Unfortunately, my life is far too subjunctive; would to God I had some indicative power.
I sit and listen to the sounds in my inner being, the happy intimations of music, the deep, earnestness of the organ.
He did not belong to reality, and yet he had much to do with it.
—Diary of the Seducer, 1843
What an impression Kierkegaard makes when you first read him! Especially, I must add, if that first time happens to occur in adolescence. How electrifying, at that time of life, to encounter the statement “Subjectivity is truth.” Perhaps you had suspected that all along. But to have it indited there in black and white in the middle of a 576-page book of philosophy called Concluding Unscientific Postscript is something else again. (Actually, the book is called Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments: A Mimic-Pathetic-Dialectic Composition, An Existential Contribution, a deliberately parodic title that somehow makes the proposition that “Subjectivity is truth” even more impressive.)
In one way or another, the explosive idea that “subjectivity is truth” is the guiding theme in Kierkegaard’s thought. In an early journal entry—written in 1835, eleven years before the Concluding Unscientific Postscript was published—the twenty-two-year-old Kierkegaard decided that
What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. . . . [T]he crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, and to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. Of what use would it be to me to discover a so-called objective truth, to work through the philosophical systems so that I could, if asked, make critical judgments about them, could point out the fallacies in each system; of what use would it be to me to be able to develop a theory of the state, . . . and constructing a world I did not live in but merely held up for others to see; of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity . . . if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life?
“Interpretive knowledge,” he concludes, is all well and good but “it must come alive in me and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.”
This is potent stuff. Education is (or used to be) about getting beyond a private point of view and looking at things dispassionately, disinterestedly, objectively. And here comes a certified Great Thinker to tell you that what really counts is not dispassionateness but, on the contrary, passion. What our mediocre, bourgeois society needs, Kierkegaard says again and again, is more passion. In The Present Age (1846), he wrote that
our age is essentially one of understanding and reflection, without passion, momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose. . . . Nowadays not even a suicide kills himself in desperation. Before taking the step he deliberates so long and so carefully that he literally chokes with thought. It is even questionable whether he ought to be called a suicide, since it is really thought which takes his life. He does not die with deliberation but from deliberation.
How far is Kierkegaard willing to press the claims of passion against reason? Apparently all the way. “If you will understand me aright,” he explains in Either/Or (1843), his first major work, “I should like to say that in making a choice it is not so much a question of choosing the right as of the energy, the earnestness, the pathos with which one chooses.”
Of course, that statement, like the statement “Subjectivity is truth”—like, indeed, many of Kierkegaard’s most piquant observations—was delivered not by S. Kierkegaard himself, but by a pseudonym. Kierkegaard deployed a variety of pseudonyms as part of his program of “indirect communication.” Seeking not so much to impart knowledge as to dispel illusion, Kierkegaard saw himself as a sort of spiritual therapist. His aim, he said, was to “deceive people into the truth,” a goal that could be reached not directly, through argument, but indirectly, through the semi-fictional discourse of his pseudonyms. Kierkegaard eventually acknowledged the authorship of his pseudonymous works, but early on he took considerable pains to cover his tracks. He dealt with his printer through a third party. And although he was working practically around the clock in the mid-1840s, he would drop into the theater every night for five or ten minutes at intermission to foster his reputation as an idler-about-town, too frivolous to write books. Part of the fun in reading Kierkegaard is seeing how his various personae play off and criticize one another. But the fact that something is said by one of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms rather than in propria persona does not mean we can discount it. Kierkegaard used pseudonyms not only to dissimulate about the essentials of his thought but also to express them. Most of the really radical statements uttered by Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms— “subjectivity is truth,” for example—represent ideas that Kierkegaard himself endorsed.
Or endorsed most of the time. Kierkegaard was a deliberately slippery thinker, fearless when it came to contradiction. If he regularly touted the claims of passion against the dictates of reason, he also cautioned against misinterpreting “all my talk about pathos and passion to mean that I intend to sanction every uncircumcised immediacy, every unshaven passion.”
That is a welcome concession. It is difficult, however, to know what to make of it. Leave aside the embarrassing question of what the tonsorial arts have to do with “immediacy” or passion. (The New Testament speaks about the “circumcision of the heart”: what do you suppose a “circumcised immediacy” would look like?) The plain truth is that Kierkegaard never bothered to specify the conditions under which he thought pathos and passion justified a particular decision.
