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Wisdom in Love, Kierkegaard and the Ancient Quest for Emotional Integrity.

Wisdom in Love, Kierkegaard and the Ancient Quest for Emotional Integrity. By Rick Anthony Furtak. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. ISBN 0-268-02874-5. Pp. xii +236.

Soren Kierkegaard, A Biography. By Joakim Garff. Translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-691-09165-X. Pp. xxv + 867.

Soren Aabye Kierkegaard is frequently thought a prolific, unmarried writer bent on riddling his audience with a strenuous and frightening view of human existence. From those with a passing familiarity, you might hear: Isn't he the one who cut himself off, from his father, his fiance, the Danish church, and finally his entire readership, only to die prematurely, melancholy and aloof? Indeed, his standards for spiritual health appear so high and paradoxical, one wonders whether the final heavenly banquet will have any guests at all, or if any, whether they will have lost their appetite along the way. It might come as a bit of a surprise, then, to pick up Rick Anthony Furtak's Wisdom in Love, Kierkegaard and the Ancient Quest for Emotional Integrity and find that the Dane's authorship actually advocates vulnerably engaged emotional attachments over against Stoic other-worldly flights.

Furtak locates his analysis within the contemporary return to ancient Greek ways of addressing the role of emotions in the moral life. For some time philosophers have been increasingly sloughing off the modern burden of pitting reason against the passions, a tradition in which the emotions are either involuntary, hydraulic facts about us (Descartes), essentially reliable but inscrutable sentiments against which reason is impotent (Hume), or corrupt principles it is our transcendental duty to overcome (Kant). What these sickly, internally divided caricatures suggest is that our passions are dark and stubborn, unlikely to play a positive role in shaping and directing the moral personality in an authentic, integrated way. In contrast, the common ancient assumption is that emotions are themselves intelligent; they arise from and are a response to what we perceive as valuable and salient beyond ourselves in the environed world. Without them we simply wouldn't care about anything, including care morally.

To say emotions are intelligent, however, is not to claim that we do not often care about the wrong things, or care too little, or too much, about the right things. But it does imply our desires can be examined, developed, educated, and integrated in more or less salutary ways. In Furtak's words, the "cardinal virtue" of this "renovated ethics would be nothing less than the readiness to be always affected in the right ways, based upon a care for the right things" with the goal of having "earned the right to trust oneself in becoming passionate"(36). The crucial point against the Stoics is that we do properly cherish and depend on external goods beyond our control and ought to remain open to favored experiences in which fate might intervene. In this, Furtak appeals warmly to the work of Robert Solomon and Martha Nussbaum, among others, and marshals evidence that Kierkegaard prefigures this return to ancient philosophy as a resource with which to set himself up against both the romantic and rationalist trends of his day.

The case Furtak makes is not one of simply tracing an intellectual debt. The longest sections of his argument are indirect and interpretive. In part, this is due to the nature of Kierkegaard's own texts, themselves indirect, and certainly ones that require interpretation. What is therefore distinctive about Wisdom in Love is the lens through which Furtak brings into focus Kierkegaard's hallmark esthetic, ethical, and religious points of view around the passionate pursuit of meaningful experiences that are subject to the vicissitudes of time and fortune. The pathos of the esthete, for instance, "either distances itself from existence or else is present in it through an illusion" and therefore suffers from an "abstract sentimentality" (54, 58). In contrast, the distinctively ethical individual knows that the rather sad and elusive nature of purely esthetic experience can be rendered intelligent by committing to some concrete project. "We can tell a whim from a significant inspiration only if an understanding gained over time is activated in the momentary response," such that one is no longer "stranded in an empty present tense" (71-72).

One of the most laudable features of this analysis is how Furtak allows the esthete to respond in kind before moving on to the religious point of view. Taken at their best, romantics perceive that ethical individuals, by emotionally settling in and down, can close themselves off, and in a distinctive way suffer from a failure of imagination. Moral resolutions can themselves distance one from existence, from new and uncharacteristic loves that a life would be less meaningful without. It's not just that sober married individuals may be esthetically unexciting but that it might take a truly sensitive esthete to point out how morally boring they can be as well. Sentimental romanticism and bourgeois rationalism are thus the neither/nor contained within Either/Or.

