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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Standing at the grave of Søren Kierkegaard – 1-11-06 – Lá na Naomh Uile - All Saints Day

Today, the 11th of November 2006, is the 151st anniversary of the death of one of the world’s greatest thinkers and writers – Søren Kierkegaard. A fitting day, to post a tribute to him in the wake of the author’s recent tip to Denmark; a place he had not visited for nearly twenty years.

Standing at the grave of Søren Kierkegaard

I was supposed to be in Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital city and “København” to its natives, to watch Manchester United demolish the local soccer team. As it turned out in this first real week of winter in Denmark, the famous Manchester United suffered an embarrassing defeat; by which time I had worked out that soccer was nothing to do with my real reason for being in Copenhagen that week. On All Saints Day, November 1st 2006, and the day after the beginning of the Celtic New Year, Søren Kierkegaard had called me over from his grave outside the city centre for a chat, or perhaps, to force me to endure a rite of passage. It was possibly himself that turned the winds to the North so that the previous days’ precipitation came under the influence of arctic draughts sweeping down from Norway and Sweden as I slept snugly in my hotel bed. All ready to dump snow on my coat as I emerged from the hotel and turn my journey of homage into an examination of how much I desired to see him and at the same time look into myself. This would be his way of doing things.
After the celebrations of Oíche Shamhna, or what many call Halloween, it was fitting to be standing at the grave of a martyr on this day of martyrs. An unacknowledged saint, if you like, whose commitment to describing and defining the highest form of spiritual humanness burned bright before quickly expiring across the Nordic skies. As far as I know, he had never called himself a philosopher but, in Danish, an eksisterende Tænker- an ‘existing thinker’. His essential, existential, urge was to reconcile the divine and the human within mankind and the contradiction which emerges from this double state of being. How can we be both divine and of mankind? Have the possibility of transcendence and be close to the gods (or God), and at the same time be utterly human and therefore full of doubt and angst about what we are as humans and who we are and why we are here? As Kierkegaard put it, existence is “ a child of the immortal and the mortal, the eternal and the temporal, and therefore (a state of) continual striving.”
More than any other thinker, Kierkegaard stressed that unless human beings answer the unending call to address the question of who they really are, then they will be continually at odds with themselves. There will be no harmony, there will be no real truth. Unlike most thinkers who have come and gone since, and who talk in terms of global concepts and systems, Kierkegaard brought everything down to the very core of the individual and also stressed that every individual, rich or poor, was faced with that same burning question. The greatest riches, the possession of power, pomp and ceremony were as nothing when faced with this essential truth. In fact, he came to argue that the striving for and the accrual of great wealth and influence was “hypocrisy” and a negation of the individual’s striving for spiritual freedom. The negation of being truly Christian. A perhaps surprising comparison can be made here with Karl Marx who also attacked state religions and their edifices as being a part of the problem of oppression and not the solution. In this sense, Kierkegaard was a radical who bowed to no earthly power. For him, all humans, regardless of wealth, carried a fault line of angst which no priest, or scientist, could reveal to the individual. Nor was sin the only issue. Kierkegaard sought to set the imagination and faith free from material considerations so that an individual’s self determination was made possible. As always, there was a price to be paid for such dedicated self reflection and a price, also, to be paid by Kierkegaard for his perceived insolence and insubordination.

I walked to his grave in blizzard like conditions. Once I left Rådhuspladsen and walked to the end of Hans Christian Andersens Boulevard, I realised that I would have to turn to the North as I crossed between Sankt Jørgens and Peblinge lakes. Thus, I would be walking right into the teeth of the wind and the snow. Squadrons of copper brown leaves swirled and dipped as I walked along Peblinge lake which provides a stunning vista of Copenhagen whatever the weather. A reminder that, unlike Dublin say, it is an imperial and continental city with all the scale and grandeur that goes with it. Swans rode the chopping water at their ease, a slight grin on their face I felt. Danes winged by on three-wheeled bicycles containing beings in a covered box at the front, which I presume were children. They too went by with a slight smile on their high boned faces, as if in relief that the waiting for winter was finally over. Then a group of Muslims passed me and they speaking Danish with scattergun Copenhagen accents and flashing smiles. The wind sought to tip my balance into the frozen water and leaves and twigs attacked my face. “He would have liked all this”, I grimaced.
I had to walk. For some reason, there could be no other way of travelling. Pilgrims can only walk. The first gate I came to at Assistens Kirkegård was locked (“Kirkegård” means churchyard or graveyard and, yes, that is what Kierkegaard’s surname means in Danish). I wondered whether the cemetery was going to be open at all that day. He would have liked that too. Nothing is achieved unless it is worried at, fought over, persisted at. I would have to come back tomorrow and me foundered with the cold. However, there was a main gate on Nørrebrogade that was open. I walked in and suddenly all the noise and commotion of the elements ceased. I stopped under a tree to get my bearings and to work out roughly where I needed to go. I then blundered about in the snow which was deathly quiet in the trees lining the myriad passageways until I found the green sign pointing to his resting place.

