, and internal events are recounted in such minute detail. So that can’t really be “the lie.” Instead, ‘the lie’ must have been about his posturing: one face to the community (schoolmaster, clerk, deacon) while inside roiled a man at odds. But we (readers) knew that at the beginning. So where is ‘the lie?’

Johannes lays himself so bare to us throughout, I never questioned trusting him. The confession to the reader, even naming the reader “Nathan,” creates remarkable intimacy. Nihilism and existentialism collide, and through it all, we find a man at peace with chosen his place in the world. There is no ‘lie;’ there is only a man who courts trouble and inter-personal complications while decrying them: a minor transgression (if even that) for growth and renewal.

I wish I had been schooled by Danes. Reading and discussing this work as a youngster would have been grand.


This book was the May 2023 New York Review Classic (NYRB) selection. Set on a fictitious Danish island, Sand Island, the book is a series of “diary-like entries” written by the schoolmaster, Jonathan Lye, and addressed to Nathaniel, a fictional character “named for the biblical Nathaniel, a disciple of Jesus who was said to be a man incapable of deceit.” The book is set after WWII and occurs over four days. The schoolmaster records the mundane events of the island and the lonely, troubled hearts that inhabit it of which he is the loneliest. He’s in love with Annemari , a brilliant former student who has a 3 year old son by Olaf, a gentle giant, but is also carrying on an affair with a “visiting engineer.” Other characters Jonathan writes about such a Rigamore and Elna are searching for love as well. It is Jonathan’s indecision about love and life that is the crux of the story and which make him a “liar” to himself – even his last name gives testament to the man’s inherent problem. Additionally, Jonathan is an unreliable narrator so can the things he write about be trusted. While there were some interesting moments in the book, the novel just didn’t resonate with me.

Colin Rafferty

NYRB is killing it with unreliable narrator novels lately—The Fawn, and now this. Compact narrative told by a narrator whose relationship with the truth is as complicated as his romantic relationships on Sand Island.

Adam Ferris

“So I suppose I should introduce myself. I am, may God help me, still a schoolmaster on Sand Island, which is nothing more than a dot in the surrounding seas. A bachelor and baldness fast approaching. My name is Johannes Lye. Don’t say that name too quickly, Nathan. Johannes Lye.”

“Because this whole new modern and refined civilization is built upon the idea of being happy. The whole world obsessed with the hunt for happiness. Maybe we need a harder, more rigorous goal. A more severe code of life. More demanding of us and what we can achieve. But what do I know?”

“But can anything actually be vaster than that hill there? I thought to myself. Aye, a small hill that counts for nothing in figures of altitude, climate, astronomy. But dear Lord, see how it soars to the heavens. Were a man to lie down in that field out there, he would be overwhelmed by the sight of the hill above him. His eyes filled by it.”

“Don’t you think we’re all pretty strange? I don’t just mean spiritually or mentally. I mean as creatures on this blessed earth. Have you ever seriously pondered those absurd, gristly contraptions people have on either side of their heads? Like mussel shells. The ears. Or look at your hand, Nathan. Move your fingers. Really look at it. Is it not the most absurd thing?

Not because I’m trying to be deeply philosophical or anything, Nathan. But a guest of Mother Earth has to learn to be amazed and astonished. What am I meant to say as I walk through the flowers in one of our meadows? My words are often not enough. Indeed. Do we fleeting souls have any kind of real acnhorage, other than those moments when we wonder at the very fact of our own existence? Ah well, best not to give it too much thought, Nathan.””


When my grandpa told me to read this book, I only did for him. I went into it thinking that this would just be another boring read, to get through as fast as possible. And it was really boring, I was bored most of the time while reading it, and I didn’t really understand it.
I finished it late last night, and when I woke up this morning, having thought the book through, I realized how amazing a book it actually was. I’ve never had a book do that to me before, and it felt magical, hence the five stars.

The book starts of with a lonely man, Johannes Vig, just after the second world war, and is written in diary form. He is a school teacher, and he is attracted to two different women, the young, and former student Annemari, and the married, older woman Rigmor.

This is one of the biggest books in Danish literature, and it should be, because it is amazing. I can’t say anymore.


I have been trying to read this for so long, and so many times. The book is beautifully written, and I really enjoyed the language and the descriptions of nature, but I could not get through it all, because there is no drive, no real climax to aim or hope for. That does not make it a bad book though, and I’m pretty sure I will return to read this book eventually, once I’m ready for the challenge.

Peter Dahl

Originally written as a radio sequel (not a play) that emptied the streets, this has become one of the 20th centuries most important Danish novels. A definite must-read if you’re interested in Scandinavian post-war literature.


Exciting and interesting book, with rich and enthrilling use of language. Good read, but not a 5-star story for me, it just didn’t me enough like other books have. Still. A great book.

Sophia Regitnig

First published in 1950, a Danish modern classic, this 220-page novel is set over four days on a fictitious Danish island, Sand Island. It is a series of diary entries written by our protagonist, the schoolmaster, Johannes Lye, and addressed to Nathaniel, a fictional character “named for the biblical Nathaniel, a disciple of Jesus who was said to be a man incapable of deceit.”

Johannes records the mundane events of the island and the lonely, troubled hearts that inhabit it of which he is the loneliest. He’s in love with Annemari, a former student who has a 3-year-old son by Olaf, but is also carrying on an affair with a “visiting engineer.”It is Johannes’s indecision about love and life that is the crux of the story and which make him a “liar” to himself. But the part that is most interesting is that Johannes is an unreliable narrator so can the things he writes cannot be trusted. It gave me by Nabokov vibes (minus the paedophilia).3-3.5 stars. It was good and I would recommend to lovers of classics/modern classics but I don’t know how much I will think about this one in years to come.

Randall DeVallance

I went from liking to loving this book by the end. A schoolmaster/deacon on a tiny Danish island writes journal entries to an imaginary friend about the goings-on of the island’s inhabitants, which gradually becomes a meditation on how best to live a “meaningful life”, if such a thing is even possible. Accept what you have or strive for more? I found this story to be deeply affecting.


Close to 5 stars. Rich and complex. I will write more once I reread it.

Camilla Engberg

Very strange, in a good way.


Surprisingly good

— ENDS —

Thomas Mann’s hidden debt to Danish Gothic

Thomas Mann’s extraordinary 1947 exploration of 
 the diabolical strains within human creativity (here in its Penguin Spanish edition)

After six months or so of deep reading, I began writing up this essay at the beginning of what Christians celebrate as Lent (early March 2022). A time of fasting and reflection. It coincides with a volatile time in European and world history as Russian forces invaded Ukraine just prior to the start of Lent. The essay, therefore, became more urgent for me as it reflects on Thomas Mann’s reaction to the growth of Nazism and blind militarism in his novel Doctor Faustus. The true Christian message of love and social justice (the embracing of the other) as extolled by Kierkegaard and explored by Mann in this novel becomes more important than ever. Social justice of course is a broadly left wing concern that goes beyond those who profess the importance of Christ’s message. However, in all idea systems, if the idea of Love and Mercy is not there, I cannot see how they can prosper. This was the central concern for both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky. All the artist can do is profess (create). I believe a genuine artist cleaves to the Good, even when exploring evil, another concept Mann ponders in this important novel.

(For sources, see * at the end of the essay)

I first read Thomas Mann’s musical plunge into that place where the artistic and diabolical can meet – his Doctor Faustus – whilst still a young man. I understood very little of it. However, in fairness to my younger self, this ambitious and conflicted novel not only contains a very large cast, it is also deeply steeped in musical theory. There are, for example, reams of pages devoted to the construction of a fugue and detailed discourse about which composers could handle such an intricate, contrapuntal device. The decidedly dark central character in the novel – the brilliant but blighted composer, Adrian Leverkühn – who makes a Faustian pact with the Devil, seeks (I now perceive) the elemental tones and chords that underpin all music and therefore all utterances. It is not that he is a bad person, though he is by no means sympathetic. Like Nietzsche, on whom he is partly based, Leverkühn is a cultural aristocrat; a brilliant scholar and musical protégé. He turns his back on a choice of glittering career options so as to immerse himself in the craft of composing music scores. The phrase ‘perfecting his craft’ is perfect for him. ‘The Craft’, we recall, being the phrase used by Freemasons for their secret fraternity, also. Craft as deceit is strong in this novel.

Just as with Goethe’s Faust, what Leverkühn craves is ultimate knowledge. Immediacy of knowledge, so that he can fully consummate his craft. The ineffable musical rhythm of all existence. A continuing ‘being in the moment’ of music, so as not to have to ponder and reflect. Pure polyphony without the dissonance of clever inflections and reflections, which came with the rise of the musical canon and tonal artifice. It is not the case of Leverkühn wanting something new to compose, sing and create. Primordial utterances and incantations (via our vocal chords) are, after all, ancient and the root of both music and irrational magic. And to get the magic back – after centuries of superb but deadening musical devices – was clearly Leverkühn’s urge. He rebels against established artistic form itself in the manner of a latter day Satan. Even to the extreme point of deliberately contracting a virulent strain of syphilis via the Devil’s proxy whore, Esmerelda. Thus he teeters on the brink of ‘art for art’s sake’. Art, no matter how brilliant, without a moral compass. Fanatical, therefore. Or this is the debate he symbolises at least. The dangers – indeed the sin – of trying to create a Ground Zero by going behind the veil of human culture. Maybe he leaped in a different direction, however, and not even Thomas Mann saw it. Like Stanley Cavell – not to mention Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan) and James Joyce – I believe that properly drawn characters of fiction are autonomous beings. It seems to me that Leverkühn leaped clear of his creator and lukewarm humanism and, inspired by Danish Gothic, embraced a higher power as his only means of redemption. Possibly.

I suspect that, subliminally at least, Thomas Mann intuited that, in terms of aesthetics and moral philosophy, Leverkühn’s dilemma is similar to that of the Aesthete in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, who becomes so bored with the plethora of art forms he begins to seek ways of disrupting art itself – reading a book out of sequence for example, or going to the Opera and leaving halfway through the performance. If things are not new to him, they are meaningless. The lifestyle of the cynic, whose logic propels this type to the horror of the seducer, Johannes, in that same famous volume by Kierkegaard, whose pleasure is not the act but the setting of the trap. The scheming and plotting. The master puppeteer who has total control over the lives of others. Spiritual rape. Johannes the Seducer in Either/Or is Kierkegaard’s alarum at the demise of decency and high standards in culture. The rise of the boors and philistines as our lodestars. Along with Dostoevsky and Herman Melville, Kierkegaard is warning about shallow relativism in discourse and the rise of the cynical demagogue who could make life relevant and meaningful again now that social values had been crushed and God cancelled. At one point in their gripping encounter, the Devil tells Leverkühn that artists are the brothers of felons and lunatics. And if that is the case, how best to deal with the legacy of someone – a country even – that succumbs to ‘moral-less’ art and banal fanaticism? The realm of Evil. (We bear in mind that Mann wrote Doctor Faustus between 1943 and 1947, as the horrors and implications of Nazism grew ever clearer.)

The Danish grasp of the demonic was always strong as this medieval church fresco
– one of many in Denmark – demonstrates (Keldby Church Fresco, Møn Island, Denmark – National Museum)

However, if any philosopher is used as a motif for Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the established wisdom is that Leverkühn is a metaphor, not for Kierkegaard or one of his characters, but for the supposedly syphilis stricken Nietzsche. That is of course part of Thomas Mann’s point with his version of the Faust myth and he made this clear. But it is not the whole point. Nor is it even the key point, which has Kierkegaard and Danish Gothic at its centre. (It may well be that neither Nietzsche nor Kierkegaard for that matter, ever had any syphilitic symptoms.) Moreover that self-investigatory, aesthetically self-reflecting strain of Gothic introspection inherent to Danes also includes here, perhaps, the influence of one of my favourite Danish authors – Henrik Pontoppidan. As we shall see, ignoring Danish influence is the norm amongst many critics and experts, but was even Thomas Mann himself fully aware, as he composed this work, of the Danish Gothic dreams and impulses – not to mention nightmares – his Muse brought to his prodigious imagination? It seems not. Put simply, Mann not only glossed over (deliberately?) much of the Danish influence in this novel, he also made the mistake of assuming that Danes are closet Germans. He is not the only German to have done that.

Mann draws the severe and aloof central character (the aforesaid Adrian Leverkühn), very well. The same goes for Leverkühn’s exaggeratedly amateur biographer in the novel, Serenus Zeitblom, whose name implies an essential placidness and product of his time. The novel suggests very strongly that these two characters – who are friends from childhood – are divided elements of a single self. Or as Zeitblom puts it towards the end of the novel, they are ‘alter-egos’. All the key events in the novel happen either side of the first world war, with Zeitblom drawing together his biography of the now dead Leverkühn (by 1919) from his own memory, correspondence with his old friend and private papers bequeathed to Zeitblom by Leverkühn or discovered later by him. These include the shattering secret document in Leverkühn’s own hand in which the composer reveals his Faustian pact. Zeitblom then writes his Leverkühn biography in the shadow of Nazism as the second world war unfolds. Mann had clearly consulted Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen when composing the novel, but not clearly enough.

Fortuitously, much of my own understanding of the Faust myth comes from Kierkegaard. The perennial idea of Faust features prominently, amongst many other Kierkegaard places, in Fear and Trembling and, more pertinently for this essay, his study of Mozart’s Don Juan (Mozart’s Don Giovanni – 1787), which features outstandingly in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (1843). The full title of the Don Juan treatise is, ‘The Immediate Erotic stages, or the Musical-Erotic.’ We can see why Leverkühn would be attracted to Kierkegaard. There are also numerous references to Faust in Kierkegaard’s private journals and notebooks, especially in the early phases. Kierkegaard was more than aware of the original Latin meaning of ‘Faustus’ as a name, or adjective, for a propitious omen, or ‘fortunate’, and that this in its medieval guise often implied a magician, or one who could do difficult – marvellous – things. Evoking the human urge to go beyond themselves and do great things – steal the fire of the gods, with the risk always of being burned. It is one of the things that makes us ‘not animals’. Close to the gods. Close to felons and lunatics.

Kierkegaard’s Either/Or contains a celebrated study of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Don Juan) and is a key text in Thomas Mann’s
Doctor Faustus

Kierkegaard’s interest in Faust stretched far beyond the link with Don Juan. Broadly, and most perceptively, Kierkegaard appends psycho-spiritual aspects to three key conceptual archetypes that stand outside of religious considerations – Don Juan, Faust and Ahasuerus (the wandering Jew): – Don Juan as the sensual demonic (a negative force of nature – expressed through music); Faust as the tortured demon (the essence of doubt or scepticism – expressed through drama); Ahasuerus as the ultimate expression of rootless despair (the harrowing, pathological demonic – expressed through the epic).If we accept Kierkegaard’s argumentation, it is to Ahasuerus – to the epic and ultimate despair – that Faust/Leverkühn must go if he is to get beyond it. For Mann, as for Goethe’s Faust before him, he never gets there. But how deeply did Mann research Kierkegaard whilst writing his version of Faust? I cannot claim to be an expert in this regard, but it appears Mann read Either/Or, but no other primary source whilst completing Doctor Faustus, and he does not make many references to Kierkegaard in general. The same goes for critics and reviewers of the novel. It seems that Mann may have read more of Kierkegaard’s own works after publishing Doctor Faustus. Thus, in the main. I have relied on the text that is before me in the novel and analysis of what others have said in what appear to be the most relevant academic texts on Mann’s Faust – few of which even mention Denmark never mind any serious comment on Kierkegaard’s influence. Be this as it may, it is no accident that Kierkegaard features prominently, and quite early, in Doctor Faustus; well before the climactic moment in which Kierkegaard’s Don Juan is moved centre stage; as is (by the way) Hans Christian Andersen’s Faustian Little Mermaid.

A farm estate in Thuringia

The Kierkegaard harbinger early in Doctor Faustus comes when, as part of a group of callow students, Zeitblom and Leverkühn begin to discuss theology, amongst many other things, whilst sleeping overnight in a barn on the outskirts of Apolda in central Thuringia. Though apart from Zeitblom they are theology students, Zeitblom tells us that they are all “sons of the Muses.”

Here is this Kierkegaard dialogue, and it is the allegedly nihilistic aristocrat Leverkühn who speaks:

I’m aware that the most talented among you, who have read your Kierkegaard, locate truth, even ethical truth, entirely in subjectivity and reject with horror collective life in the herd. But I cannot join you in your radicalism– which is the license of students, by the way, won’t last long – in your Kierkegaardian separation of Church and Christianity.’

Just for the hell of it (which seems fitting), I reproduce here the full dialogue from above in Mann’s original German text:

Leaving aside Leverkühn’s interestingly incorrect reference to Kierkegaard’s solipsism, the above is how the usually taciturn Leverkühn – who rarely joined the group on their excursions to the countryside – makes his first Kierkegaard intervention and he goes on to opine that, for all its collapse into bourgeois predictability, and despite Kierkegaard’s criticisms, the Church forms a bulwark against dissolution and madness. But why does he mention madness (Wahnsinn)? It is the first strong signal that Leverkühn is struggling with his conscience, with the possibility of sin and even insane acts. It is significant therefore, that only Mephistopheles raises with Leverkühn (during their subsequent and astonishing philosophical/theological debate) this obsessive composer’s struggles with Gewissensfragen – questions of conscience. For it is the Kierkegaardian lore of human conscience and its concomitant promise of Mercy (forgiveness) with which not only Leverkühn struggles, but also Thomas Mann.

