The Literary Kierkegaard


Eric Ziolkowski,
The Literary Kierkegaard,

Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 2011, 425 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8101-2782-1

Reseña de Edward H. Friedman
Vanderbilt University

Hispanists may most often see the name of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in the context of Miguel de Unamuno, who seems to have viewed Kierkegaard as a type of soul-brother whose anguish, critical spirit, relishing of contradictions, and merging of theology with philosophy matched his own, even though their responses to religious crises were conspicuously different. Unamuno famously learned Danish in order to read Kierkegaard’s writings in the original. In The Literary Kierkegaard, there is a Spanish tie-in, with Unamunian overtones, but the emphasis is on a fictional being truly revered by both philosopher-critics. Eric Ziolkowski argues that Kierkegaard initially turned to aesthetics as he turned away from Christianity, but this was a nuanced break. The focus of The Literary Kierkegaard, as the title suggests, is on links between faith and the imagination. Ziolkowski notes that Kierkegaard showed interest in a wide range of literary compositions in diverse genres, including Aristophanes’s comedy Clouds, Wilfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzival, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and other plays, and Thomas Carlyle’s “poetic-philosophical” Sartor Resartus. The aesthetic dimension of life coexists with the ethical and the religious to produce what might be considered an aesthetics of existentialism in which combined thoughts and thoughtful combinations reign supreme. Ziolkowski’s solid introduction to Kierkegaard’s philosophical trajectory and venture into literary critique and allusion becomes, at least indirectly, a means of access to Unamuno’s simultaneous fascination with the Danish philosopher and the anachronistic Spanish knight errant.

In Chapter 3, “From Romantic Aesthete to Christian Analogue,” Ziolkowski treats Kierkegaard’s commentaries, found in various sources, on Don Quixote. He observes that Kierkegaard manages to synthesize the interpretation of the narrative as comic with the Romanticized and essentially tragic reading that began in the early nineteenth century in Germany. A key feature of Kierkegaard’s approach to Don Quixote—and to Don Quixote—is his recognition of the complexity of each. The very instability of the conceptual base of the novel and of the characterization of the self-proclaimed knight allows analyses and allegiances to go in multiple directions, as does the narrative perspective per se. The reader is distanced and engaged, standing in opposition to and identifying with Don Quixote. The humor, satire, and irony of Don Quixote certainly do not escape Kierkegaard, but his Romantic leanings provide him with the opportunity to seek depth and meaningful conflict in the protagonist and in his story, which bespeaks the individual’s alienation from society. The consequences of Don Quixote’s madness demonstrate the interdependence of experience and what lies beyond experience—and of the finite and the infinite—and Cervantes’s text frequently hints of Christian analogues. Once the philosopher removes examination of Don Quixote from the isolated (and isolating) realm of pure comedy, the allegorical and symbolic thrust of the novel becomes more pronounced. The aesthetic, the social, and the spiritual establish a kind of ironic harmony, or perhaps harmonious incongruity, as Cervantes explores humanity and human nature from numerous angles. Reason, passion, objectivity, subjectivity, and a range of related topics, many of them under the rubric of faith and theology, come into play. Kierkegaard’s reaction to the ending of Don Quixote, which Ziolkowski addresses, in part, in light of the philosopher’s anti-Hegelianism, is especially intriguing and illuminating. The lessons of the chapter may be of particular benefit to cervantistas who diligently have studied Unamuno’s quixotic tendencies (and their manifestations in his writings, including La vida de don Quijote y Sancho) and who are in search of his connections with Kierkegaard. On another plane, the consideration of Kierkegaard’s statements should be of interest to those who have reflected more on metafictional recourses and narrative technique in Don Quixote than on the spiritual side of the knight and its implications.

The frame chapters on Parzival (“The Pure Fool and the Knight of Faith”) and Shakespeare (“Saying Not Quite ‘Everything Just as It Is’”), respectively, enrich the reading of Kierkegaard reading Cervantes. The analysis of Parzival establishes a certain Christian template that has bearing on the movement from a “real” knight to an invented one. As one melancholy Dane looks at another—in the course of his reflections and, as is typical for him, under a series of pseudonyms—Kierkegaard seems to waver a bit between the religious scope of Hamlet and its relation to questions of tragedy and to explications of doubt. Othello and Romeo and Juliet figure prominently in the equation.

This is an exceptionally rich and detailed study that highlights the multidimensionality of Kierkegaard as a philosopher, a religious thinker, and an active and invested apologist for fiction. Its comparative scope and shifting focal points demand concentration, for which the reward for the reader likely will be new insights, expanded parameters, and unexpected yet effective juxtapositions.


→ Reseña publicada en el vol. 9 del Anuario de Estudios Cervantinos, 2013:
Cervantes y sus enemigos.


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