The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology

The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology


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The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology by Soren Kierkegaard

Who might reasonably be nominated as the funniest philosopher of all time? With this anthology, Thomas Oden provisionally declares Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855)--despite his enduring stereotype as the melancholy, despairing Dane--as, among philosophers, the most amusing.

Kierkegaard not only explored comic perception to its depths but also practiced the art of comedy as astutely as any writer of his time. This collection shows how his theory of comedy is integrated into his practice of comic perception, and how both are integral to his entire authorship.

Kierkegaard's humor ranges from the droll to the rollicking; from farce to intricate, subtle analysis; from nimble stories to amusing aphorisms. In these pages you are invited to meet the wife of an author who burned her husband's manuscript and a businessman who, even with an abundance of calling cards, forgot his own name. You will hear of an interminable vacillator whom archeologists found still pacing thousands of years later, trying to come to a decision. Then there is the emperor who became a barkeeper in order to stay in the know.

The Humor of Kierkegaard is for anyone ready to be amused by human follies. Those new to Kierkegaard will discover a dazzling mind worth meeting. Those already familiar with his theory of comedy will be delighted to see it concisely set forth and exemplified. Others may have read Kierkegaard intensively without having ever really noticed his comic side. Here they will find what they have been missing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691020853
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/06/2004
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Thomas C. Oden is Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology at Drew University. He is the author of many books, including The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, and General Editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

Read an Excerpt

The Humor of Kierkegaard

An Anthology


KIERKEGAARD WROTE: "I consider the power in the comic a vitally necessary legitimation for anyone who is to be regarded as authorized in the world of spirit in our day" (Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992]-hereafter CUPPF-1:281).

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855; often SK hereafter) explored comic perception to its depths. He also practiced the art of comedy as astutely as any writer of his time. This collection shows how his theory of comedy is integrated into his practice of comic perception, and how both his theory and practice of comedy are integral to his entire authorship.


What's So Funny?

In these pages you will meet a host who offers his guests a menu rather than a meal and the wife of an author who burned her husband's manuscript. You will learn of a book whose typesetting occurred through a misunderstanding. You will encounter a businessman who, even with an abundance of calling cards, forgot his own name. You will hear of an interminable vacillator whom archeologists found still pacing thousands of yearslater, trying to come to a decision. Then there is the emperor who became a barkeeper in order to stay in the know.

Kierkegaard's humor ranges from the droll to the rollicking, from farce to intricate, subtle analysis, from nimble stories to amusing aphorisms. Some of these selections are merely a brief fantastic flight of imagination or an amusing word picture. Think of them as flying glimpses into an outrageous comic premise. In some extracts we do not have a fully developed comic plot at all but merely a droll analogy, witty reasoning, or a ridiculous metaphor. All these levels of musings, from wild fancy to cerebral philosophical humor, are a part of the always dialectical and sometimes preposterous buffoonery that we find in SK. Still, he bears, unjustly, a reputation for deadly sobriety and unremitting melancholy.


It is not fair to judge Kierkegaard by the standards of a modern stand-up comedian. Laughter as such is not his major objective but rather the understanding of laughter within the stages of development of the human spirit. Nonetheless, while writing intricately dialectical philosophy, he is often not only funny, but keenly aware of just why something is funny.

I implore the reader not to impose contemporary standards of humor on a nineteenth-century writer. Comic perception is often subtly geared to its own distinctive culture and language, hence difficult to transpose and not always easily translatable. This doubles the challenge of putting together a collection of this sort, which aims to reveal Kierkegaard's best comic moments without explaining them ad nauseum. If two hundred years from now someone read a collection of the best comic moments of Lewis Carroll, G. B. Shaw, P. J. O'Rouarch, or Woody Allen, they would miss some nuances that would be understandable only in our own particular cultural context. But there would still be a lot that would be amusing. So with SK.

In making these selections I have not sought to sustain any particular level of comic intensity throughout. This is not a Marx brothers movie. Do not expect every line to be hilarious, but do anticipate in each episode some level of comic incongruity. Consider this an unhurried venture into the leisurely writings of a brilliant author who is enjoying himself immensely as he pushes and challenges and seduces his reader.

My primary criterion in evaluating a particular passage has been single-minded and simple: Is it funny to me? I am asking not how important it is to world history or to the vast corpus of Kierkegaardian literature nor whether it contains deep philosophical insight or enriches self-awareness-only whether it is amusing. I admit to enjoying the privileged and highly subjective position of editor; I have tried not to exploit it. If you see something in this collection that you think is not so funny, be gentle, and at least be assured that someone else thinks it is. And remember: it is possible that you might have missed something.

For Whom?

This collection is for anyone ready to be amused by human follies. Even if you have never read a page of Kierkegaard, you may well find him to be a dazzling mind worth meeting. He is determined to entertain you.

This collection can be used like a crowbar, wedging open a treasure chest containing the literary craftsmanship of an otherwise complex and difficult philosophical figure.

