'The human race has in the course of generations become ever more insignificant'it is the kind of sentence I love; startling, apparently nonsensical, in direct opposition to all contemporary dogmas such as progress, evolution, etc., etc., yet to a discerning mind glowing with an inner truth of its own.
Kierkegaard's writings, and especially the Journals, abound in such sentences. Let me give some more examples:
'A passionate, tumultuous age will overthrow everything, pull everything down; but a revolutionary age that is at the same time reflective and passionless leaves everything standing but cunningly empties it of significance.'
'When truth conquers with the help of 10,000 yelling men even supposing that that which is victorious is truth; with the form and manner of the victory a far greater untruth is victorious.'
'Everyone in whom the animal disposition is preponderant believes firmly that millions are more than one; whereas spirit is just the opposite, that one is more than millions, and that every man can be the one.'
'Christianity is discord with the world, but in the Christian is the peace of Christ.'
'The more superior one person is to another whom he loves, the more he will feel tempted (humanly speaking) to draw the other up to himself, but (divinely speaking) the more he will feel moved to come down to him. This is the dialectic of love.'
'It is so heartbreaking that Christ, who is the teacher of love, is betrayedwith a kiss.'
'When secular sensibleness has permeated the whole world as it has now begun to do, then the only remaining conception of what it is to be Christian will be the portrayal of Christ, the disciples and others as comic figures. They will be counterparts of Don Quixote . . .'
'The Holy Scriptures are the highway signs: Christ is the way.'
What was there in this weird, unhappy, cantankerous little Dane which enabled him a century and more ago, in the very springtime of 'science' ('that increasing mass of drivel,' as he called it), before the juke-boxes had started playing or the mushroom cloud been written across the sky, to see just what was happening and where we were going? How did he, a sort of de Tocqueville of the spirit, come to grasp so clearly that preoccupation with numbers (to vote, produce, consume, march, howl, stare and otherwise react to mass persuasion) would prove inimical to our civilisation and its religion, and that the Christian Churches themselves, particularly the Protestant ones, would eagerly promote their own extinction by perverting a spiritual, transcendental faith into a carnal, worldly one? By what alchemy was he able even then to detect in the lineaments of enlightenment and righteousness the wrath to come? To hear the death-watch beetle at work when clergy 'trapped in all the twaddle of temporality' preached a Christianity 'lived in harmony with the flesh?'
And what about this, a decade before Northcliffe was born and two decades before Beaverbrook?
I say it is especially the daily newspapers which labour at degrading men to be mere copies. As in a paper factory the rags are worked together into a mass, so the newspapers tend to smooth out every individual difference in men, all spirit (for spirit is differentiation in itself, and consequently also from others), in order to make them happy qua numerus, by means of the life which is peculiar to the numberin everything like the rest. Here the animal creature finds peace and rest, in the herd.
Kierkegaard was the seventh child of elderly parents, his mother being his father's second wife, formerly a servant in his house, and several months gone in pregnancy on their wedding day. He was undersized, vulnerable, highly intelligent, combative, often malign and always somehow forlorn, as the children of the elderly often areMax Beerbohm, for instance. Kierkegaard's relations with his father were passionate and troubled, and it has often been suggested that they were reflected in his attitude to the Deity. It might be so, but it is just as possible that Kierkegaard, like many another seeing soul, felt himself all along an orphan here on earth, and so looked for a father elsewhere.
In any case, he became increasingly an oddity, with one trouser-leg shorter than the other, given to high spirits and sharp talk in public and to melancholia in private. After some early disorderly behaviour he turned to the study of theology, but never became a minister. Perhaps his obsessive loathing of Bishop Mynster ('that liar of blessed memory') among other things, stood in the way. He fell in love with Regine Olsen, and despite his grotesque physique succeeded in winning her heart. Thereupon he felt bound to renounce her, and thenceforth dedicated his prolific literary output to her.
Another curious episode arose out of his friendship with Meir Goldschmidt, editor of Corsair, a satirical and sometimes scurrilous weekly, a Copenhagen Private Eye as it were. Kierkegaard occasionally helped Goldschmidt with a piece of information, and in consequence enjoyed immunity in the pages of his magazine. Then one day he asked Goldschmidt to spare him no longer, and for a whole year Corsair went for him regularly, making cruel fun of all his peculiarities, including his misshapen body. The campaign was so successful that the children in the streets cried out after him, and his first name, Soren, came to be eschewed. Parents would admonish their children: 'Don't be a Soren !'
It is easy to say that he was looking for martyrdom, that he was sick. Yet how much less sick, properly speaking, than some golden-hued Scandinavian of today chasing his happiness out of an upper-storey window, or into an Ingmar Bergman film! 'Only when a man has become so unhappy, or has grasped the misery of this existence so profoundly that he can truly say, "For me life is worthless," ' Kierkegaard wrote, 'only then can life have worth in the highest degree.' As he continually points out, all that is most mediocre and contemptible in human beings derives from the pursuit of earthly happiness. It is the glory of Christianity to have denounced and defied this pursuit; the Christian who none the less goes crawling on his stomach to make his peace with happiness earns Kierkegaard's particular contempt.
Such is his message, assiduously and skilfully proclaimed during his short life (he died when he was forty-two) and echoing on ever more loudly after his death when events themselves so dramatically underline and expound it. Even in his lifetime he was heeded more than might be supposed; Ibsen's Brand is said to be based on him. To a bruised twentieth-century mind like Camus's he brings the balm of reconciliation with the true, terrible and sublime circumstances of human life; he liberates us from liberation, wrests despair from the idiot jaws of hope, and turns us away from the frantic noise of history and all its hopes and desires in search of other, fairer and more enduring vistas.
Observer, January 1967
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