Soren Kierkegaard: A Biography

Soren Kierkegaard: A Biography

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Princeton University Press


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Soren Kierkegaard: A Biography

"The day will come when not only my writings, but precisely my life—the intriguing secret of all the machinery—will be studied and studied." Søren Kierkegaard's remarkable combination of genius and peculiarity made this a fair if arrogant prediction. But Kierkegaard's life has been notoriously hard to study, so complex was the web of fact and fiction in his work. Joakim Garff's biography of Kierkegaard is thus a landmark achievement. A seamless blend of history, philosophy, and psychological insight, all conveyed with novelistic verve, this is the most comprehensive and penetrating account yet written of the life and works of the enigmatic Dane who changed the course of intellectual history.

Garff portrays Kierkegaard not as the all-controlling impresario behind some of the most important works of modern philosophy and religious thought—books credited with founding existentialism and prefiguring postmodernism—but rather as a man whose writings came to control him. Kierkegaard saw himself as a vessel for his writings, a tool in the hand of God, and eventually as a martyr singled out to call for the end of "Christendom." Garff explores the events and relationships that formed Kierkegaard, including his guilt-ridden relationship with his father, his rivalry with his brother, and his famously tortured relationship with his fiancée Regine Olsen. He recreates the squalor and splendor of Golden Age Copenhagen and the intellectual milieu in which Kierkegaard found himself increasingly embattled and mercilessly caricatured.

Acclaimed as a major cultural event on its publication in Denmark in 2000, this book, here presented in an exceptionally crisp and elegant translation, will be the definitive account of Kierkegaard's life for years to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691127880
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/03/2007
Pages: 896
Sales rank: 609,154
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 2.00(d)

About the Author

Joakim Garff is Associate Professor at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center at the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of numerous books and articles and is the coeditor of a project to publish definitive new Danish-language editions of all of Kierkegaard's writings. Bruce H. Kirmmse is Professor of History at Connecticut College. His previous works include Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark and Encounters with Kierkegaard (Princeton). He is the chairman of the editorial board of Kierkegaard's Journals and Notebooks (Princeton, forthcoming).

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Søren Kierkegaard

A Biography
By Joakim Garff

Princeton University Press

Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12788-3

Chapter One


KIRKKEGAARD, Kirkegaard, Kiersgaard, Kjerkegaard, Kirckegaard, Kerkegaard, Kierckegaard, Kierkegaard.

The parish registers provide plenty of testimony that the name is a tricky and a volatile one. It of course has something to do with a churchyard [Danish: kirkegaard, "churchyard," usually in the sense of "cemetery"], but not in the usual sense. The name in fact stems from a couple of farms located next to the church in the village of Sædding in the middle of the Jutland heath, about a dozen miles southeast of Ringkøbing. In common parlance the two farms were termed "churchyards" because of their close proximity to the church. Michael was born on one of these farms on December 12, 1756, the son of tenant farmer Peder Christensen Kierkegaard, who had taken his farm's name as his surname in order to emphasize that this was where he and his family were from. In the beginning the normal spelling was simply "Kirkegaard," but after a time it evolved into "Kierkegaard," and this spelling perhaps contains a faint echo of how the name sounded in the dialect of Jutland.

Michael was the fourth child in a family that fourteen years later finally came to include nine children. The heath was a stingy provider and poverty gnawedat the family, so after several difficult years as a shepherd boy, eleven-year-old Michael left the farm of his forebears. In that district the west wind forces the trees to lean longingly toward the east, and Michael followed their lead. Accompanied by a sheep dealer from the town of Lem, he set out for the Copenhagen of King Christian VII, where his mother's brother, Niels Andersen Seding, who had a dry-goods shop in a cellar on Østergade, took him on as an apprentice. At first Michael served as an errand boy, then as a shop assistant, and just before Christmas in 1780 he was granted his own business license and could then establish an independent firm. The surviving account books indicate that Kierkegaard's selection of wares included lisle stockings, woven caps, leather gloves from the Jutland town of Randers, and various goods from Iceland, all of which he sold on short road trips to the northern Zealand towns of Hillerød and Elsinore. The energetic businessman must have learned how to spin gold from these fuzzy wares because by age twenty-nine he was able, with his business partner Mads Røyen, to purchase the building at 31 Købmagergade. Røyen moved into the building, while Kierkegaard himself settled in number 43, where he opened his own business in "Glazier Clausen's Cellar."

