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Kierkegaard Once More*

Theodor W. Adorno
In remembrance of Paul Tillich
1.
According to the measure of his own authorship, Kierkegaard must not
triumph. He denied to the deceased Bishop Mynster, whom he loved, the
name of a truth-witness [Wahrheitszeugen]. On no account would he who
repeats formulaically that he speaks without authority have laid claim to it
himself. Unmistakably, however, his idea of the truth-witness arose from
the construction of his own existence [Existenz]. In the first of the newspaper articles from the Vaterland of December 1854, in which he began the
assault on his church and the official Christianity, it says: A truth-witness
is a person who in poverty witnesses for the truth, in poverty, in lowliness and abasement, is so underappreciated, hated, detested, so mocked,
insulted, laughed at scornfullyso poor that he perhaps has not always
had daily bread, but he has received the daily bread of persecution in
abundance every day. For him there was never advancement and promotion except in reverse, step by step downward. A truth-witness, one of the
authentic truth-witnesses, is a person who is flogged, mistreated, dragged
from one prison to another, then finallythe last advancement, by which
he is admitted to the first class in the Christian order of precedence among
the authentic truth-witnessesthen finally, for this is indeed one of the
* Translated by Jensen Suther. Originally published as Kierkegaard noch einmal,
from the third edition (1966) of: Theodor W. Adorno, Kierkegaard: Konstruktion des sthetischen Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1962. All rights reserved and controlled
through Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.
Telos 174 (Spring 2016): 5774
doi:10.3817/0316174057
www.telospress.com

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authentic truth-witnesses Prof. Martensen talks about, then finally is crucified or beheaded or burned or broiled on a grill, his lifeless body thrown
away by the assistant executioner into a remote place, unburiedthis is
how a truth-witness is buried!or burned to ashes and cast to the winds
so that every trace of this refuse, as the apostle says he has become,
might be obliterated.1 Still more succinctly in a later essay from the same
series: In the New Testament, Christ calls the apostles and followers witnesses, requires of them that they shall witness for him. Let us now see
what is to be understood by that. They are men who in renunciation of
everything, in poverty, in lowliness, then, ready for any suffering, are to
go out into a world that with all its might and main expresses the contrast
to what it is to be a Christian. This is what Christ calls witnessing, being
a witness.2 Kierkegaard died soon after writing this polemic, just as he
had used up his fortune, which, out of rigorously Christian conviction, he
refused to invest for interest. He who had expected and wanted nothing
else from his work succeeded in capitulating to the world [in der Welt]. His
uncompromising conception of transcendence would have precluded the
victory of truth within-the-world [innerweltlich], to him embodied in his
writings, just as it would have that of the person. The ecclesia triumphans
was to him garbage no less than the Hegelian doctrine that became the
philosophy of the state. Even the idea of a powerful impact after his death
would scarcely have pleased him. To him history was permanent infernal
downfall, betrayal of what has been revealed. Having staked everything
on simultaneity, the instant, he could expect from the afterworld no more
than from the world. He who designated himself the individual, and to
whom all in which he believed, even the relation to the absolute itself, was
concentrated in the individual, mocked the idea of having disciples and
of founding a school. Indeed, the position is to be found that views the
triumph in spirit, as opposed to the empirical triumph, as possible: But it
is one thing to be victorious in the idea, something else to be victorious in
the external world; this is different to such a degree that the very ones who
in the very highest sense must be said to have been victorious in the idea
have had to succumb in the external world, indeed, have been put to death.
Or to take an example (and yet not the very highest even if it is too high for
me), must not Socrates, seen in the idea, be said to have been completely
1. Sren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, trans. Howard V. Hong and
Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1998), pp. 56.
2. Ibid., p. 26.

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victorious over the contemporary publicand yet he had to empty the


poison cup.3 That is not far from the conventional view of the tragic.
But to teach the triumph of spirit in spirit does not entail that of spirit
in the world. Kierkegaard could conceive of this no better than he could
success, tenure, and a career. The tenth and final number of The Moment,
which Kierkegaard himself did not publish, closes with cutting irony: In
this way, with the aid of having a predecessor and a successor, one goes
through life pleasantly and is in addition a truth-witness. God help the one
who has no predecessor and no successor; for him life truly becomes what
it, according to the will of Christianity, is supposed to be: an examination
in which there can be no cheating.4 It could not be made more obvious
that Kierkegaard, by casting out potential successors like intruders, also
despised his victory in the afterlife of his work. Just as he fought the reification of philosophy into a system, which tore it away from the experience
of the individual and reduced it to a mere aspect, he would have opposed
the attempt to make from it a positive theology; he scornfully refused the
demand to publish his own dogma. That he sunk his teeth into what is not
Christendom has its ground not merely in the fact that he knew himself to
be beneath his idea of the Christian; his reason was rather an intellectual
one. Through the transition to dogmatic positivity, its own content would
already be denied. Only positivity, however, as spiritual, has the chance
to assert itself in the world. Kierkegaards authorship aimed for its own
defeat. The principle of success, in which the mechanism of competition
of bourgeois society reflects itself and is posited in place of the deposed
deity, he challenges as one seldom does; he would have registered his
posthumous triumph as evidence against his own truth, as a testament to
a secret complicity with that which was known to him as the existent.
This is, however, very difficult to accept. So little does philosophy need
to attend to the subjective intention of the author, so binding for it are the
texts themselves in which it unfolds. The compatibility of the enemy of
the world with the world becomes the objection to it and its type of enmity
toward the world.
2.
Kierkegaard has triumphed. Soon after his extraordinariness began to
draw attention, he became at first, as is bound to happen, psychologically
3. Ibid., p. 552.
4. Ibid., p. 354.

