13 February (1947): Søren Kierkegaard to Julie Thomsen

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In this letter, a characteristically reclusive Søren Kierkegaard writes to Julie Thomsen, his cousin, about his tumultuous relationship with writing  and his enslaving inability to leave “the pen” even if only to seek out the company of others. 

TO JULIE THOMSEN

February, ’47

My dear Cousin,

I am very happy to know that you “would have preferred to use the occasion” (to which I owe the receipt of your note) for “a spoken conversation,” even though this can be known only insofar as I also hear your hidden reproach in it. But this neglect cannot be amended now. However, I do hope that my promptness in replying to your note will convince you that I should not be given up completely. Alas, it is all too true (as you say—and as I regret) that you never meet me on the street, and worse yet, it is all too true, as you remind me reproachfully, “that I do not keep my promise to visit you.” Well then, please accept this little epistle. Let it serve, if you please, as an encounter in the street or as a visit to your home. After all, the streets are ruled out: the public ones (where people meet and part), inasmuch as you do not go out, or rather, “so rarely go there,” and the official one that leads to your house, inasmuch as I do not pay visits. But as you have fortunately discovered the mystery street by means of your welcome letter, I hasten not to leave it unused. Please accept my little letter now; it comes quickly, as if I knew that by turning down this or that street I would come upon you; it comes contritely as I myself would come to your house for the first time; it comes happily and merrily as I myself would come if I had finally won my liberty by defeating that indolence that tyrannizes me; it comes filled with longing from him who will probably not come himself, after all, and who therefore becomes all the more filled with longing.

My d[ear] J., all this may seem rather strange to you. Perhaps you are thinking as follows: “The time he uses to write a letter could just as well be used to pay a visit—and used far better.” I concede it, I concede everything, I make every concession—in order to do something, at least, and I prefer to do it in writing, for to do it in conversation would really mean defeat. The fact is that I am actually in love with the company of my pen. It might be said that this is a poor object on which to cast one’s affection. Perhaps! But it is not as though I were always content with it. Occasionally I hurl it away in anger. Alas, this very anger shows me once more that I am indeed in love with it, for the quarrel ends as lovers’ quarrels do. I confide completely in my pen, whether I become angry when it sometimes seems to me that it cannot do what I can do, cannot follow the thought that I am thinking—or whether I am surprised when it seems as if it can do what I cannot. I cannot tear myself away from the company of my pen; indeed, it even prevents me from seeking the company of anybody else.

So as I sit here at home and happen to think about somebody or other who is dear to me, I think, “Now you ought to go and visit him.” But what happens? I think about it for such a long time that finally the pen (yes, for it must be the pen!) tricks its way into my hand. Instead of paying a visit in town, one more letter takes shape at home. Assisted by the pen I now converse with this person, and when I have finished, the pen actually laughs at me, for it has tricked me. By then the letter is finished, and I think to myself, “Now you must be sure to seal and send it.” What happens? Well, it must be the pen that makes me believe that it can inform me perfectly well as to what impression the receipt of my letter will make on the recipient: what he will say and what I will say in my turn—what he will then say, etc. In brief, instead of sending the letter, which is burned, that letter occasions a small sketch from nature. Of course that sketch cannot be sent and accordingly it must also be burned. Once again the pen has tricked me. It tricks me out of many of the pleasures of life, and the sole comfort left is that, assisted by the pen, I am able more or less to describe how easily it has tricked me—provided that this does not have to be done on one of those days when I am quarreling with it.

I do not know if I have succeeded in making myself quite clear, but in any case this time my pen shall not succeed in tricking the letter away from me, all the more so because just these days I deserve to be reproached in a stricter sense for my lack of participation in the actualities of life. I myself realize very well that it was rather strange that I did not take part in my late cousin’s funeral procession, but for that very reason I doubly appreciate your sympathy and attention to me: in such circumstances to write me a letter. I am also aware of your father’s kindness to me, but, really, he almost embarrassed me with his politeness, for it does seems almost too much to call on me in person to bring me his sad news and then to excuse me from attending.

 The enclosure from Berlin was typical for Berlin. Philosopher and relative Hans Brochner’s notion to send it here was not a bad one, and his notion to send it to you was a happy one; but your idea of sending it to me with your letter—that was a beautiful idea. And there is (do but ask the philosophers about this, do as Brochner) a world of difference between a notion and an idea. So there is also a contradiction in having your letter serve as an envelope for that little slip of paper from B., for that is like wrapping a small silk scarf in a genuine Persian shawl. Of course, it would be more natural to use the silk scarf as a wrapper for the shawl. It is no less a contradiction that a letter from a lady should include a brief note from a gentleman. As a rule one is already quite struck if one is so lucky as to receive a note from a lady enclosed in a letter from a gentleman. So you see, because I have in fact often thought of visiting you and often regretted that I have not done so and because I really appreciate your welcome note—you receive the monstrously long letter in reply, which after all does correspond with the disproportion occasioned by B.

Your most devoted S. K.