Not long after the enjoyable discussion amongst the students in their country retreat, a smirking porter by the nickname of ‘Schleppfuss’ (we night say ‘Dragfoot’ or even ‘Cloven foot’) will lead Leverkühn from his new lodgings in Leipzig to a bawdy house where he will have his first slight, but fateful, brush with the “nut brown lass in a Spanish jacket” – Esmerelda. We have met a Schleppfuss character before in this novel, in the guise of an “ambiguous” university lecturer. Then, after finally pursuing and consummating both his syphilitic bond with Esmerelda and later on his musical ‘revelation-pact’ with Mephistopheles, Leverkühn will come to wear an emerald ring within which a serpent is engraved. This of course is Esmerelda’s ring (though she, too, has other names). Esmerelda meaning ‘emerald’. An emerald ring and a token of their illicit union. Though it is undeniably a cry for love, as well. The ring also encompasses a reference to Apollo and an augury to unholy artists. A poisonous butterfly hovers there, too. Shapeshifting and mimesis are vital motifs in this novel.

Again, as we move to the heart of the novel, and though little commented upon, Kierkegaard’s view of conscience and forgiveness does indeed lie at the heart of the breathtaking moment when the Devil (in the shapeshifting guise of his avatar Mephistopheles) appears before Leverkühn at a farmstead outside Rome. This farm is at Palestrina, mentioned in Dante’s Inferno as Praeneste, and once home to a contrapuntal composer of the same name – (Palestrina) who was popular with certain pro-Nazi critics and musicians. And just so that we are left in no doubt as to Kierkegaard’s importance, Leverkühn tells us he was reading the ‘Don Juan’ treatise from Either/Or when Satan flowed in, as an icy, bone chattering miasma.

‘Sat alone here in these halls, near unto the windows, their shutters closed tight, the length of the room before me, and by my lamp read Kierkegaard on Mozart’s Don Juan.’

The constant chill emanating from Satan is a brilliant touch by Mann but his confusion and conflation of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche is writ large here. Subsequently, as the Nazi regime collapsed and Germany with it, Mann would speak publicly of Nietzsche’s obsession with negative power and his raising of an “icy, satanic fist against life.” But the context of this diabolical encounter is clearly Christian and nothing to do with a Nietzsche who sought to go beyond Good and Evil. Kierkegaard on the other hand insisted that our conscience (and therefore the idea of selfishness and sin) is within us whether we like it or not. And it is none other than Adrian Leverkühn who raises Kierkegaard and his idea of ultimate Christian Mercy as his last card against the otherwise seductive hand held by the Devil. He warns the Devil that there is:

A sinfulness so hopeless that it allows its man fundamentally to despair of hope is the true theological path to salvation.’

One of the countless books and legends about Mephistopheles whom Kierkegaard describes in The Concept of Anxiety as the essence of mimicry (mimesis)

We need to emphasize the importance, and by turns enthralling and appalling nature, of this Faustian encounter. It really is worth reading Mann’s novel for this diabolical corruption scene alone – or the attempt at corruption, we might say. With this gripping moment, Thomas Man brought all his virtuosity to bear – the initial repartee; the metaphysical jousting; Leverkühn’s chattering teeth in the Satan-conjured bone chilling draft, and that very Devil’s quick-change dress sense. Conjured or otherwise, this demon is graphically real. As all our demons are so very real to us, precisely because of our conscience. But most of all, and what rather shockingly has gone under the literary radar is that this whole chapter is a deep meditation on, not only Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, but a range of Kierkegaard’s other ideas also. There are of course the influences of other philosophers in this book, not least Aristotle and Augustine, but Mann’s context here is clearly Kierkegaard.

So Mann has imagined an interview with the Devil which explores Kierkegaard’s aesthetics and Mephisto goes on to praise “this Christian (Kierkegaard) who is enamoured of aesthetics” because he (Kierkegaard) knows his Devils and his music. A further examination, in this Socrates-like exchange, of the role of the artist, bearing in mind that Kierkegaard stressed the demonic propensities of music in which – via passion – ‘comprehension and corruption’ can become one. Or as the Devil puts it – als welche nämlich Erkenntnis und Verfallenhweit ist in einem. In isolation – that is, without humanity – music is demonic and corrupting. Thomas Mann himself has referred in his own writings to the influence of Kierkegaard’s Don Juan essay in Either/Or, which he read in German, and has referred to and underlined the exact passage from the book in which Kierkegaard notes how Christian lore, by acknowledging the melding of comprehension and corruption within music, acknowledges the demonic in music. Here is the exact text from Kierkegaard’s Don Juan treatise in Danish (in Either/Or), where Kierkegaard speaks of the genius of the sensual erotic in music.

It should probably be stressed here that Kierkegaard is not arguing against music as a form of entertainment, artform and cultural resource. He was a connoisseur of all these things. What Kierkegaard is doing is identifying the various pure emotions that music can convey and because, after Socrates, Christianity made individuals self-aware – much to Nietzsche’s chagrin – rather than innately and immediately reconciled with art, a psychological shift took place in society. Take Love, for example, which is closely connected with music. In ancient Greece, Love was seen as being housed and conveyed by the god Eros. It was a concept. A concept carried by a god. With the rise of individual awareness, Love’s fires became stoked in each person’s heart and Eros was reduced to no more than a symbol. Similarly, music was mostly conveyed by Apollo and Pan and was provoked, of course, to uproar by Dionysus. But when music became mediated within human reason and reflection within each person it moved into the realm of language. However where it remains in its immediate, pure erotic and sensual state and transports us, as with Mozart’s Don Juan, it conveys the demonic. Mozart’s Don Juan could no more stop seducing than the world stop spinning. Love and human emotions have nothing do with it. And with this we can see why Kierkegaard placed the Faust myth within music. This is the context for the above passage that Thomas Mann was so taken by in Kierkegaard’s Don Juan. And here is the exact same place from the German translation of Kierkegaard’s Don Juan treatise, which Thomas Mann placed in brackets and with ‘Christian art’ and ‘the demonic’ underlined by Mann.

I have paraphrased the English translation of the above from Kierkegaard’s Don Juan, so as to facilitate not just its literal statement but its context and meaning:

The significance of music hereby reveals itself in its full validity, and in a stricter sense it also reveals itself as a Christian art; or rather that artform Christianity posits by excluding itself from it. That is, as being the medium Christianity excludes from itself, and thereby comes to define. In other words, music is demonic.

I am indebted to Thomas A Kamla and his short 1979 monograph (‘Christliche Kunst mit negativem Vorzeichen”: Kierkegaard and Doktor Faustus’) on Mann’s use of Kierkegaard’s Don Juan in this novel. And as Kamla points out, Mann also used the writings of Theodor Adorno and Georg Brandes on Kierkegaard during his research for his Faust book. With Adorno this was, Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic and in Brandes case, his brilliant but sometimes contradictory book on Kierkegaard (the first real in depth study). Brandes, who initially saw himself as a successor to Kierkegaard but became a fervent atheist, stressed Kierkegaard’s self-torment – his thorn in the flesh – which has variously been ascribed to syphilis, melancholy and the alleged Christian obsession with sin. Of these, we can say that there is no doubt that Kierkegaard explored the question of sin in a unique – but liberating – way.

Thomas Mann’s book on the creation of his Doctor Faustus.
He not only misunderstood the Danish psyche, but possibly that of his own people

To remove any doubt as to Kierkegaard’s central presence within Mann’s Doctor Faustus, we can quote Mann himself, who made this very point in his book about the genesis of his Faust novel – Die Entstehung des Doktor Faustus (see above), where he remarks on the extraordinary affinity between Kierkegaard’s Don Juan specifically and Either/Or in general even before he had read Kierkegaard: “The affinity of the novel with Kierkegaard’s world of ideas, without any knowledge of it, is highly remarkable,” he said. It is also important, however, to bear in mind that Mann felt that Kierkegaard was overheated. In a May 1945 lecture for the Library of Congress – Germany and the Germans – and now as an exile in the USA, Mann describes Kierkegaard’s Don Juan essay as “painfully enthusiastic”. Furthermore and here is my central point with this essay on Danish Gothic, this is what Mann goes on to say in this lecture vis-à-vis his Faust novel and the German people:

“ I really don’t know why I am conjuring up these early memories here and now. Is it because … I am trying to suggest a secret union of the German spirit with the Demonic, a thesis which is, indeed, part of my inner experience, but not easily defensible?
(‘Germany and the Germans’ – Presented at the Library of Congress May 29,1945)

In other words, in a lecture entitled ‘Germany and the Germans’ whilst he is in the middle of writing Doctor Faustus, Mann makes a direct link between Kierkegaard’s worldview and that of what he sees as an inclination to the demonic within the German people and how Goethe was wrong not to make Faust a musician. We should look at this quote in slightly extended form:

‘It is a grave error on the part of legend and story not to connect Faust with music. He should have been musical, he should have been a musician. Music is a demonic realm; Søren Kierkegaard, a great Christian, proved that most convincingly in his painfully enthusiastic essay on Mozart’s Don Juan. Music is Christian art with a negative prefix. Music is calculated order and chaos-breeding irrationality at once, rich in conjuring, incantatory gestures, in magic of numbers, the most unrealistic and yet the most impassioned of arts, mystical and abstract. If Faust is to be the representative of the German soul, he would have to be musical.’

You can see where Mann is going with this and how he gets his philosophical, theological and aesthetic wires crossed. Leverkühn wants immediacy back: magic, passion, the end of convolutions, the sensual and the technical all of a piece. A harking back to an Arcadian time when music was not mediated or second guessed. This was very much a theme with Nietzsche; that culture had to be reunited with time, in which case society would be more settled and in harmony. So music as a force of nature again under and mediated by those who had sufficient genius, will and fortitude to teach others by example and wisdom – Übermenschen. There are glimpses of this with Leverkühn who gains a cult following. However, and though Mann would disagree – influenced as he no doubt was by Nazi bowdlerising of Nietzsche’s teachings – Nietzsche was not the epitome of extreme German, brooding philosophical menace, he has often been portrayed as being. And anyway, in its most advanced and revelatory manifestations, psychological brooding is a Danish Gothic propensity, as Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen have demonstrated par excellence, and as demonstrated by none other than Thomas Mann in this novel.

Mette Blok’s brilliant book on Nietzsche, which the author is translating at the moment

At the moment, I am translating Danish academic Mette Blok’s excellent book on Nietzsche – ‘Nietzsche as Educator’ (Nietzsche som Etiker in the Danish), which gives us an alternative view of Nietzsche and shows that he has a lot to teach us about how we can be reconciled with existence and enjoy it in all its aspects – good and bad. But, though some of
their ultimate goals were the same, Nietzsche was the complete opposite to Kierkegaard who rooted his subjectivity in divine forgiveness and the need to embrace God’s love through Christ’s paradox of lifting us beyond our own selfish interests (sin). Nietzsche also denounced Socrates who was a guiding light for Kierkegaard, because with him the individual, rather than high culture in society, was made central. Moreover, it seems clear from the above that Mann completely misunderstood the separate psychological mindsets of Danes and Germans.

Friedrich Hegel – the true spirit of a truly cultured Germany?

I know next to nothing about anthropology or ethnology and am neither a sociologist nor a social scientist. Thus, and no doubt because of my background in linguistics, any broad views I have of national propensities are informed by my view of the language spoken in that national arena. Mostly, this concurs with those countries where I have spent sufficient time to absorb at least some of the culture and discourse. This means that I feel largely unable to comment on most national sensibilities across the world as I don’t know the relevant language. Where Germany is concerned – a place where I have spent lots of time – I have always felt that the national character, as much as we can speak of one, is like the language, prone to desiring cohesion rather than intense subjectivity. The words that come to me are: statuesque, imposing, very structured and with a grand vision. It seems to me that Friedrich Hegel, not unlike Goethe, encapsulates the German psyche in its positive regards. Germany is far more Hegel than Nietzsche. And it was Hegel who pronounced the death of God long before Nietzsche. Much to Kierkegaard’s annoyance, Hegel constructed a whole system of thought and dialectics – a huge agglomerating opera if you like. Whereas the Danish psyche is psychological and wholly interior. Heidegger wrote Sein und Zeit, whilst Niels Bohr went ever inward to the nucleus of the atom. Hitler’s raucous shouts for Lebensraum were part of, and engendered, a mass psychosis – the complete opposite of subjective angst.

I always get the impression that Bismarck and the Prussian officer Junker class were the real core elements of the haughty German xenophobia to come. In The Death of Tragedy, George Steiner writes of the Germanic spirit having: “a grave strength, but flagrant streaks of brutality and intolerance.” If we can ignore Capitalism’s crisis and its ratcheting up of antisemitism, for a moment, it wasn’t Hitler’s brooding nature that enraptured so many Germans but the patriotic marching columns and the bombast. The Danish painter Asger Jorn is one of the few who have made this point about Nazism. The faux neo-Roman theatre of it all with its standards, flags and phalanxes. A whole people who suddenly felt they had a destiny. Indeed in Mann’s novel, Zeitblom speaks (mournfully) of “the hope and pride that is roused in Germans whenever German power is unfolded.” Germans are, he says, a people “whose soul is powerfully tragic.” All this collective angst is about as far from Kierkegaard’s personal soul searching as you can get.

The Danish psyche is (like its silken language) akin to the subtle and cunning dwarf-forged chain Gleipnir that was placed around the Fenris Wolf – devious, sinuous, gripping, reflexing ever more tightly as the wolf struggles. Moving inward, ever ironically inward, around the throat. An ironic, permanently binding sliver of cord made from the breath of a fish, the sinews of a bear and the spittle of a bird. When in his above lecture, Mann spoke of “lonely thinkers and searchers who carried Germany off to the Devil,” he may have been politically targeting Nietzsche but in his subconscious he was dreaming a bad caricature of Kierkegaard:

‘A lonely thinker and searcher, a theologian and philosopher in his cell who, in his desire for world enjoyment and world domination, barters his soul to the Devil, isn’t this the right moment to see Germany in this picture, the moment in which Germany is literally being carried off by the Devil?’

It is for the above reasons of confusion and conflation that Mann clearly does not know what to do next with his brilliant devil’s corruption scene. For just after the point where Leverkühn has said that true remorse is the remorse of Cain who believes he can never be forgiven, not even by God, and therefore holds out the idea of redemption (for in true Kierkegaardian fashion, the heartfelt remorse is proven) we leave this scene, never to return to it. In other words, and disappointingly, this brilliantly depicted seduction scene (or self-seduction?) is never mentioned again, except at the very end of the novel as Leverkühn suffers a mental collapse. Yet we are only halfway through the book. We then get a digression that is so long we almost forget Leverkühn altogether. The terror and potential catharsis in the scene is dissipated. A dereliction on the part of Mann and his editor, in this author’s view. Instead, Mann proceeds to introduce us to a range of people in Zurich’s salon and artistic spheres, all of whom have some sort of connection to Leverkühn and Zeitblom but whose role in the novel is to carry the Weimar Republic versus Nazi debate. They are all very interesting but pale in comparison to what we had experienced in that Palestrina farmstead in the long ago. We are dealing with two different novels.

Kierkegaard’s notebooks are replete with references to the Faust myth
– here from Journal BB (1836), headlined ‘Literature on Faust’
(The outer section of the page being left for subsequent corrections as was the practice.)

Mann’s instincts in applying a caesura after Leverkühn’s confrontation with the Devil are good. The reader (and no doubt the writer) is exhausted, enervated, shaken to the bones by this encounter. What can possibly follow after this? In one of his journal entries Kierkegaard says that Goethe should never have written part two of his Faust tale. That is, that Goethe should have left Doctor Faustus in the state of wrestling with the Devil but not (eventually) released into salvation. It is his turmoil and debates with the Devil that make Faust so prominent on the world stage. In effect, Mann makes the same mistake as Goethe before him by removing Leverkühn from the discourse when what we are interested in is how Leverkühn is dealing with his demonic despair, which has become desperation – as with Ahasuerus – and possibly wins through it. His public confession at the end, I believe, points to his victory over Satan, not his defeat. Rather than introduce us to Zurich’s Café society, Leverkühn’s alter-ego Zeitblom could have explained how Leverkühn triumphed over fanaticism via sheer human fortitude and belief, which is the story Mann really wants to tell. And Zeitblom had the perfect device for Leverkühn becoming a Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith via Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid story, which is another Danish element central to Mann’s vision.

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (chasing her own poisonous butterfly?) – not the soppy fairy tale it is often portrayed as being, and a central motif for Thomas Mann’s Faust.

