VELGA VEVERE: "Kierkegaard’s Epic Theatre: Prefaces and Forewords to Pseudonymous Writings"
Dr.phil., professor - University of Latvia (Riga, Latvia)

[Original English version]


In the preface to his book, signed by Nicolaus Notabene “Prefaces” Kierkegaard describes a thought experiment: “Yet no one thinks about what might be gained if one or another literatus [literary type] could be trained to read only prologues, but to do it so thoroughly that he would begin with the earliest times and advance through all the centuries down to our own day.”[1] He concludes that the art of prefaces has received a deathblow in the modern authorship, since prefaces have become accidental, insignificant; he then declares his intention to make the break in earnest. “This indicates that a preface is something entirely different from a book and that to write a preface is something entirely different, from writing a book.”[2] In my opinion, these Kierkegaard’s statements can be perceived as some kind of provocations, i.e., what if someone dares to read thoroughly through his prefaces; and what if the prefaces are viewed in the context of his existential communication (prefaces as interrupted communication bearing no relation to the main body of the text creates a tension, anxiety within the reader that stimulates his self-reflection). In the present lecture I would like to yield to Kierkegaard’s provocation and follow through all his prefaces to the pseudonymous works as important part of his project of existential communication. As a tool of interpretation I will employ the concept of the alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt), also translated as the defamiliarization effect proposed by the German playwright Bertold Brecht. He formulates this principle in the essay “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting”: “The effects in question were directed to playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play.”[3]

Game of prefaces in philosophy
The role of prefaces in literature and philosophy is the special one, they play different functions – to introduce, to explain, to orientate the potential reader, as well as hinder and disorientate. In philosophy the theme of prefaces was disclosed by Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Derrida. Although, in general, the prefaces serve as a hermeneutical tool for text interpretation, in some cases prefaces leave the reader quite confused, since they are not related to the main text. Thus, for example, French literary critic Gerard Genette in his book “Paratexts. Thresholds of interpretation” characterizes the preface as a threshold to be overstepped in order to get to the main body of text, or it can preclude the entrance whatsoever. Still, in both cases it presupposes pausing. He writes: “Indeed, this fringe, always the conveyor of a commentary that is authorial or more or less legitimated by the author, constitutes a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of a pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that - whether well or poorly understood and achieved - is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it (more pertinent, of course, in the eyes of the author and his allies).”[4] The unique place of preface as fore-text outside the text has been noted also by Jacques Derrida in his “Disseminations”. He writes: "From the viewpoint of the fore-word, which recreates the intention-to-say after the fact, the text exists as something written--a past--which under the false appearance of a present, a hidden omnipotent author (in full mastery of his product) is presenting to the reader as his future. Here is what I wrote, then read, and what I am writing that you are going to read. After which you will again be able to take possession of this preface which in sum you have not yet begun to read, even though, once having read it, you will already have anticipated everything that follows and thus might just as well dispense with reading the rest."[5] In other words, the author speaks about the impossibility of a pre-face, a text before text.
Or, quite contrary, there are prefaces without any text to follow them. For example, in 1872 Friedrich Nietzsche sent a Christmas gift to Cosima Wagner – leather bound handwritten manuscript “Five prefaces to five unwritten books.” Of course, this can be regarded as a nice gesture to tell a friend about the writing plans to be or not to be carried out in foreseeable future. It could be, if not the facts, first, that in Nietzsche’s diaries contain several versions of each preface (so there should be some plan, since the presented ones were selected) and, second, the prefaces contain themes pertaining the whole authorship. Thus, in the preface entitled “Thoughts on the future of our educational institutions” he writes that his desired reader must have three qualities: first, he must be at rest and without haste, he must not consider everything as time-sparing or time-wasting; second, the reader must not impose upon text his personal qualities; third, the reader must concise to instability, unrest at the end.[6] I sounds almost what Kierkegaard had to say in his little volume of prefaces. According to him a preface is a fleeting moment, a joke, a spit from the window on the passers-by heads, a joking ring at the doorbell. The preface sets the mood, albeit sometimes it create the shock of the text that follows – the reader is unable to identify himself with the story, since it goes against the grain, against the promise of the preface. Therefore, it of no surprise that the majority of Kierkegaard’s prefaces to his pseudonymous writings can bee seen as separate pieces outside the main text of the body. In my opinion, Kierkegaard does this intentionally in order to carry out his strategy of existential communication. But we will return this in the last part of the lecture.
Still, there is one more, the fourth, option to be considered, and it is the famous introduction to the “Phenomenology of Spirit” by Hegel (a number of researcher believe that Kierkegaard’s volume of prefaces was a reaction to Hegel’s statement). According to Hegel, the philosophical text is the self-enclosed unity, contained in itself. Therefore, any preface or introduction will break the textual integrity. He writes: “It is customary to preface a work With an explanation of the author’s aim, why he wrote the book, and the relationship in which he believes it to stand to other earlier or contemporary treatises on the same subject. In the case of a philosophical work, however, such an explanation seems not only superfluous but, in view of the nature of the subject-matter, even inappropriate and misleading.”[7]