Furtak's approach to the religious point of view is not only the most controversial aspect of Wisdom in Love but also of Kierkegaard's writing all told. The debate is over how detached and unemotional religious individuals are portrayed, how engaged by particular worldly aspirations they are supposed to be. Drawing from both pseudonymous and non-pseudonymous works, Furtak makes the case that a person of emotional integrity knows that "[i]nsofar as a person loves, he or she is at the mercy of a world in which value may dawn unexpectedly and what is valued may be taken away" and that this will take faith, "a matter of accepting one's place in the whole unknown process." Along the way, one will have to have developed a tragic-comic "sense of humor which does not ironically hold back from the world but is reconciled to it in all of its mixed detail" (109, 110, 114, 139). Any interpretive conclusion must be selective, and Furtak's is no exception. But what is particularly useful about this one is that it provides a general framework on the basis of which one could sort through and evaluate any given Kierkegaardian sketch of the religious point of view, whether in Fear and Trembling, Stages on Life's Way, the Postscript, Works of Love, or Practice in Christianity, each quite different, and none of which receive lengthy, specific treatment in Furtak's overview.

Stepping back, one might wonder how Kierkegaard himself fared in light of the ideal Furtak culls forth from his writings. Not that we could judge the ideal based on it; one simply might be curious. If we turn to the longest, most detailed, and most recent biography by Joakim Garff, the answer is surely as complex as the authorship itself. A natural place to begin is with Kierkegaard's stormy engagement to Regina Olsen and subsequent break a year later. Unsurprisingly, it's the break that typically gets all the press. But the lead-up and long aftermath contain all the agony and ecstasy of giving oneself over to a singular particular attachment. Garff's account begins, revealingly, with a secondhand report of how Regina, after the death of her subsequent husband, Fritz Schlegel, and forty-five years after Kierkegaard's death, eventually stopped speaking "of Schlegel, and spoke only of Kierkegaard" (175). Soren's own version begins with them in her parlor:
 She was a bit uneasy. I asked her to play a little for me on the
 piano, as she usually did. She did so, but it didn't help me. Then
 I suddenly took the music book, closed it, not without a certain
 vehemence, tossed it off the piano and said, "Oh, what do I care
 about music? It's you I'm looking for, you I've been seeking for
 two years." (175)

He did not have to wait long for Regina to reciprocate this impetuous overture. Thereupon ensued a written correspondence of which only Kierkegaard's side survives, and whose sheer aesthetic qualities "make it clear that their author was to become not a husband but a writer" (179). But why exactly did Kierkegaard break the engagement, the separation against which she "fought like a lioness"? The only detailed explanation we have is a poetic rendition in the form of an anonymous diary found by a pseudonym locked in a box at the bottom of a pond with the key inside, cryptically titled "Guilty/Not Guilty, A Story of Suffering," and included in the larger work Stages On Life's Way. Evidently, any answer will be interpretive.

Surprisingly, Garff himself locates the interpretive key not in the diary entries themselves, which recount Kierkegaard's side of the troubled courtship, but in the six interspersed pericopes, each of which tell "a tale about a person who had once abandoned himself to his sensual desires and who is now marked by the consequences of his fall, morally as well as physically" (342). It turns out these are highly encrypted references to a psychological earthquake Kierkegaard's father caused in his son by way of a confession. As background we must know that by twenty-two young Soren Aabye had experienced the death of his mother and five of his six siblings, beginning with the brother closest to him in age and name, Soren Michael, and ending with his favorite older sister, the "fiery strawberry blonde" Petrea Severine. Also relevant is that his father's first wife died within two years of their marriage, and the lineage in which Soren was the last began ignobly after five months of marriage to Ane, then a servant girl. What dad confessed, in an ambiguously pious, blasphemous rage, was that all this death was a prolonged, providential curse for his potentially syphilitic lechery, a guilt and punishment his children could count on inheriting. Out of genuine love and considerable anxiety, the son does seem to have been caught and bound with a vicarious sense of shame. The concern for his betrothed, presumably, would be over infecting her, if not physically, then no doubt morally.

But Garff also provides evidence that Kierkegaard never finally adopted his father's horrific view of providence, which drives us back to the story of unhappy love contained in the diary itself. There we read a tale about two developmental temperaments with emotional outlooks simply too different to share the kind of common understanding required of authentic intimacy and trust. The tragedy is that each seems to realize this in their own way, but again, in too different a way. The predominant view is that, the poetic writings aside, Kierkegaard's personal life was a series of increasingly detached sublimations of perfectly normal desires. But if Garff is right to suggest that the diarist's story "just might be Kierkegaard's own" it does not match the standard line. Cupid struck, he fell, she flushed, he broke, she pleaded, they both wept, and neither forgot. On no reading could one say he was anything but emotionally engaged. And continued to be, since the account in Stages does not include her getting married to someone else, as Regina did. Apparently he refused to close the matter, if only in his own imaginatively faithful heart. Outside of his imagination, we also learn from Garff that eight years after the engagement Soren and Regina continued to see each other in the street, at times frequently. Signals must have passed between them, since he problematically attempted to reopen correspondence, through Schlegel, which the latter understandably foreclosed.

