Out of the mouth of the old order

“In 1619, male and female far servants (karler and piger) in Denmark who were dissatisfied with their wages or terms of employment could immediately be put into irons and sent to a public works or to a spin-house. Stavnsband, a compuslsory residence system for males aged between 18 and 36 (intended to secure the supply of soldiers and labour force), was extended in 1742 to cover peasant boys from eight years up, and two decades later the lower age limit fell further to four years.” [Centuries of child labour: European experiences from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, 55]

We forget how often our nineteen century ‘thinkers’ lived in the aftermath of the hot breath of the ancien regime, which had burned their parents and grandparents. This was especially the case with Soren Kierkegaard, who carried within him the anguish of his father, Michael – or rather, Michael as the boy Soren never knew, one of the karler, a shepherd boy who cried out in the harsh night and loneliness of the Jutland plain.

The divide between Western Europe and Eastern Europe in the 18th century was deepened by the fact that in the East, serfdom was strengthened, and continued to be the dominant mode of production for the agricultural sector, while in the West, serfdom was more and more reduced to a series of symbols, which were themselves under attack. Denmark stands out in this picture because – though by position and by its bourgeoisie – it should have been a western nation, its serf system kept getting harsher. Nearly destroyed in 1660 when the Swedes overwhelmingly defeated the Danish armies, Denmark reconstructed itself on the bones of aristocratic power. The king, siding with Copenhagen’s Bürger, took on ‘absolute’ powers and – as was the 18th century pattern – gradually commodified space and labor.

“The events of 1660 led to a radical transformation of the government of Denmark: the administration was modified and in all the general situation of the state found itself ameliorated. From the social point of view, this did not have all the consequences one might have expected. Assuredly the inequality between classes was diminished and the bourgeoisie came closer to the landed nobility. The noble lands ceased to be so much charged with taxes; the fate of the peasants were not modified at all; on the contrary, their situation worsened.” [Histoire générale du IVe siècle à nos jours, Volume 6 by Alfred Rambaud, 618]

Brandes book on Kierkegaard, one of the first major studies, rightly begins by emphasizing the relationship between Michael and Soren, which – like all intense family relationships – sucked in the surrounding history, and carved out a past for the child to carry:

Soren Kiekegaard was the child of old parents; he was born old, he grew up as an old-clever child, who began to brood over himself at such a young age, that it came to him in later life as if he had been neither a child nor a youth, that is, neither without a consciousness nor a care. “My unhappiness,” he said with one of those twisting phrases that he loved, “ was, both from birth and strengthening into my education: not to be an adult man.” He meant by this, that he was a spirit, a very inordinate and comprehensive expression, in order to say something particular about one individual. … in old barbaric times one might perhaps have found this all to unchildish kid to be a changeling, that the fairies had laid in the cradle.”

And so it happens that one shepherd boy in this culture that has long operated as a Moloch to such shepherd boys – one that has long made them the object of suspicion and accusation (literally – contemporary researchers have been surprised, mining the criminal archives of Europe, that bestiality outranks sodomy in those files, and the shepherd boy is often accused) – gets an opportunity. Much like a character in Balzac, he is the beneficiary of the attenuated but still active family network that connects the country to the city, the pious harsh Jutland peasant to the drygoods store in Copehagen. It was wool and the small colonial commodities (the song of sugar, spice, tobacco all over again – our familiar spirits) that made Michael Kierkegaard a relatively well off man.

But – according to his son – at the center of that story of upward mobility is a small boy cursing God on a Jutland Heath.

I want this rural background, since the next threads – mostly about Kierkegaard and boredom – are going to be very urban. We forget that rural sorrows and terrors are carried to the city as much as the city reciprocates with spices and money.


Anonymous said…
LI, have your read SR' piece called Solomon's Dream. If not, check it out.

Anonymous said…
oops, I mean't of course SK, Kierkegaard's text Solomon's Dream.

roger said…
Amie, any suggestions you'd make are welcome! I have an idea that the thread I have in mind here is going to be particularly tortuous.
Anonymous said…
hey, just read the above post on your heading West to a secret destination and fleeing all responsibilities, way!
I wish I had some suggestions for the trip - could you consider a detour to the Canyon de Chelly?

Nor do I have any great suggestions for this post, though I did mention the SK text Solomon's Dream. I thought of it because of the questions in the post of fathers and sons, servants and fairies.

Solomon's Dream does of course refer to fathers and sons but there are lots of goings on in the short text. Inheritance(s) and generation(s), memory and forgetting, judgement and guilt, nightmare and trauma, confession and secrets, omnipotence and impotence....

In recounting the (hi)story of Solomon and David, the narrator does not say a word of the mother. Not a word of Bathsheba.

Soren Kierkegaard hardly mentioned his mother in all of his writing. Anne Lund Kierkegaard was apparently not well-educated and a servant in the household of the merchant Michael Pederson Kierkegaard before she became his second wife shortly after the death of the first one, and gave birth to a boy four months after their marriage.

Elsewhere, in the famous passages of Fear and Trembling, SK writes of Abraham's terrible secret re the sacrifice of his son Isaac. He would like to tell Isaac. "First and foremost, he [Abraham] does not say anything, and in that form he says what he has to say. His response to Isaac is in the form of irony, for it is always irony when I say something and still do not say anything."

So Abraham doesn't need to say anything, even say without saying "ironically", to Sarah. Not a word to or of the mother then. Let's not be too sure. As SK also "knew" when he wrote of repetition. Or while writing Solomon's dream.

I'm going to cut short this comment, though let me wish you a great trip. And I'm going to quote a poem in a second comment as it wouldn't fit in this one.

Anonymous said…
The Woman That Had More Babies Than That
by Wallace Stevens

An acrobat on the border of the sea
Observed the waves, the rising and the swell
And the first line spreading up the beach; again,
The rising and the swell, the preparation
And the first line foaming over the sand; again,
The rising and the swell, the first line’s glitter,
Like a dancer’s skirt, flung round and settling down.
This was repeated day by day. The waves
Were mechanical, muscular. They never changed,
They never stopped, a repetition repeated
Continually—There is a woman has had
More babies than that. The merely revolving wheel
Returns and returns, along the dry, salt shore.
There is a mother whose children need more than that.
She is not the mother of landscapes but of those
That question the repetition on the shore,
Listening to the whole sea for a sound
Of more or less, ascetically sated
By amical tones.
The acrobat observed
The universal machine. There he perceived
The need for a thesis, a music constant to move.

Berceuse, transatlantic. The children are men, old men,
Who, when they think and speak of the central man,
Of the humming of the central man, the whole sound
Of the sea, the central humming of the sea,
Are old men breathed on by a maternal voice,
Children and old men and philosophers,
Bald heads with their mother’s voice still in their ears.
The self is a cloister full of remembered sounds
And of sounds so far forgotten, like her voice,
That they return unrecognized. The self
Detects the sound of a voice that doubles its own,
In the images of desire, the forms that speak,
The ideas that come to it with a sense of speech.
The old men, the philosophers, are haunted by that
Maternal voice, the explanation at night.
They are more than parts of the universal machine.
Their need in solitude: that is the need,
The desire, for the fiery lullaby.

And a couple of songs, if I may, for your trip.



roger said…
I love love love that Wallace Stevens poem. That eternally surprising man!