While some see the comic as trivial, fit mainly for amusement or distraction, Søren Kierkegaard disagrees. This book examines Kierkegaard’s earnest understanding of the nature of the comic and how even the triviality of comic jest is deeply tied to ethics and religion. It rigorously explicates terms such as “irony,” “humor,” “jest,” and “comic” in Kierkegaard, revealing them to be essential to his philosophical and theological program, beyond aesthetic interest alone.
Drawing centrally from Kierkegaard’s most concentrated treatment of these ideas, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (1846), this account argues that he defines the comic as a “contradiction” or misrelation that is essentially (though not absolutely) painless because it provides a “way out.” The comic lies in a contradiction between norms and so springs from one’s viewpoint, whether ethical or religious.
“Irony” and “humor” play essential transitional roles for Kierkegaard’s famous account of the stages of existence because subjective development is closely tied to one’s capacity to perceive the comic, making the comic both diagnostic of and formative for one’s subjective maturity. For Kierkegaard, the Christian is far from humorless, instead having the maximal comic perception because he has the highest possible subjective development.
The book demonstrates that the comic is not the expression of a particular pseudonym or of a single period in Kierkegaard’s thinking but is an abiding and fundamental concept for him. It finds his comic understanding even outside of Postscript, locating it in such differing works as Prefaces (1844), Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (1847), and the Corsair affair (c.1845-1848).
The book also examines the comic in contemporary Kierkegaard scholarship. First, it argues that Deconstructionists, while accurately perceiving the widespread irony in Kierkegaard’s corpus, incorrectly take the irony to imply a lack of earnest interest in philosophy and theology, misunderstanding Kierkegaard on the nature of irony. Second, it considers two theological readings to argue that their positions, while generally preferable to the Deconstructionists’, lack the same attentiveness to the comic’s role in Kierkegaard. Their significant theological arguments would be strengthened by increased appreciation of the legitimate power of the comic for cultivating ethics and religion.
Will Williams is lecturer at Baylor University
Part I. Kierkegaard’s Conception of the Comic
Chapter 1. Kierkegaard’s Conception of the Comic Set Forth
Chapter 2. Kierkegaard’s Conception of the Comic Illustrated in Other Works
Part II. Kierkegaard’s Comic Legacy
Chapter 3. Irony and Deconstructionist Readings of Kierkegaard
Chapter 4. Theology and Kierkegaard’s Conception of the Comic
Williams's volume is much more than a monograph about Kierkegaard’s understanding of the comic; it is a springboard to the exploration of the importance of the comic in theology and the life of faith. Williams cogently argues that in Kierkegaard’s pages the comic is exceedingly earnest business. Theologians have often have obscured Kierkegaard’s use of the comic by focusing on his overtly religious earnestness, while deconstructionists have ignored his earnestness by concentrating on his playful and seemingly indeterminate literary tropes. But, as Williams shows, far from being opposites, earnestness and the comic require one another. Kierkegaard uses the comic to expose unrecognized contradictions between worldly, ethical, and Christian norms, and to sensitize readers to the incommensurability of inner aspirations and outward performance. By doing so, the comic weans us away from worldliness and edges us close to humility and repentance. We must thank Williams for reminding us that learning to laugh wisely is crucial to our religious formation.