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On two recent Kierkegaard titles

On two recent Kierkegaard titles At the most obvious level The Quotable Kierkegaard is a collection of quotations from the Danish philosopher arranged under various categories: Observation, Death, Time, Passion etc. However, from the outset, the book seeks to be something more: a valuable primer for Kierkegaard’s thought. Gordon Marino, professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, provides a clear, precise and useful introduction, highlighting the Dane’s vital connection to Luther and helping to unpack the notions of self-deception, faith and life-view.

The quotations themselves are superbly selected in order not only to be eminently quotable, but also to furnish the reader with a series of tenets which provide insight to Kierkegaard’s thought on each subject. All too often introductory texts present the author’s view of the thinker in question but little primary quotation for the reader to engage with, a situation which this book is the antidote to. In collecting these quotations and organising them in this way The Quotable Kierkegaard has sought to construct, fragmentary though it may be, an introduction to Kierkegaard’s thought using only the philosopher’s own words. The resultant book reads, then ,almost like a series of theses (in the manner of Benjamin or Kierkegaard’s own muse Martin Luther).

As always, one is struck both by the force of Kierkegaard’s thinking and his humour:

‘I am so unhappy right now that I am indescribably happy in my dreams’

or:

‘Take the riches away, then I can no longer be called rich; but take tomorrow away – alas, then I can no longer be called rich either.’

Everything here from Kierkegaard sparkles with heat and wit. This is a lively collection of aphoristic thought which punches well above its weight, resulting in one of the most immediate and vital introductions to an eminent thinker imaginable.

Early Polemical WritingsKierkegaard’s Early Polemical Writings is a an entirely different breed of text. The book gathers together a number of Kierkegaard’s earliest pieces, including some which he wrote whilst still a student. One might easily dismiss these works as juvenilia, the first pieces being of interest on a mostly historical level, providing an insight into the workings out of the young Kierkegaard’s mind, exemplifying, albeit in an underdeveloped form, the humour and playfulness on show in The Quotable Kierkegaard.

However the final piece in the collection, Kierkegaard’s thoughts on Hans Christian Andersen, From the Papers of One Still Living, offers a perfect chance to engage with Kierkegaard’s aesthetics, his struggle with nihilism and ‘life-view’.

The review of Andersen’s Only a Fiddler criticises Andersen for there being a lack of the ‘transubstantiation of experience… an unshakable certainty in oneself won from all experience’. In essence, that by referring back to one’s own views of existence, an authentic life-view can emerge where the individual, unlike the hero of Only a Fiddler, does not rely on external events to survive.

Andersen’s hero is portrayed as a genius who succumbs to circumstance, genius needing warmth and nurture in Andersen’s view. Whereas Kierkegaard believes, like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus, genius demands attention whilst for him Andersen’s passive genius is just a projection of the author’s own dissatisfaction and deficiency. Without a life-view the novel descends into a juxtaposition of accidental moods and beyond, into nihilism. One of the most potent and enjoyable of Kerkegaard’s early works, From the Papers of One Still Living (and the excellent supplementary material provided in the book to go alongside it) is a perfect entry point for reading Kierkegaard. With many of his complex ideas present in their larval form one can start to see the power of expression and force of the notion of life-view beginning to take shape. In exposing the grappling of the young Kierkegaard’s mind with his own thoughts, this volume challenges the reader to do the same.
-- Dan Fraser (19/02/2014)

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