Leader of the awkward squad

Back to Essays, Reviewsback to journalism

The literary enterprise of Søren Kierkegaard, Guardian, February 1994


The death of Kierkegaard was the obscure death of the pedestrian — the death of Gaudí, run over by a Barcelona tram, or of Roland Barthes, knocked down by a van in Paris in 1980. In 1855 there were neither trams nor cars in Copenhagen, and Kierkegaard merely collapsed out walking, his physical engine having run out although he was only 42. A coach was fetched and he was taken to the hospital in Bredgade to die. But the citizens who came to his aid knew exactly who he was: his death was not the start of a journey out of obscurity like Gaudí’s (nor Barthes’ martyrdom to contingency) but a journey into it. Alive, Søren Kierkegaard was the best-known figure on the streets of Copenhagen.

“He goes into no company, and sees nobody in his own house,” the visiting Scotsman Andrew Hamilton wrote. “Yet his one great study is human nature; no one knows more people than he. The fact is he walks about town all day, and generally in some person’s company; only in the evening does he write and read…. He writes at times,” Hamilton added, typifying a continuing scorn, “with an unearthly beauty, but too often with an exaggerated display of logic that disgusts the public.” Heartily relieved to see him go, the materialistic, provincial, conservative Danes who had ridiculed and ignored him for ten years made death his final punishment. Overnight he was forgotten. By officiating against his wishes at his burial, the Danish Church, whose time-serving mediocrity he had strenuously attacked while remaining a passionate believer in God, took its own revenge.

The conspiracy has stood the test of time — Heidegger and Wittgenstein failed to acknowledge their debt, Sartre (in bad faith) couldn’t bear to pay his dues to a Christian, and English — Oxford and Cambridge — philosophy has pretended he did not exist. Conservatism in the English academy is remarkably tenacious, and like the Danes it has hastened to kill off any disorder he might have caused. Nobody reads the father of existentialism now: if Flaubert had written a Dictionary of Received Ideas for this century, the entry for Kierkegaard would read “Laugh knowingly when you hear his name: this is proof of your superior intellect”.

Kierkegaard — one should admit it at the start — was a complicated case. There was no “system”: the lived ethics which he invented is as often concealed as revealed in the works which poured out of him. His pseudonymous aesthetic texts are prolix, repetitious, stuffed with wearying mysteries which he loves to elaborate and refuses to solve. For all their trove of personal anecdotes — his most urgent passages always seem to begin with “I” — he is a modern Antigone, one anxious to speak yet rendered silent by family piety. Very little is accurately known of his life. His broken engagement to Regine Olsen, eighteen-year-old daughter of a Copenhagen official, in 1841 — did he give her up because he was afraid he had syphilis? to protect her from a marriage he knew would be unhappy? — is only the most obvious mystery (he never loved again), though his relationship with his tyrannical father who may have kicked his first wife to death (and passed on the syphilis) remains in almost as tragic obscurity. In his works the categories — anxiety, repetition, the demoniacal — multiply as if they were spies set to infiltrate truth, not on a mission to explain. He himself coined the term “indirect communication” for his writing but refused to explain what it meant. Public taste is as easily disgusted as it ever was.

Yet the beauty, unearthly or not, surfaces with a revelatory freshness in the Journals, letters, the texts of the 1840s. He could be terse: “I have just returned from a party of which I was the life and soul; wit poured from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me — but I went away — and the dash should be as long as the earth’s orbit ———————————— and wanted to shoot myself.” But the melodrama aligns with irony rather than subjection:


I said to myself, “Wherever you look about you, in literature and in life, you see the celebrated names and figures, the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railways, others by omnibuses and steamboats, and finally the true benefactors of the age who make spiritual existence in virtue of thought easier and easier, yet more and more significant. And what are you doing?” …. Out of love for mankind, and out of despair at my embarrassing situation, seeing that I had accomplished nothing and was unable to make anything easier than it had already been made, and moved by a genuine interest in those who make everything easy, I conceived it as my task to create difficulties everywhere.


