Kierkegaard's Writings, IX: Prefaces: Writing Samplerby Soren Kierkegaard
Prefaces was the last of four books by Søren Kierkegaard to appear within two weeks in June 1844. Three Upbuilding Discourses and Philosophical Fragments were published first, followed by The Concept of Anxiety and its companion--published on the same day--the comically ironic Prefaces. Presented as a set of prefaces without a book to follow, this work is a… See more details below
Prefaces was the last of four books by Søren Kierkegaard to appear within two weeks in June 1844. Three Upbuilding Discourses and Philosophical Fragments were published first, followed by The Concept of Anxiety and its companion--published on the same day--the comically ironic Prefaces. Presented as a set of prefaces without a book to follow, this work is a satire on literary life in nineteenth-century Copenhagen, a lampoon of Danish Hegelianism, and a prefiguring of Kierkegaard's final collision with Danish Christendom. Shortly after publishing Prefaces, Kierkegaard began to prepare Writing Sampler as a sequel. Writing Sampler considers the same themes taken up in Prefaces but in yet a more ironical and satirical vein. Although Writing Sampler remained unpublished during his lifetime, it is presented here as Kierkegaard originally envisioned it, in the company of Prefaces.
"These new translations are excellent."--Choice
"The definitive edition of the Writings. The first volume . . . indicates the scholarly value of the entire series: an introduction setting the work in the context of Kierkegaard's development; a remarkably clear translation; and concluding sections of intelligent notes."--Library Journal
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Prefaces Writing Sampler
By Søren Kierkegaard, Todd W. Nichol
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1997 Todd W. Nichol
All rights reserved.
It is a frequently corroborated experience that a triviality, a little thing, a careless utterance, an unguarded exclamation, a casual glance, an involuntary gesture have provided the opportunity to slip into a person and discover something that had escaped more careful observation. Lest, however, this insignificant remark be distorted and become pompous, I shall for the moment forego further pursuit of it and get on with my project. 2In relation to a book a prologue is a triviality, and yet by means of a more careful comparison of prologues, would one not gain an opportunity for observation at a bargain price! In the scholarly world much is made of classifying literature and assigning the writing of each individual author to its proper place in the age and the writing of the age in that of the human race. Yet no one thinks about what might be gained if one or another literatus [literary type] could be trained to read only prologues, but to do it so thoroughly that he would begin with the earliest times and advance through all the centuries down to our own day. Prologues are characterized by the accidental, like dialects, idioms, colloquialisms; they are dominated by fashion in a way entirely different from the way works are—they change like clothing. Now they are long, now short; now bold, now shy; now stiffly formal, now slapdash; now worried and almost repentant, now self-confident and almost brash; now not entirely without an eye for the weaknesses of the book, now stricken with blindness, now perceiving these better than anyone else; now the preface is the first distillation of the product, now an aftertaste of it. And all of this is purely ceremonial. Even an author who in his work defies the times may nevertheless in the preface accommodate himself to custom in trivial matters and is thereby put to the test in many a collision—very droll for the observer—with regard to how far and how. Indeed, the more I think of this, the richer the yield promised by such a study seems to me. Just think of the contrast: the Greek naïveté that would furnish a superb basis for the presentation of the results. But I halt this flight of thought, which would probably lead me astray since I lack the equipment.
The preface has received its deathblow in recent scholarship. Looked at from its point of view, an older author easily becomes a pitiful figure over whom one does not know whether to laugh or to cry, because his halting manner in getting to the point makes him comic, and his naïveté, as if there were anyone who cared about him, makes him pathetic. Nowadays a situation like this cannot be repeated, because when one begins the book with the subject and the system with nothing there apparently is nothing left over to say in a prologue. This state of affairs has given me occasion to become aware that the preface is an altogether unique kind of literary production, and since it is elbowed aside it is high time for it to liberate itself like everything else. In this way it can still come to be something good. The incommensurable, which in an earlier period was placed in the preface to a book, can now find its place in a preface that is not the preface to any book. I believe that in this way the conflict will be settled to mutual satisfaction and benefit; if the preface and the book cannot be hitched up together, then let the one give the other a decree of divorce.
The most recent scholarly method has made me aware that it would have to come to a break. My merit will be this, to make the break in earnest; now there is only a phenomenon that points to the deeper reason. Every esthetically cultivated author surely has had moments when he did not care to write a book but when he really wanted to write a preface to a book, no matter whether it was by himself or by someone else. This indicates that a preface is essentially different from a book and that to write a preface is something entirely different from writing a book; if not, this need would express itself only when one had written a book, or when one imagined that one would write it just as one superficially imagines it, and thus raises the question of whether one should write the preface first or last. Nonetheless, as soon as a person is in one of these situations, he either has had a subject or imagines having it. But now when lacking also this he desires to write a preface, it is easy to perceive that this must not deal with a subject, because in that case the preface itself would become a book, and the question of the preface and the book would be pushed aside. The preface as such, the liberated preface, must then have no subject to treat but must deal with nothing, and insofar as it seems to discuss something and deal with something, this must nevertheless be an illusion and a fictitious motion.