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interesting to, for instance, the enlightened [aufklrisch] Georg Brandes,


who, while incidentally not yet fascinated by him, saw him with less bias,
and also more critically, than nearly all of later literature. Then in Germany, by way of translator Christoph Schrempf, Kierkegaard became the
patron saint of those pastors whose office conflicted with their conscience;
he became a kind of Ibsenian Rosmer, just as the young Ibsens Brand
derives many lines from Kierkegaard. The reversal may be dated to before
1920. Perhaps Theodor Haeckers translation of the book Adler triggered
it, whose linguistic power brought Kierkegaard to his own level for the
first time in Germany. He captivated Protestant theologians who, owing to
the liberal Christianity that dissolved the content of theology in metaphors
for ideas, became mad. Dialectical theology in its entirety was what succeeded Kierkegaard; in Karl Barth it was also that of his resoluteness.
However, just as his work has a theological and philosophical layer, so
too does it have such an effect. The philosophical effect first arises later,
around the mid-1920s, when Heidegger as well as Jaspers emancipated
the Kierkegaardian concept of existence from what he called religious
stages A and B, and inverted it into an anthropological ontology, which, of
course, Heidegger did not want to be understood as anthropology. While
the concept of existence, and above all existentials like anxiety, interioritythe model of Heideggerian authenticityand decision establish
themselves as the centerpiece of a material, purportedly reanimated metaphysics, Kierkegaard has simultaneously brought to an end the academic
afterlife of German Idealism. His invectives against Hegel achieved what
those of Schopenhauer began, the caricature of an unbridled self-idolizing
thinking dispossessed of its substrate. The publications of the so-called
Patmos Circle from the 1920s are documents of this effect. It was at
that time so great that it helped Kierkegaard gain the anonymity of the
Zeitgeist. He infiltrated the entire theological-philosophical and pedagogical language in order to be, by virtue of such an afterlife, forgotten
a second time; thus at the very least he would not have been dissatisfied.
It would have pleased him less that that language consigned itself to use
so immediately, let itself blabber on so vulgarly and navely, just like the
theology candidates he reproached. Kierkegaards late writings, the attack
on Christendom in the name of Christianity, turned harshly against bourgeois institutions such as marriage: It still could never occur to me to
marry. The task of becoming a Christian is so enormous; why, then, would
it occur to me to become involved in this procrastination, however much

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people, especially at a certain age, describe it and regard it as the greatest


bliss! I honestly do not comprehend how it has occurred to anyone to
want to link being a Christian with being married. This does not mean,
please note, that I thereby am thinking, for example, of someone who is
already married and has a family and now just at this age becomes a Christianno, my thought is: How can someone who is unmarried and says
he has become a Christian, how can it occur to him to marry?5 On the
whole, he condemned the accommodation to mediocre institutions of selfperpetuating life. The religious sphere was founded in Fear and Trembling
as the suspension of the ethical. His fangs have been cracked by his devotees. Jaspers expresses himself almost movingly in the 1955 afterword
to his Philosophy: he has appropriated the Kierkegaardian concept of
existence. But I became no follower of Kierkegaard. For I remained not
only wary of his Christianity, but also sensed in his negative conclusions
(no marriage, no office, no realization in the world, but only martyrdom
as what is essentially proper to the truth of Christianity) the opposite of
all that I loved and wanted, of what I was prepared, and not prepared, to
do. His understanding of Christian belief, through his Religiousness B (as
the absurd), seemed to me to be, just like that practical negativity, the end
of historical Christianity as well as the end of every philosophical life. All
the more astonishing was what Kierkegaard was able to see and say, in
his own way, with integrity, nearly without fail at every waking instant.
A philosophy without Kierkegaard seemed to me at the time impossible.
In his greatness, I thought, he held the world-historical rank alongside
Nietzsche.6 As if the one could so simply be had without the other. In
barely one hundred years, Kierkegaard has, by one of his most renowned
and adept initiates, been not only flattened but also absorbed by ordinary
bourgeois consciousness, just as, according to his own thesis, Christianity
was after almost two millennia. Inspiring strength, grandness like that of
a Bismarck monument, world historyprecisely that which Kierkegaard
despised is what remained of him and was glorified. From that individual
has originated the mendacious gossip that gloats that the others have fallen
inauthentically and succumbed to gossip. Its fate was sealed when in Germany, before 1933, the National Socialist Emanuel Hirsch took a general
lease out on him: victory as defeat.
5. Ibid., p. 239.
6. Karl Jaspers, Philosophie I: Philosophische Weltorientierung (Berlin, Gttingen,
Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1956), p. xx.

