- Receiving Søren Kierkegaard: The Early Impact and Transmission of His Thought by Habib C. Malik
At the end of the twentieth century no one who has any acquaintance with Western philosophical or religious thought would fail to recognize Kierkegaard’s name. This was not always so. Kierkegaard wrote in his native Danish in the first half of the nineteenth century, and for decades his thinking and his name were virtually unknown outside Scandanavia. Habib C. Malik’s book contains the richly detailed story of how Kierkegaard’s thought became known in Europe and in the English-speaking world. Malik breaks down the reception of Kierkegaardian ideas into several phases: “non-reception,” the beginnings of reception, “misreception,” suppression, and serious reception. In the first phase Kierkegaard was read in Denmark, but not understood. In [End Page 637] the second phase, during the 1840s and 1850s while Kierkegaard was still alive, his writings started to become known outside Denmark in Scandanavia (and even reached North America via Scandanavian-American immigrants). In the period of “misreception,” as Malik calls it, Kierkegaard’s ideas or catch-words are appropriated but not fully understood—as with Ibsen, Malik argues. After Kierkegaard’s journals and papers began to be published in the 1870’s, there developed a new kind of interest in Kierkegaard, the “biographical-psychological approach,” initiated by Georg Brandes, in which Kierkegaard’s ideas and themes were interpreted in terms of the crucial events in Kierkegaard’s life. This approach led to the substance of Kierkegaard’s thinking being suppressed by what became a morbid interest in Kierkegaard’s personal life, such as a preoccupation with Kierkegaard’s relationship to Regine Olsen and then reading “The Diary of a Seducer” or key parts of Fear and Trembling as an expression of this event. The period of suppression reaches into the 1880s and 1890s as scholars and translators, like Christoph Schrempf, use Kierkegaard for their own ends. Schrempf, a Lutheran minister who renounces his belief, looks to Kierkegaard for support for his new stance and translates Kierkegaard into German, omitting passages that do not foster his end. Finally there is the period of serious reception, or its beginning, especially in the German-speaking world. Malik ends the story of Kierkegaard’s reception with the period following the First World War, before the development of twentieth century Existentialism.
In the book’s eight chapters a vast number of minor and major cultural figures are dealt with. Some, like Hans Christian Andersen and Hans Christian Ørsted (the rector of Kierkegaard’s university and the discoverer of electromagnetism, whose approach to religion was cosmological) Kierkegaard knew and interacted with. Most, like Ibsen, Brandes, Schrempf, and Hans Peter Barford (the first editor of Kierkegaard’s extensive papers) and Albert Bärthold (who learned Danish to translate Kierkegaard into German and during the 1870’s regularly produced translations and commentaries) enter the story after Kierkegarrd’s death. Malik recounts Kierkegaard’s Kirkekampen (church-struggle) with the Lutheran Danish state-Church, and he brings out how Kierkegaard’s writing in this period of his “Attack on Christendom” greatly influenced the way he was initially received. He discusses the reaction to Kierkegaard by the early Swedish writer and feminist Fredrika Bremer, and he discusses Kierkegaard’s later influence on such various thinkers and writers as Miguel de Unamuno, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, and Ludwig Wittgenstein (to name some of the more familiar).
There are many nuggets of detail in the book. For instance, those who have read Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist would know that in 1888 Brandes called Kierkegaard to Nietzsche’s attention, but too close to the onset of Nietzsche’s madness for him to read Kierkegaard. However we learn from Malik that Brandes in a letter had characterized Kierkegaard as “one of the profoundest psychologists that have ever existed” and that Nietzsche in his reply in February of 1888 actually expressed the intention to “take up the psychological problem of Kierkegaard” when...