Herbert Read and Kierkegaard

Herbert Read 1893-1968 was an anarchist who was also an art historian and literary critic.  He discussed artistic movements throughout the ages in A Coat of Many Colors in 1945. One section was devoted to Soren Kierkegaard:  I reproduce it here as well as quotes from other books.


Kierkegaard, like Marx, is a product by reaction of Hegel. Hegel had at least this virtue: he left behind him a progeny, not of slavish disciples, but of active intelligences, and among these Kierkegaard and Marx represent the widest possible extremes of thought.

For whilst Marx turned the Hegelian dialectic outwards, making it an instrument with which he could interpret the facts of history and so arrive at an objective science which insists on the translation of theory into action, Kierkegaard, on the other hand, turned the same instrument inwards, for the examination of his own soul or psychology, arriving at a subjective philosophy which involved him in the deepest pessimism and despair of action.

To what extent either Kierkegaard or Marx rightly interpreted Hegel is only an academic question; but for the extremist — and every philosopher or lover of the truth is an extremist — they represent the only possible alternatives to-day.

The significance of Marx is evident enough, and becomes more evident with the progress of economic affairs; the significance of Kierkegaard is recognized abroad, by Protestant theologians like Barth, and, at first sight more surprisingly, by Catholic theologians.

His chief advocate and best translator in Germany, Theodor Haecker, is a Catholic; and most of the people in this country who take any serious interest in him are Catholics. But Kierkegaard himself was never a Catholic; he was a son of Lutheran parents and intended for the Lutheran ministry, but he spent his intense life, not in hovering between one sect and another, but in a vain struggle to reconcile himself to Christianity itself. It is because in this struggle he revealed the inner meaning and consequences of the Christian faith more clearly and more acutely than any mystic since Pascal that he exercises such an attraction for Christians to-day. It is open to them, of course, to say that Kierkegaard was never vouchsafed the final grace which would have perfected his faith; but the fact remains that only a very few mystics like Meister Eckhart and Pascal have written so illuminatingly on the Christian Mysteries.

It would be a mistake, however, to give the impression that Kierkegaard is only concerned with Christianity; his range is much wider. He was, in fact, an individual in conflict with all the tendencies — philosophical, political and cultural — of his time. He refused, that is to say, to keep his religion in a separate compartment of his mind, but the more he realized the implications of that religion, the more he found it impossible to reconcile himself with the tendencies of his time — which are still the tendencies of our time.

He was, in short, the complete personalist, in the sense in which Berdyaev today uses the term. Truth, he would say, is in the person believing and not in the proposition believed. This principle of the subjectivity of truth he carried into every sphere of knowledge — into ethics and aesthetics, for example. It is in the latter sphere that I personally find him so illuminating, his doctrine of Innerlichkeit being of the essence of any real understanding of poetic creation.

I have called Kierkegaard a mystic, but that is one of the points in dispute. In so far as the word implies a being of a rare and superior kind, Kierkegaard would have rejected it. But there is no doubt that some of his experiences, as recorded in his Journals and other writings, imply a direct or “ inspired ” relationship with God which we should normally describe as mystical. But Kierkegaard was also a dialectician, trained in the logic of Hegel; with the result that he is in no sense naive or simple.

He is, indeed, one of the subtlest thinkers that ever lived, and though many of his readers go to him for a confirmation or elaboration of their Christian faith, he is quite capable of attracting others by the quality rather than the content of his thought.

Kierkegaard was the son of a well-to-do Danish merchant, and during his life was never under the necessity of earning a living. His father was excessively severe and gloomy, a fanatic labouring under a sense of guilt and remorse. Kierkegaard many times deplores his early upbringing, and utters warnings which still have their force — for example: If the child is not allowed, as, he should be, to play innocently with holy things, if his existence is sternly forced into the decisive Christian concepts, such a child will have to suffer much. Such an upbringing will either, by inhibiting immediacy, result in despondency and anguished dread, or else incite the lusts of pleasure and the anguish of lust in a measure which even paganism did not know.

This describes Kierkegaard’s own case. His first reaction was towards the lusts of pleasure, but then, after one of the mystical experiences referred to, he returned to a condition of dread and anguish, out of which he slowly built up his spiritual faith. He elaborated his famous dilemma, his “either — or” — either the aesthetic life or the ethical. He came to the conclusion that the aesthetic life — “living in the moment”, as he called it — always entailed despair.