After the Corsair affair of 1846, when he had been so caricatured in the satirical magazine of that name that he was no longer able to leave his home for public ridicule, his writing sharpened to a lapidary prescience: “A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age a rebellion is, of all things, the most unthinkable. Such an expression of strength would seem ridiculous to the calculating intelligence of our times.” In The Present Age he describes the end of genius, the revolution that empties everything of significance, reflection which leads to envy, the power of the press to hurt and to deny it because no one is doing the hurting, the ultimate goal of money: he could have been writing yesterday.

Creating difficulties everywhere: it could ironically have been part of Kierkegaard’s intention to be ignored and, when not ignored, misread. It is certain that his refusal to solve any of the ethical mysteries he proposed was a deliberate life-gesture, that mysteries, in his own life and others’, could not be solved. Oxford and Cambridge philosophy, in its grand objective idea of truth and its denial of the Kierkegaardian possibility of many individually determined truths to life, has revealed the dismal poverty of its calculating intelligence (a morbid consistency lived up to by pharisaic dons who issued the famous “non placet” against Jacques Derrida).

On the periphery, in the younger universities, the tide may at last be turning. In 1965 when Dr Roger Poole, whose enlightening and elegant guide to Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication” was published this winter, went to a party at Trinity College, he found his way barred by another philosopher with a pint of beer in his hand. “Subjectivity is truth,” the don roared. “What does that mean?” Only last month Dr Poole’s old tutor told him that he didn’t see how one could write a good book about a bad thinker. Pressed, he stated fiercely that Kierkegaard was a bad thinker because “he’s a dangerous thinker”.

Poole, who is Reader in Literary Theory at Nottingham University, conceived his passion for Kierkegaard when he found a selection of the Journals one day in Cambridge, after breaking off his own engagement. “I was absolutely struck by the merciless self-awareness he had, that he could look right into himself and into his own motives for getting engaged and now for not going ahead with it. I was hooked.” His thesis on Kierkegaard was his first attempt to understand the concept of indirect communication, but equally about something whose full significance did not dawn on him until twenty years later. After Cambridge he left for Paris for three years as a lecteur at the Sorbonne. As far as Cambridge was concerned, he then cut his own throat. Hearing Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Barthes and Ricoeur, he came back to write the first English introduction to structuralism, for Lévi-Strauss’s Totemism Today. “As far as they were concerned I was peddling the latest Paris fad – this was ’69, structuralism was only three years from ending in Paris! I was a dead man.” His application for a Cambridge fellowship was generously supported by Ricoeur. It was greeted with “What is structuralism and who is Paul Ricoeur?” So he went to Nottingham.

Then in 1986 he was sitting in a conference listening to a lecture by Derrida. “He was going on and on, and suddenly something stirred. I thought, what Derrida is telling me is Kierkegaard’s working programme. This is how Kierkegaard thought.

“He realised long before Derrida that meaning is a scattered dissemination of signifiers. You can never get at the signified, and if you take advantage of that as a novelist that’s the best you’re going to do.” Poole’s insistence that Kierkegaard was in essence a novelist is very alien to the English tradition — as novels even his best books, like Either/Or, suffer from that protracted, willed irreconcilability — but it’s impossible to deny that his method, the stuffing of narrative with autobiographical facts, the remodelling of philosophical reality with parables, pseudonyms and general factitiousness, bears comparison with the methods of Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Kafka, Thomas Mann, Ford Madox Ford. Poole is adamant that Kierkegaard “was the first great modernist. Long before Proust he realised that there was no way of getting to a decision. You’re always lusting after that signified – what is it? Childhood, love, the absence of the mother? But he’ll never give it to you. You’re on your knees begging for it. Give me that signified!… That’s Kierkegaard, he won’t give you the signified, he’ll tell you more signifiers, drive you mad with expectation.

“Oxford and Cambridge distinguish between what they call philosophy, which deals with truth, and the history of ideas, which deals with muddled European efforts to get at it. This distinction I find so naïve. What on earth do you do when you can’t decide on meanings, when you don’t know whether there are meanings, when the world itself is almost illegible? A world  of relativity has opened up under our feet with which Oxford and Cambridge have totally failed to deal, and it seems to me that relativity and all the problems it brings with it have been tackled in literary theory and nowhere else. That’s why I realised in 1986 I had been sitting on a goldmine: all these texts, massively over-determined with meanings, and at the same time referring to things which are terribly interesting. How does one relate to one’s father? How does one do away with the patriarch while hanging on to the values? How does one relate to other men or to other women? How does one work out one’s sex life and one’s emotional life? When those two overlap, how does one get out of that? All these things, which are really the novelist’s craft.”

