A Long Way from Galilee

Terry Eagleton

  • Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard by Clare Carlisle
    Allen Lane, 368 pp, £25.00, April, ISBN 978 0 241 28358 5

There are a number of modern thinkers who might be described as anti-philosophers. Anti-philosophers aren’t simply people who don’t reckon much to philosophy, but thinkers who are dissatisfied with the dominant style of philosophising of their time, and feel this way for philosophically interesting reasons. A number of them have come from peripheral nations: Kierkegaard from Denmark, Derrida and Cixous from Algeria, Kristeva from Bulgaria. Some of them (Marx, Freud, Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Derrida) were of Jewish or partly Jewish background, and thus already semi-outsiders. Two of the most prominent were gay (Wittgenstein and Foucault), one of them (Nietzsche) went mad, while another (Heidegger) became a Nazi. Anti-philosophers are not always in the van of progress. Lurking behind this lineage is the Socratic idea of the philosopher as buffoon, along with the Christian tradition of the folly of the wise and the wisdom of the foolish.

One conviction these thinkers have in common is the belief that there is something more fundamental than reason. Most of them would accept that without reason we perish, but hold that there is something more basic which shapes the way we think: power, desire, divine grace, material interests, the body, being-in-the-world, the unconscious, emotional bonds, practical forms of life, the ruses of language. Since these things, or some of them, have to be in place for us to think at all, orthodox philosophy does not start far back enough.

Cutting reason down to size is common enough in philosophy. You become a card-carrying anti-philosopher, however, when this leads you to a different way of writing. Kierkegaard assumes one fictional mask after another, while Nietzsche erases the distinction between philosophy and poetry. Marx was fastidious about his prose style and claimed implausibly that his works constituted an artistic whole. Some of Freud’s case histories read like lurid novels, with psychoanalysis assuming the role of the thinking person’s sensationalism. Wittgenstein, who advised one of his disciples to give up philosophy and made a few botched attempts to give it up himself, wanted to write a philosophical work consisting entirely of jokes, an ill-advised project for a man without much sense of humour. His Philosophical Investigations consists largely of queries, homely images, tantalising fragments and cryptic suggestions. Benjamin’s study of 19th-century Paris is a surrealist montage of ideas. Adorno writes aphoristic sentences which are small masterpieces of dialectical thought. Heidegger invents his own barbarous jargon, while Derrida is as much in the tradition of the French Symbolist poets as that of Kant and Hegel.

In conventional academic circles, philosophy consists in talking about certain things in a certain way. Death, for example, is a kosher philosophical topic, but Heidegger does not talk about it in the right kind of way. The same applies to Proust on the subject of time. Self-deception is a philosophical issue, but it would be hard to imagine Peter Strawson or A.C. Grayling writing about bourgeois false consciousness. Power doesn’t really count as a philosophical concept, if one leaves aside political theory; but even if it did, those who discuss it in the manner of Nietzsche or Foucault would be unlikely to qualify as philosophers since they write in a way alien to the analytic spirit. An English professor of philosophy once wrote an essay inquiring whether Nietzsche was a philosopher, which for many Continental scholars would be like asking whether the pope is Catholic. An ironic playfulness is acceptable to Anglophone philosophy (Ryle, Austin, Rorty), but not to the point where it begins to undermine the distinction between the sportive and the serious.

A whole line of anti-philosophers is locked in combat with Hegel. ‘That don’ was Kierkegaard’s contemptuous term for Hegel, who believed with engaging modesty that history had now culminated inside his own head. He thought he could resolve the contradictions of history into a rational whole, but in Kierkegaard’s view he had overlooked the significance of the individual. For this tormented Protestant, writing in Copenhagen in the mid-19th century, the individual was irreducibly particular, and thus spelled the ruin of all grand schemes. Not only was the particular irreducible to the universal; it was higher in status. The particular could be lived but not thought. It was impenetrable to reason, which meant that human beings were enigmas to one another. Hegel believed in community, social mores, civil society, while Kierkegaard was glacially indifferent to them. Genuine individuals, he believed, had to live ironically, aware of the discrepancy between the intense inwardness of the self and the humdrum practical world it had to inhabit. Like the political revolutionary, the religious believer is both in and out of the world at the same time.

