The Literary Kierkegaard

The Literary Kierkegaard

by Eric Ziolkowski


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Eric Ziolkowski’s monumental study examines Kierkegaard’s “whole ‘prolix literature,’” including both the pseudonymous and the signed published writings as well as the private journals, papers, and letters, in relation to works by five literary giants from different times and places: Clouds by Aristophanes; Parzival by the medieval German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach; Don Quixote by Cervantes; certain plays, particularly Hamlet, by Shakespeare; and the fictional, poeticphilosophical work Sartor Resartus, together with some of the essays by Kierkegaard’s Scottish contemporary Thomas Carlyle. No full or complete understanding of the writings of an author as prolific and complex as Kierkegaard is possible.

Yet Kierkegaard signals the essentially literary as opposed to strictly theological or philosophical nature of his writings. Ziolkowski first considers the notions of aesthetics and the aesthetic as Kierkegaard adapted them, and then his posture as a poet, as interrelated contexts of his selfconception as “a weed in literature.” After next taking account of the history of the critical recognition of Kierkegaard as a literary artist, he looks at an important characteristic of his literary craft that has received relatively little attention: the manner by which he and his pseudonyms read and quote other authors. Ziolkowski then explores the connections between the philosopher’s writings and those of other literary masters by whom he was directly influenced, such as Aristophanes, Cervantes, and Shakespeare; or of those who, while they did not directly influence him, gave paradigmatic expression to some of the same aspects of aesthetic, ethical, and religious existence that Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms portray. Ziolkowski’s seminal study will be of interest to Kierkegaard scholars, philosophers, and comparative literature scholars alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810127821
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 12/31/2011
Pages: 447
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Eric Ziolkowski is Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Lafayette Colege in Easton, Pennsylvania.

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Copyright © 2011 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2782-1

Chapter One

From Clouds to Corsair:

Kierkegaard, Aristophanes, and Socrates

If Harold Bloom is correct to deem Plato's contest with Homer "the central agon of Western literature," Socrates' banishment of the poets from the ideal city in Plato's Republic was the inaugural blast in that ageless conflict. Yet surely the earlier satirizing of Socrates by Aristophanes in his comedy Clouds (Nephelai, Latin: Nubes) amounts to a precipitative potshot, one that Plato seeks to avenge through his own unflattering depiction of Aristophanes in the Symposium. The present chapter considers the embroilment of Søren Kierkegaard in this same agon or struggle, which, from his years as a university student to the end of his life, persists in his writings as a dialectic tension manifest in his dueling allegiances to the philosopher Socrates and to the poet-playwright Aristophanes.

With Socrates, Kierkegaard felt "an inexplicable rapport from a very early age," and he came to cherish Socrates as one of his two exemplars. The chief focus of Kierkegaard's M.A. dissertation On the Concept of Irony, Socrates always henceforth occupied the loftiest spot in Kierkegaard's estimation of human beings—excepting his other, primary exemplar, Christ. The emulation of the anti-Sophist Socrates and the anti-pharisaic Christ is already discernible in Kierkegaard's antagonism toward his former professor Hans Lassen Martensen and the poet and playwright Johan Ludvig Heiberg, "in whom equal portions of sophism and pharisaism had fused into a fussy refinement" (SKB 318). Johannes de Silentio, the pseudonym of Fear and Trembling, calls Socrates "the most interesting man who ever lived" (SV 3:131/FT 83), and Kierkegaard is looked back upon as the "Danish Socrates" or "modern Socrates," "the Christianizer of the Greek sage," and hence "Christianity's Socrates."

