Herewith an essay on writing, the spirit and Kierkegaard by a former student and Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate (dual major in creative nonfiction and fiction) Andrew Hood. Beside being an author, Drew is a father, a former seminarian and a gifted photographer. This essay was Drew’s critical thesis.
Writing Before God: The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard
By Andrew Hood
I first encountered Søren Kierkegaard in an undergraduate philosophy class when I was assigned to read what my professor called, “an uplifting exploration of sin and despair,” entitled The Sickness Unto Death. Having grown up attending church regularly in the Bible Belt of north Louisiana, I had a thorough but rudimentary understanding of the concept of sin. Thorough because the pastor talked about it every Sunday. Rudimentary because it was the same formula every Sunday: some form of pride leads to some form of anti-social behavior, which must be judged and forgiven by God at great personal sacrifice on His part.
By the time I got to college, I realized that whatever sin was, it was everywhere and bad, and that I was personally causing God a lot of grief because of it. So I understood how a conversation about sin could lead a philosopher into a conversation about despair. The byproduct of contemplating my own sin – which had become a kind of perpetual act carried out just beyond the horizon of consciousness – was guilt and shame. In my experience, guilt and shame were to despair what hydrogen and oxygen were to water. And I was drowning.
When I went off to college, I tried two different churches for two weeks each. And when, over the course of those four weeks, not a single person spoke to me or acknowledged me, I stopped looking for a church. Louisiana State University had as many students as my hometown had residents. I felt lost and invisible among the swarm, and with no church, and no Christian friends, I began to grieve the slow dissolution of my faith – which was no small matter for a boy whose faith was so intimately bound to his self.
My astronomy, sociology, anthropology, geology and biology classes were forcing me to think in new ways, and convincing me that history and existence could not be reduced to or explained by the cluster of truisms and artless appeals to mystery that had comprised my Christian faith. Eventually, the structure upon which I had made sense of my world and self trembled and collapsed. The sole exception was that sturdy, incorruptible concept of personal sin.
Like a chimney that stands tall over a burnt and crumbled home, that concept of sin and its concomitant sense of shame and guilt stood firm, even as the rest of my faith laid in ruins. A chimney deals only with fire, and so survives a fire; while sin deals only with failure, and so survives all failure.
But beneath the smoldering pile of religious rubble was a remnant of belief. I still believed that God existed, but I had lost the certainty that I knew and understood God. And with that, I lost the sense that God knew and understood me. And I missed that. So I held onto my belief in the existence of God, and I decided that one day I’d try again with Christianity.
Enter Philosophy 1201 and Søren Kierkegaard.
Class had just ended, and the professor had left us with an intriguing introduction of Kierkegaard, calling him a “thoroughly Christian existentialist.” I had no idea what an existentialist was, but I was excited to learn that at least one of them was a Christian, and that he had managed to garner some respect in the world of philosophy. The professor assigned us to read and prepare to discuss the first twenty-eight pages of Sickness Unto Death.
So I skipped my sociology class that day and rushed to the student union to eat lunch and get started reading Kierkegaard. I sat at my favorite table near the twenty-foot windows that overlooked a grove of dark, sprawling oaks. I had my burger, my Coke, and my Sun Chips. I opened the book, flipped past the introductions and the preface until I found the first page and then the first line.
Kierkegaard: “A human being is spirit.”
Me: That is so true.
Kierkegaard: “But what is spirit?”
Me: Well, among other things, it’s invisible.
Kierkegaard: “Spirit is the self.”
Me: [Pause. Chew. Look out at the old dark trees.] I used to believe that.
Kierkegaard: “But what is the self?”
Me: Great question.
Kierkegaard: “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.”
Me: Whaaaa? [Eat a chip. Look out window. Drink from straw. Wonder if I feel dumber or smarter for having read that. Muster courage to read the passage again more slowly, more systematically.]
Kierkegaard: “The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself.”
Me: [Close book. Get the overwhelming sense that Kierkegaard was either messing with me, or had thought so much about what it meant to be human that his writing had become as incomprehensible as humanity itself.]
That was the first time in my life – not at that table with that burger and those chips and that Coke, but at university in general – that I had understood humanity as something complicated. Prior to that, my religion had shaped my understanding. And my religion had explained everything in desperate and defensive terms too final, too simple, too ethno-, socio- and ego-centric to be true.
