That Single Individual

Kierkegaard, as drawn by a cousin, ca. 1840
illustration: Niels Christian Kierkegaard/Royal Library of Copenhagen

Is there a more difficult subject for a biography than Kierkegaard? It's not just that his life was outwardly uneventful and its secret events are hard to reconstruct, but that he devoted himself to dazzlingly complex explorations of personal identity. In a sense, all his writings are about him: They cannot be divorced from the existence of their author.

But because he wants his readers to confront their own existence, none of his writings are simply about him. They are about the challenge of existing individually, not about the facts of one man's existence in mid-19th-century Copenhagen. Kierkegaard proposed that his epitaph call him "that single individual"—which says everything and nothing.

Johannes Climacus, one of the "pseudonymous authors" to whom Kierkegaard attributed his works, pronounced that "truth is subjectivity," and Kierkegaard was allergic to objective truths about himself. He never had himself photographed, so we have only flattering portraits and mocking caricatures. His journals are not journalism, but "subjunctive" reflections on possibilities. Too intellectual and too Christian to be here now, or to enjoy any unproblematic happiness, Kierkegaard had no pure experiences, only interpretations of experiences. The biographer's task is made still harder by the blunders of early editor H.P. Barfod, who rearranged and cut Kierkegaard's already self-censored journals, often destroying the manuscripts in the process of getting them into print.

Despite all this, Joakim Garff has done a remarkable job of collecting correspondence— legal and medical records, periodicals and photographs—creating the first major Kierkegaard biography since 1940. As co-editor of a new critical edition of Kierkegaard's writings and co-author of a book on his Journals, Notebooks, Booklets, Sheets, Scraps, and Slips of Paper, Garff is steeped in the textual miscellanea with which his subject surrounded himself. Garff's explanations of how these items tie into the well-known books are the most valuable aspect of this volume. He also expertly puts Kierkegaard in the context of the backbiting intelligentsia of his hometown of just over 100,000 inhabitants. Kierkegaard was a master of polemics, but all too thin-skinned when the satire was turned against him: He could scribble dozens of pages of savage rebuttal in response to a mild criticism in a book review. To his credit, he rarely published these salvos, but even his printed works bubble with references to the hothouse world of Copenhagen literati. Garff makes those gestures meaningful.

As for the biographical mysteries, Garff comes up with a credible interpretation of Kierkegaard's allusion to a "great earthquake" in a notorious journal entry of 1838, and he presents plausible though banal Freudian analyses of Søren's relation to his domineering father. Other riddles persist: Did Kierkegaard actually read Hegel, frequent target of his philosophical wrath? Garff also speculates inconclusively about Kierkegaard's possible epilepsy, visits to prostitutes, and masturbatory habits.

The main event in Kierkegaard's life was his non-marriage. In 1840 he became engaged to the charming Regine Olsen, but broke off the engagement in 1841 and even treated Regine cruelly in order to help her get over him—although he stayed in love with her for the rest of his life. Why? Garff suggests that Kierkegaard was too cerebral and literary to make a good husband. He uncovers some notable facts—for instance, Søren was initially more impressed by Regine's older sister—but this central episode remains puzzling.

Garff sighs, "To the dismay of the biographer, Kierkegaard cannot be pursued 'historically.' " But is it possible to explain the key crises in anyone's life? Events such as the origins and ends of love affairs can generate infinite interpretations without ever yielding a definitive answer. At moments of decision there will always be more at stake than a sum of facts, more at work than a rational process of drawing conclusions. Doesn't the very distinction between "Kierkegaard the myth" and "the man of the same name," "the factual story," and "the fictive narrative," violate the principle that truth is subjectivity? In the hands of a genius (to use an old-fashioned word that comes up often in this volume), a life of Kierkegaard might have become a Kierkegaardian tour de force, indirectly communicating the infinite tension between the mass of facts and the singularity of the person. Garff doesn't reach such heights, though he does entertain the thought that the writer "became himself in dialogue with [his] texts" and "was written" by his own writings, so that Kierkegaard's fictions "help reveal the 'real' Kierkegaard."

It would be petty to fault Kierkegaard's biographer for falling short of the dialectical complexity of Kierkegaard; we should be grateful that this book is readable and informative. It's also to Garff's credit that he casts a skeptical eye on Kierkegaard's self-interpretations, although many will debate his claims that Søren left Regine for aesthetic reasons and that his religiosity was infected by aestheticism up to the end.

Bruce H. Kirmmse does an excellent job of rendering this massive work into appealing English (including the prefatory matter and excluding the back matter, it comes out to the length of the first edition of Either/Or). Occasionally one does suspect that Kirmmse has spent too much time in Denmark, as when reading that a bride and groom were solemnly "copulated" in church—an unfortunate conflation of the aesthetic, ethical, and religious. The royal road to Kierkegaard is still the oblique road—his own writings—but Garff's biography makes an excellent traveling companion.

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