Sunday, June 14, 2009

Kierkegaard's Moment by Joakim Garff

'Neither before nor since has the Danish clergy been subjected to such systematic persecution. Accusations veritably rained down on this "guild of clerical swindlers", also called "the company of pastors", this band of little, mediocre men, who had been so fortunate to get their parasitical snouts way down into the country's treasury, and who would do anything simply to hang on to their positions, even if, "for example, the state came up with the idea of instituting the religion that the moon is made of green cheese." Kierkegaard employed countless allusions, little stories, anecdotes, gossip, tasteless innuendos, and whatever else worked, in order to make the pecuniary position of the pastors into the central theme of The Moment, where he put the matter quite directly: "The question of the continued existence of the established ecclesiastical order is- a question of money."

Kierkegaard emphasized the commercialization of Christianity, giving his articles titles such as "The Clergy as a Merchant Class" or "The Enormous Guild of Professional Pastors". Not infrequently the clergy was simply called "One Thousand Public Officials Who Must Live Off Christianity" (that is, they live off "the cloying, syrupy sweetness that is the stock-in-trade of witnesses to the lie"). The Pastor's role, Kierkegaard insisted, is thus to protect society against Christianity, and just as a statistician, when he is presented with "the size of the population of a large city is able to state the corresponding number of prostitutes consumed by such a city, it is also possible to calculate how many perjurers ( pastors) the state needs in order to protect itself against Christianity." This is a secret pact, and it produces benefits for both partners, the state and the pastors. And indeed, as a sort of business partnership, the pastors are especially keen on two things "(a) that the people call themselves Christians- the bigger the flock of sheep, the better that they take the name of 'Christians', and (b) that the matter rest there, that they do not find out what Christianity actually is."

Despite Kierkegaard's insistence that he wanted to carry out his campaign as "an individual", his newsletter was nonetheless a break with his previous principles, and Sibbern could scarcely believe his own aged eyes when he saw the first issue of The Moment. Not only did he have some doubts about whether Kierkegaard really had "a Christian disposition and temperament...although he certainly must have something of a sort," he was also surprised that Kierkegaard "who hated agitation the whole time I knew him, himself had become a zealous agitator." Martenson also noted this reversal: "Here he addressed himself to the masses- he, who had previously disdained the masses and had only sought quiet encounter with the individual."

Nor was it long before Kierkegaard himself began to sense the discrepancy between the message and the medium, between personal protest and public broadcast. On August 30 (1855), when he considered the effect he was having, he found no fault with the interest people had taken in his cause. There was absolutely no doubt that people were reading him, but the next step people took was literally in the wrong direction:

"The next Sunday, people go to church as usual. What K. says is basically true, and it is very interesting to read what he has to say- that the whole of the official worship of God consists of making a fool of God, that it is blasphemy. But we are used to it, after all, and we cannot free ourselves from it; we don't have the strength to do so. Still it is certain that we will take great pleasure in reading what he writes; one can become very impatient to get hold of the latest issue and learn more about this criminal matter, which is undeniably of enormous interest."

Naturally, Kierkegaard found this sort of interest deplorable, and it served only to confirm him in his belief that Christianity had been abolished and that "in our times, people are not even in what I would call a state of religion, but are alien to and unacquainted with the sort of passion every religion must require, and without which one cannot have any religion, least of all Christianity."

Kierkegaard's campaign was a corrective to "the established order"; he had pointed this out frequently and vociferously. But it was also something else, something he expended almost equal energy not mentioning: It was a corrective to extensive portions of his own works; his pseudonymous ventriloquism had now reversed itself, finally turning into personal statements. "When the castle gate of inwardness has long been closed and is finally opened, it does not move soundlessly like an interior door on spring-mounted hinges", he explained with a medieval metaphor.

In the work What Christ Judges with Respect to Official Christianity, dated June 16, he expressed himself more directly:"I began by passing myself off as a poet, cunningly taking aim at what I surely believed was the central point of official Christianity." The crux of the situation was that people had transformed "Christianity into poetry" and had thus abolished "the imitation of Christ, so that one can relate to the exemplar merely by means of imagination, living oneself in totally different categories- which means that one relates oneself to Christianity poetically." Kierkegaard noted with respect to his tactics that "the procedure was the same as used by the police to make the persons involved feel secure, in order to gain the opportunity to investigate a case more thoroughly." As time passed, this investigation revealed so much that the poet had to undergo a transfiguration: "Then the poet suddenly transformed himself. He cast off his guitar- if I may be permitted to put it thus-and took out a book called 'The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Kierkegaard's words border on the utterly platitudinous, but they were meant in deadly earnest, which is clear from various bits of evidence, including a piece in the seventh issue of The Moment that lays out in some detail the danger the poet poses to religion...

Something similar applies with respect to the remarks about nonsense (subsequently cited so often) which appeared in the ninth issue of The Moment:

"The human race is shrewd. It has compelled existence to reveal its secret. It has got wind of the fact that if one wants to have life made easy (and that is exactly what we want), it can be easily done. All one needs to do is to make oneself and make being a human being more and more insignificant- then life becomes easier and easier. Be nonsense, and you will see, all difficulties will disappear!...Be nonsense. Have one opinion today, another tomorrow, and then once again have the one you had the day before yesterday, and a new one on Friday. Be nonsense. Make yourself into many people. Or parcel yourself out, have one opinion anonymously, another under your own name, one orally, another in writing, one as a public official, another as a private citizen..and you will see, all difficulties will disappear."

