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: 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

Kierkegaard’s vision of heaven

‘For, what is it to be, and to want to be, a sovereign individual?’ – Søren Kierkegaard

This is not about whether you believe in God, or are a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Christian. It is primarily about thinking outside the box of human time – something we can all do instinctively. We are benders and shapers of time. In his writings, Søren Kierkegaard often described what we call heaven, or paradise, as ‘eternity’ – evighed in the Danish – and in one of his most profound and stirring passages, he painted a vision of that eternity. The place we have always imagined that is beyond time. A place where the sick are healed and all truth is astonishingly revealed as resting in the embrace of pure love. The heartbeat of all infinity. of all matter beyond time.

Say you are in a dentist’s chair and are one of those unfortunates who dreads such a scenario, or it might be that you sit in a plane and have a terrible fear of flying. Each second before the anaesthetic, sleeping pill or other tranquiliser takes effect feels like an eternity. Time stretches and the scientific fact of each exactly spaced second becomes meaningless. A second can become a century in the flux of human emotion.

Or more attractively, consider how bendy human time becomes for lovers approaching their first kiss, The pregnancy of that coming moment and the drag of anticipation makes a mockery of time. It can suddenly seem to run backwards as the moment nears, then get ahead of itself in the throes of ardour and passion. It is time as we dream it, rather than counting it.

In Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard writes brilliantly on the eternal that lies at the heart of that kiss: “eternity’s aura emblazons this moment”. Don’t bother asking the lovers at what point in time this magic occurred for they will not hear your voice … “but ask out in the wide world in what century this happened, what land, what time of day? Nobody will give an answer, because it is an eternal image.” * Time only enslaves humankind if we let it. We are makers of our own miracles if have enough astonishment left to see and feel them.

Our notion of time in other words is elastic and subjective. If this is the case, what then of the moment of human death?

Roadside warning of a wake in progress -a very common sight in Ireland

In the Irish tradition of the wake – still very strong in our country – the dead person undergoes a passage of time and is ‘waked’ or assisted and accompanied to the other side of time. The passage to the realm of beyond time.

In the Irish language (Gaeilge) one word for death often used at wakes, and in the reporting of a death, is Slí na Firinne – the path of truth. We say that the departing soul is embarked upon the path of truth, or we might say the path of revelation, or full understanding. Complete fulfilment. It is this idea of the passage from time to beyond time that Kierkegaard explores in a remarkable, yet little noted section of, as above, Stages on Life’s Way.

The context for Kierkegaard’s vision of heaven, in this instance, is the question he continually asks himself: will he once again see his beloved Regine Olsen – who married another after he jilted her – in that same beyond time? The second part of Stages on Life’s Way – Guilty Not Guilty is an extended meditation on Kierkegaard’s temporal and eternal relations with her.

Regine Olsen – Kierkegaard’s one and only love

Kierkegaard’s vision of heaven:

Where then will we meet again? In eternity. Time enough then for reconciliation …And if eternity heals all sickness, gives the deaf their hearing, the blind their vision and the lamed their bodily beauty, it will also heal me. And what is my sickness? Depression. And from where does this sickness come? My powers of imagination and the impulsion of the possible. My obsession with these also. But the eternal removes the possible. And wasn’t my depression heavy enough in human time; so much that I not only suffered desperately with it but also felt huge guilt? The lamed must only suffer the pain of being disabled; how terrible it would be if being lame also inflicted great twists of guilt upon them!

Therefore Oh God in heaven – when my time is up, let my last breath be for You and my Soul’s utter fulfilment. But the one prior to that be for her. Or let me for the first time in an age be once more united with her, but for all eternity in that final breath.*

Just like a kiss. A final breath can last for all eternity. In this lies the secret of the Resurrection.

Beannachtaí na Cásca/Easter Greetings from Ireland.


Paul Larkin, Carraic, Donegal

Easter 2020


*The translations from Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way are my own interpretations and represent, I believe, some modest pointers to a different way of translating and interpreting Kierkegaard in English.


