Scott McLemee
Kierkegaard Kills
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The Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 September 2004

Philosophical insight and neurotic misery have seldom been so perfectly blended as in the work of Søren Kierkegaard. Intellectual historians have traced the origin of existentialist thought to the Danish theologian's writings from the 1840s, which defied the trendy system-building of his contemporaries. Against the Hegelians -- who sought to fuse all of human knowledge into a grand structure of ideas, culminating in the Absolute Idea -- Kierkegaard insisted on the stubborn freedom and solitude of the individual consciousness.

Nor did his books and pamphlets, issued under a number of pseudonyms, treat these questions in the abstract. They were filled with brooding references to his own decision to break off an engagement with a young woman named Regina Olsen -- something Kierkegaard feared made him the laughingstock of Copenhagen. So it did, once readers figured out that he was the author behind the literary masks. Which, in turn, made him gloomier still. The psychologist Ernest Becker once described Kierkegaard's book The Sickness Unto Death as one of the subtlest analyses of extreme depression ever written.

And yet if Kierkegaard were alive today, his stand-up routine would appear on Comedy Central. Or so one might surmise from Thomas C. Oden's introduction to The Humor of Kierkegaard: An Anthology, just published by Princeton University Press. Mr. Oden, a professor of theology at Drew University, acknowledges that even careful readers may overlook the lighter side of the melancholy Dane. Even so, he nominates Kierkegaard for the title of "the funniest philosopher of all time," and suggests that his anthology might be helpful for speakers "at the lectern, in the pulpit, and on the after-dinner dais."

Consider, for example, Kierkegaard's story of the man who was contemplating suicide when "at that very moment a stone fell down and killed him, and he ended with the words: Praise the Lord!" And then there's the one about the artist commissioned to do a mural of the Israelites passing through the Red Sea -- so he painted the wall red, explaining that they had reached the other side, and the Egyptians all drowned. You want one-liners? "Philosophy hastens so fast into the past that, as the poet says of the antiquarian, only his coat tails remain in the present." Ba-dum-bump!

Most of the book's 300 pages will leave readers scratching their heads, rather than holding their sides. Kierkegaard writes that his life "is like the word Schnur in the dictionary, which first of all means a string, and second a daughter-in-law. All that is lacking is that in the third place the word Schnur means a camel, and in the fourth a whisk broom." (As Martin Heidegger once put it in a different context: Say what?)

These are the jokes, folks. The cumulative effect is to make even the rather staid Immanuel Kant look like Lenny Bruce. After all, the author of Religion Within the Limits of Mere Reason did once quip that Emmanuel Swedenborg's mystical visions were the product of a stuck fart rising to the brain.

When asked whether his claims for Kierkegaardian hilarity might not be overstated, Mr. Oden holds his ground. "I don't think it's accurate, or possible, to apply to a 19th-century writer comic standards that come out of the late 20th century," he warns.

Well, what about Nietzsche, who once said of academic writers that "they muddy the water, to make it seem deep"?

"It may be that there are some passages in Nietzsche that are arguably funnier," says Mr. Oden, "though I would argue that Kierkegaard far outdistances him on quality too. For quantity alone, there are more funny pages in Kierkegaard than in any other philosopher."

But a skeptical reader can put down The Humor of Kierkegaard with a sense that the philosopher, having heard of laughter, developed a theory about it, then attempted to deduce some jokes. Indeed, that impression is reinforced by Mr. Oden's introduction -- a scholarly analysis of the central importance of irony and humor in the thinker's (anti-) system.

For Kierkegaard -- as Mr. Oden's reconstruction shows -- humor emerges from the realization of the infinite gap between even the loftiest ideals and most solemn efforts on the one hand and the absolute mystery and authority of God on the other. The self is trapped in contradictions that it cannot resolve; its efforts to do so are, strictly speaking, ridiculous. All of human existence is grotesque. In the final analysis, Kierkegaard might well agree with the title of a famous album by the absurdist comedy group Firesign Theatre: I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus.

"His special symbolic form of monasticism after the end of the engagement with Regina," writes Mr. Oden, "was to give up all worldly passions, all erotic joys, all pleasures, and to devote himself to the ascesis of probing each and every aspect of human self-awareness. Only then did he find the comic, flowering in the desert of penitence and self-control." The result was to erase the distinction between guffaw and grimace. Kierkegaard was undoubtedly writing about himself in one of his darker shticks: the one about the man who lets himself be skinned alive "in order to show how the humorous smile is produced by the contraction of a particular muscle -- and thereupon follows this with a lecture on humor."