Kierkegaard: A Single Life
In an entry of less than 300 words, the then peerless Encylopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, calls young Søren Aaby[e] Kierkegaard “delicate, precocious and morbid in temperament” (vol. 15, 788). One hundred five years later, I am sure that Kiekegaard maven Stephen Backhouse would agree, probably extending Britannica’s estimation to the maverick philosopher’s entire life.
Dying after a series of seizures in 1855 at age 42, Søren—as Backhouse calls him throughout this concise, yet full biography—was not merely precocious, but enormously productive and often acerbic in in his writing. As well, he was beset with intractable paradoxes that both attracted and repelled friends, family and colleagues. During his life he reaped few accolades and much scorn for his relentless, often slashing criticism of leading Danish literati (among them Denmark’s hitherto untouchable Hans Christian Andersen) academics, political theorists and state church leaders. After being ignored by his family pastor and erstwhile mentor, Bishop Jakob Peter Mynster, Kierkegaard added him to his phalanxes of targets. Calling Mynster a “poisonous plant . . . a colossus,” he concluded, “Great strength was required to topple him, and the person who did it also had to pay for it” (148).
Pay for it Søren Kierkegaard did, suffering more than intellectual opposition in the Danish salon press that often resembled more a high-falutin’ back-alley knife fight than enlightened conversation. Publishing endless pseudonymous debates among the intelligentsia arguing Hegelian philosophy, most writers attempted to mesh Hegel state church leadership with national politics. Søren himself condemned such church-state collusion in years of articles, using at least eight soon-transparent pseudonyms; one might say he was asking for it.
Backhouse clearly elucidates without judgment that practice so perplexing to 20th century-trained academics whose articles bulge with footnotes and over-attribution in hopes of gaining credibility. Yet, oddly enough, in the 21st century’s “let it all hang out” social media, hosts of bloggers use cryptic pseudonyms to lambaste pundits in a now acceptable, nearly libellous cowardice.
I’m certain Kierkegaard himself would disapprove of his old literary ploy in today’s dress. As Backhouse takes pains to establish, Kierkegaard wrote pseudonymously not to disguise his identity. Rather he wrote thus in order to articulate publicly the debates formed in the multitudes of crooks and crannies in his enormous mind, all to discover Truth according to his own rigorous interpretation of New Testament ethics, based in Jesus’ demands of self-sacrificial living. Kierkegaard’s constant theme: garish accoutrements of power as seen in Denmark’s state church betrayed Christ.
His years-long controversies with other colossi of Danish political, social, academic, and ecclesiastical elite opened new springs, eventually forming many streams in philosophy, theology and literature that had hardly begun to flow when Britannica’s Eleventh Edition appeared 56 years after Kierkegaard’s death. In his final chapter, “A Life Continued,” Backhouse compiles a chronological, annotated list of persons and movements whom Kierkegaard directly influenced; those streams have grown into international and omni-cultural torrents that have changed intellectual discourse.
Among those owing significant freshets of their work to Kierkegaard are Hendrik Ibsen, Karl Jaspers, Franz Kafka, Hannah Arendt, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mike Tyson, who seriously quoted Søren in a 2013 tweet. What Kierkegaard might think of his broad influence, Backhouse doesn’t speculate, merely concluding “Kierkegaard is hardly a household name, yet his fingerprints are everywhere” (206).
During his lifetime, though, Kierkegaard showed no ambition to shape anyone but leaders in Copenhagen, the small capital of a small, intimate nation where all strata of society met in public parks, cafes, restaurants, libraries, clubs, and churches. That such modest beginnings eventually rose like over-yeasted dough to cover the world is one of many bewildering paradoxes of Kierkegaard’s life.
Because he was so brash and relentless in public, Copenhagen’s comfortable bourgeois society heaped reams of opprobrium on him. Avoiding such pain could have been simple. Kierkegaard took an advanced theological degree, receiving rare dispensation to write the thesis in Danish, rather than the customary Latin. (The oral defense was in Latin, however, a daunting requirement, nearly impossible to imagine today with English the world’s language in academia, politics, and commerce.)
From university, he could have drifted into a quiet rural pastorate, perhaps later aspiring to a bishopric or university professorship. But Backhouse jarringly shows how Kierkegaard was spiritually unable to consider what he would deem the baldest hypocrisy imaginable. Instead Søren became one of the first deliberately churchless Christians; though a follower of Jesus, he refused to attend worship for years. Intentionally passing churches on Sunday walks to his Copenhagen club, he rubbed his colleagues’ and Copenhagen’s respectable society’s noses in their own public repudiation of his authorship, thus ramping up the infamy still more.
Willing for the sake of personal and spiritual probity to suffer public ridicule, Kierkegaard nevertheless recorded his private agony in journals after many caricaturists dipped to cruel lows. They exaggerated his spindly legs, thier tight pants bulging at the knees, his curved and twisted spine ruthlessly overdone.
Yet no such public mockery produced wounds as lasting and scars as deep as his self-inflicted injury of breaking his engagement to Regine Olsen. She is, alongside antagonist Søren, this biography’s suffering protagonist, though not heroine. Reading Backhouse’s description of the romance Kierkegaard abruptly severed a day after the engagement is painful. Moonstruck by Regine, Søren regardless discerned even while courting that for his work to continue, he must not marry.
Thus he did his best to show his worst to Regine. Devastated by his unforeseen reversal, she was physically sickened, trying for weeks to change his mind. The harder she tried, the more cruelly Søren shunned her with unkind notes; she surrendered. So, for years they two passed each other often in Copenhagen’s parks, silent, exchanging mysterious, enigmatic glances, piteously recorded in Søren’s copious journals. Yet that self-inflicted liberation from romance plowed the furrow for Kierkegaard’s astonishing concentration and voluminous work.
Drafting most of his books in his journals, Kierkegaard did not intend them for publication till after his death—another paradox, for which only Kierkegaard himself could give sufficient explanation; he never did. Publication fell to others—whose efforts Stephen Backhouse thoroughly and gratefully acknowledges at the end of this utterly readable, intriguing biography.
It is, like Kierkegaard’s own life, wonderfully quirky. I have read many biographies—of writers, military and political leaders, actors, singers. In all, the authors integrated discussions of their subjects’ writings, songs or performances within the story. Not so Backhouse. Instead, he paints Kierkegaard’s life first, sketching as briefly as possible the article or book that provoked the latest fracas in Søren’s and Copenhagen’s life. In a separate 53 page section, Backhouse introduces Kierkegaard’s major works in crystalline prose, nudging them into the historical context earlier described.
This ingenious literary tool is probably necessary, because it bespeaks the many internal divisions within Kierkegaard’s own mind and spirit. Thus Backhouse juxtaposes a life of incredible intellectual and spiritual activity whose streams keep flowing powerfully, unpredictably more than a century and a half after Søren Kierkegaard’s death.
Read this brief, splendid biography and you’ll learn more about the life and mind and times of a physically tiny giant than in books three times longer about people not half the measure of Søren Kierkegaard.
James Dekker, semi-retired Christian Reformed missionary and pastor lives in St. Catharines, Ontario. He had read little of Kierkegaard’s works before reading Backhouse’s biography and hopes to live long enough to read many.