Gloomy Dane was doing anthropology, perhaps not unlike us: In recent weeks, we've gone back and tried, once again, to figure our Kierkegaard out.
This has taken us back to a puzzling text, The Sickness unto Death.
Four years ago, we let you gaze on the puzzling way Hong and Hong's standard translation starts. In the past week, we started reading their "Historical Introduction" to the puzzling text, in which they say that Kierkegaard, a bit like us in the past two years, was really an anthropologist.
Kierkegaard called his age "the age of despair." According to Hong and Hong, his preoccupation with anxiety and despair helps define his "anthropological contemplation:"
HONG AND HONG (pages ix-x): The writing of The Sickness unto Death was done in an amazingly short time, mainly during the period March-May 1848...Why would the concept of despair have been central to Kierkegaard's anthropology? We don't exactly know yet! But from deep within our own anthropology, we'd be inclined to offer this thought:
The speed of the writing and the facility with which the manuscript took final form are owing no doubt to Kierkegaard’s longstanding concern with the nature and meaning of anxiety and despair in relation to the becoming of the self, questions that were occupying him even more than a decade before the writing of The Sickness unto Death. In the Gilleleje letter of 1835 (when Kierkegaard was twenty-two years old), he wrote that a person must first learn to know himself before learning anything else. In 1836 he wrote that the present age is the age of despair. Despair and forgiveness are the theme of a journal entry from 1837, as is also the case in some entries from 1838, one of which includes a reference to Lazarus and the sickness unto death. In the preface to his first book, From the Papers of One Still Living, Kierkegaard makes a distinction between what he later calls the first and the deeper self, and, in his criticism of the substance of Hans Christian Andersen’s Only a Fiddler as inchoate estheticism dependent upon external conditions, he invokes the category of despair without, however, employing the term. Reading what medieval thinkers said about aridity and melancholy (acedia and tristitia) prompted recollection of "what my father called: A quiet despair. Shortly thereafter (July 5, 1840), in considering Kant’s and Hegel’s emphasis upon mind and theory of knowledge, he made reference to "genuine anthropological contemplation, which has not yet been undertaken." Kierkegaard’s entire authorship may in a sense be regarded as the result of his having undertaken that task, and The Sickness unto Death is the consummation of his anthropological contemplation, with despair as a central clue to his anthropology.
To a humorist, the elevation of Kierkegaard to the status of high sage might seem to follow a certain pattern. That pattern goes something like this:
A certain pattern:In some ways, the elevation of the highly eccentric early Wittgenstein might seem to follow this pattern. It also seems to help if the most depressed person in Europe came from a wealthy family and managed to squander his large inheritance, or perhaps just gave it away.
Scholars locate the most depressed person in Europe. They conclude that this most depressed person should be viewed as a sage.
Regard this as you will! For ourselves, we prefer the example of our Middlesex County neighbor, Thoreau, who took to the woods to "learn to know himself," but emerged with uplift rather than depression and despair:
THOREAU: This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself. As I walk along the stony shore of the pond in my shirt sleeves, though it is cool as well as cloudy and windy, and I see nothing special to attract me, all the elements are unusually congenial to me. The bullfrogs trump to usher in the night, and the note of the whippoorwill is borne on the rippling wind from over the water. Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath...But where's the depression? a scholar might ask. To some, the sense of uplift and preternatural joy may signal a weaker mind.
A few years back, we had the pleasure of meeting one of Hong and Hong's neighbors from Minnesota. We had performed a public reading of the opening of their translation of The Sickness unto Death for a national convention of medical folk. Afterwards, one of the docs approached us to say that the Hongs had been his neighbors, we think when he was a kid.
Tomorrow, we'll refresh you concerning the way the Hongs' translation begins. Future Anthropologists Huddled in Caves (TM), the trademarked though disconsolate group who report from the aftermath of the conflagration they call "Mister Trump's Inevitable War," have told us that it makes no sense to continue talking about the flailings of cable news and its corporate practitioners.
"Aim higher," these gloomy scholars have said, in several of their trademarked nocturnal submissions. "Let your anthropology show your readers what it's been like at the top!"
Tomorrow: The way that translation begins