A Walk with Kierkegaard

Roger Poole

  • Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age– A Literary Review by Søren Kierkegaard, edited and translated by Howard Hong and Edna Hong
    Princeton, 187 pp, £7.70, August 1978, ISBN 0 691 07226 4
  • Kierkegaard: Letters and Documents translated by Henrik Rosenmeier
    Princeton, 518 pp, £13.60, November 1978, ISBN 0 691 07228 0

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.

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