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Great European Lives: Søren Kierkegaard

Danish philosopher, May 5, 1813 – November 11, 1855

In the spring of 1846 Søren Kierkegaard would find himself pausing briefly at the door before setting out for the long daily walks that had made him such a familiar figure on the streets of Copenhagen. It would only be a fleeting moment’s uncertainty as he reached for the umbrella he carried everywhere, but he’d chide himself, adjust his hat, exhale and proceed out onto the street.

Ridicule, he would write later, was ‘martyrdom in the age of reason’ and Kierkegaard knew all about ridicule.

Where people would once have stopped gladly and chatted to the man who’d become well-known in Copenhagen as a writer on philosophical and religious subjects, these days he couldn’t seem to walk 50 yards without hearing a burst of raucous laughter or an unflattering summary of his personal appearance.

Even his own nephew avoided him in the street. ‘I heard some passers-by say something mocking about him and saw a couple of people on the other side of the street stop, turn around to look at him and laugh,’ he would recall. ‘His one trouser leg really was shorter than the other and I could now see for myself that he was odd-looking. I instinctively stopped, embarrassed, and suddenly remembered that I had to go down another street.’

The father of existentialism’s status as Copenhagen’s number one figure of fun was one he’d earned for himself. The previous year he’d published Stages On Life’s Way, a philosophical treatise on religion that, he hoped, would ‘present the various stages of existence in one work, if possible’.

The book was reviewed in a Danish journal by Peder Ludvig Møller, once a student contemporary of Kierkegaard, in which he praised the author’s wit and intelligence but questioned whether Stages On Life’s Way was overall a rounded, coherent work. While not consisting entirely of unfettered praise the review certainly couldn’t be interpreted as a hatchet job but for some reason that’s exactly how Kierkegaard took it.

He responded by publishing two pompous, sarcastic responses in the Danish newspaper The Fatherland, both of which were designed to discredit Møller. The first accused him of attempting to ingratiate himself with the Copenhagen literati – Møller was trying to secure a prestigious academic post at the time – while the second attacked the satirical periodical The Corsair, a cross between Private Eye and the National Enquirer of which Møller was a member of the editorial board.

‘Would only that I might soon appear in The Corsair,’ Kierkegaard sneered. ‘It is very difficult for a poor author to be singled out like this on the Danish literary scene, so that he… is the only one who is not abused there.’

The Corsair was more than happy to oblige and during the first half of 1846 published a series of scathing articles and cartoons lampooning his ego and his physical appearance. One typical example purported to mock Copernicus for believing the planets moved around the sun.

‘On the contrary,’ ran the piece, ‘the heavens, the sun, the planets, the Earth, Europe, and Copenhagen revolve around Søren Kierkegaard, who stands silently in the centre and does not even remove his hat for the honour being shown him.’

The jokes and cartoons were disseminated so widely that Kierkegaard’s tailor even asked him to take his business elsewhere, fearing the portrayal of the philosopher wearing trousers whose legs were different lengths might risk his reputation.

While he affected to take the abuse in his stride the Corsair affair changed Kierkegaard’s whole modus operandi. He’d set great store by his long daily walks and the conversations he would strike up with people from all walks of life. Indeed, in Stages On Life’s Way he wrote that Copenhagen’s status as ‘one great social gathering’ made it ‘the most favourable habitat I could wish for’.

Kierkegaard regarded the walks as the key primary source for his investigations into the human condition. He would speak to anyone and everyone, meandering for hours through the streets talking to dukes and match sellers, returning home to write up his observations late into the night in works that would later see him come to be regarded as one of the great philosophers of the 19th century.

Once he’d rattled the cage of The Corsair, however, he found himself the subject of sniggers, giggles and outright verbal abuse every time he stepped out of his front door.

As winter turned to spring, however, he had a fair idea that he wouldn’t have to put up with it for too long. Not because he felt public focus would soon find another target, rather it was his strong suspicion that he was going to die.