Some may have read Kierkegaard intensively without having ever really noticed his comic side. Here they will find what they have been missing. Others will come to this collection already having read SK extensively, already aware of his comedic style, yet wanting to see it set forth and illustrated more fully. Here they will find the best of it. Some academic readers may even already be somewhat familiar with his theory of comedy but would like to see it concisely set forth and adequately exemplified. I welcome all these readers with the caveat that they will not find in this book a labored discussion of Kierkegaard's theory of comedy (aside from this spare introduction). It is primarily a modest collection of some instances of it. But I hope these few examples will do it at least partial justice. The selections that follow include both his thoughts on humor and examples of his humor.

Kierkegaard is addressing "that single individual" whom he affectionately called "my reader"-as if to say my one and only reader, one who has elected to risk entering into Kierkegaard's own special world of reflection on human existence, his unique authorship. The collection is not designed primarily to serve a small coterie of veteran Kierkegaard aficionados but rather "my reader." As I made my selections (from a vast supply of possibilities), I tried to keep these hawk-eyed veteran Kierkegaard specialists out of my mind. I know these experts are out there, and some may be ready to pounce upon my choices, for sins of either commission or omission. Nonetheless, even to seasoned readers, this collection may help identify stories or episodes they have read at sometime but cannot recall precisely where in the vast sea of Kierkegaard's sentences. The indices, topical arrangement, and editorial apparatus are especially designed to help readers, old and new, to locate themes, aphorisms, raucous images, and amusing ideas quickly.

The erudite are those, in Kierkegaard's view, most prone to ignore or misinterpret the comic dimension. It is to the "assistant professor" that Kierkegaard assigns the role of being the most "devoid of comic power," and the least likely to grasp his or her own comic contradictions. "A ludicrous sullenness and paragraph-pomposity that give an assistant professor a remarkable likeness to a Holberg bookkeeper are called earnestness by assistant professors" (CUPPF 1:281).

The Gauntlet

This prompts a more serious question: Who might reasonably be nominated as the funniest philosopher of all time? I want to throw down this gauntlet: Bundle together any other ten philosophers who have made a major impact in the history of philosophy. I challenge any reader to assemble a selection of humor from all of them put together that is funnier than what you find in this volume of Kierkegaard.

Until this challenge is answered successfully, I provisionally declare Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (despite his enduring stereotype as the melancholy, despairing Dane) as, among philosophers, the most amusing. Just think of the frail, awkward, crippled Magister Kierkegaard actually being entered into Guinness' World Book of Records! He might also be the world's funniest psychologist and the world's funniest theologian, but I do not wish to exaggerate.

Whether There Is Any Scholarly Legitimation for Such a Project

I do not pretend to enter this batch of stories into some solemn arena in which it was never intended to compete. Such an entry would be, as Kierkegaard quips, "as welcome as a dog in a game of bowls" (Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David Swenson, [ed.] Walter Lowrie [Princeton: Princeton University Press, (c) 1941]-hereafter CUPPF-L-p. 29). Nor can it be my purpose to justify why a particular narrative is funny; the secondary corpus is already too heavily weighted with tedious footnotes to burden it with more. Readers who want help with SK's many allusions are referred to the Princeton University Press series Kierkegaard's Writings (hereafter KW).

Think of this collection simply as entertainment with no noble purpose. Any learning or edification or wisdom derived is wholly incidental and inadvertent. Furthermost from my mind is a work of moral counsel or religious instruction. Let these pages serve as a deserved break from heavy chores. After having committed the sin of writing thousands of scholarly footnotes in my previous books on ethics, theology, and patristic studies, I have been told that my pedantry dues are fully paid up. I can now break free from such expectations, and the reader can break free from insisting upon them.

Admittedly, it is true that I could not have accomplished this task without having taught repeatedly, for a quarter-century, a graduate seminar on Kierkegaard at Drew University and directed weighty dissertations on his work. But my purpose here is not to add to an already ponderous burden of bibliographies on Kierkegaard.

SK teaches us how to revel in the comedy of the contradictions inherent to human existence. I want to dispel the dreary myth that SK is full of despair, would never be caught laughing, and that waves of his despair flood like the surf into the reader's consciousness. In addition, this volume, I suppose, might serve some function at the lectern, in the pulpit, and on the after-dinner dais, with its topics and indices so conveniently arranged for easy access.

The Editorial Apparatus

Following Howard and Edna Hong's protocol in Søren Kierkegaardøs Journals and Papers (ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 4 vols. [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967-75]-hereafter JP), a series of five periods (...) indicates an ellipsis found in the Danish text and English translation, whereas a three-dot ellipsis (...), sometimes following a period, indicates an omission I have made to eliminate extraneous material. To facilitate smooth reading, I have begun all excerpts with a capital letter whether or not there was a capital at that point in the original.

This volume is intended to serve as a sequel to one I previously assembled, Parables of Kierkegaard, published in 1978 by Princeton University Press, which has remained in print with a steady readership for almost a quarter-century. Untold numbers of readers have treasured his narrative genius as exhibited in that collection. When asked about a sequel, I thought the next obvious step would be a long-awaited collection of his humorous stories. Following basically the pattern of Parables of Kierkegaard, each selection begins with a topical heading in the upper left corner, followed by a centered title and a lead question. The lead question frames the situation in which the passage appears; the topical heading gives it focus; the title names it. None of this editorial bridging is supplied by Kierkegaard; it is derived from the context and suggests something of the argument surrounding the selection without intruding on the reader's discovery. All this is to save the reader's time and avoid the necessity of writing a dreary essay about each comic episode. The format also assists the reader in locating quickly the issue or concern central to the selection.