In this very carefully planned and composed work, Mann’s use of Danish Gothic themes is not just there for the sake of a flash of literary erudition; rather it is crucial to the novel. In the Devil’s pact scene in which Mephistopheles seeks to bypass Leverkühn’s Kierkegaardian forgiveness defence – his struggles with his conscience – the Dark One tells Leverkühn that the pains and tortures he will go through will be worth it, even though they might at times resemble the knife-blade leg jolts suffered by the mermaid as part of her price for fulfilling her wish to be human:

He (Mephisto) : “They are pains that one gladly and proudly takes in the bargain with pleasures so enormous, pains such as one knows from a fairy tale, pains like slashing knives, like those the little mermaid felt in the beautiful human legs she had acquired for a tail. You know Andersen’s little mermaid, do you not? What a darling that would be for you! Say but the word, and I shall lead her to your bed.”
I (Leverkühn): “If you could but keep silence, you jackanapes.”

In fact the Danish link goes even further than those two Romanticist dreamers of our terrors and elations – Kierkegaard and Andersen – because Leverkühn also refers to a sculpture by the classicist artist and sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (of Dano-Icelandic parentage) as being the source of Andersen’s reference to a statue adored by the mermaid. This had sunk to the depths after a shipwreck. This statue will come to remind her so much of the prince she rescued and caressed as she brought him to safety. Despite their age differences, Thorvaldsen and the younger Andersen were actually acquaintances, and had met both in Italy and in Denmark. Both were, rather unusually, from disadvantaged backgrounds. After his Devil encounter, Leverkühn is effusive in his praise of Andersen’s fairy tale and Zeitblom describes Leverkühn’s “love and admiration for the story”. Moreover, Leverkühn feels the need to mention Thorvaldsen to Zeitblom:

Leverkühn’s invocation of the Mermaid story and Thorvaldsen’s influence on
HC Andersen in Mann’s Doktor Faustus. This happens after the Devil has tempted him with the mermaid.

It is, surely, remarkable that Mann goes out of his way to reference Thorvaldsen in the context of Andersen’s Faustian Mermaid story? At the very least, this demonstrates not just a keen awareness on Mann’s part of Danish cultural life and its importance, but also the way in which it influenced his writing. Mann’s decision to include three Danish literary and artistic giants in this novel was, therefore, clearly deliberate. But then he was born in the imposing German, Hanseatic port of Lübeck, which is about as close to the territory of old Viking Age Denmark as you can get, before being considered at least half Scandinavian yourself. The strange thing is that in his book about the genesis and creation of his Doctor Faustus (see above), Mann makes no mention of either Hans Christian Andersen or Thorvaldsen. Nor is he overly effusive about Kierkegaard in any way.

This author’s translation of Henrik Pontoppidan’s A Fortunate Man
Thomas Mann’s praise for the novel and Pontoppidan graces the book’s cover.

To conclude, and I admit this is speculation, but given all the above, it is by no means of the idle variety. For as I reread Mann’s Doctor Faustus – alongside the text in German in its Fischer Verlag, Taschenbuch 2012 edition – the idea came very strongly to me that Mann’s novel (infused as it is with the Danish psyche) was also influenced by Henrik Pontoppidan’s A Fortunate Man (Lykke Per in the Danish). In 1927, on the occasion of Pontoppidan’s 70th birthday, Mann issued a public declaration of his admiration for Pontoppidan, in the context particularly of A Fortunate Man. Being aware of this led me to ponder whether Mann retained Pontoppidan’s vison and asked himself whether Leverkühn might have opted for the kind of personal redemption (in quiet stoicism and reflection on the part of Per Sidenius) with which A Fortunate Man ends? In a 1837 journal entry, Kierkegaard says that a modern Faust might well seek escape from his despair by renouncing the world, becoming a cowherd or moving to another world entirely. To illustrate this – in his superb essay on the Antigone myth in Either/Or – Kierkegaard says that in modern times a true Knight of Faith who has come through the fires of despair and great trauma would go quiet after that moment of revelation, as Antigone would have done. Her spiritual wound now being a subjective personal burden rather than a collective myth of catharsis. Maybe Henrik Pontoppidan knew his Kierkegaard and Faust better than Thomas Mann did. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard says that Goethe failed to give a deep psychological insight into Faust and that no modern poet had been able to do that either. Thomas Mann also fails. He seems to vacillate at the end, rather like the fickle Germans he portrays in part two of this novel. On the one hand, Leverkühn’s extraordinary confession raises him to cathartic heights. Then he is absolved by the saintly, salt of the earth, Frau Schweigestill (the quiet one, we note). But then he collapses unto death by way of what seems to be a lengthy diabolical paralysis. Contrast this with the unflinching Danish Gothic gaze of Henrik Pontoppidan and his Per Sidenius who knows exactly what he has to do. This is the key question for all Faust characters – what must I do? In A Fortunate Man, Per Sidenius shaped his own destiny in the end. A remarkable joining of Nietzschean Will with Kierkegaardian self-forgiveness and the forgiveness of others. Per Sidenius became a true Faustus: self-annealed by the purging and purification of his own soul to become Per the Fortunate. What a pity that Thomas Mann faltered and looked backwards when trying to raise himself to the heights of the Danish Gothic vision.

Mí an Mhárta/March 2022

  • A note on sources used:
    The English translation of the Doctor Faustus quoted here comes from John E Woods version (1997) alongside the text in German in its Fischer Verlag, Taschenbuch edition (2012). I did also consult the Everyman translation by H T Lowe-Porter (1992). The Kierkegaard texts quoted all come from the definitive online texts in Danish – Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter. I have also researched Kierkegaard’s journals and notebooks here, and from Peter P Rohde’s fine edition of selected extracts from his journals and notebooks (1961). The quotes from George Steiner are from his ground-breaking book The Death of Tragedy in the 1980 OUP New York edition. The public lectures given by Thomas Mann referred to were part of a remarkable – mid and post-second world war – series given under the auspices of the USA Library of Congress. These lectures span a thirty year period and were given by some stellar literati, including Thomas Mann, T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender and Saul Bellow, though the apparent absence of women authors and critics is striking. I believe the other books and sources referred to are self-explanatory, but readers are welcome to contact me for more information in this regard.

The invisible lives and philosophies of workers and immigrants

(Colmcille Press set to publish Paul Larkin’s latest novel)

In the spring/summer period of this year, the well-known and respected Irish publisher Colmcille Press of Derry will publish The Hidden Nature of Irish Plastic. Below, there is an extract from this novel, which follows the exploits of a young Manchester Irish teenager, Peter Baker, who joins the Danish Merchant Navy. The story is obviously partly inspired by my own career in Den Danske Handelsflåde (the Danish Merchant Marine) but as with all fiction, I learned – once again – that the characters took on lives of their own and are sometimes unpredictable even to this author. Nor did I really know what was going to happen at the end, which takes place in a Dublin TV studio – part of Empire Television. So the novel forms a prequel to my Good Friday Sting hexalogy, which has Éilis from the Flats as its opening volume. Also, many stories that I’d overheard or knew from my childhood friends and their families, or during my time at sea, began to bleed into the canvas in a way I never expected. They are not part of my direct life experience but seemed to have been waiting in a part of my writer’s subconscious for a chance to appear on my stage. I love this process of fiction osmosis and the metamorphosis it engenders within the author’s work. An extraordinary feeling of being sure what you want to write but also being on a wing and a prayer.

Where prose is concerned, and as many of you know by now, my great passion is, mostly, for 19th Century writers (though many of them have published works well into the 20th Century). I mean writers like Herman Melville, Dostoevsky, the two Scandinavian ‘Henriks’ – Ibsen and Pontoppidan, then Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Dickens and Jack London. Some readers, especially given the title of this essay, may be surprised that I also include Jane Austen and George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans) in that great literary canon.

My 19th century literary preferences are partly due to the fact that the profound authors I list above situate their dramas in what I see and feel as a real world – a world inhabited not just by upper and middle class professionals but workers, sailors, soldiers, office workers, prostitutes and peasants. White collar criminals and ghouls also appear alongside extremely lumpen elements. Dostoevsky’s hang for this ‘Underworld’ attracted much protest from his contemporaries, who viewed the upper classes and landowners as the only groups with fully fledged lives to tell. Dostoevsky was insistent that real art, spirituality and profundity lay within the seething mass of social poverty and unrest – social grief he called it. I feel the same.

It is not the case that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and that long stretch of detached authors who came after her are not good (often brilliant) writers, but they always leave me with the feeling of disengagement. Actually that I am disempowered as a reader and engaged citizen. As if these writers prefer ennui, to real life and its struggles. To quote a recent very perceptive review of Sally Rooney’s latest novel and the way its characters are offered to the reader  – “we are not invited to engage with their twists of art, thought and logic.” See Rozalind Dineen’s review of Beautiful World, Where Are You – ‘Times Literary Supplement’. 29/102021.

In the world I know about, people have rows about how the world can be made better, with many disagreeing and saying there is no point. Nothing can be changed. Oh yes it can. (Serious pantomime.) There are also displays of skilled work practices, or say, the drudge of work and how that is alleviated. It is also the world of working class men, a class of people we rarely see in novels these days, except as thugs and gangsters. Then there is also the portrayal of how people live – or are forced to live – and how their dreams are squeezed and flattened. This is the world I understand and empathise with and there are always people, characters, who actively seek to change things. Make them better for everybody. It is true that an author like Thomas Hardy often stands back from events and says: ‘this is life and the overwhelming mantle of circumstance and fate’, but he does so by way of a graphic portrayal of the world of work and, where the rights of women are concerned, he is clearly showing us society’s hypocrisy and the exploitative culture of a male dominated society.

In other words, big social questions are always being asked by my favourite authors and there is always a literary-political tension in their pages.

To be fair to modernism, it has produced works that engage with a swirl of ideas and allow us into the dialectic of argument; those “twists of art and logic”, amongst their characters; or say in the author’s third voice – evoking thoughts of characters or their mood but not with their direct speech. D H Lawrence, for example, was very much rooted in community – for good and ill – and even James Joyce for all his clever multiple narratives and literary/mythological referencing was very rooted in the lives of ‘commoners’ – their affinities and discord. In fact, I have just translated a Danish work of high modernism – At the Seaside (Ved havet in the Danish) by the extraordinary author, Peter Seeberg, whose Muse, in my view, inspired him to come up with a way to suffuse social polemic into the very fabric of a modernist novel, which on the surface drifts from one scene to the next without any apparent overall ‘argument’ as context. It is only when you finish the novel that you realise you have been challenged to decide what you think and perhaps change your life. Or perhaps become reconciled with life, mundane and profound by turns as it is. (Seeberg was very much influenced by Nietzsche.)

With his 1978 At the Seaside, Peter Seeberg literally broke new ground and explored new literary waters. The novel has never been translated into English prior to my translation.

Peter Seeberg’s filmic 1978 novel At the Seaside celebrated the new phenomenon of beach daytrips

With my coming book, The Hidden Nature of Irish Plastic, I believe that via the prism of a young man’s return to Ireland after a detour in the merchant navy – and half a century of most of his family having been marooned in England – I have created a work that manages to be both a revelation of an artist’s inspiration at a particular moment in time (that sudden poetic inspiration à la modernism), but also one that engages with its readers and by extension with society (polemical discourse à la Dickens or Dostoevsky, Jack London also). Every artist has a gift and I am clear that my own is to bring the realm of ideas down to earth. Or perhaps bring the Salt of the Earth to lofty ideas. To explain philosophy and spirituality to people even more normal than Sally Rooney’s. (In defence of Sally Rooney, I think her defiant message that she will write whatever it occurs to her to write about was brilliant. Her book Normal People was an important Zeitgeist moment. I believe also that she will finally produce works that take her beyond her apparent despairing fatalism as to whether anything can ever change, or anyway those characters who exist in that realm will come to her.)

An “Irish Plastic” public procession in the author’s parish of St. Sebastian’s – 1937.
(This school was of almost 100% Irish extraction. The scene could be Italy or Spain, but it is the Irish diaspora in Manchester.)

The title of the novel – Irish Plastic – refers to that strange habit (mainly a Dublin habit, I personally have found) amongst the Ireland born of calling their Irish cousins born outside of Ireland – ‘Plastics’. In some ways, a light hearted issue. But also a vital (and often wounding) issue for the millions of Irish immigrants worldwide who were forced to leave Ireland due to drastic economic and/or political problems. They also sent a vast amount of aid home to Ireland, not to mention help in the revolution, issues and tensions explored in Irish Plastic. A painful process, therefore, that tens of thousands of new Irish emigrants have now experienced in the new economically enforced exodus from Ireland’s shores. And many of these new burgeoning ‘Plastics’ face hostility in a Brexit Britain that now has a virulent strain of racism in its veins, not least against the Irish.

However this “Plastic” issue is not the only theme encountered in the novel. Readers only really encounter this bone of Irish contention towards the end of the narrative. What really drives the story forward is Peter Baker’s discoveries whilst working with Danish sailors and also the fact of working with men generally. There is also the danger that awaits in lawless 1970s Nigeria and the companionship he finds there in the winding creeks of the Niger delta. Descendants of slaves, just as he is a slave of sorts. The love this boy feels for them, even to his own surprise.

Without giving too much of the novel away, these, often hard bitten and rough Danish seamen take the new galley boy under their collective wing and unbeknownst to this young man at the time, they decide to expand his wardrobe, feed him proper food, school him in the ways of the deck and nurse him through seasickness – or rather throw him out into a force 9 gale for the cure of same in traditional Viking fashion. They also fist fight sometimes, bicker over prostitutes or football and rib the new non drinking recruit unmercifully. Such are the ways of men sometimes. This is not an exercise in glorification.

But big hard men taking an interest in food and cuisine? Demanding high culinary standards. Sniffing the cheeses and liver pâté as a quality test. Discussing ways to cook things. Discussing poverty. The reasons for such poverty in England. Discussing democracy in England, Ireland and Denmark. All this was a culture shock to the young boy.

In The Skin Of a Lion – a mesmerising book about workers and immigrants

Obviously many Danes will be interested in these characters and this story. The immigrant Irish also. But why do we not meet more of this species in fiction and what is called the literary world? Michael Ondaatje aside, in his superb In The Skin of a Lion, what author nowadays moves within the world of the male working classes? The love and joy in skilled labour. Of learning new things amongst men. Pleasure in the simple grim satisfaction in hard graft also – despite the dangers and economic exploitation.

That’s not to say that girls/females can’t learn and work these things. of course they can. But there is a thing called a company of men, or Band of Brothers to quote the Bard, a company that has its own dynamic. A world that is almost invisible in modern western literature. Nor do we often meet immigrants as they are portrayed by Ondaatje – warm, loving, skilled at their work, exploited, cast aside when worn out. Only, perhaps, the superb philosopher and thinker John Berger RIP captures immigrants in the same way.

Part of the point of The Hidden Nature of Irish Plastic is to assert a truth that was taken away from the Manchester Irish and that is: – we were as immigrant as any black family coming from the Caribbean, and that our base sensibilities, fears and elations are utterly Irish. It would have helped psychologically perhaps if we too had been black.


In an extract from the chapter Eibhlín below, Peter Baker sits in a café in Dublin, trying to work up the courage to enrol for an Irish language course across the street, but the panic of it drives him to his notebook where he begins to write furiously about an important event in his life at sea. There is a bobcat truck in one of the ship’s holds that needs to be hoisted ashore and Peter Baker had been previously warned that he would be asked to perform this task by himself at some point.


He sits and looks at the building from the vantage point of a café across the road. He orders scrambled eggs with toast and a coffee but an attack of nerves gets to him and he cannot force the eggs down his clamped throat. After all the things that had happened to him at sea … Gael Linn it said above the door. The building looked dark and forbidding, claustrophobic. Turned away from the street. He takes out his notebook and begins frantically to write.

There is that dusk that is no dusk at all, the light falling so quickly in Scandinavia like the sky is suddenly invaded by indigos. This is it and there is only the now of it before the light disappears. A cormorant dipped by the ship – wham!

A few of the dockers were up on top. Big men. Who says I am only eighteen! I am only eighteen. But so what? Difficult manoeuvre yes. I will not forget this day. I know it. I never have. God was in the sky like he was giving it all to me – the whole world. Was this not my ship? Hadn’t I cleaned every hook, caressed every mound, greased every thick wire and mounted that mast so good, so good, especially when it was a bit crazy outside. When you go up, right up, you get really so close to the edge when it is blowing. The mast dancing this side and that side, wanting to kiss the whites of the waves so you hug it, because it’s the only thing that is keeping you away from the waves boy, so hug that baby as she heaves and dips. This is living. This is working. The body wracked and straining. Wash her. Ride her as she moves through the blast. My mast. My winch. My derricks and cranes. The glory in the dignity of my labours through the elements and the deliverance.

Laurids had predicted it, but the boatswain wondered whether I could do it? Can I do it! Jump up that ladder, take the guard off and grasp that joystick looking straight out over Svendborg harbour. Hold that jib so tenderly. Yank her up too forcefully and she’ll swing wild as a hung man on a gibbet. But not quite enough power, and she’ll surge into the sidewalls as she’s lifted. Lean over the railing, peer into the dark deep. Blond heads. Thumbs up. She’s on. Wave of the hand, pull her away and the dockers scatter like rats. Now she is airborne. So hold her. Caught like a thief just above the floor. The pleasure of the scrutiny of men. Some edge nearer to it. So I lift her and they laugh. Like the spider in his lair. All legs and webbing in tandem. The bobcat snared. There she goes straight up. Now I’m motoring. Rein in the slack but easing off as she comes up. Easy now. Then swing her across with the side jib. Swing steady. Sense the ship give, subside slightly beneath you and four big rubber wheels grace the quayside simultaneously.