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3.
The path to such victory is that of an untruth burgeoning in the content of
Kierkegaards thought. In face of the objectification and socialization of
all human relations in the hundred years since his death, the position of the
individual, which he accorded the highest worth, has proven itself as refuge
before the prevailing system, which, hostile to individual determination,
degrades each to his role. Kierkegaard could become popular because the
absolute individual, which he opposed to the then visibly growing masses
of high capitalism, represents itself in the meantime as the situation of all.
Such primacy of the individual is, however, simultaneously semblance.
For universality, the pure bourgeois principle of the exchange economy,
realizes itself through the absolutized self-preservation of social subjects.
Their isolation, which the doctrine of existence considers the measure of
all things, is entangled with the universal. The social consequence is that
it amounts to a functional context of antagonistic interests. Individuals
perform unconsciously for the whole, under which they suffer as strangers
to one another and as in themselves contradictory. They are its native children. Therefore, the absolute individual leaves undisturbed the bad whole
against which it protests. Disdain of the external yields to inwardness, which
it does not reach. Inwardness benefits the external, which reduces individuals to powerless atoms. Their aggregate makes up the public sphere, at
which Kierkegaard hurled anathemas. His extreme political conservatism,
Old Lutheran heritage, expresses exactly the historical condition of objectless inwardness, which it embodies. Whoever avenges every intervention
into external reality as a waste of purely interior being must sanction given
relations as they are. For a long time, Kierkegaard did not shy away from
this. When he attacked the deception in the Hegelian philosophy of history, that the finite world is meaningful, he simultaneously foreclosed the
allegedly pure individualitys consciousness of historical being. Against
his own will, the doctrine of the existing, undiminished real particular
has, however, become a kind of doctrine of invariants, reminiscent of the
theomorphic image of man. Indeed, Kierkegaard employs the word ontology, like metaphysics, pejoratively, as an objection to the Hegelian being
in-and-for-itself of the concept, which debases the particular hypostatized
by Kierkegaard to a mere moment. But his turn of phrase is futile. Already
in Kierkegaard the doctrine of the absolute particular changes into ontology, even if it is a scheme of existentials characterized by despair. What
he criticized in Hegel as the attitude of the spectator, what in his work

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is called externalization, objective objectivity, migrates in Kierkegaard


into the fundamental determinations of the subject. Because of this, the
ontologists of the twentieth century were able to easily appropriate for
themselves the critics of ontology from the nineteenth. And in fact for
political purposes. The world of commodities is vindicated as impetus
[Ansto] for the act [Tathandlung] of pure inwardness. T. S. Eliots abominable sentence against socialism, that it aims for an order of things so
absolute that love would no longer be required, is orthodox Kierkegaard.
His discourse on love contains the same claim almost word-for-word. The
vulgar profundity of the present, that, because of its noble pedigree, one
may not touch the evil that entered the world with original sin, is prefigured in Kierkegaard. Yet he owes such motives not simply to the tradition
of his denomination. They are thoroughly philosophically reflected. His
power of attraction is not least explained by the fact that, with the means
of Enlightenment, even in their highest Hegelian form, he disparaged
Enlightenment. He thereby set the stage for a new phase of spirit and toed
the line of its ideology, which transferred his contempt for the world to
his notion of the individual; decried autonomy, which already in Kierkegaard stands under suspicion of hubris; and classed the self-negating
individual as a minion in the collective. Kierkegaard still believed that one
could bring everything into order, just not humankind en masse, as a herd;
the masters of the world have since learned this thoroughly. Without ever
dreaming it, he has contributed to making intellectual good conscience
into the sophisticated obscurantism of the totalitarian periods. His thinking
recommends itself as one that virtually cancels thinking. In the face of
the extensionless point of his dialectic of inwardness, the sacrifice of the
self to whom such sacrifice is entrusted becomes practically contingent.
Certainly significant in this regard is Kierkegaardian obscurantism. He
reviles in science [Wissenschaft] not only the Hegelian absolute knowing,
but also those academic products that substitute the rigmarole of scholarliness for living consciousness. But the dismaying power of Kierkegaard
in his afterlife has as its foundation the fact that a different position than
that of the particular, which he occupied, primarily does not present itself
today to those who protest; and that every immediate identification with
the collective is instantly the untruth to which the position of the particular
unfailingly and primally becomes. Kierkegaard truly became the seducer
whom he so helplessly played in his early work, because the untruth
of the absolute particular and the truth of its resistance are inextricably