The preface is thereby defined purely lyrically and defined according to its concept, while in the popular and traditional sense the preface is a ceremony according to period and custom. A preface is a mood. Writing a preface is like sharpening a scythe, like tuning a guitar, like talking with a child, like spitting out of the window. One does not know how it comes about; the desire comes upon one, the desire to throb fancifully in a productive mood, the desire to write a preface, the desire to do these things leves sub noctem susurri [in a low whisper as night falls]. Writing a preface is like ringing someone's doorbell to trick him, like walking by a young lady's window and gazing at the paving stones; it is like swinging one's cane in the air to hit the wind, like doffing one's hat although one is greeting nobody. Writing a preface is like having done something that justifies claiming a certain attention, like having something on one's conscience that tempts confidentiality, like bowing invitingly in the dance although one does not move, like pressing hard with the left leg, pulling the reins to the right, hearing the steed say "Pst," and oneself not caring a straw for the whole world; it is like being along without having the slightest inconvenience of being along, like standing on Valdby Hill and gazing at the wild geese. Writing a preface is like arriving by stagecoach at the first station, stopping in the dark shed, having a presentiment of what will appear, seeing the gate and then the open sky, gazing at the continually receding road beyond, catching a glimmer of the pregnant mystery of the forest, the alluring fading away of the footpath; it is like hearing the sound of the posthorn and the beckoning invitation of the echo, like hearing the powerful crack of the coachman's whip and the forest's perplexed repetition and the jovial conversation of the travelers. Writing a preface is like having arrived, standing in a comfortable parlor, greeting longing's desired object, sitting in an easy chair, filling a pipe, lighting it—and then having endlessly much to converse about. Writing a preface is like being aware that one is beginning to fall in love—the soul sweetly restless, the riddle abandoned, every event an intimation of the transfiguration. Writing a preface is like bending aside a branch in a bower of jasmine and seeing her who sits there in secret: my beloved. Oh, this is how it is, this is how it is to write a preface; and the one who writes it, what is he like? He moves in and out among people like a dupe in winter and a fool in summer; he is hello and good-bye in one person, always joyful and nonchalant, contented with himself, really a light-minded ne'er-do-well, indeed an immoral person, since he does not go to the stock exchange to feather his nest but only strolls through it; he does not speak at public meetings, because the atmosphere is too confined; he does not propose toasts in any society, because this requires notice several days in advance; he does not run errands on behalf of the system; he does not pay installments on the national debt and in fact does not even take it seriously; he goes through life the way a shoemaker's apprentice walks whistling down the street, even though the one who is to use the boots stands and waits—then he must wait so long as there remains a single place left for sliding or the slightest object of interest to see. This, yes this is what one who writes prefaces is like.
See, everyone can ponder all this as he wishes, just as it crosses his mind and when it crosses his mind. With me it is different because a promise and an obligation bind me to busy myself only and solely with this kind of writing. I will without delay tell the reader how all this hangs together, since it is in exactly the right place here, and just as defamation belongs at a coffee party, this is something that very properly belongs in a preface.
Although happily married as only few are and also thankful for my happiness as perhaps only few are, I have nevertheless run up against difficulties in my marriage, the discovery of which is due to my wife, because I suspected nothing. Several months had passed by since the wedding. I had gradually become somewhat practiced in the pattern of marital life; then little by little there awakened again in me a desire that I had always nourished and in which I in all innocence thought I might indulge myself: engagement in some literary task. The subject was chosen, books along this line that I myself owned were set out, particular works were borrowed from the Royal Library, my notes were arranged synoptically and my pen was, so to speak, dipped. Meanwhile, my wife had scarcely conceived a suspicion that some such thing was in the wind before she began watching my movements very carefully. Occasionally she dropped an enigmatic word, vaguely suggested that all my busyness in the study, my longer sojourns there, and my literary ruminations were not altogether to her liking. I did, however, keep all my wits about me and pretended not to understand her, which I actually did not at first. Then one day she catches me off guard and extracts from me the formal confession that I was on the way to wanting to be an author. If until now her conduct had been more a reconnoitering, she now zeroed in more and more definitely, until she finally declared open war, et quidem [and this] so openly that she intended to confiscate everything I wrote, in order to use it in a better way as the underlayment of her embroidery, for curlers, etc. An author's situation can hardly be more desperate than mine; even a person under special censorship can still hope to get his work to the point where it "may be printed," but my writing is always suffocated at birth. How desperate my position was became clearer and clearer to me in another way. I had scarcely discovered that I had become the object of persecution of the press before, as is natural, something became clear to me that previously had not entered my mind at all: that it would be an irretrievable loss to humanity if my writing did not see the light of day. What is now to be done about it? Unlike a censored author, I do not have recourse to the chancery, the provincial estates, the esteemed public, or posterity's memory. I live and die, stand and fall, with my wife. Now, I certainly am considered by my contemporaries to be a good and very experienced debater who can adequately plead my case, but here this proficiency will be of only slight benefit to me, because even if I can debate with the devil himself, I cannot debate with my wife. She has, namely, only one syllogism, or rather none at all. What learned people call sophistry, she, who wants nothing to do with being learned, calls teasing. Now, the procedure is very simple, that is, for the one who knows how to proceed properly. Whenever I say something that she does not like, whether it is in the form of a syllogism or not, whether a long speech or a short remark—the form does not matter—but when she does not like what has been said, she looks at me with a countenance that is lovable, charming, good-natured, and captivating, yet at the same time is triumphant, devastating, and she says: It is only teasing. The consequence of this is that all my skill in debating becomes a luxury item for which there is no demand at all in my domestic life. If I, the experienced dialectician, fairly well exemplify the course of justice, which according to the poet's dictum is so very long, my wife is like the royal Danish chancery, kurz und bündig [short and to the point], except that she is very different from that august body in being very lovable. It is precisely this lovableness that gives her an authority that she knows how to maintain in a charming way at every moment.