In Fear and Trembling (1843), one of his most famous books, Kierkegaard asks whether there is such a thing as a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” That is a polysyllabic way of asking whether certain individuals are exempt from the moral strictures that bind the rest of us. Kierkegaard clearly thought, or hoped, that there were such individuals, individuals whose exceptional nature or religious calling put them beyond the claims of ordinary ethical commandments. Indeed, it is pretty clear that he believed he was one such exceptional individual.
Kierkegaard enlists the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate his point. In order to test Abraham’s allegiance, God tells him to take Isaac, his only son, and offer him up as a sacrifice. This Abraham sets out to do. He is just about to deliver the fatal blow when an angel stays his hand. God spares Isaac at the last moment. But what about Abraham? “Either,” Kierkegaard wrote, “Abraham was every minute a murderer, or we are confronted by a paradox which is higher than all mediation.”
Kierkegaard never actually comes right out and says “Abraham was exempt from the moral law; it would have been okay for him to murder Isaac.” But he raises that possibility in a tantalizing way. Whatever his readers conclude about Abraham, they come away entertaining the flattering thought that, being individuals themselves, perhaps they, too, deserve to be exceptions.
Part of Kierkegaard’s effort in Fear and Trembling is to remind us that important ethical choices can rarely be made by rational calculation alone. They almost always involve a non-rational element, what Kierkegaard famously called a “leap.” If he overstated things, well, Kierkegaard specialized in a certain kind of overstatement. (He liked to refer to his work as a “corrective”: going too far in one way because people had gone too far in the other.) In fact, what impresses one most about Kierkegaard is the pathos and passion he brought to his defense of pathos and passion. It was a performance designed to make the whole process of raising objections seem niggling and small-minded: we’re talking about life here, not logical nicety! That, anyway, is how many people respond on a first reading.
Which is to say that Kierkegaard’s reputation rests as much upon his style as upon the substance of his thought. He was an exceptionally prolix writer. (He would have had to be: he died at forty-two, yet managed to write some thirty-five books—most of them between 1842 and 1850—and fill twenty-two posthumously published volumes of journals.) He was also an unusually exuberant writer, by turns gripping, caustic, and sentimental. He could be extremely funny: “All men are bores,” he wrote in “The Rotation Method” (a key essay in Either/Or).
Surely no one will prove himself so great a bore as to contradict me in this. . . . The gods were bored, and so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, and so Eve was created. Thus boredom entered the world, and increased in proportion to the increase of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille; then the population of the world increased, and the peoples were bored en masse. To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens. This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand.
Kierkegaard was very astute on the subject of boredom. He understood “the curious fact that those who do not bore themselves usually bore others, while those who bore themselves entertain others.” He also understood that boredom could be far more than a passing mood of nameless dissatisfaction. In Kierkegaard’s view, boredom is essentially a spiritual malaise, endemic wherever a purely naturalistic conception of man holds sway. Hence he defines boredom as “the daemonic side of pantheism.” It is the dark side of a life devoted to amusement and pleasure. What happens when amusement palls and pleasure fails to please? Boredom yawns before one, a paralyzing abyss. (Compare Tolstoy’s definition of boredom as “the desire for desires.”) It is part of Kierkegaard’s task to show that boredom can only be defeated by moving beyond what he calls the “aesthetic” conception of life, a mode of life unleavened by moral or religious engagement.
Kierkegaard was especially good at puncturing intellectual pomposity. “Like Leporello,” he wrote in his journal, “learned literary men keep a list, but the point is what they lack; while Don Juan seduces girls and enjoys himself—Leporello notes down the time, the place, and a description of the girl.” Kierkegaard reserved some of his best barbs for Hegel, the philosopher to whom he owed the most but whose pretensions to Absolute Knowledge (his confusion of “the logical with the existential”) Kierkegaard found preposterous.
If Hegel had written the whole of his Logic and in the Preface disclosed the fact that it was only a thought-experiment (in which however at many points he had steered clear of many things), he would have been the greatest thinker who ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.
Hegel, Kierkegaard wrote, was like a man who had built a palace (the great Hegelian System) but lived in the guard house (ordinary life with its slings and arrows).
