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  • Living Poetically: Kierkegaard’s Existential Aesthetic
  • Merold Westphal
Living Poetically: Kierkegaard’s Existential Aesthetics, by Sylvia Walsh; xiv & 294 pp. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994, $39.50.

This is a doubly important book. Substantively, its interpretation of Kierkegaard’s existential aesthetics provides a fresh and illuminating interpretation of his writings, pointing to recurring themes often quite neglected. Formally, it offers an interpretation of those writings as a whole. It has a [End Page 418] distinctive focus and does not pretend to be an all encompassing interpretation, but it calls attention by example to the need to read specific texts in the context of the entire authorship. Add to this that it is gracefully written and rigorously researched (the footnotes are worth the price of admission), and you have a book that serious readers of Kierkegaard cannot afford to ignore.

The title gives the central thesis. What interests Walsh is not Kierkegaard’s poetic gifts or aesthetic theories but the sustained attempt to incorporate aesthetic categories and ideals into his understanding of ethico-religious existence. The German romantics, perhaps his own most dangerous temptation, were not just interested in producing and enjoying works of life but in living poetically, in making their own lives into works of art. Kierkegaard’s critique of romanticism consists, not in repudiating this ideal, but appropriating and transforming it so as to incorporate it into a religious and eventually Christian mode of existence. Walsh’s claim that for Kierkegaard “faith itself is understood poetically as a ‘work of art’” (p. 3) rests on statements like the following, taken from The Concept of Irony, “Living poetically . . . means becoming clear and transparent to oneself, not in infinite and egotistical self-satisfaction but in one’s absolute and eternal validity” (quoted on p. 59).

Walsh traces this ideal through three stages of Kierkegaard’s writings. The first of these culminates in the existential alternative that Judge William offers to the young romantic aesthete in Either/Or. Building on themes like the one just cited from Kierkegaard’s own earliest writings, the Judge argues at length that ethical institutions like marriage and the religious beliefs and practices in which they have traditionally been placed are the proper home of the ideals of living poetically. They only exclude the aesthetic when it seeks to make the self its own creator, free from all actualities, social or metaphysical.

Walsh’s thesis could be paraphrased as the claim that Judge William is more important to Kierkegaard’s total authorship than is usually noticed. She acknowledges that after Either/Or his ideal is not thematized with anything like his single-mindedness, but claims that “the content of the concept of living poetically in an ethical-religious manner is sustained and further developed in the authorship in a number of ways” (p. 243). She traces these in detail through a second and third phase of the authorship, paying special attention to the increasingly negative statements about the poetic in the period from 1845 to 1848, her second phase. She argues that the critique of certain forms of the poetic leaves untouched Kierkegaard’s own poetic ideal—“to create external products of art that come close to reflecting actuality in an ethical-religious manner and that serve to direct us toward actuality rather than away from it in the realization of poetic ideality in our own lives” (p. 221).

Walsh’s final chapter brings Kierkegaard’s existential aesthetics into conversation with contemporary postmodernism, including certain forms of French feminism. By emphasizing the tendencies that link postmodernism to romanticism she presents the former as little more than a contemporary version of the [End Page 419] latter, just what it was that Kierkegaard was seeking to overcome, both as a temptation in himself and as a disease in his culture. But this picture is one-sided. Real and important differences between Kierkegaard and contemporary postmodernism are highlighted at the expense of real and important agreements on such major themes as the critique of speculation and even the critique of romanticism as the flight from the actuality of temporal finitude. Still, in addition to being an important contribution to the discussion of Kierkegaard and postmodernism...

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