That is how things stand. I have never gone further than an introductory paragraph. Since this was of a general nature and in my view so successfully composed that it would be enjoyable to her if I were not the author, it crossed my mind whether I might not be able to win her to the enterprise by reading it to her. I was prepared for her to reject my offer and for her to utilize the advantage to say, "Now it has even gone so far that not only did you occupy yourself with writing but I am obliged to listen to lectures." Not at all. She received my proposal as kindly as possible; she listened, she laughed, she admired. I thought that all was won. She came over to the table where I was sitting, put her arm intimately around my neck, and asked me to read a passage again. I begin to read, holding the manuscript high enough so that she can see to follow me. Superb! I am beside myself but am not quite through that passage when the manuscript suddenly bursts into flames. Without my noticing it, she had pushed the single candle under the manuscript. The fire won out; there was nothing to save; my introductory paragraph went up in flames—amid general rejoicing, since my wife rejoiced for both of us. Like an elated child she clapped her hands and then threw herself about my neck with a passion as if I had been separated from her, yes, lost to her. I could not get in a word. She begged my forgiveness for having fought in this way for her love, begged with an emotion that almost made me believe that I had been on the way to becoming the prodigal husband. She explained that she could not endure my being changed in this way. "Your thought belongs to me," she said, "it must belong to me. Your attentiveness is my daily bread. Your approval, your smile, your jests are my life, my inspiration. Grant me that—oh, do not deny me what is justly due me—for my sake, for the sake of my joy, so that with joy I may be able to do what is my only joy: to think of you and to find all my satisfaction in being able, day in and day out, to continue wooing you as once you wooed me."
Now, what justifies a wife in such conduct, a wife who is lovable not only in the eyes of all who know her but above all is lovable in my eyes, is as delightful as the day is long? Her view is in contento [in substance] as follows: a married man who is an author is not much better than a married man who goes to his club every evening, yes, even worse, because the one who goes to his club must himself still admit that it is an infraction, but to be an author is a distinguished unfaithfulness that cannot evoke regret even though the consequences are worse. The one who goes to his club is away only as long as he is away, but an author—"Well, you probably do not know it yourself, but a total change has taken place in you. You are in a cocoon of thoughtfulness from morning til night, and it is especially obvious at the dinner table. There you sit and stare off into space like a ghost or like King Nebuchadnezzar who is reading the invisible writing. Then when I myself have prepared coffee for you, have set it out on the tray, come joyfully to you, stand before you, and curtsy to you—then, then out of fright I almost drop the tray, and above all I have then lost my cheerfulness and my joy and cannot curtsy to you."
Just as my wife on each occasion knows how to get in her Catonian preterea censeo [furthermore I am of the opinion] even though she does not do it as tiresomely as Cato, so must everything also serve her for argument. Her argumentation is like an invocation of nature. If in a doctoral dissertation defense I was in the position that an opponent offered similar arguments, I would probably turn my back on him and say about him what the Magister [Master of Arts] says in Holberg: An ignoramus who does not know how to distinguish between ubi praedicamentale [the where predicative] and ubi transcendentale [the where transcendental]. With my wife it is something else. Her argumentation comes straight from the shoulder—and to the heart, from which it actually comes. In this regard she has taught me to understand how a Roman Catholic can be built up by a service in Latin, because her argumentation, viewed as such, is what Latin is for the one who does not understand it, and yet she always builds me up, moves and affects me.
Excerpted from Prefaces Writing Sampler by Søren Kierkegaard, Todd W. Nichol. Copyright © 1997 Todd W. Nichol. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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