So – having been awakened by my studies to the infinite complexity of humanity and existence; and longing for some form of Christianity that acknowledged and felt comfortable with that complexity – I discovered Kierkegaard. And having discovered Kierkegaard, I discovered the foundation for a new faith, though I could not yet put that into words. I sensed – behind his incomprehensible thought – an incomprehensible faith that was not only comfortable with, but demanded an incomprehensible God, who incomprehensibly chose to create and interact with individuals, which is itself an utterly incomprehensible act.
But it was not only Kierkegaard’s thought that confused and inspired me. His writing did, too. I had always been fascinated by language. And from an early age, I was most happy when I was writing. I was never a writer who felt inspired or impressed by plot, but rather by the puzzle and play of language itself. The rhythmic interpenetration of linguistic structures. The way meaning itself moved, in the act of writing, from life to story to sentence to word and then back to life again in the reading. And the way it sounded as it moved.
In Kierkegaard, I discovered not only a writer who expressed disillusionment with the religion of his childhood and his day – which I identified with – but a writer who did so with a level of linguistic brilliance and playfulness that inspired me and compelled me to become at once a more complex thinker, writer and Christian.
The artists who have inspired and changed me the most are as shocked and silenced as I am by existence. In each case, this shock expresses itself in a furious and doomed, but profoundly intimate search for meaning; while the silence expresses itself not silently, but with awkward, raving beauty, with tortuous incessant rhythm, with something other than language as it is commonly known. Kierkegaard and Faulkner are the first to come to mind, but also Dostoevsky and Charlie Parker. Each found his own way to communicate the delirious cacophony of pain and paradox. And the sometimes incomprehensible art of each expressed directly the incomprehensible fact that, for whatever reason and for whatever purpose, existence exists.
Although each of the above-mentioned artists have helped to shape me and my writing, Kierkegaard has had the most profound affect because his work issues a direct challenge for me to consider my individual, relational existence before God and in society. His writing mirrors the complexity, creativity and strange, tragic beauty he found in the fact of his own existence. And what I, as a writer, have learned from Kierkegaard is not only how to write better, but also how someone with a desperate and cynical, joyful, grieving curiosity can channel all the infinity of life and thought into words that mean everything to him. Words that also sound pretty sometimes.
From that first reading, I have been as fascinated by the man himself as I have been by his work. Kierkegaard’s writing style, which achieves a certain intimacy with the reader through the use of humor, parable, storytelling, and first-person narrative form, has the effect of bringing the author in close to the reader’s consciousness. But at the same time, Kierkegaard hides himself beneath layers of pseudonymity, dense philosophical terminology, linguistic flourishes, and tortuous contextual irony, all of which serve to distance the author from the reader. This paradoxical simultaneity of intimacy and hiddenness is itself a challenge or an invitation to approach Kierkegaard as one approaches a complex riddle.
Kierkegaard: The Writing Self and Writing The Self
Because I have been inspired by the complexity of Kierkegaard’s writing style, I want to learn more about his writing process. Because I have been challenged and changed by Kierkegaard’s faith, I want to learn more about the man himself – a man who seemed to understand sin, anxiety and despair in a deeply personal way, who seemed to have had a prophet’s sensitivity (endnote 1) to the qualitative difference between God and humanity, and yet a man who could write with such playfulness about it all.
With this double-goal in mind of learning more both about Kierkegaard’s writing and his personal life, I decided to study his journals. I expected that his journals would, to a greater extent than his published work, offer insight into his writing process as well as some intimate facts and details about who he was and how he came to think the way he did. But Kierkegaard knew I was coming, and he covered himself well.
His journals reveal a significant amount of interiority and biography, but with meticulous calculation they hide even more. Some scholars wonder if he was trying to protect and control the reputation he passed on to posterity. But Kierkegaard’s corpus points to a more foundational reason for hiding the most vulnerable aspects of his life. Kierkegaard believed that each individual carried within him or herself a certain sacred core that was the essence of their unique existence before God. This interiority could belong to no one but the individual, and could be communicated to no one but God. Therefore, when Kierkegaard hides himself, even in the midst of self-revelation or hides himself within an apparent self-revelation, he is acknowledging and participating in the impossibility of true self-revelation. Here is an example that typifies Kierkegaard’s ability to reveal and hide in the same breath:
“Oh, how terrifying it is when thus for a moment I come to think of my life’s dark background from the very earliest moment. The anguished fear my father put into my soul, his own terrible melancholy, the many things on that account which I cannot even note down….it is terrible to think even for a moment of the life I thus have led in the most hidden recesses of my soul, of course literally without ever having breathed a word about it to a single person, not even daring to set down the slightest hint about it—and then to think that I have been able to disguise this life under the cloak of an outward existence of exuberance and gaiety” (Rohde 59).
