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  • Kierkegaard and the Legitimacy of the Comic by Will Williams
  • Michael Dalebout (bio)
Kierkegaard and the Legitimacy of the Comic. By Will Williams. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019. 226 pp.

The irony of Will Williams's Kierkegaard and the Legitimacy of the Comic is that its interpretive and critical limitations nevertheless lay a ground for more comprehensively apprehending the comic as conceived by Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55). Part 1 of Williams's book addresses a blind spot in the philosophy of humor, insofar as it clarifies Kierkegaard's understanding [End Page 226] of the comic—that is, the presence of contradiction between different ways of living in the world, or "norms" in Williams's parlance. While such contradictions are akin to incongruities, Williams in chapter 1 distinguishes Kierkegaard's idea of the comic from incongruity theory more generally by stressing that the misrelation of norms in the former are thoroughgoing: both sides of the contradiction are maintained with some degree of earnestness. As a result, the comic plays a role in the working out of normative tensions for Kierkegaard, as it is, in Williams's words, "transitional by nature" (41). Williams's account is further useful to humor scholars in his elaboration of how irony and humor function for Kierkegaard as comic transitions between states of subjective existence in his greater project. Overall, Williams's analysis of Kierkegaard's thought is the book's strongest feature.

Williams extends this effort to methodically situate familiar terms and explicate how they fit into Kierkegaard's context—his greater philosophico-theological project and moral concern with subjective and social maturation—in chapter 2. There, he further evinces his erudition, engaging both Kierkegaard's biography and his philosophical and theological works to offer the reader compelling proof that Kierkegaard's comic is both consistent throughout (and essential to) acts of social satire and religious devotion alike. To be sure, Williams's ability to blend biography, history, analysis, and interpretation makes part 1 a productive read. For example, William explains that Kierkegaard grounds jest in earnestness and thereby refuses the opposition of seriousness and joking that even today remains colloquially (and even theoretically) prevalent. Kierkegaard, Williams explains, "frequently made use of irony 'to say as a jest, jestingly, something that is meant in earnest'" (131). However, in part 2, Williams's intimidating show of mastery—a stylistic display erected via seemingly endless footnotes and puffed up through mantra-like repetition—often overshadows such valuable elucidations.

Indeed, Williams's own earnestness in applying his analytic and interpretive insights during the second half of the book (beginning with chapter 3, in which the preceding quote can be found) is not as productive. Endeavoring to show the critical value of his initial explication of the comic for contemporary academics, Williams intervenes in deconstruction-inflected and Kierkegaard-minded scholarship that seeks to draw Kierkegaard closer to the tradition inaugurated by Jacques Derrida. Williams, inspired by how Kierkegaard's Christian ethic grounded his criticisms of Danish [End Page 227] society and Hegelian philosophers and compelled by his own sincere account of how the comic facilitates transitions between different stages of Kierkegaardian existence (i.e., the aesthetic, ethical, and religious), forcefully jabs at a handful of scholars in order to enunciate how their reasoning is ironic. While such ironies are smartly diagnosed, Williams unfortunately offers them with all of the audacity yet none of the humor he has shown to be present in Kierkegaard's voice. Given that he humorlessly concludes that "a century before Deconstruction would arrive, Kierkegaard was not only already the first postmodern, he was also already the first post-Deconstructionist" (154), it is difficult to see how the important contradictions Williams has discovered might provide a way into richer philosophical or theological insights.

In his effort to reinforce distinctions between the projects of select deconstructionists and of Kierkegaard, Williams does not see their affinities nor appreciate how their engagement is as attentive and earnest as his. Had Williams chosen to engage thinkers that he deemed better readers of Kierkegaard and Derrida, he may have further clarified how the comic (particularly irony) instigates transitions that are both social and subjective. In chapter 4...