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Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography
by joakim garff
translated by bruce h. kirmmse
princeton university press, 867 pages, $45

When Søren Kierkegaard lay dying in Copenhagen 150 years ago, it would have been hard to predict the influence his work would later have. European Christendom already appeared to be in terminal decay, and Kierkegaard’s main purpose as a writer was to awaken his readers and to convince them of the necessity, and difficulty, of radical Christian discipleship. At his death he had good reasons to doubt whether his work would have much effect on future readers.

To begin with, he had written entirely in Danish—very much a minor language. His fate, he feared, was to be a forgotten writer from a provincial market town: “I write books which presumably will not be read.” Even in Denmark, none of his dozens of volumes sold more than a thousand copies during his life. His genius wasn’t altogether overlooked by his contemporaries; Danish newspapers eulogized him, predicting he would “assume a prominent place in Danish history.” But he felt himself condemned to be, at most, a big fish in a very small pond.

The larger problem with Kierkegaard’s work was its severity: he offered a stern rebuke and an even sterner challenge to an entire religious establishment. In Denmark, baptism in the state church had become a matter-of-course rite of citizenship. Indeed, for Kierkegaard, “Christendom” had become a mistaken baptizing of nearly everything: Where real Christianity called for a transformation of one’s whole life, Christendom simply “christened” everything—giving it a new name and leaving it otherwise unchanged. “What Christianity wanted was chastity—to do away with the whorehouse. The change is this, that the whorehouse remains exactly what it was in paganism, lewdness in the same proportion, but it has become a ‘Christian’ whorehouse.”

Kierkegaard was only half right to despair of his legacy. The language was a barrier: For almost fifty years after his death, he remained unknown outside Denmark. But once his work began to be translated, his influence spread rapidly, until he is now widely regarded as one of the great philosophical minds of the nineteenth century.

But his efforts to bring Christianity to European Christendom have been largely ineffective, especially in his homeland. Today, almost all Danes are baptized, but less than five percent of them regularly attend church—one of the lowest percentages in Europe. And polls suggest that the country is no more Christian in belief than in practice: Half of all Danes say God doesn’t matter in their life at all.

From this modern, post-Christian Denmark now comes Joakim Garff’s massive and provocative new biography, in an elegant and brisk translation by Bruce H. Kirmmse. When Garff’s work first appeared in Danish five years ago, it received much praise for its passionate and novelistic presentation of Kierkegaard’s life and times. In retelling the story of Kierkegaard’s short career, Garff set himself two goals: “to reinstall Kierkegaard in his own time,” and to separate the facts about the man from the myths created by his several self-depictions.

The biography is quite successful at achieving its first goal. Garff gives a vivid description of life in the Copenhagen of the 1830s. He provides a particularly splendid account of the city’s literary elite, who frequently wrote their most lively commentaries under pseudonyms. J.L. Heiberg, for instance, used the underscore symbol “_” to sign his articles while he was the editor of a leading journal. “The merriment took on such proportions that writers who wished to remain incognito eventually used up all the uppercase and lowercase letters in both the Latin and Greek alphabets, and people finally had to resort to using numbers.”

When Kierkegaard was twenty-two years old, he made his first foray into this literary hothouse. Writing as “B” in Heiberg’s journal, Kierkegaard composed a stunning jeu d’esprit. His article was such a hit that some thought Heiberg himself must have written it. Suddenly Kierkegaard found himself on the inside of a group of Hegelian romantic dandies. He was leading the kind of life he would later criticize as a form of empty despair.

The characters and culture of Denmark are not the only things that seem animated in Garff’s writing. The city of Copenhagen itself comes alive. We feel as though we are following the author as he walks through the city’s streets, smelling the odors of the marketplace, and catching sight of Kierkegaard as he strolls through the town’s crowds to take his daily “people bath.”

Garff’s second goal in his biography is less creditable. He tells us that he wanted to find 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”—in short, to unearth the “Kierkegaard complex.”

The “Kierkegaard complex,” it turns out, is not so different from the Oedipus complex. The author suggests that Kierkegaard’s overbearing father made it impossible for him to enter into normal human relationships, especially with women. Pent-up libidinal desires resulting from an overactive super-ego inevitably led to revolt and misery, which was soothed but never healed by the therapeutic sublimation of artistic production.

Though Freud is hardly mentioned in the biography, it’s his intellectual framework that provides the outlines of the story—explaining Kierkegaard’s scruples, his broken engagement with Regine Olsen, and his constant literary output. Garff seems to assume that the message of Kierkegaard’s father (to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself) is irrational and impossibly demanding. The effort to obey this teaching, involving as it does the repression of the libido, must result in self-torment and ultimately illness.