Not only was his shop located partly underground but his methods were also a bit shady. The business had hardly got off the ground before the city's silk and clothing merchants reported Kierkegaard and other wool dealers from Jutland to the master of their guild. The resulting raid on these businesses uncovered French linens and silk ribbons. Jutland wool dealers were not permitted to deal in such fine goods; therefore the master of the guild imposed severe fines upon the illegal importers. In turn the importers complained to the authorities that the legal regulations governing the trade had become so complex that no one could figure them out. The complaint hit its mark, and pursuant to a resolution of July 30, 1787, hosiers were permitted to trade in all sorts of cottage-industry woolen and linen goods, plus Danish felt and swanskin (a tightly woven, heavy flannel, teased only on one side). The following year Kierkegaard also received permission to trade in Chinese goods and West Indian wares: sugar, cane syrup, and coffee beans. Nonetheless, he pressed his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which found in his favor, and he was thereafter permitted to deal in such luxury articles as cottons and silks. The Jutland wool dealers had won the battle against the silken Copenhageners.

The economy was booming and Michael Kierkegaard was not one to miss an opportunity. He invested his money in various properties on Købmagergade, Peter Hvitfeldtsstræde, Kalveboderne, Sankt Pedersstræde, Knabrostræde, and Helsingørgade; miraculously, he suffered no losses from the great fire which ravaged Copenhagen in 1795. The following year he inherited the estate of his mother's well-to-do brother and bought a piece of property in Sædding on which he had a fine half-timbered home built for his elderly parents and three of his younger siblings, Karen, Sidsel Marie, and Peder. The house was made of oak and painted red, so everyone could see that Michael had done well, over there in the capital city. He himself never saw Sædding again, but he did correspond with his sister Else, who had been born the year he had left home.

During his first years in Copenhagen, Michael Kierkegaard's circle of friends and associates consisted primarily of fellow immigrants from Jutland who were employed in the same field. It was therefore no surprise to anyone when Michael married Røyen's sister, Kirstine Nielsdatter, on May 2, 1794. People thought it was about time, as Michael was by then thirty-eight years old and Kirstine only a year younger. With 568 rixdollars of her own money, Kirstine was a good match, but we have no idea how the two felt about one another-the registry of marriages merely listed the bare facts: "Michael Peter Kiærsgaard, hosier, and Kirstine Røyen, copulated on May 2 in Holy Spirit Church." The marriage was childless and lasted not quite two years. Kirstine died of pneumonia on March 23, 1796, and was buried in Assistens Cemetery three days later.

Less than a year later Michael entrusted his flourishing business to his cousin Michael Andersen Kierkegaard and to Christen Agerskov, a nephew of his former father-in-law. This decision caused general surprise among his colleagues and acquaintances, for although Michael had occasionally complained of various maladies, people thought it was just hypochondria as there was nothing physically wrong with him. But even if his motives for transferring his business are unknown, the move was part of a momentous episode in the life of the enterprising businessman: Heedless of all plan or principle, he had impregnated his serving maid, Ane Sørensdatter Lund, whom he consequently felt obliged to marry. Even though the ordinance, dating from 1724, that required a year of mourning before remarriage applied only to widows (widowers had to wait a mere three months), Kierkegaard's blunder was more than an embarrassing mistake, it was a potentially costly one as well. The marriage contract he submitted to his attorney Andreas Hyllested on March 10, 1797, made it clear that the couple would not cohabit. In the event of the death of the husband, the widow would inherit the household goods and two hundred rixdollars a year and would also receive an inheritance of two thousand rixdollars to be set aside for any possible children. The document stated further: "Should the unexpected event transpire that the temperaments of the couple show themselves to be incompatible, and it may be granted us to live separately, my future wife will receive her wearing apparel and her linens; in addition to this I will give her a one-time payment of three hundred rixdollars for the purchase of necessary household goods as well as an annual payment of one hundred rixdollars as long as she lives." It was further emphasized that should such an occasion arise, the children would reside with their father after attaining the age of three.