Kierkegaard expended a lot of ink, especially in his journals but also in some published works, explaining what he had attempted to accomplish as a writer. (The Point of View for My Work as an Author, written in 1848 but published posthumously, is devoted to nothing else.) In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the pseudonymous Johannes Climacus (drawing heavily on one of Kierkegaard’s own journal entries) recalls how he resolved to become an author one Sunday while strolling in the Fredericksberg Gardens in Copenhagen:
I sat and smoked my cigar until I lapsed into thought. . . . “You are going on,” I said to myself, “to become an old man, without being anything and without really undertaking to do anything. . . . [W]herever you look about you . . . you see the many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit mankind by making life easier and easier, some by railways, others by omnibuses and steamboats, others by the telegraph, others by easily apprehended compendiums and short recitals of everything worth knowing, and finally the true benefactors of the age who make spiritual existence in virtue of thought easier and easier, yet more and more significant. And what are you doing?” . . . [S]uddenly this thought flashed through my mind: “You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it has become, you must . . . undertake to make something harder.” This notion pleased me immensely. . . . I conceived it as my task to create difficulties everywhere.
That sudden reversal, that ambition “to create difficulties everywhere,” is vintage Kierkegaard. It also shows the extent to which Kierkegaard modelled his activities on one of his culture heroes, Socrates. (Not for nothing was Kierkegaard’s M.A. thesis called The Concept of Irony: With Constant Reference to Socrates.) In The Apology, Socrates described himself as the gadfly of Athens. His task was to sting the consciences of his interlocutors, persuading them that their chief concern ought to be not for their bodies or possessions “but for the highest welfare of their souls.” Like Socrates, Kierkegaard set about using humor, learning, satire, homiletics—the full arsenal of his rhetoric—to sting the consciences of his fellow denizens of Copenhagen.
Just as Socrates gave up reading the scientific works of Anaxagoras because they told him nothing about the fundamental ethical reality of man, so Kierkegaard repudiated the rationalism of his culture, insisting that “the real subject is not the cognitive subject . . . [but] the ethically existing subject.” In this sense, as the philosopher William Barrett has noted, Kierkegaard’s motivation was essentially religious, not philosophical. “He never aimed at being a philosopher and all his philosophy was indeed incidental to his main purpose, to show what it means to be a Christian.”
In Irrational Man (1958), his book about existentialism, Barrett began a sympathetic essay on Kierkegaard with this passage from the Journals: “It was intelligence and nothing else that had to be opposed. Presumably that is why I, who had the job, was armed with an immense intelligence.” Using intelligence to battle overweening intelligence: that was how Kierkegaard understood his task. From one point of view this represented a mortification of the intellect. Kierkegaard clearly placed himself in the (heterodox) tradition of credo quia absurdum: “I believe because it is absurd.” Is this excessively hard on reason? I think it is. But if Kierkegaard was right that “paradox” is “the source of the thinker’s passion” and the supreme paradox “is the attempt to discover something thought cannot think” (two large ifs, admittedly), then his entire campaign can be understood as a vindication of the intellect in its highest vocation--in Kierkegaard’s eyes, to serve the dictates of a faith not only beyond but also hostile to reason.
Given Kierkegaard’s emphasis on decision, passion, and the individual, it is not surprising that his own formative decisions— the determining passions of his life, his contests to salvage individuality—should have stamped themselves so thoroughly on his work. To an unusual extent, Kierkegaard’s biography is implicated in his teaching. It’s a story that has been told many times. The first biography in English (1938) was by the indefatigable Walter Lowrie, the pious gent who was smitten by Kierkegaard, translated or helped translate many of his works, and introduced him to an English-speaking audience.
Since then Kierkegaard has developed from a cottage industry into a huge academic enterprise. More biographies, translations galore, studies beyond number. In a review of a selection from Kierkegaard’s journals in 1966, John Updike wondered whether “the United States needs still more translations of Kierkegaard.” But this was avant le déluge. Within a few years, Princeton had published English translations of most of his works. Then Howard and Edna Hong came along and proceeded to retranslate everything into academese, replete with notes—hundreds, in some cases thousands of them—scholarly commentaries and page references to the Danish edition. The seven fat volumes of Kierkegaard’s Journals are impressive and useful. But Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses became the barbarous Upbuilding Discourses (just in case anyone missed the hint of “edifice” in “edification”), a book on “Experimental Psychology” became a book about “Experimenting Psychology,” etc. Curiously, the title Philosophical Fragments was retained, even though Smuler means “scraps” or “crumbs,” not “fragments.” How Kierkegaard would have savored it all! “And when I am dead,” he wrote in 1854, “how busy all the assistant professors will be stripping me and mine, what competition to say the same thing, if possible, in more beautiful language.”