When I found myself finally standing at his graveside, I was shocked at its lack of gravitas. Its unkempt, dishevelled air. It is possible that the weather contributed to my sense of dismay but there was a real sense of disregard hanging over his own gravestone and that of the other members of his family. It could, of course, be the case that there is some family stipulation preventing any greater show of appreciation of this place where one of the world’s great thinkers and writers lies buried. Yet, as the snow fell and fell relentlessly in wet November flakes, I observed that the powers that be could still not embrace him. Even in death, he was “Beyond The Pale” as we Irish would say. Even now. Even 150 years later, Kierkegaard was still kept at arms length by polite society. He came to me and stood by me and told me not to be worrying. That he had peace now but that he was glad that he had wrestled with his own and society’s demons whilst fully human. He laughed at my Danish which he correctly pointed out was part country (jysk) and part town. Many have forgotten how funny Kierkegaard could be. He once said: “It is quite true what philosophy says - that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that it must be lived forwards!” Then I laughed at his Danish and told him that he sounded like a Danish James Joyce but without the goatee and Joyce’s sometime undergraduate take on life. The snow seemed to cover his face and he moved away from me but I could hear him saying that he was utter reflection and that Joyce was utter imagination.

I wanted to ask him about his decision to jilt Regine Olsen his fiancée so that he could concentrate on thinking and writing. But its hard to ask a ghost about his sex life, or lack of it, especially when its 5 degrees below freezing. Then there was the fact that Regine was buried just a few yards away from him alongside the person she eventually married. I was also conscious that he was slipping away so I asked him what heaven was like.
“Heaven”, he said, “is complete understanding and forgiveness.”
So what was the point of struggling for understanding of the self on Earth, I asked, if it was all made right in the end? He told me that to be human was a precious gift and that to strive for the truth in oneself was the greatest gift of all. Then he was gone and there was nothing but a fog of snow and the cold and the wet. He died penniless and with few real friends. He would not even take Holy Communion ( the Eucharist) unless it was given to him by a layman and not a priest. My dripping clothes made me conscious of how directly horrible life can be and his human loneliness brought me to tears but then I saw that he had lived the way he wanted to live and convinced in the correctness of his thinking. People who are sure of themselves and their beliefs are not generally popular in my experience. I texted my ex-wife from his graveside. We had first met and fallen in love whilst discussing Kierkegaard. The tears returned and I put the wet phone back in my pocket. It would probably never work again. “Jesus”, I cried aloud, “I need a brandy after that”, and somebody somewhere laughed.
Having said my prayers for the soul of this great man, I shuffled and shivered away, still irritated at the lack of respect, in my view, shown to his grave and his memory. This irritation increased as my coat turned completely white and I lost my way and was suddenly standing in front of the grave of another famous Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen. Assistens Kirkegård probably contains the remains of more deceased celebrities than anywhere else in Scandinavia. Kierkegaard had once attacked Andersen in a pamphlet after the “Ugly Duckling” had published an allegedly mediocre romantic novel. Now, however, in this graveyard it is Andersen who has had the last laugh. For the grave of this famous writer of children’s fairytales, far better than his novels, is extremely well kept and dignified. It has neat privets either side of a large pinkish headstone and is obviously well tended.