Attorney Hyllested refused to endorse the marriage contract. Not only were the husband's economic circumstances so glaringly superior to the terms offered to the wife and children, but it was unusual for a marriage contract to contain so many detailed provisions concerning divorce prior to entering into the marriage that Kierkegaard was asked to submit a new and less niggardly version. Kierkegaard deferred to his attorney, and the new papers were signed, whereupon the somewhat perplexed serving girl, who was by then four months pregnant, could promise her lord eternal fidelity in a quiet home wedding that was recorded in the marriage registry book with these affectionate words: "Widower Michael Kiersgaard, hosier, and Miss Ane Sørensd. Lund, copulated April 26 at Great Kiøbmagergade."

Ane had been born June 18, 1768, as the youngest daughter of Maren Larsdatter and her husband Søren Jensen Lund, who was said to have been a "cheerful and jocular" man, from Brandlund in central Jutland. The family owned a cow and four sheep and were further endowed with two sons and four daughters, of whom the first was named Mette and the remaining three were named Ane, Ane, and Ane. This choice of names could give rise to some confusion, so the youngest was simply called "little Ane." After she was confirmed she went off to Copenhagen to work as a servant in the home of her brother, Lars Sørensen Lund, who had married the widow of a distiller and was thus also wedded to a distillery situated on Landemærket in Copenhagen. The conditions there were so terrible, however, that Ane soon left to work instead for Mads Røyen, whose service she then left in 1794 to work in the household of the newly married Michael Kierkegaard. After this point, Ane does not seem to have had much connection with her own family. Although her brother Lars was one of the godparents when her first daughter was baptized, her second daughter's baptismal party two years later was of a better class, and her brother the distiller was not among them. To judge from the scanty sources available, she was a pleasant, chubby little woman with an even and cheerful temperament. She appears to have been unable to write; when she signed public documents, someone had to guide her hand. Perhaps she could read a bit, but the reading matter she owned was not particularly demanding. Two of the very few volumes in her possession were Hagen's Historic Hymns and Rhymes for the Instruction of Children and Lindberg's Zion's Harp: A Christmas Present to the Christian Congregation, containing hymns by Kingo, Brorson, Ingemann, Grundtvig, Lindberg himself, and others. Her unproblematic spirit has not inspired any literary or poetic portrayals and perhaps can only be glimpsed here and there in Søren Kierkegaard's writings, where a housewife is depicted as a useful, quiet factotum in her husband's home. In his journals, Søren Aabye did not mention her by name one single time, and he never dedicated to her anything he ever wrote-not even an edifying discourse.

Ane and Michael were thus in many respects an odd couple, but as time went on they probably learned to love one another. And at any rate they comported themselves like proper married folk. Three girls came along in the course of the first five years: Maren Kirstine on September 7, 1797; Nicoline Christine on October 25, 1799; and Petrea Severine (sharing a birthday with her eldest sister) on September 7, 1801. And when the paterfamilias wrote his will in 1802, he was far more generous than he had been at the time of the marriage contract. True, mention is still made of the consequences of divorce ("which God forbid"), but were this to happen Ane was now guaranteed twice as much annually as previously, while if the husband were to die she would now inherit one-third of his fortune, with the remainder divided among the children. In that same year Kierkegaard bought two houses in Hillerød with his former brother-in-law Mads Røyen. The names of the properties give an idea of their proportions: Røyen took up residence in "Peter's Castle," while the Kierkegaard family moved into "The Palace Inn," which had a splendid garden that inclined down to a lake. When the first boy, Peter Christian, came into the world on July 6, 1805, the family moved back to Copenhagen and settled into an apartment on Østergade, where Ane became pregnant with another son, Søren Michael, who was born March 23, 1807. Then, after Niels Andreas made his entrée on April 30, 1809, the family moved in the late summer of that year to a house on Nytorv located between the corner house at Frederiksberggade and the building that served both as a courthouse and as the city hall. The house at 2 Nytorv provided the backdrop for the Kierkegaard family for almost forty years. This was where they lived and died.

