First Prize Winner of the 2013-14 Writing Contest
FEAR AND TRAVELING BY P. M. GOODRICH
On traveling to the Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen to visit the final resting place of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard
In early August of last year, when it simmered all muggy and stale and nostalgic in the United States, and I felt tepid sitting uselessly around my parents’ house—eating leftovers, hogging Netflix, swimming slow laps in the community pool by breaststroke at lunchtime—I left the country by airplane and flew for twelve hours to Copenhagen, a place where I knew no one, spoke no words of the language, and would be alone for longer than I had ever been before. While the trip was premeditated, I had few plans ahead of me as to what I would do, and really had only one goal in mind, which was to discover the life of a man who died before our nation fought a civil war.
Earlier that year, I had been awarded a Seidel Travel Grant to do a project on Søren Kierkegaard, an angst-ridden Danish philosopher/theologian whose valued intellectual position in our culture today is betrayed only by the bizarreness of his modern disciples, a group that I wanted to belong to very dearly. May 5th of that year, Kierkegaard turned two hundred years old. (Or, rather: the dust of his bones turned two hundred years old.) Denmark celebrated this fact with a series of commemorative events and exhibits that I planned on attending.
YouTube and Wikipedia had played guide to my preliminary electronic exploration of the foreign land: a pretty harbor, some beautiful smiling Scandinavians, friendly hot dog stands (cheap food! I foolishly thought), a happy socialist medical system, way too many bikes, a national library that looked like it would pop out rocket thrusters and shoot off into space if one simply pushed the right buttons inside. From the safety and familiarity of my American sofa I figured I had seen enough and that I had sufficiently prepared myself for what awaited me.
It wasn’t just that I was unprepared for the trip logistically—that I had never been outside of the Northern hemisphere, couldn’t fall asleep on airplanes, didn’t know that meatballs needed breadcrumbs and eggs to stick together or taste decent so that when I tried to make them alone in my apartment I ended up with hard grains of tasteless meat—I was also unprepared mentally—intellectually even. I tried, with sincere faith and effort, to read a decent amount of books that Kierkegaard wrote before taking the journey to his homeland. And although I read a respectable amount of his output, there was so much that I couldn’t understand or didn’t put enough effort into. After this disappointment, I had to find some way to pay penitence for these sins. This seemed connected in my mind with a problem inherent to my journey I had been trying to push out of my mind for a while. I knew that I would be seeing plenty of things in Copenhagen: museums and bookstores and cobbled streets–but how could I get past these physical spaces? How could I feel Kierkegaard’s energy and criticism and spirit underneath?
The solution came to me quickly. The first thing to do in Denmark, I figured, was in some sense the last thing Kierkegaard did. I had to visit his grave. Somehow, I thought, this would kick things off right. It would make up for all the things I never read. It would center me spiritually. It would push me back in the physical and into some kind of realm of importance. It would be the right thing to do; it would be dutiful and courteous. Thus, I resolved to do nothing else in the country before going to pay my respects at the gravesite.
Søren Kierkegaard is buried in Assistens Cemetery. Conveniently, this cemetery was but a 20-minute walk from the apartment I had rented in the neighborhood of Nørrebro. Kierkegaard and Hans Christen Andersen are the two big names buried in Assistens, and, as far as celebrity draws, are the main attractions of the place. Around three hundred thousand people are buried in Assistens; only these two draw any substantial number of visitors. There are also other major figures buried there, just not on the same level as those two figures. Still, the national Danish tourism website advertises the two figures largely on one of their English-language pages, “H.C. Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard alive and kicking” in large emphasized font. This sentence appears without any context, and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out if the error was in translation or if this sentence was somehow faithful to the original Danish.