Glimpsed through the levitating prism of academic passion, it is easy to forget that Kierkegaard’s genius lay in the opposite of what we expect of genius: a personal formulation of obscurity, and a by no means wholly successful attempt to transcend it. The body of his work takes up almost as much space as Dickens’ — in 1843 he published three books on the same day — the challenge to come to the end of its redoubled ironies and repeated secretiveness a variety of fine-ground punishment for an ordinary reader. As Poole points out in his book, quoting Harold Bloom, “The only way in which sense can be made of… Kierkegaardian indirection is to regard his coded utterances as a kind of self-communing: ‘Why do we believe one liar rather than another? Why do we read one poet rather than another? We believe the lies we want to believe because they help us to survive…. Strong poems strengthen us by teaching us how to talk to ourselves, rather than how to talk to others.’” Kierkegaard is the philosopher of broken engagements, with the reader as much as Regine. If one keeps on reading him it’s because one still wants to follow his acts of courage, which made it possible for him, despite it all going wrong — his father, his fiancée, the public — to go on talking to himself.

If one accepts this, the obscurity becomes a red herring. As does Kierkegaard’s Christianity. Poole believes God should be skipped altogether in his work. “He’s too important a thinker. His Christianity lets people off the hook. They say, oh he’s just a Christian, an idiot. I think that’s why people have gone on not listening to him for so long. Skip God.” He prefers to substitute Kant’s view that one should never treat the other as a means but always as an end in himself or herself, and that your ethical responsibility is absolute.

“This is interesting because, unlike English philosophy, Kierkegaard realises that values are relative. For all that he doesn’t throw up his arms and say we can all go and fuck our own children, or torture people, or gas them to death in the marshes. It doesn’t follow that because values are relative, there is no absolute ethical responsibility. If you look into yourself and discover that your motives are less than pure, you should haul yourself over the coals and say, my conscience clearly tells me that I am not doing this for the right reason and therefore I won’t do it.”

Poole’s work on Kierkegaard, despite indifference to it in this country — a career that weirdly mirrors Kierkegaard’s own — has been recognised on the Paris-Yale axis. A Kierkegaard institute also recently opened at Moscow university (aptly coincidental with the removal of the guard on Lenin’s tomb), and it is rumoured that South American Catholics persecuted by the runic prohibitions of Veritatis Splendor are taking to Kierkegaard’s central

category of the individual like ducks to water. Poole’s enthusiasm runs on to his next book, a biography (because in Derridan terms, Kierkegaard’s peripatetic and subsequently confined body is a vital text) and vade mecum of the central ideas, and he looks forward to a day when the vastness will be edited into a collection of novels and texts which will be read widely.

Improbable? In Britain we know something is coming, but we don’t know what. Fascinated and mixed-up in the present, we are living in a sort of waiting-room — we feel our part in history has ended and we’re uneasily waiting for Godot, for the next stage to begin. There are random signs and flashes at the edge of our vision, but with our all-embracing objective belief, in politics, science, economics, we still have no star to steer by. Very posthumously Kierkegaard’s subjectivity, so massively resistant to history’s erosion, may show a way, if not the way, to go. Where there is death there is hope (as he might have said). In the waiting-room at least there is plenty to read.


Books reviewed

Kierkegaard: The Indirect Communication by Roger Poole (University of Virginia Press / Eurospan University Press Group, £32.50)

A Kierkegaard Reader, edited by Roger Poole and Henrik Stangerup (Fourth Estate, £7.95)

Either/Or, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard, all translated and edited by Alastair Hannay (Penguin Classics)


© Julian Evans 1994

Conditions of use

This site contains copyright material © Julian Evans 1993-2013. Permission is granted to print, download, read/listen to the print/audio material for personal use only. It may not be reused (copied, broadcast, shared) without permission and all reuses must be attributed.