He insisted that the choice is not to be avoided — that if we do not make it, as an act of freedom, the choice will be made for us, by obscure movements in our unconscious or impersonal self. On the inevitability of that dilemma the whole of Kierkegaard’s philosophy depends. Personally I do not believe that the choice is free.

In Kierkegaard’s own case it was so obviously conditioned by the circumstances of his childhood, by his physical disease and his depressive melancholia. His philosophy, beautiful in its intricacy and depth, sensitive to all the poetic and tragic aspects of life, is but a sublimation of this inherent suffering. But Kierkegaard was driven too far by his masochism. The story of his treatment of Regina Olsen — the young girl to whom he made love and to whom he became engaged, only to break off the engagement from “ethical scruples” — merely reveals to what fantastic heights (admittedly heights) the aberrations of the human spirit can reach. That in the end they lead to “the religious absolute can scarcely justify the wanton sacrifice of another person’s feelings. Kierkegaard’s own comment (one of many!) was: “Either you throw yourself into wild diversions or religiousness absolute, of a different sort from that of the parsons,” The qualification is significant, Kierkegaard’s intense subjectivity, the very sincerity of his religious experiences, led him in the end into a bitter conflict with the organized Church. He had escaped one dilemma only to discover another: either Christ or the Church.

Kierkegaard is a new world of thought, a rare mental atmosphere in which we live dangerously, as many people have already discovered at the cost of their complacency.

No book of his illustrates this truth better than Stages on Lifers Way, a “passion narrative ” in the form of a long diary which is an intimate relation, stage by stage, of Kierkegaard’s own love story. This diary is preceded by “In Vino Veritas”, an account of a banquet in the manner of Plato’s Symposium and not unworthy of comparison with that supreme masterpiece: and by “Various Observations about Marriage , a document in which a certain Judge Williams answers the objections which had been voiced at the Banquet. The Banquet is in effect a plea for keeping the sexual relationship on a superficial or sensuous level: woman is represented as the most seductive power in heaven and on earth, but man must not be caught by the bait.

“The highest thing a woman can do for a man is to come within his range of vision at the right instant — but that, after all, she cannot do, it is the kindness of fate — but then comes the greatest thing she can do for a man,, and that is, to be unfaithful to him, the sooner the better.” That is to say, from this point of view it is only in a negative relationship that woman makes a man idealistically productive.

Judge Williams presents a very different point of view: his “Observations ” constitute, indeed, the most beautiful and profound defence of conjugal felicity ever written — and as Coventry Patmore once pointed out, this theme is of all great themes the most difficult and the most neglected.

Marriage is the confirmation of love by resolution, rather, its transformation. “Love’s gait is light as the feet which dance upon the meadow, but resolution holds the tired one till the dance begins again.” It is only against this profound appreciation of the “validity” of marriage that we can measure the tragic significance of Kierkegaard’s own renunciation. For just as the ethical stage represented by the Judge is far beyond the erotic stage represented by the speakers at the Banquet, so beyond the ethical stage is the religious, towards which Kierkegaard was driven by a kind of demoniacal fury.

He was fond of comparing himself with Periander, of whom it was said that he talked like a wise man and acted like a maniac. But it is perhaps more to the point to compare him with Abelard, whose “case” fascinated him, but about whom he never ventured to write at length. Kierkegaard was an Abelard — that is to say, a man dedicated to God — who resisted the temptation of his Heloise. The accident that he was not a priest only made it more difficult to justify his action in breaking off his engagement, especially as his Regina was a comparatively simple girl without that sense of religious immediacy which alone would explain such inhuman conduct. There can be no doubt of the reality of Kierkegaard’s love for Regina— the “Diary” is the revelation of a tortured and divided mind, and in the subtlety of its introspection and analysis it reminds us of Proust.

Granted the book is too long and too boring, written with that dialectical prolixity for which Hegel must be held responsible: nevertheless, it is of absorbing interest, not only for its diagnosis of the sexual relationship — its main theme — but also for its abundant asides, for the observations on nature and metaphysics, on poetry and music, on human suffering and human joy, which are to be found on almost every page. To begin reading Kierkegaard is to embark on a long journey, a journey which will be difficult and dangerous, but with such a reward at the end that all the incidental pain will be immediately forgotten.

The Unscientific Postscript is but one more voluminous commentary on the main theme of all Kierkegaard’s work, the dilemma which he represented by the phrase “either-or”: either aesthetic immediacy, which includes not only the eudaemonistic search for pleasure, but also despair (the “sickness unto death”) and religious or metaphysical self-explanation; or the ethical along with the religion of immanence and immediacy and (as its culmination) Christianity apprehended as a paradox.