Brecht’s theatre of alienation
I propose to view Kierkegaard’s treatment of prefaces in his pseudonymous authorship in the terms of Bertold Brecht’s  Alienation-effect (Verfremdungseffekt) -  a nagging existential angst, a special way of expression - employed in the epic theatre. Perhaps one of the best characteristics of the Alienation-effect is to be found in the text by Bertold Brecht “Alienation Effect in Chinese Acting”: “ The efforts in question were directed to playing in such a way that the audience was hindered from simply identifying itself with the characters in the play. Acceptance or rejection of their actions and utterances was meant to take place on a conscious plane, instead of, as hitherto, in the audiences subconscious.”[8] In other words, performance is meant to awaken onlookers’ rational thinking, it means that the interpretative schemata is being construed by the spectators themselves. Featuring the A-effect, Brecht proposes six descriptive characteristics:
1)         Participation with no illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event on the audience’s part, moreover, the actor observes himself while playing
2)         Objective of the actor is to appear as strange, as something out of ordinary, everyday things thus are being raised above the obvious and appears automatic: “The performer’s self-observation, an artful and artistic act of self-alienation, stopped the spectator from losing himself in the character completely, i.e. to the point of giving up his own identity [..] Yet the spectator’s empathy was not entirely rejected. The audience identifies itself with the actor as being an observer and accordingly develops his attitude of observing or looking on.”[9]
3)         The lack of passion or coldness: “The coldness comes from the actor’s holding himself remote from the character portrayed, along the lines described. He is careful not to make its sensations into those of a spectator.”[10]
4)         Rejection of complete conversion by the actor: “The alienation effect intervenes not in the form of absence of emotion, but in the form of emotions which need not correspond to those of the character portrayed.”[11]
5)         The alienation effect is not an ordinary stylization, “on the contrary, the achievement of an A-effect absolutely depends on lightness and naturalness of performance.”[12]
6)         No mystic trance like moment of creation present during performance, no understanding of the creative process by the audience.
Then how this can be  related to Kierkegaard’s play with prefaces in his pseudonymous authorship.

Kierkegaard’s A-effect
In my opinion, Kierkegaard’s A-effect by analogy with the Brechtian one can be interpreted through the lens of the double movement of communication, that involves the act of distancing. The concept of the double movement of communication is the decisive one in understanding Kierkegaard’s theory of existential communication. On one level the double movement means communication on the level of the individual (communication with oneself as one’s first thou), that presupposes first of all the self-estrangement or the revocation of one’s identity and only then – the movement towards the authenticity of the self. On the other level the double movement means first of all the separation of the individual and only after that – relations with other people. It is important to note that in both cases the intermediary and the principal guarantor of humanity for Kierkegaard is God. Still Kierkegaard’s prime interest lies in the subjectivity, in the subjective world-view, therefore it may occur that on the social level his vision of communication is one-sided and egoistic and the questions posed by the individual subject can be like these: In what way other selves affect conditions of my own existence? How other people affect my worldview? And, finally – how would my transformed self (after the double movement) perceive others? But in Kierkegaard’s case it is not so simple since during the double movement the self becomes the other for oneself and the other selves becomes conditions for my subjectivity. Moreover, the position of the self is not the exclusive one because the similar questions can be posed by other individuals as well. And the questions mentioned above can now be rephrased in the following way. How I as a person affect existential condition of other human beings? What changes I evoke in others? And, finally, what would be the attitude of others to the transformed me now? According to Kierkegaard the first movement (the isolation) means that the self is something already given but yet not comprehended. Thus, all expressions like to choose oneself, to obtain oneself, to capture oneself can be interpreted as becoming the concrete individual, the one we really are. The self accomplishes the initial separation, that is, admits oneself as being different – different from oneself and different from others thus excluding oneself from his concrete historical existence whereas the countermovement is returning to the concreteness and historicity, and the web of social relations. Now it is time for Kierkegaard to ask the question about the authenticity/inauthenticity of human relations. He believes that inauthentic relations between human beings stem from their inauthentic self-realization, namely, from their inability to view themselves as individuals and hence inability to take on the ethical responsibility. Therefore, the act of self-realization is the absolute precondition for any significant human relation. Thus, if the first movement of communication is the act of isolation, the second act (counter movement) is taking up responsibility for oneself and for others, these are grounds for continuity, and unless the individual has not apprehended himself as a concrete personality in continuity first, he wouldn’t feel the continuity with others later on. Thus, for Kierkegaard, any act of existential communication presupposes the process distancing oneself from the other, alienation.
Kierkegaard enacts the process of reader’s alienation with his prefaces that in most (though not in all) cases are not related to the body of the text. Let us have a brief insight into Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writing prefaces.