The Irish Times takes me and my novel ‘Éilis from the flats’ seriously – well done.


In 1977, Padraic Fiacc – perhaps the greatest urban poet ever to come out of Belfast in our modern times, wrote a remarkable poem called ‘An attempt on his life’ *. Fiacc didn’t just write about the Irish war. For example, he was a great poet of myth, and myth busting also, but he is very much a ‘Troubles’ poet. ‘An attempt on his life’ embraces the savage irony of being a subject of close up state brutality. The almost loving attention of a torturer being preferred to the “Hidebound silences of the others/So slyly passing by with their noses/High up in the cleaner air.”

Of course, I am making no analogy between a torturer and the Irish Times, though the ridiculous ‘Property Section’ can sometimes have that momentary affect on me. Rather, I am highlighting the savage importance for artists of not being ignored. This is especially true of writers who do not mix in literary circles and – like me – literally and metaphorically live and create at the margins of Irish life. Margins, though, can be at the centre of things, or become the centre of things, and I believe that my novel ‘Éilis from the flats’ sounds the depths of the marginalised and gives them new life and hope. Places them at the centre. Or at least, some kind of point where they are anointed with dignity. The Irish Times has accepted the validity of my creation and my artistic vision by choosing to study it in depth. That is a precious gift in the process of discourse that all artists seek.

I will make no comment on the opinions expressed by the reviewer, Joanne Hayden. For that is a sacred contract between the reviewer and the readers who take ‘Éilis from the flats’ into their hands and all parties to that profound literary and social contract must make their own minds up and draw their own conclusions. I was inspired to place a group of characters and life experiences into a particular environment and range of motivations and explore where that would take me. They will take to my stage again as actors in a hexalogy of novels – six books. It is for readers themselves to judge whether I have succeeded artistically; whether I have created a valuable vision from what was not there before – the miracle of art.

For her part, the reviewer does exactly what literary critics are supposed to do. My literary approach is thoroughly assessed and pointers to an underlying style, or set of styles in my case, are analysed; is the narrator omniscient and is he or she the voice of the author; is there one central character, or more than one; are the characters and their worlds believable; can the author craft and plot this story successfully and what is the underlying ‘message’. This latter point provides the opening lines of Joanne Hayden’s review, which can be read here (subscription only I’m afraid):

There will be a number of launch parties Ireland for ‘Éilis from the flats’ and I will give notice of these at a later date.




Paul Larkin

Carraic, Dún na nGall


* See for ex ‘An attempt on his life’ – Semper Vacare collection, Padraic Fiacc, Lagan Press, 1999

How I was vanished from my own book

(As we prepare to celebrate the UN’s International Translation Day on September 30th, this article on the – still prevailing – abysmal treatment of literary translators has been sent to three national representatives at the UN: Geraldine Byrne Nason (Ireland); Martin Bille Hermann (Denmark) and Karel van Oosterom (Netherlands). All three countries are relevant to my story and that of other translators.)

How I was vanished from my own book

What I have to say below has nothing to do with my word against somebody else’s. Every important statement that I make is supported by incontrovertible evidence.

If your name is on the front of a book as an author, not only does literary and publishing convention sate that you are the author of that book, the buying public believes the same. This is so obvious that it should not need spelling out, should it?

Here is the book in question:

The above very well produced book – ‘Fraternité Avant Tout – containing my translations of world renowned Danish painter Asger Jorn’s essays on art and architecture was published in 2011 by ‘010, Rotterdam’. As is clear, my name and that of my co-author Ruth Baumeister are on the front of the book. The same goes for the inside cover page:


That red mark you see on Le Corbusier’s open hand sculpture in the two-sheet cover page is the designer’s mark up (in Dutch), in readiness for the actual printing of the book. It tells the printer that the image is to be free standing. Some readers will be aware that ‘Le Corb’ designed this hand to express: “the hand to give and the hand to take; peace and prosperity, and the unity of mankind.” It is a fitting symbol for the beginning of a book about Fraternité. The socialist Asger Jorn would have approved, despite his subsequent fall out with Le Corbusier.