Even so, Kierkegaard did not reckon that there were all that many true individuals around. Most men and women live shallow, inauthentic lives, sunk in the falsity of the everyday. It is with Kierkegaard that the idea of the faceless masses first makes its appearance in philosophy, as urbanisation and industrialism begin to spread across Europe. Becoming a unique self in such circumstances is an arduous project. True selfhood cannot be achieved unaided. Only religious faith can allow us to become what we really are. Selfhood is supreme freedom; but it also involves yielding to a certain necessity, which is the working of divine grace within us. The self emerges into being only through an existential act of decision, as one binds one’s personal history into a consistent project, accepts the burden of the guilt of the past and stands open to the possibilities of the future. It is a decision that must be ceaselessly re-enacted, a fundamental orientation of one’s being rather than an option for one thing or another.

Kierkegaard is careful to distinguish the perilous adventure of selfhood from whimsical self-fashioning, in which the self, intoxicated by endless possibility, reinvents itself experimentally from moment to moment, shucking off responsibility for the past and surrendering to the aesthetic allure of the moment. It is a striking prevision of postmodernism. When Kierkegaard speaks of dread or anxiety, he has in mind this prospect of pure, empty possibility, which lurks at the heart of one’s experience like some bottomless abyss.

For Hegel, truth is a question of totality, a matter of seeing one’s way round the partial and partisan. For Kierkegaard, by contrast, faith is a radically one-sided commitment which cuts like a sword through any harmonious whole. The world may present itself as a seamless whole to the disinterested eye of reason, but faith is a matter of passion and the believer is someone in love. Theologically speaking, Kierkegaard is a fideist, holding that faith begins where reason leaves off. He does not see that the relation between faith and reason resembles the relation between reason and love. Love is not independent of reason; in fact, unless one can give reasons why one loves someone or something, love would seem a vacuous concept. You are in love with her because she is a delightful person, because she owns an enormous amount of property in Manhattan, because she looks like Jennifer Aniston, because she has a remarkable tolerance for shiftless, self-interested men, and so on. Yet someone else may share these views and not be in love with her himself. Love is bound up with reason, but reason does not go all the way down. Kierkegaard, however, drives a wedge between faith and reason as he does between inner and outer, selfhood and society, the authentic minority and the contemptible masses.

Reason and faith are also at odds because of the sheer absurdity of the Incarnation. That an infinitely transcendent God should eat, sneeze and take the odd nap in Palestine is utterly offensive to logic, even if for Kierkegaard it is the most important truth in the world. The cross of Christ, St Paul declares, is folly and scandal to both rationalistic Greeks and pious Jews. That nothing will flourish unless we remain faithful to the abject failure of Calvary is not what the world wants to hear. The Abraham of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (1843), commanded by Yahweh to slaughter his son Isaac for no apparent reason, must confront the terrifying truth of God’s opaqueness to human reason, yet continue to have faith that God will save his child even though it seems obvious that he will do no such thing. The other rock on which rationalism is wrecked is sin. Before the God of radical Protestantism we are always in the wrong, and the self carries with it a crippling burden of injury and affliction which no ethical scheme can rationalise away.

Clare Carlisle’s biography of Kierkegaard is impressively well researched, and brings its subject vividly alive. Almost everything you need to know about him as a man can be found here, along with a little more information than is strictly necessary. Since not much tends to happen to philosophers – Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813, studied theology, philosophy and literature there, and lived in the city for much of his life – a biographer needs to compensate for this lack of dramatic action with an excess of domestic detail. It is not vital to an understanding of Kierkegaard’s inner life that he once sent Regine Olsen, to whom he was engaged at the time, a bottle of lily of the valley cologne, but one has to fill one’s pages. He may have been, as Carlisle has it, ‘a philosopher of the heart’, but rarely has it been so rigorously anatomised.

Even so, Carlisle provides us with some lucid, perceptive accounts of Kierkegaard’s writings, which make stringent intellectual demands on the reader. She is illuminating about some of the rather obscure scholars who influenced his work, and valuably explores his relations with Romanticism. She is also quite right to suggest that in some of his writings, ‘different narrative voices perform conflicts between life-views, with no clear resolution; they exhibit errors and misunderstandings as often as they elucidate truths.’ Like the later Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard was never inclined to say what he meant outright, doubtful that readers wallowing in false consciousness would be able to take it. In deconstructive style, his habit was to occupy that consciousness from within in order to lay bare its fissures and contradictions.