In the Postscript Kierkegaard is chiefly concerned to define the nature of the religious alternative: to make it clear to his readers that it is not a choice between the aesthetic life and any sort of religion, but between true religion and every other possible alternative. And true religion is distinguished by its immediacy, without which it cannot live. Immediacy is opposed to reflection: it is direct apprehension, either by the senses or by intuition, and it is the only means by which we can apprehend “being“ Subjectivity is the truth”, and it is upon this basis that Christianity must be interpreted and believed.

The Unscientific Postscript is an obscure and ungainly book, yet it has had an incalculable influence upon the development of modern theology, and a so-called “existential philosophy’’ in Germany is largely based on it.

When the late Professor Geismar of Copenhagen first read it, his mental excitement was so great that his physician had to forbid him reading anything of Kierkegaard’s for a year.

Dr. Lowrie, in his Introduction to the English edition, claims that no great work on philosophy or theology, if we except the Dialogues of Plato, has been written with so much wit, with so much art. The wit we must grant: the art we must question, and Kierkegaard himself seems to have disclaimed it.

The subjective thinker, he says, has a style of his own; it is existential, which seems to mean that it has no form. “The subjective thinker does not have the poetic leisure to create in the medium of the imagination, nor does he have time for aesthetically disinterested elaboration.” This is rather like making a virtue out of necessity, but it does state a fact which the reader must be prepared for: the nature and form of Kierkegaard’s thought and style are not comparable to ordinary scientific exposition or aesthetic creation. You read Kierkegaard as you would swim with a tide: you immerse yourself totally in what is the most extraordinary flood of subjectivity ever poured from a philosophical mind.

Kierkegaard began his Journals in 1834, when he was twenty-one. Though nothing is truer than his statement that “everyone is essentially what they are to be when they are ten years old”, it is nevertheless surprising to find with what sureness he has already discovered himself, decided on the nature of his personality and the course of his destiny.

What is truth, he asks, but to live for an idea?

In order to lead a complete human life and not merely one of the understanding” he sees the necessity of basing the development of his thought upon “something which grows together with the deepest roots of my life, through which I am, so to speak, grafted upon the divine:

It is with joy, and inwardly strengthened, that I contemplate those great men who have thus found the precious stone, for the sake of which they sell all, even their lives, whether I see them intervene forcefully in life, and without faltering’ go forward on the path marked out for them, or discover them remote from the highway, absorbed in themselves and in working for their noble aim. And I look with reverence even upon the errors which lie so near by. It is this divine side of man, his inward action which means everything, not a mass of information; for that will certainly follow and then all that knowledge will not be a chance assemblage, or a succession of details, without system and without a focusing point. I too have certainly looked for such a centre.

It is only by realizing that Kierkegaard had set out with this determination to find a centre, to know himself before anything else, and thus to see his way through life, that we can understand the two decisive moments in his career — his refusal of marriage and his break with the official Church.

As soon as he had become engaged to Regina Olsen, Kierkegaard realized that he had made a mistake. He thought of many ways out of his predicament, even suicide, but finally decided on self-abasement. He behaved as if he were “subtle, false and treacherous” with the object of killing her love for him. His action caused anger, resentment, bewilderment, and was never properly understood until the publication of his Journals; but even with the help of his confession, it needs a certain effort of sympathy and perhaps a spiritual affinity to appreciate his motives.

‘‘It was a time of terrible suffering; to have to be so cruel and at the same time to love as I did. She fought like a tigress. If I had not believed that God had lodged a veto she would have been victorious.”

God had lodged a veto— such love of God as Kierkegaard had conceived could not co-exist with the love of a human being. It compelled him to an asceticism as rigorous as that of the saints and indeed, from this moment Kierkegaard’s life was in every sense that of a saint. He is perhaps the most real saint of modern times.

This same intensity and integrity of spiritual experience inevitably brought him into conflict with the organized Church, or Christendom. His attack only became open and embittered towards the end of his life, and there is some truth in the suggestion that it had its origins as a psychological release from parental repression — from the oppressive fanaticism of a father overwhelmed by a sense of guilt. But the criticism of Christianity runs throughout the Journals and is not confined to the Church; we find him, for example, as early as 1835, contrasting the luxuriance of the Christian imagination when it deals with eternal suffering and torment with its poverty when it deals with the happiness of the chosen and the faithful.

