Kierkegaard on the Go

by Paul Houe

Professor Poul Houe reflects on Kierkegaard's practice of walking and talking and thinking

PoulHoue.jpg

Many of his contemporaries saw him walking, and quite a few walked along, as one can tell from Encounters with Kierkegaard, edited by Bruce Kirmmse. H. P. Holst remembers Kierkegaard reciting unwritten articles for him on the street, and Arthur Abrahams recalls "the high shoulders; the restless, somewhat hopping gait; and the little, thin cane with which he flicked off the tips of the plants and blades along the edge of the path." Julie Sødring saw him towing her father, "limping along with his short trouser legs and swinging his little cane."

Frederik Hammerich was one whom Kierke-gaard would take by the arm, "as though he had no other use for his time. While he walked, he of course thought up the words for other things, which he subsequently wrote down. How words could pour forth from him, now profound thoughts, now humorous whimsy! . . .When I walked with him I heard him talk about his writings in terms that practically overflowed with hubris. Was it meant sincerely, or was it to be understood dialectically, spoken as pretense?"

Typically, he would wander, says O. P. Sturzen-Becker, "around the streets of Copenhagen without any goal at all, from morning until late night, in all weather and all seasons. But if he meets anyone he knows during these walks, he unhesitatingly brings him along and immediately gets involved in a conversation into which he always easily mixes all sorts of profound and clever remarks on all manner of things. . . ." Or, adds Andrew Hamilton, "manages to draw everything out of his companion that is likely to be profitable to himself."

Georg Brandes, Kierkegaard's first biographer, offers an Olympic view: "He would engage himself with anyone and everyone, just as accessible to everyone on the street as he was inaccessible in his home, just as profligate with his person here as he was protective of it elsewhere." To which can be added the young philosopher Brøchner's close-up: "His smile and his look were indescribably expressive. He had his own way of giving a greeting at a distance with just a glance. It was only a small movement of the eye, and yet it expressed so much. There could be something infinitely gentle and loving in his eye, but also something stimulating and exasperating."

Kierkegaard's balancing acts of street communication extend into Philosophical Fragments's notion of "the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think. This passion of thought is fundamentally present everywhere in thought, also in the single individual's thought insofar as he, thinking, is not merely himself. . . . Similarly, the human act of walking, so the natural scientists inform us, is a continuous falling," which "a good steady citizen" tends to ignore. Thinking and walking work in tandem, each paradoxical in its self-realization, yet reflective of the other's self-transcendence.

Comparable pronouncements in Kierkegaard's journals pertain to his walks in the countryside. In a favorite rural location he imagines himself finding "that Archimedean point from which he could lift the whole world, that point which precisely for that reason must lie outside the world, that point outside the confines of time and space." On another occasion, on the Jutland heath, "I lost my way, . . . surrounded on all sides by the most consummate uniformity, . . . one has nothing at all to measure with; . . . objects do not change, since there actually is no ob-ject (an object always requires the other whereby it becomes an ob-ject. But the eye is not that other, the eye is the combinatory factor)."

Such gains and losses saturate "The Seducer's Diary" in Either/Or. The Seducer walks "seemingly nonchalantly and without paying attention to my surroundings, although my reconnoitering glance left nothing unobserved--and then my eyes fell upon her. My eyes fixed unswervingly upon her. They no longer obeyed their master's will; it was impossible for me to shift my gaze and thus overlook the object I wanted to see--I did not look, I stared." Acting on their own, his eyes and the way they see objectivize the seer. In practicing the art of the impossible, the aesthete must create opportunities for the woman he fancies to fancy him.

The mobility on which this scheme of seduction is based conforms with the image of the continuously falling walker, the lifting of the world from a point outside it, the search for distinctive landmarks with "combinatory" eyes.

Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wanderlust, writes that Kierkegaard since childhood was attuned to "living in a disembodied magical realm of the imagination that had only one real inhabitant, himself" and that later "the myriad pseudonyms under which he published many of his best-known works seem devices to lose himself while revealing himself and to make a crowd out of his solitude. . . . Walking assuages or legitimizes this alienation. . . . In a way, his appearances on the street were like his appearances on the printed page: endeavors to be in touch, but not too closely and on his own terms." Consequently, he "is a hybrid, a philosophical writer rather than a philosopher proper, . . . in the world but not of it."

Following Solnit's lead, our Kierkegaard on the go approaches, via Walter Benjamin's flâneur, the "migrational, or metaphorical, city" undercutting "the planned and readable city" in Michel de Certeau's seminal essay "Walking in the City." Here the "relationship between spatial practices and the constructed order" is "everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order."

Precisely such a porous order issues from Kierkegaard's textual theater as its authorial pseudonymity and indirect communication reconfigure aesthetic, ethical, and religious boundaries in a peripatetic mode of thinking. Both challenging and challenged, "Kierkegaard's" probing mobility destabilizes conventional categories and puts displacement at center stage. The site of walking and thinking's gains and losses, this Archimedean point is paradoxical. So goes Kierkegaard!

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on November 25, 2008 1:14 PM.

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