SŅren Kierkegaard Newsletter — Issue 39: January 2000


Review of Habib Malik, Receiving SŅren Kierkegaard


By Bruce H. Kirmmse



We are all indebted to Habib Malik for this wonderful, rich study.  It provides us with a great overview of its subject and will serve as a valuable handbook for anyone interested in how Kierkegaard’s thought was received in the sixty or so years after his death.


Habib Malik gives order to an immense subject, a landscape studded with a number of real gems but also, alas, strewn with much trivia, with obscure (and often boring) books and articles, with which Malik has had to contend in order to produce his map.  Malik has been through an incredible amount of material–much more than that covered by Aage Henriksen in Methods and Results of Kierkegaard Studies in Scandinavia (Copenhagen, 1951) and Aage Kabell in Kierkegaardstudiet i Norden  (Copenhagen, 1948)–and he has seen a great deal.  He has decerned a pattern.


I have so much positive to say about the book, that I have had to cast about to find something credibly negative to say so that my positive remarks will be taken seriously.  So let us get the negative–or at least the less positive–out of the way first, and then return to the main theme of the book and my reaction to it.


It seems to me that the weakest portion of the book is the first chapters, those dealing with Kierkegaard and his contemporaries, both in Denmark and beyond.  This is particularly so in the first chapter, where Andersen and H. C. Įrsted are rather unlikely interlocutors for Kierkegaard.  I would have preferred to see serious interactions between Kierkegaard and, say,  Grundtvig and Heiberg, or Mynster and Poul Martin MŅller, or Martensen and Goldschmidt, or the aesthete P. L. MŅller.  If Kierkegaard was to meet up with an Įrsted, it should have been A. S. Įrsted, the Kantian statesman, the representative of the ethical, rather than the Romantic naturphilosoph H. C. Įrsted.


In the nature of the case, the contemporary reaction beyond Denmark was so spotty and idiosyncratic that it really doesn’t merit more than passing attention.  Bremer, Sturzen-Becker, Lysander, Collett, the Howitts, Hamilton, Preus–all these are historical curiosities who are really only of interest to specialists like ourselves.  As Malik  demonstrates, alone of the characters discussed in the second chapter, A. F. Beck (who in himself is of little significance) occupies an important if minor place in the vital line of transmission of Kierkegaard to the German-speaking world.


The chapter on the Kierkekamp is a useful summary of the contemporary ecclesiological debate in Denmark.  This is not entirely new ground, but that is not the problem.  What I object to is not Malik’s scholarship, which, indeed, deftly brings together the principal contributors, but rather the generally shallow nature of the Danish debate itself.  The issues Kierkegaard raised were so momentous, so much a consequence of  his previous work, and so much a part of the larger Church-State debate of post-Enlightenment Europe, that it is quite amazing to see the pedestrian level on which Kierkegaard’s opponents responded.  Kierkegaard was right:  it really was like being trampled to death by a flock of geese.


Well, so much for the “negative.”  After these first chapters, the book just gets better and better as Malik moves into the main portion of his subject.  Malik is like a tough, seasoned baseball pitcher: if you can’t knock him out of the game in the first couple of innings, you had better resign yourself, because he just gets better as the game progresses.


Perhaps the Ibsen chapter belabors a bit long the undecidability of Kierkegaard’s influence, but this is due in large measure to the obscure and sometimes contradictory nature of the evidence itself.  And in any event, as Malik points out, whatever Kierkegaard’s actual influence on Ibsen, if one is interested, as we are here, in actual historical reception, the important thing is that a great many important thinkers certainly believed that Ibsen was a Kierkegaardian and that Brand was Kierkegaard!


The chapter on the Tro og Viden controversy is very valuable.  This is where many of the fault lines (or battle lines) which will mark subsequent debates–especially the Scandinavian conflict between theological orthodoxy and modern scientism and positivism–were marked off.  There will be “Right” and “Left” Kierkegaardians (of sorts) along these lines.  Malik has worked his way through a mass of books and polemical rejoinders by Rasmus Nielsen, H. L. Martensen, Hans BrŅchner, and others.  Particularly with respect to Nielsen and BrŅchner, Malik has done scholarship a real service:  theirs is some of the deadliest prose in the Danish language (rivalled, it is true, by that of Sibbern and P. C. Kierkegaard).  We get a good road map for much of the next thirty or forty years.


The chapter on Brandes and the biographical-psychological approach is masterful.  It is the longest and by far the most valuable chapter in Malik’s valuable book.  In fact, Brandes  is, in a way, the focal point of this Kierekgaard book.  The major lines of criticism and controversy prior to 1877 are forced to converge on Brandes’ Kritisk Fremstilling, either in agreement or in vigorous disagreement.  After 1877 the lines of criticism diverge again, but virtually every participant in discussions about Kierkegaard has been marked by Brandes.  Just about everyone who wanted to have an opinion about Kierkegaard was forced to take a position on Brandes’ book.  Malik gives Brandes the great attention he deserves, and the tone is just about right:  respectful without fawning, critical without savagery.  A wonderful piece of work.


The fin-de-si?cle chapter is a fine follow-up to the Brandes chapter:  the amazing, meteoric, and ultimately pathetic J. P Jacobsen streaks across the sky.  Christoph Schrempf–half  self-promoting entrepreneur, half publicly anguished soul–gets his fifteen-minute ration of immortality.  The stalwart Bärthold plugs on.  HŅffding remains notoriously hard to pin down:  is he merely careless or does he change opinions quite often?  Just what is going on with this HŅffding, who impressed so many as the dean of Scandinavian philosophers at the turn of the century?  And behind all these figures (and others), the ever-present Svengali mask of Brandes.


