Upon Double Reflection

Sitting in Haché Gourmet Burgers restaurant last night in Copenhagen, I found myself gazing into an enormous wall-covering mirror and seeing the world around me in reflection. In a way, looking through this glass at my surroundings struck me as easier and less invasive than observing the place directly. I suppose, on reflection, this was a function of the sense of safety one gets from looking in a mirror and seeing the world as a spectator rather than as a participant.

Copenhagen may inspire reflection on reflection. Soren Kierkegaard, who called Copenhagen home, reflected on reflection by writing pseudonymously. In spite of these pseudonyms, many readers assumed he shared the views of the characters under whose names he wrote. This was not necessarily the case, nor was it his intent. As Prof. James Rovira writes in his recent book Kierkegaard and Blake: ‘He did not intend his pseudonymous authorship to speak on his behalf, but rather to reveal the type of personality who would conceive of these ideas. Kierkegaard wanted his readers to understand that the pseudonyms are characters he created and that their books are works written by these characters.’[1]

Kierkegaard created characters in order to enflesh some of the most prominent ideologies of his day. His hope was that, by indirectly communicating these things through pseudonyms, he (as Kierkegaard) could step aside and stir his readers to reflect on their lives and the ideologies that informed the way they lived them. In other words, according to Rovira, it ‘is not what we see of Kierkegaard in his work that is important, but what we see of ourselves in reaction to his works.’[2]

In an attempt to distance himself from his characters Kierkegaard wrote: ‘I have no opinion about [the characters] except as a reader, not the remotest private relation to them, since it is impossible to have that to a doubly reflected communication.’[3] By claiming a ‘doubly reflected communication’, Kierkegaard professed to be two steps removed from the written thoughts of his characters because those thoughts were generated by the characters he created—characters he saw as neither equal to himself, nor who necessarily shared his thoughts. But was he really as far removed from and unaffected by his characters as he claimed?

It seems to me an answer might lie in examining a parallel between Kierkegaard’s taking on characters in his writing and actors taking on roles for the stage. Some, like theatre director Jerzy Grotowski, see the act of taking on a role as having the potential to reveal true things to those who take on the roles. In Grotowski’s opinion, the ‘important thing is to use the role as a trampolin, an instrument with which to study what is hidden behind our everyday mask. . .’[4] When this act is performed faithfully, Grotowski believes the effect of the unmasking can spill over to the spectator and serve as ‘an invitation to him [the spectator] to do the same thing’.[5]

If this parallel is well-founded and if Grotowski’s contention is true, is it possible that, through the reflective act of inhabiting various characters in Kierkegaard’s writing, true things were revealed not only to his readers but also to himself?  If so, might Christians be able to approach the practice of creating characters, whether through writing or by acting, as a spiritual discipline with the hope that God might enable us, through reflection, to see more clearly in the mirror which is still quite dim?


[1]. James Rovira, Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010), 44.

[2]. Ibid., 46.

[3]. Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, Johannes Climacus, Kierkegaard’s Writings 7 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1985), 626.

[4]. Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), 37.

[5]. Ibid.

Image credit: http://www.sxc.hu/


  • Ben says:

    I want to make sure that I am understanding this corectly. the implication is that by creating a faceade, a character, we somehow gain a truer picture of reality, in particular of ourselves. The reason I ask is that this seems counter intuitive to me.

    The way it would make more sense to me is that by lifting the masks, characters and facades in which we participate we will more readily find a true sense of ourselves. Grotowski in particular seems to be saying quite the opposite. from what is posted here Grotoski seems to be saying that as we dawn each new mask, we invite others to reflect the mask we have placed upon ourselves, and we also see that mask (on some level) in our selves. However, it what if the mask we wear is nothing like who we are, or who we want to be. Can we wear the mask of a villian and still say that were are hoping to evoke the good in others by giving them a “living foil”?

    Another question I have, is how far removed can Keirkegaard really remove himself from his characters? I understand that, in a sense, he is writing from a semi-removed position, but ultimtely the character is of Keirkegaard’s design, and hence has some sense of at least his pattern of thinking. Character A maybe acting the way Character A is supposed to act according to his nature, but that nature is ultimately what Keirkegraad believed, thought, contemplated that nature to be. Linking this question to the previous question; if we create a character to inspire or evoke reflection, is not that character in some sense a facet of who we already are?

    just some thoughts I had while reading

    • Dave Reinhardt says:

      Thanks for your thoughts and questions, Ben!
      I agree with you: it does seem counterintuitive to suggest we could ‘gain a truer picture of reality’ by creating a character. Let me see if I can clarify the idea a bit by placing things in context.
      If our reason for creating a character is borne out of an attempt to escape from reality or to distance ourselves from others in our everyday lives (i.e. consciously pretending to be someone else with others who are unaware of what we are doing), the result would undoubtedly be inauthentic and very unlikely to put us in touch with true reality.
      However, if we assume the voice of a character in the writing of a novel, or take on a character in a play or film we surely do so not with the intent of deceiving others, but in an attempt to realistically portray the way another person might think and act. And, importantly, those who see us ‘in character’ take us to be operating within a fictional realm. What I am suggesting is this: in order to imbue these characters with a realistic quality we must identify with them, perhaps even, in a way, love them. Of course, there is no guarantee this kind of identification with others will lead to a clearer view of reality, but, given the command to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’, this act of identification might be something God could use to enable us to see more clearly.

