The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, ed. A. Hannay and G.D. Marino, (Cambridge)
A decade ago, as an undergraduate with a budding interest in Kierkegaard, I found books and interest in the nineteenth-century Danish thinker were both in short supply. In recent years the situation has been transformed. Kierkegaard’s works are now available in several editions and critical works, such as the latest Cambridge Companion, are being produced at a prodigious rate. This new anthology of specially commissioned essays paints a telling picture of how scholarly opinion of “the father of existentialism” has changed.
One of the most striking features of Kierkegaard’s work is that he wrote several of his books pseudonymously, under punning names such as Anti-Climacus, Hilarius Bookbinder and Constantine Constantius. This facilitated Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication”, a method by which he was able to present critiques of certain ways of thinking and living by taking us into these lives and thoughts themselves, and revealing their limitations from within. Kierkegaard reserved his own persona for his direct, Christian writings.
This feature of Kierkegaard’s writing has always fascinated his readers, but what is striking about this volume is how frequently we are urged to take the pseudonyms seriously. As Stephen Evans notes in his contribution, older books on Kierkegaard tended to view him as, at heart, a traditional philosopher, “albeit an unusual one with poetic gifts and religious interests”. Their goal, therefore, was to reconstruct from the indirect communication, a single philosophical system.
Such a project is tacitly criticised throughout this collection, where repeated efforts are made to distinguish Kierkegaard from his pseudonyms. Just as it is simplistic to identify the views of Plato with his fictionalised protagonist, Socrates, so, it is urged, is it misguided to identify Kierkegaard with any of his pseudonyms. The result is a more sophisticated reading of Kierkegaard’s oeuvre than was offered by earlier scholars, and a greater diversity of interpretation.
This approach does not, however, extend to the otherwise excellent bibliography, where no reference is made to which pseudonym is the “author” of which book, nor is there a distinction drawn between the pseudonymous works and those signed in Kierkegaard’s own name. And there are individual contributions that swim against this tide. George Pattison, for example, sets out to “reconstruct a critical aesthetic” from the fractured mosaic of Kierkegaard’s writing on the subject. That his attempt is no less credible than other interpretations offered in the collection is a reminder that we should not accept new trends in scholarship uncritically.
But for the most part, the picture that is painted is of a remarkably postmodern thinker. Long before there was even a modernism to be post, Kierkegaard, it seems, recognised that the single author was dead, and that autonomous texts had taken their place. Given the previous tendency to see Kierkegaard as primarily a proto-existentialist, we are left wondering whether each age remakes Kierkegaard in its own image, or whether we are still catching up with the full genius and prescience of his work.
The interest in the pseudonymous authorship is, in other respects, a direct continuation of the older tradition of Kierkegaard scholarship. Gordon Marino reminds us that, “by 1831 Kierkegaard was in the habit of publishing an “uplifting discourse” in his own name for every book he published pseudonymously.” However, the works that continue to fascinate readers remain those not published in Kierkegaard’s own name: Fear and Trembling, The Sickness unto Death, Repetition and The Concept of Anxiety remain the canonical works and each get their own, probing chapters and their presence is felt throughout the collection. Even in the articles that directly address more religious concerns, it is the pseudonymous works that almost always dominate.
This is not due to any lack of interest in Kierkegaard’s religious thinking. Indeed, the second change in critical opinion reflected in this book is that Kierkegaard’s Christianity is more properly acknowledged as being at the heart of his enterprise. Given that Kierkegaard himself described his life-project as trying to discover “how to be a Christian”, this acknowledgement seems far overdue. It is certainly true that his philosophy is rich enough to be mined by believers and non-believers alike, but we should distinguish what we can get out of Kierkegaard from what he himself argued.
One result of this change is that we get some essays which are more theology than philosophy. Thus, grace, Christology and Christian ethics are as much a part of this collection as authenticity, Hegel and the critique of rationality.
One final quibble. The term “companion” is attached to any number of type of book these days, from dictionary like reference works to the collections of essays such as the current volume. The range of topics covered by these 400 pages certainly justifies the sense of inclusivity this epithet suggests. But the cover blurb claiming that this represents “the most convenient and accessible guide to Kierkegaard currently available” is certainly economical with the truth. This is an excellent collection of probing and sometimes difficult studies, which is of most value to readers already familiar with at least some of the primary sources. It should be valued as such, not sold on as something it is not.