Søren Kierkegaard was born into a wealthy family who worshipped at the evangelically Lutheran Moravian Congregation of Brethren church in Copenhagen. Søren’s father Michael, a successful hosiery entrepreneur, was convinced that he had been condemned by God as a young man, either because he had once cursed God as a hotheaded youth or because he and his wife Ane had conceived their first child before they were married.

Kierkegaard senior was certain that as a result of his misdemeanours none of his children would live longer than Jesus Christ’s 33 years. When his first five children all died young it seemed as if his morbid fears might be justified, but when Søren’s older brother Peter reached his 34th birthday in 1839, having outlived both parents, it appeared any perceived hex might have been lifted. It still nagged at Søren however, who would turn 34 in May 1847.

With this kind of background, not to mention both parents and five siblings being dead by the time he was 25, it’s no wonder that despair was a major theme in Kierkegaard’s work. Indeed he thought that aesthetic, ethical and religious lifestyles were but temporary respites from the consciousness of despair. Despair is universal, he proposed in his 1849 work Sickness Unto Death, and we are all enmeshed in despair to such an extent that we’re not even aware of it.

This morbid outlook and heightened sense of his own mortality may explain the extraordinary prolific output of work he produced on the subject: through most of the 1840s he was producing two books a year. It might also account for the other great tumult – or as contemporaries might have put it, scandal – that defined his life.

When Kierkegaard met Regine Olsen in the spring of 1837 he was 24 and she was 15. The two became friends, but a little over two years later he was listening to her playing the piano at her home one evening when suddenly he blurted out his love for her and immediately asked her father’s permission to marry Regine, which was granted.

Whatever his motives for what followed, whether he was being cruel to be kind, had a genuine change of heart or was conducting some kind of philosophical experiment (his 1843 book Fear And Trembling seems to be based strongly on his relationship with Regine), Kierkegaard broke the poor girl’s heart.

In the year following his proposal he became gradually colder towards his fiancée until, in August 1841, he broke off the engagement altogether in a letter, telling her that he was not suitable for marriage and had merely ‘needed a lusty young girl’. He hinted to her father that he was promiscuous, even though he likely died a virgin, and seemed to do all in his power to make Regine despise him.

Regine’s father was high up in the Danish ministry of finance making the scandal a public one, and while it was Kierkegaard’s reputation being dented Regine felt as humiliated as she was mystified. Utterly distraught, she wailed ‘You have played a terrible game with me,’ when her erstwhile fiancé finally consented to break off the engagement in person and she later married her former tutor, emigrating with him to the Danish West Indies.

Some feelings clearly remained, however, as when she returned to Denmark in 1860, five years after Kierkegaard’s death, Regine did much to preserve and propagate his legacy.

Whatever the truth behind his decision to end the relationship, the manner in which he carried it out was entirely in keeping with his belief in indirect communication. ‘Show don’t tell’ was the Kierkegaard way. He wrote most of his books under inventive pseudonyms – Stages On Life’s Way appeared under the name Hilarius Bookbinder, for example – and rather than composing didactic philosophical tracts he preferred to ‘deceive a person into the truth’ rather than espouse his theories directly. ‘Truth is subjectivity’, he wrote, and could only be acquired through the lived experience of the individual.

Although he managed to outlive Jesus, Kierkegaard suffered from a range of ailments throughout his life and died in 1855, a month after collapsing in the street, aged just 42.

He might have been mocked openly in the streets, he might have been regarded as a scoundrel for his treatment of Regine, but Kierkegaard never strayed from his philosophical tasks, nor ever doubted his own importance or that of the legacy he was leaving for posterity.

‘Ah, once I am dead, Fear And Trembling alone will be enough to immortalise my name as an author’, he wrote in his journal. ‘Then it will be read and translated into other languages and people will tremble at the frightful pathos in the book. Yet when it was written, when he who is considered its author went about in an idler’s disguise, looking like flippancy, wit, and frivolity itself, no-one could properly grasp its seriousness. O ye fools!’

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