But then the main thoroughfare through Copenhagen was renamed in honour of HC Andersen, which just goes to show that he is a safe pair of literary hands with no awkward corners and bends to him. To my knowledge, there is not one street named after Kierkegaard in the whole of Copenhagen. This is quite incredible given Kierkegaard’s stature in world literature and philosophy.
Nevertheless, here at this grave I also I paid my respects and told Hans Christian Andersen that some of his writings (Skyggen – The Shadow for example) were masterpieces of human analysis. Then I retired from this remarkable cemetery and place of refuge to the ferocity of the street outside. I battled my way to Sankt Hans Torv (a well known square just on the outskirts of the city) and dived gratefully into the warmth of Pussy Galore, a very bohemian café frequented by artists and writers, where I ordered a brandy and coffee with sugar. I never take sugar. Almost before I got my inside jacket off, I began writing the piece which my good readers now have in front of them. I tried to imagine Kierkegaard sitting next to me and, whilst it is true that he often enjoyed strolling through Copenhagen with friends, he himself admitted that he had mostly neglected the social aspect of his work and personality. It was not hard to see why. All around him, there was hypocrisy and avarice. A mid-1880s bourgeois social set full of dilettantes simply affecting profundity, pretending to think deep thoughts, whereas Kierkegaard instinctively knew that he was the real thing. Nor, given his own comfortable background, could he mix very easily with the great unwashed amongst the lower classes; although from the outset Kierkegaard stressed the essential dignity of every human being before God. As the brandy fired through my veins and synapses and I ordered another one, I realised how radical Kierkegaard had actually been.
After all, he had lived through the time of bourgeois revolutions in the late 1840s. He had lambasted the Church (in his case, the Lutheran state church) for its pretence at Christian charity and piety and he had stated that the grasping of power by the rising middle classes in Europe would not fundamentally alter man’s alienation from himself. Again, there is a parallel with Karl Marx whose theory of human alienation from society’s means of production and exchange has never been disproven. Both Kierkegaard and Marx decided that a revolution was needed before humankind could be truly free. For Marx that revolution was economic, for Kierkegaard it was religious.
I sat back in my seat as the snow outside the window thinned out and turned to sleet. Marx, I mused, would probably have called Kierkegaard a mystic and, to use modern language, Kierkegaard would have said that Karl Marx still had “issues” regarding his own identity, even if he saw things in terms of social movements and class. Where was I in this? The brandy felt good and I had the money to buy another one if I so desired. I was warm and was well clothed. I had done all sorts of hard working jobs, a merchant seaman, demolition, a digger of roads and railways and yet I was also educated and could even read Kierkegaard in Danish for God’s sake! I was both privileged, and felt that I had earned that privilege, and the fact that I still have a burning desire to reconcile myself to myself, in a spiritual way meant that I could just discern old Søren K and Charlie Marx winking at me and smiling broadly. I had made both of them happy. I closed my eyes and heard my Grandfather Tommy Larkin’s voice:

“You show me a good Catholic and I’ll show you a good communist”.

