Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Monstrous Aesthetics: Literature and Philosophy in Soren Kierkegaard

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Monstrous Aesthetics: Literature and Philosophy in Soren Kierkegaard

Article excerpt

Kafka's awareness of the "magic" exerted by the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard's prose, which he characterized as a destruction of the world that was not destructive but constructive, invites expansion through a reading of the rhetorical tropes the Danish writer deploys. Above all, it requires reconsideration of the rift between the mind's faculty to conceptualize and its faculty to visualize. In this essay, I examine Kierkegaard's strangely eloquent mixture of poetry and speculation, of literature and philosophy, by exploring the rhetorical and philosophical implications of such metaphors as the cloud-high castle, the monster, the blotting paper, and the paper kite, concluding that aesthetic "irritation" in his writing is a precondition for aesthetic "attention." If we limit our vision to Kierkegaard's works themselves, the mismatch between concepts and images can be interpreted only as a destruction of harmonious aesthetic form; but if on the other hand we look at the reader's way of appropriating the works, this destruction proves to be constructive.


Wissenschafi Kunst und Philosophie wachsen jetzt so sehr in mir zusammen, dass ich jedenfalls einmal Centauren gebiiren werden. (1)

One of the most pertinent characterizations of SCren Kierkegaard's prose comes from the pen of Franz Kafka. In the winter 1917-18, Kafka retired to the little village Ztirau where he spent most of his time studying the works of Kierkegaard. Letters and aphorisms from this period show a violent fascination with the Abraham figure from Fear and Trembling. But Kafka the writer was also intrigued by the literary technique of Kierkegaard the writer, and not least by the Kierkegaardian alternation between philosophy and literature: "There is an enchantment accompanying his argument of the case. One can escape from an argument into the world of magic, from an enchantment into logic, but both simultaneously are crushing [erdriickend], ail the more since they constitute a third entity, a living magic or a destruction of the world that is hOt destructive but constructive." (2)

This indeed is one of Kafka's many difficult aphorisms but there are good philological reasons for reading it as a condensed but nonetheless impressively perceptive characterization of Kierkegaard's prose. In the following pages, I will try to develop the insights that Kafka only hints at. First, Kafka notes that Kierkegaard's predominant stylistic feature is the crushing simultaneity of Beweisfuhrung and Bezauberung, of philosophical arguments and enchanting aesthetic strategies. I suggest rephrasing this opposition in Kantian terms by saying that the works of Kierkegaard are cut through by a conflict--in Jean-Francois Lyotard's words, "une litige"--between concepts and images, between the mind's faculty to conceptualize and its faculty to visualize. Secondly, Kafka writes that this conflict results in a constructive destruction of the world ("aufbauende Zerstorung der Welt"). It is above all this concluding remark that causes the difficulty of Kafka's aphorism. I take Kafka to be saying that the rift between concepts and images has, atone and the same time, a negative and a positive function in the work of Kierkegaard.

It is striking that Kierkegaard, even in his early notebooks, is highly conscious of the stylistic problems caused by the conflict between invisible concepts and visible images. In an entry from 1839, the twenty-six-year-old Kierkegaard writes: "Abstract concepts are invisible in the same way that a straight line is invisible--visible only in their concretions." (3) In Kierkegaard's first book, On the Concept of Irony from 1841, he dedicates a whole chapter to examining the relation between invisible lines and visible images. Under the heading "The Mythical in the Earlier Platonic Dialogues as a Token of a More Copious Speculation," Kierkegaard writes that young Plato had a "poetic temperament" so that he inevitably had to add a "supplement" to the Socratic dialectics. …

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