The reason why I have a mark-up copy of our book is that I was the one who proofed and corrected the whole book, except for the introduction which I was never shown and never saw until I got a physical copy of the book in May 2011. We shall return to the question of the book’s ‘missing’ introduction shortly.

Thus, dear readers, it is clear that I was co-author of the book ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’ and we have seen just a small bit of the compelling evidence for my intimate involvement with it. This involvement represents the guts of five years of my life. But to remove any remaining doubt on the question of my co-authorship of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’ let us look at the publisher’s 2010/2011 catalogue where our book features prominently, as you would expect:

It may be difficult for some readers to see, but the writing in red below the book’s title names Paul Larkin alongside Ruth Baumeister as the ‘editors’ of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’. Let us have a look at this in close up:


I was perfectly happy, and am still happy, to be described as translator of the book, but my broader editorial role is clear and was important. The editorial role of translators is often ignored or misunderstood. There was also a laborious element to that editorial work because the book features scores of graphic images and captions, which I copied – one by one – from the original essays and pasted into caption documents, so as to make our translated essays as much of a mirror image of the originals as possible. Here is just one page from our book, in this case my/Jorn’s essay – ‘Yin/Yang- The dialectical materialist philosophy of life.

Snake decoration – Swedish Bronze Age rock carving

I estimate that I spent at least six months on the captions alone. Another important aspect of the above publisher’s catalogue is that it mentions a jointly written introduction by the editors.

Before we come to the huge turn in this story – which you all feel looming – let me stress that my co-author Ruth Baumeister, to whom I bear no personal ill-will and who is now an internationally known academic, also did a huge amount of work on our book and, within her own fields of expertise as an art historian and architect at least, she is extremely adept.

It’s also important to stress that I regard, and will always regard, Ruth Baumeister as the co-author of a very fine book we created together about and ‘of’ Asger Jorn.

Though she completed her 2009 PhD on Asger Jorn in the Netherlands, at Delft University, she is now a professor at Aarhus School of Architecture in Jutland, Denmark. Needless to say our book helped her career as a Jorn expert and raised her academic esteem generally. The book should also, and equally, have given your author a much higher profile in Jorn studies. But didn’t.

Professor Baumeister wrote to me on the 2nd April 2010 in order to get our lines right about our joint authorship and our joint introduction. This is what she said:

(Please bear in mind that English is not her first language)

“Since for quite some time we are talking about ‘our’ book, I was assuming that we co-author also the intro. The other day, in an e-mail, you were talking about a “short translator’s introduction”. My understanding was that in terms of translation, your part is 80% and mine is 20% and in terms of the intro, the other way around and this would finally make “our” book, please correct me if I am wrong. ……There is no immediate hurry, I just wanted to make it clear so that we do not suffer from misunderstandings as we go on the way.”

I was happy with this; not least because Ruth Baumeister wanted to make sure there would be no misunderstandings in the future about our co-authorship. In terms of our joint introduction, I simply wanted to make some references to Asger Jorn’s passionate interest in Nordic myth and identity, and also his interest in Kierkegaard and what we might call artistic spirituality. I submitted the galley proofs early in 2011 and the book was sent to the printer. I then looked forward to seeing the printed version of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’ in early April 2011.

But I then got a mail from Ruth Baumeister on the 22nd of February 2011 telling me that my part of our introduction had not been included in the finished book:

I just delivered the intro myself and looking back at how it went now, I must admit that it was pretty naive on my end to ask you to do this together. And yet, I did so but unfortunately did not keep my promise for this one and I want to apologise to you for it. I am sorry for this and it was certainly not the correct procedure how I did it.

Hope you will survive this mail.