This passage not only serves to point out his personal dialectic of intimacy and hiddenness, it also reveals an inborn irony that, for Kierkegaard, was a personality trait long before it was a literary device (endnote 2) .
Thus anyone who wants to study Kierkegaard’s writing must also study Kierkegaard himself, and anyone who wants to find the historical man, must get lost in the hall of mirrors that is his writing.
Although the art and artist cannot be isolated, I will focus on one aspect at a time: first, on Kierkegaard’s writing self, and then on Kierkegaard’s self in his writing.
The Drive To Write
“Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in thought and am happy….Being an author is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.” (Kierkegaard, The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard 52)
The first time I read this passage, I thought that perhaps, in some fit of anachronistic mischief, Kierkegaard had plagiarized my own personal diary. Whether I will ever be good at writing is not important. Writing is indeed “concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.” The only difference between my hypothetical diary entry and Kierkegaard’s real one is that when I write, I do not forget all of life’s vexations. Precisely then I remember them. I write with my own grief always before me, and with fear and doubt and shame, too. These are the very vexations that I most want to explore because they contribute to the most suffering in me and, I believe, in the world. I do not escape them in writing, but I confront them and explore them, and I do what I can to expose them and describe them in various settings, and hopefully to rob them of some tiny bit of their power.
But Kierkegaard did not exactly forget all of life’s vexations as he said he did. His drive to write was fueled by the intense melancholy he learned from his father, as well as the raging confluence of resentment, fear and awe he felt for him, and the shattering grief that followed his breakup with Regine. Kierkegaard believed that his personal suffering was “the high purchase price which God in Heaven demanded of [him] in exchange for a strength of mind and spirit” that was unequaled among his contemporaries (Kierkegaard, The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard 57).
While none of his books, not even his journals, were directly about these sufferings, all of his writing passed through them and was affected by them. Kierkegaard believed that his own personal pain made him “inventive in delving for the Truth,” and that pain shimmers on the surface of Kierkegaard’s greatest pseudonymous works (Kierkegaard, The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard 43). All of the books for which he is most widely praised include stories of overbearing fathers, seductive women, and evil or guilt-ridden engagement-breakers.
So, while his drive to write was inborn and “concomitant with everything in [his] individuality,” that drive was fueled by what Kierkegaard called “some suffering, close to insanity” that had been with him since birth (Kierkegaard, The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard 55).
But Kierkegaard was not only driven by his anguish. He was driven by a mind that was almost too much for him to handle. “Like a steamer whose engines are too large in proportion to the vessel’s construction: that is the way I suffer” (Kierkegaard, The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard 23).
“One thought chases the next; no sooner have I thought it and am about to write it down than a new one comes along—hold it, grasp it—Madness—Insanity!” (Kierkegaard, The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard 14).
Kierkegaard would not have been such a prolific writer if he had not been an equally prolific reader and thinker and feeler. In his book Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, Joakim Garff writes that in the mid-1830’s, Kierkegaard went on a reading binge in which he, “amassed the enormous fund of literary, theological, and philosophical knowledge on which he would subsequently draw so generously and unblushingly in his writings” (203). Garff points out that most of his books were theological in nature, but he also studied the classic dramatic and philosophical writings in German, Greek and Latin. Kierkegaard was also drawn to fairy tales and provincial folk songs from around Europe because of the fantastic sense of story and feeling contained in their simple forms.
“When I am tired of everything and ‘full of days,’ fairy-tales are for me always the revitalizing bath that proves so refreshing. There all earthly, all finite cares vanish; joy, yes sorrow even, are infinite (which is just why they are so expanding and beneficial). One sets out to find a bluebird, just like the princess who, chosen to be queen, lets someone else take care of the kingdom so that she herself can seek out her unhappy beloved. Ah! What infinite sorrow lies in her words when, addressing the old woman she meets as she roams about dressed as a peasant girl, she says: ‘I am not alone, my dear mother; I have with me a large retinue of grief, worries, and sorrows.’ One so utterly forgets the single private sorrow each person can harbor, in order to wallow in the deep sorrow we all share, and in which one is so easily tempted to wish to meet an old woman to whom one could say, ‘My dear mother’” (Kierkegaard, Journals and Notebooks 242).
