The Best of Enemies
(from Things that happen when reading Rilke)
The Hegelian rump in Berlin said that Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard ‘write too well for their own good. Philosophers shouldn’t be literary stylists, or poets manque’. Schopenhauer still remained within the confines of conventional philosophy, despite his conversion to Upanishad Hinduism. Although sharp of wit, he lacked humour, except of the inadvertent kind. While Kierkegaard existed to ‘write, write, write night and day’. Not fictive or fancy things. He left that to Hans Christian Andersen and Denmark’s Poet of poets, Shack Stoffelt (‘For what is the flattering voice of fame’s quest/ Compared to the sigh of love from a maiden’s breast’).
Kierkegaard gave himself up to speculative, literary incursions into the state of his mind. He called it experimental psychology, and, sometimes, poetry, ‘bringing ideas to life and life to ideas’. But from his youth upwards the Great Ineffables, led by the spectre of his fanatical father, breathed down his neck, ready to pounce. Even when he was enjoying the life of an aesthete, just being himself, and taking things as they come, it was moral dread that he woke up to. Death, God, and (im)mortality) were his early morning call.
It was from his father that he learned that the Great Ineffables revolve around the fact of death. Death is the gate-keeper of God and the afterlife. And the Lesser Ineffables (happiness, love etc) must live with that. He had been brought up to believe that his father’s salvation depended on his seven children dying before him. It was the price the family had to pay for the pact with the devil that made him rich (war bonds helped). When his father died, only Soren and his elder brother survived to inherit the wealth. Peter, a strait-laced clergyman, was thrifty, and managed his money like his life.
Kierkegaard spent his half like a prodigal hermit, effectively building a deluxe mausoleum to withdraw into to live out his days. The least he could do, having survived his father, and therefore putting his salvation in doubt, was to expiate the family sins, courtesy of their fruits, by making his life a living death in comfortable circumstances. If, as Jules Renard says, ‘Irony is the pudeur of humanity’, in his propriety, Kierkegaard was given to bouts of extreme modesty, and shame at his own presumptions and prudishness. But at least he could write about it. Although, he noted two years before his death, ‘Once I take a pen in my hand, I become a productive instrument, and get carried away, waxing lyrical with literary stuff, at the expense of the few important things I’m clear about’.
The Great Ineffables remained open questions to the end, and he expended his last years in attacking those in the Danish Church who believed that God, death and (im)mortality were certitudes that Bishop Mynster had pronounced on, and there is nothing more to be said. The scandal that followed broke his spirits. It wasn’t that he was listened too and answered, merely spat upon. Still Kierkegaard, with his insatiable need to leave no stone unturned when it came to his subjectivity, could never have been content to leave things be, and take his failure to the grave. He had nothing to be ashamed of. Nobody to his knowledge had gone beyond the brink of the Great Inefffables to explicate them satisfactorily. However, Schopenhauer had been making extravagant claims in recent writings. Kierkegaard bought all his books and submerged himself in them, a last-ditch attempt to come to grips with them.
It required a whale-like swallowing of his pride. His old rival appeared to have put a seal on what for him hung suspended in mid-air, and declared himself ready to die at sixty-six (he had six more years). Kierkegaard was forty-one and on his last legs. Always delicate, ‘each step now is a step in the wrong direction.’ The struggle to keep body and soul together was giving itself up. He is not unhappy.
Kierkegaard’s youthful assault on Schopenhauer had been deeply personal. He couldn’t bear the thought that ‘to live is to suffer’. In its unspoiled, primordial state ‘life was happy. It only became suffering when Christianity intervened’. Inadvertently, Schopenhauer had listened to him, in turning to the East for enlightenment, to attain ‘the peace that passeth understanding’ through liberation from all desires. But it would have had to be telepathy, or hearsay, as there is no evidence the German knew Kierkegaard’s work.
The dying Kierkegaard confides to his journal that in reading Schopenhauer he is ‘more affected than by authors I might agree with’. He makes play with his ‘reverse relationship with Arthur Schopenhauer. My initials are SA (Soren Aabye) and his are AS.’ And rejoices in a phrase ‘renting out an opinion’, which AS applies to the ready reckoners of the day, the Young Hegelists and preachers. ‘Nobody would dream of wearing another’s hat or coat.’ On meeting the word ‘windbeutal’ (windbag or old fart) he scarcely can contain himself with delight. ‘There is no Danish equivalent. The nearest is ‘wind-sucker’ (used for old hacks with a breathing problem).’ He adds, ‘It’s always the same. The Germans break wind and the Danes take a deep breathe, and inhale the flatulence’. Not surprisingly, he celebrates Schopenhauer’s personal attacks on Hegel. ‘As rude as only Germans can be. He’s not exactly the Laughing Philosopher. But he knows how to make the gods laugh’.
A healthy hatred of Hegel wasn’t the only thing they had in common. Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer shared the same family background (rich merchants’ sons who never had to earn a living). As writers they were equally gifted, though Schopenhauer had the advantage of a more cosmopolitan language with German. But the old differences rear up, most particularly what Kierkegaard saw as ‘the gulf between theory and practice’ in Schopenhauer’s abstractions. This may have soured his reading of the key essay, ‘On the indestructibility of our essential being by death’. We know that he was not unhappy to die.