Needless to say I took a deep breath. But then decided not to make a big issue about the introduction. Overall, I was still very pleased with the book, as was the Danish Arts Council, which had partially funded our book. It was, however, an omen which in hindsight I should have noted. For if a big deep breath was required by me over my precious Fraternité book in 2011, I have never recovered from what happened next, in 2016.

It wasn’t until 2016 that I learned that, in 2014, my co-author had published a commercial version of her 2009 PhD and that this contained thousands of words from my translations in our Fraternité book and thousands more again in paraphrasing. I wasn’t told about this book prior to publication and my permission was not sought for the use of my translations. Nor was I credited as co-author of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’. Furthermore, I was not paid for the extensive use of my work. I am not even thanked in the book. I am simply vanished.

Is this really the way the publishing of University PhDs works? I asked my astounded self.

It so happened that I knew a lot about Ruth Baumeister’s 2009 PhD from Delft University, because I had happily given Prof. Baumeister, and thereby Delft University’s Urban Architecture department, free use of two of my essay translations. One from Danish and one from Swedish. These were included in full in Ruth Baumeister’s 2009 PhD.

In that same 2009 PhD, which is in German, my co-author praises me to the heavens and tells the world that we are working together on a coming anthology of Asger Jorn’s essays

“(Note 76) Letztere sind Teil der Anthologie von Jorns Texten zur Architektur in englischer Übersetzung, die ich gegenwärtig zusammen mit Paul Larkin erarbeite.”


“This latter forms part of an anthology of Jorn’s essays on architecture in English translation on which I’m presently working in collaboration with Paul Larkin.”


Yes we wrote a book together. That ‘anthology’, that book, is the book that came to be called ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’.

Now look at this picture of my translation of Asger Jorn’s essay ‘Dreams and Reality’ as it appears in our 2011 book ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’:

The above essay is quoted (several times) in my co-author’s 2014 book, but look at the footnote reference for the quote:

Jorn, Dreams and Reality, part 1 (1948), in Baumeister (ed). Fraternité Avant Tout.

As is immediately obvious, my name is no longer there.

It’s worth reproducing the text, my text, to which this footnote in the 2014 book refers, not just for its beauty, but precisely because your author translated it from the original Danish:

“When le Corbusier says that a machine-turned sphere is more beautiful and complete than an apple, this is due to the very fact that he does not understand that the beautiful and complete is what lives; the thing that exists as part of life. He does not understand that the very same stalk which breaks the apple’s perfect spherical shape, or geometry, is also the umbilical cord that binds it to the material world, to the universe. This same principle also applies to the door of a house, the stairs and passageways. It is this that is the most significant point. For it is this that links the house to the world around it, makes it an element of the social and urbanist whole, which in turn is nothing more than an element of the universal whole. It is precisely for this reason that the perfect and complete is to be found in the fragmentary, the open; objects that are organically linked with other living elements.”

We now also understand that whilst my name has been removed from the credit for the book from which the above text came, the text itself, my text, has been used extensively.

There was worse to come. Not only has my name as co-author and translator for the above quote been removed at this place, it has been removed hundreds of times in the 2014 book, for hundreds of quotes. In a book of, I estimate, around sixty five thousand words, the number of words used from my texts is over four thousand and that’s not counting paraphrasing. Again, it is a book in which I am not even paid or thanked for suffering the indignity of being ‘rifled’ and having my name as author removed at the same time.

If readers want to gauge my shock when I read this 2014 book for the first time, we can simply take the footnote references for the same page (page 71) as the above quote, with five of my essays quoted across pages 70 and 71, all with my name removed:

On pages 70 and 71 alone in this commercial PhD there are 424 of my words and that’s not counting the paraphrasing of my translations.

In total, right across this 2014 book by Professor Baumeister, seventeen of my finely crafted and beautifully written essays are quoted, paraphrased and cited, often at length as we have seen above and my name has been deliberately detached from all of them. Five years of my life as a translator, author and artist vanished. My essays chopped up and used in ways I would never have agreed to, if I had been given the chance to decide – as per copyright law.