      I admit that Grotowski is difficult to understand (I’m not sure he fully understood what he thought!), but it seems he is implying that the process of attempting to create an authentic character requires an actor to understand himself more fully—to see his own reality more clearly—and that, beyond this, there is something about seeing an authentic character on stage that inspires a viewer to thereby see himself more clearly. And, while I wouldn’t endorse his method of creating such characters—a rather intense method too involved to go into here—I do think it is possible (not necessary) that in attempting to portray a character who is ‘nothing like who we are, or who we want to be’ we can gain valuable insight into others and ourselves. And that, if we are seeking to hear from God in the creation or viewing of these characters, we might be able to see reality more clearly.
      Picking up on your final point and mine, I agree with you that Kierkegaard (or any writer who creates characters for that matter) is the one actually writing the words which represent the thoughts of the characters he’s created. It’s this very thing that makes his claims of separation from his characters suspect. But, the fact remains, creating a character (even if that character somehow resides in the recesses of our minds) requires reflection and, when God is invited into a reflective process such as this, we might just see more clearly as a result.
      Hope this helps, and thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

    • jfutral says:

      “the implication is that by creating a faceade, a character, we somehow gain a truer picture of reality, in particular of ourselves.”

      Two things about this. First I don’t recall anyone mentioning “a truer picture of reality”. Not to go all postmodern here, oh, wait, yes to get postmodern here, perception is reality. Reality is at the mercy of everyone’s definition and perceptions of what is real, particularly with regards to discovering ourselves and each other. Truth about ourselves, unmasking, is not equivocal to a truer picture of reality. IOW, I am not sure to what extent Kierkegaard or Grotowski is all that concerned with “reality”, if at all.

      Second, by your own reckoning of Kierkegaard in his inability to be as removed from his characters as he claims, he is really creating from himself. Is this not better, then, to get a truer picture of oneself? Regardless of how one perceives the process, how is the result different? I’m not sure I explained that well.

      Grotowski is speaking as an artist. Picasso is attributed as saying “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

      A performer is at once not playing himself and playing himself. He is not playing himself because he is not the character he is portraying. He is playing himself in as much as he can only portray the character as he understands him. In studying the character, to understand the mask to wear, hopefully thoughtfully and thoroughly, how can we not discover something about ourselves in the process?

      I believe Kierkegaard is absolutely mixing media—writing and acting. But I also believe, because of his unique “childhood”, distancing himself from his characters is probably a more profound distancing than is typical. He no doubt believed he was writing as he used to recite other people at the dinner table after they left the party. He might very well have had those dinner guests in mind as he wrote.


      • Ben says:

        Dave and Joe,
        thank you both for your insights and clairifcations. I have not had a great deal of exposure to Keirkegaard, but anytime he comes up he interests me, so moany of my comments were more questions than comments. thank you again, you both helped me better understand the post, and probably this facet of Kierkegaard better than I had before.

        to Joe specifically; I understand that no one mentions a “truer picture of reality,” which is why I thought it was an implication. I gleaned the implication from this statement: “His hope was that, by indirectly communicating these things through pseudonyms, he (as Kierkegaard) could step aside and stir his readers to reflect on their lives and the ideologies that informed the way they lived them.” if Kierkegaards point was to better understand ourselves and ultimately the ideologies which direct the way we chose to live, then even from a post modern stand point isn’t that gaining a truer picture of our reality, even if that reality is couched in our perception? I know is is an inference, but that is where i pulled that particular infrance from.

        I think I understand your second point and i am fairly certain I agree. As we create from ourselves, we understand ourselves and at bear minimum how we think a character would relate to eh world is in somes sense a reflection more of ourselves than the character which we may create.

        I think truth about ourselves is a portion of reality, however we discover that truth about ourselves. I think this is even more true in a post-modern mindset where our perception (which is partially goverend by how we understand ourselves) determines how we understand reality. I think I am a little more of an philosophical objetivist than most post-modernists, so correct my understanding if I have made a mistake.

        To Dave: thank you for explaining Grotowski better, I was more than a little lost there. I particularly appreciate your explination of how it can help us better understand others, as God created both them and us.

        Thanks again gentleman

  • jfutral says:

    Could this be a skill he acquired at the hands of his father who used to make him listen in on dinner parties his father threw with dignitaries and the intellects of his day and then, once the guests had left, young Soren was required to sit in each chair and repeat everything he had heard the guest who sat there say? Or something like that.

    In some ways, to Kierkegaard as an example to follow is like expecting a grade-schooler to understand Einstein. not impossible, but certainly mind blowing.


    • Dave Reinhardt says:

      Hi Joe,

      It seems like there is fairly broad agreement between us. You’re right to point up the challenge of speaking about things like ‘reality’ and ‘truth’. However, from what I understand of both Kierkegaard and Grotowski, they really were pretty interested in presenting reality or encouraging the discovery of reality as they understood it to their various audiences.

      The artistic mediums both chose did allow them some of the latitude Picasso spoke of in the quote you included as regards seeking truth. I think this latitude might have been a part of the ‘indirect communication’ Kierkegaard was known for.

      You’re biographical insight about Kierkegaard is intriguing. Where do you come by this?

      • jfutral says:

        I can’t recall exactly, I’ve read so much and so long ago. Just one of those things that stuck with me. Also the story about his father sending him off to school and telling him not to graduate 1st in his class, but to graduate third in his class.

        What little I know of either artist leads me to believe they were certainly concerned with truth but I would say neither person equates truth with “reality”, aka “objective truth”. I have no doubt the irony is not lost on Kierkegaard with his characters as somehow presented as an objective form (no relation whatsoever) yet entirely of his creation, making any claim of objectivity suspect. I would hazard to say that was part of his struggle. Not unlike Warhol or even Miles Davis in his late years.


      • jfutral says:

        What concerned me most was Ben’s comment was this implication or underlying assumption that good does not come from evil, or more specifically a “truer picture of reality” cannot come from a lie or at best borders on manipulation.

        I could be wrong, but that struck me as the gist of his questions.


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