Here, we get a sense of how Kierkegaard read: by first isolating the work as its own distinct world; then stepping into that world and, taking cues from the writer, imagining that world and subjectively investing it with the utmost sensual and emotional detail; and then relating and comparing that created world to both the broader society and his own personal experience. Kierkegaard felt what the characters might have felt. But when he read, he also felt what he might have felt if he were in a given character’s shoes.
This means that Kierkegaard often responded to characters as if they were real – or at least he imagined what his response would be if they were real, and if he were in the story with them. As we see in the excerpt above, Kierkegaard did not approach fairy tales as primarily narrative fantasy, but as deeply moving stories that captured the fantastic power of human emotion.
Kierkegaard also read the Bible with this same level of subjective investment. This method stood in stark contrast to the scholarly approach of the religious leaders of the day. When Kierkegaard read a story from the Bible, he felt – through the filter of his own imagination and experience – the grief or the magic or the fear or the joy that the Biblical characters might have felt. For Kierkegaard, these were stories that conveyed the most relevant and powerful truths about humans in relationship with God and one other, and all the deep emotions that swirl around and through those relationships.
He accused the religious leaders of reducing these stories to simple tales of moral correctness, and of using Biblical stories to reinforce the cultural norms of bourgeois society. Kierkegaard’s polemic against the Church – that it was too enmeshed with the egocentric structures of society to be the agent of subversion and love that Jesus called her to – was ultimately rooted in his intensely subjective method of reading and interpreting the Bible.
For example, Kierkegaard accused the Church of defining the story of Abraham and Isaac as a story of simple obedience. Kierkegaard would probably not deny that the story should spark a conversation about obedience. But in defining it simply and solely as a story about obedience, the religious scholars had strangled the humanity out of it – the anxiety and grief that Abraham must have felt, the confusion or hatred or fear that Isaac must have felt. In his book, Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard argued (among other things) that the Church had systematized and intellectualized the Bible until the original sense of religious horror had been lost. And all relevance, too.
Kierkegaard was not interested in explaining an inexplicable story to make it more palatable or logical, but in experiencing the soaring heights and darkest depths of the paradox of faith. That was the power he discovered in reading the Bible. As he did with many books, he mined the Biblical narrative for every bit of emotional detail, and related it to his society and to his own personal narrative.
But if the intellectual tendency of Kierkegaard’s day was to squeeze out all the subtlety and mystery of the human-divine relationship by fitting everything into a system, Kierkegaard’s tendency was to inflate and infinitize anything he got his hands on. “All of existence intimidates me, from the tiniest fly to the enigmas of incarnation; as a whole it is inexplicable, my own self most of all; all of existence is pestiferous, my own self most of all. Great is my grief, limitless” (Rohde 19). In his book, Repetition, Kierkegaard writes about a character who can only love his beloved after he has left her, when her true self is not present and cannot interfere with the self that he poetically imagines her to be.
Kierkegaard certainly “poeticized” his own life, faith and relationships, which is ultimately no different than systematizing and categorizing everything because in both cases, the thing is not allowed to be itself, but is either reduced or expanded into something else altogether. So, while I believe Kierkegaard’s critique of his own culture was correct, I also believe that he sometimes went too far in the opposite direction.
But that tendency is what made him unique. Kierkegaard’s drive to write was often fueled by the vigorous subjectivity and emotional sensitivity that he brought to his reading. Much of what he wrote was corrective or polemic because he felt the need to reinterpret the meaning of texts that had been neutered by the apathetic rationalization of conventional “philistine-bourgeois” thought.
Kierkegaard not only read with those qualities (vigorous subjectivity and emotional sensitivity), he also wrote with those qualities. Although he initially longed to be a part of Copenhagen’s cultural elite, Kierkegaard quickly became disenchanted with its demands for intellectual homogeneity and its inability to wrestle honestly with the paradox of faith and existence. Ultimately, Kierkegaard was not driven to write by his desire to conform and excel in intellectual circles. Rather, he was driven by that vigorous subjectivity and emotional sensitivity; he was driven by his own personal retinue of grief, doubt, and shame; he was driven by an unconventional faith that was at once simple and profoundly complex, a faith which refused the systematization and rationalization that left no room for doubt, nuance, or paradox; and all of this drive was steered by an unusually brilliant and creative mind.
