Posts Tagged ‘Søren Kierkegaard’

The Book Haven goes to Sweden’s Sigtuna Literary Festival!

Friday, August 26th, 2016
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sigtuna

Sweden’s oldest city…

Sweden has about 10 million people –about half the size of the New York metropolitan area. It’s language has about the same number of native speakers as the Czech language has. Compare that, however, to the plight of a noble language like Lithuanian, which has a mere 3 million native speakers. It’s something to think about in a world where the big languages are swallowing up the small – English has 340 million native speakers, by comparison, and half a billion when you include those who have it as a second (or third or fourth) language. It’s roughly the same for Hindi, though no one talks about Hindi being the universal Latin of the modern world. Both English and Hindi are dwarfed by Mandarin Chinese, with about 873 million, with more than a billion including second language.

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Ingemar Åkesson, Alexander Deriev, and Humble Moi

I ponder this as I sip my morning Gevalia (“Intensivo”) coffee and sample some Präst and Västerbotten cheese in the home of Alexander Deriev in Märsta, outside Stockholm. These smaller language groups are wise to choose to celebrate their own literary glory in the splashiest way they can. In the case of Sweden, that’s a significant literary legacy.

I’m a guest of the Sigtuna Literary Festival, based in Sweden’s oldest city (established in 970). The festival is one of Scandinavia’s largest literary festivals.  This year is its fifth consecutive year – but they don’t just celebrate their own literature; they celebrate everyone’s.

“To arrange and host a literary festival feels completely natural to us in Sigtuna. As Sweden’s first city, we have a unique history as a multicultural place with a long narrative tradition,” according to the festival’s website. “Sigtuna was an important meeting place where people from near and far gathered to network and exchange thoughts and ideas, as far back as a thousand years ago. We want to build on that. ‘Word power’ is simply in the Sigtuna soul.

“In today’s society, characterized by a fast, steady stream of information and opinions, we feel that there is a need for context to slow the tempo –  to provide scope for further thinking and not least of all, time for reflection. We need to discuss and reflect on important issues. In Sigtuna, we lean on more than a thousand years of history, so we prefer take a longer perspective. We want to continue to build on our history as a place of public debate for another thousand years.”

Sweden has a lot to celebrate: I flew in on Norwegian Airlines, which features leading Scandinavian figures on its tailfins. The nation has seven Nobelists (being the home of Alfred Nobel helps, for sure), including Selma Lagerlöf, Pär Lagerkvist, and Tomas Tranströmer – and the tailfins include writers from neighboring Scandinavians as well, such as Denmark’s Søren Kierkegaard and Norway’s Nobelist, Sigrid Undset. (I didn’t see playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg listed for the tailfin honor in my quick scan of the list – curious omissions if so.)

Clearly they have to catch up, given for the current rage for Swedish noir, the international popularity of Swedish crime fiction. Will Stieg Larsson be featured on an airplane anytime soon?

More from the festival in days to come… Previous guests include Lithuania’s Tomas Venclova and Sweden’s Bengt Jangfeldt, so I’m in good company.

Kierkegaard on inexhaustible, indescribable love – and solitude, too.

Monday, March 16th, 2015
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Kierkegaard

A lovely man.

I recently dropped in on Martha and René Girard (I’ve written about him here and here and here) – and my visit pleasantly coincided with the visit of another friend, Randy Coleman-Riese, a Stanford alum. Somehow the conversation turned to philosophy, and Randy’s years at Stanford:

“In college I was introduced to the works of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In the preface to his book Works of Love I read this:

‘These are Christian reflections; therefore they are not about love but about the works of love.

‘These are reflections on the works of love – not as if hereby all love’s works were mentioned and described – far from it, nor even as if a single one described were described once and for all – God be praised, far from it! That which in its vast abundance is essentially inexhaustible is also essentially indescribable in its smallest act, simply because essentially it is everywhere wholly present and essentially cannot be described.’

“In this book Kierkegaard reflects on the strangeness, yet appropriateness, of being commanded to love – on the Christian duty to love – to love God, to love our neighbor, and to love ourselves. While this is certainly not romantic, he believes it is what saves the Christian from despair. It saved me. (Aspects of this despair can be seen in the current movie Birdman which involves the Raymond Carver short story ‘What we talk about when we talk about love.'”

