Recognized as contemporary Denmark’s most significant philosopher, Villy Sørensen also enjoys a reputation as an accomplished writer of fantastic tales, short stories, and criticism. In an interview in 1966, Sørensen pointed to the related themes of his fiction and essays and confessed that he began to write philosophically in order to explain what he had said in other ways. When asked whether there is a line between his essays and his fiction, he replied that while there are different ways to express oneself, what one expresses remains the same. Sørensen ended his remark with the reminder that the reading public of the 1950s understood and discussed symbols less than they did a decade later. He had initially turned to the essay out of a practical need to be understood.
Following his debut in 1953 with the collection of symbolic tales entitled Sære fortcellinger (Strange Stories), Sørensen proceeded to pursue in nonfiction themes of division and dualism as they affect the individual and society. In several of his essays he attacks totalitarian tendencies which endanger the development of individual personality.
To a large extent, both his fiction and his essays deal with the consequences of man’s metaphorical “fall” (faldet) from grace which signaled the breakdown of values and man’s inability to act. In interpreting the “fall” in the context of contemporary society, Sørensen lends his oeuvre a cyclical character.
Although Sørensen had written short prose pieces as a member of the group of young philosophically inspired writers identified as Heretikere (Heretics), he did not publish his first collection of essays until 1959. In Digtere og dæmoner (Poets and demons), Sørensen takes up an underlying theme also identifiable in his fiction: the contradiction between the absolute and the abstract. In doing so, he offers interpretations and evaluations as a literary, aesthetic, and social critic. The presence of opposites in the dialectical concept of man, in the conflict of myth and the critical denial of myth, and in the discrepancies of ontological versus societal determinants of man’s environment define the contradictory texture of Sørensen’s essays.
The irony that Sørensen does not consider himself an essayist (“I do not regard myself as anything described by a word ending in -ist. Neither philosophically nor artistically”) and yet composes works which reflect the characteristics of the essay suggests not so much his refusal to identify with other authors of this genre as it does his individuality as a writer and thinker and his ambition to employ the genre consistent with his own goals.
Notwithstanding, the titles of his collections of essays and the tone of the individual works seem to justify the use of the term “essay.” Hverken—eller (1961; Neither—nor), Uden mål—og med (1973; With and without a goal), and Den gyldne middelvej (1978; The golden mean) all suggest the noncommittal attitude assumed by the essayist.
Moreover, Sørensen’s consciousness of the requisites of the essay are now revealed in his diaries. In contemplating the nature of the goals of Digtere og damoner, for example, Sørensen uses not only the term essay, but essaysamling (collection of essays) and essaybog (essay book) as well. In his struggle to create “the book,” he reminded himself that a work which comprises a collection of essays must have organic cohesion.
Sørensen’s readers view him in large part as an author of essays grouped around themes, reflecting the recognition of opposites. He addresses the contrasting relationships between art and democracy, natural science and psychology, as well as the interplay of power, morality, and nature. Although Sørensen’s thinking is grounded in the classical tradition, at the same time it reflects his personal thoughts as well as current debate.
Sørensen’s concern for society’s development takes the form of social criticism. He admonishes not only with respect to the welfare of Denmark (“Det indre Danmarksbillede” [Denmark from within]), but that of Europe as well (“Det faldne Europe” [Fallen Europe]).
As a writer of essays, Sørensen understands how to intimate knowledge without tiring his readers. He is free of provincialism and sees as one of his goals awakening the sensitivity of his readers to critical thinking. He does not deny the pedagogical vein of his writing; in fact, he emphasizes that irony and pedagogy have always been compatible.
Moreover, Sørensen expresses himself in an accessible manner, using humor as one of his most effective tools.
A good example of his essay style can be found in “Den frie vilje” (Free will), which appeared in the literary and cultural journal Perspektiv (Perspective) in 1957–58. In it he echoes Montaigne and Ludvig Holberg, employing the dialectic of gallantry to present his views as the nobleman who circumvents war by keeping his sword in the sheath. For him, the essay essentially becomes a test of strength, a proving ground; he fluctuates between argument and counterargument, examination and reexamination. As soon as he exhausts one perspective, he turns the discussion toward another. Characteristically, “Den frie vilje” contemplates man’s relationship to freedom, guilt, and predestination by juxtaposing divergent means of interpretation, but offers no solution to its inherent problems.
In this and other essays, Sørensen’s prose is charged by his use of puns, his attention to hidden meanings, and his fascination with paradox. His leaning toward the essay as a genre grew partly out of his need to clarify his fiction and partly out of his recognition of the crisis of his time. No longer able to identify a unifying culture in Denmark or Europe, he sought to break the silence of his generation. His criticism of contemporary society made him a dominant figure in postwar Danish culture. Inspired by Søren Kierkegaard,
Carl Jung, and Hermann Broch among others, he found in the essay a means of questioning the materialism and rationalism of the day.
Born 13 January 1929 in Frederiksberg, near Copenhagen. Studied at the Vestre Borgerdydskole, graduated 1947; philosophy at the University of Copenhagen, 1947–51, and the University of Freiburg, Baden, 1951–53. Editor, with Klaus Rifbjerg, Vindrosen (Wind rose), 1959–63; editor, På Vej (En route), 1978–81, and Gyldendal Kulturbibliotek, 1987–91.
Awards: many, including the Danish Critics Prize, 1959;
Danish Academy Prize, 1962; Gyldendal Prize, 1965; Nathansen Award, 1969; Holberg Medal, 1973; Brandes Prize, 1973; Steffens Prize, 1974; Nordic Council Prize, 1974;
Amalienborg Prize, 1977; Hans Christian Andersen Award, 1983; Swedish Academy Nordic Prize, 1986; Poul Henningsen Prize, 1987; Wilster Prize, 1988; honorary degree from the University of Copenhagen. Member, Danish Academy.
Essays and Related Prose
Digtere og dcemoner: Fortolkninger og vurderinger, 1959
Hverken—eller: Kritiske betragtninger, 1961
Uden mdl—og med: Moralske tanker, 1973
Den gyldne middelvej og andre debatindlaeg fra 70’erne, 1978
Demokratiet og kunsten, 1989
Den frie vilje, 1992
Other writings: several collections of short stories and retold Nordic myths,
philosophical works, and diaries. Also translated Erasmus, Kafka, and Hermann Broch.
Sønderiis, Ebbe, Villy Sørensen: En ideologisk analyse, Kongerslev: GMT, 1972
Claussen, Claus, editor, Digtere i forhør, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1966:11–34
Petersen, Ulrich Horst, “Om (nogle af) Villy S0rensens historier,” in his Frihed og tabu: Essays, Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1971: 108–66
Rossel, Sven, “Villy Sørensen: Mythologist, Philosopher, Writer,” World Literature Today 65 (1991):41–45
Schnack, Arne, “Den sørensenke dialektik,” Vindrosen 4 (1965)
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