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  1. Politics
30 October 2000

The first postmodern ironist

We live in a passionless age, wrote the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. That is why he speaks to us t

By Julian Evans

“It’s a miserable existence to be a genius in a provincial town,” as Soren Kierkegaard once remarked to the King of Denmark. The identity of his listener, and that he was talking about the King’s capital city, testify to brazenness or rhetorical brilliance, or both. The truth is that Christian VIII wasn’t bright enough to be offended: his subject had swaddled him in layers of irony so manifold that the monarch could only lie back and wiggle his toes. “Naturally, I said it in such a way as to compliment him,” Kierkegaard continues in his journal. “I said: ‘Your majesty’s only misfortune is that your wisdom and prudence are too great and the country too small.'”

There are good reasons why we in Britain might listen to him now, at a moment when relations between leaders and led, corporations and consumers, press and people have rarely looked so shaky.

Listen to this: “A revolutionary age is an age of action; ours is the age of advertisement and publicity. Nothing ever happens, but there is immediate publicity everywhere. In the present age, a rebellion is, of all things, the most unthinkable. Such an expression of strength would seem ridiculous to the calculating intelligence of our times.”

Or this: “In order that everything should be reduced to the same level, it is first of all necessary to procure a phantom, its spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage – and that phantom is the public.”

Both passages were written in 1847. In 1846, Kierkegaard had felt his activity as a writer was over. He had published his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, finally owning up to being the author behind the pseudonymous texts. He had been disastrously caricatured in a satirical rag called the Corsair: the unflattering concentration on his spindly build, his clothes (his trousers always drawn with one leg shorter than the other) and his curved spine not only wounded him, but identified him, forcing him to give up his walks about town to avoid being jeered at. There seemed to be nothing he could do to defend himself. But suddenly he did discover a way to react to his public persecution: to analyse what had happened in an entirely new structure of philosophical categories.

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One might as well admit it: Kierkegaard was a complicated case. The “lived ethics” or individually determined life-view that he developed often seems as concealed in his texts as it is revealed. He can be a brutal textualist: prolix, repetitious, full of pseudonyms and disclaimers, himself clothed in as many ironies as a fearful Salome who, postponing the moment of exposure, wears 16 pairs of knickers. But he is also capable of great beauty. And the issues he raises by his writing – human rights and totalitarianism, consciousness, oppression and freedom – are modern interests.

In his book The Present Age, Kierkegaard showed his ability to create forms of thought that would not become apparent for another hundred years. Not only did he find himself in the modern situation of being hounded and hurt by the press, and unable to defend himself, but he bound the situation into a modern analysis of impersonality that promotes destructive concepts such as “the public” and withers individual passion and personal responsibility – a withering that, as we now know, allows oppression to flourish.

Individual belief is at the root of the “expression of strength” that Kierkegaard writes about. In a section of The Present Age called “Something must be done!”, he produces a delightful argument about daring: a skater on a frozen lake may see, in the distance where the ice is dangerously thin, a precious jewel.

In a passionate age, he writes, the crowds would cheer his courage and tremble for him as he tried to reach it. But in an age without passion, people would agree that it was unreasonable to venture out so far, and think each other clever for figuring this out. So daring and enthusiasm – individual qualities – become transformed into a feat of skill, and the crowd is encouraged to succumb to “the most dangerous of all diseases”: “to admire in public what is considered unimportant in private”.

Thus, without role models – images of active leaders and heroes, not celebrities – we can only agree that the best thing we can do is admire ourselves.

To extend this argument to current politics: it is all too easy to see how the drone of spin, focus and opinion poll reflects the evolution of governmental decision-making into a passionless feat of skill.

Politics-by-skill excludes the possibility that daring may succeed. Tony Blair could have nailed his colours to the mast over the fuel protests, saying that high prices were essential for vital environmental reasons, that the government believed that discouraging excessive car use was the best hope for the next generations, and so forth. It was a perfect opportunity, not even requiring great daring, and he did not see it. Why? Because he does not believe in anything.

It has often been said that this new Labour government is out of touch with the people. That is not the point. The point is that the government is out of touch with itself. Kierkegaard wrote of such things happening in a “reflective and passionless age”.