Since I have chosen to arrange these selections by theme rather than voice, after each selection the voice speaking (if other than SK's) has been noted in brackets. Where no pseudonymous voice is indicated, it is Kierkegaard's own voice. A dash (-) before the title indicates that a single title is being referenced in a multititled volume.

Wherever the concept of "Christendom" appears, I have ordinarily enclosed it in quotation marks, to remind the reader that what is meant is not Christianity as such but so-called Christianity, especially of the sort that prevailed in nineteenth-century Denmark.

An asterisk indicates that a translation has been amended. I have sometimes divided long sentences with semicolons into shorter sentences, reduced archaisms, and shifted punctuation for easier reading. Where more than one translation of a selection was available, I carefully examined the differences. The literary quality of some of the earlier translations of Kierkegaard into English in my view equals or exceeds the later translation. I have made a meticulous case-by-case decision, in most cases preferring the rendition of Howard and Edna Hong, but in some cases that of Walter Lowrie or David F. Swenson or some other translator. The titles of Kierkegaard's works may appear differently in various translations, and where they do, the book title used indicates by inference the translator, as in the case of Attack on "Christendom" (Lowrie) or The Moment (Hong and Hong). KW (Kierkegaard's Writings) is always a clue that the current Princeton critical edition is being used. (If KW does not appear in the reference, the extract has been taken from some other source.) Thus the bibliography of primary sources contains both older and newer translations.

Text and Context

Is this or any other anthology justified in lifting texts out of their contexts? Some texts have some measure of narrative detachability. These are the ones I have tended to select, the ones that can transfer as independent narratives (anecdotes or comic metaphors) out of the larger text without too much deadly explanatory background. The reader may explore the context further as desired.

Literary purists may complain. What a shame to cut the text up into little pieces! How negligent to miss the context! (Implicitly: How offensive to contextuality to assemble any anthology whatever!) With the purists I agree, so far as purity goes. Those who want the text rather than an anthology will surely be happier putting this book down immediately and reading the full, uncut text rather than any editor's short selections. But purists may forget that there are others not so pure who need a map to travel the countryside.

It is the editor's task to set parameters that serve the reader. This I have done by deciding not to weight this book heavily with clarifications of Kierkegaard's probable intent. That, though possible to do, and tempting for any scholar, would hardly have served the ordinary reader's interest.

I have gleaned these selections from SK's published authorship, leaving aside his journals and papers to be explored by another scholar. I have deliberately avoided selections that appeared in my previous anthology on Kierkegaard and have largely tried not to repeat selections that have appeared in other anthologies. To Kierkegaard experts who can't find their favorite story in this collection, I would commend The Laughter Is on My Side (ed. Roger Poole and Henrik Stangerup [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989]).

Søren as a One-Man Performance

As I have assembled this collection, I have often fantasized of a one-man show in which an actor portraying Kierkegaard might narrate some of this material in his own name, and then assume different masks or hats to represent Kierkegaard's various fictional personae. Others intrigued by such a fantasy could use this book as a resource, selecting from it the episodes suited to their particular thematic interests.


Excerpted from The Humor of Kierkegaard by Søren Kierkegaard Copyright © 2004 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

The Human Condition43
The Absurd45
Beginning and Risking53
Stages in Becoming Oneself57
Aesthetic Existence59
Ethical Existence63
Religious Existence69
Finding and Losing Oneself84
Becoming a Christian95
Incarnation and Atonement99
Offense and Paradox103
Eternal Happiness in Time107
Explaining Hegel to God117
The Hazards of Regnant Theology120
The Status of Christianity within Modernity138
The Bible143
The Clergy147
The Hazards of Love163
Love and Duty167
Marriage and the Single State170
The Vulnerability of the Male174
The Strength of Woman179
Children and Youth186
Truth and Communication191
Literary and Artistic Criticism193
Comedy and Contradiction197
Laughter as the Test of Truth203
The Vocation of Authorship208
The Culture of Modernity217
The Present Age219
Objective Knowledge and Science222
Authority and Establishment229
World History232
Sociological and Cultural Analysis235
Cheap Talk on a Grand Scale237
Journalism and the Press241
Public Opinion and the Crowd248
Advertising and Impression Management251
Politics, Revolution, and Reform254
Psychological Analysis271
Behavior Change273
Anxiety, Guilt, and Boredom277
Contradictions within Academia283
Education and the Universities285
Philosophical Systems290
Pure Thought296
Speculation and Idealism305
AppendixHow Comic Episodes Correlate with the Stages317

What People are Saying About This


Not only does this book make Kierkegaard accessible but it also entertains, regales with story, and amuses. It will be useful for the lectern, pulpit, and after-dinner dais. The selections, which made me laugh, illustrate sardonically the contradictions of existence.
David J. Gouwens, Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University

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