For all the attention scholars pay to the love Kierkegaard shows for Socrates as thinker and "prototype," scant attention is paid to his reverence for Aristophanes as literary artist. Readers considering the seventh of The Concept of Irony's fourteen theses, that "Aristophanes has come very close to the truth in his depiction of Socrates" (SV 13:99 / CI 6), have mostly ignored the question of Kierkegaard's relation to Aristophanes. When Aristophanes is considered at all, the tendency is to regard him with Plato and Xenophon as one of the three lenses through which Kierkegaard tries to fathom the Athenian sage. Oddly, despite the dissertation's pivotal thesis on Aristophanes; despite the importance of the comic as an aesthetic and existential category throughout the subsequent pseudonymous writings; and despite Kierkegaard's established patronage of the arts, his personal interactions with some of the most famous actors and actresses of his time, his occasional writings on the performing arts, and his countless references to playwrights (above all, to Sophocles, Shakespeare, Holberg, Molière, Goethe, Oehlenschläger, Scribe, and Heiberg, aside from Aristophanes)—despite all these points, Kierkegaard's views on the preeminent comic dramatist of ancient Greece remain generally unappreciated. This neglect seems curious. Given Kierkegaard's amply documented lifelong passion for the theater, George Pattison rightly notes that the theater world "pervades his authorship, providing him with a constant supply of illustrative material" and "a paradigm of the aesthetic consciousness, a paradigm which relates equally to aesthetics (as the sphere of artistic practices) and 'the aesthetic' (as an existential category)." According to Bloom, who sees Heine as having deified Aristophanes, Kierkegaard may not have agreed theologically with that deification, "but as a writer he kept his awareness of Aristophanes."

Aristophanes, Socrates, and Clouds

Clouds, the earliest surviving document that mentions Socrates,9 was initially performed at the Great Dionysia in 423 BCE. The play features Socrates as its main subject, and is seen to attack him as "the archsophist, atheist, and corrupter of the young." He appears as a quack pedagogue who holes up in his phrontisterion or "thinkery" amid pale, nerdish pupils; devotes himself to astronomy, at times while suspended aloft in a basket, and to the study of subterranean phenomena; denies the traditional deities while revering clouds and air; allows students to be trained to win an argument regardless of whether it be right or wrong; and charges a fee for his instruction, or so it seems to some. Clouds failed upon its first and only attested performance, although Aristophanes deemed it his most sophisticated comedy. Apparently "too subtle for the public," the play "treated Socrates and his school too sympathetically and with too much friendly humour instead of rough satire." So Aristophanes revised the script, abandoning it unfinished sometime between 419 and 416. In that incomplete form, which subsequently circulated and is the only version of Clouds known today, Aristophanes intensified the play's satire by inserting the parabasis (lines 518–52), the debate between Better Argument and Worse Argument, and the torching of Socrates' domicile at the end.

Augmenting the allusions to him in three of Aristophanes' other extant comedies, all of them later (Wasps [Sphekes, Latin: Vespae], Birds [Ornithes, Latin: Aves], and Frogs [Batrachoi, Latin: Ranae], produced in 422, 414, and 405 respectively), the caricature of Socrates in Clouds strikes most readers as discrepant with the only other surviving portrayals by contemporaries, those by Plato and Xenophon, both of whom had known Socrates personally but wrote after his death. In the mid-nineteenth century, George Grote averred that the teachings of the Aristophanic Socrates seem "utterly different" from those of the real Socrates against whom Clouds levels "calumnies." After Grote, classicists and historians of philosophy tended to regard Aristophanes' depiction of Socrates as a "misapprehension," "astonishingly false," "unfair," and "very unfortunate for the fame of Aristophanes." Such opinions, accompanied by a sense of the play's satire as "hostile," "malicious," or "ill-natured," are thought to have "removed" Clouds from serious consideration as a source of information about the philosophy and intellectual biography of Socrates.

Responding to the description Plato proffered of his own writings as "the work of a Socrates embellished and modernized" (Letter 2, 314c; PCD 1567), Leo Strauss declared it "impossible to say whether the Platonic-Xenophontic Socrates owes his being as much to poetry as does the Aristophanean Socrates." Nonetheless, the Aristophanic Socrates is the only one that, by virtue of its comic-dramatic form, self-evidently constitutes a poetic fiction, despite the likelihood that the "Socrates" caricatured in the Clouds will persist as the historical Socrates in the common person's opinion. Clouds is also the only ancient source to ascribe to Socrates an informed interest in astronomy and geology, to deny that he was a pious man, and to suggest that he taught his pupils how to succeed in the world through exploitation of such worldly arts as rhetoric and the law. K. J. Dover could think of three possible explanations of this basic conflict between Aristophanes on the one hand and Plato and Xenophon on the other: "(i) Aristophanes portrays, through caricature, the truth; Plato and Xenophon are writing fiction, putting their own ideas into [Socrates'] mouth.... (ii) Aristophanes caricatures Socrates as he was in 424/3; Plato and Xenophon portray him as he became in the last twenty years of his life.... (iii) Plato and Xenophon tell the truth; Aristophanes attaches to Socrates the characteristics which belonged to the sophists in general but did not belong to Socrates."