“It leaves everything standing,” he writes, “but cunningly empties it of significance . . . everything continues to exist factually, while it supplies a secret interpretation – that it does not exist.” That seems to me to be an invigorating description of our Anglican church, our National Health Service, our “public” transport system and our environmental policies, not to mention a number of more general matters.

Kierkegaard’s experience during the Corsair affair, which left him so painfully isolated and exposed to public ridicule, produced a stern, unselfpitying analysis. One of its pillars was the levelling tendency of the age, and its annihilating consequences. (A passionate age storms ahead, while a passionless age attempts to stifle and hinder: it levels.) This levelling, he says, is necessary to procure “an all-embracing something which is nothing” – the public. In his view, this is possible only with the help of the press, which is then able with impunity to invoke the abstract public as a reason for its actions. “Enthusiasm may end in disaster” – remember the skater – “but levelling is by definition the destruction of the individual.” In the name of the public, the press can continue indefinitely: it is a dog with no master, a dog that even the public despises. Meanwhile, individuals are destroyed, the press makes profits, and the public is raised to the level of the highest good.

This is not merely a possible description of the current state of press freedom. It is also an explanation of how political leadership can be reduced to a nadir of craven opportunism and still be successful – as in William Hague’s poll-busting announcement that the Tories will cut 3p from a litre of unleaded petrol if elected. This showed, he said, that his party was “in touch with the people’s priorities”. As indeed it seems to be: the priorities of a prosperous, cheerful, fuck-you-Jack-I’m-all-right people.

This kind of public is not entirely the press’s doing: “The public is a concept that could not have occurred in antiquity . . . Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the press able to create that abstraction, ‘the public’, consisting of unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organisation – and yet are held together as a whole.”

Kierkegaard was remarkably prescient about publicity, too. He doesn’t speak only of the visual tyranny of the designer label and the billboard (soon, thanks to this government, to be on a country lane near you). He also understands the co-dependency of the press and broadcast media on advertisers – in short, how much safer it is for both to present commentary rather than debate – and how the superbrands such as Nike, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola have succeeded in elbowing their way into the part of our consciousness that used to be exclusively reserved for immaterial questions: they did this in the first place by elevating “lifestyle” to a quasi-religious status, and have followed it up by appointing themselves subcontractors of the whole psychological and cultural bag of tricks that used to make up our sense of ourselves, individually and in relation to others.

This is what is happening when Nike runs an ad that says “I believe high heels are a conspiracy against women”; and is in part what the protesters in London, Seattle and Prague are on about: how, through allowing advertisers to think for us, we are close to no longer believing in anything.

It is clear that, even when Kierkegaard wrote his book, his opposition to the impersonal forces of publicity, press and public were going against the materialist, democratic tide. When Sartrean existentialism failed a hundred years later, it was the final nail in his coffin.

But in Copenhagen, I found myself agreeing with the novelist Jens Christian Grondahl that Kierkegaard’s “lived ethics” has a political value that is ignored by liberal ideology: “There’s been one belief that’s been upheld throughout the history of the Danish welfare state: the false belief that all human conflicts can be solved. Go to a doctor, go to a psychiatrist, and your problems will be solved. So that the existential themes of life are becoming reduced to questions of social engineering. Whereas Kierkegaard shows you that you can be alone in the world without the comforting context of culture and family and a bourgeois life.”

Kierkegaard was privileged: it is often remarked that he spent a fortune on carriage drives, exquisite furniture, elegant bindings and good wine. Danish writers to whom I spoke believe that most of his money simply went on sustaining a writer’s life – he paid for many of his own publications and ended up, shortly before his death at 42, launching his very last polemic against the established Danish church from a run-down set of rooms directly opposite the Frue Kirke.

He is buried in the Assistens cemetery in north-west Copenhagen. On his gravestone in the family plot, it is written: “It is very little time that I have gained, then is the whole struggle vanished at once, and I can rest in halls of roses and endlessly talk to my Jesus.” There is a strange dialogue between us and such places. Grondahl, who came with me to the cemetery, called it a “literature of the moment”, our way of speaking to the dead: we imagined that Kierkegaard was watching us, because we had taken pains to go on a rainy afternoon.

Whether he was right or not, I wanted to imagine that dialogue because I believed the dead, in Kierkegaard’s case, had something to say. Not only about the passionless 21st century, from a vantage point he created 150 years before, but about modes of resistance to it. Where there is death, there is hope – as the master ironist himself might have said.

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