“Either/Or” (1843; author Victor Eremita) – apart from the story of the Victor Emerita finding a manuscript, there are some taletelling passages related to the text and the reader. I would like to mention two of them: “It may at times occur to you, dear reader, to doubt somewhat the accuracy of that familiar philosophical thesis that the outer is the inner and the inner is the outer.” Further on he follows with the statement that each author wants to keep something to himself, this in fact, is what is meant by the Danish term meddelelse (sharing, but not disclosing). Then here again: “Read, then, the something in such a way that, having read it, you may be as one who has not read it; read the something else in such a way that, having read it, you may be as one who has not forgotten what has been read.” It was signed by the editor, November, 1842.

“Fear and trembling” (1843, author Johnanes de Silentio). A discourse against philosophy (systematic philosophy). “The present author is by no means a philosopher. He is poetice et eleganter [in a poetic and refined way] a supplementary clerk who neither writes the system nor gives promises of the system, who neither exhausts himself on the system nor binds himself to the system. He writes because to him it is a luxury that is all the more pleasant and apparent the fewer there are who buy and read what he writes.”

“Repetition”  (1843, author Constantius Constantius) – interestingly, almost the only work that offer no preface at all. Is this symptiomatic?

“Philosophical Fragments” (1844, author Johannes Climacus). Taking into account, that this work is Kierkegaard’s second attempt at discourse on method (the first being Johannes Climacus, the CUP), he defines the book as pamphlet (wit all implications this entail). “..tear me out of  my carefree contentedness as the author of a pamphlet, prevent a kind and well-disposed reader from unabashedly looking to see if there is anything in the pamphlet he can use…”

“The concept of dread” (1844, author Vigilius Haufniensis).  On writing and book publishing. But he ends wit a statement: “Beyond this I have nothing to add except to wish everyone who shares my view and  also everyone who does not, everyone who reads the book and also everyone who has had enough in reading the Preface, a well meant farewell.”

“Prefaces” (1844, author Nicolaus Notabene). We have talked about this already before.

“Stages on the Life’s Way” (1845, Hilarious Bookbinder). “ That a bookbinder would aspire to be an author could only arouse understandable resentment in the literary world and be instrumental in making people turn up their noses at the book, but that  a bookbinder stiches together, guides through the press, and publishes a book so that he "might be able to benefit his fellowmen in some other way than as a bookbinder," no fair-minded  reader will take amiss”.

“PostscripumConcluding Unscientific Postscript” (1846, Johannes Climacus). “Therefore, dialectically understood, the negative is not an intervention, but only the positive.”

“Sickness unto Death” (1849, author Anti Climacus). “Many may find the form of this "exposition"  strange; it may seem to them too rigorous to be upbuilding and too upbuilding to be  rigorously scholarly. As far as the latter is concerned, I have no opinion.” In my opinion, this is one of the most important works on the distanciation of the self.

“Practice in Christianity” ( 1850, author Anti Climacus). “The requirement should be heard-and  I understand what is said as spoken to me alone-so  that I might learn not only to resort to grace but to resort to it in relation to the use of grace.” Signed by the editor S.K.
Of course, this all asks for further analysis, trying to identify the gaps, the lacunae Kierkegaard creates in his texts. In my opinion, Kierkegaard uses his prefaces to elucidate his philosophical strategy of alienation in order the reader could be able of finding his own voice, to become the self for himself in the process of reading.


[1] Kierkegaard, S. Prefaces. Writing Sampler. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979. – p. 3.
[2] Ibid., - p. 4.
[3] Brecht, B. Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting. In: Brecht on Theatre. The Development of an Aesthetic. Eyre London: Metuhen, 1974. – p. 91.
[4] Genette, G. Paratexts. Thresholds of interpretation. Canbridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, - p.2.
[5] Derrida, J. Dissemination. London: The Athlone Press, 1981. – p.7.
[6] Nietzsche, F. Prefaces to Unwritten works. St. Bend, IN: St.Augustine’s Pres, 2005. – p. 33.
[7] Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. – p.1.
[8] Brecht, B. Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting. – p. 91.
[9] Ibid. – p.92-93
[10] Ibid. – p. 93.
[11] Ibid. – p. 94.
[12] Ibid. – p. 95.


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