Kierkegaard: A Single Life by Stephen Backhouse
I once took a course for which Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and Either/Or were required reading. I found it intellectually and spiritually intriguing, but difficult to untangle and apply, and didn’t feel I got to grips with Kierkegaard the man. I’ve had a sense of Kierkegaard’s significance, but would struggle to articulate why. And it appears I’m not the only one – so when Zondervan sent me a review copy of this biography I hoped for greater illumination.
That Kierkegaard is both opaque and significant is, I think, indisputable. As Backhouse notes,
Kierkegaard is hardly household name, yet his fingerprints are everywhere. For most authors, merely being read in Danish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and English would be enough, yet Kierkegaard also stands as a significant figure in these cultures. Not bad for a man who rarely strayed from outside Copenhagen’s city walls.
Not bad at all. But is Kierkegaard worth knowing about, or best left as an opaque figure, to be appropriated by pretentious undergraduates opining about the meaning of life late at night?
A Single Life begins with the extraordinary scenes at Kierkegaard’s funeral in November 1855; a funeral at Denmark’s ‘mother church’ at which leading churchmen refused to be seen and Kierkegaard’s nephew interrupted the burial to protest that the church was involved at all. The tale is lively-told, and indeed the whole biography zips along at a lively pace – readers needn’t be concerned about becoming bogged down in detailed analysis of existential philosophy. Part of the paciness of the book is due to Backhouse’s extensive use of the present tense to describe events. As a stylistic tactic this does add zip to the narrative, but is perhaps slightly overdone.
Quite apart from his literary achievements, the transformation of the Kierkegaard family in the space of a couple of generations would make a fascinating study of European society in the 18th and 19th centuries. Kierkegaard’s father, Michael, was born into bonded servitude in 1756, but obtained his release in 1777. He then set up in business, and achieved sufficient prosperity that on his death Søren received enough of an inheritance to be financially independent – a great boon for a writer.
The young Kierkegaard, born into a demanding but relatively wealthy family, was a spikey, complex individual. Physically odd in appearance, he was ridiculed for the way in which his trousers hung on his frame. At a time of controversy with Kierkegaard and his opponents publishing against one another Søren experienced the 19th century version of trolling, much of it centred around how he looked.
I am positive that my whole life will never be as important as my trousers have come to be…for someone ardently trying to hold to a concept of the greatness in or potential to every man there is something sad about having an abundance of observations which seem only to bear witness to irresponsibility, silliness, crudity, and the like.
It wasn’t only Kierkegaard’s trousers that caused him trouble but his habit of clashing with authority figures. And central to his troubles was Regine Olsen, a girl who he wooed and won, but then abandoned in an elaborate and deeply troubling strategy of romantic double-bluff. In love with Regine, but convinced that marrying him would damage her, Kierkegaard acted towards her with real cruelty, in the hope that she would then turn against him. This bizarre episode provided the fuel for much of Kierkegaard’s literary output, but one is left with far more sympathy for her than for him.
The reason for the controversy at Kierkegaard’s funeral was his attack upon Christianity, which was actually an attack on what called itself Christian but without reflecting the teaching of Christ and the New Testament. There is something of Luther in Kierkegaard’s stinging critique of a Christendom in which pastors and bishops enjoyed the role of ecclesial civil servants, with the financial benefits and power perks of their position. It is easy to see why he upset people.
I got to the end of A Single Life with a much clearer understanding of Søren Kierkegaard the man, and a greater appreciation of the things that drove him, but not necessarily a deeper clarity about his writings. In large part this is answered by the final fifth of the book which provides brief overviews of all Kierkegaard’s works. This is invaluable, especially for forming some idea about the denser books in the Kierkegaardian canon. It is not a substitute for reading the works themselves though, and I’ve picked up that old copy of Fear and Trembling again – which I guess is as strong a recommendation for this biography as any I can give.