Bernard Levin recently summed up in one sentence the most ambiguous form of mental sickness in our age: ‘But there are those who live by an enervated reason that owns no master in the soul, and who can find arguments that enable them to claim that the atrophy of the moral sense from which they suffer is in fact a form of rational judgment.’ This is precisely what Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was contending about his own age, with a prophetic accuracy which now seems almost uncanny. His word for what Mr Levin is describing here is ‘at raisonere’, ‘to reason’, but to reason in a very special way, a way which, while knowing everything, is unwilling to do anything about it. ‘To reason’ in this way, he said, ‘annuls the passionate disjunction between subjectivity and objectivity’.
In 1846, Kierkegaard published an angry and bitter denunciation of his age in a small work which purported to be no more than ‘A Literary Review’. In it he describes the pseudo-concerned ‘reasoning’ of his age, its ‘envy’, its empty ‘talkativeness’, its ‘formlessness’, above all its crowd-mentality, its ‘levelling’, its hatred of the individual, its sapient, superior contempt for moral responsibility. This little ‘Literary Review’ now appears under the title Two Ages as one of the first two volumes from the Princeton University Press of what will eventually be a complete Kierkegaard in translation.
See Nations slowly wise, and meanly just,
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust,
Dr Johnson remarked, but it isn’t the Danes who are raising this ‘tardy Bust’ to their own most famous son. They continue to affect the humorous indifference and condescending contempt which for more than a hundred years have been blinding them to the truth that, in Søren Kierkegaard, Denmark produced a philosopher and writer of world standard. It is partly due to this Danish contempt that Kierkegaard’s recognition has been so slow, but partly also to the difficulty and comparative unfamiliarity of the language he had to write in. The translations were lacking. It now looks as if, at last, Kierkegaard’s own greatest dream were to be realised: to ‘write’, or at least to be read, in a world language.
Kierkegaard has always been loved and appreciated by the Americans. It is largely thanks to his early disciples there that he got a preliminary hearing, piecemeal and sometimes not very accurate, just before and during the last war. Walter Lowrie had already retired from the ministry when he began the vast task of translating Kierkegaard, and David Swenson died in the middle of translating the great Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which was, however, completed by Lowrie, and first appeared in 1941. But in 1941, there were other, more pressing things to think about, and it was not until Sartre and Heidegger (having remorselessly pillaged Kierkegaard in the well-founded belief that lifting great chunks of a writer so obscure would never come to notice) began to occupy the post-war consciousness with Existentialism that some glimmer of Kierkegaard’s importance began to be picked up. The Lowrie and Swenson translations sometimes helped, sometimes mystified. For instance, Walter Lowrie was so passionate a believer in the task of getting Kierkegaard’s great work across to a world which needed him that he admits to having translated Begrebet Angest (The Concept of Anxiety) ‘in a month of 31 days, working 12 hours a day’. The dangers of this are obvious, and his translation is so inaccurate that it is worse than useless – it is positively obstructive. The new Princeton translation, with all the accompanying notes, drafts, diary entries, will now at last provide everything we need to engage seriously with such a masterpiece.
Even so, it can only be a translation, and the difficulties of translating Kierkegaard’s idiosyncratic, German-influenced, but also intensely ‘local’ and Copenhagenised, Danish are proverbial. Some terms have become veritable riddles of the Sphinx, Lowrie tells of the time Swenson asked him if he had finally come to a satisfactory translation for ‘bestemt, Bestemmelse, etc. I sadly shook my head, and he looked in my eyes with silent despair.’ It is not only the great Abrahams of Kierkegaard’s books who live in ‘fear and trembling’, but his translators too. Lowrie, for all his lovable enthusiasm, was not only frequently inaccurate, but sometimes, in the interests of his own theories, outright wrong-headed. Sometimes he compounded Swenson’s errors (in the famous case of the Postscript) by adding new ones of his own. Sometimes, as in translating Training in Christianity, he fails to distinguish two centrally important terms for pages at a time. And these are terms upon the exact opposing of which the entire literal meaning of the Kierkegaardian original depends. I think, for instance, of the terrible imprecisions in the rendering of ‘Doubled Reflection’ and ‘Reduplication’ in the Postscript, which are then made completely unintelligible in the second part of Training in Christianity.
