The Laughter of the Philosophers.

David Bentley Hart, who has featured at LH before (2012, 2018), back in 2005 wrote a review for First Things of Thomas C. Oden’s The Humor of Kierkegaard that is worth reading if perhaps too long (which is basically his judgment on Oden’s book). He writes:

Thomas Oden’s generous anthology, The Humor of Kierkegaard, is a sequel to his deservedly popular collection of 1978, Parables of Kierkegaard. Unlike its predecessor, though, it is—in Oden’s own words—intended “as entertainment with no noble purpose.” But it is also, in a sense, a compilation of evidences, offered in support of a very large claim. In his introduction, Oden throws down a “gauntlet”: He challenges the reader to assemble a collection of passages from any ten major philosophers as funny as those he has compiled from Kierkegaard’s writings; furthermore, he makes bold provisionally—until this challenge is met—to declare Kierkegaard “as, among philosophers, the most amusing.” Now, as I have intimated already, I am prone to regard this as a distinction rather like that of owning “the finest restaurant in South Bend, Indiana”: The quality of the competition renders the achievement somewhat ambiguous. Despite which, I am not entirely convinced that Oden makes an incontrovertible case. […]

Kierkegaard’s writings—taken in themselves—provide Oden with wonderfully rich sources of plunder, especially the early pseudonymous works, with their thickets of prefaces, interludes, interjections, postscripts, appendices, multiple voices, and preposterous names, not to mention their sinuous coils of indirection. […] Either/Or emerges as the most fertile and delightful of Kierkegaard’s literary achievements in this regard, though almost all the early books abound in comic invention. And, as a whole, this collection can be recommended, for light or serious reading alike. That said, while I enjoyed this anthology thoroughly, I nevertheless came away from it still somewhat unconvinced regarding Oden’s high claims for Kierkegaard; and I find myself still inclined to ask whether Kierkegaard was really the nonpareil humorist that Oden makes him out to be.

There follows an excessively detailed discussion of purported examples of Kierkegaard’s humor, which leave this reader, at least, convinced that Hart’s doubts are well founded. But he saves the best, which has nothing to do with the book under review, for the last; the final chunk of the essay, perhaps a third of it, is devoted to the amazing J. G. Hamann (featured at LH a decade ago):

Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88) is, by any measure, an obscure figure, little known outside the exclusive circles of a certain very rarefied kind of scholarship, hardly read at all even in his native Germany, and perhaps truly understood by next to no one. And yet it would be difficult to exaggerate not only the immensity of his influence upon all the great European intellectual and cultural movements of his age, but his continued significance for philosophers and theologians. […] That Hamann suffers so much neglect, one must concede, is largely the result of the willfully hermetic impenetrability of his most important works. His humor is not, it must be said, immediately accessible: his style quite often resembles that of Laurence Sterne or James Joyce, and is full of eccentric, apparently perverse, and somewhat demented textual games; his prose is intentionally obscure, overflowing with classical references, cryptic metaphors, and convoluted pranks. It is not hyperbole to say that Hamann’s writings constitute probably the most difficult body of literature within the German language: they are brief, compressed, manic, irrepressibly inventive, at once diffuse and piercing, and almost occult in their impregnability. […]

At its most unrestrained, his voice is mercurial, Heracleitean, vatic, even sibylline; and even in his own day he was spoken of as “enigmatical,” “dark,” the “Magus in the North.” He admitted that he could not help but speak “the language of Sophists, of puns, of Cretans and Arabians, of wise men and Moors and Creoles” and “babble a confusion of criticism, mythology, rebuses, and axioms.” To Hamann, it was obvious that the Age of Reason—which, to his mind, was an age of deepest darkness—required a prose of almost insoluble opacity. It was to his masterpiece, the Aesthetica in Nuce, that Hamann gave the subtitle “A Rhapsody in Kabbalistic Prose,” but he might have attached it to almost everything he wrote.

Admittedly, it would be all but impossible to assemble an anthology of Hamann’s wit and wisdom like the one Oden has created for Kierkegaard. Hamann’s humor consists so much in ludicrous involutions of thought and language, and in the cumulative effect of one absurdity heaped atop another, and in the almost sweetly earnest obliviousness of a voice like that of a holy fool that one must almost entirely immerse oneself in his imaginative world in order to enjoy the fruits of his comic genius. One need only attempt to describe the lunatic intricacies of Hamann’s prose to realize how impossible it is adequately to convey a sense of its frenzied ingenuity.