I was raised on that phrase and it is the essence of what I believe. Unlike Marx, I have a faith in miracles, the communion with the dead and the power of revelation, yet like Marx, I believe in communal living and thinking and that there can be no such thing as authentic community (and I am not referring here to the State Capitalist monolith that was the old Soviet Union which also banned religious practice) until capitalism is destroyed. It seems to me that both Kierkegaard and Marx sought a utopia that could never quite be reached but that the individual was imbued with new powers in the very striving to reach that utopia. In fact both Marx and Kierkegaard have shown that the struggle for freedom is in itself a source of liberation.
There is one final point that needs to be made and that refers to the personal and the political. In many ways, my Grandfather Thomas Larkin epitomised the best and worst of Kierkegaardian and Marxist thought. Very early on, he rejected organised religion and threw himself into trade union and antifascist activities (in his day, this meant the struggle against Franco’s Spain). He spent all his free time pondering the world and man’s place within it. Yet, gradually, he withdrew from the world around him. He lost contact with his workmates and concentrated solely on his love for his wife Sarah and being the good and generous family man that he was to the end. One day, whilst still a teenager, I breezed in to see him as the Grandfather Clock chimed twelve and announced, with the usual pompous attitude of youth, that I had embraced revolutionary socialism. I had assumed that he would be pleased but my Grandfather took off his reading glasses and gave me a baleful look.
“Do you ever intend to get married?”
“Well, I suppose one day granddad….”
“So how can you be a revolutionary? To be that, you have to be prepared to sacrifice everything; to die. If you die, how can you look after your family? Death is final.”
Many years later, I worked out that this was why he had, as it were, withdrawn from society. This and the fact that his wife, and my grandmother, Sarah had been seriously ill when having a child which died after only a few days on earth and my Grandfather had carried his little coffin to a pauper’s grave. Of course, the poor child was
in limbo, still believed in in those days, and could not possibly have received a Christian, not to say, Catholic burial as it had never been baptised. And it is on such Christian rules that a church is built. At least, these are the rules that are imposed upon the poor.
From all what I have subsequently learned, my Grandfather from then on, rather like Kierkegaard, lived the life of a stoic. Reading, thinking and yet not engaging with the world in the way that he had in the past. I think this was wrong of my Granddad and wrong of Kierkegaard. Despite the flaws which all individual possess, there is wonderful power and learning to be found in simply coming together with like minded people. When Kierkegaard finally did begin to engage in debate with the powerful public/religious bodies and their supporting power groups, they were soon able to marginalize him and ridicule him, using cruel caricatures in particular newspapers, because he had never established a social set, or movement of his own. Sadly, he became a focus of ridicule on the streets and was indeed a martyr sacrificed on the altar of public cruelty for having the temerity to question the status quo. My Grandfather Tommy Larkin, meanwhile, lost all contact with his former comrades and very rarely ventured outside the front door for any reason other than the most mundane. However, before he died, and despite having once renounced the Catholic Church, he took the very beautiful sacrament of extreme unction, or last rites, and these seem to me as good an argument as any for the continued worship in the mystery that is Christ and the miracle of faith. It is my belief, particularly in a spiritual place like Ireland, that ceremony and traditional rites are important things. The hard part comes in separating this from a religious hierarchy which has no contact or empathy with the people, just as the likes of Martin Luther, Søren Kierkegaard and also Thomas Larkin have pointed out.
I rose slightly unsteadily from my seat in Pussy Galore. A name which tickled me given the serious nature of my meditations whilst I had sat in its comfortable lap. As I headed back across the bridge to the heart of Copenhagen, I resolved in the name of Kierkegaard, Karl Marx and my dead Grandfather to redouble my efforts to think, write and to engage with the material world, and to attempt to make it better, whilst I am still of this world. Then a miracle happened.

The sceptics and atheists reading these lines will refuse to believe this, but then who will deny this scribe his own right to revelation? Later on, on this day of miracles and martyrs, I had a meeting with the English language editor of the world renowned Gyldendal dictionaries. What I did not know was that Gyldendal is based on Klareboderne in the very heart of Copenhagen and that Kierkegaard had gone to school there. The Gyldendal offices lie in an interior square which is accessed via an arch and the wall of that arch displays a plaque which marks the spot where Søren Kierkegaard walked to and from school every day. Call it karma, call it synchronicity, call it what you will. I call it a miracle and I stood looking at the plaque for what must have been an age. Long enough for some men standing nearby to cast suspicious looks in my direction.
The dictionary editor came downstairs to meet me. She was tall, gracious and beautiful but not in the stereotypical Nordic way and she pointed out where Kierkegaard had indeed gone to school. I spent the rest of the afternoon discussing the meaning of words in dictionaries, and therefore the meaning of life, and pondering the privilege that comes from believing in miracles and a loving God. It struck me forcefully on meeting the people from Gyldendal publishers that Denmark, just like Ireland, is a small country containing a huge repository of knowledge and wisdom. Then I had to watch Manchester United get beaten but then that could have been just one more of Kierkegaard’s little trials to test my resolve.

My new artistic and reflective resolve, my Kierkegaard resolution as it were, will not weaken and I certainly left Denmark a much wiser and enriched person. Part of that, of course, is due to my realisation that I have neglected my knowledge of Danish and Scandinavia generally, particularly where the arts and philosophy are concerned. Now I feel that I have rediscovered a precious jewel. Scandinavia has given, and still gives, the world some of its greatest thinkers and writers and it is my task to comment on and reinterpret their works for an Irish audience. May this first stumbling account of my return to Denmark be the first of many which, hopefully, provides elucidation and entertainment where matters Scandinavian are concerned.