With familiarity, however there has come a kind of new confidence, of which one can see clear traces in the Princeton volumes. Knowledge of how Kierkegaard used his key terms has spread, osmotically as it were, from language to language; and we have every reason to expect that the naive, unaided, desperately intuitive stabs of the early translators will be smoothed out now by loving hands. And recent extensions of expertise in Hegel studies will have done a lot to clear away what originally appeared to be insuperable difficulties in the Kierkegaardian text.
Of the first two Princeton volumes. Two Ages has been most ably translated by the editors themselves, and Kierkegaard: Letters and Documents (a real surprise this, even for those who think they know Kierkegaard quite well) tackled with wit and panache by Henrik Rosenmeier. Serendipity has played some part in these two appearing together, for if Two Ages (1846) allows us to see Kierkegaard at his most biting, his most hate-filled, his most mordant and sarcastic, the picture he paints is still a local one, a recognisable ‘Copenhagen’ dignified by the title of ‘The Age’, whereas Letters and Documents allows us to see, for the first time, how Kierkegaard reacted to the international events of 1848. The two volumes thus belong together, and present a Kierkegaard quite unfamiliar to those who think of him as the dour Pietist of anguish and repentance.
It is the political observer, the man of the world, the early McLuhan of the media, the ‘family’ man, the professional walker, the Socratic, debonair correspondent who emerges from Letters and Documents. This volume makes fascinating reading, and anyone interested in Kierkegaard the man will find it impossible to put down.
This is not only the first good translation of a certain part of Kierkegaard’s work, it is also the first. The original collection was put out by Professor Niels Thulstrup in 1953-4, and contains not only all the known correspondence to and from Kierkegaard (remarkably little for a man so free with his pen, but then he had so few friends) but also the documents pertaining to his life and death, such as the hospital record of his final sickness in 1855. But it has slumbered virtually unknown ever since the mid-1950s, and this excellent new translation will introduce many to a Kierkegaard they never knew existed. To get the best from it, we need to know a little more about Two Ages (1846).
What Kierkegaard’s little work purported to be was a review of a novel called Two Ages, published anonymously with J.L. Heiberg as editor. Heiberg was the presiding cultural genius of Copenhagen at the time, and the novel was in fact by his mother, Fru Gyllembourg (1773-1856). It is easy to see from these dates that Fru Gyllembourg would have been in her teens during the heady days of the Bastille and the Terror, and in her twenties just in time to fall under the spell of the dashing Romanticism of the Napoleonic age. Kierkegaard, however, was born in 1813, and had no direct memories of that period: but he loathed his own age, and Fru Gyllembourg’s novel was the ideal peg on which to hang a ‘review’ that would be a review, not so much of the novel Two Ages, as of two ages, and in particular the present age. Kierkegaard had just brought out his massive Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and took himself to have completed his work as an author. The writing of this ‘review’ was little more than a pleasant diversion, an opportunity to vent his spleen on an age he perceived as lacklustre, cautious, bourgeois, passionless, levelling and mean.
It is probably for this reason – that Kierkegaard writes of his own age from direct feeling, and of the ‘Romantic’ period only through a historical reconstruction – that the section on his own age is by far the best-written, and by far the most penetrating, in the book. He pussyfoots his way through the plot of Fru Gyllembourg’s novel, and the short ‘Aesthetic Interpretation of the Novel and its Details’ which follows is only a competent example of the aesthetic essayism of his time. ‘The Age of Revolution’ itself receives a mere seven pages. From the first Kierkegaard had his eye fixed on a merciless indictment of his own age, and when he gets to it, it is nearly as long as the whole of the rest of the book put together. It is not for nothing that Alexander Dru, as far back as 1940, thought this section of the book worthy to be published alone, under the title The Present Age, and it is in this scintillating form that this work of Kierkegaard’s has had its currency for forty years. Here, however, is the full text, for which we must be grateful, for now we can see the whole thing in its setting. This is Kierkegaard the public prosecutor, the prophet, the Kierkegaard who ‘philosophises with a hammer’:
The present age is essentially a sensible, reflecting age, devoid of passion, flaring up in superficial, short-lived enthusiasm and prudentially relaxing in indolence.
