D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Third Period: The Corsair Affair (1845-46)

The Activity Of A Traveling Esthetician

  • The Activity of a Traveling Esthetician and How He Still Happened to Pay for the Dinner
  • En omreisende Æsthetikers Virksomhed, og hvorledes han dog kom til at betale Gjæstebudet
  • Frater Taciturnus
  • December 27, 1845
  • KW13, SKS13, SV13, Fædrelandet 2078


Kierkegaard would engage in three literary battles during his lifetime. The first was an encounter with Orla Lehmann and Johannes Hage, when Kierkegaard was in his early twenties. The final battle would be the so-called Attack Upon Christendom, which concluded with his death. This second battle is the so-called Corsair Affair, and was the greatest literary battle in Danish history.

On December 22, 1845 P. L. Møller published a slipshod critique of Stages On Life's Way in his Gæa, Aesthetic Yearbook 1846. Though the article praised the work in a fashion, it was evident that he did not grasp what Kierkegaard was doing. Kierkegaard launched his assault on Møller for two reasons: he wanted to defend his Stages, and he wanted to discredit a man whom he saw as opportunistic. Møller's opportunism was a two-sided coin. He was seeking a chair at the university even while secretly publishing his articles in The Corsair (Corsaren). Kierkegaard's retaliation in The Fatherland (Fædrelandet) on December 27 thus disclosed what some informed people already suspected.

The Corsair was a weekly satirical paper that lampooned people of repute, and was derided as a disreputable scandal sheet. Not surprisingly, it was read surreptitiously by many. Its editor was Meïr Aaron Goldschmidt (1819-1887), who was Kierkegaard's junior by several years and an admirer of his keen, dialectical wit. But Kierkegaard wanted to accomplish more than discredit Møller. He wanted to distance Goldschmidt from The Corsair because he felt that Goldschmidt was capable of greater things. He also wanted to bring down the paper.

While Kierkegaard's article had the desired effect of damaging Møller's career—he never achieved his hoped-for chair at the university—it resulted in a personal assault on Kierkegaard's person. Although Kierkegaard himself literally invited this assault in both of his articles during this period, the assault went beyond what he had imagined. The Corsair began to lampoon him in return with caricatures—making fun of his appearance, voice, and habits. Prior to these events Kierkegaard had never been unfavorably depicted in its pages. In fact, The Corsair had praised his pseudonyms Victor Eremita and Hilarius Bookbinder. However, The Corsair did in fact exhaust itself, so to speak, after a couple years, with Goldschmidt leaving. And while the paper continued for a few more years, it was never the same again.

Altogether Kierkegaard wrote only two articles in his attack. The opposition sustained its attack in several articles covering the period of many months. Kierkegaard's dialectical wit and superior intellect are evident in his pieces, whereas the articles deriding him are manifestly silly. However, their effect on Kierkegaard and the public was profound. This very public individual, who would stroll the streets all day long—he wrote voraciously in the evening and night—found himself to be the object of ridicule. Children would taunt him with cries of "either-or".

The following quote from Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (see Upbuilding Discourses In Various Spirits) seems to allude to the time when Kierkegaard was ridiculed in The Corsair.

Alas, often enough such an unfortunate person, in addition to this heavy, innocent suffering must bear the severe judgment of the arrogant, the busy, and the stupid, who are indeed able to irritate and hurt him, but who can never understand him (p. 124f.).

The following journal entry is from September, 1846, months after Kierkegaard had had time to reflect upon the entire affair.

It was ironically correct for me to live so much on the streets and lanes while writing the pseudonyms. The irony lay quite properly in belonging to a completely different sphere qua author, while keeping to the streets and markets. The irony was directed at the intellectually affected Hegelian forces we have here at home, or had. But as soon as there is an attempt from another quarter, that of the literary hooligans, to make it look as though I really belonged to the street, then the irony quite rightly disappears and so I take my leave. If Goldschmidt had himself realized this and played a joke on me on his own—well, then he would have amounted to something. But I had to challenge him myself—and quite properly did so only when I was finished. If P. L. Møller's article had appeared a month earlier he would have received no reply. At that time I could still not have avoided the situation, but nor, as long as I was actually productive, could I have risked exposing myself to the disturbances that could very well result from the drivelling (VII I A 147).

His decision to cease his authorship in 1846 led some to conclude that The Corsair Affair was the deciding factor. This is contradicted by the fact that his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, which was to conclude his authorship, was completed before The Corsair Affair. Kierkegaard counters this error in his journals.