64 THEODOR W. ADORNO

entangled with one another. Now would be the time to cut through this
entanglement.
4.
The untruth of Kierkegaard, which allowed him to triumph, is the philosophical. To him philosophy is the negative and necessary condition of his
theology. The structure of his work, of a phenomenology of the individual
spirit animated in itself, attests to that. The adversary of Hegel was under
his spell. Simultaneously, however, he does not have total command of the
Hegelian philosophy and is staggeringly biased, like Oedipal characters
toward father figures. The whole Kierkegaard-contra-Hegel case is, therefore, to be examined anew, as occurs in a significant but still unpublished
work by Hermann Schweppenhuser.7 Kierkegaards understanding of
Hegel, which, with the exception of a short essay by Richard Kroner,8 has
scarcely been pursued hitherto, is problematic, in a way peculiarly similar,
incidentally, to that of Marx. He has greatly misunderstood the central
Hegelian concept, mediation, against which he rails. In Hegel, mediation
proceeds by way of the extremes. That the concept changes from itself into
its contradiction means, in Hegelian terms, that the concept is mediated
in itself. Kierkegaard, however, simply misconstrued Hegelian mediation as the middle point between concepts, a moderate compromise. It
is conceivable that, under the influence of Trendelenburg, he read into
Hegel the Aristotelian concept of the golden mean, the . But the
panacea that he holds out to Hegel is cited verbatim from this; the qualitative leap derives from the preface of the Phenomenology of Spirit. This
is no philosophico-historical or philological trivia, but rather for theory
the weightiest matters of fact. That is to say, while Kierkegaard considers
himself a dialectician and seemingly proceeds dialectically, he neglects
the method to which he has himself sworn an oath, by wielding it without
mediation. His particular falls out from the dialectic and back into pure
immediacy. Kierkegaard does not see that the particular, taken by itself,
is an absolute as little as any other category, but rather includes in itself
as its necessary moment its opposite, that whole whose systematic use in
Hegel he avenges. Actually, however, it is society. Through interiorization,
7. Hermann Schweppenhuser, Kierkegaards Angriff auf Spekulation: Eine Verteidigung (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1967).
8.Richard Kroner. Kierkegaards Hegelverstndnis, Kant-Studien 46 (195455):
1927.

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the individual thereby remains in itself, instead of passing over into its
other, because it is itself already its other. Hegel is falsified as a result, just
like the subject that obdurately persists in the appearance of its for-itselfness, while it always simultaneously remains social being. One could state
accurately that the Kierkegaardian interiority is the Unhappy Consciousness of the Hegelian phenomenology, fixed and pried from the dialectic.
But Kierkegaard thus falls under Hegels unmitigated critique of that step
of spirit. The Unhappy Consciousness, he says,
occupies rather this intermediate position where abstract thinking is in
contact with the individuality of consciousness qua individuality. The
Unhappy Consciousness is this contact; it is the unity of pure thinking
and individuality; also it knows itself to be this thinking individuality or pure thinking, and knows the Unchangeable itself essentially as
an individuality. But what it does not know is that this its object, the
Unchangeable, which it knows essentially in the form of individuality,
is its own self, is itself the individuality of consciousness....Its thinking
as such [as devotion] remains the shapeless clamor of the peal of bells
or a warm brume pervading space, a musical thinking which does not
amount to the concept, which would be the sole immanent, objective
mode of thinking. This infinite, pure inner feeling does indeed come
into possession of its object; but this does not make its appearance in
conceptual form, not as something comprehended, and appears therefore
as something alien. What we have here, then, is the inward movement
of the pure heart which feels itself, but itself as agonizingly self-divided,
the movement of an infinite yearning which is certain that its essence is
such a pure heart, a pure thinking which thinks of itself as a particular
individuality, certain of being known and recognized by this object, precisely because the latter thinks of itself as an individuality. At the same
time, however, this essence is the unattainable beyond which, in being
laid hold of, flees, or rather has already flown. It has already flown; for it
is in part the Unchangeable which thinks of itself as an individuality, and
consciousness therefore directly attains in it its own selfits own self,
but as the antithesis to the Unchangeable; instead of laying hold of the
essence, it only feels it and has fallen back into itself. Since, in attaining
itself, consciousness is unable to get away from itself as this antithesis to
the Unchangeable, it has, instead of laying hold of the essence, only laid
hold of what is unessential. Just as, on the one hand, when striving to find
itself in the essence it takes hold only of its own separate existence, so
on the other hand it cannot lay hold of the other as an individual or as
an actual Being. Where that other is sought, it cannot be found, for it