So how does a theologian (endnote 3) who wants to write about the paradox and nuance of existence – that is, subjectivity and interiority, anxiety and doubt, grief and love and faith and loss – approach such a project? He approaches it narratively. Because the narrative style zooms in on the subjective experience and consciousness, and even makes room for a variety of subjective experiments. And if he also wants to reveal the shortcomings of the concocted systems of thought that had corrupted and oversimplified these issues, he also approaches them ironically. Because irony has two mouths. So he can not only present his own ideas, but comment polemically on the ideas of his contemporaries.
Kierkegaard’s Writing Style
“This is the way literature ought to be, not a nursing home for cripples but a playground for healthy, happy, thriving, smiling, vigorous little scamps, well-formed, complete beings, satisfied with who they are, each of whom has the express image of its mother and the power of its father’s loins, not the aborted products of feeble wishes, not one of those born late, amid postpartum pains” (Kierkegaard, Journals and Notebooks 170).
When reading Kierkegaard, I have often felt that I was standing outside a fence, watching a puerile little man romp giddily through a playground. His writing is at once playful and complex, often pressing volumes of meaning into just a few words or images (endnote 4). He luxuriates in the rhythm and sound of writing (endnote 5). In a journal entry from 1854, he writes, “Thus I have sometimes been able to sit for hours in love with the way a language sounds, that is, if the conciseness of an idea is echoed in it; thus I could sit for hours on end, alas, like a flutist entertaining himself on his flute.”
Like an adult who never wants to leave the playground, Kierkegaard can sometimes go too far (as in the opening example from The Sickness Unto Death) so that the sound shouts louder than the meaning behind it. These passages can be beautifully rhythmic and maddeningly vague.
However, Kierkegaard mitigates this tendency by complementing these passages with explicating narratives. He often illustrates his point of view through story, parable, and characterization. Many of his books were written pseudonymously with a first person narrative voice, and each pseudonym becomes a character with a distinct position, style, and set of beliefs. Kierkegaard was not the only author of his day to use a pseudonym. Almost all of the most popular ones did. But Kierkegaard was the only author to use more than one. And he was certainly the only author to assign different voices and characterizations to his various pseudonyms. Kierkegaard used the common practice of pseudonymity in new ways to amplify the irony his writing intended.
He made a distinction between the pseudonymous works – which subverted his generation’s obsession with the Hegelian system by conveying meaning through narration, irony, poetry and a wide range of other literary devices often found in fiction – and his religious discourses, which were published veronymously and constituted what he called, “direct communication.”
In the book Johannes Climacus, the pseudonymous author sets out to go beyond Descartes in doubting everything. Climacus writes:
“Someone who supposes that philosophy has never in all the world been so close as it is now to fulfilling its task of explaining all mysteries may certainly think it strange, affected and scandalous that I choose the narrative form and do not in my small way hand up a stone to culminate the system.” (endnote 6)
Kierkegaard consistently uses narrative techniques and literary devices to expose the shortcomings of “the system.” For example, in Kierkegaard’s view, no philosophical system can explain the paradox of faith because faith is absurd, and the absurd can not be explained by a system of logic.
But why, precisely, did Kierkegaard believe that narrative techniques were more effective tools than the logical, didactic approach of traditional philosophical and theological writing? First of all, because storytelling came naturally to him. But also because he was concerned first and foremost with how thought and faith were shaped by life and expressed in life.
Socrates had a significant impact on Kierkegaard’s thought. In Socrates, Kierkegaard discovered the power of irony to convey multiple levels of truth. He also adopted Socrates’ maieutic method of teaching, which involved defining and clarifying ideas in dialogue. This approach began with the belief that the truth was inherent in subjectivity, and needed only to be delivered or brought out in a dialogic process of clarification. While Socrates employed this method in the streets, Kierkegaard did it the only way a writer can: narratively. Only in story could he carry out the kind of back-and-forth whittling that constitutes the Socratic method of discovery.
Kierkegaard was also influenced by another legendary storyteller. But because Jesus is at the center of the Christian faith, which had such a major influence in shaping Kierkegaard’s entire life-view, it is difficult to isolate how Jesus, specifically, had an influence on Kierkegaard’s writing life, specifically. We do know that parables played a large role in Kierkegaard’s writing. Even his less narrative works would include short parables and aphorisms to explicate his points with relevance, brevity and wit. Jesus also concerned himself with issues that people dealt with on a daily basis – issues of wealth and poverty, power, possessions, kindness, forgiveness, faith and guilt. All that he said and taught sprung from his own relationship to God, and dealt with God’s relationship to individuals and societies.
Similarly, Kierkegaard said that his entire corpus dealt with one thing, “the religious” (Kierkegaard, The Point of View 25).