On the long transatlantic flight over I watched movies and tried to read the first few chapters of a Kierkegaard biography. The German lady sitting next to me made me turn off This is Legend because her young daughter had been watching it out of the corner of her eye and got too scared. The flight was also my first opportunity to test out what I heard about languages in Northern Europe: that nearly everyone spoke English. It was confirmed: I could converse with my neighbors and order an in-flight orange juice in my native tongue with no problems.
Arriving in the airport was a daze of customs and currency exchange and public transportation. I somehow found my way to the apartment I had arranged to rent and dropped off my stuff there. It was time to focus. I left quickly and found myself wandering in a bewildering and chaotic city. I made the mistake of stepping in the bike lanes and was immediately yelled at by fashionable bicyclists in a language I didn’t know. If the city was anything in the 1800’s as it’s like today, I wondered how Kierkegaard was able to avoid all of the temptations of the finite he found himself surrounded by in Copenhagen: beer for sale everywhere, and the law such that you could drink it in the streets if you wanted, women so pretty and smiley I must have dreamt them up out of Scandinavian myth. A topless mermaid statue lounging in the harbor, attracting hundreds of onlookers all day long. In my walk to the cemetery, I noted a complete absence of anything I could relate to Kierkegaard, even if his walks were legendary in the amount of distance he covered, and the paths he took daily were also my own, and resisted the easy thought of a celebratory beer. I had to have faith that I was leading myself straight into the heart of his ghost and I couldn’t distract myself. Quickly, my faith was confirmed, and I was at the entrance to Assistens.
The entire cemetery was free and open to anyone, yet was walled in on all sides, with only a select few entrance points. Despite the bucolic interior, the exterior of the place felt strangely militaristic. Walking in felt like sneaking in to a citadel. Many of the signs at the entrance were old and weathered out, or had been spray-painted over with graffiti. Assistens Kirkegård, the largest sign said. Was this some kind of message? I would later find out that Kierkegaard or Kirkegård, roughly meaning ‘church-garden,’ is the designated term in the Danish language for a cemetery. The convergence of meaning weighed heavily on me; continuing to convince me I had come to the right place at the right time. A cemetery for Mr. Cemetery. I asked a passer-by for some directions.
English speakers traditionally describe Danish as harsh and ugly, but to my sleep-addled blood-sugar-deprived brain it sounded more like English being spoken in some kind of linguistic nightmare where no one around you can articulate properly or thoroughly. Given my lack of sleep, I very well may have indeed been dreaming that day. The way that Kierkegaard’s name is actually pronounced in Danish, I quickly learned, is crazy and terrifying. It starts off as a bright sparrow’s song as it chirps in a bath, Kierke, Kierke, Kierke—before it dives down and is swallowed whole—like the speaker is being punched in the stomach, a really strong Houdini-ending gut punch—Goawr; utterly monstrous to the Anglo ear.
“Excuse me. Can you help me find this grave? Kierkegaard’s?”
“Oh, you mean KirkeGAAOOOOR?”
The landscape in the walk to the gravesite was sweet, brushed over with hundreds of years of European respect for tradition and landscaping. Plenty of tall trees, the gravestones each a new shape and color, a complete lack of adherence to any kind of grid system that astounded my Chicago-saturated mind with the novelty of its disorder. The path was sometimes made up of just dirt, often scattered over with pebbles. Even with the city directly adjacent, the drone of traffic was subdued: just the right distance for a pleasant hum. People strolled everywhere: families, old couples. Kids napped, conversations on benches, kissing, hand-holding, wine. Everyone spaced far from one another, conversations impossible to eavesdrop in on, even if I did understand the language. Is there such a thing as a cemetery culture? The only time I ever went to a graveyard in America was to pay my dutiful respects to a relative. This is the only aim of going there, and then, following our American idea, one wants to leave as quickly as possible. The Danes were having none of that.
