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Letters of Blood and other works in English

Göran Printz-Påhlson

Other Prose

Part Ten. Kierkegaard the Poet

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1One of the disadvantages with the present-day critical and philosophical climate, fertile and exciting as it undoubtedly is, is not so much the apocalyptic tone that, for instance, Jacques Derrida has observed, but even more a predilection for recursiveness, a certain tendency to retrograde movement, tactical manoeuvres, which set their sight on goals further and further back, nearer to the origins of things and ideas. Although such a delaying strategy is hardly foreign to Kierkegaard’s own method, I shall try to start by following hints from Kierkegaard’s own practice and begin in medias res, with the small but substantial philosophical crumbs that Kierkegaard sprinkled fairly evenly over his entire work. The fragment (which is the standard translation of Kierkegaard’s ‘smuler’) was an aesthetic category in its own right for the age of Romanticism, since it had been used by Friedrich Schlegel in his famous Lycäum and Athenäum fragments at the tail end of the eighteenth century. If one tries to follow the conceptual ramifications of Kierkegaard’s thought in any straightforward systematic way, one is very soon overwhelmed by the feeling that one is—perhaps on purpose—being led astray, or lured into cul-de-sacs. It’s all a little like the haunted house in a contemporary American Gothic novel, which had been built in such a way that every door closed itself after a short while, and the intrepid explorers and psychic researchers would find themselves in a room with a multitude of doors and no recollection of which one they had used to get in.


2As far as we know, Kierkegaard was never a poet in the sense that he scribbled verses. He quotes poetry now and then, in particular in the letters to Regine Olsen, his young fiancée, the relationship with whom is so crucial for his work, but it is always others peoples’ poetry. Even when he is at his most lyrical and high-flown, as indeed in these letters, there is no indication that he wants to abandon prose for the formal strictness of poetry. From the very beginning, there is in the copious writings in his diaries and journals a reliance on prose, which in itself speaks of strong suspicions of the particular strictures of poetic expression. On the other hand we have always in his prose—in the style, in the care he takes with each word, in the sensuous and concrete presentation—an intimation of poetry, if not a critique of the poetic values prevalent in his day and age (that is, the poetry of Romanticism). The activity he finds himself engaged in is, characteristically, at digte, to create poetry: the Digter or poet being the representative of the creative genius who, according to Kierkegaard, or rather his first pseudonymous alter ego A. in Either/Or, creates beauty out of his own suffering. The best-known definition of the poet in the whole oeuvre is no doubt the passage in Either/Or that is sometimes known as ‘The Victims of Phalaris’:

What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music. His fate is like that of the unfortunate victims whom the tyrant Phalaris imprisoned in a brazen bull, and slowly tortured over a steady fire; their cries could not reach the tyrant’s ears so as to strike terror into his heart; when they reached his ears they sounded like sweet music. And men crowd about the poet and say to him, ‘Sing for us soon again’—which is as much as to say, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be fashioned as before; for the cries would only distress us, but the music, the music, is deligthful.’ And the critics come forward and say, ‘That is perfectly done—just as it should be, according to the rules of aesthetics.’ Now it is understood that a critic resembles a poet to a hair; he only lacks the anguish in his heart and the music upon his lips. I tell you, I would rather be a swineherd, understood by the swine, than a poet understood by men. (43)

3We here have a typical Kierkegaardian nuclear myth, or parable (both terms have been used but are to a large extent inadequate) where the partial identification of the real-life author with his pseudonymous voice is briefly brandished only to be teasingly withdrawn or sheathed. It is not so much a question of separating the ‘man who suffers’ from ‘the mind which creates,’ as it was for Eliot (31), as it is of disavowing any formal acknowledgement of identity, and so casting suspicion on the obvious interpretaton before it is attempted. In the text, the caveats, or warnings, far outnumber the placets, or go-ahead signs. If Kierkegaard’s anonymous role here is to be the poet, he is precluded, by the harsh rules of expression aesthetics, from any say on how the message is organized. On the other hand, if his role is to be, or simulate, the critic, he is denied both the suffering and the glory. But to the extent that the allegory is invited (and being a swineherd understood by swine may be a minimalist hermeneutic inducement not to be sneered at) it finds itself circumscribed by various rhetorical devices of simple or double ironies. Being a swineherd misunderstood by swine is perhaps how Kierkegaard fantasised about his own role in his most desperate circumstances. As a paradigm for indirect communication (den indirekte Meddelelse), ‘The Victims of Phalaris’ is as treacherous as any text by Kierkegaard.

