Category Archives: Kierkegaard


It would be futile if I were to try to tell how I have perceived God’s assistance in this. For example, it has been inexplicable to me (what has so often happened to me) that when I did something and could not possibly say why or it did not occur to me to ask why, when I as a very specific person followed the prompting of my natural impulses, that this, which for me had a purely personal meaning bordering on the accidental, that this then turned out to have a totally different, a purely ideal meaning when seen later within my work as an author; that much of what I had done purely personally was strangely enough precisely what I should do qua author. It has been inexplicable to me how very often seemingly quite accidental little circumstances in my life, which then in turn admittedly became something very considerable through my imagination, brought me into a specific state, and I did not understand myself, became depressed – and see – then out of this developed a mood, the very mood I should use in the work with which I was engaged at the time, and at just the right place. There has not been the slightest delay in the writing; what was to be used has always been at hand the very moment it was to be used.

– Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as an Author (tr. Hong & Hong)

The castle opens

As soon as a person appears who has something primitive about
him, so that he does not say ‘One must accept the world as it is’ [. . .]
but says ‘However the world is, I shall retain an originality which
I do not mean to alter in accordance with the world’s wishes’:
at the moment these words are heard, the whole of existence is
transformed. As in the fairy-tale, when the word is spoken, the castle
opens after being enchanted for a hundred years, and everything
comes to life: so existence turns into sheer attention.

– Kierkegaard, The Book of the Judge (quoted by Kafka in a letter to Brod)

Hubert Dreyfus interview

Gnashing, sneering, praising

I was twenty-four, and the religious revival within myself was at its height. Earlier that summer, I had discovered Kierkegaard, and each week I brought back to the apartment one more of the Princeton University Press’s elegant and expensive editions of his works. They were beautiful books, sometimes very thick, sometimes very thin, always typographically exhilarating, with their welter of title pages, subheads, epigraphs, emphatic italics, italicized catchwords taken from German philosophy and too subtle for translation, translator’s prefaces and footnotes, and Kierkegaard’s own endless footnotes, blanketing pages at a time as, crippled, agonized by distinctions, he scribbled on and on, heaping irony on irony, curse on curse, gnashing, sneering, praising Jehovah in the privacy of his empty home in Copenhagen. The demons with which he wrestled—Hegel and his avatars—were unknown to me, so Kierkegaard at his desk seemed to me to be writhing in the clutches of phantoms, slapping at silent mosquitoes, twisting furiously to confront presences that were not there.

— John Updike, ‘The Astronomer’


Besides my large circle of friends I have another intimate confidant: my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, he waves to me, calls me aside, although physically I stay in place. My melancholy is the most loyal mistress I’ve known; what wonder, then, that I love her back.


I feel like a chess piece must feel when the opponent says of it: ‘That piece is untouchable’.


I have, I think, the courage to doubt everything; I have, I think, the courage to fight everything; but I do not have the courage to know anything, to possess, to own anything. Most people complain that the world is trivial, that life isn’t like a romantic novel, full of favourable opportunities; I complain that life isn’t like a novel in which there are hardhearted fathers and goblins and trolls to battle and spellbound princesses to free. What are all such enemies combined compared to the pale, bloodless, dogged nocturnal forms with which I fight and to which I myself give life and being.


How barren are my soul and thoughts, and yet how perpetually tormented by vacuous and voluptuous birth pangs! Will my spirit forever be tongue-tied, must I always babble? What I need is a voice as piercing as the glance of Lynceus, as frightening as the groan of the giants, as persistent as a sound made by nature, as mocking as a gust of icy wind, as cruel as Echo’s taunting, ranging from the deepest bass to the most melting high notes, modulated from a solemn whisper to the energy of rage. That’s what I need to be able to breathe, to express what’s on my mind, to shake the depths of my anger and my sympathy. – But my voice is as hoarse as the cry of a gull, or dies away like a blessing on the lips of a mute.


What is to come? What will the future bring? I don’t know, I have no idea. When a spider plunges down from a fixed point, as is its nature, it always sees before it an empty space in which it cannot find a foothold however much it twitches. That is how it is with me: always an empty space before me, what drives me on is a result that lies behind me. This life is back-to-front and horrible, unendurable.


Time passes, they say, life is a stream, etc. I can’t feel it, time stands still and I with it. All the plans I form fly straight back at me, when I want to spit, I spit in my own face.


My soul is so heavy that no thought can sustain it any longer, no wingbeat lift it up into the aether. If it moves, it only sweeps along the ground like the low flight of birds when a thunderstorm approaches. Over my inner being broods an unease, an anxiety that senses an earthquake.


A fire once broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded; he repeated his warning; they cheered even more. This is how I imagine the world will end: to general applause by clever people who think it’s a joke.


What philosophers say about reality is often as disappointing as when you see a sign in a second-hand shop that reads Pressing Done Here. If you went in with your clothes to have them pressed, you’d be fooled: it’s the sign that’s for sale.


I have only one friend, Echo. And why is Echo my friend? Because I love my sorrow, and Echo doesn’t take it away from me. I have only one confidant, the silence of the night. And why is it my confidant? Because it is silent.