No claps. No cheers. They are milling together down on the quay. Their backs turned to me. One man jumps into the cat and brrms it into life. I stand at the ship’s rail. Flat. He looks up. Starts the engine ready to drive her away and I turn to go back inside to my utter devastation.

‘Hej du!’ – Hey there!, he shouts. ‘Det var bra gjort’ – that was well done. I am eighteen. He is a big Norwegian. Probably forty three. He guns the cat into gear and disappears into a wide blue wink. Wherever you are in the world my Norwegian comrade, I salute you


Henrik Pontoppidan, Kierkegaard and ‘Danish Gothic’ (Henrik Pontoppidan as Educator)

Henrik Pontoppidan, Kierkegaard and ‘Danish Gothic’
(Henrik Pontoppidan as Educator)
Paul Larkin

The magisterial Henrik Pontoppidan

The Danes are the masters of irony. Probably the best Ironists in the world.

I don’t know how this has escaped the world’s attention, as Denmark has become more renowned for an alleged hygge, good beer, pastries and moody mists in detective films.

In its essence, irony is probably best described as ‘feigned ignorance’. The ancient Greek word eirōn carries the sense of ‘dissembling’. This suits arch dissembler and tormenter, Socrates, very well. He poked at the ruling class of Athens so much with his teasing, leading, ironic questions, that they executed him in the end. However irony now has a much broader import. In drama, the audience and certain of the players, may know some appalling and fateful thing that the hero is unaware of: tragic irony – again originally from ancient Greece. Then there is the type of subjective, reflexive irony that interests me here. It is quintessentially Danish in character because it is negative irony and I would like to call it – ‘Danish Gothic’ irony. Or simply, ‘Danish Gothic’. A negative form of irony that, ironically, can have positive consequences.

There is an astonishing scene of multiple irony in Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lykke Per (‘A Fortunate Man’), which some of you will have read in this author’s translation (of which more below). To my mind, this scene is one of the most memorable in all of modern Western literature and it provoked a range of startled reactions from my readers, and still does. The build up to the scene involves the novel’s hero, Per Sidenius (not forgetting that Jakobe Salomon is the other extraordinary character and alter-hero in its pages).

Per has undergone an existential crisis in which he realises that he is not living a ‘true’ life. That it is in fact a lie. Worse, his morose and capricious behaviour leaves his wife, Inger, and their young family upset and confused. Per’s behaviour leaves the children traumatised, or at least very wary of their father. Therefore, after first protesting his innocence of having an affair, he suddenly decides – in the cause of a greater truth – to tell a monstrous, wounding lie to his wife in this showdown scene. Precisely because of tragic irony, readers are just as shocked as Inger. Here is the scene in an abridged version from my translation:

‘You met your old flame and fell head over heels for her again.’
‘Inger, I’m telling you. You are wrong.’
‘Well it’s some other woman then! Because there’s something else behind all this! You want a divorce so that you can marry someone else. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Say it right out to my face. Go on!’
Per tried to think things through very quickly. His racing mind told him that it would be far better for her if he went along with her erroneous assumption and told her a lie. Without some form of compelling reason, she would never agree to a legal separation. He had no choice but to provoke her hatred for him, so that she would despise him from this day forth and banish him from her mind all the quicker. And if he was renouncing so much anyway, his name and honour might as well be included. He spoke softly, but clearly.
‘So be it,’ he said, bowing his head. ‘It’s true.’

I have read this passage a thousand times, possibly more than anyone else on the planet as I have dreamed it through to another language. And yet … it still grips me every time. Per’s quiet words at the death – ‘So be it’ – leave me teetering on the brink of existential vertigo.

The ironic scenarios in the scene are endless, quite apart from the lie about an affair. For not only is the prospective ascetic Per Sidenius confronting his former inauthentic selves as we have encountered them in the huge canvas that is A Fortunate Man, author Henrik Pontoppidan is also exploring aspects of his own self and life view and aspects of his own life. It is also striking that Per’s actions mirror Søren Kierkegaard’s behaviour in presenting himself as a skurk (a scoundrel) in his famous breaking off with Regine Olsen, the better to set her free. The eminent Marxist critic George Lukács, who was deeply interested in Kierkegaard and a great admirer of Henrik Pontoppidan, speaks of Kierkegaard not only wanting Regine to view him as a scoundrel, but wanting her whole family to “hate him as a common seducer.” (i) And like Kierkegaard, Per Sidenius opts for isolation and the life of the mind over familial relationships, though both still retain social links with those around them. Both are melancholic by nature.

Clearly, Pontoppidan uses his characters in an ambiguous way. He posits artistic scenarios and creates real, authentic characters – who remain alive for all time, even when we close the book – the true definition of ‘epic art’. Pontoppidan then invites the reader, and himself, to discover where the truth is to be found there. However, the fact that Per retreats to the lonely, wind blasted northwest coast of Denmark and its salt encrusted landscape gives us an insight into the Danish psyche – in extremis. Out of the array of sometimes triumphant, sometimes vacillating characters that could have become the final Per Sidenius, the hero is purged to his essence: stoic, self-deprecating, brave, nature-embracing, one with the land, the sea, and the people, struggling with God, or questions of divinity and the core of existence. He has become ‘complementary’ to both his internal and external universe.

It is a bleak but strangely uplifting vision of the modern Dane that was emerging post Kierkegaard and post formal Christianity – prone to ambiguity and doubt, but prone also to deep thinking and resolve in a vast ‘imagination landscape’. At its best, the Danish mind as a perfect receptacle for irony, but bravely seeking subjective authenticity. The first world war, and Denmark’s strange relations with it, accelerated that ironic psyche and sense of doubt. Despair even. We might say that the forces of history seized once proud ‘Viking’ Denmark by the throat until she was physically subdued and shrivelled, but that the Danes retrieved and expanded exponentially their psychic internal space. Danish Gothic was the spirit that opened that space. Atheist and quantum physicist Niels Bohr’s favourite book was Kierkegaard’s Stadier på Livets Vej (‘Stages on Life’s Way’). A psychological study of the night and day of life.

Bille August’s film ‘A Fortunate Man’ with Esben Smed as Per Sidenius

Per Sidenius seeking his true Danish self from a range of his possible characters

Nordic Noir, of course, comes essentially from dark irony. And irony, be it comic or dark – the boundary is fluid – was once a pan Scandinavian phenomenon. The towering figure of Loki in what have become known as ‘Viking myths’ attests to this perfectly. For whilst Loki obviously shares traits with other mythical gods from elsewhere, especially the trickster Prometheus (forethinker?), Loki really came into his own in Scandinavia. There are a series of characters in ancient Scandinavian tales who resemble Loki in their transgressive, volatile, profoundly searching, ironic take on life. Pushing tension and unspoken themes to the very edge, and sometimes beyond. Take the remarkable figure of Skarphéðinn Njálsson in Brennu-Njals Saga (The Burning of Njál Saga, or just Njál’s Saga). Skarphéðinn is a renowned and feared warrior, but his tongue is even sharper than his swords and spears. His irony has nothing to do with empty sarcasm – it is life or death. As is Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir’s reply to her husband – the flawed hero Gunnar Hámundarson – in that same Njál’s Saga when, as Gunnar’s assassins approach, he asks her to give him two strands of her thick, lustrous hair for the snapped strings of his bow – with which he is invulnerable. There is a whole world in the few words she casts back into Gunnar’s face:

Þá skal ég nú muna þér kinnhestinn
Do you remember that slap you gave me?

Now I’m going to hold that slap against you … (a more formal translation)

As we have already seen, the acerbic, dialectical dialogue composed by Henrik Pontoppidan, often has that same sense of charged, life changing brinkmanship, and it is innate to him. Innate to a good number of Danish artists, as we shall see. They are ‘hold your breath’ moments … did he/she just say that!?

We are teetering over an abyss, towards which savage or cutting irony has pushed us. How do we feel? What is our view? Whose side in the dialectical dispute do we take? We the readers are forced into a decision.

Henrik Pontoppidan, was very much taken with Nordic sagas and would have appreciated their vertiginous take on life and its ironies. The way, perhaps, that overreaching kings or chieftains can suddenly plummet from their lofty eyries, because of cowardice or greed, say; or a failure of conviction. From eagles to turkeys. Or take the holmgang form of settling disputes, where even a ‘commoner’ could challenge a chieftain to a fight to the death on an islet, or holm, if a matter could not be resolved in other agreed ways. Every individual, therefore. needed to know their law, but were also clear that they had a right to speak – a very Scandinavian attribute.

And that right to speak includes the likes of Loki and Skarphéðinn. Indeed, for all their trouble making, they are somewhat cossetted and prized in their societies, amongst the gods also. They are viewed as being just as naturally a part of life and discourse as more attractive characters like Gunnar or the god Thor. Scandinavians are an astonishing mix of conservative mores and a passionate, headstrong, psychological embracing of life in all its facets. Lidenskab – passion was the allegedly ‘cold’ Kierkegaard’s favourite word. Intricate, ironic, psychic passion. Minds full of twists and turns.

‘The Son of Night’ – lyrics by Bifrost, 1977 (my freestyle translation)
(Loki eating roasted heart painting by John Bauer, 1911)

Ancient familial traits – the feuds and idiosyncratic characters they often throw up, were another thing that captured Pontoppidan’s imagination and influenced his artistic concept of style and form. As above with Gunnar and his wife and their wry, hostile exchange, the terse style of the Icelandic sagas is a form that lends itself to binary, ironic discourse. Here is how a son (Egil) answers his soon to die father:

  • You are in no great hurry to give me the money.
  • Are you really hard up, father?
    (Egil’s Saga).

Søren Kierkegaard – ironic psychoanalyst for our modern times

For what does it mean to be – and to want to be – a sovereign individual?

Though it has gone unnoticed outside of Denmark, in modern times it was specifically the Danes who grabbed the irony standard and planted it firmly in Danish soil. Norway produced the anvil hammering, imperious but didactic drama of Ibsen; Sweden the mystical, transcendent feminism of Selma Lagerlöf; Finland the lakes-inspired, tonal lyricism of Sibelius; Iceland the stark fortitude, fire and ice of Halldór Laxness.

Denmark produced Søren Kierkegaard. How ironic. In fact Denmark has a national, what we might call ‘Kierkegaard-maxim’ – Janteloven (the ‘Jante Law’) – which teases and pokes at people not to overdo the self-praise or success. Of course the principle is widespread but few countries make it a national proverb (first coined by a highly observant Norwegian author to describe a Danish mindset).

Kierkegaard is etched into the very street pavements of Copenhagen

It is to have – and to want to have – a conscience.

Søren Kierkegaard is the nonpareil master of irony. Why? Why was it Denmark, rather than any other country in Scandinavia (or in the West for that matter) that produced this epitome of irony? This is one of my favourite subjects for pondering – why is Denmark so ironic? The key to answering this question is Kierkegaard’s revelatory exposition of an individual’s subjective reflection. Every individual, regardless of social standing, or the social culture they inhabit, is interested in her or himself. Note this word ‘interest’ – inter-est. You can see and feel the movement in it: inter-est: between + to be. (In Danish inter-est is inter-esse.) But it is also, thereby, engagement and passion. It also posits the perennially possible.

It is a given that all human beings engage in self-reflection, but those of a highly developed ironic disposition engage in endless reflections on that reflection. The Danes are a Hall of Mirrors with a multitude of reflected and reflecting characters in their internal psychological dramas. To be or not to be? And to be what, exactly? It often takes a long time to successfully split your own psychological atoms. Danes are furtively passionate and dogged in their self-analysis of themselves.

The Danish multi-character subjective staircase
(Image from an anthology edited by Kierkegaard scholar, Niels Jørgen Cappelørn)

Though even the Danes themselves barely realise it, they have always been very good at talking to themselves in different voices. Introspection. Conflicting psychological characters in the same heart, mind and psyche. Henrik Pontoppidan understood this instinctively and he hated its dark, inherent hang to vacillation, because it was part of his own psyche. This was what drew him to Nietzsche’s cry for freedom from self-doubt. There is a remarkable, and often overlooked, passage in Kierkegaard’s Begrebet Angest (The Concept of Anxiety) in which Kierkegaard gives his Danish understanding of the origin of Original Sin: – that the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was plucked.

Kierkegaard states that Adam was talking to himself when he conceived of this ‘first’ sin and that the command did not come from God but from the anxiety and pondering of possible transgression. See, the awakening of conscience in humankind is bound with the ability to speak, including the ability to talk to oneself. It is not the ex-ternal serpent that tempts Adam but the in-ternal serpent that is the latent, double-bind of fear of, and attraction to the possibility of sin. The possibility of creation also. The perception of – and grasping after – the eternal carries with it the fascination and dread of the Great Fall. Watch children as they are appalled by – yet rush to embrace – the monster in the fairy-tale. It was the innocent but burgeoning idea of sin (selfishness) that created sin, not the external serpent hanging in the tree (who had to be female of course). Or as Kierkegaard put it in the Concept of Anxiety: (human) Sin created Sin.

But Kierkegaard goes further: he says that if this was the case for Adam, then it must be the case for everybody. Therefore there was no original sin. Original Sin is in all of us. It was and is not a one off. Rather it is the human condition to be drawn to selfishness by the fact of our capacity to debate the possible with ourselves. Kierkegaard even quotes scripture to underline his point:

… Gud frister Ingen og fristes og ikke af Nogen …. ethvert Menneske fristes af sig selv.
(God is incapable of being tempted by Evil and He is never the source of temptation … every person is tempted by themselves.)
Jacob 1:13-21

That it should be a Dane that illuminated this startling truth with his flash of subjective insight is telling, It is the internal polyphonic. A cast of characters talking to each other in the same mind. And the Danes not only perfected the art of the internal polyphonic – they went a stage further and introduced (re-introduced?) what I would call the instructive ambiguous. Some of my readers may cry – Hamlet and England! – at this point, but thereby forgetting that the Ur-Hamlet was Danish and I’m not referring to the castle at ‘Elsinore’ (Helsingør), even though there is a rather fine castle there.

Danes speaking in tongues

One of the 10th Century ‘Jelling Stones’ – Denmark’s birth certificate

The essential story of Hamlet is not just that he spent a lot of time talking to himself about who he was and what he should do – to be or not to be this or the other – this young ‘People’s Prince’ adopted different identities and hid behind curtains as he pondered how his father should be avenged. It is, in its essential Jutland Danish form, a ‘folk’ revenge tragedy in which usurpers gain hegemony over a kingdom by deceit and then a young hero feigns madness and a set of characters in order to effect the downfall of the interlopers. A Jutlander’s grim joy in bringing the mighty crashing to earth. Shakespeare’s genius was to perceive the turmoil of Hamlet’s inner dialogue and reveal it on the World Stage. (Kierkegaard’s genius was to remind us what ‘Hamlet’ kept secret. What is known only to artists as WB Yeats might have put it.)

Amlode – the dangerous Jutland ‘fool’ who does magic

Meet the Danish Hamlet you never met

I am no Shakespeare, but I know a thing or two about philology and linguistics and this idea of an inner dialogue gave me an insight into the nature of the irony I was looking for vis-à-vis the introspective Danes – bearing in mind that I first learned Danish as a young boy in the Danish Merchant Navy. ‘Dansk’ entered my synapses purely via speech for many years before I began analysing its texts. The Danish word for ambiguous. I soon discovered, is tvetydig (double meaning), but wait … this can become multiplied – flertydig. The extraordinary Danish poet and chronicler Johannes V Jensen has called the Danish Ur-Hamlet an (ironic) serpent in the heart of every Dane. More than anything this Amlode (fool) had the gift of artful speeches. Dissembling for the revenge to come. Without any doubt whatsoever, she/he was the Danish Socrates. But what is this Danish Gothic irony exactly? A thing that wrecked my head for years.

Eventually, I came to Kierkegaard’s posthumously published book – Bogen om Adler – lit. ‘The Book on Adler.’ It was here I found the definition of creative but ‘negative’ Danish irony I had been looking for. The why and whence of Danish ambiguity and dissembling.

Pastor Adolph Adler – he heard voices (his own)

Image of (defrocked) Pastor Adolph Adler from a 1841 painting

Kierkegaard wrote a book on the Lutheran pastor, Adolph Peter Adler, who claimed Jesus had revealed Himself to him and ‘told him what to do’ – the main outcome of which was that he sold a lot of books (Adler not Jesus). No wonder Kierkegaard had his doubts about this alleged – not so lifechanging – revelation of the Godhead to Pastor Adler who was eventually ‘decommissioned’ as a priest, but in a quite gentle way. Kierkegaard delayed the book’s publication as he had known Adler as a schoolfriend at a highly esteemed Copenhagen ‘School of Refinement’ and both had studied theology at Copenhagen University. However, what we are interested in here is the fact that Adler – precisely by the fact that he waxed so lyrical about religion in general and about his divine ‘gift’ in particular – actually ended up showing he knew very little about the divine. Or rather, hadn’t learned much more by Jesus’s apparent visitation. Proof, therefore, that the visitation hadn’t happened at all.