The latest contribution to this flood is Alastair Hannay’s biography, a competent book by a veteran Kierkegaard scholar. Is it an advance on other biographies? Hannay has a surer grasp of philosophy than many people who write about Kierkegaard, and he has beavered away to uncover some minutiae about the master’s student days. There are no revelations. Not that one expected any; the ground is too well trod. Kierkegaard was a tortured and tumultuous spirit, a fascinating “case.” But outwardly, his life was uneventful. He never married, had no “career” in the ordinary sense, and never ventured further from his native Copenhagen than Berlin, which he visited three times, once for a few months to attend lectures by Friedrich Schelling (he wasn’t impressed), twice on holiday.
Born in 1813, Kierkegaard was the seventh and last child of Michael and Ane (or Anne) Kierkegaard. Michael began life as a peasant. He grew up in the desolate heath country of Jutland, in western Denmark. He was formally in thrall to a local priest, whose land he worked. (Hence the name “Kierkegaard”—pronounced “Keer-ke-gore”—which means “churchyard” or “graveyard.”) At twelve, he was sent to Copenhagen to apprentice in the clothing trade with his uncle. This was the break he needed. Smart, industrious, and lucky, he advanced quickly. At twenty-one, he was officially released from serfdom. He went into business on his own and, canny about money, made a small fortune, enough to retire at the age of forty, leaving his business in trust to a nephew. Michael’s first wife died childless after two years of marriage. Ane, who had been a servant in their house, was promoted to wife sometime after she became pregnant by Michael. “In the premarriage settlement,” Hannay notes, “Ane was denied the usual inheritance and became virtually Michael’s employee, with a salary and a fixed annual housekeeping budget. There was no provision for her in the event of divorce, not even custody of the child.”
Michael Kierkegaard was clearly a difficult man. As one commentator put it, he ran both his business and his family with an iron rod. He read widely, savored intellectual debate, and was afflicted by incurable religious melancholy. He never recovered from the fact that at the age of eight, cold and hungry while tending sheep one night on the Jutland heath, he cursed God for his fate. Walter Lowrie correctly remarked that Michael Kierkegaard’s “profound melancholy impressed upon his religion a character of severity and gloom which was disastrous to his children.” Hannay (who curiously never mentions Lowrie) says that although the Kierkegaard household was not “fundamentally unhappy” it was “certainly unhealthy” for a child. Kierkegaard agreed. “Humanly speaking,” he wrote in a posthumously published work, he was “insanely” brought up.
Many of Kierkegaard’s siblings died before he settled into adulthood. He was six when one brother died of a brain hemorrhage, nine when a sister died of nephritis. He was twenty when another brother died of consumption shortly after moving to America. His two remaining sisters died following childbirth in the early 1830s. By the time Michael Kierkegaard died, in 1838 at the age of eighty-two, there remained only Søren and his brother Peter to split the estate. Søren’s share amounted to some 30,000 rixdalers, more than $400,000 by today’s reckoning. It made him financially independent for the rest of his life—just. It is said that in October 1855, when Kierkegaard collapsed in the street and was taken to the hospital, it was after withdrawing the last of his capital from the bank. He died a few weeks later.
Although physically frail—he may have suffered from epilepsy—Kierkegaard was spiritually very much his father’s son. He brooded. In the early 1830s, when he learned that his father had once cursed God and had had premarital relations with his mother, he was devastated. His first response seems to have been to embark on a period of mild dissipation. “May it not,” he asked in his journal at this time, “be best to go through all the dissipations just to experience life?” A few years later, he wrote in his journal about a man who
in an overwrought irresponsible state visits a prostitute. . . . Now he wants to get married. Then anxiety stirs. He is tortured day and night with the thought that he might possibly be a father, that somewhere in the world there could be a created being who owed his life to him.
Whatever Kierkegaard did, it allowed him the luxury of guilt. Even “a whole life devoted to God,” he wrote in his journal in 1839, would “hardly suffice to atone for my youthful excesses.” Kierkegaard was no easier on his father than on himself. In what is perhaps the last journal entry he made, in September 1855, he wrote that he came into the world through a “crime” and “against God’s will” and that his punishment was to have lived “bereft of all lust for life.”
Isn’t this carrying things a little too far? Yes. But Kierkegaard carried everything too far. In part, one suspects, it was for effect. In an early journal entry, he wote about having been at a friend’s where he was the life and soul of the party: “Everyone laughed and admired me—but I left, yes, that dash should be as long as the radii of the earth’s orbit—————and I wanted to shoot myself.” As W. H. Auden noted in the first of his two essays on Kierkegaard, “occasionally . . . [he] carried on like a spiritual prima donna.”
