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Kierkegaard at St. Olaf

(This was originally published on Dispatches, The New Criterion blog, on July 6, 2018)

A confluence of Kierkegaardians

by Jacob Howland

University administrators continue to slash humanities programs in the name of financial exigency, sowing what they hope will be a new cash crop—let us call it the Servile Arts College—among the mutilated remains of these organic growths. It’s enough to make one seriously depressed. But this June’s International Kierkegaard Conference at St. Olaf College was a rich harvest of human nourishment: black bread for the soul. The community I found in Northfield, Minnesota—searching, suffering, free individuals from all over the world, drawn together by a thinker who speaks directly to free hearts and minds—was suffused with a joyful authenticity and goodness that built us up for the tasks ahead. No one harbored illusions about the future of teaching and learning in the humanities, yet I came away feeling that it would be blasphemy to despair.

Despair and authenticity were, in fact, important themes of the conference. Kierkegaard, like Socrates (the subject of his dissertation, The Concept of Irony), was fundamentally concerned with the question of how to live. Although he could have ensured a wide readership by writing in German (a language in which he was fluent), he wrote in Danish—partly, no doubt, because he was naturally antinomian, but also because, like any poet, he had a strong affection for his mother tongue. Starting with Either/Or (1843), a literary and philosophical masterpiece, his extensive pseudonymous authorship explored the emptiness and fragmentation of modern life. Kierkegaard believed that late modernity was distinguished by an implacable spirit of abstraction that poses the gravest threat to human particularity and freedom. He observed in Concluding UnscientificPostscript (1846) that the systematic, scientific philosophy of Hegel that dominated the age’s intellectual culture was worse than useless for human beings; it spoke with hypostatic absurdity “of speculation as if this were a man or as if a man were speculation,” and would perhaps someday find its “true readers” among “inhabitants of the moon.” The antidote to such philosophical lunacy, he believed, was to be found in erotic openness to transcendent truth. Like Jesus, Socrates—of whom Kierkegaard considered himself a Christian heir—taught by example that the essential, daily human task, ceasing only in death, is to weave together eternal, universal, infinite truth with one’s finite, particular, time-bound existence. This deeply paradoxical and personal challenge can occasion anxiety and even despair, spiritual afflictions Kierkegaard analyzed with profound psychological insight in The Concept of Anxiety (1844) and The Sickness Unto Death (1849). But Kierkegaard relished paradoxes such as these, without which, as he wrote in Philosophical Fragments (1844), “the thinker . . . is like a lover without passion: a mediocre fellow.” Indeed, his most famous book, Fear and Trembling (1843), explored the terrible absurdity of God’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, whom God had miraculously given him and Sarah in extreme old age. Kierkegaard taught in his non-pseudonymous Christian writings that, in the last analysis, only the reciprocated love of God can make humans whole and happy.

Driving north to Minnesota through the rolling green cornfields of Iowa, I listened to Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind. I was scheduled to speak on Kierkegaard’s prophecy of the inevitable dissolution of the individual in the abstract quantitative aggregate: the crowd. Kierkegaard spoke presciently of the process of social leveling—fueled by envy and resentment, and accelerated by the monstrous phantoms of press, public, and market mechanisms—that afflicts us today. I took special note of one passage from The Captive Mind that might come in handy in the days ahead:

A forest is an organism arising out of complicated interactions of mosses, soil, fungi, trees, and grasses. The moment these mosses and fungi are destroyed by the cutting out of the forest, the symbiotic pattern is disturbed and the new forest is a completely different organism from what might be expected by someone who ignored the sociology of plants. Stalinists have no knowledge of the conditions human plants need in order to thrive.

When I arrived at St. Olaf’s Ytterboe Hall, a dormitory that is austere to the point of discomfort (as befits, I thought, a Lutheran school), I was warmly welcomed by my suitemate Kenneth Gilmore, Sr., a great bear of a man, around age fifty, who’d grown up in the school of hard knocks that was the peculiar lot of African Americans in the postbellum South. Ken’s parents were Mississippi sharecroppers. He is now a preacher in the Church of Christ who works as an adjunct professor and has written half a dozen books on religious subjects. Kierkegaard’s writings, condemned by Ken’s church, nevertheless fuel his sermons. At the conference, Ken was given a gift of new books on the philosopher by the University of New Mexico emeritus professor of philosophy Andy Burgess. Throughout our sessions, he shared with everyone a mind and heart as big as his body. When he occasionally quoted scripture in asking a question, his deep, rich voice rumbled thrillingly with biblical authority.

At dinner, we listened to a keynote lecture by Richard Purkarthofer, a soft-spoken, witty German scholar (“Philologists love words, often one at a time”), on what it means to be a human being. Although he has done essential work on the new German translation of Kierkegaard, Purkarthofer cannot find an academic position in Europe. His title, “Taking a Good Punch—The Impact of Kierkegaard,” was an homage to Gordon Marino, the head of St. Olaf’s Hong Kierkegaard Library and the college’s boxing coach, who, during his twenties, battled his way through depression as a professional fighter. (He and Mike Tyson have reviewed one another’s books for The Wall Street Journal.) “It’s no joke to exist,” Richard told us. If we broken, alienated creatures are to achieve some measure of wholeness, we must paradoxically be beaten up; we must open ourselves up to Kierkegaard’s existential blows. After the talk, Father Philip Ogbonna, a stately, magnificently bearded Nigerian, asked whether the brokenness of Christ is implicit in Kierkegaard’s definition of a human being. Later, I learned that Ogbonna has survived multiple assassination attempts.

In his own talk, Ogbonna told us that the colonial experience had crushed his people, making them brutal and crude. He told us that mmadụ, the Igbo word for “human being,” combines the words for beauty and life; this is the idea of the human that he found echoed in Kierkegaard. He then revealed his hope: that the sprouting seed of Kierkegaard studies he’d planted at Iwo University might someday save Nigeria. Could we tell him how we might help? Bringing out the Miłosz passage, I explained that we are ignorant of his native soil, and so could have few concrete recommendations. But Andy Burgess found a way to help, after all: as part of his Kierkegaard Without Borders project, he purchased a bagful of volumes at the college bookstore for Philip’s program.

Joy and fellowship ultimately took their place alongside suffering and anxiety, as Kierkegaard awakened us from our various trials to the truth that “we are made for happiness,” and we found in him the imperative: “Live!” The Syracuse emeritus professor of philosophy Edward Mooney celebrated Kierkegaard’s authorship as a circus of daring feats and performances. His talk was a testament to the fecund playfulness of Kierkegaard’s thought.

The Kierkegaard translator and scholar Elisabete de Sousa spoke about the process of attuning one’s radically particular individual voice, one’s self, to fundamental measures of truth and goodness. This process necessarily involves errors; you can’t tune a guitar without striking wrong notes. The academy—poisoned by politics and governed, as Noel Adams, the associate professor of philosophy at Marquette University, made clear in his talk, by ignorant, tone-deaf bureaucrats—increasingly punishes such humanly inevitable mistakes. But this conference gave us the space to make mistakes, to grow and thrive through them. In parting from the Kierkegaard translator and scholar Bruce Kirmmse, who suffers from two heart ailments, I spontaneously said, “Love you,” forgetting that he is not a relative or a close friend. But I later decided that this social blunder was just right. The preciously ephemeral community of teaching and learning I found at St. Olaf took no words from our mouths, and it put none in them. Kierkegaard, a lonely individual standing before an incomprehensible but not unknowable God, does not speak much of communities. He just builds them.

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