66 THEODOR W. ADORNO

is supposed to be just a beyond, something that can not be found. When


sought as a particular individual, it is not a universal individuality in the
form of thought, not a concept, but an individual in the form of an object,
or an actual individual; an object of immediate sense-certainty, and for
that very reason only something that has already vanished. Consciousness, therefore, can only find as a present reality the grave of its life.9

Hegel struck a blow to his future mortal enemy by prophetically fabricating him from the movement of his own philosophy, down to his most
idiosyncratic features. If Hegel reproaches the Unhappy Consciousnessas a blind actor opposed to its contextwith abstractness, then the
Kierkegaardian particular becomes even more literally abstract. What its
possible content could be arises from the world, to which the absolute
particular is said to be in absolute opposition. If it refrains completely
from it, then its apparent concretion, that of the pure this-there [Diesda],
becomes something wholly indeterminate. In the construction of Kierkegaards theory, this manifests itself in the absorption of all contentual
determinations into the situation [Lage]from which has arisen the
situation [Situation] of all existentiell and existential [existentiellen
und existentialen] philosophyinto what, for the individual, is a heteronymous and irrational condition, upon which it is again made to depend.
Its content serves contingency. Thus, the fundamental determinations
of the Kierkegaardian individual, its ontology, become negative: in his
terms, demonic. Kierkegaards individual is as little the truth as Hegels
whole. The main thesis of Kierkegaard, that subjectivity is truth, is wholly
idealist. Actually, despite an exceptional effort, his dialectic could not disentangle itself from idealism, to which, by virtue of its tendency toward
an objectless interiority, it belonged. However, in Kierkegaardand it is
already indicative of positivism that Hegel was suppressed immediately
after his deaththe subjectivity of the single person is identified with the
individual, from which Fichte, to whom he in a certain sense returned,
regressing behind Hegel, emphatically distinguished his subject as truth.
Thus is that meaningfulness, which is called Spirit by Idealism and which
cannot be separated by decree from universality, pushed immediately
toward the particular, split windowlessly from universality, encapsulated
in itself. The contradiction is unresolved. Kierkegaard has helped himself
9. G. F. W. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford UP,
1977), pp. 13032, translation modified.

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by arresting and hypostatizing it under the name of the paradox. In that


he also remained a student of Hegel, who restricted the logic of non-contradictoriness. However, whereas Hegelian philosophy aspires to loosen
the knots of contradiction in a process, in Kierkegaard it forcibly brings
itself to resolution. Insofar as his theory is truly against Hegel, it secures
for the moment of the non-identical, in its concept but not its unfolding,
greater due, while in Hegel it indeed leads to dialectic, eventually, however, disappearing in the pure identity of absolute spirit. Kierkegaard has
shattered the staple of the philosophy of identity; exemplarily, because it
occurred immanently, not through the arbitrary positing from without of a
standpoint opposed to Hegel. In the Kierkegaardian concept of the subject,
as that of existence [Existenz], that non-identical real spirited away by the
conception of the pure subject as Spirit in idealism, breaks through. In
this sense, Kierkegaard, who vilified mediation, has emphasized a central
one more strongly than Hegel, who doubtless recognized it: that of the I
by the not-I, that of the constitutive subject by that which, according to an
idealist schema, is considered to have been merely constituted by it. Nevertheless, his theory also remains identity thinking. In it is conceptualized,
spiritualized absolutely as existence [Existenz], that which does not appear
in the concept. He subordinates totality to the principle of existence [Existierens], just as the Idealists subordinate the existing to this totality. The
attempt to break out of idealism has failed, and the thinking that hopes to
escape the totality of the concept is condemned to circle itself hopelessly,
and to incant a meaning incommensurable and alien to it. The most powerful evidence for this is the theory of the self as a relation relating to itself
at the beginning of Sickness unto Death.10 The blasphemy for which he
reproaches Hegel, of linking the absolute, God, to thinking and thereby to
man, he repeats by virtue of the form of his thinking. Through self-negation, it imagines attaining out of its own movement the concept of divinity.
At least according to the construction of Kierkegaards philosophy. In it,
however, it does not remain. That the concept of existence cannot persist at
the extreme of abstraction, toward which the Kierkegaardian dialectic of
interiority drives it, and its content must be borrowed from that externality
from which Kierkegaard turns away, becomes the corrective of this. The
antithesis to the object-world concretizes the concept of existence over
and above that which speculation posits it as. In accord with the content
10. Sren Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H.
Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980), p. 13.

