A genius who spat globs of venom

Søren Kierkegaard
October 21, 2005

Few thinkers have gone to such lengths to draw a line between their life and their thought as Kierkegaard. What other figure in the history of philosophy published so many of his best-known works under a variety of pseudonyms - Johannes Climacus, Anti-Climacus, Vigilius Haufniensis and so on - and urged his readers to respect each pseudonym's autonomy? There are certain dangers, therefore, in approaching Kierkegaard biographically. And yet there is also his comment, used by Princeton University Press in its press release for this book, that "the day will come when not only my writings, but precisely my life - the intriguing secret of all the machinery - will be studied and studied". Joakim Garff's fascinating biography, first published in Danish in 2000 and now available in Bruce Kirmmse's stylish and eminently readable English translation, renders Kierkegaard's life intriguing indeed.

On one level, this is a surprising achievement. As Alastair Hannay (another recent biographer of Kierkegaard) has noted, writers'

exterior lives are often dull; and it has become commonplace to observe that Kierkegaard's was in many respects uneventful. He was unmarried, he rarely left his native Denmark and never travelled further than Berlin. But Garff makes gripping reading out of the debates and controversies of Copenhagen in the 1830s-50s. The book beautifully evokes the atmosphere of Kierkegaard's Copenhagen and is full of delightful details, from the description of the cork-lined boots in which this self-styled Christian Socrates took to the streets for his "people bath", to the account of the precise way in which he folded the pages of his infamous journals.

The best-known events of Kierkegaard's life are discussed in detail: his relationship with his overbearing, melancholy father, and his broken engagement to Regine Olsen, the wordless encounters with whom, after her marriage to Fritz Schlegel (later Governor of the Danish West Indies) Kierkegaard noted in his journal almost obsessively. Garff does an especially good job of showing the importance for Kierkegaard of the notorious " Corsair affair " - the biting ad hominem attack that the satirical publication of that name launched on him in 1846, in which not only his ideas, but also his body and his clothes were lampooned, making him a figure of fun throughout the city and bequeathing to the world the idea that Kierkegaard was a hunchback. He became an astute observer of the dangers of media irresponsibility, not least as a result of this experience. As Garff notes: "It may be true that Kierkegaard did not say anything about the press that has not been said by others, but he said it before they did."

Yet, as well as these major landmarks in his life, we also see Kierkegaard from some unusual angles, such as his secretary Israel Levin's account of what it was like to take dictation from his incredibly prolific employer.

(We learn, too, of Levin's frustration at always having to justify to Kierkegaard which of a huge collection of cups he wanted his coffee in.) Garff sheds light on another side to this largely solitary figure: through the eyes of his young niece. For instance, we see the lavish attention of which Uncle Soren was capable (despite usually being late with birthday presents). Indeed, so familiar is the image of Kierkegaard as a lonely genius that it comes as a surprise to read of the mail from female "fans"

that his occasional sermons inspired.

Scandinavian reviews of the original edition have compared this biography to a novel, and with good reason. Garff has a novelist's ability to make great capital from small details, and as a biography in the most straightforward sense - the story of a life - the book is hard to beat. It is a real page-turner - perhaps just as well because there are more than 800 of them - and though it contains a wealth of detail, it will be accessible to a wide variety of readers.

Garff takes a mostly chronological approach, with the years from 1813 to 1855 serving as chapter headings, but with subtitles ranging from the unsurprising (such as titles of his books) to the intriguing and startling ("I am regarded as an Englishman, a kind of half-mad eccentric"; "My opponent is a glob of snot"). Sometimes one wishes for a fuller discussion of some of the texts, many of which are treated sparingly, and, in this regard, one can certainly quarrel with Garff's claim that Kierkegaard's work "cannot be summarised, only quoted".

The book is perhaps at its weakest when at its most speculative. Garff seems fascinated by the possibility that Kierkegaard's phenomenal literary productivity - his "graphomania" - might have been the result of temporal lobe epilepsy. He even puts forward the idea that this illness might have been "the intriguing secret of all the machinery" referred to above. Faced with the problem of a complete absence of references to epilepsy in the journals, he rather desperately suggests that this absence "might itself be a piece of evidence". He also suggests that Kierkegaard's literary productivity might have been the result of sexual repression, in which he "forced desire to take on forms of expression other than immediacy". In the preface, Garff states his overall aim as being "not only to tell the great stories of Kierkegaard's life but also to scrutinise the minor details and incidental circumstances, the cracks in the granite of genius, the madness just below the surface, the intensity, the economic and psychological costs of the frenzies of writing, as well as the profound and mercurial mysteriousness of a figure with whom one is never really finished". But one sometimes wonders whether the attempt to find "cracks in the granite of genius" has not led Garff to chip away at the granite and thus make the fissure larger than it originally was.

Overall, Kierkegaard emerges as an all-too-human figure; a sometimes impossible stubbornness being the dark side of his integrity. Some have criticised Garff for this portrayal, but it serves as a useful corrective.

There is perhaps a tendency among Kierkegaardians to judge his contemporaries too harshly by viewing them solely through Kierkegaard's eyes. Garff aims to leaven this by showing us Kierkegaard through their eyes, and the picture that emerges is sometimes none too flattering. In this respect, the section on Kierkegaard's later life is especially good.

It is hard to be reminded of the details of the almost Nietzschean venom of the attack Kierkegaard mounted, in the final year of his life, on the Danish People's Church through his periodical The Moment , without feeling at least a twinge of sympathy for the pastors.

Despite this, there seems little justification for the cruelty of the backlash Kierkegaard received from some quarters: Garff draws attention to a particularly scurrilous poem by a theology student called Thurah, which Hans Christian Andersen described, with some understatement, as "coarse".

In this whole feud, the love that Kierkegaard so impressively details as central to the Christian world-view in Works of Love seems to have vacated the scene.

Though not without its flaws, this book is a landmark in conveying a life vastly more complex than it at first appears.

John Lippitt is reader in ethics and philosophy of religion, Hertfordshire University.

Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography

Author - Joakim Garff
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 867
Price - £22.95
ISBN - 0 691 09165 X

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