Of these explanations, the third, to which Dover subscribed, is the one most widely accepted, despite the arguments of the classicists John Burnet and A. E. Taylor favoring the second. However, the idea that Aristophanes depicted the truth through caricature has not lacked espousers, and John Newell proposes yet another interpretation. He suggests that the irony for which Socrates was known allowed Aristophanes in Clouds "to present any philosophical view he pleased (or any combination of views) without sacrificing realism, because Socrates' irony made him a kind of mimetic actor who could believably present a variety of intellectual views, however much he might personally disagree with them." Inasmuch as it ascribes irony to the Aristophanic Socrates, this last interpretation resembles Kierkegaard's, even though Newell approaches Clouds philologically rather than philosophically, and he never cites Kierkegaard.

The perception of a causal connection between Clouds and Socrates' condemnation finds its loci classici in Plato, Xenophon, and some later Greek sources. According to Aelian and Diogenes Laertius, Anytus, one of the three men who brought Socrates to trial on the charge of impiety and corrupting youths, had incited Aristophanes to compose a play lampooning Socrates. In Plato's Apology, the indicted Socrates cites Clouds as a specimen of the sort of slander with which people have long targeted him. Noting that it is impossible to summon an unseen adversary for cross-examination, he reminds the jury that it was nothing new for him to be accused of criminal acts such as inquiring into things beneath the earth and in the heavens, making the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and instructing others to emulate him: "You have seen it for yourselves in the play by Aristophanes, where Socrates goes whirling round proclaiming that he is walking on air, and uttering a great deal of other nonsense about things about which I know nothing whatsoever" (Apology 19c; PCD 5).

The fodder Clouds furnished to the detractors of Socrates long before his trial is exemplified by the unnamed man from Syracuse who interrupts the sage's conversation in Xenophon's Symposium (ca. 380 BCE), which is set at a banquet purportedly held in Athens in 421, two years after the Dionysia production of Aristophanes' play. Alluding to Socrates as "a thinker on celestial subjects" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), an expression of reproach that was exploited parodically against Socrates in Clouds and would later carry grave implications at his trial, the Syracusan evokes another passage from the play to ridicule him: "But tell me the distance between us in flea's feet; for people say that your geometry includes such measurements as that."

Despite these classical linkages of Clouds with Socrates' condemnation, Aristophanes oddly is seldom censured for having pilloried "the first philosopher who was tried and put to death." As he is assumed to have probably been in Athens during the trial, we cannot help wondering what he was doing and how he may have regarded the event. After Socrates' death, as Socrates had prophesied (according to Plato), and as Diogenes reports, the Athenians promptly repented, executed one of the sage's accusers, and banished the rest. Yet Aristophanes evidently suffered no repercussion other than to be much later branded "a vulgar and ridiculous humorist." Although the rumors Aelian repeated about him may have "tarnished [Aristophanes'] name, until the learning and sagacity of modern critics should redeem it from the bitter reproach of having caused the death of the noblest man of his age," some scholars contend that Socrates took no offense when Clouds was performed, and that Aristophanes and Plato later remained good friends and admirers of one another. It has even been submitted that Clouds does not really deride Socrates.

