Søren Kierkegaard

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (the name means, roughly, “churchyard”) was born in Copenhagen on May 5, 1813, the seventh child and fourth son of Michael and Ane Kierkegaard. Michael was a merchant who had been born into a poor family in Jutland but had made his way to Copenhagen and commercial success. His first wife had lived for only two years after their marriage. A year after her death, Michael married his serving maid, whom he had impregnated in a moral lapse that haunted him till his death. The oldest child, Maren Kirsten, died at the age of twenty-four and the second son, Søren Michael, died when he was twelve.

Søren Aabye’s childhood under his father’s severe Christianity formed what he called the “dark background” of his life, and he identified his father as the source of his lifelong melancholy despite his having been the “best of fathers.” Author Joakim Garff finds in their relationship the “fund of artistic capital” that Kierkegaard later exploited in his pseudonymous writings. When Søren entered school in 1821, he became a tease and a “smart aleck” and was well known for his cheating, but the demanding curriculum (the matriculation examination in Latin, for instance, covered eleven thousand lines of poetry and 1,250 pages of prose) guaranteed considerable mastery of the subject matter. When he entered the university in 1830 he had excellent marks. His private tutor, Hans Lassen Martensen, observed of Kierkegaard that he was exceptionally bright but suffered from “an irresistible urge to sophistry.” As early as 1835, Kierkegaard was excoriating the ordinary Christians he observed, “victims” of the Church’s “suffocating atmosphere.”

Two men who played important roles in Kierkegaard’s early life were Johan Ludvig Heiberg and Poul Martin Møller. Heiberg reigned in Copenhagen’s literary and social circles, and Kierkegaard began a study of Johann Woldfgang von Goetheespecially of Faust (1808-1832)in hope of ingratiating himself with the Heiberg cult, but it was Martensen’s essay on Faust that won Heiberg’s favor and Kierkegaard’s permanent bitterness. Møller, however, rejected the common rationalist approach to Christianity, expounding a personal vision that Kierkegaard found more congenial. Møller’s interest in psychology, especially in the way that affectation reveals a person’s self-deception, is reflected in Kierkegaard’s later treatments of irony.

In 1838 Kierkegaard’s father died, and by 1840 Kierkegaard was engaged to the lovely Regine Olsen, nine years his junior. Regine loved Kierkegaard passionately, but in 1841 Kierkegaard hurt her deeply by ending the engagement, probably fearing that marriage would work against his writing career. For him the difficulties of this time were mitigated by the successful defense in September, 1841, of his dissertation “On the Concept of Irony” and a four-month interlude in Berlin.

The publication in 1843 of Enten-Eller (Either/Or, 1944) under the pseudonym Victor Eremita occasioned a lot of speculation about its authorship as well as the contempt of Heiberg, who clearly knew who the author was. It was the essay on “The Seducer’s Diary,” with its clear ties to the Regine affair, that most angered Heiberg. From this point on in his career, Kierkegaard did an about-face and wrote against Goethe and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the reigning gods of the Heiberg circle. Garff devotes a lengthy exposition to Gjentagelsen (1843; Repetition, 1933), a murky text prompted by Kierkegaard’s obsession with the aborted affair with Regine and which Garff describes as “steeped in ironic and silly posturing.” Out of Repetition, however, developed what is probably Kierkegaard’s most important work, Frygt og Bæven (1843; Fear and Trembling, 1939), attributed to one Johannes de Silentio. In his consideration of the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis, Kierkegaard sketches four scenarios, all intended to veer away from the clichéd interpretation that the journey to Mount Moriah was “only a trial” and to give it existential urgency. Abraham becomes for Kierkegaard the “knight of faith,” an example of the paradox of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.”

Begrebet Angest (1844; The Concept of Dread, 1944) is well described by Garff as “extremely complex” and “at some points close to unreadable.” It is...

(The entire section is 1836 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 5 (November 1, 2004): 447.

The Christian Century 122, no. 18 (September 6, 2005): 37-41.

New Scientist 186 (April 16, 2005): 55.

Publishers Weekly 251, no. 51 (December 20, 2004): 55.

The Times Literary Supplement, January 28, 2005, pp. 3-4.

The Wall Street Journal 245, no. 24 (February 3, 2005): D8.