- The Cultural Crisis of the Danish Golden Age: Heiberg, Martensen and Kierkegaard by Jon Stewart
The first half of the nineteenth century in Denmark, somewhat ironically known as the Golden Age, was steeped in economic, political, and religious crisis. Jon Stewart has done more than any other scholar or editor in bringing this fascinating and enigmatic era in Scandinavian letters to an English-speaking audience. In his latest book, The Cultural Crisis of the Danish Golden Age: Heiberg, Martensen and Kierkegaard, Stewart teases out how several of the nation's leading writers and critics articulated the speed at which Danish culture was changing, while also mapping out how they attempted to solve the looming crisis entailed in these changes. This crisis was known by many names in the writings of the day: relativism, nihilism, subjectivism, and Buddhism. Overall, Stewart's work demonstrates how the pervasiveness of critical discourse was not in tension with the notion of a Golden Age but rather that the tension inherent in that multi-layered discourse created the matrix of success, which in essence defined the Danish Golden Age. Although Søren Kierkegaard is a major subject of interest for Stewart's project, something consistent with his earlier work, the contours of this monograph extend beyond the figure of Kierkegaard to thinkers perhaps not as well-known to more general readers. Such figures as Johan Ludvig Heiberg, Hans Lassen Martensen, and Eggert Christopher Tryde are also contextualized in terms of Stewart's reassessment of cultural effusion. The book also provocatively positions the Danish Golden Age in conversation with our present day.
The Cultural Crisis of the Danish Golden Age is divided into case studies that orbit around three luminaries of the Danish Golden Age: Heiberg, [End Page 139] Martensen, and Kierkegaard. The first two chapters give an overview of the methodology of the book and introduce the reader to Heiberg's philosophical writings and the crisis that he so adamantly articulated in his 1833 On the Significance of Philosophy for the Present Age (translated by Jon Stewart; C. A. Reitzel's Publishing House, 2005). The remaining nine chapters or studies outline the ways in which Danish thought responded to Heiberg's articulation of the crisis, emphasizing the nuanced, self-referencing nature of the Danish Golden Age. The book looks at specific figures who re-articulated and redefined Heiberg's notion of an age haunted by alienation and skepticism. Stewart's argument throughout the monograph is that the crisis, and the impending anxiety to provide a solution to its variegated emptiness, did not have a negative effect on Golden Age culture at large, but rather created friction that led to the philosophical and literary innovations that have come to be definitive of the Golden Age.
Stewart's study is groundbreaking in two distinct ways. Unlike many of his publications on Søren Kierkegaard that are preoccupied with Kierkegaard's relationship to German philosophy, this book is predominantly an attempt to read Kierkegaard in the context of Danish letters. Although Hegel's philosophy is still at the core of many of these debates, the substance of the book is dedicated to how Danish thinkers responded to investigations and inquiries vis-à-vis their contemporary countrymen. In effect, Stewart is calling for a rehabilitation of "the contemporary horizon of the text in Kierkegaard's time" (p. 30). He gives voice to this call by employing the methodology of Quellenforschung or source research. Stewart illustrates his method through examination of several passages of Kierkegaard that have been traditionally read in terms of Hegel's philosophical writings. Instead, Stewart reads these texts against the grain, focusing, for example, on Kierkegaard's readings of figures like Martensen and the theologian Adolph Peter Adler. Stewart deftly argues a case that the preoccupation with Kierkegaard's relation to Hegel and German philosophy has caused a lacuna in the scholarship. It is indeed a sober reminder that we should first read Kierkegaard in his contemporary Copenhagen before we stretch our analysis out in order to yield to our fascination with...