What Would Kierkegaard Do? By CARLIN ROMANO
The Chronicle Review Volume 52, Issue 35 dated May 5, 2006
Northfield, Minn. At 94, Howard Hong knows more about Denmark's most famous philosopher than anyone alive — or at least he has known it longer. Co-founder of the Howard V. and Edna H. Hong Kierkegaard Library here at St. Olaf College, the largest Kierkegaard research library in the world, Hong, over a career of more than 60 years, edited and translated with his wife, Edna, the complete works of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), the controversial proto-existentialist who gave us "leap of faith" and other landmarks of individualist Christianity.Still living with his wife in a wood-and-stone home barely a mile from the campus, the descendant of Norwegian immigrants closely followed how the Danes got themselves in a pickle this year. It happened because they exercised that signature mix of satiric verve, free-spirited laughter, and quizzical skepticism toward organized religion that played such a dynamic role in the life of Kierkegaard himself, a thinker today usually regarded as the father of existentialism. (Kierkegaard would have understood his posthumous elevation to patriarch — he famously observed that while life has to be "lived forward," it "must be understood backward.")"What comes to my mind," Hong remarks, "is an old definition of a provincial. A provincial is one who can't stand to be laughed at. I mean, the Arabs provided the context for all this. Whoever did these drawings wasn't making up anything. They put some things together." Ask Hong what Kierkegaard would have made of Denmark's flare-up with the Arab world, the attitude of Danes toward Islam, their reaction to seeing Danish consulates and embassies attacked and products boycotted, and he's 30 years old again. Not a know-it-all, but a find-it-out. "Yes, that's good!" he says, intrigued by the idea of Kierkegaard on Islam. "I'm not surehe had a copy of the Koran. Let's see."Down goes the Phillies cigar he's been puffing, he confides, as a palliative to the downside of life as a nonagenarian survivor in a family bedeviled by ulcers. Up and out of his favorite leather recliner in no time, Hong, still handsome with healthy white pompadour, smartly clad in black shirt and dark tie like some Johnny Cash of philosophical research, is off to another corner of his rambling house. He comes back with the indexes to the 26-volume Princeton edition of Kierkegaard's complete works, and Indiana University Press's seven-volume edition of Kierkegaard's journals and diaries, which he and Edna published from 1967 to 1978.
Did Kierkegaard offer anything on Muhammad and Islam? Hong predicts there won't be much. Osama, if you're reading this, now's the time to turn the page. Kierkegaard, it so happens, refers directly to Muhammad or Muhammadinism multiple times. Some passages are innocuous, as when he writes, "Like Muhammad's tomb, my soul hovers between two magnets." Others suggest a more judgmental stand.
"Muhammad protests with all his might against being regarded as a poet, and the Koran as a poem," Kierkegaard writes elsewhere in the journals and diaries. "He wants to be a prophet. ... I protest with all my might at being regarded as a prophet, and want only to be a poet." A few passages speak for themselves.
"When one views the historical roles of the religions on their journey through the world," Kierkegaard asserts boldly in 1839, "the relationship is as follows: Christianity is the actual proprietor who sits in the carriage; Judaism is the coach-man; Muhammadanism is a groom, who does not sit with the coachman, but behind."Hong looks up, stunned at the apparent smoking gun, hermeneutically speaking. He agrees the only way to read the passage is, "Sorry, Islam, but you are tertiary, whether you like it or not." Other passages also show Kierkegaard treating Islam as a weaker rival to Christianity. Writing about the notion that Christianity's survival documents its truth, Kierkegaard observes, "The hypothesis may become more probable by lasting 3,000 years, but it does not on that account ever become an eternal truth that can be decisive for a person's eternal happiness. Has not Muhammadanism survived 1,200 years?"Hong mulls over the findings, surprised given his earlier uncertainty about direct Kierkegaardian commentary on Islam. But it's not a shock in light of the Danish thinker's intense celebration of an inward-seeking Christianity that put believers in direct contemplation of God. What would Kierkegaard do if it were his attempts at satire that had enflamed Islam? "I don't think he would retract it if he were involved," Hong opines. "I'm not sure he'd even apologize."And yet. "It wasn't that he had great love of journalists," Hong continues. "Kierkegaard said that if he had a son he'd rather have his son become a trapeze artist in the circus than become a journalist, because he regarded journalism as gossip." And that's where the Kierkegaard-Islam duet gets more intriguing. The Corsair, a wry Copenhagen weekly and the Page Six of its time, famously satirized and caricatured Kierkegaard in 1846 after he picked a fight with it. That drove him to even further depths of his profoundly morose personality, on intimate terms with the "sickness unto death" and "the concept of dread." The Corsair stopped at nothing — it mocked his hunched back, even his pants legs, one shorter than the other. Kierkegaard, in turn, blasted The Corsair as "an office of literary garbage collection."
"In no time at all," writes Joakim Garff in his recent massive biography of the philosopher, "Kierkegaard ... became a walking caricature in the city. Now he was no longer seen as the thinker whose very eccentricity managed to compel the respect of the multitude. ... People who had once looked up to him, perhaps without really understanding what it was they were looking up to, now spent lots of time looking down on him."
Hong thinks that even though Kierkegaard himself spun out little drawings, and might have volunteered himself to be one of the 12 cartoonists of Muhammad, he'd be divided in his reactions to the current controversy. "I suspect Kierkegaard would have a good word for the Muslims," Hong muses. "If for nothing else, in admiration of their discipline. ... I don't think he would have thought well of Muhammad taking an army into the city and all of that. ... But the flabbiness of the West, he'd go after that and have a kind of respect for the discipline generally of Muhammadinism, even though it easily becomes a formalism, and then a fanaticism."
Nor would the apostle of Christian individualism be likely to condemn Muslims en masse. "I don't think he would approach them as a group," Hong remarks. "He says most people are really pretty good if you can get them apart, tear them apart from the crowd, the demos." Gordon Marino, professor of philosophy at St. Olaf and current director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library, agrees that Kierkegaard's take on the cartoon controversy would be balanced between his allegiance to Christianity and free expression on the one hand, and his reverence for the seriousness of religious experience.
"His emphasis is on the sacred," notes Marino, who lived in Copenhagen for three years while completing his book, Kierkegaard in the Present Age (Marquette University Press, 2001). "There's nothing sacred anymore in Danish society. It's very secularized, the churches are empty, at least in the city." For that reason, Marino surmises, the Danes remain "kind of perplexed" that others would get so angry about representations of God. Like Hong, he thinks Kierkegaard would not respect Muslims who robotically follow instructions from imams, but he would admire Muslim seriousness, any devotion that arises out of personal relationships with God. And he would remain quite critical of media that "enflame public opinion," like those that attacked him.
"After those cartoons came out," Marino recalls, referring to the caricatures of the philosopher, "Kierkegaard's whole life changed. He was much more isolated. ... He would have thought useful satire has to involve a certain amount of wisdom, that one has to be adept at it. Just to mock someone, just to provoke someone, he would think of that as childish." You might sum up his advice with a twist on an old admonition, consistent with both his general approach to revelation and eye for every empirical detail. Look outward, as well as inward, before you leap. Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle and literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania. http://chronicle.comSection : The Chronicle Review Volume 52, Issue 35, Page B14