Book Review, Kierkegaard and the Legitimacy of the Comic: Understanding the Relevance of Irony, Humor, and the Comic for Ethics and Religion

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Kierkegaard and the Legitimacy of the Comic: Understanding the Relevance of Irony, Humor, and the Comic for Ethics and Religion, by Will Williams (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018). 226 + xxi pp. $39.99 (paperback).

Reviewed by Russell P. Johnson, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Chicago

In Kierkegaard and the Legitimacy of the Comic, Will Williams argues that comic elements like irony and humor play a vital role in Søren Kierkegaard’s theology and ethics. When we read Kierkegaard’s use of irony and humor through his own writings about the comic, we discover that rather than being simply stylistic flourishes or a postmodern play devoid of content, the comic provides a key step in the process of becoming Christian. Kierkegaard’s more deconstructionist interpreters have assumed that Kierkegaard’s status as the “master of irony” means that his writings—specifically the pseudonymous writings of his early career—need to be read as poetic anti-philosophy, satirically skewering the pretensions of religious believers’ claims to truth and philosophers’ claims to meaning. By contrast, many theologians are keen to look for serious doctrinal content in Kierkegaard’s writings and either misread the irony in Kierkegaard or ignore his reflections on the role of the comic entirely. Williams’s project is a “reconciliation” (xvii) aimed at showing that for Kierkegaard there is an earnestness in jest and a silliness in seriousness.

In the first chapter, Williams analyzes Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (trans. Howard Hong and Edna Hong [Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992]), first published in 1846 under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus. Using helpful examples, Williams clarifies the distinctions Climacus makes between irony, humor, earnestness, and flippancy. The comic helps facilitate the transition between what Kierkegaard calls the “ethical” into the “religious.” Put simply, people in the ethical stage aspire to follow moral rules, considering their tough-minded seriousness to be nobler than the aesthetic frivolity of artists and young people. However, Williams writes, “Self-reliance cannot be the final word in a universe created through divine grace. With the aid of the gatekeeper humor, which uses the immanent against itself to show its insufficiency, we discover that our earnest hope lies in God now, not in ourselves” (30). Until we find the effort to prove our own merit laughably absurd, we have not fully embraced the depths of God’s forgiving love. When the comic is put into the service of lampooning our pretensions to wisdom and virtue so we may turn to God, humor can pave the way into faith.

The second chapter continues this discussion of the comic by looking at some of Kierkegaard’s lesser-known works. Williams’s reading of Kierkegaard’s Prefaces (trans. Todd W. Nichol [Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2009]) is an especially insightful contribution to ongoing discussions about Kierkegaard’s relation to Hegelianism. Hidden within this strange work, Williams argues, is Kierkegaard’s insistence that Hegelianism “would be inhuman for anyone actually trying to apply it to their lives” (72). By bringing philosophical ideas into the light of existence, rather than meeting them merely on argumentative grounds, Kierkegaard is at the same time engaging in philosophical criticism and showing its limits. Williams persuasively argues that Kierkegaard’s battle with satirical magazine The Corsair is a reflection of how important the comic is for Kierkegaard. It is because Kierkegaard recognized the beneficial potential of humor and irony that he could not bear to see them used carelessly and purely negatively. “He loves the comic,” Williams writes, “which is why he is so dedicated to seeing it used rightly” (105). Though Williams keeps the focus squarely on Kierkegaard, this chapter raises interesting questions about the role of satire and the ethics of irony that are relevant to the era of Last Week Tonight, meme culture, and Stephen Colbert.

The third chapter considers four deconstructionist interpreters of Kierkegaard—Louis Mackey, Roger Poole, Elsebet Jegstrup, and Mark C. Taylor—who have each suggested or explicitly said that Kierkegaard’s use of irony and pseudonyms are not intended to convey philosophical or theological content. Though not all to the same extent, these thinkers read Kierkegaard as a proto-Derridean, engaging in “unrestrained ironic play” (131) where the point is to not have a point. Williams critiques each of these interpretations in turn, pointing out flaws in these authors’ readings of Kierkegaard. The deconstructionist reading neglects the fact that Kierkegaard’s uses of irony, by his own admission, serve the higher purpose of bringing readers to examine their own lives and be confronted by the demanding, gracious God. Kierkegaard is interested in dispelling illusions for the purpose of pointing people to a truth beyond these illusions.

In the final chapter, Williams turns to two theologians—Murray Rae and W. Glenn Kirkconnell—whose interpretations of Kierkegaard are strong but could be strengthened by closer attention to the role of the comic in the process of becoming Christian. By reconciling Kierkegaard the theologian with Kierkegaard the ironist, Williams argues, one gains a deeper appreciation of Kierkegaard’s overarching project and how it differs from the intellectual and cultural visions on offer in nineteenth-century Denmark.

Ludwig Wittgenstein said that “Kierkegaard was by far the most profound thinker of the last century. Kierkegaard was a saint.” He also noted that when he reads Kierkegaard he thinks, “Oh alright, I agree, I agree, but please get on with it” (M. O’C. Drury, “Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein,” in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, ed. Rush Rhees [Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981], 102–3). These two comments apply to the present state of Kierkegaard scholarship. On the one hand, scholars helpfully guide readers through the depths of Kierkegaard’s thought and show its relevance to contemporary rhetorical, theological, and philosophical problems. On the other hand, Kierkegaard scholars can also get so preoccupied with connecting the dots within the master’s unsystematic system and correcting the flaws in one another’s interpretations that readers can lose sight of the point.

Both tendencies are in play in Williams’s book. The first half sheds much-needed light on Kierkegaard’s understanding of the comic, not only clarifying Kierkegaard’s remarks but illustrating why the comic plays a more central role in Christian formation than even most Kierkegaard scholars recognize. Williams shows how Kierkegaard’s employment of irony and humor are integrally connected with the profundity and sanctity Wittgenstein observed. The second half contrasts Williams’s reading with a series of Kierkegaard scholars’ misunderstandings or neglect of the comic. These latter chapters are repetitive and at times nitpicky and will be of interest only to readers already in the trenches of Kierkegaard interpretation.

Kierkegaard and the Legitimacy of the Comic is tightly argued and meticulously documented (almost fifty pages of endnotes). The first two chapters could be assigned as readings or supplemental material for graduate or upper-level undergraduate seminars on Kierkegaard’s thought. While the book presupposes familiarity with Kierkegaard’s work and is predominantly an argument about how best to interpret Kierkegaard, the book draws attention to the religious significance of humor and irony and will be a useful touchstone for future work on that topic.

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