"Nonsense" is the category of lightness, of non-committal and experimental hovering, of the mutability of the subject. But in precisely being all this, nonsense is also an insidious or involuntary metaphor for Kierkegaard's own works, which merely by virtue of the rapidly changing characters, the exploding population of the portrait gallery found in his pseudonymous works, and the edifying discourses in very varying spirits provide an almost classic demonstration of the behavior of a person who makes himself into "many", who parcels out his self, who has one opinion anonymously, another under his own name.

Kierkegaard had taken on his own character, had put aside all forms of indirect communication, and would no longer tolerate inwardness, neither his own, nor that of his culture, as a pretext for refraining from action.'

Soren Kierkegaard; A Biography by Joakim Garff,
Translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse


  1. Hans Lassen Martensen was Bishop of Copenhagen and the newly appointed top ecclesiastical authority in Denmark at the time of Kierkegaard's attacks. After his first official visits to the precincts of the Church he admitted in a ( March 21st) letter to Ludwig Gude that "I have had many insights into the miserable conditions and circumstances that characterize the ecclesiastical situation. There are certainly things in the State Church that neither can be nor ought to be retained. And the clergy includes a good many members for whose sake it would not be worth supporting any ecclesiastical Establishment whatever."

    Here indeed was the admission that Kierkegaard had been seeking. Martensen had confirmed with his own eyes what Kierkegaard had criticized so volubly: The situation in the Church was miserable, the State Church was open to criticism, and the major part of the clergy was not worth defending.'

    But Martensen kept his judgement private, reacting to Kierkegaard's criticisms with defensiveness and outrage, mobilizing all the support he could get to 'expose' the magister's "imprudent and shameless sophistry."

    Such is the perogative of power and the funeral dirge of the human spirit.

  2. The campaign taxed Kierkegaard both financially and physically but it also made his adrenalin flow just as happily as it had when he had written Either/Or twelve years earlier. Kierkegaard's lapidary style, his satire, his paradoxical provocations and well-turned points, his jollity, even the tone in "those piquant and nervous article", as Goldschmidt called them, bring to mind some of the best of "Diasalmata" with which Aesthete A had introduced himself in the first part of Either/Or...At the eleventh hour, the master of irony had managed to have laughter once again on his side.

    Many of his contemporaries remembered him as having been lively, almost giddy, when they met him on the street during this period. "Yes, you see," Kierkegaard was said to have confided in Tycho E. Spang, "well, Denmark has had its greatest sculptor in Thorvaldson, its greatest poet in Oehlenschlager, and now its greatest prose stylist in me. Denmark won't last long now!" Of course, this was intended as a joke. Vilhelm Birkedal experienced a similiar sort of cheekiness. He could recall a little episode that instantly convinced him that the "dying away from the world" that Kierkegaard "continually preached for us others, making it into the hallmark of the genuine Christian witness," did not apply to the preacher himself.

    One day, Birkedal, who was a Grundtvigian and as such also saw himself as involved in a "fierce battle for the church", espied Kierkegaard sitting at a well-provided table in one of the best restaurants in the city, "with an ample portion of food fit for a king and a very large goblet of sparkling wine before him." Kierkegaard recognized him and immediately called ou "Hello, Birkdal, you look good. Yes, you who are persecuted are getting fat." To which Birkedal replied: "Yes, and you who persecute are getting thinner." For despite his "high living", Kierkegaard was only skin and bone.

    In the middle of September, when Kierkegaard was sitting on a sofa and tried to lean a little to the side, he slid down to the floor and was scarcely able to get up. The next day he fell again while trying to put his trousers on. He did not suffer from dizziness, convulsions, or headaches, but when he walked, his feet did not go where he wanted them to.. At the same time he felt a creeping, tingling sensation in his legs, which buzzed or fell asleep; sometimes he felt a shooting pain from the small of his back all the way down. The old difficulties with urination had returned....On Tuesday, October 2, he went to the Royal Fredrik's Hospital and asked to be examined.

  3. The medical examination was undertaken by the medical graduate on duty, one Harold Krabbe, who in accordance with the applicable procedures was also reponsible for Kierkegaard's hospital journal. Krabbe had finshed his medical education that year and was without much experience, which is clear from the case history which- in a stroke of good fortune for posterity- allowed the patient a greater than usual say in the evaluation of his own illness. Thus Krabbe noted, with respect to Kierkegaard:

    "He cannot cite any particular cause of his present illness. He does, however, connect it with imbibing some cold seltzer in the summer, with a dark dwelling, as well as the strenuous intellectual work that he believes has been too much for his frail physique. He considers his illness to be fatal. His death is necessary for the cause upon the furtherance of which he has expended all his intellectual energies, for which he alone has labored, and for which alone he believes he has been intended. Hence the strenuous thinking in conjunction with the frail physique. Were he to go on living, he would have to continue his religious battle, but then people would tire of it. Through his death, on the other hand, his struggle will retain its strength and, as he believes, its victory."

    After the examination Kierkegaard was sent to the hopital's administrative offices to sign himself in as a paying patient... Here he spent the lasty forty-one days of his life.