Kierkegaard is one of those authors that I’ve quoted a few times in sermons (his quotes are everywhere) but had never read for myself. “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” “The crowd is untruth.” Really quotable stuff here. But that was the extent of my interaction with his work – I’d read others who had read him.
One day while I was hanging out with a friend, Kierkegaard came up in conversation. I started to learn about a side of the author’s life which I hadn’t known, namely, scandal. There was even a pithy little saying about Kierkegaard that circulated in Denmark: “Don’t be a Søren.” I was immediately glad that we had made the last minute decision to switch my son’s name from Søren Spencer to Spencer Søren years earlier. Since then I’ve heard all kinds of interesting stories about the iconic Søren Kierkegaard.
This fascinating book put these stories in perspective. Many of the stories that I had heard seemed to have come more from the National Inquirer than reliable scholarship. But, this seems fitting in a way. If the Inquirer had been around in Kierkegaard’s day he certainly would have made the front page many times over. He was a scandalous figure to be sure, but that scandal needs to be placed within the Danish culture and time in which he lived. That’s what seemed to be missing from all of the circulating stories I’d heard. Thankfully, Backhouse has written this masterful biography of Kierkegaard’s life and work.
One of the first things that I noticed was the lack of any note of sexual scandal in the book. His relationship with Regine Olsen was controversial but more because of the age difference between them than any impropriety. But more than that, he was perceived as scandalous because of the way that he had broken the engagement with her and broken her heart. Even this, though, had a sub-story. Kierkegaard was a brilliant, yet seemingly tormented man. He lived in his head. How interesting to read excerpts from his journals: “People understand me so little that they do not even understand my laments over their not understanding me” (72) or, “I don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like walking – it is tiring; I don’t feel like lying down, for either I would lie a long time, and I don’t feel like doing that, or I would get up right away, and I don’t feel like that either…I do not feel like writing what I have written here, and I do not feel like erasing it” (73). He seemed to have wrestled with depression and was scared to bring the her into that world. Yet he loved her all of his life and worked this tension out in his books. By the way, “Don’t be a Søren” had more to do with how Søren wore his pants than how he conducted his love relationship (as I had thought).
While his relationship with Regine had notes of scandal, the main aspect of Kierkegaard’s scandal was his relationship with the church. One theme that emerges on almost every page of Backhouse’s book is Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom. The church, he believed, had become so far removed from Christianity that it needed to be reintroduced. Kierkegaard saw his vocation as such. He didn’t strike me as someone with a gentle nature. Instead, he spoke and wrote in prophetic tones. He paid the price of the prophet. How amazing, then, that after his death his work become important not only in Denmark but across the globe. Backhouse does an incredible job of telling this story. Beyond his current fame, Kierkegaard’s family life (ch 3), private life (ch 4), love life (ch 5) and intellectual life (ch’s 2 and 6) are fascinating. Backhouse tells this story like a master and gives the reader a fantastic overview to Kierkegaard’s published works at the end of the book. If you like biographical work (of any sort) or are interested in the life or writing of Søren Kierkegaard, I highly recommend this book.
(The killer image came from here)