The real question is whether Kierkegaard ever climbed off stage, out of the limelight. In 1837, when he was twenty-four, Kierkegaard met and soon fell in love with Regine Olsen, then fourteen. They were engaged in 1840. The very next day, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal in 1849, he saw that he had made a dreadful mistake. He tortured himself, and Regine, too, presumably, for over a year. Then he definitively broke the engagement, sending back her ring with this letter:
In order not to put more often to the test a thing which after all must be done, and which being done will supply the needed strength— let it then be done. Above all, forget him who writes this, forgive a man who, though he may be capable of something, is not capable of making a girl happy.
Kierkegaard must have thought well of this note. He not only inscribed a copy in his journal but also published it verbatim in his book Stages on Life’s Way (1845).
In a letter to a friend, Kierkegaard wrote that “I do not turn her into poetry . . . I call myself to account.” One wonders. Those are not mutually incompatible activities. Indeed, given Kierkegaard’s insatiable appetite for self-scrutiny, not to say melodrama, one might say that he could find no more effective way of turning Regine into “poetry,” into an occasion for reflection, than by “calling himself to account.” I suspect she was right when she charged (as Kierkegaard reports): “So you have been playing a dreadful game with me.” As Hannay comments, “far from escaping the thought of marriage, marriage was now something he could think rather than endure.” And think it he did. Over the next several years, Kierkegaard proceeded to devote hundreds if not thousands of pages to showing how marriage is (as he put in the second volume of Either/Or) “the most profound form of the revelation of life.” He regularly declared that “If I had had faith I would have stayed with Regine,” and then enumerated all the reasons it was impossible. Kierkegaard later said it was due to Regine, melancholy, and his money that he became a writer. That is probably true. Before the break with Regine, he had written only an academic thesis and a few pamphlets (including, in 1838, a critical essay about his slightly older contemporary, Hans Christian Andersen). Regine—the idea of Regine—made Kierkegaard into Kierkegaard. But where did that leave Regine?
Primarily, it left her as a figment of Kierkegaard’s imagination. She was elevated from being a woman to the post of inaccessible muse. In Repetition (1843), Kierkegaard portrayed a young man who thinks he is in love, but really is only in love with the idea of being in love. The girl is merely “the occasion that awakened the poetic in him.” So it was with Kierkegaard himself. Just as Abraham had to sacrifice Isaac because of God’s commandment, so he, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, had to give up Regine—because of his “melancholy,” because he was an exceptional, God-touched individual, maybe because he had visited a prostitute when he was twenty. Fortunately, Regine, after a bad patch, recovered herself, got engaged to someone with more red corpuscles than Kierkegaard, and was happily married. It seems pretty clear that Kierkegaard never really forgave her for that “betrayal.”
What was Kierkegaard’s most important contribution as a writer? There are numerous candidates for that prize. Some people would say his attack on the pretensions of Hegel’s philosophy, others his affirmation of “inwardness” and subjectivity in religious life. My own contender is Kierkegaard’s analysis of the “aesthetic mode of existence”—the effort to distance oneself from reality by reflection. Probably the most famous section of Either/Or is the long “Diary of the Seducer” at the end of volume one. It portrays a man whose “life had been an attempt to realize the task of living poetically” by playing at love. In one sense, this is a familiar literary gambit. In The Importance of Being Earnest, for example, Algernon declares that he doesn’t see “anything romantic in proposing” marriage.
It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.
But what Oscar Wilde offered as an entertaining fiction, Kierkegaard analyzed as a life project. At the center of that project is the effort to short-circuit reality by transforming it into the product of one’s own imagination: experience, Kierkegaard wrote in “The Rotation Method,” “is reduced to a sounding board for the soul’s own music.”
The whole secret lies in arbitrariness. People usually think it is easy to be arbitrary, but it requires much study to succeed in being arbitrary so as not to lose oneself in it, but so as to derive satisfaction from it. One does not enjoy the immediate but something quite different which he arbitrarily imports into it. You go to see the middle of a play, you read the third part of a book. . . . By this means you insure yourself a very different kind of enjoyment from that which the author has been so kind as to plan for you. You enjoy something entirely accidental; you consider the whole of existence from this standpoint; let its reality be stranded thereon. . . . You transform something accidental into the absolute.
Kierkegaard was the supreme anatomist of the aesthetic mode of life. He was also one of its most accomplished practitioners. Or perhaps I should say “victims.” Kierkegaard was quite right to criticize Hegel’s philosophy for being a gorgeous intellectual construct that included everything but the individual. The irony is that Kierkegaard succumbed to the same thing at one remove. In a frequently quoted passage from his journal, Kierkegaard wrote that “it is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they fo