Copyright law and academic practice also state that, where permission is not sought, an author may only quote a restricted amount from another person’s work and, even then, the relevant author must be credited. We have already seen the massive scale of my work used in the 2014 book and the absence of crediting.

So what exactly was this 2014 book – see picture above – that contains so much of my work without my permission? Again for the sake of clarity, it is an exquisitely produced commercial version of my co-author Ruth Baumeister’s 2009 Asger Jorn PhD from Delft University – entitled ‘L’architecture Sauvage’. The publisher was ‘Nai010’ of Rotterdam, which is a sister publisher to our original book’s publisher ‘010 Rotterdam’. What a shame I wasn’t invited to my own party, apart from a ‘fig leaf’ passing mention of my name at the head of the chapters that contain scores of my fine translations. How tacky.

According to the publisher of the 2014 book, Professor Baumeister has signed a contract with them claiming ownership of all the contents of the above book, ownership therefore of all of my essays. Ownership of me.

So by 2014, I was disappeared as author of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’, but by September 2019 – literally just weeks ago – my co-author is to be found publicly describing our jointly written book in a quality Danish newspaper as: “the book I wrote in 2011.” I am not even history. I am not even toast. I’m just erased. As is any notion of Fraternité.

The Danish newspaper which raised my case recently is called Kristeligt Dagblad, which despite its ‘Christian’ title is seen as one of the most culturally sophisticated publications in Denmark. Kristeligt Dagblad is a really excellent non-sectarian (in the religious Irish sense) newspaper and has a broad, discerning and growing readership.

Though behind a paywall and therefore subject to copyright, the two articles in ‘KD’ can be – partially at least – read here, if you have Danish, or if you are just curious to see the headlines:

Translation: A close intellectual collaboration on Asger Jorn has ended in threats of legal action-

Translation: Asger Jorn at the centre of a copyright dispute

The articles were published after Kristeligt Dagblad learned that I had approached a well known and highly respected Belfast human rights lawyer, Niall Murphy of KRW Law, to help me restore my artistic name and dignity.

One of the striking things about these newspaper articles, which caused quite a stir in Denmark, is that Professor Baumeister refused to respond to the points put to her by the newspaper. Only when the articles were published did she finally reply with a response that was published several days later. Rather unusually, the newspaper gives a response to Baumeister at the bottom of her letter, pointing out that she had refused to answer the specific points put to her, despite being given ample time to respond.

Professor Baumeister’s short letter is astonishing and does her no favours. She says, for example, that we have no joint copyright contract for a book.

Here is the wording of our 2009 joint copyright contract, which clearly refers to the production of a book and the shared royalties on “the public sale of the work”, though at that point our book had a different working title.

Professor Baumeister’s letter to Kristeligt Dagblad also states that she alone is the author of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’. That she still felt able, considering the irrefutable evidence above, to make this statement after reading the newspaper articles is some feat. Not least because one of the articles also makes clear that the Jorn Museum’s own website describes me as the co-author of ‘Fraternité Avant Tout’, along with Professor Baumeister and Asger Jorn as the originator:

Moreover, the newspaper revealed that it was none other than Professor Baumeister herself who had confirmed our co-authorship to that very same Jorn Museum back in 2010. Here is her email to me in May 2010 confirming. not only that everybody at the Jorn Museum, and certain Jorn experts, were delighted with my translations but also that we are co-authors of our book:

4th of May, 2010

“… (they said) you really succeeded in bringing over Jorn’s irony and translating the special character and sometimes twisted character of his writings … I made it very clear that we are both authoring this book.”

So, just as with Professor Baumeister’s confirmation of our co-authorship – “our book” -n April 2010, which we have seen earlier when discussing our joint introduction, the very next month Professor Baumeister is found to be again making clear that I was the co-author of the book which bears my name on its cover. In fact in 2011, on the eve of ‘010 Rotterdam’ publishing our book, Baumeister made clear that we are the contracted authors and that we – both of us – licensed Fraternité Avant Tout to the publishers.