Both Jesus and Socrates were storytellers who were not only interested in how people reached conclusions about truth and belief, but how their exterior lives and actions authentically pointed back to the inward presence of those beliefs. Kierkegaard used narrative techniques to test his ideas and the ideas of others in the real world. And this was something he did extremely well. He had a natural ability to see the relationships between different concepts, and between those concepts and everyday life.
Kierkegaard makes this point beautifully and narratively in his book Fear and Trembling, which uses the story of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate the danger of trying to prove and justify faith within the realm of logic – of “suck[ing] worldly wisdom out of the paradox” (37). Kierkegaard explains that “faith is no esthetic emotion but something far higher; it is not the spontaneous inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence” (37). He illustrates this point narratively by telling the story of a man “who suffers from sleeplessness” and, after hearing a sermon about the faithfulness Abraham showed in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, “goes home, [and] wants to do just as Abraham did” (28). When the pastor hears about the man’s desire to sacrifice his own son, he excoriates him, “You despicable man, you scum of society, what devil has so possessed you that you want to murder your son?” Kierkegaard continues with the man’s answer:
“‘But after all, that is what you yourself preached about on Sunday.’ How could the preacher ever get such a thing in his head, and yet it was so, and his only mistake was that he did not know what he was saying…The comic and the tragic make contact here in absolute infinitude. By itself, the preacher’s discourse was perhaps ludicrous enough, but it became infinitely ludicrous through its effect, and yet this was quite natural…The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety, Abraham is not who he is” (28-29).
This passage offers a good example of how Kierkegaard used story and character to elucidate and support his thesis. He uses dialogue, interiority, setting, and action (the pastor even goes home to his wife and tells her how passionately and effectively he spoke to “the sinner;” he only wished he could rouse that passion for his Sunday sermons). The story bypasses the various layers of explanation and justification so that the reader can begin to see the original horror of Abraham’s actions and the crucial difference between murder and sacrifice. The pastors and scholars of the day had reduced the story of Abraham and Isaac to a story of obedience. And Kierkegaard wanted to reinvest it with its original power so that a discussion about meaning could truly begin. For Kierkegaard, that meaning was infinitely relevant because it had to do with the kind of grief, doubt, and absurdity concomitant with God’s love for all individuals.
In this case, Kierkegaard does not simply go the way of the fictional author, letting the story speak entirely for itself. He uses stories as a kind of narrative nucleus that becomes the center-point for a detailed analysis of what it means to have faith – the leap away from the solid ground of logic, and how difficult that is for people to make, and how people tend to make faith into something else, something easier, when they can’t make that leap, redefining faith so that they can still claim to have it.
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard includes various short parables and fictional situations to explicate his main thesis that faith is inherently a paradox that loses its truth and power when over-rationalized. But in his next book, Repetition, Kierkegaard writes with an entirely fictive voice. The story revolves completely around two main characters, one of whom falls in love with a woman, but refuses to marry her because the act would constitute an ethical duty to which he cannot commit. The first half of the book is philosophical narrative fiction, while the second half consists of a series of epistolary interchanges between the two men. In this case, the pseudonymous author is a character in the book, and his philosophizing becomes part of the narrative itself – as opposed to the previous example in which a parable or short story provided a condensation nucleus for meaning.
Kierkegaard’s use of parables like these play much the same role as parables in the Bible. When David slept with another man’s wife, then had that man killed, Nathan told him a story about two men, one who had plenty of sheep and another who had only one. When a visitor came to stay with the wealthy man, he was unwilling to slaughter one of his own sheep, so he stole the only sheep his neighbor owned. Through story, Nathan was able to draw David in to see the principles of his own story at work in another context. Kierkegaard was doing the same thing. He used story as a mirror to reflect the shortcomings of his society in a way that would make sense to them.
But there is another reason that narrative theology fit so well into Kierkegaard’s method. In his book Kierkegaard and the Art of Irony, Roy Martinez argues that Kierkegaard’s use of stories does not seek to replace Hegel’s systematic theory of being with an unsystematic one, but rather, “the pseudonymous literature is a creative attempt to reflect the multiple ways in which meaning emerges when readers encounter these texts themselves” (14). Further, Martinez argues that Kierkegaard’s work reflects the multiplicity of authorship, genre and style found in the biblical texts that so inspired him. This underscores the importance of not only what Kierkegaard wrote, but how he wrote it. In this theory, the structure of the writing itself carries its own suggestions about how we find meaning in everyday existence. There is a certain universal consistency that lends itself to rationalization, but there is another kind of existence that interpenetrates the rational one and is fused with it. This other kind of existence is where infinity and faith and God exist.