Envy in the process of establishing itself takes the form of levelling [Nivelleringen], and whereas a passionate age accelerates, raises up and overthrows, elevates and debases, a reflective apathetic age does the opposite, it stifles and impedes its levels. Levelling is a quiet, mathematical, abstract enterprise that avoids all agitation.
For levelling really to take place, a phantom must first be raised, the spirit of levelling, a monstrous abstraction, an all-encompassing something that is nothing, a mirage – and this phantom is the public. Only in a passionless but reflective age can this phantom develop with the aid of the press, when the press itself becomes a phantom.
These passages are followed by a list of inspired existential ‘categories’ which we now recognise so clearly because Heidegger purloined them on such a short-term basis: What is it to chatter (Dru’s original offering of ‘talkativeness’ is nearer to at snakke)? What is formlessness? What is superficiality? What is philandering (again, I prefer Dru’s ‘flirtation’ for leflerie)? What is it to be loquacious (again, Dru’s ‘reasoning’ seems nearer to the original: at raisonere)? My quarrels with the translation here are are only minor. Dru’s The Present Age is so brilliantly carried off that the Hongs seem, on occasion, to have difficulty in choosing their term because Dru’s is so obviously the right one. But even if the Hong translation lacks some of the swing and sheer ‘go’ of Dru’s, it is consistently good and accurate, an excellent earnest of things to come.
The worst of all these defects of the age is what Kierkegaard calls ‘levelling’. This cannot be carried out by individuals, but only by a ‘reasoning’, abstracted, envious age, abetted by the media, which lack all principle. The press is like an ownerless dog, says Kierkegaard. If the dog goes for someone, everyone will regret the incident, but nobody will be responsible. Kierkegaard, in other words, deeply suspects a society that is societal while it totally fails to be sociable. Men share common interests without sharing common concerns. Kierkegaard tells the story of ‘two English lords’ who see ‘a luckless horseman about to fall off his wildly plunging horse and shouting for help. The one lord turned to the other and said: “A hundred guineas he falls off.” “It’s a bet,” replied the other. They set off at a gallop and hurried ahead to get all the gates opened and all other obstacles out of the way.’ Kierkegaard ironically disclaims being any form of prophet, but adds merely: ‘It is very doubtful, then, that the age will be saved by the idea of sociality, of association.’
In fact, Kierkegaard, in his distrust of an age in which it is shameful to be seen actually to believe in something, or to think one thing is bad and another good, reminds one, in some of these analyses, of Vico, another temporally ‘displaced’ philosopher. Kierkegaard’s major philosophical idea – that the ‘individual’ is ‘in the truth’ and ‘the crowd is, by definition, untruth’ – is of course threatened most deeply by a society that seems to have common aims, but in fact doesn’t (as the story of the ‘two English lords’ is doubtless intended to show). Kierkegaard had been mauled by the cartoonists of The Corsair in 1846. It was as if, again by an act of prophetic insight, he had stared across a centuty and seen the situation that is given such lapidary expression in Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Kathuarina Blum. But he would have taken no pleasure in having been proved even more right than he feared he was.
Men live in societies, but are not sociable, are not mutually concerned. This is remarkably like what Vico called ‘la barbarie della reflessione’, a state which is described by Isaiah Berlin in Vico and Herder as follows: ‘A kind of senility and impotence, when each man lives in his own egoistic, anxiety-ridden world, unable to communicate or co-operate with his fellows. This is the situation in which men, although “they still physically throng together, live like wild beasts in a deep solitude of spirit and will, scarcely any two of them able to agree, since each follows his own pleasure or caprice”. ’ This, according to Vico, is the moment just before collapse, the moment before the end. Kierkegaard seems to have seen his own ‘age’ as being in precisely this state of ‘la barbarie della reflessione’. One thinks immedately of a much more recent title, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s La Barbarie au visage humain. Perhaps, in some dim crossing of the time-tunnels, Kierkegaard had foreseen The Gulag Archipelago.