For instance, one of Hamann’s works composed in French is a sardonically fawning open letter to Frederick the Great (whose superstitious servility to the mythology of Enlightenment reason Hamann particularly detested) called To the Solomon of Prussia, a text so savage and unrestrained in its mockery that no one would publish it when it was first written for fear of the state censor. Hamann’s last attempt to get it printed was through C. F. Nicolai in Berlin; and when Nicolai failed to respond to his request, Hamann published an exquisitely deranged feuilleton called Monologue of an Author under the ridiculous “Chinese” pseudonym Mien-Man-Hoam. This at least prompted Nicolai to send Hamann an official rejection. But this rejection, in turn, prompted Hamann to compose and publish a piece called To the Witch at Kadmanbor, a “letter” supposedly written by Nicolai to an old sorceress, asking her to translate Hamann’s Monologue from the Chinese of the “Mandarin” who wrote it [—] a letter that, midway through its course, suddenly becomes a delirious monologue of its own (in which the witch now appears as the Fury Alecto, but with two faces, “a calf’s eye like Juno’s, and the watery eye of an owl”) before concluding with the recommendation that Hamann be forced like his illustrious ancestor Haman—from the book of Esther—to mount the scaffold. Now, honestly, there is no way to appreciate such apparently Bedlamite ravings (if one is indeed able to do so at all) except taken in their totality.

What a character! I will also single out Schopenhauer’s hard-hearted but clever “Anus obit, onus abit” (see the first paragraph for the story) and Hart’s calling existentialism “perhaps the most annoying philosophical movement to arrive on the continental scene before the advent of post-structuralism” (I can only agree). Thanks, Trevor!


  1. John Cowan says

    My view is that Laozi is the funniest of all philosophers (Dao De Jing 41):

    Thoughtful hackers hear about Unix
      and try to use it.
    Ordinary hackers hear about Unix
      and mess about with it a little.
    Thoughtless hackers hear about Unix
      and crack wise about it.
    It wouldn’t be Unix
      if there weren’t wisecracks about it.

    So we establish the following rules:

    The most brilliant Unix seems the most obscure.
    Advanced Unix seems like retrocomputing.
    The most powerful code seems like just loops and conditionals.
    The clearest code seems to be opaque.
    The sharpest tools seem inadequate.
    Solid code seems flaky.
    Stable code seems to change.

    Great methodologies don’t have boundaries.
    Great talent doesn’t code fast.
    Great music makes no sound.
    The ideal elephant has no shape.
    The Unix Way has no name.

    Yet for just this reason
      it brings things to perfection.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    # to declare Kierkegaard “as, among philosophers, the most amusing.” Now, as I have intimated already, I am prone to regard this as a distinction rather like that of owning “the finest restaurant in South Bend, Indiana”#

    # It is not hyperbole to say that Hamann’s writings constitute probably the most difficult body of literature within the German language: #

  3. to be both a “lover of wisdom” and an accomplished humorist, one must almost certainly be a Christian; or, rather, that only a Christian philosophy can be truly “comic.”

    He hasn’t heard of Sidney Morgenbesser, then.

  4. David Marjanović says

    South Bend, IN, has become an interesting choice of example…

    exquisitely deranged

    + 1

    a transgression than which (as anyone familiar with his essay on noise should know) nothing could have vexed him more

    Now that’s interesting grammar!

  5. This article appears in David Bentley Hart’s book, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments, published in 2009 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing.

    Hart certainly has a way with words (I would struggle to write anything approaching that — “weasand”, “obtundently”, “caliginous”, “Heracleitean”, “vatic”, “sibylline” indeed) but it’s marred by the overuse of arch little expressions like “I for one”, “more nearly accords with”, “failed to see”, “somewhat”, “purely”, “could scarcely provide”, “perhaps the single most”, “grindingly”, “little more than”, “to put it simply”, “one does well not to”, “none more notable”, “a certain”, “willfully”, “peculiarly”, “few … can boast”, “If he was ever”, “renders”, “Indeed”, “one might be pardoned for”, “nevertheless”, “apparently”, “I am almost tempted” — these just from the first few paragraphs. It’s a style best taken in small doses.

  6. it’s marred by the overuse of arch little expressions

    Yes, he has a fatal attraction to that style. Like so many smart people, he needs an editor.

  7. John Cowan says
  8. David Eddyshaw says

    to be both a “lover of wisdom” and an accomplished humorist, one must almost certainly be a Christian; or, rather, that only a Christian philosophy can be truly “comic”

    A kind editor might also have gently pointed out that a moment’s reflection would reveal that this is very obviously just plain false (unless you forcibly adjust the meaning of “truly” in order to make it a tautology.)

    Spot on re Isaiah Berlin, mind. A philosopher for PPE students.

  9. I think a truly kind editor would have said they were unwilling to publish such obviously bigoted codswallop.

Speak Your Mind