What is it that binds me? Of what was the fetter that bound the Fenris wolf made? It was made from the noise a cat’s paws make when it walks, women’s beards, the roots of mountains, the sinews of bears, the breath of fishes and the spittle of birds. So too am I bound by a chain formed of dark delusions, of disturbing dreams, of restless thoughts, of forebodings and inexplicable anxieties. This chain is ‘very supple, soft as silk, resilient even to the strongest strain, and cannot be torn in two’.


How horrible boredom is – how horribly boring. I know no stronger expression, none truer, for only like knows like. If only there were a higher expression, a stronger one, then at least there would still be another movement. I lie stretched out, inert; all I see is emptiness, all I live on is emptiness, all I move in is emptiness. I don’t even suffer pain. At least the vulture kept pecking at Prometheus’s liver; at least the poison kept dropping on Loki; there were interruptions, however monotonous. Even pain has lost its power to refresh me. If I were offered all the world’s glories or all its torments, I’d be equally indifferent, I wouldn’t turn over either to reach for them or escape from them. I die death itself. What could possibly divert me? If I saw a loyalty that outlasted every trial, an enthusiasm that bore everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I sensed a thought that bound together the finite and the infinite. But my soul’s poisonous doubt consumes everything. My soul is like the Dead Sea, over which no bird can fly: when it gets halfway, it drops down, spent, to its death.


My sorrow is my castle, which lies like an eagle’s nest high up on the mountain peaks among the clouds; no one can storm it. From it I fly down into reality and seize my prey; but I don’t remain there, I bring my prey home, and this prey is a picture I weave into the tapestries in my castle. Then I live as a dead man. In a baptism of forgetfulness I plunge all experiences into the eternity of remembrance. All that’s finite and random is forgotten, wiped out. Then I sit like a hoary, thoughtful old man, and explain the pictures in a soft voice, almost a whisper, and by my side sits a child and listens, although he remembers everything before I tell it.

— Kierkegaard, ‘Diapsalmata’, Either/Or (my tr.)

I realize more and more that I am so constituted that I shall not succeed in realizing my ideals… Ordinarily, most people aim their ideals at the Great, the Extraordinary, which they never attain. I am far too melancholy to harbor such ideals. One would smile at my ideals… I aspire to be as little as possible; that is precisely the core of my melancholy. For that very reason I have been content to be regarded as half-mad, though this merely was a negative form of being something out of the ordinary. And this may quite possibly remain my essential form of existence, and I shall never attain the pleasant, becalmed existence of being something very small.

— Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, via here

Impotence and joy

It is dreadful, the total spiritual impotence I suffer at this time, just because it is combined with a consuming longing, with a spiritual ardour – and so without form that I don’t even know what it is I am missing.


There is an indescribable joy that is kindled in us just as inexplicably as the apostle’s unmotivated exclamation: ‘Rejoice and again I say, Rejoice’. —Not a joy over this or that, but a full-bodied shout of the soul ‘with tongue and mouth and from the bottom of the heart’: ‘I rejoice in my joy, of, with, at, for, through, and with my joy’ — a heavenly refrain which suddenly interrupts our other songs, a joy which like a breath of air cools and refreshes, a puff from the trade winds which blows across the plains of Mamre to the eternal mansions.

— Kierkegaard, Journals (tr. A. Hannay)

No conclusions

It is not improbable that the lives of many men go on in such a way that they have indeed premises for living but reach no conclusions. Such a man’s life goes on till death comes and puts an end to life, but without bringing with it an end in the sense of a conclusion. For it is one thing that life is over, and a different thing that a life is finished by reaching a conclusion. In the degree that such a man has talents he can go ahead and become an author, as he understands it. But such an understanding is an illusion. For that matter […] he may have extraordinary talents and remarkable learning, but an author he is not, in spite of the fact that he produces books. […] No, in spite of the fact that the man writes, he is not essentially an author; he will be capable of writing the first and also the second part, but he cannot write the third part — the last part he cannot write. If he goes ahead naively (led astray by the reflection that every book must have a last part) and so writes the last part, he will make it thoroughly clear by writing the last part that he makes a written renunciation to all claim to be an author. For though it is indeed by writing that one justifies the claim to be an author, it is also, strangely enough, by writing that one virtually renounces this claim […] To find the conclusion it is necessary first of all to observe that it is lacking, and then in turn to feel quite vividly the lack of it.

— Kierkegaard, On Authority and Revelation (quoted here)

Seeing the god

There was a people who had a good understanding of the divine; this people believed that to see the god is death. —Who grasps the contradiction of this sorrow: not to disclose itself is the death of love; to disclose itself is the death of the beloved.

— Kierkegaard

David Foster Wallace on Kafka

‘Alas’, said the mouse, ‘the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into’. ‘You only need to change your direction’, said the cat, and ate it up.

— Kafka


What Kafka’s stories have is a grotesque and gorgeous and thoroughly modern complexity. Kafka’s humour — not only not neurotic, but anti-neurotic, heroically sane — is, finally, a religious humour, but religious in the manner of Kierkegaard and Rilke and the Psalms, a harrowing spirituality against which even Ms. O’Connor’s bloody grace seems a little bit easy, the souls at stake pre-made.
   And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t ‘get’ Kafka’s humour but that we’ve taught them to see humour as something you get — the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke — that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good that they don’t ‘get’ Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his art as a kind of door. To envision us readers coming up and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.

David Foster Wallace