Kierkegaard’s writing style differed significantly from the writing styles of his contemporaries. His unique ability to incorporate parable, irony, word play, aphorisms, and fictional stories into philosophical and theological writing meant that his various pseudonyms never hid his identity for long. Reviews and articles would appear immediately after his books were published, revealing who the real author was.
The Writing Process
But behind this unique writing style was an equally unique writing process. After his break with his fiancée, Regine Olsen, Kierkegaard wrote the following sentence in a letter to a friend, “…my intellectual life and my worth as a husband are mutually incompatible.” One of the reasons Kierkegaard immediately regretted proposing to Regine was that he knew that he would have to alter his writing life to accommodate the relationship with her. His unwillingness to sacrifice any part of his intellectual life was one of several reasons that he ultimately broke his engagement with her.
And indeed, after the split, Kierkegaard’s intellectual life left little time for developing relationships. He would spend most of the day at his writing desk, only taking small breaks to eat or share a cup of sugar-laden coffee with his secretary. Some biographers believe that Kierkegaard was motivated to write as much as he could before the end of his thirty-third year. Søren and his father, who were both somewhat superstitious about numbers, believed that God had placed a curse on the Kierkegaard family that would not allow Søren or any of his siblings to live beyond their “Jesus year,” or the age Jesus was when he died (endnote 7). And this belief was not challenged by reality as five of seven children died between the ages of twelve and thirty-three. Søren’s brother, Peter, became the first child to break into the thirty-fourth year of life. Søren himself soon followed, but was still so burdened by his belief in the curse that he wrote the following lines in his journal:
“How strange that I have turned thirty-four. It is utterly inconceivable to me. I was so sure that I would die before or on this birthday that I could actually be tempted to suppose that the date of my birth has been erroneously recorded and that I will still die on my thirty-fourth” (Garff 139).
Given his genuine fear that his life would end by age thirty-three, it seems plausible that Kierkegaard felt a certain sense of urgency to write as much as he could as quickly as he could.
But this breathless urgency to say what he wanted to say did not translate into sloppy, thoughtless writing. In a journal entry from 1846, Kierkegaard writes:
“I am supposed to be slipshod, believe it or not. I am fully convinced that no other Danish author gives to the slightest word so extreme an attention as I do. Two rewrites by my own hand of everything; three or four rewrites of large parts; add to that (of which no one has the least idea) my meditations during my strolls, and the fact that I have recited everything to myself many times before writing it down—and that they call ‘being slipshod!’” (Rohde 61)
Kierkegaard’s journals more often served as a practicing ground for his literary pursuits rather than an uncensored record of intimate subjectivity. Given the fact that his journals and papers represent twice the number of pages as all of his published works, it is not hard to believe that much of the time he spent writing during any given day would have been spent on his journals. And we can see, over and over again, passages in his published work that either echo something from his journals, or say it in slightly edited form. The journals do contain evidence of Kierkegaard’s memories and interior life, but the raw truth of those passages, the specifics of what thoughts, fears and physical ailments tormented him remain unexpressed.
More often than not, Kierkegaard’s journal entries held some strategic importance in his process of writing. The journals contain hundreds of direct and indirect precursors to Kierkegaard’s published works. Sometimes, the entries appear to provide the genesis for an idea, but more often the journal is a place where Kierkegaard develops the thought and language that will eventually end up in his manuscript. There are several journal entries that he labeled with the word “Plot.” Some of these passages end up in his published work, and some don’t. For example, the following entry from 1843 does not form the basis of any of Kierkegaard’s final works:
“Plot: A human being who has long concealed a secret goes insane. Here one would think that his secret might be revealed, but despite his madness his soul retains its concealment, and those around him become even more convinced that the false story with which he has deceived them is the truth. He is cured of his madness and informed about the entire situation; he thus realizes that he has revealed nothing. Would this be fortunate for him or would it not?”
This passage is certainly rooted in some truth from his own experience. He saw a certain potential in this plot to explicate some aspect of existence, but he never pursued it in any of his published works. However, seven entries later we find this entry: “Plot: Let us suppose—something unreported in both the Old Testament and the Koran—that Isaac knew that the purpose of the journey he was to take with his father to Mount Moriah was that he was to be sacrificed.”
