Dancing in the Service of Thought

Jonathan Rée

  • Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography by Joakim Garff, translated by Bruce Kirmmse
    Princeton, 867 pp, £22.95, January 2005, ISBN 0 691 09165 X

Søren Kierkegaard spent much of the summer of 1855 staring out of the windows of his cramped second-floor apartment in the centre of old Copenhagen, across the road from the Church of Our Lady. He knew the building well, but the prospect did not please him. As a student, hapless and heavily in debt, he used to take communion there with his ancient and immovably melancholy father; but that was long ago, and he had been an erratic and inconsistent churchgoer since that time. He could, however, look back on a successful career as a writer, with a vast output of squibs and reviews, many-layered fables and novellas, dozens of quirky sermons, and an imposing series of nicely deranged treatises in praise of paradox, indirectness and irregularity. He had published some thirty books in all, earning considerable sums of money to supplement his very comfortable inheritance. But still he was dissatisfied. His earnings had never been enough to cover the expenses of his life as a fashionable bachelor, and his writings had not won him the readers he craved. ‘I am regarded as a kind of Englishman, a half-mad eccentric,’ he wrote. ‘My work as an author . . . is regarded as a sort of hobby, like fishing or that sort of thing.’

His contemporaries knew him as a loner and an intellectual dandy – a dialectical acrobat, a philosopher agile in logic and dry in wit, and a virtuoso of satire and comic exaggeration. He was famous for his wry scepticism, as in this so-called ‘ecstatic lecture’:

Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it. Marry or do not marry, you will regret it either way . . . Laugh at the stupidities of the world, and you will regret it; weep over them, and you will also regret it. Trust a girl or do not trust her, you will regret it either way. Hang yourself, and you will regret it. Do not hang yourself, and you will also regret it. Whether you hang yourself or not, you will regret it either way. That, gentlemen, is the essence of the wisdom of life.

He did philosophy in different voices, and most of his more substantial works had been issued under false names. But it was hard to mistake his taut, graceful prose, or the nimble way he jumped from one point of view to another, so practically everyone knew that Constantin Constantius, Johannes de Silentio, Hilarius Bookbinder and half a dozen others were really just alternative trademarks for Søren Kierkegaard. He must have spent most of his waking hours working – standing at his tall writing-desk, pacing round his furnished rooms, and checking the rhythm of his sentences by reading them out loud to imaginary audiences. But from time to time he would venture outside for a ‘people bath’, and his small, alert and slightly crooked figure was well known in the streets and theatres of Copenhagen. The philosopher of solitude and concealment had kept himself constantly before his public.

Five years earlier he had decided to give up writing for publication, but recently he had broken his resolution by issuing a series of pamphlets and newspaper articles denouncing the corruption of the Danish People’s Church. Their vehemence was destroying his cool reputation, and to make matters worse he was spiking his diatribes with personal insults against a much-loved primate, Jakob Peter Mynster, who had died the year before. Kierkegaard had, until then, always appeared to share in the general veneration for Bishop Mynster. But now that Mynster was dead, and magnificently buried following a ceremony across the road in the Church of Our Lady, Kierkegaard’s attitude had altered. He claimed he had always suspected Mynster of taking pleasure in ecclesiastical pomp and power while appeasing his soul with a ‘bargain version of Christianity’. The bishop had been content to live the life of ‘an honourable pagan’, freely confessing that he was ‘very far from having attained what is highest’ and imagining that this trite confession excused him. While he was alive there had still been hope that he would repent his worldly ways. ‘Now that he is dead,’ Kierkegaard said, ‘everything is changed; now all that remains is that his preaching has mired Christianity in an illusion.’

It was not just Mynster that Kierkegaard had it in for: as far as he was concerned, the entire church was ‘playing at Christianity’, like children dressing up as soldiers. With the encouragement of corrupt officials like the late bishop, people treated the rigour of belief ‘like a radical cure: one puts it off as long as possible.’ The church as a whole had become a living fraud, a conspiracy ‘to trick God out of Christianity’.

Kierkegaard’s readers were taken aback. One newspaper suggested he had shrunk from being original to being merely gal (Danish for ‘raving’). But he had not quite lost his capacity for irony: ‘How fortunate,’ as he put it in one pamphlet that summer, ‘that not all of us are pastors.’ In escaping that fate, however, we had run into another that was still worse: we had all become Christians. You might be poor in faith – you might even take pride in your atheism – but Denmark was a civilised country and no one would hold your opinions against you: you were a citizen of a modern state, ergo a true Christian at heart. Christianity had been absorbed into public life, and defiant professions of faith were no longer necessary; history had moved forward and we were all Christians now.

As the summer of 1855 wore on, Kierkegaard got more and more cranky. His apartment was too small, he was no longer earning anything from writing, and his savings were running low. But he remained oddly cheerful. When he suffered a fit of paralysis at a friend’s house in the middle of September, he winked complicitously as he slid from the sofa to the floor: ‘Oh, leave it,’ he whispered, ‘let the maid sweep it up in the morning.’ Soon he recovered enough to resume his daily walks, but a couple of weeks later he collapsed in the street, and calmly decided to move into the Royal Frederik’s Hospital as a residential patient. On 11 November, he died the death of a serene old man. He was 42 years old.

The funeral was held in the Church of Our Lady, and a few days later Peter Kierkegaard – the only survivor out of seven siblings – went back to his brother’s apartment to sort out his affairs. He found everything neatly arranged, but was surprised to come upon a vast collection of papers, including 26 notebooks in various formats and 36 quarto volumes of journals, all of which would need to be looked after, and eventually edited and prepared for publication. Peter also found the manuscript of a short book, called The Point of View for My Work as an Author. It was evidently his brother’s hermeneutic last will and testament, aimed at forestalling posthumous speculation as to the real meaning of his work. Readers were enjoined to treat all his writings, even the pseudonymous ones, as variations on a single theme. ‘The whole of my work as an author pertains to Christianity,’ he wrote, ‘to the question of “becoming a Christian”, with a direct or indirect polemic against the monstrous illusion we call Christendom, or against the illusion that in such a land as ours all are Christians of a sort.’

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