Memoir, storytelling, and Soren Kierkegaard’s sideways quest.
K. Brian Soderquist, U.S.A.-born and now a Danish citizen, co-author of Kierkegaard’s Concept of Irony, teaches my son Tom’s Kierkegaard class this winter in Copenhagen. While on a recent field trip, Brian conveyed to Tom and to his study-abroad classmates an interesting perspective on storytelling that resonates for all nonfiction writers and especially for memoirists:
“I think we should keep in mind that on this trip we’re going to hear a lot of narratives—or stories—that can be different however you tell them. People don’t think about history or themselves in terms of raw facts, they just think of narrative. And we are always negotiating with our previous narratives of ourselves as new events happen to us: I say that as an existentialist, that we are forced into narrative as a method of making sense of an identity that is constantly changing and different from every point of view. The way we present ourselves is never a statement of things as-they-are, but as-you-have-come-to-terms-with-them. Tom here just asked me how I happened to move to Denmark permanently, so I had to summarize fifteen years of my life for a two-minute conversational blurb.”
(This is excerpted from “Brian’s Head, Part One,” an essay on Tom’s blog, Kierkegaard In Me.)
Or as a writer told me, “No one tells everything, Richard!” Chalk another one up for memoir as a species of literature. As if even journalism as allegedly literal as reality TV isn’t edited. Any narrative is partial and cast in a certain light. Truth changes, a fiction.
The intensely passionate truth-searcher Kierkegaard only ever referred to himself as an author, Brian told Tom, occasioning a significant pause of understanding between these two intellectuals at the front of the bus. I take the meaning: We’ve added the labels: Knight of Faith, Christian philosopher, father of existentialism. Kierkegaard despised labels. But an author he indisputably was: He’d published thirteen books by the time of his death, at age 42, in 1855. His journals, since published and considered his most poetic and beautiful work, run to 7,000 pages.
But in the impatient computer age don’t try this secret for discovering meaning, which he unveiled in Either/Or, Volume I: “Tested Advice for Authors: Set down your reflections carelessly, and let them be printed; in correcting the proof sheets a number of good ideas will gradually suggest themselves.”
(A by-the-by lesson of his life and his existential philosophy for writers: if you want to write and it brings you pleasure, write—it’s the world’s problem if you aren’t any good. Of course, he was published—and also widely regarded as a joke during his lifetime.)
When I was a year older than Tom, I read some Kierkegaard, and what I understood stuck. Amidst
endless paragraphs emerged hard gemstones of truth, everlasting precepts that flashed from his stormy soul: “Truth is subjectivity”; “To defend anything is to discredit it”; “If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much”; “Desire is a very sophisticated emotion.”
He’s my favorite philosopher because he didn’t believe in philosophy and created stories, told by wild alter-ego narrators. He published most of his books under their names, though everyone knew it was Soren playing around. “Kierkegaard would have us recognize that we are the authors of our worlds and have us assume responsibility for that authorship, recognizing that it derives from values that we have chosen,” explains Donald Palmer in Kierkegaard for Beginners. He tellsa wonderful story of young Soren‘s strange upbringing: His father sent him to a Latin school with instructions to bring home the third highest grade.”It’s easy for a genius to get the best grade,” Palmer explains the strategy. “But to get the third best, he must learn psychology. He must figure out who the second and fourth smartest boys are and place his own work between theirs.”
I wasn’t and haven’t been patient enough to stick with Kierkegaard at length, but perhaps I should, considering that my most cherished philosophical zingers came from him. As an adult my profound spiritual touchstones are Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. Both works speak to writing’s, as well as to life’s and each sex’s, larger reality and deeper purpose. While more clear than Kierkegaard, who trafficked in irony, and rich for me conceptually, neither has left me with the wealth of one-liners to compare with those I quoted above. But then, I was twenty-two when I read the Danish bard, and I may be readier now to deal with him with greater conceptual understanding.
John Updike, in his last videotaped interview, with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, said that a diminution of energy had changed his writing over the years. Some wonder was lost. He spoke of a scene in Rabbit Run where the protagonist, abandoning his wife, strokes his hand across the velvety foliage of a privet hedge as he leaves the premises.
“Your ability to care about that kind of detail I think slightly diminishes,” said Updike, who nevertheless carried on. He was, incidentally, a serious student of Kierkegaard.
Forgive. Love. Create. That’s all there is. All there ever was. To go on, in fear and trembling, in the face of eternity. Tom knows this already, at barely twenty-one. And he feeds his soul this winter on the oeuvre of a man who looked at eternity, searching and suffering for transcendence from earthbound blindness.