Throughout this entry, we see the direct development of the opening passages of Fear and Trembling. This journal entry is not simply a rough draft of the book, but it is an idea that Kierkegaard develops, major sections of which eventually appear (in edited form) in the final version of the book. The following table shows the difference between an excerpt from the journal entry, and the book passage it inspired (endnote 8):
The book version is much more concise (nearly half the number of words), and less melodramatic. What we are seeing in the entirety of this journal entry is Kierkegaard working through an idea to develop both the train of thought and the style of writing. The journal entry as a whole offers us a glimpse into the thought process behind this dramatization of the biblical narrative because the narrative itself is embedded within a larger structure and flow of thought. Here, the journal really is a playground in which Kierkegaard is acquiring the agility he will need and use when he writes the book a few months later.
But the value of Kierkegaard’s journals is, for me, something more than an insight into his writing process, a background for his published work, or a peek into his biography. The value of Kierkegaard’s journals is that they are the sometimes spontaneous and sometimes carefully-crafted outpouring of a man who seems to have been hurt in some of the same ways that I have been hurt – who seems to have struggled with some of the same principles of faith and existence that I struggle with. A man with a father. A man with a broken engagement. A man with faith but also with doubt. And a man who was bound to write, as I am bound. Despite all that separates us – the vast differences in our cultures and our intellectual abilities, the literary peek-a-boo and dense philosophical jargon – we share a certain sense of confounded respect for God and humanity and existence, too – and a certain grieving hope in faith. Kierkegaard’s thought has changed the way I think, and his faith has affected my own.
And because my writing is an expression of my thought and my faith, it bears the marks of Kierkegaard.
1 Kierkegaard did not consider himself a prophet, and did not have what Abraham Heschel called a prophet’s “breathless impatience with injustice” (Heschel, p 4). But I believe that he did exhibit other similarities to Heschel’s category of the prophet. “The prophet is sleepless and grave” (Heschel 11). “The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears” (Heschel 12).
2 “Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As long as it stays I am ironic—if it is pulled out I shall die.” SK, Journals 1847 (Rohde 23)
3 I call him a theologian here, rather than a philosopher or a writer because Kierkegaard claimed, and I believe his corpus supports this claim, that “the authorship, regarded as a totality, is religious from first to last” (Kierkegaard, The Point of View 6).
4 e.g. “The other day I was sitting in a strange mood, sunk into myself, the way an old ruin might feel, and gradually losing myself and my Ego in a kind of pantheistic disintegration.” (Rohde 18)
5 I have not read him in Danish, but have read translations that not only strive to capture this playfulness, but include the original words to explicate word-play.
6 Hegelian philosophical system, which purported to explain everything.
7 When Søren’s father was a child, poverty forced him to have to herd sheep in the cold Dutch winter. One day, he cursed God for his poverty. A few years later, he moved to Copenhagen and became a wealthy merchant. By the time Kierkegaard was born, his father had retired comfortably. But he always feared that God had not forgotten what he did, and had placed a curse on his family in retribution.
8 Both excerpts were translated by Howard Hong and Edna Hong.
Cappelorn, Niels Jorgen, Alastair Hannay, and George Pattison, eds. Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks Vol. 1 : Journals Aa-dd. New York: Princeton UP, 2007.
Garff, Joakim. Søren Kierkegaard : A Biography. Trans. Bruce H. Kirmmse. New York: Princeton UP, 2007.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Prophets. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
Kierkegaard, Søren, and Alastair Hannay. Papers and Journals : A Selection. Trans. Alastair Hannay. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Diary of Søren Kierkegaard. Ed. Peter P. Rohde. New York: Citadel P, 2000.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling : Repetition. Ed. Howard V. Hong. Trans. Howard V. Hong. New York: Princeton UP, 1992.
Kierkegaard, Søren, Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. Philosophical Fragments, or a Fragment of Philosophy/Johannes Climacus, or de Omnibus Dubitandum Est. New York: Princeton UP, 1992.
Kierkegaard, Søren, Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. The Point of View. New York: Princeton UP, 1998.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Kierkegaard’s Journals and Notebooks : Journals EE-KK. Ed. Niels Jorgen Cappelorn and Bruce H. Kirmmse. New York: Princeton UP, 2008.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Sickness unto Death : A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. New York: Princeton UP, 1980.
Martinez, Roy. Kierkegaard and the Art of Irony : A Literary Analysis. New York: Humanity Books, 2001.
—By Andrew Hood