The later volume, Kierkegaard: Letters and Documents, is altogether lighter going. It will come as a surprise, though, even for those who know Kierkegaard’s Journals in Alexander Dru’s great translation of 1938, or those who have recently discovered the riches of Kierkegaard’s private papers in the seven-volume edition, Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, so expertly edited, translated and arranged by Howard and Edna Hong, in the Indiana University Press edition (1967-1978).
It is, inevitably, the correspondence which stands out, for it shows us a Kierkegaard very different from the public man. Each letter is a little work of art, rhetorically perfect, fitted to recipient, time and place, and using all the elegances of recollection, intimacy and referentiality. Kierkegaard obviously regarded the letter as a literary form in its own right, even though a minor one, and he strives to do as well as letter-writer as he does as published author. And from the lay-out of the letters (for this, I think, we must be grateful to the original collector and arranger, Niels Thulstrup) we can sense the ‘inner contour’ of Kierkegaard’s life, the way his relationships with his family and friends came and went, and how silence and aloneness pressed ever closer in on him.
The letters from Berlin (1841-42), after the breaking-off of the engagement with Regine Olsen (for reasons we shall probably never fully understand), are fascinating, and form, so to speak, Act One of the play. There are letters to Emil Boesen, Kierkegaard’s childhood friend, and the only one who remained faithful to him after what had seemed such a disgraceful démarche with Regine. To him he could pour out all his inmost regrets, anguishes and loneliness. The excellent Boesen seems to have taken it all in good part, and encouraged his old friend, of whose behaviour he understood it is pretty clear – just as little as the rest of the Copenhagen public did.
The letters to Boesen are really letters to Boesen as Spy, as Observer. Kierkegaard asks him again and again whether his ‘plan’ (trying to get Regine to believe that he had left her because he was a scoundrel, a flirt and a good-for-nothing) was ‘working’. Would Boesen please watch her carefully at those hours when she was known to pass down such and such a street, or visit her music-teacher, and let him know whether she looked broken, or simply perceptively feminine? Poor Boesen! What a commission! But for Kierkegaard the whole thing was charged with the high drama of a spy story: ‘I hope you are taking strict precautions against any third party’s seeing my letters of reading them, and also that your facial expression betrays nothing. This caution you do understand. You know how I am, how in conversation with you I jump about stark naked, whereas I am always enormously calculating with other people.’ This is as near as Kierkegaard ever comes to frankness, and Emil Boesen was the nearest he ever came to having a normal human friend. Boesen stuck to him to the last, though he understood nothing of the final ‘attack upon Christendom’ of 1854-55.
The most moving letters from Berlin during the winter of 1841-2 are undoubtedly those to his nephews and nieces. Considering the prodigious mental energy that must at the time have been going into the planning or writing of Either/Or, the simple, kind, human friendliness of these letters is almost unbearably sad. Kierkegaard, misunderstood or actively disapproved of by the whole family, had only his very young nephews to write to. In the winter of 1841-2, he writes to the children of his sister Nicoline Kristine: to Michael (three times), to Carl (three times) and to Sofie (once or twice); and to the children of his sister Petrea Severine: three times to Henriette, whom he addresses as Jette, and even, once, to Vilhelm. And what were the ages of these young correspondents: Michael was 15, Carl 11, Sofie 14, Jette 12 and Vilhelm 11.
The loneliness must have been terrific. Kierkegaard did not, could not, consort with ‘the Danes’ in Berlin. He kept to himself. And although he implies in one letter to Boesen that he is writing to his ‘four nephews and two nieces’ because Regine has learned to love them through him, this is surely too sophisticated a reason. The letters to the young members of his family (witty, intelligent, warm and caring) are written, surely, because these young people represented the only ‘family’ Kierkegaard had left in the world. In the winter of 1841–2, he was a ‘scandalous’ figure, with scarcely any friends left in Copenhagen. The most affectionate letters are to Henriette Lund. With her he had an understanding which could even, to some extent, replace the lost relationship with Regine. Certainly it was she alone who had understood why it was that Kierkegaard had felt obliged to break off his engagement, and Kierkegaard obviously felt for her a mixture of love and regret, nostalgia and affection – emotions of which she herself was not the direct object. It was perhaps because of her empathetic grasp of what was going on in her famous uncle’s mind that she eventually wrote, in 1904, a book called My Relationship to Her. All in all, these letters of 1841–2 are the letters of a threatened man, hanging on to his formal inherence in a family in order perhaps to save his own sense of identity. The English-reading public now has access to this side of Kierkegaard for the first time.