In posting the above essay on to my blogsite, I realised what a difference the internet has made to the lives of writers and artists. Many of my regular readers are aware that part of the reason that I set up Cic Saor (Free Kick) at was because of the censorship which prevails in our country where radical, nationalist or indeed religious views are concerned. The allegedly liberal intelligentsia which controls the Irish media simply refuses to give any meaningful space to any of those three tendencies. Nor will it tolerate anyone who criticises the former colonial power in this country – Britain. It was for these very reasons that I wrote my book – A Very British Jihad and set up Cic Saor. Imagine if Søren Kierkegaard had had access to the internet! Once the powers that be began to attack him and ridicule him, he was reduced to running around Copenhagen with flyers and leaflets in trying to present his own case. A Kierkegaardian web and blogsite would have destroyed his opponents attempts to censor and marginalize him. Nor would he have felt the same isolation in his pauperised state. The same goes for my Grandfather Thomas Larkin who could have maintained, and even developed, his network of comrades and pin sharp intellect without even stepping outside the door had the internet been available. Now the internet is here and censorship will never be as powerful again.

1 comment:

Pablo.....I'm constantly amazed at the
coincidences of life. They happen all the time to
me: I guess

there's something making it happen. I read about
Kierkegaard only the night before last. Id never

read about him before. Then your e-mail arrives!

I have a book called ALL SAINTS at my bedside - a
saint for every day. It includes Van Gogh, Albert
Camus, Ghandi (of course) .....I'm even
priviledged to have met one of these saints on

occasions - Fritz Schumacher. I met him through
the Convent Garden struggle. Kierkegaard is the

saint for Nov.11. When Mary B was dying we rented
a bungalow in Falmouth. It had a bible. I'd never
opened a bible in my entire life. For a minute or
two I read a story just picked out from anywhere

in the book. Then I closed it. Next morning at
mass (we went to mass every day as they prayed

Mary B.) The priest read a story: it was
precisely (word for word) the one I'd picked out
the night

before. Coincidence? Some weeks ago I told you I
had this yearning to be in Donegal (knowing that

couldn't just go there). Two days later the phone
rings: Peter Ogle inviting me to Donegal.

I've read your essay - it's beautiful. I wanted
to print it for Mary but I don't know enough

the technology....that is, if I start printing I
don't want to end up printing everything on your

website. I'll ask my son Conn to advise me. But
it really is a lovely piece of work. (what you

do is just attach it to an e-mail to me. then I
could print it. I would like Mary to read it).
Whilst I still detest the anti-social effects of
technology I still want to engage in it in the

manner in which you do. But you're far more
advanced then I. One day you must return to
Milhac and

give us lessons.
You ask readers to mention their favourite
thinkers etc......very difficult to answer that.

so many. For me they range from writers (Camus,
Robert Pirsig, Steinbeck - his film script for
Viva Zapata is just wonderful) to academics like
writes beautifully about your man from Nazareth.
There's the whole of history to consider.
I finished reading Mary B's PhD thesis - TURNING
BELONGING. it's a fantastic piece of work. I
think you'd love it.
She dwells a lot on Hannah Arendt and, in
conjunction, Walter Benjamin who created his
Angel of

History. Both Jews and close friends they fled
the Nazis. She got to the US and survived: he got
far as the Franco/Spanish border and committed
suicide. Before that he gave her the original
manuscript of his Theses of Philosophy. in which
he describes his Angel of History thus:
".........His eyes are staring, his mouth is
open, his wings are spread. His face is turned
the past. Where we perceived a chain of events,
he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling

wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of
his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken
dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But
a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught
his wings with such violence that the Angel can
no longer close them. This storm irrestibly
him into the future from which his back is
turned, while the pile of debris before him grows


I find this image very moving.

Maybe one day I'll try to explain to you how a
non-religious person like I has been searching in

recent years (particularly since the death of my
daughters). I have some ideas. For example I'm
sure that God is all that powerful - I sometimes
think that God is as scared of the world as we

Sometimes I think that if we sin it's not that
God is angry with us (I can't imagine an angry
God) but simply that we stupidly build a wall
that cuts us off.
I loved your grandad's remark "show me a true
catholic etc..." Did you ever know of Arthur

the Liverpool docker who became a famous sculptor
for a short while ?
He was a good mate of mine and he used to say
things like his very colourful

"I'm a catholic communist...I believe in all that
shit". They made a film of him with Bill Shankly.
by: zorba (contact) - 26 Dec '06 - 15:14


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Title: Standing at the grave of Søren Kierkegaard – 1-11-06 – Lá na Naomh Uile - All Saints Day
Date posted: 11 Nov '06 - 12:50
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