The Concept of Irony

In the fall of 1841 Kierkegaard petitioned the king for permission to submit a dissertation written in Danish, along with a statement of its theses in Latin, for conferral of the magister (doctoral) degree, the highest degree awarded by the faculty of philosophy at the University of Copenhagen (LD 23-5). This work, titled The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, marked the beginning in his published writings of a lifelong fascination with Socrates, who is credited therein with introducing the principle of subjectivity to the ancient world in the form of irony or an infinite absolute negativity toward the established order of his time. Kierkegaard

64 See also Cappel0rn etal. (2006); Perkins (1999a); Walsh (1994: 23-41).

concludes that Socratic irony was historically justified but must be controlled in order to become a ministering spirit in the development of the personal life.65 He also comes to terms with German romantic irony in this work, viewing it a la Hegel as an unwarranted expression of total irony or the negation of actuality as such in the exercise of an arbitrary and boundless freedom to create and to destroy at will.66 Thus ended an early interest in and inclination toward romanticism, to which Kierkegaard was initially attracted by its passionate, imaginative, and infinite striving toward the ideal.

Kierkegaard's dissertation was successfully defended at a public forum conducted in Latin, the official academic language of the time, on 29 September 1841.67 Soon thereafter he departed for Berlin to attend lectures by the famous German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854), an erstwhile romantic and idealist thinker turned critic of Hegel who had been called out of retirement to counter 'the dragon-seed of [left-wing] Hegelian pantheism'.68 He also attended lectures by Henrich Steffens (1773-1845), who is credited with introducing German romanticism to Golden Age Denmark, the right-wing Hegelian speculative theologian Marheineke, and the Hegelian logician Karl Friedrich Werder (1806-93). At first excited by, but soon disappointed in, Schelling's new 'positive philosophy' of revelation and finding Stef-fens's performance as a lecturer unappealing, Kierkegaard soon abandoned them and spent most of his time in Berlin attending and taking notes on Marheineke and Werder's lectures and working on the brilliant arabesque novel that would soon launch his literary career: Either/Or (CI 331-412; LD 55; SKP xiii, III C 26, 29; SKS xix, NB 8. 50; NB 9. 1, 2-9).69

LOVE, ENGAGEMENT, RUPTURE 'I Came, I Saw, She Conquered'

Before turning to Kierkegaard's career as a writer, however, we must take note of a momentous event in his life. On 8 May 1837 he met a young girl named Regine Olsen (1822-1904). She apparently made a strong impression on Kierkegaard, as soon afterward he recorded in his journal: 'good God, why should the inclination begin to stir just now?' (JP v. 5220). Other than a series of mostly undated love letters and notes which he sent to her,

65 See also Perkins (2001); Söderquist (2003).

67 See Kirmmse (2001). 68 Kosch (2006:

69 See also Schulz (2007a) and Stewart (2007).

66 See further Walsh (1994: 43-62). 123); Toews (1993: 383). On the arabesque novel, see Walsh (1994:

little information exists about their courtship (LD 61-88). These messages were typically romantic, quoting bits of poetry, expressing his deep longing for her, showering her with compliments, arranging meetings, referring to small gifts and pictures being exchanged between them, etc. Slightly revising Julius Caesar's famous boast, veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), Kierkegaard quips in one letter, 'I came, I saw, she conquered', and years later he reveals that 'even before my father died my mind was made up about her' (LD 76; JP vi. 6472). On 8 September 1840 he proposed to Regine informally and two days later formally asked her father for her hand.

The next day Kierkegaard realized that he had made a terrible mistake— not because he did not love her or want to marry her but because he felt there were certain extenuating circumstances that made marriage inadvisable if not impossible for him. The reasons, as stated in a retrospective journal entry years later, were basically these: 'If I had not been a penitent, if I had not had my via ante acta [life prior to the act], if I had not had my depression—marriage to her would have made me happier than I had ever dreamed of becoming' (JP vi. 6472).What events in his prior life made him feel so guilty and penitent that marriage must be ruled out have been the subject of much speculation and remain obscure. Kierkegaard felt that his depression alone was sufficient to make marriage to him unbearable for her, and whatever his past was, so much would have to be kept from her that their marriage would be based upon a lie. In a page torn from his journal and crossed out, obviously not intended for public consumption, he states:

But if I were to have explained myself, I would have had to initiate her into terrible things, my relationship to my father, his melancholy, the eternal night brooding within me, my going astray, my lusts and debauchery, which, however, in the eyes of God are perhaps not so glaring; for it was, after all, anxiety which brought me to go astray, and where was I to seek a safe stronghold when I knew or suspected that the only man I had admired for his strength was tottering. (JP v. 5664)

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