A Knight Of Doleful Countenance
Sooner or later it was bound to happen, though for an “Existentialist” writer it is a slightly comic fate: Kierkegaard has become a Classic, to be published in a definitive edition with full scholarly apparatus. The English translation of his Papirer (Journals and Papers) is to be issued in five volumes, of which the first has now been published by the Indiana University Press [From the New Yorker in 1968]. The translators and editors, Howard and Edna Hong — their translation, by the way, reads very well indeed — have decided to group the entries by subject matter instead of printing them in their chronological order.
This decision seems to me wise for two reasons. In the first place, the journal is a chronicle of ideas, not of events; in the second, it is of enormous length and frequently repetitive. For this we have no right to blame Kierkegaard, since he did not write it for publication, but I cannot imagine any human being reading straight through it without skipping. Classification by subject matter is a question of editorial judgment, which must to some extent be arbitrary. For example, this volume begins with “Abstract” and ends with “The Exception.” Under the “C” entries expected to find some devoted to what Kierkegaard himself always calls “Catholicism,” but found none; I presume they will appear in a later volume, under “R.”
Like Pascal, Nietzsche, and Simone Weil, Kierkegaard is one of those writers whom it is very difficult to estimate justly. When one reads them for the first time, one is bowled over by their originality (they speak in a voice one has never heard before) and by the sharpness of their insights (they say things which no one before them has said, and which, henceforward, no reader will ever forget). But with successive readings one’s doubts grow, one begins to react against their overemphasis on one aspect of the truth at the expense of all the others, and one’s first enthusiasm may all too easily turn into an equally exaggerated aversion.
Of all such writers, one might say that one cannot imagine them as children. The more we read them, the more we become aware that something has gone badly wrong with their affective life — a derangement which, though it may, and probably does, include some kind of sexual neurosis, extends far beyond the bounds of the sexual; it is not only impossible to imagine one of them as a happy husband or wife, it is impossible to imagine their having a single intimate friend to whom they could open their hearts.
It is significant, surely, and sad, that though Kierkegaard was the most brilliant Dane of his time and a famous, even notorious, figure, there are, to the best of my knowledge, no references to him in the memoirs of his contemporaries, no descriptions, friendly or hostile, of what he seemed like to others. All we know about Kierkegaard is what he tells us himself.
I hope that someone will soon write a fully documented history of the Corsair affair. All I know about it is that Kierkegaard challenged its proprietor, Meyer Goldschmidt, who had hitherto praised his writings, to attack him, which Goldschmidt thereupon proceeded to do, and my only information about the nature of the attack comes from the account given by David Swenson in his Something About Kierkegaard:
For several months thereafter, there appeared little articles in the Corsair satirizing one or another feature of the pseudonymous writings. The articles were illustrated with pictures of Kierkegaard walking through the streets, his umbrella under his arm, and one trouser leg depicted as considerably longer than the other. The result of this campaign was that Kierkegaard could not show himself on the streets without being followed by a gaping and howling mob of boys and young men. So deeply did the attack sink into the popular consciousness of Copenhagen that we have from Brandes a narrative of how his nurse used to bring him back from the error of his ways, whenever his clothes were not properly put on, by pointing at him a warning finger and saying reprovingly, “Soren, Soren!”
This must have been very disagreeable, but can it really be considered, as Kierkegaard himself considered it, an example of a righteous man’s being martyred for the sake of the truth? As a scandal sheet, the Corsair was clearly a social evil, and Kierkegaard was not alone in thinking so. For a writer, the normal way of trying to abolish a social evil is to write attacks on it, demonstrating by quotations and facts the kind of evil it represents and does. Such attacks are likely to be the more effective the less the writer draws attention to himself and the more he seems to speak as the voice of public conscience.
But instead of attacking, Kierkegaard demanded to be attacked, and this. I must confess, I find distastefully egotistic. Goldschmidt, incidentally, must have been a stupid man: a moment’s thought should have told him that if he really wished to torment Kierkegaard he should ignore the challenge and go on praising his work to the skies.
If I, suffering, were to have become an object of attack by mob-vulgarity, admiration for me would have increased. But the fact that I myself demanded it shocked men. They felt alienated by anything that went over their heads.
Thus Kierkegaard in his Journals. But was it so unnatural that they should be shocked? Further, is there any evidence, outside his own testimony, that nobody sympathized with him in the persecution to which he was subjected?