Someone had painted a message in English on the side of a building that was directly visible from the path. It read in English, all capitalized in black splashed paint: ONE MAN’S TRASH ANOTHER MAN’S TREASURE. (A building close to where I lived read WHEN WILL I GET LAID? in a similar way—probably the same painter, although seemingly widely disparate in rhetorical strategy and effect.) The style was splotched and hurried, made quickly, I imagine, with paint rollers. The words arched up into the polygonal shape of the top of the building, as if they were pushing up into the roof in order to escape into the sky and float off to Sweden. I walked on past it.
Various small signs throughout the place directed towards the two celebrities: Kierkegaard and Andersen. On one level, this made sense: the path system was such a maze that it was easy to quickly become enveloped by the surroundings and lose the pilgrimage altogether. Yet it was funny to see signs directing to a person’s final resting place as if it were a ride at Legoland.
I strolled through a section of the place dedicated to recent deaths. One in particular, a pop singer who had died two years ago, caught my attention. Her grave was covered in colorful flowers, small stuffed animals, figurines, even CDs and an iPod. Her picture appeared in the center of the stone, smiling and young. The temporal proximity of the woman’s death made me sad in a way that none of the other gravesites, from 1738 or 1887 or even 1934, had. But what was that made her death any closer or more real to me than someone like Kierkegaard, who died in 1855?
Some species of ravens hopped around in tiny groups of four or five. They had black wings with white flecks in the middle, and they darted among the foliage without sound. Like the humans around them, they seemed unaffected by the many bodies lying in the earth beneath them. They picked at worms and grubs in the dirt.
On two separate occasions, I walked by a woman sunbathing topless between the tombstones. The light was bright and un-dappled in certain spots and was, I suppose, suitable for the activity—it was a warm day too—although the choice of location was admittedly shocking. One of them covered up with her shirt as I walked by, embarrassed to have been seen, but the other didn’t seem to care, lying there as motionless as the people lying immobile beneath her. I couldn’t imagine anything like this happening anywhere in America, let alone a cemetery. The nudity, shocking to my Puritanical eyes, lent the scene an even more misty and oneiric sensation.
And then, like that, I found his grave. Three thousand miles and the site was transformed from a few million pixels on a screen into a physical thing before me. Something real. A group of older ladies crowded around it, pointing and talking and taking pictures, but they departed quickly, and I was left standing there alone. Standing there with Kierkegaard? I looked closely at the thing. It was a small grave, all whitish gray and covered with the names of his family members. The really fancy or famous graves at Assisten’s are fenced; SK’s was no exception, except that somebody had broken the gate and it had been refastened with wire barely thicker than an unwound paperclip. A tree grew obnoxiously in the side of the lot and someone had propped a barely-wilted flower against the stone. This was it.
I stood and watched for a moment. It wasn’t easy to find his name—thrown in with all the other members of his family as it was. I finally found it: it appeared at the bottom of the stone on the right, beneath his brother’s name. I couldn’t make out the text around it. And that was it. What was I expecting anyway? A ghost? Fellow pilgrims? Something on par with the tremendous spectacle of his funeral, in which his nephew started yelling about the injustice of the burial and had to be taken away from the scene forcibly? There’s a question that Kierkegaard considers in his short book Philosophical Crumbs, a question that confronted me there at that grave: Can the modern-day disciple be contemporary with the teacher, even (and especially) if the teacher is no longer around? This seemed the closely thing I could get to contemporariness, but: where was the feeling? What was I supposed to feel next?
Leaving the intellectual muddle for a second, I shook my head clean of the thoughts, took out my old scratched iPhone, and took a picture of my face next to the grave, a selfie. It was simultaneously disrespectful and one of my generation’s most sincere gestures of gratitude. I glanced around to see if anyone had seen me do it. No one had. I felt embarrassed anyway.
I slipped my phone back into my pocket and, for a moment, I imagined his body lying down there. What had become of it. The thought was too macabre, too strange. Philosophy was supposed to deal in abstracts, ideas prized precisely for their disembodied nature. But this was something different than visiting a statue or holding the first edition of a book. There was a carcass down there. There was decomposition. There was something down there that none of the nice people up here wanted to see.
