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  • Live or Tell
  • Daniel Berthold

Two of the more notoriously elusive authors writing in the first half of the nineteenth century—a century noteworthy on the European continent for producing more than its fair share of elusive authors—are the German idealist Georg Hegel and his posthumous tormentor, the Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard. Their elusiveness is such that to read either of them is much like taking a Rorschach test: what we find tells us as much about ourselves as it does about Kierkegaard or Hegel themselves. But to think through the relationship between the two is a yet more challenging task, perhaps like seeking to align the ink-blotted lenses of a Rorshachian kaleidoscope. Some commentators have found no alignment of the lenses to produce anything resembling a meaningful picture, and have concluded, as Niels Thulstrup puts it in his study of Kierkegaard's Relation to Hegel, that, "Hegel and Kierkegaard have in the main nothing in common." 1 With equal forthrightness, Richard Kroner suggests in his essay on "Kierkegaard's Understanding of Hegel" that "Hegel and Kierkegaard are separated from each other by an abyss which no agreement can ever succeed in bridging." 2

Such a reading of the Kierkegaard-Hegel relation is in fact made tempting by Kierkegaard's own construction of the relation as one of radical difference. Hegel is the archetypal Other, the perpetual foil whose philosophic values and whole way of thinking and writing Kierkegaard devotes his own authorship to perfectly inverting. If Kierkegaard's Hegel is the philosopher of the "objective spirit" and the champion of reason, more interested in the logical relations between concepts than in the actual reality of existing individuals, Kierkegaard presents himself as the adherent of subjectivity, of faith, of existence.

In what follows, I wish to explore one of the most recurring of [End Page 361] Kierkegaard's representations of his difference from Hegel, the contrast between action and thinking about action, existing and contemplating existence, living and philosophizing about living. "In the objective [Hegelian] sense," Kierkegaard's pseudonym Johannes Climacus writes, "thought is understood as being pure thought, . . . [and] this objective thought has no relation to the existing subject; and while [it is difficult to know] how the existing subject slips into this . . . pure abstraction, . . . it is certain that the existing subjectivity tends more and more to evaporate." 3

As the contrast gets developed, we will come to focus on Kierkegaard's phrasing of the difference in terms of the role of language. Kierkegaard portrays himself as speaking (writing) in order to act: "to be an author is to act." 4 Hegel, on the other hand, is presented as writing so as to merely speak about acting; hence Hegel is a "mere scribbler" and his philosophy occurs "only on paper" (CUP, p. 176, 375f). In many ways, Kierkegaard understands his contest with Hegel in terms of the ultimatum of the tormented diarist of Jean-Paul Sartre's novella Nausea, Roquentin: "you have to choose: live or tell." 5 Roquentin is doubly cursed, first by a need to write so as to escape his sense of the nausea of existence by distancing himself from the cloying taste of reality, but second, by a recognition that his writing removes him from the possibility of truly existing. His ultimatum, "live or tell," is the constant reminder he carries with him of his inability to reconcile his fear of existence and his self-disgust at his escapism.

The contrast between action and thinking leads to a question about the ethics of authorship: how is one to use words, to write, in such a way as to act—and to elicit action from one's reader? I will suggest that a readjustment of Kierkegaard's alignment of the kaleidoscope lenses which display the image of his relation to Hegel allows for a more rewarding dialogue between the two. In this altered image, there is as much telling as living in Kierkegaard as in Hegel (indeed, as we will see, in some respects more so), and as much a choice for living in Hegel as in Kierkegaard. Perhaps most importantly, this reorientation invites us to see the either/or construction of "living...


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