Kierkegaard’s brother Peter Christian Kierkegaard, later Bishop of Aalborg, was obviously much disliked by him. The letters he writes to him are from the beginning stiff, awkward, defensive, and show strong marks of an inferiority complex. Peter Christian was a staunch supporter of the state Church and official ‘Christendom’ (except for one brief brush with Bishop Mynster which, in the event, cost him nothing), and represented everything Søren most disapproved of. The favour was returned. Three times Peter denied his brother in public addresses, the last time with no possibility of contradiction, for he gave his address over the coffin in which Søren’s body lay. Peter tried to negate or excuse everything his brother had written and laboured for.
Peter’s sour, domineering and strait-laced disapproval of Søren led him to try and isolate his son, Poul, from any contact with his erring and eccentric uncle. This obviously worried Kierkegaard a great deal. In PS after PS he pleads that the child shall at least be allowed to know that he, Søren, exists, that he is his uncle, that he loves Poul and longs to see him. It would appear that it was not only Søren’s love that Poul was denied, but his father’s as well. Deprived of affection all his life, he was incarcerated in a mental institution in his early twenties, and vegetated in Aalborg, looked after by an old family retainer, until as late as 1915. In this case again, Søren’s judgment had proved prophetic.
Another (charming) side of Kierkegaard comes out in these letters, his love of walking. ‘Above all,’ he writes to his beloved Jette (in 1847), ‘do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it … but by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill … Thus, if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.’ That is nice. But even nicer are the walks Kierkegaard took ‘in imagination’ with his friends. As a child, he had been walked up and down the sitting-room floor by his father (who obviously did not share his son’s love of walking), while his father pointed out to him the ‘sights’ of the town as they passed them. This trick was turned by Kierkegaard into an imaginative advantage. He writes letters to various friends about ‘imaginary walks’ he either has in mind to take, or has actually taken (imaginatively), with them. The most strikingly elaborate ones are those he exchanged with J.L.A. Kolderup-Rosenvinge. Kierkegaard did in fact walk physically with this man, but the walks described in the letters occupy an ambiguous status: they seem to be those that never in fact took place.
These epistolary walks with Kolderup-Rosenvinge open Act Two of the drama of the letters. They place us in the very midst of the events in Paris in 1848, and for those who have only been able to derive a sketchy idea of Kierkegaard’s politics from the scattered asides in published works and in the private papers, they come as a positive revelation. Here is Kierkegaard the political thinker, complete and uninterrupted for the first time.
Kierkegaard and Kolderup-Rosenvinge adopt the convention of writing up walks that never took place, in order, one suspects, to express to each other ideas that they would not have felt free to express viva voce. ‘After all, we did not go walking, and so I cannot thank you for the walk. And yet it seems as if I had been walking with you,’ writes Kierkegaard in July 1848. And the admirably deft Kolderup-Rosenvinge, entering completely into the spirit of the thing, replies a few days later, ‘That was really a very beautiful walk, deal Magister,’ and then goes on to describe the journey he had in fact been on (a week at Sorgenfri) while Kierkegaard had been describing the imaginary one. And so these elegant epistolary travels continue.
Their interest is not merely literary, however Horatian the device. As these imaginary walks continue, so they become more and more explicitly political. It is a lucky chance that these literary-political ‘imaginary walks’ with Kolderup-Rosenvinge should have taken place precisely in 1848. It would appear that there was no one else in Kierkegaard’s acquaintance whose political perception ran parallel to his own, and some kind of inner complicity of conservatism allowed these two men, drawn together in this way for the period of one summer, to exchange thoughts which, in each case, would probably have been too intimate or too frank, or simply too intelligent, to have been confided to anyone else in their separate circles of acquaintance.