4Moreover, the very term ‘poet’ is in itself treacherous, as it clearly has a wider span in English than in Danish, where a distinction between Poet and Digter is not only feasible but necessary. Kierkegaard’s preferred term, when treating his own work, whether pseudonymous or authorized, was author: Forfatter, and the generic term for his literary production, introduced in a short article published in 1851, and used again in its longer version in 1859, after his death, is Forfatter-Virksomhed, ‘Authorial Activity.’ In this context, Kierkegaard makes the distinction between the pseudonymous works and the authorized works and argues, with great force and ingenuity as always, that the duplicity is a willed duplicity and that the aesthetic works are written, pseudonymously, with one purpose only, to enhance and underpin the religious message, or kerygma, directly expressed in the (authorized) religious works. With due reliance on indirect communication, all the works are edifying discourses (‘opbyggelige taler’).


5Kierkegaard’s entire work, written in great haste between 1838 and 1855, historically belongs to the end period of the Danish Golden Age, and cannot be properly understood outside this context. It was a period of unmatched creativity and the literary and cultural life in Copenhagen was at its peak. Johan Ludvig Heiberg, the philosophical playwright, Grundtvig, the religious reformer, Oersted the scientist, Hans Christian Andersen (whom Kierkegaard loathed), and many other, now forgotten, names gave a rare glow to the intellectual atmosphere, and Kierkegaard moved, with comfort, wit and intelligence, in this milieu. His every text is steeped in references to the contemporary scene, where German Romanticism permeated the air. Hegelianism and other brands of philosophy spiced the conversations and cultural feuds. Still, his work—and in this we are forced to accept his own insistence on reading the entire work as one oeuvre—has had, after an incipient period of neglect, an enormous appeal far outside both Denmark and Scandinavia. This appeal is philosophically, theologically and, I would say, poetically, far greater than that of any other Scandinavian author, with the possible exceptions of two Swedish geniuses of the previous century, Linnaeus and Swedenborg. How can this be? To what genre can we assign his writings in this international perspective? He despised theology, he despaired of systematic philosophy, and he took every opportunity to disclaim the poetic existence. What can be the appeal for the reader who is ignorant of the finer points of Hegel’s logic, who does not claim to know Grundtvig, for whom H.C. Andersen is just a name on a half forgotten book of fairy tales?

6It seems to me that Kierkegaard belongs to a tradition of edifying but secular literature, which, defying formal categorisation or generic labelling, cultivates self-discovery and self-examination of a ruthlessly naturalistic, but nevertheless ultimately religious, nature. The antecedents of this tradition include works on such variegated intellectual levels as John Bunyan’s allegories, Montaigne’s essays and Pascal’s Pensées. Among Kierkegaard’s contemporaries only Ralph Waldo Emerson (ten years his senior) has a similar position. In our time, there may or may not be many candidates fulfilling the conditions for this line of secular pastoral care: I would offer only two names: Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. I am not maintaining that Kierkegaard was, in any profound way, following in the footsteps of his illustrious precursors: in that sense there is no tradition or store of wisdom handed down the ages, outside the evangelical message. In Kierkegaard’s works, Montaigne and Pascal get one (perfunctory) reference each. Bunyan and Emerson are not mentioned. Bunyan, Montaigne and Pascal have become, for many people of many generations and many nations, secret friends, life companions. So have, of course, many other writers of religious persuasion, in particular the great mystics. But these writers are not mystics. They, like Kierkegaard, are always the sworn enemies of all mysticism.

7Kierkegaard’s scepticism always provides a philosophical point of departure, as does his down-to-earth humour, his shield and protection against the mists and miasmas of philosophising Copenhagen of his day. He wrote in his journal an undated entry from 1848:

…my every day has been embittering and nasty, and there is this new misunderstanding where people dare not laugh along with me because they are suspicious and unable to get it into their heads that in all this nonsense I might still have an eye for the comic. Poetically it is of no interest at all, indeed poetically it is too bad that this drama has been put on every single day, year in and year out; poetically it needs cutting down. And that it will be for my reader. On the other hand, it is inside and with the everyday that the religious begins, and this is how I understand my life; for me this, the immensely comic drama, is a martyrdom. But certainly, were I not aware of being under infinite religious obligations, I could wish to go away to some solitary spot and sit down and laugh and laugh—even though it would pain me that this Krähwinckel [Dullsville—G.P-P.] is my beloved native land, this residence of a prostituted petty bourgeoisie my beloved Copenhagen. (Papers and Journals 345–46)

8This dismissal of ‘wonderful Copenhagen’ at its most scintillating moment in history is not only a sign of unease at being a genius in a provincial town—this phrase often applied to Kierkegaard, and had in fact been used by him about (and to) the culturally alert monarch Christian VIII—but a very shrewd appeal to future readers to appreciate his martyrdom. He is of course fully aware of the duplicity of this word in meaning ‘witness’ as well as ‘victim,’ both poetically and humorously.