The Protestant Church of his own country receives the most frequent and the most fatal blows ; but Catholicism is not spared. At the same time, Kierkegaard’s arguments can have little appeal to the sceptic or agnostic. Kierkegaard’s “true inwardness” is a passion that pierces through all collective forms of religion to “the contemplation of God face to face”.

It would be a mistake to give the impression, however, that the Journals are exclusively concerned with Kierkegaard’s religious development. Kierkegaard was essentially a poet — a child of the Romantic Movement — and he analyses every aspect of life with profundity, with irony and often with lyrical feeling.

His Journals have been compared with the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Pensies of Pascal and the Apologia of Newman; they have some- thing of the quality of all these great books, and still some- thing more — something nearer to Nietzsche than to anything these other names convey, though Pascal is very near. But of the three spheres into which Kierkegaard divided existence — the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious — it is only Nietzsche who rivals him in his understanding of the significance of the aesthetic.

In his study of this Danish philosopher, Theodor Haecker emphasizes the fact that Kierkegaard’s work is so complex that it is possible for three classes of reader to occupy themselves with it independently of each other: the theologian, the philosopher and the critic. It is possible, however, that Kierkegaard himself would not have approved of such a separation.

His criticism of Hegel is fundamental, but nothing in Hegel seemed to him so misleading as that evolutionary or historical distinction between the aesthetic, the religious and the rational faculties. For Kierkegaard the whole man included all three faculties in their full force, and the very object of philosophy was to reconcile them, to unite them in one synthesis. Kierkegaard’s work is perhaps best regarded as a protest against the cul-de-sac of objective knowledge.

Professor Swenson, to whom we owe a translation of the Philosophical Fragments, say: In his case the entire energy of a great genius of reflection was expended upon the clarification of the realm of the subjective, which is the realm of spirit. There exists at present a school of thinkers whose fundamental principle it is to make a sharp cleavage between what they call “logical” and “emotive” significance, denying to the latter all verifiability, and hence all real truth or error. . . . The Kierkegaardian literature is not so much an argument against this view, which erects into a philosophical principle the vulgar prejudice which identifies the emotional with the structureless and the arbitrary, as it is a demonstration of its falsity through the actual production of a reflectively critical system of evaluations.

The dialectics of subjectivity might do as a phrase to describe Kierkegaard’s philosophy, but always on the understanding that with such a philosophy he was necessarily, as Haecker brings out so clearly, a realist and not an idealist.

He made a break with European philosophy because he wished to go “from the person over the things to the person, and not from the things over the person to the things. It was his reflection on the being and essence of the person that brought him to that demonstration of the existence of God with which the Fragments are concerned. It is not possible to explain shortly the particular evidence or experience which Kierkegaard called the Moment or the Absolute Paradox, nor the dialectical method which forced on him the recognition and acceptance of God.

It is sufficient to note that Christians of widely different views are united in their praise of the beauty and acceptability of this demonstration. Kierkegaard, more deeply than any other modern philosopher, had pierced to the heart of the Christian mystery. But then? If we are to accept Kierkegaard’s own last works as his final message, it involved an utter condemnation of organized Christianity. ‘‘Officialdom is incommensurable with Christianity” — that was his final message, and it is only possible to pretend otherwise by assuming that Kierkegaard’s last works represent an almost pathological decline in his powers. Professor Haecker, who is a Catholic, makes that assumption; Professor Swenson, who might be a Unitarian from the way he quotes Emerson, vigorously protests against it. But Kierkegaard remains, profound, enigmatic, endlessly significant. He himself wrote his own epitaph:

“The cause he served was Christianity, and his life was from childhood wonderfully adapted to this end. He succeeded in realizing the reflective task of translating Christianity whole and entire into terms of reflection. The purity of his heart was to have had but a single aim.”



Other quotes by Read from other books:

The Cult of Sincerity 1968 

Sincerity! All my life I have been reproved for attempting to use this word, and rightly so because the very notion of sincerity implies a consciousness of one’s self as a circumscribed entity, a ‘single one’ (Kierkegaard) or a ‘unique one’ (Stirner), to be defined and defended, and that state of self-consciousness is itself insincere. P. 13

I cannot bear witness to the presence of God either in Burber’s sense or in Jung’s sense, and yet I am not a materialist. All my life I have found more sustenance in the work of those who bear witness to the reality of a living God than in the work of those who deny God – at least, the witness of deniers, Stirner, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Shaw, Russell has been out-balanced by the witness of those who affirm God’s existence – George Herbert, Pascal, Traherne, Spinoza, Kierkegaard, Hopkins, Simone Weil. In that state of suspense, ‘waiting on God’, I still live and shall probably die. P. 34

For the first time the personality is deliberately cultivated as such; and from that time [the European Renaissance] until today it has not been possible to separate the achievements of a civilization from the achievements of the individuals composing it. I have not the slightest doubt that this form of individuation represents a higher stage in the evolution of mankind. The future unit is the individual, a world in himself, self-contained and self-creative, freely giving and freely receiving, but essentially a free spirit.