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[Gehalt] of experience, such concretion, the remembrance of the physical


man in place of the construction of a spiritually pure human essence, is
as likely as not what actually concerned Kierkegaard. According to the
measure of philosophy, Lutheran nominalism and the spiritualism of absolute interiority refuse a common denominator; like every nominalism, the
Kierkegaardian one also had its materialist component. As Kierkegaard
had to learn, it is Spirit, taken not to be pure in-itself but rather as secondary
and dependent, not merely of divinity but also of the conditions of empiricism. As soon as he moves from the doctrine of existence to intervention,
in the polemic of The Moment, he becomes aware of the entanglement
of the ruling Christian spirit with the crude interests of those who promulgate and administer it. His existentialism is of a double character: a
metaphysics of the absolute subject that has regressed nominalistically to
the individual, and a cutting attack on the ideology of the system of profit.
In this respect, Kierkegaard marks the top of a pass.
5.
Insofar as he discourses philosophically, however, he reverts back behind
philosophy, whose apparatus is his own. The mythology of the concept has
been imputed to Hegel. But Kierkegaards dialectic is more mythical, in the
manner of a hopeless, self-entangled natural religion. Transcendence, its
one and all, is obliterated by it. Kierkegaard wants to purge transcendence
of all mediating that it shares with the world. Over such demythologization
his absolute becomes its adversary, completely anonymous, threatening
and hopeless like the gods of fate. Indeed the revolt of the defeated beings
of the primeval world echoes distinctly in Kierkegaards renunciation of
the church. If he rattles at the unity of the logos, then that also means
the protest of the many in nature, onto which such unity was imposed.
However, such protest against the oppressive principle itself becomes
entangled in this. That in Kierkegaards Christology, in the face of the
frequently proclaimed dreadfulness and heinousness of Christianity, grace
so greatly fades, follows from his thinking no less than from his darkened
disposition. The paradoxical God-man, irrational and extinguishing all
natural light, forfeits his qualitative specificity with the affinity to man. He
becomes abstract like a concept and ambiguous like a demon, to which the
victims, against their own thinking, must capitulate. They are as unsure
of the redemption as of the secularized world; in Kierkegaard, unbridled
secularization converges for the first time with that mythology which

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secularization itself fails to eradicate. How convincingly he also wanted to


pass judgment on Christianity, even his most pathetic enemies still recognized. His defense of Christendom, against that into which they had made
it, cancels it out. From the ur-Christendom that he has in mind, his own
distinguishes itself by way of the character of absolute reflectiveness carried over from philosophy. Comparison with Tolstoy may elucidate this.
He inquired neither after the source of law nor after tradition, and, tendentially, comported himself toward Christendom as if the instruction of
the Gospel for leading a righteousand in Tolstoy, that essentially meant
natural and nonviolentlife admitted of no other alternative, provided
that one generally has a good will. Indeed, Kierkegaards argumentation
against those who refuse to bow to Christendom is occasionally reminiscent of this. But his own attitude resembles in no way that of the apostolic
discipleship, and he has, with great intellectual integrity, not claimed this
for himself. As for religion, it comes to him not through an irresistible
model, but rather through a process of thought that finally breaks thinking,
as the finite thinking of the finite creature [Kreatur], and reserves truth
for what can no longer be thought and what contradicts thinking absolutely. This process, however, cannot of its own accord terminate in the
content of the doctrine of Christendom; it would be, with respect to such
a dialectic, as arbitrary as any other process. Christian dogma remains
the blind spot of Kierkegaardian reflection, being neither revelation nor
idea. But [it is] thus the product of the world that he absolutely rejects. He
comes from the tradition that the anti-church doctrine of absolute simultaneity negates. The origin of Kierkegaards Christendom is what he would
least of all allow himself to be, that which was instilled in him. Fatherly
authority, the religion of our fathersthese he not infrequently invokes.
A relation to nature becomes strictly the condition of his supernaturalism.
He rightly comes close to consciousness of that in the postscript to the first
great attack on Mynster, published in December 1854. The deceased was
the distress of my life, because Kierkegaard was brought up by my late
father on Mynsters sermons, and also out of devotion to my late father,
honored this false bill of exchange instead of protesting it.11 From here it
would be only a step to the critique of Kierkegaards own Christendom. It
would have led him to the cryptic and still inadequately elaborated connection between tradition and knowledge and to the question of whether
religion without tradition is in general possible: Yet alone as I am nothing
11.Kierkegaard, The Moment, p. 8.

