Kierkegaard, Literature, and the Arts

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Eric Ziolkowski
  • Evanston, IL: 
    Northwestern University Press
    , January
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Kierkegaard, Literature, and the Arts opens with an essay by George Pattison that considers Kierkegaard’s literary contributions and his relation to literature more generally, “setting the tone” for the whole (12). Pattison illuminates the “material context of Kierkegaard’s relation to literature” (43), by which he means the connection between Kierkegaard’s extensive musings on the arts and the actual, live events where he experienced these works first-hand. 

The essays overall are refreshingly exploratory in the field of music and theatre, genres often overlooked in work on Kierkegaard. Two approaches broached in the book are largely unprecedented, that of examining the place of dance in Kierkegaard’s oeuvre, as does Anne Margrete Fiskvik’s and that of specifically visual art in Ragni Linnet’s work (23). It remains to be seen whether this line of research will bear fruit outside of biographical interest. This comment is intended as anything but dismissive, as Ronald Green’s essay on The Concept of Anxiety (1844) in light of the Denis Villeneuve film Incendies (2010) demonstrates exactly the fruitfulness of pairings between Kierkegaard’s work and less recognized artistic media. 

The principal virtue of the volume, in my judgement, is the continued documentation and examination of the broadly poetic character of Kierkegaard’s work, both in relation to his own 19th-century Danish context and with a view to later artistic expressions. Without doubt, it is useful to remind readers time and again that Kierkegaard’s texts, in their immense visuality (Christopher Barnett, “The Aesthetics of the Icon”) and power of presentation (Mooney, “Disruptions of Literature and Philosophy”), give life to heterogeneous viewpoints in such a way as to stir up in a serious reader the dialogue unfolding in Kierkegaard’s “imaginative construct” (as the Hongs, eminent translators of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre, put the Danish Experiment). 

Nevertheless, it bears remembering that Kierkegaard was not a beneficiary of J. L. Austin’s insights and accordingly could not have worked out a conception of “performativity,” thereafter deploying it as he saw fit to accomplish the upbuilding aspect of his authorship, as Martijn Boven suggests (“Performativity in Kierkegaard’s Repetition”). Howard Pickett and Joakim Garff take an approach along these lines, examining Kierkegaard’s work as experimental and experiential; specifically, his Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846) as theatric and Practice in Christianity (1850) as Bildungsroman. To be sure, their analyses are subtle and more than well informed. But the approach, with an elaborate exposition required before applying the genres to the texts at hand, not to mention the delicate comparisons made to shed light on the same, raises the question whether a more felicitous point might be made concerning genre and form. Namely, as cacophonous sounding to the uninitiated as it may be, devotional literature is Kierkegaard’s commanding model, even if his way of going about what he understood as his task—upbuilding and edifying—isn’t reminiscent of, say, Thomas à Kempis (De imitatione Christi), Francis de Sales (Traité de l’Amour de Dieu), or even Johann Arndt (Vier Bücher vom wahren Christentum) and therefore does not ultimately escape the charge of squaring the circle either. 

But the designation, vague as “devotional” itself is, gathers together a great deal of the arguments put forward in this volume that I have already mentioned in brief: besides the theatrical and formational, the performative (Boven), iconographical (Barnett), and the existential (Mooney) aspect of Kierkegaard’s authorship. Under this general heading, one need not say that the “Postscript is essentially theatrical in form” (99) when the work in question is in form precisely not theatrical, if the adjective is to be understood as performing stage plays or even, for that matter, an “affected, histrionic manner.” Nor do we need to suggest that Anti-Climacus’s Bildungsroman leads up to the “sight of one crucified [which] is, in a Kantian sense, a sublime moment” (88). For Kant, according to his “Analytic of the Sublime” in The Critique of the Power of Judgement (1790), the sublime requires (1) a disinterested stance (§ 28 [5:261]); and (2) a peculiar pleasure in dread. The latter occurs where the power of imagination undergoes an impotence before an overwhelming phenomenon (displeasure), but in a way that effectively turns the gaze back upon oneself through astonishment over reason, by virtue of which the intelligent being can apprehend, if not comprehend, such an infinity as the phenomenon presents. This in turn produces a feeling of superiority of the self over that very phenomenon (pleasure). In light of these two elements of the sublime, Kant is finally able to recognize that the sublimity is precisely his own and attributes it to the world only by way of a kind of “subreption” (§ 27 [5: 257]). It would, according to the letter, be difficult to find a more perfect inversion of Kierkegaard’s aim in Practice. The point is obviously pedantic, but it perhaps reveals the difficulty, not to say futility, of reading even Kierkegaard’s most novelistic works according to genre, ultimately a category of aesthetics. Kierkegaard’s “aesthetics,” determined by the problem of a Christian poet, or a Christian poetics, would seem to point to an anti-aesthetic sublime, perhaps an “ethico-religious” sublime, in which the ethical ideal replaces the phenomenon that imagination cannot comprehend and with it puts despair in place of displeasure. Meanwhile, that by means of which the impotence is recognized is no longer reason but instead the spirit and the subreption of grace is not only unearthed but celebrated. In any case, Kant treats the sublime as a purely aesthetic category, and the analysis according to aesthetic categories, explicitly or implicitly, can in principle only follow him here. 

A final word deserves to be said on Ziolkowski’s editorship. It is remarkable to notice the care he has taken so that all references to Kierkegaard’s texts are standardized, citing both the English translation and the Danish critical addition. More telling are the editorial footnotes inserted at least once in every contribution, frequently more often, indicating where a discussion touched upon in one essay receives further treatment elsewhere in the collection, a basic task that is sorely lacking in edited volumes in general.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Derdall is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eric Ziolkowski is Helen H. P. Manson Professor of the English Bible and head of the Department of Religious Studies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.


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