- Nothing Personal:Kierkegaard's Generous Self-Absorption
Nothing personal tempts me any more.—Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Louise Colet
Søren Kierkegaard died in 1855. Almost from the start of his second life, as an intellectual immortal, there has been a great demand for a definitive biography. For one thing, in his writings Kierkegaard draws a tight connection between words and deeds, suggesting that if you do not reflect your reflections in your actions, then you do not understand what you are reflecting about. The biographical layer of some of Kierkegaard's texts, such as Either/Or and Fear and Trembling, is virtually transparent. For example, around the time that he composed his meditation on the Binding of Isaac narrative, Kierkegaard broke off his betrothal to the love of his life, Regine Olsen. She nearly died of grief, and Kierkegaard offered her little by way of explanation. In Fear and Trembling, Isaac is, at least in part, a stand-in for the woman whom Søren always called "my Regine." Many other Kierkegaard texts, the vertiginous Repetition in particular, are rife with biographical elements of this nature.
But it was Kierkegaard's difficult temperament and his secrecy that mostly inspired calls for a detailed biography (and also biographers' reticence to undertake [End Page 80] the effort). At one time it seemed a Freudian would be the likeliest candidate. In the late 1970s, word had it that Eric Erikson was going to write the life of Denmark's latest Hamlet, its prince of inwardness. Ultimately it was a theologian, another Dane, who took on and completed the task. Joakim Garff began his decade-long walk with Kierkegaard in the mid-1980s. Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography did not appear in English translation until 2005. There has been controversy over some of Garff's factual claims, and even a row over his failure to cite sources. Nevertheless, his complex and compelling portrait has enriched our sense of how immensely difficult a person Kierkegaard could be. Very early in life, he was nicknamed Gaflen or Fork. Even as a child he would zero in on the weaknesses he perceived in others and, at the risk of a drubbing, stick them where it hurt the most. Umbrageous, and a satirist on a par with Swift, Kierkegaard did not mellow into maturity. It was not easy to avoid a fray in his vicinity—a misplaced word in an otherwise positive review would pull the lanyard on his temper—but associates could try to elude him. The Fork wrote his dissertation (on irony) in a form that mocked the style of members of his dissertation committee. Rather than deal with this provocation head on, one professor pretended to be ill at the time of his student's dissertation defense. Another typical story that Garff retells is about Adam Goldschmidt, an editor with whom Kierkegaard would eventually become embattled. It seems that Goldschmidt had just bought a somewhat garish coat and was sauntering down the street in it when Kierkegaard pulled him aside. As Garff has it, Søren made some small talk and then, in a hushed tone, advised Goldschmidt to lose the coat ("You are not a riding instructor"). Kierkegaard tortured his already self-tortured contemporary Hans Christian Andersen with a scathing book-length review of Only a Fiddler, Andersen's singular attempt at a serious novel. Eventually Kierkegaard stuck more than a fork into German idealism and institutional Christianity and in general made anyone crossing his path anxious.
According to his own version of things, Søren led an uneventful life. I suspect that this self-understanding was influenced by his powerful identification with Socrates, who was fond of saying that he rarely went beyond the city walls. And yet Socrates had more than enough adventures on the battlefield and in the law courts. Kierkegaard's life likewise spilled far beyond the pages of his books. At the end of his days, he famously attacked the Danish State Lutheran Church and met with predictable opposition. But much earlier, in 1845, midair in his writing career, he initiated a battle royal with the popular but illegal Danish rag The Corsair. The left...