While illuminating and suggestive, the final chapter on the Brenner Circle and Theodor Haecker is not as incandescent as the chapters which proceded it.  Some major figures–Karl Kraus, Kafka, Wittgenstein–only get walk-on parts and we never really learn to what extent, if at all, they were “Kierkegaardians.”  Even with the focus on the Brenner group, it is really only Haecker we come to know.  Dallago and Ficker are at best supporting figures for Haecker.  The problem is, the reader is never really convinced that Haecker is a major figure. True, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Husserl read Der Brenner, but how important was this publication:  a) in the overall development of these thinkers?; and b) for their knowledge of Kierkegaard?  Similarly, as Malik himself points out, through his influence on Karl Barth, “Kierkegaard stood at the center of a revolution in Protestant theology,” but this was “independent of Der Brenner.  So I wonder whether Haecker and Der Brenner have been overplayed.


But this is not at all to denigrate Malik’s remarkable achievement.  Rather, it is perhaps to utter the wish that Malik would give us volume two, that he would step back to World War I, begin with Barth and Heidegger and carry us forward through Adorno and Sartre and Camus, perhaps as far as Levinas.  But I don’t want to be greedy.  Malik has triumphed in producing order.  He has performed all of us a great service, for which he is owed both our thanks and our applause.


In closing I would like to pose a couple of questions, not only for Prof. Malik but for all those who concern themselves with Kierkegaard–questions, I hasten to add, that are posed for discussion and have no “right” answers.


1)  At the very end of his conclusion, Malik points with apparent approval to various communitarian responses–Buber’s interpersonal I-thou;  Berdyaev’s notion of religious community; and the Roman Catholic emphasis on the community of the faithful–as possible “correctives” to “the potential excesses of radical Kierkegaardian individualism.”  Malik implies that Kierkegaard, a “corrective” of the Church in his own time, might not disapprove of being himself “corrected.”


I do not wish to cast any doubt on the proposition that Kierkegaard was a radical individualist, suspicious and critical of all collectivities, both social and (espeically) ecclesiastical.  My question is:  Can we be at all confident that Kierkegaard would want to be “corrected,” particularly in his radically negative ecclesiology?  Kierkegaard started out criticizing Mynster, Martensen, and the post-1848 arrangement of the State Church, but he quickly extended his criticism backwards to the absolutist State Church of pre-revolutionary times, then to the entire post-Reformation period.  Going back further and further in his search for the root of the evil besetting Christendom, Kierkegaard tore through the Middle Ages.  he went back to the Constantinian settlement, but even that was not the source of the corruption.  No, it was the early Church, the Church of the apostles itself, that the trouble started.  Finally, in 1854, Kierkegaard located the precise point at which perdition first took hold:  It was at that first Pentecost, when Peter and the other appostles baptized 3000 at one go–that sort of mass production was simply unaccpetable!


An Alarming Note.

Those 3000 who were added to the congregation en masse on Pentecost–isn’t there fraud here, right at the very beginning?  Ought not the apostles have been uneasy about whether it was really right to have people become Christians by the thousands, all at once?....[Didn’t the Apostles forget] that if the genuine imitation [of Christ] is to be Christianity, then these enormous conquests of 3000 at once just won’t do?....


With Christ, Christianity is the individual, here the single individual.  With the Apostles it immediattely becomes the congregation.  [added here in the margin:  And yet it is a question, as to whether the principle of having to hate oneself–which is of course the principle of Christianity–of whether that principle is not so unsocial that it cannot constitute a congregation.  In any case, from this point of view one gets the proper view of what sort of nonsense State Chuches and People’s Churches and Christian countries are.]  But here Christianity has been trasposed into another conceptual sphere.  And it is this concept [i.e., the concept of the congregation] that has become the ruination of Christianity.[i]


2)  The second question, not entirely unrelated to the first, has to do with the “Left Kierkegaardians,” the disciples of his left hand, as it were.  Malik gives quite an affecting picture of these figures, one after the other:  BrŅchner, Brandes, Ibsen, J.P. Jacobsen, HŅffding, even Schrempf.  All these men were profoundly influlenced by Kierkegaard;  they all had some crisis, usually of a personal-religious sort, in which Kierkegaard played a key role, and they all ended up on the outside (at the very least!) of offical Christianity.  The common features of their stories are quite striking.  And they all were deeply moved, to the point of desperation, not only by Kierkegaard’s writings, but also by Kierkegaard’s life.


Now here is what I see as problematic.  Kierkegaard seems to want to have things both ways.  He tells us that his biography, the details of his life, are not what matters;  rather, it is what he is trying to communicate in his works that matters.  But when we try to be good Kierkegaardians and turn to his works, we learn there that what matters is not what one says or writes, but how one lives–what matters is not what is written but what is lived.  And so we turn back from the remarkable writings to their even more remarkable author.  And we approach this author not in idle curiosity, but existentially, with great seriousness, to see what parallels we can draw to our
own lives.  It is the author himself who refers us, half against his own offical pronouncements, to his life.  So it was not only Kierkegaard the writer but willy-nilly Kierkegaad the person who helped all his “children” maieutically to give birth to themselves.  All his children:  that is, those who “rejected” him (or his problematical Christianity) are every bit as much “his” children as the more docile seeming offspring.  And here, finally, is the question:  As scholars, as intellectual historians, don’t we need to account for the strage affinities which bind what I have termed the “Left Kierkegaardians” not only to one another, but also to Kierkegaard himself?  Don’t we need to be able to specify what it was about Kierkegaard and about the mid and late nineteenth century that created the remarkably repeated pattern characteristic of these naughtily individualistic children of Kierekgaard, the naughty individualist?  As any parent knows, children who reject one ferociously are more than ever one’s children. And in any event, isn’t it a mistake to be in too great a hurry to bar them from the house?

[i] Papirer XI 1 A 189 n.d. (1854).