The Philosophy of Anarchism by Read, Herbert Edward, Sir, 1893-1968 Publication date  1940

For the first time the personality is deliberately cultivated as such; and from that time [the European Renaissance] until today it has not been possible to separate the achievements of a civilization from the achievements of the individuals composing it. I have not the slightest doubt that this form of individuation represents a higher stage in the evolution of mankind. The future unit is the individual, a world in himself, self-contained and self-creative, freely giving and freely receiving, but essentially a free spirit.  p. 11-12

The materialist can always be driven into a position of nescience, and has to content himself with such logical banalities as cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I exist. These are precisely the kind of rational paradoxes that Tolstoy found so unsatisfying. They do not answer the existential questions: Why do I exist, why does the world exist, what is the meaning of life? p. 129


Forms of things unknown: essays towards an aesthetic philosophy 1960

We are not ignorant of love — we all experience it to the degree that we are human. But there is a mystery about the command of Jesus: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. In what is perhaps his greatest work, Works of Love, Kierkegaard explored the meaning and the consequences of this command, this ‘fulfilling of the law’, as St Paul called it. Kierkegaard began by pointing out that a different meaning can be read into the command according to the emphasis we give to different words —

Thou shalt love thy neighbour

Thou shalt love thy neighbour

Thou shalt love thy neighbour

Kierkegaard explores all the implications of the command, but later writers, such as Martin Buber and Hubert Benoit, have shown that he did not exhaust them.

Kierkegaard was concerned to prove what might be called the activist nature of love, and in this respect he returns to the conception of the early Greek philosophers. He goes so far as to say that the poet who sings of earthly love cannot be a Christian, ‘for love of one’s neighbour is not sung, it is acted’.

And there is no partiality in neighbourly love: ‘Earthly love and friendship are partiality and the passion of partiality; Christian love is self-denying love.’ Love is a matter of conscience, and only when it becomes a matter of conscience is there love from a pure heart and an unfeigned faith.

Love works its miracles in stillness. ‘Lo, the world raises a tumult just to bring about a little change; it sets heaven and earth in motion for nothing, like the mountain which brought forth a mouse: Christianity in all stillness brings about the change of the infinite as if it were nothing. It is so quiet, quiet as nothing worldly can be; as quiet as only the dead and inwardness can be; and what else is Christianity but inwardness!’

Most of us have no hesitation in speaking of force, of power, of might, but the word ‘love’ embarrasses us. It does so because it is an ambiguous word, and it was perhaps with a realization of its ambiguity that the English translators of the Authorized Version of the Bible, in certain significant passages, substituted the word ‘charity’. But that word, too, has become hopelessly ambiguous in modern English usage, and quite ineffective in our present context — the context of force.

We must retain the word ‘love’ and try to use it realistically. Tolstoy devoted many pages to the effort of redefining the meaning of love in a context of force. He pointed out that true love, universal love, has nothing to do with sentimental or emotional love, which even animals experience. Kierkegaard was clear about that, too.

Loving your neighbour, he pointed out, is a matter of equality, but of equality before God.

Your neighbour is not the man for whom you have a passionate partiality; he is not your equal in education or social status. Nor is he the man you admire for his distinction, nor the man you pity for his inferiority — partiality or condescension are feelings of selfishness. The neighbour is every man and ‘he is your neighbour through equality with you before God, but every man unconditionally has this equality, and has it unconditionally’. 214-215

Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Buber and Jung are all saying the same thing: Love is God — God is love. But I wish to resist the temptation to make abstract statements about the concrete reality.

The love Tolstoy and Kierkegaard, Jung and Buber are discussing is an active love which we must practice in our daily life: ‘To live,’ as Tolstoy said, ‘so as in all things to remember first of all, with every man, thief, drunkard, rough officer, or dependent, not to swerve from love: that is to say, in the business you have with him, to remember his need rather than your own.’  p. 216


Sources:
A Coat of Many Colours 1945 by  Read Herbert 1893-1968 p. 247-258

Forms of things unknown: essays towards an aesthetic philosophy 1960, 1963 by Herbert Edward Reed   p. 214-215

Herbert Read on Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

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