by Melvyn Bragg

Reference: Index

This is Melvin's "In Our Time" newsletter from 20 March 2008.


The problem with writing this newsletter is that we recorded Kierkegaard. We do this two or three times a year in order that we can get out of London for a holiday.

The point is that by the time I've recorded the second programme (we do the recording half-an-hour after we've finished the live programme) I am the traditional wet rag. I do not have the energy to scrawl my usual notes on the conversation on the back of the brown envelope in which the original notes were kept. I made a further mistake by not doing the newsletter within the next day or two, but leaving it while I tootled along with other matters.

So I have reverted to the notes and extracts from Jonathan Rée, Clare Carlisle and John Lippitt, particularly the first of those three.

Kierkegaard was the first philosopher I met in my late adolescence who seemed to speak directly and simply to where I stood, or rather where I was having difficulty in standing. His Christianity made it easy to identify with him, as I had been brought up in a strong and persistent Anglican tradition from the age of six. His joust with reason appealed very much to millions of us then and now and in the future, who wanted there to be thought and feeling which went beyond reason but could not reason our way to that.

In his book 'The Point of View for My Work as an Author', he stated what Jonathan Rée calls "the true meaning behind all his work" which was "related to Christianity, to the problem of 'becoming a Christian', with a direct or indirect polemic against the monstrous illusion we call Christendom." That paradox was something that seemed extraordinarily witty and convincing then and still does now.

He was also very attractive because he wrote in different voices. For instance, there's a Johannes Climacus. There's a Johannes de Silentio. There's a bookbinder called Hilarius. But as Jonathan Rée points out, these pseudonyms become characters as the different range of opinions develop in his work.

It's sometimes jarring to think of people living at the same time in the same place and being at such extreme ends of the spectrum. Hans Christian Andersen was in Copenhagen when Kierkegaard was there and the first thing he ever published was an extensive review of Andersen's novel 'Only a Fiddler'.

One of the distinguishing marks of Kierkegaard's work is his love of the paradox. He wrote, "One must not think slightingly of the paradoxical... for the paradox is the source of the thinker's passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity."

It was in sentences like that that adolescents and permanent adolescents think that they saw into another world.

It's also fascinating that he saw the two great teachers, Socrates and Jesus Christ, as eschewing the same paradoxical path towards truth. It is open to speculation what he would have thought of the influence he had on the atheistic Jean-Paul Sartre.

But it always came back to Christianity. Kierkegaard knew that it did not make sense. It was a challenge to reason and that was the magnetic mystery of it because there was, undoubtedly, truth in it. It's an awful pity that Dawkins could not have been around then. Perhaps even more of a pity that Kierkegaard could not be around now.

His view of human existence as a process of becoming rather than simply being a static thing is extraordinarily attractive, as well as being a wonderful excuse, perhaps, for moving forward. He would, for instance, wonder whether it was possible to remain true to someone when human beings were constantly changing and developing throughout their life. But the idea of changing from one person to another inside the same body, the idea of the metamorphosis being applied to a single human being, was and remains both attractive and something that feels true.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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