And this was where Søren Aabye Kierkegaard's life had one of its many beginnings.

The Little Fork

Michael Kierkegaard was fifty-six and Ane was forty-five when their seventh child entered the world on Wednesday, May 5, 1813, so it was a well-experienced married couple who held their late-born child over the baptismal font on Thursday, June 3, at a private baptismal service in Holy Spirit Church. The family pastor, resident curate J.E.G. Bull, blessed the former serving girl's youngest son and baptized him Søren Aabye Kierkegaard-Søren, just like his mother's merry father, and Aabye after a recently deceased distant relative whose widow, Abelone Aabye, was a member of the baptismal party.

Michael, a merchant, could look back upon some turbulent years. King Frederick VI had joined Napoleon in a doomed alliance against the English, who bombarded Copenhagen mercilessly in September 1807 and transformed large areas near Nytorv into ghost towns. In October of the same year, the English sailed out of the harbor with the captured Danish fleet, and an era in the history of Danish trade and navigation ended. The country was short of money, so Finance Minister Ernst Schimmelman set the printing presses at full speed, putting into circulation more and more banknotes for which there was no backing. Exactly four months before Søren Aabye's birth, the government decided that the so-called currency notes, which could be redeemed for hard silver, would be replaced by notes issued by the National Bank, worth only one-sixth of the face value of the original notes. State bankruptcy had arrived. Shares, mortgages, promissory notes, and other financial paper served as little more than proof of the bankruptcy of those who held them. And between 1814 (when Denmark was forced to cede Norway) and 1820, 248 firms in Copenhagen went broke, an average of about a firm every week.

The so-called royal obligations were the only financial instruments that escaped the drastic devaluation, and this was precisely where Michael Kierkegaard had placed his money. He had entrusted the management of his business to others, but he had not turned his back on the world of finance. In 1808, as part of a patriotic fund drive, Kierkegaard and his relatives paid out of their own pockets for the construction of a gunboat, and when his cousin Anders Andersen Kierkegaard's silk and textile firm, Kierkegaard, Aabye, and Co. went bankrupt in 1820, Michael undertook extensive damage control, writing off no less than eleven thousand rixdollars of debt owed him by the firm.

Although he was still described as a stocking dealer, hosier, or merely shopkeeper (sometimes with the prefix "former") in the parish registries of baptism and confirmation, when he himself signed up for communion he advanced socially and termed himself "merchant." Thanks to the economic catastrophe, he had become one of the richest men in the country. A generation later his youngest son took comic and self-conscious consolation in the circumstance that he had come into the world in this paradoxical fashion: "I was born in 1813, the year of bankruptcy, when so many other worthless notes were put in circulation. There is something of greatness about me, but because of the bad economic conditions, I don't amount to much. And a banknote of this sort sometimes becomes a family's misfortune."


