Villy Sÿrensen

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The Independent Online

Villy Sørensen, writer and philosopher: born Copenhagen 13 January 1929; died Copenhagen 16 December 2001.

Villy Sørensen, writer and philosopher: born Copenhagen 13 January 1929; died Copenhagen 16 December 2001.

Villy Sørensen was the leading intellectual of his generation of Danish writers. He started his career in 1953 with modernist short stories in a Kafkaesque tradition, but reached a much larger audience when, from about 1960, he developed a personal philosophy at odds with both left-wing and right-wing positions, in literature as well as in politics.

Unlike the "Third Way" in current politics – in Denmark and other European countries – Sørensen did not blur the boundaries between the various positions but rather sharpened them by taking issue with the left as well as with the right. A characteristic title of his is Hverken-eller ("Neither-Nor", 1961), in open contrast to both his life-long mentor Søren Kierkegaard, who insisted on "either or", and to the wishy-washy liberals whose patchwork philosophy comprises remnants of both a little socialism and a little liberalism.

In his artistic prose, bearing strong imprints of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, and in his philosophical essays, often Kierkegaardian in their use of paradox, Sørensen maintained the need to combine a social and an existential understanding of human nature. Himself no Christian, he insisted that religious symbols, far from being chimera, reveal fundamental truths, albeit of a human rather than a divine nature. In this vein, in Jesus eller Kristus ("Jesus or Christ", 1992) he examined the gospels as secular evidence of a great human being who became Christ only when his followers saw fit to pronounce him as such. Equally no Marxist, Sørensen drew attention to the enduring insights attained by, especially the young, Karl Marx.

In mid-career, when his influence on open-minded politicians was noticeable, Sørensen decided, with two co-authors, to put forward a full-fledged and specified Utopian programme, Oprør fra midten ("Revolt from the Centre", 1978), advocating green values, the return to village democracy and the introduction of a "civic salary", a minimal pay that was to be the right of every member of the society. The book annoyed, once again, both left and right, was discussed more than any other of his books – and then soon vanished into oblivion.

Unlike in his essays and stories, it was in his analyses of masters such as Seneca, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Nietzsche, Kafka, and the great German novelists of the 20th century, Mann, Broch, that he promulgated his complex view of man, seeing with them the social aspect of the divine, and the divine aspect of social life. Among his achievements were accounts of the great mythologies, the world of the Greek Gods, in Apollons Oprør ("Apollo's Rebellion", 1990), and that of the Germanic Gods, in Ragnarok ( The Downfall of the Gods, 1982), both of which he saw as serious interpretations of human complexities which have their counterparts in modern times.

Sørensen was a learned writer. Born in 1929 in Copenhagen, he enrolled first at the University of Copenhagen and later the University of Freiburg but soon withdrew without degrees to map out his own route through the classics of literature and philosophy. His knack for getting at the essentials and for seeing the universal human contents in works of the past, together with his devoted allegiance to modernism made him a formidable critic and educator, whose position in his home country bears comparison with that of Georg Brandes in the late 19th century.

He commanded a similar respect and influence in literary circles in neighbouring countries such as Sweden and Germany, but hardly managed to make an impression on a similar readership in the English-speaking world. Strange Stories (1956, also published as Tiger in the Kitchen) was the title of an early English version of his Soerer historier, translated by Maureen Neiiendam, with an introduction by Angus Wilson. Yet Sørensen's subtle and ironic Danish, his tool in fiction and non-fiction alike, never really made it across the language barrier.

Thomas Bredsdorff