70 THEODOR W. ADORNO

thats godlike rings true [Aber so einsam fehlt jegliches Gttliche


mir].12 He could face it as speculative philosopher as little as he could the
direct authority of the biblical word as theologian. By forswearing reflection in the face of such authority, and out of reflection, he posited himself
as a natural being, child of a father he both loved and hated, answering to
the description of one who is said to be caught up in every natural relation. Lurking narrowly beneath the humility of genius, which, compared
to that of the apostle, reveals itself to be nothing, is the hubris of one who
locks himself into what he simply is. The cry for God turns into the cry
of defiance. Existence [Existenz] wants to force transcendence into being
by conjuring it up. In the end, the naked, immediate identity of the self
that hardens itself will not dissolve in the knowledge of its mediatedness.
The similes drawn from Nordic mythology, with which his work up until
his last writings is awash, are more than metaphors; they are traces of an
underground tradition as irreconcilable with Christendom as with philosophy. The mythical layer, the innermost of the interior, would likely open
itself fully only to an analysis of his language. It is one of intentional and
cryptic repetition. Its archetype, on the far side of dialectic, is the echo,
which unites the authority of the specific sound with illusion, because it
is nothing other than the very voice of the listener. The echo bespeaks
a spell. It is, philosophically, that of the self-made thought. Kierkegaard
escapes from it but only to fall prey to semblance [Schein], persisting in
his mythic diffidence. Rebelling against the coercion of identity and the
unity with which the subject enslaves the not-I, he was chained to that
subject, which has no other way of determining itself as essential than
through unity, identity with itself. The Kierkegaardian cosmos splits into
a total indeterminacy and the identity principle of selfhood, as in idealism, that he denounces. To that, to his own mythology, he was mythically
blind. In his polemic against Martensen, he referred to the piece Alferne
by Heiberg. In this it happens, as is well known, that schoolteacher Grimmermann quite unintentionally plunges 70,000 fathoms underground and
even more unexpectedly, if possible, than his fall was unintentional, he
finds himself surrounded by mountain trolls. What nonsense, says Grimmermann, Mountain trolls dont existand here is my certificate. But,
alas, to come to mountain trolls with a royal certificate is a waste of effort;
what the devil do mountain trolls care about a royal certificate? Their
12. Friedrich Hlderlin, Menons Lament for Diotima, in Selected Poems and
Fragments, trans. Michael Hamburger (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 131.

KIERKEGAARD ONCE MORE 71

kingdom is not of this world. For them, of course, a royal certificate = 0,


at most has the value of the paper.13 He compared himself with the mountain trolls: But to comeChristianlyto me and people like me with a
royal certificate is to come just as successfully as Grimmermann did with
his certificate.14 He has consorted with the spirits of the earth, whose
voice lures the next-in-line into the abyss to his demise. Kierkegaards
irresistible voice fools him who entrusts himself to him: he knew why he
wanted no followers.
6.
Still irresistible, however, is his voice, by virtue of its truth content.
The regressive, unconscious rise of the natural religion as the repressed
inner and outer human nature of its deputy wins for him all the more
power when the protest, catching fire in the dry air of the Kierkegaardian interiority, nowhere expresses itselfas if it were naturebut rather
expresses unwaveringly the distance from it. The world in the face of
which Kierkegaard held the Christian doctrine that pretends to have realized itthis world in which the subject, as he called it, came to an end
is the society of high capitalism, which, at the same time, without the
two thinkers knowing one another, Marx analyzed. Against the absolute
being-for-another of the commodity world, the absolute being-for itself of
the Kierkegaardian individual is conceived. In its perverted form, this is
the imprint of the perverted form of the whole. Therefore, Kierkegaards
critique is not obsolete, not even that of his church, with whose dogmatism he was morbidly fascinated. He did not want to mislead for the sake
of the truth, as when jazz is played in mass just to keep the youth from
becoming too bored. The currently popular word short devotional [Kurzandacht] is like a Kierkegaardian nightmare. In the church upon which
he cast his idiosyncratic gaze, he was arguably the first to discover the
phenomenon of neutralization. Severed from the potential of its own actualization, Spirit is incorporated [eingegliedert], or as one enthusiastically
says today, integrated [integriert] into, culture as commodity, and finally
reduced to a commodity itself, to something absolutely detached. Unrivaled, Kierkegaards parable for this recurs in the second number of The
Moment: While one is comfortably riding along in the train, one reads
in the handbook, Here is the frightful Wolf Ravine, where one plunges
13. Kierkegaard, The Moment, p. 54.
14.Ibid.