8th February 2011

“As we have described in our contract, we have the copyrights on the translations, which is the normal situation at 010 as with any other serious publisher. At the same time, now that the book will be published with 010, we give them the license to publish the material. This license will expire 2 years after the book is sold out and 010 has, on written request by us, no intention to publish a next edition.”

No joint copyright contract? No co-authorship? Deary me. The facts and Professor Baumeister’s own copious testimony speak for themselves.

But let us be clear about the literary and social dynamics that are at play here. My co-author badly needed something she didn’t have – without my permission – which was a set of priceless, never before translated, essays that unravel and illustrate Asger Jorn’s most complex and profound thoughts, and rather than admitting my expertise and the need of my help, she simply took them and used them to help fill up her book. The word for that in English is plagiarism. She has been able to get away with this behaviour because she is fully aware that I am not a man of means and that the Universities to which she is attached in the Netherlands and Denmark – which both have grand mission statements about ‘reaching out’ and the sacredness of learning – say it’s nothing to do with them.

At all times through this nightmare, I have simply asked for an apology, an admission that a ‘mistake’ was made, and a correction of the crediting error. A thank you note and the gracious gesture of a payment for the use of my work might also help. Translators being respected, credited and paid properly for their work? Whatever next?

Yet a high profile academic can simply ignore my – three year long – reasonable attempts at coming to a settlement; something she also freely admits in the letter referred to above, in which she accuses me of harassment for having the temerity to raise these issues. How very dare I? She has also ignored solicitor Niall Murphy’s attempts at correspondence, but responded to a newspaper immediately once this scandal went public.

Would she have ignored such missives from a famous, celebrity academic? Would she even have contemplated using a celebrity’s work without permission? Would such industrial scale purloinment of another artist’s finely wrought works of art have happened to a well connected middle class author/academic/celebrity with influence and friends in high places across the literary and university spectrum? Not a chance.

So there we have it on this day for translators – ‘ITD’ (International Translation Day). A day devised by the UN to celebrate the vital cultural mediation and exchange role of translators. Or as UNESCO has put it: “… ITD highlights the role of translation in promoting an understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of others in order to encourage mutual respect in our changing world.”

Mutual respect? In all of the above, there has been zero respect shown to translators.

Weyland the blacksmith – fire walk with me …

Though you wouldn’t know it from studying most Jorn books, Asger Jorn had an abiding interest in the peasant legend of Weyland the blacksmith. Weyland, or Vølund in the Danish, was so good at his craft that the elite of bygone days cut his leg tendons so as to hobble him for life and curtail his flight. To vanish him if you like. Weyland is of course also Hephaestus or Vulcanus. He is even Oedipus – the deliberately crippled Οἰδίπους (Swollen Foot).

Jorn loved the Weyland legend, not just because – like the original Danish ‘Amled’ (Hamlet) story – it depicts the brilliant artistry of the common man (and woman), it also speaks of a peasant belief that though the elite may hobble you, a natural justice will always prevail in the end.

My interests in Asger Jorn explore his own deep engagement with questions of spirituality, Kierkegaard, Danish and Nordic identity and artistic materialism. How that individual artistic freedom can be married to social concerns also. A perfect alternative look at the current ‘hygge’ zeitgeist and comfy coffee table books, one would have thought.

As Jorn things stand, I don’t even have a name, let alone an identity.


But, with the help of good, ‘common’ people, that will change.



Paul Larkin


Carraic, Derrybeg, County Donegal

The Danish folk tale background to my 2019 novel, Éilis From the Flats, part of ‘The Good Friday Sting’ series


‘Éilis’ – inspired by Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher’s folk tale –
Hosekræmmeren/The Stocking Merchant

After an unavoidable delay, American/Irish publisher Dalkey Archive Press will be publishing my novel Éilis from the Flats in August of this year in readiness for a full launch programme this autumn.


I began throwing out shapes for this novel a long time ago. I even once pinched a BBC film crew and, using real film stock, directed a short period piece with the now world famous Eva Birthistle as ‘Éilis’.