‘As I can see from the space left on the paper that we still have a good way to go before we reach Nörreport,’ writes Kolderup-Rosenvinge, maintaining the literary decorum of their mobile convention, ‘I shall add to my propos about Cavaignac an apropos about the French.’ The French, he believes, are a people who love and revel in anarchy. The only difference between the old times and the new is that, nowadays, everyone else thinks it is amusing to get involved in French anarchy as well. This suits Kierkegaard extremely well. His own contempt for all ‘mass’ or ‘crowd’ movements was so profound that Kolderup’s anti-democratic cynicism chimed in perfectly with his own deepest-held philosophical beliefs. He begins a long sarcastic trope about the modern Houyhnhnms in the manner of Swift dipping his nib in gall: ‘Surely it cannot have escaped your attention how appropriate it is that the newest public assemblies here in town take place in a hippodrome … more recent times are gradually doing away with the designation “man” in order to substitute the designation “horse”… Accordingly I propose that a new linguistic usage be introduced. Assuming that fifty men = one horsepower, then, if this is so, rather than saying, “Last night in the hippodrome there was a meeting of one thousand men,” one would say instead, “Last night in the hippodrome there was a meeting of twenty horsepower – Balthasar Christensen presiding.” ’
Paris, however, emerges ever more clearly as the real centre of world events. It is Kolderup-Rosenvinge who first suggests doubts about Cavaignac, and Kierkegaard goes him one better: ‘Surely an iron fist or a tyrant with an iron fist, a military despot with an iron fist, is needed to bring order into European affairs.’ But even now Kierkegaard’s contempt for the politics of the ‘mass’ and the ‘crowd’ is so deep that he cannot help turning it all to laughter: ‘As we know, he [Cavaignac] has only one arm, but that might suffice, provided he had an iron fist on that one arm … But to return to Cavaignac’s one arm. You have indeed discovered the trouble: he has married, and so he does not even have the freedom of that one arm – while at the same time he has been relieved of the other arm.’ The trope continues for a while in this witty manner, but tired of it, overcome by disgust, Kierkegaard suddenly rounds upon his subject savagely: ‘there might still be hope for Cavaignac, for whom I, by the way, have no hope at all, because I only think of him as Thiers’ new tool.’ Kierkegaard’s view was not a blurred or superficial one. His contempt for Lamartine, who begins to write himself into the history of 1848 before the year is fairly over, and whose Histoire de la Revolution de 1848 was published in 1849, and serialised in the Danish papers by July 1849, is quite predictable:
Marvellous! Ultimately, I suppose, the same thing will happen to history as to New Year’s gift books and the like, which usually make their appearance the preceding year – so that in the end we shall see the history of ’51 appearing in the guise of a New Year’s gift for ’50. Who knows, perhaps Lamartine will take this next step and do so. And perhaps it is not impossible either, for since ’48 everything has in a certain sad sense become possible.
The outcome of Act Two of the letters is an ever-deepening pessimism, and an ever-deeper belief that it is only in the absolute responsibility of the individual before God and before his society that there is any hope at all.
Act Three of the letters belongs to 1849-1850. Kolderup-Rosenvinge was ill through most of 1849, and in 1850 he died. A man of similar intelligence was not to be found in Kierkegaard’s circle. So he tried to inveigle Rasmus Nielsen, a Professor of Philosophy at the university, into his peripatetic intimacy. Nielsen was no substitute for Kolderup-Rosenvinge. He made heroic efforts to understand Kierkegaard’s philosophy, but to little avail, since it was beyond him. When he did get some point or other straight (or thought he had) he wrote of himself as ‘The Knight of the Three Discoveries’, giving his address as ‘Lyngby, c/o Wiedemann, the baker’. This was too much for Kierkegaard, who disliked a fool even more than a flatterer. In a hail of mutual recriminations and misunderstandings, their acquaintanceship died, and in March 1850, Kierkegaard wrote to Nielsen informing him that he felt he had to break off their relationship altogether.
Act Four is the most intriguing and mysterious of all. It is linked with Act One, when Kierkegaard had broken off his engagement and fled to Berlin. From September 1849, Kierkegaard began to meditate upon a possible ‘reconciliation’ with Regine Olsen, now Regine Schlegel. In a series of drafts of letters, and letters sent, and enclosures sent and returned, Kierkegaard suggests some form of rapprochement, in order that he could tell Regine ‘something’ about their engagement which, at the time, he was not free to divulge, but which, now, he feels might in some way ‘enhance’ the marriage of Regine and Frederik Schlegel.
