Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mock and real turtles

‘The difference between an author who picks up his material everywhere but does not work it up into an organic whole and one who does that is, it seems to me, like the difference between mock turtle and real turtle.’ This is 21 year old Søren Kierkegaard writing in the journal that he would keep for all of his short life. Today is a good day for remembering him - Denmark’s most important philosopher, dubbed by some as the father of existentialism - for it is the bicentenary of his birth.

Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen on 5 May 1813, the youngest of several children. His father had grown up poor in Jutland, but moved to the capital city and made his fortune. Søren spent ten years studying theology at Copenhagen University and eventually graduated in 1840 two years after his father died, leaving him rich enough not to work. Biographers consider this period to have been most important for his spiritual development. In September 1840, Kierkegaard became engaged to Regine Olsen, who was only 17 at the time. Regretting his action, and thinking he had done wrong, he withdrew from the engagement and went to Berlin for six months. Regine married happily, but Kierkegaard never forgot her and later dedicated the whole of his literary oeuvre to her.

On returning from Berlin, Kierkegaard published Either/Or under a pseudonym, which presented, for the first time, his basic ideas on existential philosophy. Later, he published important critiques of Hegel and of the German Romantics. Having undergone something of a spiritual crisis, he focused, during his final years, on attacking complacency within the Church of Denmark through newspaper articles in Fædrelandet (The Fatherland) and self-published pamphlets under the title, Øjeblikket (The Moment or The Instant). In autumn 1855, he collapsed on the street and died within a few weeks - aged only 42.

The website of the Christian Classics Ethereal Society summarises his influence as follows: ‘Kierkegaard’s resistance to creating an all-embracing system of thought has resulted in a rich variety of influence on twentieth century philosophy and literature. Jaspers, Heidegger and Sartre were all heavily influenced by his work, and existentialism owes much to Kierkegaard’s thought, drawing on his analysis of freedom and angst. Although he didn’t write much overtly political work, Marxists like Marcuse and Lukacs have shown interest in Kierkegaard’s writings. He has also influenced theological studies, especially the work of Karl Barth, and he is admired for his literary innovations.’ Further information on Kierkegaard is also available from Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or D Anthony Storm’s Kierkekaard website.

Throughout Kierkegaard’s adult life he kept a diary, more full of philosophical and religious musings, and of thoughts on his literary projects than descriptions of his daily life. There are over 7,000 diary pages, all of which have been edited and published in Danish in many volumes. A selection of extracts chosen and translated into English by Alexander Dru was published by Oxford University Press in 1938. A fuller version - though still not the complete journal - was edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong for publication by Indiana University Press from 1967. Meanwhile, the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre Foundation in Copenhagen is working on a definitive edition of all Kierkegaard’s writings, including the journal, which will then be translated into several languages. A summary of the journal’s contents, analysis and many extracts can be found online at Storm’s website; also has many extracts; and Natural Thinker has even more.

 11 September 1834
‘The reason I cannot really say that I positively enjoy nature is that I do not quite realize what it is that I enjoy. A work of art, on the other hand, I can grasp. I can - if I may put it this way - find that Archimedian point, and as soon as I have found it, everything is readily clear for me. Then I am able to pursue this one main idea and see how all the details serve to illuminate it. I see the author’s whole individuality as if it were the sea, in which every single detail is reflected. The author’s spirit is kindred to me; he is very probably far superior to me, I am sure, but yet he is limited as I am. The works of the deity are too great for me; I always get lost in the details. This is the reason, too, why people’s exclamations on observing nature: It’s lovely, tremendous, etc. - are so frivolous. They are all too anthropomorphic; they come to a stop with the external; they are unable to express inwardness, depth. In this connection, also, it seems most remarkable to me that the great geniuses among the poets (such as Ossian and Homer) are represented as blind. Of course, it makes no difference to me whether they actually were blind or not. I only make a point of the fact that people have imagined them to be blind, for this would seem to indicate that what they saw when they sang the beauty of nature was not seen with the external eye but was revealed to their inward intuition. How remarkable that one of the best, yes, the very best writer about bees was blind from early youth. It seems to indicate that however much one believes in the importance of the observation of externals, he had found that [Archimedian] point and now by a purely spiritual activity had deduced from this all the details and had reconstructed them analogously to nature.’

12 September 1834
‘I am amazed that (as far as I know) no one has ever treated the idea of a “master-thief,” an idea that certainly would lend itself very well to dramatic treatment. We cannot help noting that almost every country has had the idea of such a thief, that an ideal of a thief has hovered before all of them; and we also see that however different Fra Diavolo may be from Peer Mikkelsen or Morten Frederiksen, they still have certain features in common. Thus many of the stories circulating about thieves are attributed by some to Peer Mikkelsen, by others to Morten Frederiksen, by others to someone else, etc., although it is impossible to decide definitely to which of them they really belong. This shows that men have imagined a certain ideal of a thief with some broad general features which have then been attributed to this or that actual thief. We must especially bear in mind that wickedness, a propensity for stealing, etc. were not considered to be the one and only core of the idea. On the contrary, the master-thief has also been thought of as one endowed with natural goodness, kindness, charitableness, together with extraordinary bearing, cunning, ingenuity, one who really does not steal just to steal, that is, in order to get hold of another person’s possessions, but for some other reason. Frequently we may think of him as someone who is displeased with the established order and who now expresses his grievance by violating the rights of others, seeking thereby an occasion to mystify and affront the authorities. In this respect it is noteworthy that he is thought of as stealing from the rich to help the poor (as is told of Peer Mikkelsen), which does indeed indicate magnanimity, and that he never steals for his own advantage. In addition, we could very well imagine him to have a warm affection for the opposite sex, for example Forster (Feuerbach, part II), something that on the one hand indicates a bright spot in his character and on the other gives him and his life a romantic quality which is required in order to distinguish him from the simple thief - whether he steals in order to provide, if possible, a better future in his beloved’s arms (like Forster) or whether in his activity as a thief he is conscious of being an opponent of the established order or an avenger against the authorities of some injustice perhaps committed by them against him. His girl walks by his side like a guardian angel and helps him in his troubles while the authorities are in pursuit to capture him, and the populace, on the other hand, regards him suspiciously as one who is, after all, a thief, although perhaps an inner voice sometimes speaks in his defense, and at the same time he finds no encouragement and comfort among the other thieves since they are far inferior to him and are dominated by viciousness. The only possible association he can have with them is solely for the purpose of using them to achieve his aims; otherwise he must despise them.’

22 November 1834
‘The difference between an author who picks up his material everywhere but does not work it up into an organic whole and one who does that is, it seems to me, like the difference between mock turtle and real turtle. The meat from some parts of the real turtle tastes like veal, from other parts like chicken, but it is all together in one organism. All these various kinds of meat are found in mock turtle, but that which binds the separate parts is a sauce, which still is often more nourishing than the jargon which takes its place in a lot of writing.’

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