Éilis from the Flats is partly based on the 19th Century Danish story Hosekræmmeren (The Stocking Merchant) by Steen Steensen Blicher, which was published in 1826. I actually translated – was impelled to translate – Hosekræmmeren as soon as I read it. This very short but incredibly powerful story about a young woman living with her parents on a wild heath and driven mad, as I read it, by greedy parents and social circumstances has gripped me ever since my days in the Danish merchant navy. In particular, it’s the idea that parents would sell their own child that haunts me and this is a central scene in my modern day version in which Blicher’s Cecil (Cecelia) becomes Éilis from north-side Dublin tenements (‘flats’ being another term for tenements). The drawing above, by Robert Jensen, depicts Cecil refusing the banns for her marriage to a wealthy landowner. In my version, Éilis is sold to a drug dealer. For me, the modern version is even more haunting, if possible. But then I go back to the original and think not.

In my book of life, there are bad people and a lot of very good people and then people who waver in between. These are just some of the ways in which my novel, and indeed all of my writing, tends to differ from some of the more popular novelists, particularly in a place like Ireland where many writers have surprisingly little interest in folk tales or folk culture and have, in my view, a very cynical view of human nature. Though they are good and sometimes great writers; in their world, nobody is honourable or happy, and to be proud of, or fight for one’s culture is – bizarrely in a post-colonial country like ours – seen as inherently conservative; everybody is tainted; everybody has issues. All families are at loggerheads and seem to carry dark secrets. Therefore, for these doom merchants, the classic postmodern hero in fiction has to be a stoic for enduring such misery. It’s like Greek myths, but without the grand vision, the catharsis or the craic. And no gods or ambrosia, to boot. I would exclude Sebastian Barry from this category and – though he is the guru of the miserabilists – Colm Tóibín. Almost despite themselves, these two superb writers instinctively divine the spiritual in all of us, even as they stare into the abyss of unbelief. Patricia Highsmith does the same.

Think it’s a block of flats? No, a block of books
The brilliant work of Voluspa Jarpa –
his first name a beautiful confluence with the Norse Vøluspá

Maybe it’s just that I was always, even when young, an old fogey with a romantic streak but ‘tales of the pessimistic’ don’t do it for me. For, despite the fact that I had what many would say is a tough upbringing, permanent misery is not my experience of life, and I’ve been lucky enough to live a full and interesting existence. Of course people have problems and of course there are bad people, but that is not the true essence of humankind. Most humans I’ve ever met are curious and interested – inter – est. And if I’m right, then fiction, or my fiction at least and the fiction I hold dear, will emerge from the heroic task of doing good or trying to be good and often failing. Of maintaining inter – est. Stories also of people who, at key turns in their lives, try and do the right thing. Take a writer like Cormac McCarthy, who clearly views natural forces as implacable. They are just there. And then there are human beings who exploit their power to, say, torture a wolf (The Crossing) or drag the world to near destruction (The Road). Well, Billy Parham failed in the end but at that moment when he turns to go back into the dog fighting pit for his wolf … nobody can tell me that he is not a hero, or not trying to do the right thing. At the end of the utterly bleak Road, meanwhile, is the possibility of redemption. We move into myth – very like the Norse Vøluspá that tells of Ragnarök and a possible bright dawn to come. Possibly …

It is humankind that must decide. It is humankind that creates the beauty in Nature’s implacable neutrality. We do art because it’s not there and Nature doesn’t care less, unlike God. The God we humans create, or feel, to mediate the unknowable that is the Love we feel for each other and some beating vibration there in that otherwise implacable ether. It is humankind that tells stories. It is humankind that makes fictional characters real – they are as real as any living person. As real as an artist’s tree, which is essence of tree. More tree than the tree.

Then there are characters who inexplicably change from good to bad and then back again – probably most of us, but always wishing they could be better.