That Kierkegaard was no free-falling stoic Garff dramatically portrays in the row over the low-brow satirical weekly The Corsair, which began with a literarily envious ad hominem review of "Guilty/Not Guilty?" Kierkegaard responded in the more reputable Fatherland by similarly attacking the pseudonymous reviewer's own literary venture and then exposing him as the real author of the censorious publication. One thingled to another. Kierkegaard was treated with a corresponding breach of pseudonymous etiquette, and the whole affair ended with a series of ironic visual caricatures lampooning his physical appearance and place within the Danish world of letters. One image went so far as to picture him with a need to be carried on the shoulders of a woman twice his stature. Thereupon The Corsair ended its circulation in a scandalous flurry, all of which came to actual jeering on the street. Garff suggests much of this was well deserved, but Kierkegaard clearly took it personally, and again later, as a widow, Regina still felt offense at his becoming a laughingstock.

This encounter with the popular press permanently colored Kierkegaard's social bond with his readership, and most certainly informs the final act of his career in which he publicly assaulted the bourgeois faith of the reigning clergy. The content of this rhetorically ecstatic campaign was that official Christianity was Christian only in name and that the socially and economically comfortable leaders were guilty of a loathsome deception. At first, all he wanted was an admission. But when he was dismissed by the bishop as theologically tone-deaf, lacking chivalry, and furthermore as thin-haired, hunch-backed, and having one trouser leg shorter than the other, Kierkegaard lost it. "O, Luther" he wrote, "you had ninety-five theses. How frightful! And yet in a more profound sense, the more theses, the less frightful. This matter is far more frightful: There is only one thesis. The Christianity of the New Testament does not exist at all. There is nothing here to reform" (747). After which he then compared the pastor to a sophisticated cannibal who speaks eloquently about the suffering of Christ, and who, for this service, deserves "a silver centerpiece for his table, a cross of knighthood, and a complete set of embroidered armchairs" (760). No one knew what to do. And it didn't help that Kierkegaard's own practical advice was to begin by taking away clerical pensions so that true piety might once again emerge in history.

Trouser length aside, one might wonder whether Kierkegaard, in casting himself as a latter-day Socrates with a death-wish, did not finally betray a real contempt for, in Furtak's words, "the world ... in all of its mixed detail" (139). Garff does not come down on this question either way. But he does tell us that during these events in the final year of Soren's life, on the day Regina was set to leave with her husband for the East Indies, she sought him out and
 before long, caught sight of the well-known figure in the
 broad-brimmed hat. As she passed by, she said with a voice so
 soft, it could just barely be heard, "God bless you--may all
 go well with you!" Kierkegaard was quite stunned, but then
 managed to tip his hat and greet his old love--for the
 last time ever. (746)

In combination with this, Garff offers evidence that Kierkegaard was aware his attack on the clergy was also a self-critique, a confessional judgment on his own largely poetic existence, on his own failure to act.

In the end, Garff paints a riveting picture of someone with an extremely complex set of feelings and expectations, so problematically undetached from personal engagements, that the reader palpably senses the urge to draw from them a timeless, narrative significance. Behind the authorship we find a single great refusal--equal and opposite to that of the nihilist--to relinquish meaning in life when experience so often and painfully belies it. On the surface, this passion can appear ridiculously overblown, which is why the details are so important. For example, at the time when Kierkegaard first met Regina, and made a deep impression on her despite being already, at fifteen, under the gaze and tutelage of her eventual spouse, he was then pursuing a twenty-one-year-old Bolette, a fact that he unsuccessfully tried to scratch out of his journals for the sake of posterity. And later, there was evidently something between him and Regina's older sister Cornelia, who may well have been the model for Cordelia in "The Seducer's Diary" Perhaps he did have reason to fear a lecherous tendency. In any event, there was a lot to make sense of, so many feelings to christen. We become convinced, though tempted otherwise, that what Kierkegaard needed was not therapy, but a story. What he no doubt did inherit from his father was a need to endow his personal suffering with cosmic importance. And so he wrote. Not as a flight from the world, but with a tangled commitment to a human page he refused to break in order to establish within his readers an inner communion that would render them far less ethically shallow. In so doing, he did not manage the throws of personal investment very well.

But to the degree that one sticks to certain ideals, and fully acknowledges rival goods and competing values, right in the thick of things, without recourse to sagacious compromises with fate, which of us would do any better? Perhaps that is the lasting message of both his life and work. Or if we do manage to handle it better, to give Garff the last word, that would be because in reality "he was like everybody else--merely multiplied tenfold" (439).

Kevin Hoffman

Valparaiso University
COPYRIGHT 2006 Conference on Christianity and Literature
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Title Annotation:Soren Kierkegaard: A Biography
Author:Hoffman, Kevin
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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