In Our Time, Radio 4
Listen to this and you'll never regret it
Sunday 23 March 2008
And so to this column's yearly pat on the back for In Our Time. Melvyn Bragg's (incidentally, isn't it great the way he's transformed the House of Lords from within, just like he said he would?) cultural programme has dropped the ball only once in its long run, when it made rather too many claims for Zoroastrianism, and although the malicious critic in me would like to see it screw up again, the human being in me is glad that it hasn't.
This week the subject was Kierkegaard. If you think of him as "the gloomy Dane", go to the back of the class.
For a start, as Bragg's experts pointed out, he was the anti-Hegel. If he thought a philosopher was talking through his crack, he said so. And that philosopher was usually Hegel. And the programme was wise enough to include my favourite apothegm of his: "Marry and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it .... Laugh at the stupidities of the world, and you will regret it; weep over them, and you will also regret it. Hang yourself, and you will regret it. Do not hang yourself, and you will also regret it ..... This, gentlemen, is the quintessence of all the wisdom of life." OK, that could be seen as being gloomy, if you look at it in one way, but looked at another, it's hilarious.
The programme was, once again, wonderful, as useful and illuminating for people with some knowledge of Kierkegaard as for those with none. He was not one of those philosophers who think they have a system for understanding the world – quite the opposite. What he was more interested in doing, as one contributor pointed out, was "rearranging the furniture inside his readers' heads". Jonathan Rée, a philosopher with a voice disconcertingly like Rowan Williams's, pointed out that Kierkegaard was so good that he made secularists like himself suspect that it was Christianity, and not the Devil, that had the best tunes, at least when it came to love. This is a noble – and a plausible – admission.
Faults? Hmm. Guest Clare Carlisle sounded nervous. And the programme did not mention my favourite Kierkegaard moment, his solution, in Either/Or, to the Danish national debt: "No one should be allowed to own any property. An exception should be made only for me."
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