Excerpted from Søren Kierkegaard by Joakim Garff Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Maps xiii
Preface xvii
Foreword to the English-Language Edition xxiii
Translator's Preface and Acknowledgments xxv

Part One: 1813-1834

The Little Fork 7
Warping 12
Søren Sock 17
Two Weddings and a Fire 22
Studiosus Severinus 26
Alma Mater 29
Underground Copenhagen 32
The Black Sheep 37


The Still Voices of the Dead 47
The Summer of 1835 in Gilleleje 50
"To Find the Idea for Which I Am Willing to Live and Die" 56


"A Somersault into the Siberia of Freedom of the Press" 60
Within the Heibergs’ Charmed Circle 67
Studiosus Faustus 74
The Battle between the Old and the New Soap-Cellars 80
Poul Martin Møller 86
"Sketches of Moral Nature"-Affectation and Self-Deception 89
"Backstage Practice" 95


Storm and Stress? 102
Maria 111
Bringing Gloom to Rented Rooms 115
"Dear Emil!! You, My Friend, the Only One" 118
Reading Binge 122


"There Is an Indescribable Joy" 126
Death of a Merchant 128
"The Great Earthquake" 131
From the Papers of One Still Living 138


The Rich Young Man 147
The Translator 150
"My Reading for the Examinations Is the Longest Parenthesis" 152
A Dandy on a Pilgrimage 154

Part Two: 1840

Regine-in Memoriam 173
Miss O. 175
From the Papers of One Already Dead 178
The Time of Terrors 185
"She Chooses the Shriek, I Choose the Pain" 190


On the Concept of Irony 192


Stark Naked in Berlin 199
"The Aesthetic Is Above All My Element" 204
The Incidental Tourist 206


Either/Or 214
"A Monster of a Book" 218
Literary Exile 224
Spiritual Eroticism 226
Regine's Nod 228
Berlin Again 229
Repetition 232
"Long Live the Post Horn!" 236
To Become Oneself Again Is to Become Someone Else 239
Reality Intervenes 243
1:50 247
The Retracted Text 248
Fear and Trembling 252
Abraham and the Knife: Agnete and Farinelli 258
"A Crevice through Which the Infinite Peeped Out" 261


The Concept of Anxiety 266
Captivating Anxiety-Pages from a Seducer's Textbook 270
The Seduction's Diary 277
Oh, to Write a Preface 281
Reviews 284
Israel Levin 288
"Come Over and See Me for a Bit" 292
To Have Faith Is Always to Expect the Joyous, the Happy, the Good 295


"Big Enough to Be a Major City" 301
"I Came Close to Dancing with Them" 305
"People Bath" 308
"Yes, of Course, I Am an Aristocrat-" 316
"I Think Grundtvig Is Nonsense" 318
Kierkegaard in Church 325
"People Think I'm a Hack Writer" 332
Stages on Life's Way 337
The Inserted Passages 340
Writing Samples 353
Exit Heiberg 357
Postscript: Kierkegaard 361

Part Three: 1846

Victor Eremita's Admirers 375
The Corsair-"A Devil of a Paper" 376
Comic Composition and Goldschmidt's Flashy Jacket 379
"I Am a Jew. What Am I Doing among You?" 382
Malice in a Macintosh: Peder Ludvig Møller 386
"A Visit to Sorø" 390
"Would Only That I Might Soon Appear in The Corsair" 393
The Corsair's Salvo 395
Møller's Postscript to Kierkegaard's Postscript 402
Admiration and Envy: When One Word Leads to Another 405
The Squint-Eyed Hunchback 408
The Great Reversal 411
"The School of Abuse" 414
The Neighbors across the Way 418
"S. Kjerkegaard and His Reviewers" 422
"This Sweat-Soaked, Stifling Cloak of Mush That Is the Body" 428
The Bull of Phalaris 431
"What Does the Physician Really Know?" 434
"For I Have Loved My Melancholia" 437
Adolph Peter Adler 440
The Book on Adler 444
"Confusion-Making of the Highest Order" 446
Saint Paul and Carpetmaker Hansen 448
Exaltation: 7-14-21; 7-14-21; 7-14-21 450
"The Sensual Pleasure of Productivity" 452
Graphomania 457
Rad. Valerianæ 460