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All mine.

Well, I’ve killed the punchline somewhat – he wrote a Valentine’s Day blog post about it here. When I went home I googled a bit on Kierkegaard, and found the portrait at right. I also found the anguished story of his broken engagement with Regine Olsen – the encounter changed both their lives, but apparently, he didn’t impress everyone. Hans Brøchner wrote in 1836: “I found [his appearance] almost comical. He was then twenty-three years old; he had something quite irregular in his entire form and had a strange coiffure. His hair rose almost six inches above his forehead into a tousled crest that gave him a strange, bewildered look.” Well, I think he’s rather lovely.

I also found that his Works of Love had occupied another blog, two years ago, with these passages:

“From whence comes love, where does it have its origin and its source; where is the place, its stronghold, from which it proceeds? Certainly this place is hidden or is in that which is hidden. There is a place in a human being’s most inward depths; from this place proceeds the life of love, for ‘from the heart proceeds life’…

“…The hidden life of love is in the most inward depths, unfathomable, and still has an unfathomable relationship with the whole of existence. As the quiet lake is fed deep down by the flow of hidden springs, which no eye sees, so a human being’s love is grounded, still more deeply, in God’s love. If there were no spring at the bottom, if God were not love, then there would be neither a little lake nor man’s love. As the still waters begin obscurely in the deep spring, so a man’s love mysteriously begins in God’s love.”

Lost love.

Lost love.

Quotes taken from Manifest Propensity: Thoughts for Deposed Royalty here.

Last week, I had an unexpected package at the Stanford post office: Randy had performed a little act of love himself – or at least one of kindness. He sent me my own copy of Kierkegaard’s Works of Love – so now I don’t have to hunt around the blogosphere. In a perverse spirit, let me quote a passage of my own finding, which is not about love:

“It is a frightful satire and an epigram on the temporality of the modern age that the only use it knows for solitude is to make it a punishment, a jail sentence. How different from the time when – however worldly-minded temporality has always been – people believed in the solitude of the cloister, when they honored solitude as the highest, as a qualification of the eternal – and nowadays it is detested as a curse and is used only as a punishment for criminals. Alas, what a change!”

And that was written in 1847, long before the 24/7 din of the worldwide web!

Song without music: Auden’s “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014
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auden-christmasW.H. Auden learned of the death of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden, by telephone in August 1941, while he was staying in Rhode Island. The international call was taken by his lover Chester Kallman, who came to Auden’s bedroom and told him they would not be attending a party that evening. Then he told him why.

“Auden was stunned and grieved, not only because he had been very close to his mother all his life. He was already in a state of emotional fragility, having learned just the month before that Kallman, whom he loved and to whom he considered himself married, had been having sex with other men and meant to continue the practice,” writes Alan Jacobs, editor of Princeton University Press’ splendid critical edition of Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Thursday is only the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas – if you haven’t seen the book already (it was published last year), you still have plenty of time to find it before Twelfth Night.

Auden would later write, “When mother dies, one is, for the first time, really alone in the world and that is hard” – Jacobs adds, “that experience of isolation was surely made far more intense through its arriving in the midst of hopes already ruined.”

A few weeks after the death, Auden moved to my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, to begin a year of teaching (his daunting course syllabus is here). And shortly after that he was applying to the Guggenheim to write “a long poem in several parts about Christmas, suitable for becoming the basis of a text for a large-scale musical oratorio.” That long poem was his attempt to see Christmas in double focus: as a moment in the Roman Empire and in Jewish history, and as an eternal and ever-new event.

His father, a learned and cultivated physician, was confused by the mixture of the past and present in the poem, the modern New York characters and the references to juke-boxes and clocks on the mantlepiece with ancient Judaea. Auden tried to explain in a long letter:

Sorry you are puzzled by the oratorio. Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental – the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity – that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity – and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …

I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been ‘humanized,’ and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery picture of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.

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Inspiration from an Inkling

If a return to the older method seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization – there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.