9Kierkegaard’s main pseudonymous works were written and published at breakneck speed in the years 1843–46. They make up a complex, sophisticated, interrelated web of thoughts and ideas, comprising the works everyone knows: Either/Or in two volumes, early 1843, Fear and Trembling, the dialectical lyric, and Repetition, a strange psychological novella, both also 1843, and as a culmination Stages on Life’s Way in 1845. These copious books contain the three fictions or novels, where Kierkegaard’s literary art achieves its mastery: ‘The Diary of a Seducer’ from Either/Or, Repetition, and ‘Guilty/Not Guilty’ from Stages: they are true to, but also transcend, the narrative art and conventions of their day. Their complications and richness are such that I cannot more than mention them here. The best account of these novels is still Aage Henriksen’s book of 1954, Kierkegaards romaner, still not available in English, for some unaccountable reason. Kierkegaard’s pseudo-fictional books wonderfully circumscribe and annotate two nuclear narratives that are central to the whole pseudonymous work: ‘The Old Man and His Son’ and ‘The Betrothal and The Break‘: these have been the mainstay for every biographical interpretation of Sören Kierkegaard.

10The main fictional and semi-fictional works are interspersed with other no less weighty treatises: a penetrating psychological investigation The Concept of Dread 1844, and Historical Fragments in the same year. In 1846, he published for the first time with a semi-acknowledgement of his authorship (‘Published by S.K.’) the main confrontation with Hegel and contemporary philosophy, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. During this period he had also concurrently published his more conventionally religious Edifying Discourses under his own name. From before the period in question, he also had printed his master’s dissertation in Philosophy (virtually a doctoral thesis) On the Concept of Irony, and further, an attack on Hans Christian Andersen: ‘From the Papers of One Still Living.’ From the late period when his copious publications were more focussed on internal criticism of the Church of Denmark and Danish received religion, we can notice two epi-pseudonymou works: The Sickness unto Death and Training in Christianity, where Sören Kierkegaard is parading as editor, but the author is given ass ‘Anti-Climacus.’

11It is to the dissertation on irony we have to go if we want to be illuminated on Kierkegaard’s true views of aesthetics and poetry. In the pseudonymous works, the dialectical machinery has been put in motion in such a way that it is impossible to understand aesthetic categories unless in relation to some higher category of ultimately religious import. Such is the force of the ‘Governance,’ the Styrelse, he notices in his self-exposé in The Point of View. In 1843 he writes, when working on ‘Guilty/Not Guilty’: ‘I am experiencing in myself more poetry in a year and a half than all novels put together. But that I cannot and will not. My relation to her must not become poetically difuse; it has a reality that is quite different’ (Papers and Journals, 158). This is an entry in his journal that is emotionally highly charged and difficult to interpret, even syntactically quaint, about his real life relationship with Regine Olsen, whom he had left with seeming cruelty two years before.

12Before that, in the dissertation, apprentice work as it undoubtedly was, we find the clearest statements of his views on poetry. The reflectiveness of the age had liberated irony from being just a trope of rhetoric. Kierkegaard writes when discussing Schlegel’s Lucinde:

If we ask what poetry is, we may say in general that it is victory over the world; it is through a negation of the imperfect actuality that poetry opens up a higher actuality, expands and transfigures the imperfect into the perfect and thereby assuages the deep pain that wants to make everything dark. To that extent, poetry is a kind of reconciliation, but it is not the true reconciliation, for it does not reconcile me with the actuality in which I am living… (297)

13The shortcomings of Lucinde (a work that no doubt had a very important part to play for Kierkegaard’s formal ideas of fiction), its negation of morality through sensuousness, highlight the general deficiencies of Romanticism:

The tragedy of romanticism is that what it ceases upon is not actuality. Poetry awakens; the powerful longings, the mysterious intimations, the inspiring feelings awaken; nature awakens; the enchanted princess awakens—the romanticist falls asleep. (304)

14This romantic somnolence is just the opposite of what true (as opposed to romantic) irony—the negativity that was Socrates: ‘Irony as a controlled element manifests itself in its truth precisely by teaching how to actualise actuality, by placing the appropriate emphasis on actuality’ (265).

15To imagine such a propedeutic role for irony does not leave much room for poetry in the actual world. For Kierkegaard, in contrast to the romantics and their followers like Carlyle or Emerson, the poet has no elevated role to play—Kierkegaard is dismissive of that archetype of the poet, Orpheus, whom he calls ‘a sentimental zither player’ (Concluding Unscientific Postscript 248). Still, the poet remains an exemplar of a very special relationship to actuality. This is eloquently expressed in a later text, A Literary Review, from 1846, which contains Kierkegaard’s most incisive social criticism:

What proves to be the law regarding poetic production is the same, on a smaller scale, as that for every person’s life in social interchange and education. Anyone who experiences something originally also experiences, through ideality, the possibilities of the same and the possibility of the opposite. These possibilities are his literary legal property. But his own, private actuality is not. His speaking, his producing, are thus borne by silence. (87–88)

16It is the loquaciousness of actuality with which Kierkegaard, qua poet, is desperate to come to terms.