According to Kierkegaard, this said much more about Adler than it did about Jesus. A classic example of negative irony – ask the right, apparently guileless, question and the subject will jump to reveal her or his true self. In other words, by talking so much about it – and to put it in Kierkegaard’s own words – Pastor Adler: forløb sig – got carried away, and told us much more about himself and what he actually didn’t know by protesting his knowledge too much. He protesteth too much, to go all Shakespearean for a moment.

Now we have a very useful synonym for this reflexive Danish verbal construct – at forløbe sig – in Hiberno-English, which has also become adopted in British English – it is: ‘to lose the run of oneself.’ The reflexive, subjective ‘oneself’ is of course the secret to instructive, subjective irony.

The Kierkegaard book that has gone under the radar

Kierkegaard’s posthumous book on Adler – compiled 1846 – 1855

The lack of attention paid to Kierkegaard’s book on the overly loquacious Adler – even by scholars who far exceed my Kierkegaard powers – has always surprised me. (The late, lamented and brilliant Kierkegaard researcher, Julia Watkin, who published the above ‘Adler’ reissue, is an exception.) Kierkegaard had begun pondering and then working on the Adler book not long after Adler had visited him in 1843 and revealed his ‘Jesus experience’. Adler partly used a low whisper, when speaking to Kierkegaard, as Adler felt this imparted ‘the miracle’ more accurately. Adler was speaking in togues not quite his own. So how authentic was it, this voice, and could a genuine voice of revelation be discerned as opposed to a wagging tongue? Authority of voice was, therefore, the central theme in Kierkegaard’s prophetic book about the chattering classes to come. Actually the book’s full title is not – ‘The Book on Adler’. but Nutidens Religieuse Forvirring (The Religious Confusion of the Present Age). A book on which Kierkegaard worked (and effectively completed) in the same year as his sudden but expected death (1855).

I have read the Adler book several times and it always tells me new things and is one of the best overviews in Kierkegaard’s own hand of this Danish genius’s highly extensive oeuvre (‘genius’ as opposed to ‘apostle’ – part of the point of the book was to delineate the difference). But it is what Kierkegaard tells us in this same Adler book about how Socrates got his Sophist interlocutors, amongst others, to ‘lose the run of themselves’ and thereby not only display their ignorance of the matters in hand but their own subjective disposition that is the tour de force in Kierkegaard’s Adler book. This is ‘negative’ irony. The teacher says very little and adopts an ironic (dissembling – feigning ignorance) pose of uncertainty in dialectical opposition to the protagonists ‘over-conviction’. The teacher ‘Ironist’ becomes an existential sounding board for the ‘other’. A kind of – ‘I’ve no idea what the answer to this question is. Perhaps you can enlighten me …’ approach to discourse.

Essentially, the supreme Ironist (say Socrates, or Kierkegaard) allows the people with whom he is in dialogue to convince themselves that it is actually the Ironist that is the idiot. Really, tell me more, says Socrates; all the while reeling his attacker in as the unwitting victim spouts for more rhetorical air. Here is the key line in Danish from the Adler book:

Den ironiske Underfundighed culminerer i den List med hvilken man bringer et Menneske til at tale om sig selv, angive sig selv, aabenbare sig selv, netop da, naar han i egne Tanker taler slet ikke om sig selv, ja endog har glemt sig selv …
Translation (I use the plural to avoid ‘he’):
“This ironic subtlety culminates in the cunning stratagem with which one leads people to speak about themselves, report of themselves, reveal themselves; at the very moment when they, in their own mind, are doing anything but deliberately talking about themselves; yes, have perhaps even forgotten themselves …”

I want to draw readers’ attention to the Danish word list here, which I have ‘bold-highlighted’ in the original Danish quote and in my translation – ‘list’ is a deceptively short Danish word with the power of an ancient culture behind it. Though the general Germanic word list(e) as a categorising of things also applies in Danish, it also means deception, artifice, or cunning, and in this context, as a verb, liste, means to creep, or steal away. I always notice the relish with which Danes use this word list/liste. They use a definite drawn out sibilant fricative on the s.

Though it is not immediately recognisable because of that ‘s’, the word list is related to ‘lore’ and ‘learn’, knowledge and skill. Ironic deception for the sake of conjuring a person’s essence is a form of magic. A form of lore. Irony is a powerful mix of art and artifice. Kierkegaard said that conversation is the greatest art form, as did Amlode before him. Liste

When I re-read these particular Adler pages again in the context of Danish introspection and competing voices inside the mind of an individual, I realised that there was an internal struggle in there for the authentic voice. Whereas Socrates was the ironic external interlocutor, the Danish ironic voice is the subjective internal selfquestioning and interrogating their own selves, via an array of alternative subjective characters, as that self searches for its own authenticity. There are numerous examples of this in Danish fiction. I have already mentioned Per Sidenius and the ur-self-Ironist, Hamlet. Then of course there is Kierkegaard himself and the often forgotten irony of H C Andersen and his deceptively ironic tales. I have also recently completed the translation of Martin A Hansen’s greatest novel, Løgneren (The Liar), which again involves competing inner voices. In this work, on the part of a schoolteacher and locum deacon, who not only stares into a mirror of harsh realities about himself, but also perceives his possibilities. ‘The Liar’ will be published by New York Review of Books Classics early in 2023.

‘The Liar – a conflicted teacher’s dialogue with himself.

Another key Danish Gothic Ironist is Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) – she of the ‘Seven Gothic Tales’. Though it is less obvious, Blixen is almost as pseudonymous as Kierkegaard. Her very first stories were published under the name of her father’s pet dog and she then followed in his pseudonymous traditions as an author, given that Wilhelm Dinesen had used the name Boganis (hazelnut) – a title the Chippewa tribe of Native Americans had given him in his time with them – in his own not insignificant memoir as a hunter. Karen Blixen believed that she had not only inherited much of her father’s spirit but also his sense of adventure and ‘wanderlust’. He had travelled and soldiered far and wide before returning to Denmark, and finally killing himself. She then chose, initially, to publish under the male name of Isak Dinesen (rather than her married name – ‘Blixen’), bearing in mind that Isaac wasn’t just the very late offspring of the Bible’s Sarah and Abraham, ‘Isaac’ also means laughter (Hebrew Yiṣḥāq: he laughs/will laugh). Karen Blixen was literally having a laugh. For good pseudonymous measure, she also sometimes used the pen name Pierre Andrézel. So many characters in one Danish head!

Irony ebbs and flows between the comic and the tragic and ‘Gothic’ Danes hold their gaze steadfastly on the drama as that internal psychological Holmgang unfolds, for good or ill – usually for ill, but sometimes with success, especially where Blixen is concerned.

Karen Blixen – an integral part of ironic Danish currency

There is not space here to even pretend a resumé of Karen Blixen’s phenomenal oeuvre, but I think that to state that there is a sense of a governing moral firmament in her work is more than justifiable. In this, and in many other ways, she reminds me of Henrik Pontoppidan.

In their shared Danish Gothic, they deploy irony to reveal a wider metaphysical truth, but always from behind a mask of partial self concealment. The masking of inner personal, even physical, pain was also part of that. In this way, they follow Kierkegaard’s path, who said the writerly Knight of Infinite Resignation reveals the truth of existence, but leaves her/his own secrets partially hidden. This is a very Danish thing to do. Who or what is that ghost on the mental battlements? Like a Danish author’s Gothic Ball. Nobody – no author – will reveal who they really are behind that mask, but express this through their range of characters in shockingly real life, cliff-hanger situations and dialogue. Just as with the ancient sagas, there is huge drama in their tales. Both of these, at heart romantic, authors dreamed in epochs, even as they flayed the hide of the particular. They were both adventurers and, rather interestingly for our purposes, the highly perceptive USA novelist, John Updike, intuited the ‘Viking intoxication’ and ‘battle frenzy’ in Blixen’s works. Isak Dinesen’s God was pre-Christian and momentous. It is an Old Testament ‘wrestling-with-God’ or the elements syndrome. For his part, Henrik Pontoppidan was frustrated in dreams of embarking on great odysseys. To Greenland, say, or across the Alps, but like Kierkegaard, he could traverse these far lung regions in his visionary mind and across his stirring, vibrant pages.

There are elements of Old Testament in Pontoppidan, too. We might say he is like Daniel proclaiming the Mene, mene, tekel writing on the wall that smote Belshazzar and this is actually cited in A Fortunate Man and in other places in Pontoppidan’s works. Look:

“Every time he felt tempted by the thought, he saw Neergaard in front of him and recalled his words about the swineherd who became a prince, words which had already, on another occasion, revealed themselves in an aura of blazing letters, a Mene-Tekel – ‘counted and counted, weighed and divided,’ an admonishing Biblical scripture on tablets of fiery stone …”

In their steely, stoical, artistic independence and perseverance, Blixen and Pontoppidan mirror each also. More than that, like Pontoppidan, Blixen accepts that people are born with an innate nature, but that they must work their whole lives through to actively express that in life and bring it to full fruition. This is: The Work – the Life Mission. What Kierkegaard called Opgaven – the Task. I like ‘Life-Mission’ better. As George Lukács has pointed out regarding Pontoppidan’s fiction, the characters are not confined to psychological ruminations. They are steeped in and emerge from real life scenarios.

Most readers will be aware of ‘Dinesen’s’ Babette’s Gæstebud (‘Babette’s Feast’), not least because of Gabriel Axel’s 1987 Oscar winning film of the same name. It is interesting to note that in Ireland the film and ‘tale’ was received as a demonstration of the essential cultural difference between Catholics and Protestants, given that historically at least, and still today in parts of the North of the country, there is a strong strain of Pietist and Calvinist Protestantism. But the key instructive irony in ‘Babette’s Feast’ is that the artist and the religious (should) serve the same cause – not only to spread love and empathy and ‘enchant the angels’ but also to risk the devilry that is in art.

Babette is an artist Priestess, who points out that an artist is never poor. This is quintessential Danish Gothic and the other side of its ‘Janus faced’ wisdom is made manifest in another of Blixen’s tales (‘tales’ can do magic, stories cannot), ‘The Cardinal’s First Tale’. Here it is Cardinal Salviati who says that the priest and the artist have the same task, which is to probe the truth of existence and reveal its secrets. This Cardinal was a twin whose double died in very early infancy, so that neither his parents nor he himself could be sure whether he was Atanasio (the Eternal One) or Dionysio (the Ecstatic one), a plan the Cardinal’s parents had mapped out for the respective twins out of the respective passions of the parents themselves. Salviati effectively manages to be both, but admits that faith is a risk and there is no safety net. A Danish Pascal’s Wager. (I am indebted to the Aalborg academic and author, Per Brahde, for clarifying my own feelings and ‘reception’ of Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen. Not just with his highly illuminating essay –Magt og Afmagt – Kierkegaard og Nietzsche spejlet i Karen Blixens forfatterskab (Power and Impotence – Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as revealed in the works of Karen Blixen), but also the dialogue in which we engaged over a period of months several years ago. There is, however, no implication that he might agree with my theories.)

Danish Gothic – where the Devil and Angels meet

As if all the above were not enough, in three astonishing pages of Kierkegaard’s book on Pastor Adler – and as the self-reflexive cherry on this Danish identity layer cake – our hermeneutical genius, Søren Kierkegaard, who loved and praised the Danish language as the sinuous, vibrant, soft but strong Fenris-Wolf binding tongue it is, explains precisely why Danes and their language make them world beating reflexive ironists. This comes in a precious note Kierkegaard left in the margin of his page. Here it is for those fortunate souls who can read Danish (here in the pre-reform orthography):

*)Anm:Det danske Sprog har en Deel verba neutra, som i Sammensætningen med Præpositionen: for betegne et uheldigt Udfald af det som Stammeverbet betyder.fE: at forløbe sig, at forsee sig, at forhaste sig, at fortale sig, at forsnakke sig o: a:. Ironien hjælper nu et Menneske dertil, men hvorved og hvorledes? Ved at forholde sig negativ og indirecte. Lad os tænke et Vexelforhold mellem tvende Mennesker, af hvilke den ene er en Ironiker. Ironikeren gjør sig nu til Intet og forholder sig reent negativt, og derved hjælper han indirecte den Anden til at forløbe sig. Dette Sig, dette pronomen reflexivum skjuler Ironien. Manden forløber sig, han gjør det altsaa selv, men han gjør det ved Ironikerens negative Hjælp; Manden staaer i den Formening at han har med et andet Menneske at gjøre, men ved Ironikerens Underfundighed faaer Manden kun med sig selv at gjøre, thi han forløber sig jo.

Quite apart from, in this margin-note, giving a second succinct explanation of how Socratic, ‘negative’ irony works (the speaker is drawn out by the Ironist to a position of self-realisation by losing the run of her or himself) Kierkegaard explains how this reflexive, eternally reflecting and self-questioning mentality is wired into the Danish language itself by the use of reflexive verbs and reflexive personal pronouns (sig mostly).

I am blessed with an ability to read various languages with a modicum of proficiency and would concur with Kierkegaard that the Danish language must be one of the most reflexive in the whole of Europe and English speaking North America. Perhaps worldwide. What this ‘reflexive’ mode refers to is the fact that when a verb is – or becomes – reflexive, a personal pronoun (sig in the 3rd pers. sg/pl) is appended to it, so that rather than the verb affecting an object it rebounds back on the subject. There are remnants of this in English – take the word ‘bask’ for example, which comes from Old Norse baðask (“to take a bath”, literally “to bathe oneself”) in what linguists call the mediopassive form that joins the verb baða (to bathe) with sik (“oneself”) – ‘ba-sk’. It is true that German reflexive verbs with sich etc. are a hugely significant part of that language also, but mighty, statuesque German is nowhere near as protean, sinuous and reflexive as Danish.

Kierkegaard gives a range of examples of how Danish facilitates the leaving of oneself way out on a reflexive limb, like the above mentioned forløbe sig with Pastor Adler – to get carried away – let one’s tongue run on, which doesn’t have an exact equivalent in German. The best one I know is the colloquial ‘sich vergaloppieren’ but it’s not quite the same, or doesn’t feel ‘native’. I stand to be corrected here, but there is nevertheless an extraordinary exuberance about the way Danes use the ironic reflexive that readily brings Henrik Pontoppidan to mind as a latter day Hamlet or Socrates probing his mind’s own characters. And therefore interrogating them as they come alive within his pages. Danes generally love relating how someone fell short, made a fool of themselves, jumped the gun, caused offence, went on and on, was too presumptuous, as ‘the other’ listens quietly but with a glint in the eye. A famous Danish philologist – Johnny Christensen (a sparkling Ironist himself) – even suggested how Socrates may have fatally erred his way to a death sentence by at overliste sig – being too cunning for his own good – that word list again. (ii)

My favourite Danish reflexive construction, however, is actually not in Kierkegaard’s list of reflexives in his margin note to Adler (the list is not shown in the quote above), but is nevertheless very telling, and that is the verb skabe, which means to create and is linked to English ‘shape’ and German ‘schaffen’, but when the Danes add sig to skabe > skabe sig – it becomes something else altogether. It becomes in fact a ‘Loki syndrome’; for you can be doing a range of offbeat, even crazy, things; including putting on airs, posing, exaggerating and seeking to deceive. You are creating and recreating yourself.

Now we see, I think, much more clearly – thanks to Kierkegaard’s psychological perspicacity- the conflicting tensions, voices and characters that can rage reflexively in one and the same Danish mind and how this is expressed in art. Of course this can be comic, but this quest for personal authenticity can also be a ‘Sickness unto Death’ if there is no final resolution. Henrik Pontoppidan would sometimes speak of his own labyrinthine mind. Henrik encountered a lot of characters there, in that mind, but which one from this ‘polyphony’ of voices, did he decide was closest to his own? Or to put it another way, did his artistic creativity help this betimes caustic and ostensibly self-deprecating Dane find his own self resolution and personal redemption? I think he did, as we shall see.

Lies and Latin – mockery, ridicule and satirising religion – A ‘Storm P Museum’ Poster

Danes – probably the best ironists in the world …

Researchers and academics who have looked at polyphony (particularly in the works of Kierkegaard and also with Pontoppidan, amongst others) have stressed the range of different characters, the equally competing voices and also the ambiguity that reigns in these creations. They carry no clear ‘message’ or ideology. The readers, onlookers, witnesses, are left to decide the truth of things for themselves. However, the particularly Danish nature of this ambiguity and its subjective implications have had little scrutiny, as far as I know. Danish polyphony has subjective ambiguity as its Pole Star. The self-reflecting self is the psychological polar axis.

