Kierkegaard on Popular Opinion, the Petty Jealousies of Criticism, and the Only Cure for Embitterment in Creative Work
By Maria Popova
“Publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist,” Susan Sontag admonished in 1969. More than a century earlier, another sage of the ages and one of Sontag’s greatest influences made the same point in far less ambiguous terms in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — the same fantastic volume that gave us the Danish philosopher’s prescient insights on why haters hate and why we conform to peer pressure.
Writing in 1843, long before our present age of relentless self-promotion and its tyranny of the “personal brand,” Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) laments:
Really, an author’s lot has gradually deteriorated to be the most wretched state of all. An author ordinarily must present himself … hat in hand, bowing and cringing, recommending himself with fine letters of introduction. How stupid: one who writes must understand that about which he writes better than he who reads; otherwise he would not write.
Or one must manage to become a shrewd little pocket-lawyer proficient at gulling the public. — That I will not do, no I won’t; no I won’t — no, the Devil take the whole caboodle. I write the way I want to, and that’s the way it’s going to be; the rest can do what they like, they can stop buying, stop reading, stop reviewing, etc.
Reviewers, in fact, had a special place in Kierkegaard’s heart — if he viewed self-appointed critics with pity, he reserved only the utmost contempt for the professional kind:
I loathe a literary critic as much as an ambulant barber-journeyman who runs after me with his shaving-bowl, which he uses for the beards of all his clients, and then dabs my face all over with his wet fingers.
But the greatest threat to the written word, Kierkegaard believed, were writers themselves. One can only imagine what he would have made of today’s listicles and content-farmed mediocrity as he bemoans the business of letters:
In our day and age book-writing has become so poor, and people write about matters which they have never given any real thought, let alone experienced.
Everyone today can write a fairly decent article about all and everything; but no one can or will bear the strenuous work of following through a single solitary thought into the most tenuous logical ramifications. Instead, writing trivia is particularly appreciated today, and whoever writes a big book almost invites ridicule. In former days people read big books, and if they did read pamphlets or periodicals they did not quite like to admit it. Now everyone feels duty bound to read what is printed in a periodical or a pamphlet, but is ashamed to have read a big book through to the end, and he fears he may be considered weak in the head.
He arrives at the only logical conclusion, resolving:
I therefore have decided to read only the writings of men who have been executed or have risked their lives in some way.
In another diary entry from 1846, Kierkegaard finds himself once again appalled by the business of literature and returns to the subject with renewed dismay:
Today the fees even for authors of repute are very small, whereas the tips being dropped in the hats of literary hacks are very considerable. The more contemptible a man of letters is today, the more money he earns.
And yet for Kierkegaard — as for anyone as deeply bestirred by the commercial assault on the written word — the only antidote to this deplorable commodification of creativity is the “spiritual electricity” of creative work itself. In an other entry from 1846, he writes:
I need the enchantment of creative work to help me forget life’s mean pettinesses.
A year later, he revisits this insight with rekindled passion:
Only when I write do I feel well. Then I forget all of life’s vexations, all its sufferings, then I am wrapped in though and am happy. If I stop for a few days, right away I become ill, overwhelmed and troubled; my head feels heavy and burdened.
It is hard and depressing that as a result of all this toil one becomes the butt of the craven jealousy of the aristocracy and of the mockery of the populace! … [But] being an author … is not self-chosen; it is concomitant with everything in my individuality and its deepest urge.
The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard remains a spectacular read, brimming with the Danish philosopher’s enduring ideas on writing, melancholy, anxiety, spirituality, science, and the creative experience. Complement it with Kierkegaard on the power of the minority, the benefits of boredom, and our greatest source of unhappiness.
Published May 5, 2015