KSRK: Finishing the Stages

The Korrektiv Summer Reading Klub is slouching towards Bethlehem (or Bedlam), determined to finish (or at least get to the end of) Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way within a year and two weeks of having begun.

I was sitting in that same coffee place this morning, frowning over the fat blue and black paperback (I’ve switched back to the Hong translation, giving Lowrie a breather) when a philosophy professor of my acquaintance walked up and remarked, “Still working on it, eh.” He had seen me there last week, reading the same page. I confessed that I’d been going at it for about a year.

“Slow going,” I said.

“Yeah, Kierkegaard doesn’t always make it easy on his readers,” he said.

As we approach the finish line, I’m beginning to suspect that part of old SK’s plan is to make it as difficult as possible to finish — maybe even prevent the reader from finishing, if possible — in order to drive home his point that the work of the existing individual is never finished. You can’t just close the book and say, “There, I’m finished! I’ve got that down.” Especially not with Kierkegaard and especially not with a book by Kierkegaard that is attempting to take you into the territory of the religious sphere.

What I was reading in the coffee shop this morning was Kierkegaard’s (or Frater Taciturn’s) treatment of Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. He describes how catharsis purifies the passions of their egotism by arousing fear and sympathy, but then shows how catharsis functions differently in the religious sphere:

The religious speaker who purifies these passions through fear and compassion does not in the course of his address do the astounding thing of ripping the clouds asunder to show heaven open, the judgment day at hand, hell in the background, himself and the elect triumphantly celebrating; he does the simpler and less pretentious thing, the humble feat that is supposed to be so very easy: he lets heaven remain closed, in fear and trembling does not feel that he himself is finished, bows his head while the judgment of the discourse falls upon thought and mind. He does not do the astounding thing that could make his next appearance lay claim to being greeted with applause; he does not thunder so that the congregation might be kept awake and be saved by his discourse. He does the simpler and less pretentious thing, the humble feat that is supposed to be so very easy: he lets God keep the thunder and the power and the honor and speaks in such a way that even if everything miscarried he nevertheless is certain that there was one listener who was moved in earnest, the speaker himself ….(464)

So here we are some thirty pages from the end of the text, not including supplementary end matter. Are we going to finish? In fear and trembling we press on, even if there is only one reading club member left at the end of the day. (Rumors of Oprah’s Book Club making a bid to acquire KSRK notwithstanding.)

Meanwhile back at the coffee shop. I was sitting in a sunny window by the door, beginning to sweat, when I looked outside and saw sitting there at a sidewalk table a vaguely familiar face. Could that be Jess Walter? I thought. Maybe, although, he is homelier — scrawnier and scragglier — than the pictures on his books would lead you to imagine: he looks like he could stand to go on a thirty-day McDonalds-only diet. He seemed to be working on a crossword puzzle — or was it a Sudoku? In any case, Mr. Walter is one of the finest young novelists currently writing and a denizen of Spokane to boot. Some months ago, I solicited, by email, some books from him for a library endowment fundraiser at his alma mater, my employer. Sitting there in the coffeeshop, a few feet away from the author, I got nervous and sheepish about introducing myself but went ahead and did it anyway, as I stepped out onto the sundrenched sidewalk.

“Are you Jess Walter by any chance?” I said.


“I’m Jonathan Potter.”

“Oh yeah.”

“We exchanged a couple of emails awhile back.”

“Yeah, you work out at Eastern. Are you still at the library there?”

“Yeah …. so, you’ve got a new book coming out.”

“Yeah, September first.”

“Right on the heels of your last one.”

“Yeah, but the publication of the last one was delayed about year. But, yeah, it feels like it’s been a busy three years or so.”

“I’m looking forward to reading it.” (Actually I didn’t say this, but afterwards I thought I should have, since I am — looking forward to reading it. Instead I just stood there dumbly holding this fat blue and black paperback tome.)

“What’s that you’re reading?” He said.

“Kierkegaard.” I held up the book so he could see the cover.

“Oh, hmmm, looks good. I’ve never read Kierkegaard.”

“Oh, you ought to give him a try,” I didn’t say. Instead, I said, “I read Fear and Trembling in college and never got over it.” Something I was thinking I should have said to the philosophy professor last week. Doh! got my comments crossed up.

I’m picturing Kierkegaard appearing on Jess’s website’s “What I’ve Been Reading” sidebar.

“Well, it was good to meet you,” he said.

“Yeah, good to meet you, too.”


  1. Jonathan Webb says

    I declare the KSRC in session.

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