As I say, the only thing that really pains me is that anyone can think of linking my ceasing to be an author with this latest nonsense. It was a joy to keep on working in obedience to my idea in this way without entering into personal relations with anyone, not bothering with any worldly concerns, just serving the idea. And I was so happy that the end should be like the beginning, that I knew how to stop and give up that kind of activity completely. I have altogether succeeded. Yet perhaps it would have been detrimental if people had really understood this—so let them delude themselves into thinking that I could let some petty consideration decide it (VII I A 114).

The summary of the affair is as follows. Other, lesser articles exist from this period, including some of unknown authorship, but variously attributed to him. Barfod thought these worthy of inclusion in the appendix of Af Søren Kierkegaards Efterladte Papirer.

  1. P. L. Møller's article in Gæa entitled "A Visit in Søro"
  2. Kierkegaard responds in this article, "The Activity Of A Traveling Esthetician"
  3. P. L. Møller's reply in The Fatherland
  4. Goldschmidt's first Corsair article
  5. Kierkegaard's second and final reply, "The Dialectical Result of a Literary Police Action"
  6. A string of articles published in The Corsair

The Article

In this article Kierkegaard used the pseudonym Frater Taciturnus, since he was the "author" of the third portion of the Stages which was panned by P. L. Møller. Here he exposed Møller's association with The Corsair as a writer, which was sufficient to hurt his career irrevocably. The title refers to Møller's visit to C. Hauch, who was a teacher at the Søro Academy. Møller seems to have written the article to give the impression that Hauch joined him in his views against Kierkegaard. Møller is a bit unfair, because after giving this impression, he criticizes Kierkegaard for assuming it to be so, and in a later article challenges his readers to find any reference to this alleged event!

Kierkegaard responds to Møller's critique. The term "imaginative constructor" refers to the task of Frater Taciturnus in Stages On Life's Way, who constructed a hypothetical situation to underscore the approach to the religious stage.

When an imaginative constructor, who, as a rule, thank God, feels very well, lives in an age when all have doubted everything, overcome doubt, made their way through reflection, found mediation, left religion behind as surmounted presumably by leaving out its terrors, he pricks up his ears and thinks there must be trouble in the wind (p. 42).

The reference to doubting everything refers primarily to Descartes' philosophy. The phrase "overcome doubt" refers to Hegel's speculative philosophy which sought to absorb all things into the "system". Hegel felt that ultimately all things could be known objectively, a position that Kierkegaard countered in the strongest terms, especially in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript. The reference to reflection is a theme that Kierkegaard would return to the following year in Two Ages. He thought that his century, as opposed to the prior century, was merely reflective, but lacked passion. Reflection is self-referential intellect without the passionate interest that occurs with subjectivity. "Mediation" again refers to Hegelianism in that every thesis yields its antithesis, which are then mediated in a synthesis, which then becomes a new thesis. Kierkegaard maintained, however, that this militated against the law of contradiction. Moreover, he asserted that no one can know things objectively without faith. Hegel's mediation did not span the chasm of ignorance. Overcoming doubt and putting behind religion were the inevitable result of objectification. Kierkegaard appended to this article a declaration of his indirect writing, all the more interesting since he used a pseudonym to do so.

On his authorial methodology, Kierkegaard says,

An author with an awareness of the dialectical difficulty of the task expects, of course, very few readers and wants it that way as well, although he does not pretentiously and wantonly express it in a preface but acknowledges it in his own being and therefore even uses his own I, not exactly à la [Hans Christian] Andersen, but rather a little Socratically, in order teasingly to thrust people away. He is contented with a few readers, with one; he is contented with fewer, for he is contented to be an author, enchanted by the contradiction of the infinite; to be contented with the divine pleasure of thinking. Existential dialectic, especially in the form of double-reflection, cannot be communicated directly (p. 44).

Near the end of the article Kierkegaard challenges The Corsair and reveals Møller's association with it.

Would that I might only get into The Corsair soon. It is really hard for a poor author to be singled out in Danish literature that he (assuming that we pseudonyms are one) is the only one who is not abused there. My superior, Hilarius Bookbinder [the editor of the Stages], has been flattered in The Corsair, if I am not mistaken; Victor Eremita [the editor of the Either/Or] has even had to experience the disgrace of being immortalized—in The Corsair! And yet, I have always been there, for ubi spiritus, ibi ecclesia [where the spirit is, there is the church]: ubi P. L. Møller, ibi The Corsair (p. 46).