72 THEODOR W. ADORNO

70,000 fathoms down under the earth; while one is sitting and smoking a
cigar in the cozy dining car, one reads in the handbook, Here is the hideout of a robber that attacks and beats up travelershere it is, that is, here
it was, since now (how amusing to imagine how it was), now it is not the
Wolf Ravine but a railroad, and not a robber band but a cozy dining car.15
Kierkegaard did not want to play along. Because in the narrow and provincial relations of his country he saw nothing that would have been able to
escape such neutralization, and because he rightly predicted it as the fate
of the world, he created hope against hope, through paradox, his notion of
revolution, of what would not arise in the logic of things, but rather would
break through it. In its displacement into the interior, the supremacy of this
fatal logic is already foreshadowed, stifling the possible. Should it already
be so, then at least he would not want to conform, as, in the meantime, the
spell dictates; his main allegation against the deceased Bishop Mynster
was that he had a gift for conforming.16 His outr conservatism, which in
the end did not deter him from speaking dryly of what exists [Bestehenden] instead of what grows beyond it [Auswchsen] and from damning
the existing, thereby gains an unexpected dimension. Because in a purely,
inexorably self-justifying liberalism he caught sight more of the misery
that it causes its victims than of the progress it uses to console them about
it, he would sooner sympathize with the condemned than with the victors,
the more powerful battalions of world history. Just how little sense his
conservatism makes is revealed in the effect of his attack. The sole answer
of which the Bishop Martensen deemed him worthy epitomizes the bleating of the persisting, consolidated majority against those who differ; he
might as well be called Nietzsche, or Karl Kraus, or something similar. If
Kierkegaard restricts the title of truth-witness to martyrs, then the Bishop
asks him: But whatever can it be that justifies his restricting the concept
in such an arbitrary way, contrary to all ecclesiastical usage.17 Banging
the drum for the institution, he conceals the crucial question with the gesture of the Yes, automated ever since, and with fraudulent purity through
formal questions of definition. If one wanted to follow Kierkegaard, then,
Martensen thinks, horribile dictu, one would have to give up the article in
our catechism [that we learned as children]: the navet of the dear little
ones must already serve as pretext for the contented inanity of the mature.
15. Ibid., p. 123.
16. Ibid., p. 25.
17. Ibid., p. 361.

KIERKEGAARD ONCE MORE 73

If Kierkegaard claims that the sign of the truth-witness is suffering, then


Martensen chimes in that it must be pointed out..., a tried and tested
linguistic gesture. Kierkegaards radicalism is said to be eccentric; if
that mobilizes all spiritual power against him, then such radicalism may
be nothing other than refinement of vanity. Martensen already has at
his disposal the sophism that suspects the labor of Spiritwhich when
dead serious, it expects of itself and of othersof being the means of the
incriminated for self-aggrandizement. Against him who is disgusted by
the prevailing awful state of things, the bishop complains that he drags
the highest goods through the dirt. He has found there sentences that not
only could appear in an Ibsen play, but could still presently serve as a
model for those like him. But as I see him hurling invectives against
one of our fatherlands noblest men, against a man he himself formerly
acknowledged as his teacher, his spiritual benefactor, as I see him like a
Thersites at the heros grave, I concede that by his graveside conduct he
will most certainly achieve his aimnamely, to offend many. But please
note that not only heavenly truth and love can offend people, but also conscienceless untruth and injustice, also the unclean and undisciplined spirit,
also the flippancy that plays with the venerable, plays with a mans own
better feeling.18 Everything official is disgrace, which Theodor Haecker
learned from Kierkegaard. A note from his journal suffices to reveal today
the attitude that found in Martensen one of its first spokesmen: The New
Testament contains the divine truth. Just as high as this is above all errors,
extravagances, etc., so low are mediocrity, chatter, pettiness, and blather
beneath every one-sidedness. But since blather nevertheless has the characteristic of not being one-sided, it capitalizes on this by passing itself off
as the truly divine, which stands high above all one-sidedness.19 Thus are
they ever opposed to one-sidedness. No one says that Kierkegaards hatred
of what exists is too abstract. One only need properly imagine Martensen
in order to know whom and what it goes against, which has long since
ceased to be the Danish Lutheran Church. In determinate negation Kierkegaard, according to his own language, emerged from interiority. If as
totality and system, the whole was to him the absolute deception, then he
took on the whole in which he himself was stuck just like everyone else.
That is exemplary of him. Ever since he collapsed in the street, nothing
more modestly spiritual would any longer suffice: he has potentiated the
18. Ibid., p. 365.
19. Ibid., p. 455.

74 THEODOR W. ADORNO

Pascalian On ne doit plus dormir. The Kierkegaardian curve is the converse of the Brechtian Yea-sayer, whom the collective wants to cheat into
believing that assent above all is important to learn. After Kierkegaard
there can no longer be friendship with the world, because by affirming the
world as it is, it eternalizes the bad in it and precludes it from becoming
what would be loved. Someone around to see Karl Kraus expel, through
his pure words, Imre Bekessy from Vienna in 1925, still experienced
something of the concrete violence of what in Kierkegaard appears so
abstractly and in such a monomaniacal form: the power of powerlessness.