Nonetheless, Plato's Symposium, on which such assurance is based, might be alternatively read as expressing contempt for Aristophanes. The dialogue represents him as prone either to bodily intemperance (betrayed through hiccupping and sneezing; Symp. 185c–d; 189a) or to rudeness (if intentionally making those noises was his way of disrespecting the preceding speeches), and as devoting his whole life to the wine god Dionysus and the love goddess Aphrodite (177e), the divine antitheses to the Platonic ideals. However, despite his devotion to Dionysus, who in Frogs represents the Athenians' weaknesses, Aristophanes, like all others at the gathering, proves no match for Socrates as a drinker (223d). And despite his devotion to Aphrodite, his speech on love, which puts everyone present but Agathon and Socrates to sleep (193e), centers on a theory which Socrates then paints as unoriginal and dismisses. Whether or not he makes up the character of "Diotima" on the spot, perhaps in part to cast doubt on Aristophanes' originality, Socrates quotes her as having cited that same theory long ago as being already old-hat: "I know," says she, "it has been suggested ... that lovers are people who are looking for their other halves" (205d). Finally, the theater, the forum in which Aristophanes burlesqued Socrates, is referred to here as a place filled with "an army of blockheads," and governed by "the mob's [opinion]" (194b, 194c). Rather than entertaining "friendly" sentiments toward Aristophanes, might not Plato have the Aristophanic type in mind when recounting Socrates' banishment of the poets in book 10 of the Republic? After all, Plato's Symposium closes with Socrates' defeat of Aristophanes in a debate about poetry.

Aristophanes and the Romantics

Kierkegaard's writings were not yet sufficiently known in Germany before World War I to earn mention in Wilhelm Süss's study Aristophanes und die Nachwelt (1911, Aristophanes and Posterity), which surveys the reception of the Greek comic playwright from antiquity to modern times. Yet, given his early, deeply informed attraction to the German Romantics, Kierkegaard could hardly have overlooked their fascination with Aristophanes. As Süss puts it, "In the Romantic period all the characteristics of Aristophanic art could be sure to be understood: the unbridled, exuberant frenzy; the explosion of illusions; the farcical, popular comicality; [etc.] The delight of the Romantic concept of art in Aristophanic comedy touches upon an innermost affinity of essence [innerster Wesenverwandtschaft]."

Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) and Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853), two of the foremost early Romantics whose theories of irony Kierkegaard scrutinizes in the second part of his dissertation, played leading roles in the positive reappraisal of Aristophanes during the final decade of the eighteenth century. With his brother August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845), Friedrich defended Aristophanes against the dominant opinion of their day that the tone of Attic comedy is incompatible with noble sentiments and a unified taste. Describing the Dionysian "lawless beauty" of both Aristophanes and Euripides as "transporting, seductive, glittering," and characterizing the essence of Aristophanic comedy as a "beautiful mirth and sublime freedom" that parts with conventional theatrical illusion, he also credited Aristophanes with having exposed the moral decline of Athens in a manner, and with an intensity, which no historical work and no other thinker could have equaled. Meanwhile Tieck, a man noted for his veneration of Aristophanes (Aristophanesverehrung), emerged as the acknowledged founder of so-called Aristophanic comedy in the German theater. Tieck's Puss-in-Boots (Der gestiefelte Kater, 1797; premiere, 1844), a fairytale in theatrical form which Kierkegaard apparently read or at least was familiar with by 1836, was thought by August Wilhelm Schlegel to draw its characters "down from the stage" in a way reminiscent of Aristophanes. Friedrich Schlegel considered Puss-in-Boots a modern fulfillment of Romantic irony, which he construed, through an analogy to Aristophanes' defiance of dramatic illusion, as a both creative and destructive process reflecting the universal, autonomous, divine spirit of poetry. Another play by Tieck, Anti-Faust oder Geschichte eines dummen Teufels (Anti-Faust, or History of a Stupid Devil), undertaken in 1801 but left unfinished, not only is modeled after Aristophanic comedy but also brings onstage among its characters the shade of the ancient Greek playwright.


Excerpted from THE LITERARY KIERKEGAARD by ERIC ZIOLKOWSKI Copyright © 2011 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
Introduction Chapter
1 From Clouds to Corsair: Kierkegaard, Aristophanes, and Socrates
Chapter 2 The Pure Fool and the Knight of Faith: Wolfram's Parzival and the Stages of Existence
Chapter 3 From Romantic Aesthete to Christian Analogue: Don Quixote's Sallies in Kierkegaard's Authorship
Chapter 4 Saying Not Quite "Everything Just as It Is": Shakespeare on Life's Way
Chapter 5 "Sorrow's Changeling": Irony, Humor, and Laughter in Kierkegaard and Carlyle Conclusion
Appendix 1 Kierkegaard and Dante
Appendix 2 Kierkegaard, Carlyle, and Silence

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