All those imagined characters losing the run of the self inside the Ironist’s own head! The deceitful self. The deceived and deceiving self and then the inter-est of conscience and the struggle – in the modern age – to break clear of sin (selfishness), or at least confusion and despair. The imagined characters struggling for moral air. The struggle more broadly to live an authentic life in a hypocritical world. Pontoppidan’s works make much of this struggle for real integrity (his characters usually fail, or are brought down). That genuine life has to be continually fought for in a morass of mediocrity and hypocrisy. Great art emerges from this tension. Ambiguity is not just negative. It also carries possibility within it, if we can get beyond Hamlet and Socrates poking their ironic sticks at us. Kierkegaard wrote three whole books trying to get beyond Socrates. I think he did this finally with his 1847 Kjerlighedens Gjerninger – (Love’s Works as I would translate the title.)

Although I am still wrestling with this conceptual octopus in trying to clarify my thoughts, it seems to me that this continual, reflexive, second guessing of self in a constant struggle for clarity is the core of Danish instructive ambiguity. That is why I decided to call this creative ambiguity, ‘Danish Gothic’.

Danish Gothic

Asger Jorn thinker, painter and Danish Goth

Though you would not know it from the extant research on the Danish painter and sculptor, Asger Jorn, it was he more than any other Dane who realised the artistic – and therefore philosophical – importance of this instructive, or ‘creative’ ambiguity. He called it (originally pan Scandinavian) ‘Gothic’ and stressed its ancient properties. Though he stood on Johannes V Jensen’s shoulders to get to attain this view.

This is not the pastiche Gothic of Frankenstein and Dracula films, which I otherwise love; nor is it even Mary Shelley’s precocious vision, which was more a harbinger of the horrors of war, the industrial age and imperial capitalism to come. No, real existential Gothic, as it has been handed down to us, is Danish. A deep, profound sombreness. A trauma and terror lurking in the deceptively every-day. A teasing, sometimes poisonous ambiguity.

You think Hans Christian Andersen is hygge? Think again. Read his ‘fairy tales’ more deeply and you will not only discern the terror (‘The Snow Queen’), the hubris (‘The Wicked Prince’) but also the redemptive (The Ugly Duckling). Things take an even more profound, and darkly ironic, turn with Andersen’s Skyggen (The Shadow), which is a ‘Danish Gothic’ version of Faust, as the Devil is literally the dark side of the morally good, hero-writer in the tale. In fact whilst we speak of Faust, that great admirer of Pontoppidan – the German author, Thomas Mann – partly based his Doktor Faustus novel on HC Andersen’s terrifying fairy tale, Den lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid) and this sea creature’s fateful pact with a ‘Mer-Witch’ so as to stake her very being on a doomed love for a human prince that would also ensure her possession of an immortal soul.

H C Andersen was so good – such a genius – and Kierkegaard (in Loki guise) so jealous, he attacked the ‘fairy tale’ man in his first ever book. The likelihood is that Kierkegaard recognised the similarities between his own creative urges and that of Andersen and so wanted to set a philosophical benchmark that he perceived as lacking in Andersen, who was indeed prone to sentimentality. The fact is though that both these Danish authors are in intense and ironic dialogue with characters in their own psychological labyrinth. Compare this with the social discourse of, say, Dickens or Dostoevsky – Dostoevsky’s The Double is much more a reflection on Russian bureaucracy and a stifling pettifoggery – the crushing of the collective Russian spirit – than Andersen’s subjective portrayal of good and evil residing subjectively within an artist. Literally his shadow.

To be fair to Dostoevsky, his use of instructive irony comes very close to Kierkegaard, in my view, with the Smerdyakov figure in The Brothers Karamazov. The more Smerdyakov taunts the ‘humanist’ Ivan Karamazov by reminding Ivan that he had proclaimed that ‘everything was permitted’ – Smerdyakov being his bastard and retarded brother who murdered their father – the more we the readers digest that unrestricted freedom is not a great idea. Dostoevsky comes even closer to Kierkegaard – perhaps even surpasses him – with the extraordinary seducer figure in the little known novel The Insulted and Humiliated. The scene where the arch seducer, Prince Valkovsky, recounts not only his defilement of women but his pleasure in so doing is every bit as mesmerising and nausea invoking as The Seducer’s Diary. The ironic, instructive element is strong in both these works by Dostoevsky, but, again, there is ultimately a politico-religious (rather than psycho-existential) instruction in these works. Unlike Danish Gothic, Dostoevsky is not interrogating his own mind.

It’s all in the Danish mind
‘Practice in looking at art’ – Vilhelm Bjerke Petersen – 1979

Asger Jorn wrote of humans having an ‘artistic conscience’ that cries out to be expressed long before the physical creation begins. Prometheus/Loki fore-thinking. Thinking before you think. There is some primal artistic impulse there. Art is pre-logical, Asger Jorn said . But he also said that the Nordic artistic mindset is rooted in the mind rather than in symbols or in superficial sentiment. The Danish word for mind is sind. Kierkegaard not only bemoaned his tung-sind (literally his heavy-mind: melancholy), he also spoke of embracing it and needing to cherish it. Perhaps more than anything else. In the week of my writing up this essay from my notes, an important literary and cultural figure in Denmark wrote to me regarding a joint project we are planning and told me that this project was ‘very much on the mind’ (ligger meget på sindet) that the project should go ahead – a good formal translation would be: – there is a strong desire that it should proceed, (we might also say: ‘the project is near to our hearts’). Another striking example of how the Danes have multiple minds in the same psyche is with the difference between the saying in English – ‘to be in two minds’, which in Danish is rendered as to be in seven minds (‘at være i syv sind’). Truly the Danish mind is the receptacle of many conflicting passions.

Perhaps the long winter nights over such a long period of the year encourage this introspective ruminating. This Danish Gothic. Kierkegaard said that you could remain in your room and yet travel all over the world, in your mind. Danish – sind – is rooted in Germanic *senþa(n), which had the meaning of to go, or to travel, or strive towards. A psychological movement emphasised by its links to English ‘send’. I have always liked Kierkegaard’s tripartite proposal of body, psyche and soul. The soul becomes an aspiration beyond the psyche, that we strive towards. Our sind?

It is not too far a stretch, I feel, to make comparisons between this striving towards ‘soul’ and Pontoppidan’s visions of a struggle for authenticity and I give more evidence of this below. Just like Kierkegaard, Pontoppidan spoke of the struggle to make artistically manifest the art of living – levekunst. We strive towards a higher existential aesthetic. Art is the attempt, the striving, the journey, beyond the purely physical and logical, to make the soul manifest. To fully join with it, and be replete within it, at least for a creative moment. Or if we are ‘Fortunate’ and don’t fall backwards again, as part of a life changing artistic leap. Moral perfectionism is not a one-off condition, but a goal, a beautiful vision of possibility. If we follow the emotion of that idea, we can feel the creative influence of artistic impulses on subjective soul searching. That it is more a journey – a life task that must constantly be imagined into being – rather than a final destination. Real life therefore becomes an art form. We are trying to get to what Jorn called the urbilledlige i os selv – the ur-metaphor that expresses our true selves. Not as a fact, but with the much stronger proof that we feel it is right and that we are reconciled with ourselves and ‘the other’.

No scientist can ever truly know what an individual is thinking – the very reason for the rise of psychotherapy, which cannot ever get beyond the awoken self and its voices, beyond Hamlet or Socrates. This was one of Kierkegaard’s keenest insights regarding psychology as a whole and also a quintessentially Danish discovery.

Asger Jorn’s great Scandinavian insight is summed up very well in his book Naturens Orden (‘The Natural Order’) – De divisione naturae, in which he says that it is precisely because Scandinavian individualism rejects the formation of a rigid order in the mind, or the imposition of a fixed set of ideas, that makes ‘Nordics’ appreciate external, social order even more. They are inspired by and can create a range of authentic voices and conflicting, competing emotions, scenarios and characters in their own minds, but Denmark’s buses still run on time.

Asger Jorn understood how Kierkegaard’s characters and their scenarios proliferated in his mind – the aesthete, the seducer, the stodgy magistrate, the multi character Abraham, the young man who loves so fiercely he catapults himself to the far shore of love and beyond. There is no doubt these characters and the pseudonymous authors who created them are the product of a single ironic mind. They are envisioned and given existence in their own artistic validity so as to provoke, to inflame, to debate. Who are these people? Who is speaking the truth? What is my standpoint? Who am I? The guiding mind-lamp that is Danish introspective art. The artist poking her or himself with Gothic ambiguity. Creative, instructive irony. The argument that all these characters are fully independent of Kierkegaard is plain daft. Of course there have been other Ironists, all over the world, but there has been no one (not even Socrates) with the same constant level of sometime merciless, sometime devious, sometime excruciatingly subtle, sometime hilarious Gothic irony of Kierkegaard – ‘marry, you’ll regret it, don’t marry, you’ll regret it … hang yourself, you’ll regret it, don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret that, too! (I abbreviate). This parody of an aesthete’s refusal to commit to anything leads most of us to question, or even reject, circumspection as a lifestyle.

However, Kierkegaard’s debt to Socrates, not to mention his affection, is undoubted. Kierkegaard started off criticising Socrates for leaving people hanging in the web of their own newly spun self-reflection that had been conjured by this master Ironist. In this he anticipated Nietzsche. But Kierkegaard ended up realising that there could be no real sovereign individuality without that initial self-reflection and doubt. This idea of multi-voice indirect instruction, including the goading and teasing of the victim ‘acolyte’, was therefore the path to freedom. The aforementioned Johnny Christensen has stressed that the goading technique used by both Socrates and Kierkegaard was not just used for spite, but also to open the eyes of opinion formers and disarm those who thought they knew it all. (iii)

Twisted Danish irony as teacher. Henrik Pontoppidan as Educator

Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lykke Per –
‘A Fortunate Man’
– the hardest thing in life is to truly know yourself and what you must do.

Henrik Pontoppidan was influenced by his extensive reading of Friedrich Nietzsche, partly because of the German philosopher’s iconoclasm and especially the idea of the ‘Overman’ (Übermensch) who would, by force of will, supreme talent and inspiration drag humankind forward to a new dawn. Here at last was a great vision that didn’t depend on religious hypocrisy, or weak-willed, unprincipled politicians. However, Pontoppidan’s essentially democratic and ‘folk’ sensibilities meant that his life view and work do not reflect the ‘Aristocratic Radicalism’ that underpinned Nietzsche’s thought. There is no matching Zarathustra who can truly break free of social and spiritual norms in Pontoppidan’s works. All of the characters in his books who might become – or have pretensions to be – modern-day saviours fall ironically short, or even become monsters. Indeed, Pontoppidan always held somewhat at arm’s length the superb Danish critic – Georg Brandes – who coined the term ‘Aristocratic Radicalism’ in the 1889 essay that effectively launched Nietzsche into the European mainstream. Both Nietzsche and Brandes were literary aristocrats, which is precisely the reason that Aristocratic Radicalism applies just as much to Brandes as it does to the German ‘hammer-philosopher’.

I believe that Pontoppidan’s not always publicly expressed literary insights often surpassed Georg Brandes – who also wrote the first important biography of Kierkegaard – for instance by recognising that you cannot separate Kierkegaard’s religio-ethical demand from his cry for subjective freedom. Aristocrats want to be individually free. A ‘Folk’ needs a set of ethics, or we might call it collective conscience.

In his same 1889 Nietzsche essay, Brandes gives one of the best descriptions of Nietzsche’s thought that I, at least, have read. This is based on Nietzsche’s essential view of true, authentic culture as being a rejection of waiting for the hereafter for our reward (we all applaud) and founding our cultural standard on its highest examples (we all sit back and think, shake our head slightly – who decides the cultural standards? The snobs?).

Georg Brandes – 1899 essay on Nietzsche – aristocratic ‘birds of a feather’

In Nietzsche’s view – as Brandes puts it – our individual life mission is not really for the purpose of subjective self-discovery on the part of each individual, but to support, work for and build a society that celebrates and promotes thinkers and artists, pure in spirit who are devoted to truth and beauty. This as Nietzsche sees it is the fulfilment of humankind’s highest imperative in the face of cosmic but ‘neutral’ Nature. We are back in ancient Greece with its broad understanding of sculpture and architecture, mathematics, drama, sport and rhetoric – women and slaves mostly excluded of course.

Brandes agreed and said that ‘Old Norse’ Iceland was another society that was an organic, cultural and social entity. Though, it should probably be pointed out that neither Nietzsche nor Brandes were referring to a racially pure or solely indigenous organic cultures. These holistic societies are not fully ‘homemade’ and have strong external influences and antecedents.

I find Nietzsche’s vision – often much maligned, in the English speaking world at least – both beautiful and inspiring. The idea of breaking free, striking out for a higher ideal of self, and being an example to others, so as to help less gifted people, so as to enrich not just your life but theirs, is visionary and encouraging. It is also part of the role artists play. However, and as Kierkegaard might have put it, it doesn’t even take us beyond Socrates who, as an ironic midwife, sought to birth the truth in everybody.

Nietzsche had a conflicted relationship with Socrates, accusing him of taking the magic from life with all this dialectical irony malarkey. Raising issues that weren’t discussed ‘at table’. Or as the English put it: ‘bringing the tone of the place down.’ He said much the same of Euripides.

Perhaps unwittingly, the Kierkegaard scholar Jacob Howland – who is highly tuned to the Socrates/Kierkegaard dynamic – gives the best description of Nietzsche’s pre-subjective (pre-fractured) Greek society and the Socrates effect, in that (I paraphrase) modernity has burdened us with an individual guilt that only a god can bear, thus depriving us of a genuinely a priori ethical community that can bear the guilt collectively through the shared grieving and catharsis that is ancient tragedy. (iv) Howland of course is invoking Kierkegaard’s ground-breaking modern retelling of the Antigone myth, with its dichotomy between collective ancient sorrow and modern pain in the atomised individual. Nietzsche would have saved himself a lot of his own pain if he had read this extraordinary screenplay, but he came too late to Kierkegaard, though he knew of him before Georg Brandes mentioned him in their correspondence.

You get the distinct feeling that Nietzsche felt that attempts to elevate every individual in society was the road to cultural confusion and he’s right, but his solution was wrong. It isn’t great ‘Overmen’ we need to teach us, although these can be inspiring. More than anything, we need Love. And for widespread Love, you need individuals to, in the first instance, love themselves. Then love the ‘other’. This sounds like Ur-Christianity. Ur-Communism for that matter. You need Works of Love – Love’s Works.

The erotic, teasing, goading midwife to the subjective self

Socrates – a ‘pleb’ according to Nietzsche – was he a Greek at all?

What Nietzsche missed and Kierkegaard grasped was the possibility of a freedom leap in the reflexive effect of subjective irony, when the sovereign individual becomes fully self-aware and separate. A moment suddenly stretches to infinitude, as the soul is perceived.
If there is an existential moment there in that self-reflection, well, it is both temporal and of the divine, or we can say the cosmic if you like. And it is in the gift of every single individual. I don’t know a thing about quantum physics and time travel, but to me this insight by Kierkegaard feels like a breakthrough to a new dimension. Perhaps this was the time-stretch basis for Niels Bohr’s appreciation of Kierkegaard?

In the same way that there would be no science without doubt, there would be no individual freedom without self-aware irony that opens up eternal possibilities for the human being. Isn’t this the same as Asger Jorn’s insight that we have a predisposition to art? Self-reflection can become a window to the transcendent, if it can also embrace ‘the other’.

What this means is that whilst Pontoppidan admired Nietzsche’s idealistic, brave revolt against mediocrity, Pontoppidan’s whole subjective ironic scene setting, characters and their dialogue bring him closer in spirit to Kierkegaard, to Hamlet and to Socrates. Per Sidenius rejects the chance to become an Übermensch and embraces his true nature instead. In fact, Pontoppidan sounds some profound and prophetic warnings about the ‘Overman’ myth if that life view descends into fanaticism. This can be seen very clearly in Pontoppidan’s astonishing novella – Nattevagt, a title which has often been translated as ‘Nightwatch’ in English, but I would prefer ‘The Rear-Guard’. For in this short novel and its bitter, recalcitrant, yet gripping ending, Pontoppidan explores several different sides to his own artistic personality and the dangers of art for ideology’s sake.

This volatile work coruscates with incendiary irony. It is for the onlooker to decide the truth in the story. We might call The Rear-Guard an exposé of what happens when soul searching artists fail to embrace subjective freedom (with its call for conscience and Mercy) and remain stuck in the negative ironic self, which can only be sustained for so long before bitterness and despair set in.

Henrik Pontoppidan’s extraordinary Nattevagt (The Rear-Guard) 1894, 1905, 1912
Rome is a sepulchre between two thorns

What I have noticed about The Rear-Guard, which I hope to publish in translation in the not too distant future, is that it, partially at least, carries the same critique of the way we perceive ‘classic’ antique culture as that delivered by Asger Jorn: it is dead and stares at us blankly and blindly in its statues, now bereft of all colour. Kierkegaard also referred to the ‘plastic’ (fixed and retrospective) art of Ancient Greece. It looks backward.