17This relationship can be variously described and defined, as it relays immediacy in experience to the category of the interesting, which Kierkegaard had taken over from a youthful dissertation by Friedrich Schlegel, Über das studium der Griechischen poësie.

18Let us, before we move to a closing comparison of Kierkegaard with his present-day counterparts, examine a text from his journal of 1846, which as far as I know has not found its way, like so many of the anecdotes recorded there, to the published works:

One day Professor Molbech came to visit with me. He praised my peculiarities, and my peculiar way of living, inasmuch as they favoured my work. ‘I would like to do the same,’ he said. Thereupon he told me that he the same day was dining out. And ‘there I have to drink wine and it does not agree with me; but one can’t get away, for then it will just begin: so, so, have a little glass, Professor, will do you good!’ I replied: ‘It’s easy to put a stop to it. You don’t say a word about not being able to take wine, because that is to incite their blathering sympathy. You sit down at the table, when the wine is served, you sniff it and say or indicate with your face that it is bad. Then the host will be angry and stop pestering you.’ Molbech replied to this: ‘No, I cannot do it, why should I anger people?’ I replied: ‘In order to have your own way. Isn’t that reason enough?’ But so it goes: First prattle for an hour about it with me and make a fool of one with such twaddle; then go to dinner and prate about it—and drink; and go home and suffer for it—and prattle again the whole night with his wife: that is to live and be interesting. (my italics—G. P.-P.)

19Is this farcical and very accurately recorded conversation to be regarded as just the tired philosophers irascible response to a boring situation? Perhaps. In that case, the irony is tropical and simple, as the entry is topical and simple. But the warnings of Kierkegaard regarding the double irony, or controlled irony as he terms it in the dissertation, make another possibility appear. Is poor Molbech in fact a poet volens nolens? According to the deeper definition of irony as truth he may very well be. But in that case everybody is a poet. The anti-romantic program, hinted at in the end of The Concept of Irony, sounds suspiciously close to some form of realism: not a poetry of lofty ideas or feelings, but a poetry feeding on what Merleau-Ponty called, in the title of a 1969 book, La prose du monde (The Prose of the World). We can now recognize the lowly, earthy tone of the Kierkegaardian anecdote. The self is given full access to its sources of energy and information in snippets of reality that are not interpreted, but rather obscured or occulted. In that sense, Kierkegaard has made of perception the opposite of apocalypse, or revelation. Hence his quarrel with mysticism. This is rather like Montaigne in his last great essay ‘Expérience,’ or, to go to our contemporaries, the irascible, stoic, triumphant voices of Samuel Beckett’s novels: Molloy counting his sucking stones, or the protagonist of The Unnamable mustering his troops of representative characters, almost pseudonyms: ‘all these Murphys, Molloys or Morans do not fool me’ (237). Time wasted is time won.

20Kierkegaard became the great discoverer of the individual: that is, in Danish, as he always puts it: hin enkelte. But finding complications in the individual did not deter him from his campaign against all kinds of holism, also in ethics. He annotated in 1850 on his youthful dissertation:

Influenced as I was by Hegel and by everything modern, lacking the maturity really to comprehend greatness, I was unable to resist pointing out somewhere in my disputation that it was a shortcoming in Socrates that he had no eye for the totality but only looked, numerically, to individuals. Oh, what a Hegelian fool I was! It is precisely the big proof of how a great ethicist Socrates was. (Papers and Journals 506)

21This can also be read as a gloss on the motto to Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which shows what his facetious title to the previous book really signifies: Philosophical Fragments (we may care remember that the Danish title meant ‘philosophical crumbs’). The motto is derived from ‘Hippias Major,’ one of the lesser Platonic dialogues (perhaps not authenticated): ‘the shavings and parings’ to which the hapless Hippias objects represent the very core of Socrates’ method of cutting up, diaíresis, which he elegantly encapsulates in the last words of the dialogue: ‘Beautiful things are difficult’ (423). The poet in Kierkegaard might be tempted to try the inversion: ‘difficult things are beautiful.’


Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Three Novels. New York: Grove, 1965.

Eliot, T.S. ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent.’ The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays. New York: Dover, 1997: 27–33.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates. Trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

—. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

—. Either/Or: A Fragment of a Life. Trans. by Alastair Hannay. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.

—. A Literary Review. Trans. by Alastair Hannay. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002.

—. Papers and Journals: A Selection. Ed. and trans. by Alastair Hannay. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.

Plato, ‘Lesser Hippias.’ Cratylus, Parmenides, Greater Hippias, Lesser Hippias. Trans. by H.N. Fowler. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1996: 333–424.


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