At certain points, this way of understanding Kierkegaard’s life seems useful. His father was indeed overbearing, and certainly Garff’s account of Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom in the final years of his life makes Kierkegaard seem both unhappy and profoundly frustrated.

But as an overall interpretation of Kierkegaard’s life, Garff’s Freudian diagnosis is finally unconvincing. It requires the biographer, for instance, to take too many liberties in reconstructing the relation between father and son. Michael Kierkegaard may have been brooding and domineering, but that doesn’t—or doesn’t have to—explain why he taught his children to practice the virtues of temperance and chastity. Garff seems unable to imagine how any healthy person could consider these things forms of excellence. And so we are told that the father “put a fateful mark upon the son’s desire, reversing what is natural and unnatural, and to this extent had sexually molested his child.”

Here Garff is following Freud, of course, whereas Kierkegaard and his father belonged to the classic Christian tradition of moral reflection. Kierkegaard thought that our desires, emotions, thoughts, and relations could be educated. Following Augustine, he tried to show that a person whose desires are educated comes to see that an infinite desire for the finite is a recipe for despair: our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

Garff operates always with suspicion, never quite trusting Kierkegaard’s account of things—either in his published work or in the many volumes of journals he left for posterity. This distrust motivates Garff to search for other sources; he is interested in everything any of his contemporaries ever wrote about Kierkegaard. He searches out report cards, bank records, diaries, and letters. He has done his homework, and his massive research provides us with a picture of Kierkegaard that is multi-textured. But it also distracts Garff from what is most important, and he loses sight of Kierkegaard’s own self-understanding.

We learn a great deal about the mentors against whom Kierkegaard rebelled—particularly Heiberg, the Hegelian litterateur, and Mynster, the Danish bishop—but, strangely, we learn almost nothing about the only mentor to whom Kierkegaard dedicated a book: his philosophy professor Poul Martin Møller. And despite extensive treatment of the political changes of 1848, there is little discussion of the impact of democratization on the Danish Church. Garff does not always do enough to help the reader judge how many of Kierkegaardt’s complaints about the local Church were warranted.

In truth, the Kierkegaard we meet reading Garff is not as richly complicated as the Kierkegaard we meet reading Kierkegaard himself. Like any brilliant stylist, Kierkegaard was aware that his first audience was always a fiction: part of his job as a writer was to imagine his reader. He expected that his reader would in turn have enough imagination to conjure up a sense of an implied author, and he did everything he could to help him do so. In this sense, Kierkegaard is like Plato, who almost never puts himself in his own writing, except once to tell us of his presence (at Socrates’ trial) and once to tell us of his absence (at Socrates’ death). Plato is implied throughout his dialogues, yet the flesh-and-blood Plato is always in the background, behind the text.

Were a reader of Plato’s dialogues to become overly concerned with Plato the man—worrying about the details of his financial situation or hypothesizing about possible sexual lapses—it would become impossible to engage the dialogues in a serious way. This is not to say that we must accept Plato’s purposes every step of the way. And we might be legitimately curious about the real man behind the texts. But we can’t do justice to Plato the philosopher if we are constantly sidetracked by speculations about whether Plato the man really lived up to his own teachings. By focusing solely on the historical Plato, we’ll miss other important questions: Where is Plato being ironic? What virtues does Plato want me, as his reader, to develop? Are there good reasons why I should reject his arguments or distrust the story he is telling?

Kierkegaard liked to play with the boundaries that separated him from the authors and narrators of his books. Part of the joy of reading him is the encounter with these various voices. After one has sorted out the pseudonyms, there is still the challenge of discovering how, for Kierkegaard, a difference of voice implies a difference of character—how vice and virtue are embodied in a style. By registering these differences, Kierkegaard becomes, by way of indirection, a moral teacher. By charting the rhetorical strategies of his implied authors and narrators, he awakens us to our own self-deceptions and urges us toward a supernatural integrity—a right relation with God, others, and ourselves. And he hopes to do the same for himself.

Garff’s approach tramples over this complexity. With his boundless interest in the flesh-and-blood Kierkegaard, the biographer seems deaf to the delicate counterpoint between implied author and implied reader. That counterpoint is not a mere fiction; it is a central part of Kierkegaard’s project that here gets lost in the rush of detail. In its historical scope and in the richness of its descriptions, Garff’s Søren Kierkegaard sets a new standard for Kierkegaard scholarship. It has done more to help us understand Kierkegaard’s social milieu than any other biography. But it does not always succeed in helping us to understand Kierkegaard’s work in its own terms. While searching for “cracks in the granite,” Garff too often neglects the real seam of Kierkegaard’s moral and literary genius.

Gregory R. Beabout is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University and an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute’s Center for Academic Research.

Photo by Arne List via Creative Commons. Image cropped.