Asger Jorn argued that Scandinavia had its own Gothic ancient culture, which had been suppressed in favour of a sham ‘classics’ inspired culture. Jorn traces Nordic Gothicism right back to the first incredible wave of folk migrations that poured out of what is now Danish Jutland, and even more so – Sweden and the Geats (Goths) > Götaland (‘land of the Geats’). It is true that the historical sources are relatively meagre but also true that Jordanes writing in 551 described Sweden as the “womb of nations”. Asger Jorn has sought to build a cultural picture of these Goths and the remnants of their ‘wisdom’ and life view in modern Scandinavia. The problem for Jorn was that he was arguing for a Nordic Renaissance just after the Nazi occupation of parts of Scandinavia when ideas of Nordic supremacy of any description were hard to promote. Jorn’s jaundiced view of faux ‘classicism’ is also to be found in Henrik Pontoppidan’s ironic view of Rome in The Rear-Guard – as both hearth of culture and mausoleum. It does raise a question against Nietzsche’s clear view that ancient Greco-Roman society provided a model for future societies and their ‘Overmen’. Pontoppidan’s caustic portrayal of the ex-pat Scandinavian community in Rome simply adds weight to an implicit critique of the idea that classic cultures can be resurrected. Rather they are the repository of ‘cultured’, ossified posturing.

Henrik Pontoppidan as painter (A Danish literary Cézanne?)

Image from the publisher of the above eBook Lindhardt & Ringhof

What also needs to be said, however, is that within this ironic narration-scape, Pontoppidan’s artistic imagination breathes humanity into all his characters. In this way he is very like Dostoevsky, but he surpasses Dostoevsky in his ability to paint a scene. For example in The Rear-Guard when the newlywed Ursula sits by the window of her Rome apartment. The ironic contrast between this idyllic scene and the rampaging husband who is about to enter the room is perfectly pitched and depicted.

We teeter on the brink once again and the painterly idyll is almost mocking. There is nothing ideological and formulaic about Pontoppidan’s keen sense of irony. It is simply innate to him. Danish Gothic. Look how he weaves the lives of the delicate Ursula of the cosseted upbringing and then her husband, the reckless firebrand, ruffian and anarchist painter, Jørgen Hallager, who is offset by his former protégé, Thorkild Drehling, who breaks with social realism to paint ‘timeless’ lyrical and symbolist works. There are no winners here and, anyway, Pontoppidan believed that modern Danes were incapable of grasping greatness. There weren’t enough Nietzsches and Kierkegaards. No, Pontoppidan was more interested in the struggle to achieve greatness, or at least authenticity. The journey rather than the goal. And in this, he joined Socrates and Kierkegaard one last time.

Danish Gothic – A New Art Form – who knew?

‘A Fortunate Man’ This author’s translation of Lykke Per – Danish Gothic at its best

Whilst the ever excellent Jordy Findanis was my English language editor for A Fortunate Man, my cultural and historical text consultant during the necessarily lengthy translation period that finally produced this huge novel in translation was the Danish critic and author, Flemming Behrendt, who is the most knowledgeable person in the world where the Nobel Prize winning author is concerned. This is made obvious in Behrendt’s massive 2019 ‘Life’ of Pontoppidan Livsrusen, which title – given its double meaning in Danish (irony once again) – I would translate as ‘Seized by Life’. This forensic account of Pontoppidan’s life not only exists as seven hundred plus pages of a large, physical book, it also exists as an extended, searchable digital workbook with links to the extensive Pontoppidan Society website. I had the honour of being invited to the official launch of the physical Livsrusen book, for which I extend belated public thanks both to Flemming and to his publisher ‘Gads Forlag’.

There is an argument for translating an abbreviated version of Livsrusen, but there is an even stronger argument for a book in English that places Pontoppidan in his wider European and world context given the praise Pontoppidan received from the likes of Thomas Mann and, perhaps more significantly still, by the world renowned ‘existential Marxist’ author and critic George Lukács.

In my view, Lukács understood A Fortunate Man far better than most commentators, precisely because he places Danish Gothic – negative, instructive irony- at its heart. (He read the novel in the German translation Hans im Glück.) Look:

“Pontoppidan’s irony lies in the fact that he lets his hero succeed all the time, but shows that a demonic power forces him to regard everything he has gained as worthless and inessential and to throw it away as soon as he has gained it. The curious inner tension of the book is due to the fact that the meaning of this negative demonism is revealed only at the end, when the hero achieves complete resignation, thus giving retrospective immanence of meaning to his whole life.” (v)

Can there be any clearer demonstration of negative reflexive irony (negative demonism) and my theory that it is Pontoppidan himself who is ‘ironizing’ his own subjects so as to explore the possibility of authenticity? With his description of the ironic ‘demonic power’ that guides Per Sidenius (and indeed stalks the pages of this incredible novel), Lukács could be describing the Daimonion that holds Socrates in thrall. The ‘demon’ that so disturbed Nietzsche. And I agree with Lukács that Per Sidenius achieves a profound type of resignation in the end.

Such a positive view of the denouement to A Fortunate Man is not universally shared and it is indeed rare for Pontoppidan to be so immanently resolved in his artistic vision. A sign surely that this was one of his most autobiographical novels. But Lukács goes even further than simple high praise for Pontoppidan and this breathtaking novel. For he clearly states that Pontoppidan – with this Danish Gothic ‘irony-gestalt’ I say – evolved a new form of the novel. It is worth looking at what Lukács says in the original German regarding Pontoppidan’s art-form breakthrough (here I have used the German text from the Pontoppidan Society website):

Durch diese Problemstellung ist eine völlig neue Kompositionsart gegeben: (vi)

You don’t need fluent German to understand that Pontoppidan has achieved ‘eine neue Kompositionsart’ – a new form of composition, and I always felt that I was in new literary territory as I translated A Fortunate Man. To traverse the mind – the labyrinthine sind – of such a great Life-Artist as Pontoppidan over such an expanse of life changing fiction is an extraordinary experience.

Of course, that must mean the actual creator of the novel had a similar but even more potent experience as he brought his creation into being and breathed life into it. We do art because it is not there. We fill the cosmic void of meaninglessness with meaning and in so doing come close to the gods. But just as importantly for our argument, this giant of literary criticism, George Lukács, describes exactly how in A Fortunate Man the hero Per Sidenius achieves complete resignation, thus giving retrospective immanence of meaning to his whole life (I have amended the translation slightly):

“… der Ausgangspunkt, das völlig sichere Gebundensein des Subjekts an das transzendente Wesen, ist zum Endziel, die dämonische Tendenz der Seele, sie von allem, was dieser Apriorität nicht entspricht, völlig abzutrennen, zur wirklichen Tendenz geworden.”

“ … the point of departure; the subject’s completely secure bond with the transcendent essence, becomes the final goal, and the demonic tendency of the soul to divorce itself completely from anything that does not correspond with this a priori condition becomes a real, concrete tendency.” (vii)

The extraordinary, Hungarian ‘existential Marxist’ György Lukács Lukács

Lukács – divined the soul of Henrik Pontoppidan

If, in his personal-political sphere, Lukács overstressed the Marxist collective (at great cost to himself in the end), with the ground-breaking form and vision of A Fortunate Man, Pontoppidan showed him a way that the collective ‘Folk’ ideal could be combined with the liberation of the subjective self. Per found immanence in the end and therefore could embrace not only the cosmic, but his own people. And his eternal soul mate, Jakobe Salomon, showed how that same ‘Folk’ ideal is best nurtured by empathy and attention beyond concerns for the self alone.

That Pontoppidan evolved a new art form via his and his alter-ego Per Sidenius’s brave leap into this modern day legend justifies Lukács’s decision to place him alongside Balzac, Dickens and Gogol in his definitive (in Marxist terms at least) work on the theory of fiction as novel.

A Fortunate Man is a truly monumental, seismic, shattering work and I feel that Pontoppidan’s new art form also resolved Nietzsche’s difficulty in his own attempts to elevate the grand design with an ‘Overman’ but somehow keep ‘Everyman’ foregrounded. In my view, and though it is understated both in the novel and in Pontoppidan’s personal life, A Fortunate Man is a declaration that the divine must be present for subjective freedom to be truly reached. If this is true, he joins with Karen Blixen and Kierkegaard in asserting the religio-ethical as the final stage of personal redemption. Not ‘religion’ as an organised power hierarchy but as a subjective empathetic touchstone of faith that embraces (and forgives if necessary) not just the human lineage but the ‘other’. Forgives oneself also.

We can say, I think, that Pontoppidan – as an ironic, modern, Danish Socrates/Hamlet figure – manages to go beyond both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, whom he would sometimes draw together like the two reins of the Stagecoach Carriage called “self-torture”. The transcendent finally meets the common man in the flux of day to day human activity. But we must bear in mind that, in true Danish Gothic style, with this wry ‘torture’ remark, Pontoppidan is also ironizing his own inauthentic selves and their labyrinthine self torturing. Per Sidenius is the character closest to his heart. A rank and file soldier in the fight for human liberation – after Heine. An ordinary man who is nothing more than a lowly road engineer in the back of beyond, but who carries the whole universe within him, as does every modern soul. The ‘extraordinary revealed as the inner truth of the ordinary’ is A Fortunate Man’s gift to literary posterity. A clear statement that the struggle for selfhood is not only life’s greatest challenge – and one which will often defeat us – but also its greatest gift and reward. Pontoppidan and A Fortunate Man knock Karl Ove Knausgaard clean out of the existential park.

Postscript – Death – The Final Leap (or is it?)
For our purposes in this brief Postscript, the key point to bear in mind with regard to the monograph on ancient Greek attitudes to death (shown below) is that its author – the eminent philologist and classics expert, J L Heiberg – places Socrates, Kierkegaard and Henrik Pontoppidan together – in the context of their defining a life well lived as being a task that must be worked for. Resolution and satisfaction comes from this achievement and it always involves an element of difficulty. Life is not about the final destination but the journey – the struggle and what was learned from it – and passed on, as the august trio above might put it. The Danish word slægten – lineage or ancestry is key here, looking both backward reflectively and forward to what is to come. I always imagine the word pointing back like a divining rod and the word slægt does have the lineage of pointing with a stick. Observe now Henrik Pontoppidan’s deathbed ‘Bible’:

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

It is true that Pontoppidan is only cited once in Heiberg’s work, but the reference is no less important for that. It comes on the very last page of the monograph and Pontoppidan is praised as having created a “profound legend” based on the Aristotelian idea that people thrive best in times of adversity and they become ‘friends of God’.

The ‘profound’ legend to which Heiberg refers comes in Pontoppidan’s fin de siècle collection of tales – Krøniker (Chronicles) and is the first (ironic) tale in the book – Menneskenes Børn – (Children of the Human Race).

Citing Pontoppidan’s tale, J L Heiberg describes how St Peter and God visit an island where the people are found to be suffering greatly from pestilence and hunger. They cry out to God for salvation. St Peter begs a reluctant God to intervene and in the end God relents and the island soon becomes a land of milk and honey. But the church is now empty.

Krøniker (Chronicles 1890/1899/1922) –
A polished Danish Gothic mirror
to the hypocrisy of the time

This was not the first time that Pontoppidan had been praised as being “profound” and in fact it was in relation to the exact same St Peter ‘legend’, but the praise twenty five years earlier came from Georg Brandes’s brother, Edvard Brandes, with whom Pontoppidan had a sometimes uneasy relationship. Praise from the stellar J L Heiberg was of a different and prized order altogether.

Indeed Pontoppidan wrote to Heiberg in October 1915 after Heiberg had sent the Festschrift to him, expressing particular pleasure at the reference to him on the last page. Professor Heiberg and Pontoppidan were in occasional correspondence and had been members of a ‘Greek Society’, which never gained any momentum as an ‘influencer’. We need to bear in mind in all this that J L Heiberg was a sort of hermeneutical superstar of his age. His fame went far beyond Scandinavian shores, not least because of his 1906 work in deciphering an Archimedes text (i.e. calculations) found as a palimpsest and stored in Istanbul. He did this, we note, by the naked eye and without the technology used today.

Reading Heiberg’s ‘Life and Death’, one gets the feeling that Heiberg sees and feels an affinity between Pontoppidan and the poet Hesiod, whom we might call the first chronicler of ‘ordinary people’ and their lives.

Hesiod was very much animated by injustice and Heiberg accepts what we might call the peasant Amlode (Hamlet) theory of there being a natural form of justice in life and that the unjust would suffer (if not immediately then eventually, down the line) was widespread. One senses that Hesiod and Pontoppidan were at one on this point also. There will always be repercussions for an evil done.

Another ancient writer – and warrior/statesmen – mentioned by Heiberg is the wise, democratic, but lusty also, Solon of Athens, whom Heiberg quotes memorably from a text in his old age as having said – “of course I want money but unearned money I have no wish to possess.” No wonder Heiberg’s book was so close to Pontoppidan’s heart in his final years. Life lived as a struggle well fought, and with honour and pride, brings a good death, which leads us finally back to Socrates and Kierkegaard.

It is not too much to state that with Heiberg’s book as his deathbed Bible, Pontoppidan took Socrates and Kierkegaard to the grave with him. J L Heiberg was centrally involved with the publication of the first collected works of Kierkegaard in the early 1900s and with his knowledge of Latin and Greek was particularly concerned with references to the Ancient Greeks in general and Socrates in particular in Kierkegaard’s works.

The first collected works of Kierkegaard, published in the early 1900s
with J L Heiberg as one of the editors

There are numerous references to Socrates and Kierkegaard in Heiberg’s 1915 monograph and his interest in instructive negative irony and its path to reflexive individualism is clear. Kierkegaard, he notes, changed his mind and – as we have seen – celebrated Socrates’s birthing of modern human mankind as consciously subjective and self reflecting individuals – the very thing for which Nietzsche criticised Socrates, especially in Götzen-Dämmerung (Twilight of the Idols). Essentially Nietzsche seemed to want to house the human soul in a heightened collective consciousness that would exist within a New Republic that would buttress culture against the essential meaningless of life, but Socrates, having seduced Plato according to Nietzsche, rooted the psyche in each individual and demanded, via ironic dialectical thinking, that people should: know thyself!

Socrates was the People’s Hamlet of his day who scythed his way through all cant and brought the Upper Class House crashing down. When Plato should have built a new House instead! came Nietzsche’s cry. One wonders how far back Nietzsche had to go to find his holistic, cultural model of that House of the Arts and Letters and Great Tragedy he so craved.

Heiberg spends some time discussing this Ancient Greek ‘psyche-shift’ to subjectivity in human consciousness and little wonder given that he was so involved with the three key Kierkegaard texts that examine Socrates in depth. Pontoppidan cannot have failed to note the singular presence of Kierkegaard in his deathbed Bible. Or we can put it another way and ask which philosophical tradition did Pontoppidan actually most reflect in his life and work and the answer is undoubtedly Socrates, not Nietzsche or Kierkegaard.

Like Socrates, Pontoppidan proclaimed that he knew nothing (was unlearned). He did so in fact to that same Professor J L Heiberg in 1917. And like Socrates, it was the deep irony in Pontoppidan’s work that schooled society, rather than any stated philosophical or political programme; his sometimes overt patriotism notwithstanding.

What truly lies behind the Pontoppidan mask?

A Fortunate Man? Yes – a full life, lived well and with great honour

Where, however, I feel all Pontoppidan’s Socratic, Nietzschean and Kierkegaardian strands come together is in Heiberg’s salute to those who held ‘the higher view’ (my paraphrase). He quotes Plutarch for example agreeing with the Pessimists that life offers scant reward and a dubious fate, but Plutarch still asserts that we are masters over the best things in life, which no power can take from any one of us: noble thoughts, studying, ethical reflections. A true philosopher, Plutarch says, cannot be unhappy, as every day is a celebration. Karen Blixen’s Babette effectively said the same with regard to artists – an artist will never be poor.

It is in this profound sense that Pontoppidan lived and died as a Socrates of his times and I cannot read this stirring passage below and its salute to Socrates from Heiberg without being greatly moved, not least as I do so in the keen awareness that blessed Henrik read these same lines as his earthly light dimmed:

My translation:
“(It is every) person’s life mission to become self-aware as to her/his role in existence 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 …”

These profound lines heralding the sovereign independence of each person and their conscience could just as easily have been written by Kierkegaard, as Heiberg and – no doubt, Pontoppidan – were well aware, instead of being invoked by JL Heiberg from Socrates as portrayed in Plato’s Crito.

The key point, however, is that the lines above could also just as easily have come from Per Sidenius’s deathbed diary.

Henrik Pontoppidan as Educator.

For what does it mean to be – and to want to be – a sovereign individual? It is to have – and to want to have – a conscience.


i – George Lukács, ‘The Foundering of form against life – Søren Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen’, Soul and Form, (Columbia University Press, 2010, p 53).
ii – Johnny Christensen, ‘Nietzsches Sokrates’, Fra filologens værksted, (Museum Tusculanum Press, 2020, p91).
iii – Ibid, p 153.
iv – Howland, The Explosive Maieutics of Kierkegaards ‘Either/Or’. The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Sept. 2017), pp. 107-135
v – George Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, (Merlin Press, London, – first published, 1971-, 2006, p 111).
vi – Ibid, p 111
vii – Ibid, p 110

Paul Larkin
Dún na nGall
An Nollaig/Christmas 2021

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

The Irish freedom questions at the heart of my novel ‘Éilis from the Flats’

The Irish freedom questions at the heart of my novel 

Éilis from the Flats                               

(‘Éilis from the Flats’ is an existential and psychological thriller.