Kind of makes one chuckle, doesn’t it? As one taps on a keyboard to produce a message that, as soon as I press the “publish” button, will be instantly available around the world…

“Auden’s recognition that those last few centuries of the Roman Empire might serve as a mirror for the twentieth-century self-immolation of the West is the initiating insight of the project that would become ‘For the Time Being,'” Jacobs writes. Well, we made it to the twenty-first. The poem was rooted in his reading of Inkling Charles Williams, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, and many others.

Stephen Spender said that the poem “has the power in some of the choruses, of bringing to mind the mighty chorales of Bach.” The poem was set to be set to music composed by Benjamin Britten. It never was. The poem was far too long for that. Only two bits were set to music, and one, “Shepherd’s Song,” was dropped from the poem before it was published. The poem, published at the height of the war in 1944, was dedicated to the memory of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden.

“Beauty is not a luxury”: Dana Gioia on the antidotes to power

Saturday, July 21st, 2012
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Dana Gioia‘s new volume of poems, Pity the Beautiful, is getting some early buzz (including a Philadelphia Inquirer review here).  The poet (and former chairman of the NEA) recently sent me the latest issue of Gregory Wolfe‘s Image Journal which includes a satisfyingly long interview – even better than a review.  None of it’s online, so I’ll include a few excerpts from the interview with Erika Koss.  Besides, it meshes nicely with some of the Book Haven’s earlier posts, so I couldn’t resist.

The Book Haven was pleased to include his long poem “Special Treatments Ward” in its entirety, in an earlier post here.  Here’s what he said about the poem in the new interview:

“This was the most difficult poem I’ve ever written. It began when my second son had a serious injury that required an extended stay in a children’s neurological ward where nearly every other child was dying of a brain or spinal tumor. Having lost my first son, I was entirely vulnerable to the pain and confusion of the sick children and their desperate parents. I began to write a poem about how unprepared everyone in the ward was for what they had to face. But the poem kept growing and changing. It took me sixteen years to finish. I didn’t want to finish it. I wanted to forget it, but the poem demanded to be finished.  So the poem is not simply about my first son or my second son, though they are both mentioned. It is about the children who died.”

We also had a post describing “Haunted,” Dana’s ghost story – it’s here.  From the interview:

“Actually, this poem began with the first two lines:'”I don’t believe in ghosts,” he said. “Such nonsense./But years ago I actually saw one.”‘  As soon as I heard those two lines, the whole poem started to unfold, though it took an immense amount of work to create the narrative tone and the musical qualities I wanted. The odd thing about poems is that when the good ones come we often realize that we have been writing them in the back of our mind for years. A single line brings them into existence almost fully formed.”

‘Haunted’ is a ghost story that turns into a love story about a mutually destructive couple, but then at the end the reader realizes that the whole tale was really about something else entirely. The real theme is quite the opposite of what it initially seems. I wanted the poem to have the narrative drive of a great short story but also rise to moments of intense lyricality …”

And the winner is...

He lists among the influential philosophers of his life Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Mircea Eliade, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, George Orwell, Marshall McLuhan, Jacques Maritain, and recently René Girard.  What odd bedfellows that crew would be.

But who was the most important philosopher of all?  Surprise.

“One book that has exercised a lifelong influence on me is Saint Augustine‘s City of God, which I first read as a Stanford undergraduate. It has probably shaped my adult life more than any other book except the Gospels. Augustine helped me understand the danger of letting the institutions of power – be they business, government, or academia – in which we spend our daily lives shape our values. We need to understand what it is we give to the City of Man and what we do not. I couldn’t have survived my years in business as a writer had I not resisted the hunger for wealth, power, and status that pervades the world. The same was true for my years in power-mad Washington. Another writer who helped me understand these things was the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács – not a name one usually sees linked with Augustine’s, but he was another compelling analyst of the intellectual and moral corruptions of institutional power.”

Here’s a kind of egalitarianism that goes well beyond Marx: “Beauty is not a luxury,” he insists. “It is humanity’s natural response to the splendor and mystery of creation. To assume that some group doesn’t need beauty is to deny their humanity.”