Then there is the question of the persecution itself. When a newspaper proprietor has it in for somebody, his usual procedure is to publish innuendos (or facts, if he can get them) about the private or public morality of his victim: it is suggested that he has a taste for young girls or has been involved in some shady financial or political deal. All that Goldschmidt was able to do was to make fun of Kierkegaard’s writings — one would be curious to know if these criticisms were at all funny — and to make fun of his physical appearance.
Caricature exaggerates, but it is only possible if there is some peculiarity to exaggerate. If the Corsair caricatures showed one of Kierkegaard’s trouser legs considerably longer than the other, then it seems certain to me that he must have been somebody, like myself, who was careless about the way he dressed. One would have expected him to laugh and say, “Yes, I am a careless dresser, but I don’t care.” On the other hand, if his feelings were seriously hurt, as it seems they were, he had only to dress more carefully in the future for the caricatures to lose their sting. If the vulgar laughed at him on the streets, it was because they could recognize him as the original of the caricatures. His second attempt to get himself persecuted for the Truth’s sake — his polemic against Bishops Mynster and Martensen–was even less successful.
The public may have been shocked and thought his articles in bad taste, but they read them. Nobody tried to silence him. For all his contempt for the press, he made use of it, and the editors of Fædrelandet were perfectly willing to publish what he wrote. Far from getting stoned or imprisoned, he made the headlines. One has to draw attention to this failure to get martyred not as a personal reproach, which would be cheap and unjust, but because Kierkegaard was continually attacking the Danish clergy of his time for failing to achieve something which, under the circumstances of his time, he was unable to achieve himself.
Of what he calls the “wilting” of Christianity, Kierkegaard says:
It will appear most easily in a Protestant country that does not have the counterweight of Catholicism in the same country. Furthermore, it will appear most readily in a small country, which by being small is only too close to pettiness, mediocrity, spiritlessness; and, again, it will appear most readily in this little land if it has its own language entirely by itself and does not even through its language participate in possible movements elsewhere. It will most readily appear in such a small country if the people are prosperous, have no great differences in life, and have a common and regularized abundance, which is related all too easily to secular security. It will most readily appear in or show itself as the fruits of good days of peace.
Leaving aside the first sentence for later consideration, let us examine the rest of this passage. To condemn a society for being small and provincial is to condemn it not for being worldly, but for not being worldly enough: a provincial society lacks the worldly virtues of broad-mindedness and cynical tolerance exhibited by more cosmopolitan societies. As someone who had to write in Danish, Kierkegaard could reasonably complain that this severely limited the size of his potential audience, but this is a worldly objection.
Further, I cannot believe that the cultural situation in Denmark in Kierkegaard’s day was radically different from what it today there or in any other country, like Holland or Sweden or Hungary, where few strangers can be expected to understand its mother tongue: in such countries both intellectuals and businessmen are obliged, like Kierkegaard himself, to learn the more cosmopolitan languages. I should be extremely surprised, for example, to hear that Bishop Martensen or any other members of the Danish Ecclesiastical Establishment could only read and speak Danish.
Kierkegaard then goes on to reproach Denmark for qualities which common sense surely would regard as blessings — the absence of serious poverty, the freedom from sharp class distinctions, the lack of involvement in war; for being, in other words, a society without gross and obvious social evils. Whether this was really the case I do not know, but it must certainly have been Kierkegaard’s opinion, for never, when he is attacking the Danish clergy for worldly prudence and cowardice, does he specify a concrete issue about which he thinks it their Christian duty to protest.
In England during the first half of the nineteenth century, there were a number of issues one can think of — the slave trade, the treatment of the industrial poor in mines and cotton mills, the criminal law, the unjust treatment of Catholics — about which, to their shame, most of the Anglican clergy remained silent, though a few did have the courage to protest, at the cost of losing preferment. Were there really no comparable issues in Denmark? I have the uneasy feeling that if there were, Kierkegaard would have considered them unimportant.
About Roman Catholicism as a “counterweight” Kierkegaard was acute. In Catholic countries one may find, as in all countries, worldly, even immoral, prelates, but one also finds monastic orders of men and women vowed to chastity, poverty, and obedience: a parish priest may be more stupid and tiresome than many of his congregation, but he is a celibate, who has made a sacrifice which they know they would not or could not make themselves. By doing away with the monasteries and fasting, by not only permitting but encouraging the clergy to marry, by abolishing all visible “works” of self-sacrifice, Luther and Calvin made piety a matter of internal conscience. As C. S. Lewis has said of Calvin:
The moral severity of his rule … did not mean that his theology was, in the last resort, more ascetic than that of Rome. It sprang from his refusal to allow the Roman distinction between the life of “religion” and the life of the world, between the Counsels and the Commandments. Calvin’s picture of the fully Christian life was less hostile to pleasure and to the body than Fisher’s, but then Calvin demanded that every man should be made to live the fully Christian life. In academic jargon, he lowered the honours standard and abolished the pass degree.