It was too much. I soon walked away and wandered the park for a while. After ambling a bit more I found myself standing in front of H.C. Andersen’s grave. His headstone was a far more dignified, more trumped up for his visitors. The stone was tall and dedicated solely to him, flanked on both sides by impressively trimmed foliage, like a fountain on a rich person’s estate. Yellow flowers grew at the bottom in a neat little bunch, and his gate wasn’t broken. I didn’t know much about him, but I thought that he probably had a happier life than Kierkegaard. He, at the very least, had a happier grave.
Worries continued to plague my thoughts as I walked away from Andersen’s grave to pace the park. It was probably caused mostly the terrible desynchronosis wrought by a 9-hour change in sunlight and lack of sleep on the plane, but I began to feel more and more vaguely unnerved. What was I doing at a grave? I didn’t learn anything about Kierkegaard’s ideas or his life. In his ending I instead found a beautiful park, a designated stone, and some half-nude sunbathers. One man’s trash, another man’s treasure. One man’s body, useless to him now, marking out a spot for another man’s tourism. Was this an act of pilgrimage, the destination tending toward spiritual, the reward nothing tangible aside from an inscription in stone and a bit of quiet in a large and noisy city? An act of discovery, maybe, the embodiment of realization of physical death: quietness and stillness.
It made me think about a video I had seen of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. They’re visiting Jack Kerouac’s grave and the tribute quickly turns into a competition, a grave-off. Dylan doesn’t know what’s written on Keats’ grave; point to Ginsberg. Ginsberg has never been to Chekhov’s grave; point to Dylan. The two continue to list the graves they’ve seen while staring down at the one that is holding their friend. “So, this is what’s gonna happen to you?” Ginsberg finally jokes to end the competition. I had a grave to add to my list, indeed, to inaugurate my list altogether. But there in the heart of Assistens I felt in competition only with myself.
The rest of the trip would find me walking almost every street in the city; seeing paintings, locks of the man’s hair, books, manuscripts, the Soren K Restaurant, the engagement ring he bought his one true love, numerous over-priced hot dogs, a castle, churches; meeting zany modern-day adherents to his philosophy, wandering the streets at dusk and getting embarrassed when people tried to speak to me in Danish I couldn’t respond in. But something important really did happen that first day. I felt at least partially engaged with some of the struggles and experiences of the dead Dane. “I must find a truth that is true for me,” he famously wrote in his journals. In Copenhagen this summer, I found a Kierkegaard that was true for me: a mortal thing lying in a park with hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens. He wasn’t as fancy as Hans Christen Andersen, but he was there, and that was enough.
I returned to the gravestone one final time. The sunlight pushed its way past the trees overhead to shine directly onto the marble of the tombstone. Gazing down into its lightness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by futility; and my eyes seared with sorrow and some kind of strange joy. I let the complete frustration of my mission envelope me. I washed myself in the lack of access that physical space provides. I realized that this very frustration was, in many ways, the sort of thing that inspired Kierkegaard to write the things he did. There is a sickness unto death, I thought, and the courage acquired by learning to fear it all the more dreadful. The joy of discovering the thought and life of Kierkegaard was in many ways inextricable from struggling with that very experience. I had gotten what I needed from the place.
I left Assistens and plunged back into the busy metropolis. No souls swooning slowly on the streets of the city; just swarms of cars and electronics stores and Americans. In lieu of the bustling street Kierkegaard once knew, filled with horse-drawn carriages and top hats and candle stores long since gone, there was a series of kebab restaurants. I ate a tasty falafel sandwich, dragged myself back to the apartment, and slept for seven hours straight. It felt good to be alone. I dreamt of cobblestones and old trees and true love.
P. M. Goodrich, ’14, traveled on a Seidel Scholars PRISM Grant to Denmark and Germany.