In my dreamspace, there is magic, myth and horror
and heroes in the meanest of places

I believe it was inevitable, I mean it was meant to be, that Dalkey Archive Press would publish Éilis from the Flats. Its proprietor John O’Brien has the philosophy of using the benchmark of talent, along with a certain cussedness or oblique eye, to decide whether he wants to publish something or not. Though by no means a slick, upmarket publisher – quite the reverse in fact – Dalkey is an outstanding imprint with a track record for not only defending and encouraging diversity in literature but also making fiction in translation a central part of its raison d’être. I am already a Dalkey translator. Therefore I am doubly and extremely proud to be one of Dalkey’s fiction authors.

Moreover, I am highly influenced by North American writers. I write, primarily, because I enjoy it and it was William Faulkner who encouraged me to do that. His flow of words – his amaze and unamaze and suspiration of words, that sometimes happen to him in the flux of writing, exhilarates me, because it’s beyond the rational, but makes perfect sense. This kind of writing takes a lot of self-confidence, though. Not just in your ability to write, but also in your convictions as an artist. The confidence to write what you want and stand by it, though the levees breach …

Faulkner was steeped in the Deep South of the USA and innately understood its passion. The lives of the whites and the blacks and their rhythm of being in the world. In that sense, the Glasgow writer James Kelman is very like him. He exudes a deep and wise sense of place and it is there both writers get their depth and confidence to write in their own voice, or voices. That sense of engagement and, God forbid, fun even in the midst of trauma and mayhem bounces off the page. Their empathy with people is also an important part of that sense of place – including what are now called ‘damaged people’. Herman Melville is also a master of empathy but he has a much bigger social vision than Faulkner, in that he wants to sound the depths of the whole world and the philosophy of our very existence, as with Moby Dick, rather than just the ‘Deep South’ of Faulkner. Like me, Melville was himself a mariner and worker, and also a journalist of sorts, frequently devoting long asides to the facts of whaling for example, or flogging at sea – an iniquity he helped to get stopped.

So it is with this idea of fiction as embracing the world: as journalism, reportage and news from the streets, as a folk tale, that I find myself drawn and is an inspiration for Éilis from the Flats and the ‘Good Friday Sting’ series. It’s very much a 19th Century idea, not just from Melville, but also Dickens and Dostoevsky – probing human nature and the human condition amongst ‘peasants’ and the lower classes, then bringing people together to have a huge row. That in essence is what Jane Austen and George Elliot also do in their own social milieu. My recently published translation of Danish writer Henrik Pontoppidan’s classic – A Fortunate Man – is another good example of polemical, polyphonic, yet gripping, literature that has a proper story. A beginning, a middle and an end.

But before all this starts sounding like a programmatic set of bricks that I’m going to lay down one after the other, let me report that I haven’t a clue what’s going to happen with my characters. I just have a vague idea of how things might end. What the young journalist James Tierney does in Éilis for example bewilders me and annoys me sometimes. I did not, and do not, want him to have a relationship with Ronagh Durkin in their world. But as I wrote, his character pushed my narrative down a particular road. Similarly my vision was for the young Adonis, Finn Dempsey, to be much more prominent, maybe even come to the rescue, but his character became more complex and less prominent – that is how fiction works.

I should probably stress that Dalkey has thus far only pledged to publish the first book. Let’s see if I can make Éilis so successful that the next one – Fifth Column – can follow quickly.

I believe Éilis From the Flats will be read by a lot of people who don’t tend to read ‘highfalutin’ novels. I have already had some notice of this. It is for those people that I write, as much as for myself, because they are my people – the place I am. They give me my voice and I, in turn, know their voices. We are what Melville called the “mariners, renegades and castaways”. The scum of the earth.

I will give more details of official launch dates for Éilis From the Flats as the autumn/fall approaches.


The Bayeux Tapestry (1070s)

Ordinary folk have done stories since time immemorial – we know how to do it.






@ Paul Larkin
Gaoth Dobhair
Mí an Mheithimh, 2019