Similarly, Kierkegaard says of Luther:
Luther set up the highest spiritual principle: pure inwardness. . . . And so in Protestantism a point may be reached at which worldliness is honored and highly valued as — piety. And this — as I maintain — cannot happen in Catholicism. . . . Because Catholicism has the universal premise that we men are pretty well rascals. And why can it happen in Protestantism? Because the Protestant principle is related to a particular premise: a man who sits in the anguish of death, in fear and trembling and much tribulation — and of those there are not many in any one generation.
There is another aspect of Protestantism which Kierkegaard seems to have overlooked — one which makes the position of a Protestant minister more ambiguous and vulnerable than that of a Catholic priest; namely, that in the Lutheran and Calvinist churches, and increasingly so as time went on, the sermon, the ministry of the Word, took precedence over the Sacraments, the ritual acts of worship. The Catholic priest, of course, also preaches, but his primary function is to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, and give absolution. His right to perform such actions depends not on his moral character or even his faith but on the fact that he has been ordained by a bishop.
But when a man preaches, all kinds of questions begin to arise. While it is meaningless to ask of a priest “Does he celebrate Mass well or badly?” the question “Does he preach well or badly?” is a real one, with a real answer. Preaching, like lecturing, demands an aesthetic gift: a preacher may himself be a hypocrite but still have the power to stir the hearts of his congregation; conversely, he may be personally a holy man but because he lacks a gift for verbal expression he leaves them cold.
Also, the preacher must necessarily address his congregation not as individuals but as a group. As long as his sermon is confined to doctrinal instruction, to telling them what the Church believes and what her creedal formulas mean, this presents no problem, but the moment he turns to moral exhortation, to telling them what they should or should not do here and now, he is in difficulties, for each member of his congregation has his or her unique spiritual problems.
At confession, a priest may give a confessant stupid, even harmful, advice, but at least this is given to a particular sinner, not to sinners in general. But the preacher in the pulpit is confronted by sinners in general. If he is to avoid generalities which will leave most of them exactly as they were before, he must speak of some concrete situation in which he knows they are all equally guilty, and this, in practice, usually means one about which they not only feel no guilt but are convinced that they are righteous. As Bonhoeffer said:
The preacher must be concerned so to incorporate the contemporary situation in his shaping of the commandment itself relevant to the real situation. It cannot be “War is evil” but, rather, “Fight this war,” or “Don’t fight this war.”
He will have small occasion to say either, unless he knows his congregation are going to be shocked; that, in the first case, they are willing, out of cowardice, to appease a tyrant, or, in the second, that they are jingoist patriots who say, “My country, right or wrong.” In doing so, he risks martyrdom. Attacking sinfulness in general is always perfectly safe, for each listener will assume that it is not he personally but people in general who are being attacked. It is only when a preacher attacks a concrete case of worldliness that he is likely to get into trouble. A clergyman in Mississippi can scold his congregation for not loving God and their neighbor, and they will sit there in smiling agreement, but if he tells them that God demands that they love Negroes as themselves the atmosphere will soon change.
Of the Danish clergy in his day, Kierkegaard complains:
Like children playing war games (in the security of the living room), so all of Christendom (or the preachers insofar as they are the actors) plays at Christianity; in the security of worldliness they play the game that the Christian is persecuted (but no one persecutes him, the speaker), that the truth is crucified (but the speaker himself already ranks with the court justices).
This complaint seems to suggest either that they only preached on such texts as “Sell all thou hast and give to the poor” and “Marvel not if the world hate you,” which cannot have been the case, or that such texts are the only ones on which a true Christian may preach, which is heretical. Secondly, it lacks effectiveness, because Kierkegaard does not or cannot specify any concrete issue for which it was their duty to invite persecution and crucifixion.
It is curious that the author of “Repetition,” who could analyze so subtly the difficulty for human beings in their daily life of having to live in and with time, should have failed to see that any church, as a visible organization on earth, has the same problem. Ideally, of course, everyone who calls himself a Christian, whether a clergyman or a layman, should be an apostle, but to imagine that at any time in history this has been, or could be, the case is a sheer Donatist fantasy. It is true, as Kierkegaard says, that “Christianity cannot be `introduced’ into a country as one introduces improved sheep breeding,” but if an individual is ever to become a Christian he must be introduced to the Christian faith, and this is one of the church’s functions.