Naturally, what was that Kierkegaard had to divulge about the reason for his having had to break off the engagement would be such an important key for our understanding of him, that one can only curse the worthy Frederik Schlegel for not letting the meeting (which was to have been in his presence) take place. Never was such a nugget lost by so narrow a margin. The literature on this matter is already vast, but Kierkegaard’s rejected offer to make all clear cannot but make one writhe with frustration and disappointment.
Act Five is one of ever-deepening silence. There are remarkably few letters from Kierkegaard’s own hand. Letters to his childhood friend Emil Boesen are kept up, and there are several letters between Kierkegaard and his nephew, Henrik Lund, who, during the war in which Denmark was engaged between 1848 and 1850, had the misfortune to be stationed as ‘subordinate physician at Odense Field Hospital’. He was only halftrained in medicine, the patients were not badly ill, there was little to do, and he was nearly dying of boredom. It is typical of Kierkegaard’s good nature that, taking pity on his nephew’s plight, he should have asked him to carry out a practical task for him: to write about the bird life on the island of Fyn. What birds are there, when do they arrive, when do they depart? This act of good will was met in the most literal fashion. In letter 262, Henrik Lund sets out, exactly as his uncle had requested him to, the arrival and departure dates of nearly three dozen kinds of birds.
Henrik’s letters to Kierkegaard, mumbling and incoherent as they may be, tell of an immense affection and admiration that could not find out the source of their own need. Henrik wanted so much to ask Søren Kierkegaard something, some vital question, but exactly what question it was he had to ask, just would not come to him. We can see, though, that the indirect effect of Kierkegaard on his nephew had been very strong. In 1855, when Kierkegaard was dying in the Frederiks Hospital, Henrik was an intern and saw his uncle every day. And it was Henrik alone who, at the funeral, had the courage to make the obvious point. Interrupting the service, he leapt forward and accused the state Church of stealing the body of a man who had fought to his last breath against it. It would seem as if it was his nephew Henrik, mumbling and incoherent as he may have been in his letters, who, alone in the whole of Copenhagen, had understood what his uncle had been talking about.
But, letters to Henrik Lund and Emil Boesen apart, the fifth act is a movement into increasing loneliness, as Kierkegaard engages in his last ‘attack upon Christendom’. As against that, he had by now become something of a literary ‘collector’s piece’. There are letters from ladies with exquisitely romantic names – Lodovica de Bretteville, ‘e——e’, S.F., Petronella Ross, ‘S.S.M. No 54’ – who seek the great man’s advice, consolation or simply his renowned human understanding.
But even these letters belong mainly to the years 1850-51. Kierkegaard had no interest in them, and seems rarely to have replied to them. There seem to be virtually no letters at all, to or from Kierkegaard, for the so-called ‘silent years’ – the years from 1851 to late 1854 when Kierkegaard brought out no new books – and this is telling, for this is the one moment in his life when he might have had time for private correspondence. Obviously his sense of inner isolation was so intense that he did not want to exchange letters, or sentiments, with anyone at all. His retreat into himself was absolute. The silence around him must have been total. After waging his terrific battle for the ‘witness for the truth’ in a series of pamphlets entitled ‘The Instant’ between December 1854 and May 1855, he fell down in the street to be taken off to die in the Frederiks Hospital: there were no friends, no supporters. The rest was indeed silence.
It is surely by the merest editorial chance that Kierkegaard: Letters and Documents (Volume 25 in a projected 26-volume edition) should be one of the first volumes to appear, and it would be quite wrong in a review such as this one, which looks ahead over a decade to welcome the entire oeuvre of a genius, to end on a note of death and defeat. Inevitably, this volume, in its brilliant first translation, must end with the death of Kierkegaard. But much more important is that all the major works of Kierkegaard are yet to come, and all of them, one now hopes and has every reason to expect, in sparkling new translations. The 1980s, whatever else they may bring, are going to be Kierkegaard’s years. He is going to get his reading at last. All thanks are due to Howard and Edna Hong, and to the Princeton Press, for promising us this precious resource.
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