Carlisle also grasps the point that Kierkegaard’s battle was with Christendom – with the institutionalising of the Christian Gospel and the gentrifying of its implacable demands. He was one of the first theologians to wonder how abandoning your family and possessions in order to live a hand-to-mouth existence which may well result in death at the hands of the state could be compatible with modern suburban society. If this was what Christianity involved, it was not clear to him that there was a single Christian in Denmark, although the place was stuffed with religious people. The Gospel had been reduced by Kant and Hegel to an ethical affair, whereas for Kierkegaard ethics was congenial to middle-class society as faith was not.

Despite the fact that his works were wildly popular, he had no official status – in Carlisle’s words, ‘no pulpit or congregation, no lectern or students, no theatre or audience’. For a man at a certain disdainful remove from society, however, he was not above a spot of worldliness himself. There is a useful portrait here of his father, a peasant from Jutland who ended up as one of the wealthiest men in Copenhagen. Sustained by this paternal fortune, Kierkegaard hired servants and carriages, dined in fine restaurants, smoked expensive cigars, socialised energetically and bought himself a spacious modern apartment. With typical meticulousness, Carlisle can even tell us which of its ten windows faced in which direction. It was all a long way from Galilee.

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Carlisle’s biography is an example of the latest fashion in life writing. The genre has a number of rules: personalise things, not least by bringing yourself into the narrative; don’t cram in too many complex ideas; pay particular attention to your subject’s sex life; invent things that almost certainly didn’t happen so as to lend the story more colour; don’t criticise your subject unless it’s absolutely unavoidable; and use his or her first name to make the whole thing sound more cosy. Assume, in other words, the lowest possible boredom threshold in the reader. These days a Life of Descartes might begin: ‘Glancing wearily up from his desk, René watched a solitary sunbeam dance over the pile of tattered manuscripts strewn across the floor. “How can I know that anything actually exists?” he mused, rising from his chair and slipping into a more comfortable jacket.’

This study observes most of these rules, though it spares us talk of ‘Søren’. As far as personalising goes, the book ends with a glimpse of Carlisle weeping at a dramatic performance of one of Kierkegaard’s works. His doomed relationship with Regine Olsen seems to crop up every three pages, and she gets a lot more entries in the index than ‘philosophy’ does. The book is written in the present tense to lend its account a spurious immediacy. There is a good deal of poetic licence. We are told for example that ‘Keeping to the shaded side of the street, Kierkegaard hurries home to write,’ and that after a long journey by stagecoach, ‘Kierkegaard’s fellow passengers look as wretched as he feels.’

‘Life isn’t like a romantic novel,’ Kierkegaard proclaims. Perhaps Carlisle would have profited from lingering over this sentence. ‘He was shipwrecked,’ she writes, ‘on the warm-blooded, irrefutable existence of a young woman who lived a few streets away, who loved him and expected to marry him, whose eyes gazed directly into his own, whose tears he could reach out and touch.’ We also learn that ‘like every human soul’, Kierkegaard ‘came into being within the quiet, dark warmth of a woman’s body, and he longs for such a sanctuary when the bright lights of the world become too hard for him’. There are even more index entries for ‘soul’ than there are for ‘Regine’. ‘Is it surprising,’ Carlisle asks, ‘that a Scandinavian soul like his echoes with the sounds of the sea, senses unseen possibilities, knows the ocean’s expansiveness and depths?’ There is a description of him sitting backwards in a railway carriage so that he can’t see where the train is going, only where it has been. ‘He has come to think that life itself is like this,’ the book comments. Philosopher of the Heart also considers the question of Kierkegaard’s hair, which was swept into a dramatic quiff nearly six inches high, and was a gift to malicious caricaturists. You won’t hear about that in a philosophy lecture, any more than you will discover that ‘being Uncle Søren undoubtedly brought out the best in him,’ or that he took nearly a cupful of sugar in his coffee and found it amusing to watch the stuff dissolve.

Another rule of such biographies is that authors have to empathise with their subject rather than strike a critical note. Carlisle is forced to confess that she found herself disliking her spiritually tortured Dane from time to time, given his petty fixations, jealousy of his rivals’ success, bitter fury at those who slighted him, self-pity and debilitating pride. He had, in fact, all the worst features of an academic without any of the advantages of actually being one. Carlisle gets all this negative stuff over in a single sentence. She might have added that this astonishingly original thinker was also a full-blooded apologist for the forces of political reaction. Elitist, puritanical and deeply misogynistic, he defended censorship and monarchy, railed against the ‘mob’ and was a strict adherent of social hierarchy. His Lutheran combination of individualism and social conservatism led him to an impassioned support for family and fatherland. He may have been a Christian, but he was not a nice person at all. Carlisle, however, is far too nice to drive the point home.