"Perhaps You Would Also Like Me to Listen to Your Brain Beating?" 463
The Press: "The Government's Filth Machine" 471
To Travel Is to Write—and Vice Versa 474
"The Air Bath" 476
Either and Or 479
Regine Schlegel 484
"A People's Government Is the True Image of Hell" 486
"This Is the Idea of the Religious" 490
"100,000 Rumbling Nonhumans" 492
"Perhaps the Alarm Will Be Sounded in the Camp and I Will Be the Manhandled Victim" 495
"You Are Expecting a Tyrant, While I Am Expecting a Martyr" 498
God Hates Pyramids 500
Liberty, Equality, and Mercy 502
From the Financial Papers of One Still Living 505
Money in Books 508
"Year after Year, at My Own Expense" 513

Part Four: 1848

Extravagance in the Service of the Idea 531
"Copenhagen Is a Very Filthy Town" 535
The Sickness unto Death 540
"To Poetize God into Something a Bit Different" 542
"The Poetry of Eternity" 545
To Publish or Not to Publish 548
The Point of View for My Work as an Author 550
"What Hasn't This Pen Been Capable of . . . ?" 554
"But Then, of Course, I Cannot Say'I’ " 556
In Charge of His Own Posthumous Reputation 562
"My Father Died-Then I Got Another Father in His Place" 565
"I Am Regarded as a Kind of Englishman, a Half-Mad Eccentric" 569


Dedications and a Rebuff 574
Martensen's Dogmatics 576
A Sunday in the Athenæum 580
Rasmus Nielsen 582
Fredrika Bremer's Report Card 589
Kierkegaard's Dream 593
The Sealed Letter to Mr. and Mrs. Schlegel 597
"Come Again Another Time" 602
Jakob Peter Mynster 604
"When I Look at Mynster-" 619
Two Ethical-Religious Essays 626
The Will to Powerlessness 627
The Ventriloquist Who Said "I" 630
The Poet of Martyrdom: The Martyrdom of the Poet 632
"Dr. Exstaticus" 636


Eight Ways Not to Say Good-Bye 642
Moving Days 646
Practice in Christianity 650
"Blasphemous Toying with What Is Holy" 654
The Idiot God-and His Times 656
The Voices of the Scandalized 659
"And Why, Then, This Concealment?" 662


"That Line about Goldschmidt Was Fateful" 668
Kierkegaard in the Citadel Church 673
Fan Mail 675
The Dedication to Regine 679
A Theological Village Idiot 680


"She Came Walking as if from the Lime Kiln" 684
The Final Apartment 689


A Life in the Underworld 692
Nielsen: A Demonic Scoundrel 698
"One Day I Saw the Corpse Bus Come" 700
"The Prices Must Be Jacked Up in the Salon" 702
S. A. versus A. S. 707
"Christianity Is the Invention of Satan" 714

Part Five: 1854

The Death of a Witness to the Truth 727
"-That Is How a Witness to the Truth is Buried!" 732
"To Bring About a Catastrophe" 733
"A Devil of a Witness to the Truth" 734


"My Opponent Is a Glob of Snot" 740
Virginie and Regine-to Lose What Is Most Precious 745
"Quite Simply: I Want Honesty" 746
"Therefore, Take the Pseudonymity Away" 749
The Moment 752
"Then That Poet Suddenly Transformed Himself" 754
Out with Inwardness! 757
"The Pastor-That Epitome of Nonsense Cloaked in Long Robes!" 758
The Death of God 764
Grundtvig's Rejoinder 766
"Pastor P. Chr. Kierkegaard, Lic. Theol., My Brother" 769
"In a Theater, It Happened That" 771
"Come Listen, Brilliant Bastard Son" 775
"You Dine with the Swine" 780
Patient No. 2067 781
Postmortem 793
A Little Corpse with Nowhere to Go 794
The Will, the Auctions, and a Psychopathic Missionary 799
The Papers No One Wanted 805
Peter Christian's Misery 807
The Woman among the Graves 810

Illustration Credits 815
Notes 817
Bibliography 845
Index 855

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