It is volume one of ‘The Good Friday Sting’ hexalogy)

‘Éilis from the Flats’ is the opposite of a right-wing Catholic tract

The ancient idea of personal guilt (in ancient times ‘fate’), and therefore ‘sin’, has nothing to do with dark thoughts about sex, or what an inherently bad person you are. The concept of guilt is strongly tied to our basic urge to be selfish and turn our backs on ‘the Other’ … and then a counter, vertiginous, urge to go beyond ourselves … to reach out. We might call it the ‘vertigo syndrome’.

          Of course, in the very act of that reaching out beyond yourself, you are not just embracing the Other, you are embracing existence itself with love, and getting love back. This tug of war between Bad and Good. The ancient human drama, which all of us write in our hearts, about trying to be good and failing, and then trying better, or giving up, is at the heart of ‘Éilis from the Flats’ and the ‘Good Friday Sting’ hexalogy (six novels). Then there is the question of how powerful forces can help or hinder that journey to the Good. How do we get the ‘Power’ to help us in our journeys and what types of power are available to us? I don’t have any ready answers to these questions, but I watch and write as my characters struggle toward some kind of answer. Some kind of redemption. For redemption there must be, if we are to have community. The opposite of selfishness.

‘Éilis’ – A tale of poverty. And a tale of resistance to poverty –

both economic and spiritual


An interesting thing happens in the otherwise excellent Irish Times review of my novel Éilis from the Flats late last year. The reviewer quite rightly states that in the novel a Catholic priest approaches the young Éilis’s bedroom at night and sprinkles her door with holy water. The priest, we are told, “lingers” outside her bedroom. This is the reviewer’s interpretation, who also asks why the close relationship between Éilis and the priest is portrayed as being unproblematic.

Éilis from the Flats, clearly features a real child abuser as a main character, but it is not this priest. Moreover, the reviewer doesn’t tell readers that Éilis is not alone back there in that bedroom. In fact, there is a young man in there with her. Another important factor with regard to this priest, Father McCartan, is that he has broken with the Catholic Church hierarchy, partly over the child abuse scandal, and is effectively married and in a long-term loving relationship with his housekeeper, Mrs O’ Grady. This is made clear fairly early in the novel and is called ‘nuance’.

Once the above points are foregrounded in the ‘holy water’ scene described above, it takes on an entirely different connotation to the dubious and ‘lingering’ kind suggested in the Irish Times review. The reviewer also states that the devout Catholicism of some of the characters belongs to an Ireland of 30 or 40 years ago. But not a single character in the novel is described as being a devout Catholic, or expresses such a position; not even the priest for the reasons already explained. So where did the reviewer get this impression? It is of course the hair trigger religious mote in the reviewer’s own eye. It seems to me that almost the whole of the Irish Commentariat has this same spontaneous anti-spiritual tick.

This blind spot aside, it should be stressed that, the Irish Times review is written with deep seriousness and acknowledges my writing skills and my ambition in the style and structure of the novel; a style and approach that has taken some of my well established group of readers somewhat by surprise. That is another reason for writing this backgrounder essay, now that sales of Éilis from the Flats have begun to take off.

People are continually at a crossroads. Life is not a ‘one off’ chance.

Image @ Phil Kelly

Part of the creative urge that has driven me to write Éilis from the Flats, and the Good Friday Sting series as a whole, comes from characters who feel real to me. They began calling to me long before I began writing them. Or are they writing me? These characters are asking questions about, amongst other things, what will happen to spirituality now that the authority of the Church hierarchy has, thankfully, collapsed. Or, say, how will we mark the change of seasons and the rites of passage of our children in this new time? How will we gather at weekends and other special days to acknowledge each other, remember our dead and ponder life’s mysteries? How will we in Ireland have wakes and bury people? These questions must not be left to right wing xenophobes who would drag us back to a Catholic Caliphate.

My characters are real live people and. just as with people outside of their pages, some of them don’t give a damn, or are even hostile, to thoughts of faith. Any sort of faith. Some of them even actively choose Evil, or at least the road to the Bad. However, most people would agree, I think, that humankind has an urge to the Good and to worship. Even that great hero of the anti-God squad, Friederich Nietzsche – the ‘Squad’ may be surprised to hear – wanted us to understand that human beings are an ‘animal’ that wishes to worship and that we need something to venerate in the absence of God.*

What then are we going to worship? Money? Property? Rich celebrities? Or Love? Nietzsche Plot spoiler here – Friedrich Nietzsche called for love, too. Or at least a ‘yea-saying’ to life and collective empathy. One of my favourite quotes from all of Nietzsche is: Das ‘Himmelreich’ ist ein Zustand des Herzens – Heaven is in the heart, (in my translation)**. And what is this metaphorical beating heart, only another word for Love? A Love that binds all people and all things in the Universe as the positive force that seeks to drag us away from personal destruction (a deadening conformity and loss of personal dignity and morals). If heaven is indeed in our hearts, then we are more Angel than animal.

The way things are at the moment, belief in Love (God if you like) is ridiculed, but belief in Evil remains intact. None of those who killed God have laid a finger on the Devil. Though you wouldn’t know it if you just listened to some of his English language commentators, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw this problem and gave us an answer. This true Geist somehow moves through The Good Friday Sting.

Our need to come together and speak – image @Phil Kelly

Part of the need that Irish people feel to still attend Mass, despite everything, is linguistic. There is a basic human urge in people to come together and speak poetry and verbally mark our presence and community. This urge is as ancient as language itself. The rhythm and cadence, the rise and fall of sacred verse is rooted in an ancient verbal culture. What kind of Irish freedom is it to be bereft of these primordial things? This is especially the case with the oldest indigenous language in Ireland, An Ghaeilge – the Irish language – which is in crisis. The cultural elite and state system in Ireland have presided over the collapse of a precious linguistic treasure. It is also an environmental treasure. The characters in Éilis from the Flats, some of them anyway, struggle in this maelstrom to keep the language in their hearts in the face of this linguistic and environmental disaster and the worldwide tsunami of globally warming bad English.

What is Irish freedom without its language and the Gaeltacht areas in which Irish is spoken as a first language? In one scene, ‘our Éilis’ is in an ambulance after suffering some sort of fit and in her delirium speaks only Irish, the paramedic asks her to stop messing about and speak ‘the Queen’s’ (a reference to the English language). Can anyone say that this is an unlikely scene? Consciously and unconsciously, the characters push at this question of the freedom, or unfreedom, of speaking Irish in Ireland. There are also characters who hate the Irish language, or think it’s Polish. The ambulance scene is not anything that was planned by me. It came to me as a real event, unbidden.

In the Skin of a Lion, partly social protest

and partly a ‘challenged’ individual’s cry for community


I am not the first author to be inspired by Michael Ondaatje’s superb novel In the Skin of a Lion, which leaves its readers with the feel of moving through a shifting dreamscape, but then plunges us into the hammer of social realism, workplace death and political struggle. However, I am certainly one of the few who has been a merchant seaman and can read the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in his original language. It is impossible to describe exactly how these influences impact upon your own work as an author, but I was pleased that the Irish Times reviewer remarked on the ambitious nature of Éilis from the Flats. There is something there about having a range of competing voices and that some of these voices should come from the realm of the dispossessed. Dostoevsky would approve. It struck me forcefully that the hero of In the Skin of a Lion – Patrick Lewis might be described as having mental health issues, because of his continued estrangement from society. A female character then began to talk to me about her estrangement and it seemed to me that these people are prophets, or at least sounding bells that ring the nature of our times.

This was the way that Éilis herself was born, I think, and she explodes into my consciousness in unpredictable ways, just as much as she does in the novel. I am aware that a number of the thousands of people who read my definitive book on collusion between the British state and unionist death squads, A Very British Jihad, were initially ambushed by the shifting narrative style of Éilis from the Flats. There are monologues, heightened language, jump cuts and some characters, or the narrator, address readers directly. Their names, meanwhile are often repeated, almost in a type of mantra. I suspect that this comes from this idea, or rather stereotype, of madness and how we deal with difficult or allegedly weird people, but who have a message, if only we would listen.

This set of narrative devices was not and is not deliberately planned by me, but they jump to me very readily as I compose fiction. To try and set down a series of dreams that continually occur to me in some sort of coherent but still fantastic and challenging way. Challenging to myself as the author and challenging for the novel’s readers also. Gradually, my readership has swung round to what I am doing with ‘Éilis’. I am also aware, because of my international influences and interests that news from abroad infuses my writing. It is by no means unusual for working class people to read Dostoevsky and Søren Kierkegaard but it is extremely rare to see them in the pages of fiction or drama. As with Nietzsche, they are crucially important figures where existentialism and human dignity are concerned and I am grateful to Danish academics Pia Søltoft and Mette Blok for clarifying my own thoughts on the question of ethics and the moral life, where Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, respectively. are concerned. Hopefully I can help bring more of their exciting research into the English speaking world. There is no doubt, this discourse has raised the polemical bar in this Good Friday Sting series.


The personal is intensely private, but also political and communal –

the human riddle – image @Phil Kelly


What we begin with in our lives is, by definition, our own personal story and how we ‘write’ that personal story as we live through our lives. As a person who was reared in a slum, I can tell you that poor people have to struggle ten times harder to imagine life as an art form. I mean that they could ever imagine they are creating their lives day by day as artists. The separation between ‘art’ and working class people is a chasm. The separation between English language philosophers and ‘ordinary’ people, is just as daunting and unacceptable.

At the same time, good philosophers, or at least the philosophers, writers and poets who speak powerfully to me, continually call on us to live our lives as artists. Recently, the Guardian newspaper carried an interview with the UK/Trinidadian poet, Roger Robinson, who makes clear that the hardest thing of all for the dispossessed to overcome is low self-esteem and bravely declare to themselves that they have an artistic mission. “Commit to your identity as an artist,” Robinson concludes. The problem is that posh people and a willing media have removed art from life and turned it into a commodity, a very expensive commodity at that.

But all humans can do metaphor. How astonishing is that? Once you begin moving those metaphors that are precious to you, you begin to move out, to reach out, and embrace existence. This has nothing whatsoever to do with a 10 billion euro painting in the Louvre Museum, but everything to do with art. Once you are existing and conversing within your vocation, you are living life as art. Nietzsche said you must take power (of yourself), not only so as to live as an artist but also – endlich für Alles – in the end to help everybody else.*** Also, crucially, that there are teachers along the way to whom we must listen. Step forward then Hildegard of Bingen, Rosa Luxembourg and Elizabeth Girlie Flynn, to name but three. It’s a very scary place though, because you have to make a leap of faith. Did I mention that word faith again?

The cover of the author’s book on Britain’s Dirty War in Ireland

                                        – A Very British Jihad (out of print)

Finally, my sensibilities, the characters in these novels, and the settings in which their lives unfold, cannot be told without eventually embracing the North of Ireland, which suffered the indignity, not to say grave injustice, of being forcibly partitioned when the rest of the country won a somewhat rough and ready independence from British rule in 1922. The very fact that the National television station in the Hexalogy – Empire Television – shapes its whole raison d’être around a back-turning to the North brings those six estranged counties – now in the transition of the Peace Process – centre stage. The young County Galway journalist James Tierney discovers certain things about the way the war in the North has corrupted journalism and public life right across Ireland and his broad trajectory, I feel, is to investigate how that happened. The fact that Tierney does this in the maelstrom of his own personal and spiritual journey and that of the other characters is probably the biggest difference between The Good Friday Sting and my book about Ireland’s Dirty War, A Very British Jihad.

With a current affairs book, the author can be forensic and prescriptive, can state what happened, what should have happened and ways to improve things. With fiction, however, there is no such safety net. The broad sweep of the narrative aside – and the necessary correction of a clearly erroneous perception on the part of some with regard to the underlying ethos of The Good Friday Sting – we will have to discover together what these characters are going to do and how they will react to pressure situations and each other.

I believe I have found my signature way of writing fiction. It may not appeal to everyone but every literary author has to find a way of writing that suits him or her. It is a style and set of scenarios that are as exciting as they are unpredictable. Welcome to this odyssey.


Paul Larkin


Co. Dún na nGall


(Any reader who wants a signed copy of Éilis from the Flats is welcome to contact this author personally, as my publisher Dalkey Archive Press kindly gave me most of the remaining stock due to the Covid-19 pandemic and my publicity events being cancelled. Contact: paul.offworld@gmail.com with your delivery details and the number of copies required.)



* Die fröhliche Wissenschaft – The Joyful Wisdom, Friedrich Nietzsche

** Der Antichrist – The Anti—Christ, , Friedrich Nietzsche

*** Schopenhauer als Erzieher – Schopenhauer as Educator, Friedrich Nietzsche


NB I am extremely grateful to the late Phil Kelly for giving me permission many years ago to occasionally use his work in my promotional work. Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam – RIP

Why all the things you have been told about Kierkegaard are wrong

Celebrating Søren Kierkegaard’s birthday – 5th of May, 1813


For a change I’m simply going to shoot from the hip, as that wonderful North American saying has it, and tell you some things about Denmark’s only world renowned thinker without any detailed referencing. Søren Kierkegaard preferred to be called a thinker, rather than a philosopher. One reason for that is that he described the philosophers of his age as having accomplished the perverse miracle of turning wine into water. He also suggested that when a city was getting ready for a hostile invasion, philosophers should rush up and down the street, just like Diogenes did when the ancient Greek city of Corinth prepared for siege. When Corinthians – yes they were and are a thing – asked Diogenes why he was rolling his tub up and down the street, he replied that he wanted to look busy like everybody else. With these quotes alone, we can see that Kierkegaard’s thinking and writing was not only incredibly perceptive but also very funny. Where did Kierkegaard get this rep that he was exclusively doom and gloom? He drank wine to beat the bands and was often the life and soul of the Danish coffee and pastry shop – the Konditorier  – and high society soirees to boot.


Of course Kierkegaard wrote about depression, and he was by his own nature depressive, but that was not his view of human nature as a whole and he described depression as a shout for freedom. And do you see this question of sin? According to some, Kierkegaard was no fun at all and ruled out all sorts of sexual fleshliness as being sinful. Quite the reverse is the case. Kierkegaard actually said that sensuality in love was vital for its full expression. The sin came in selfishness. That is, that you fell in love with someone else but failed to then embrace the world because of the joys of that love. Kierkegaard’s other main description of sin – called a category – was untruth. That is, that you were living a lie by not being your true self. You were split. We all know this to be true and we all know that it is our conscience that tells us this.

Below, I publish a poem I wrote about Kierkegaard in response to one of Ireland’s best living poets, Harry Clifton, who asks – in his train journey poem Søren Kierkegaard – what Kierkegaard would know of joy. (Night Train through the Brenner collection).


South With Kierkegaard

(For Harry Clifton)


I took you south with me Søren Kierkegaard

a two day train ride to Florence from Copenhagen

your pulp fiction parables impelling wheels, turning pages

Diary of a Seducer Don Juan –  the Either/Or twin track dialectic

hurtling through the Nordic psyche to the core of existence


Where did this myth arise that you are just a cold fish

Doctor Dread wallowing eternally in fear and trembling?

The Dane opposite me professes never to have read you

but describes your Diogenes rolling his tub up and down the street

in frantic efforts to look busy as Corinth prepared for war


We left on a day of cormorant mist, quiet ice and steaming coffee

no cardboard Danish for you – a connoisseur of Konditorier

the Fred Astaire of coffee shops, an intellectual athlete of  gustation

Pukkelrygget – hunchback , trousers too short for your palate and genius,

gifts from the gods to counterweight the callipers of your father’s curse


Blond men in rough clogs, red doors  in village hamlets

a heron on the wing

Scandinavia slipping intelligently by

a cornucopia of original erudition

your  passionate intuition through windows looking outwards looking in

I see that Kierkegaard must not be read but embraced

like the blue tint of low fjords emerging to frame the wanderlust sky

the Continental drift in your style


In the depths of Germany a flayed, ravished woman flashes by,

a nun, ghastly white and roused by loving hatred

Donna Elvira in pursuit of Don Juan

then your stoic Antigone who rejoices in being called to bear witness

your dramatis personae – stations of the cross flashing up

in a torrent of words, the train swaying again, again, again, again


So much of what you say has come true, Kierkegaard

the collapse of the church under the scandal of its own hubris

pre-disproving Freud by showing that spiritual angst not sex

is our zeitgeist – the desperate search for the self in a world

where nothingness is a fine art


When the German stations stopped  I hopped off

to hear your beloved Mozart


Finally in the soft heat and flowers of Florence

I recalled Regine Olsen

your whole life’s work a eulogy to a woman and the ideal of love

Not a philosopher but a Digter – Poet, Author and Thinker.

For you the mystery of the divine was either absurd or a leap of faith

refusing the host and platitudes from a starched priest’s breath

you died well and honourably

joyously writing for eternity




Paul Larkin