Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Soren Kierkegaard by Clare Carlisle review | Saturday Review | The Times

Replete with pop culture references and quips about his preposterous quiff, a more comprehensively flawed misapprehension (and, one suspects, wilful misrepresentation in the service of what passes for journalism in The Times these days) of Kierkegaard’s ideas in 1000 words is difficult to imagine.

The Times · by James Marriott

Kierkegaard had the habit of bursting into tears whenever he spent time with his girlfriend Regine Olsen

Like most great philosophers, Soren Kierkegaard was something of a pain in the arse. Brooding, over-privileged and Danish, he sported a preposterous quiff that stood nearly six inches tall. Even Clare Carlisle’s sympathetic new biography can’t make him seem particularly likeable. Kierkegaard emerges as the sort of self-absorbed eternal student familiar from philosophy departments across the world. This, of course, is crucial to his appeal.

Kierkegaard, born in Copenhagen in 1813, was no feckless waster, however. He had a furious work ethic. In his short life (he died aged 42) he published 22 books — and in 1843, he even managed to publish three on one day. Among his works are some of the masterpieces of western philosophy: Either/OrFear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death. Kierkegaard’s view of the human condition as a mire of anxiety and regret earned him his reputation as the “father of existentialism”.

Outside philosophy, Kierkegaard’s biggest hobby was making mountains out of molehills. The biggest drama of his life was his failed engagement to a young woman called Regine Olsen. He proposed in 1840, dumped her in 1841 and then spent the rest of his life over-analysing their brief relationship, cycling through resentment, indignation and pity. It sounds as though Olsen had a lucky escape: Kierkegaard comes across as a terrible boyfriend. When he met Olsen he’d been at university for almost ten years, which should have set alarm bells ringing straight away, and when they spent time together he tended to burst into tears, “beside himself with sorrow and self-accusation”. He believed (correctly) that he would make a terrible husband and, although Olsen “fought like a lioness”, he broke things off.

This was the early 19th century, a time when young educated people were prone to overwrought displays of Romantic passion. Olsen gave as good as she got and wrote Kierkegaard some smashing letters calling him “my seducer, my deceiver, my enemy, my murderer . . . the tomb of my joy, the abyss of my unhappiness”. Chastened, the young philosopher fled Copenhagen for Berlin to begin work on his first magnum opus, Either/Or.

The angst of his failed relationship with Regine fuelled his philosophy and echoes everywhere in his work, informing his views on marriage, God, love and authenticity. Although he undeniably produced some great philosophy, he remained an annoying person. For instance, when Kierkegaard finally slunk back from Berlin with a finished manuscript of Either/Or, he entrusted it to his friend Jens Finsteen Gjodvad to proof-read. He then got into the habit of dropping in on Gjodvad when he was trying to do his day job at a newspaper office and subjecting him to long, distracting (and one-sided) “chats”. The paper’s editor was driven to distraction by this “impractical and very self-absorbed man sitting in the office, ceaselessly lecturing and talking without the least awareness of the inconvenience he is causing”.

Anyone familiar with Kierkegaard would agree that he was precisely the sort of person who could have benefited from the structure of a job. No time for melancholy introspection and bothering your friends when you’ve got quarterly reports to file! Unfortunately for Kierkegaard (but fortunately for philosophy), he didn’t need to work because of his family’s vast wealth.

His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a formidable figure who started out herding sheep on the Jutland heath, but made his fortune in Big Wool and became one of the richest men in Copenhagen. The sensitive, large-eyed young Kierkegaard (a “spoiled and naughty” mummy’s boy according to family friends) thought that his father was a tyrant who made his childhood “torture”. Kierkegaard senior retired early to study philosophy. His son inherited his father’s intellectual earnestness as well as his wealth.

Kierkegaard’s life was consumed by work, scribbling away in a blacked-out room to protect him from sunlight, which he found overpowering. He acquired fame in his lifetime, idolised by admirers, but also satirised in newspapers and plays as a gloomy, diminutive hunchback. He died in 1842 of an excruciating spine condition. Even he may have been surprised by his pop-cultural afterlife. Thanks, perhaps, to the melancholy, the long Nordic name and that quiff, Kierkegaard has morphed into many people’s idea of a sort of archetypal philosopher.

More than 1.3 million people have watched Alain de Botton’s YouTube video about him, and a popular Twitter account, Kim Kierkegaardashian, mashes up his philosophy with the tweets of Kim Kardashian with amusing results: “Dress for the void you wish to escape from”; “Summer’s easiest hair trend is beach waves. It says: the seas of life are rough and I am drowning”; “Eight incredible new lipstick shades and one incurable melancholy”.

Naturally, it is Kierkegaard the nihilist who has caught on. “As I grew up,” he once wrote, “I opened my eyes and saw the real world and began to laugh and haven’t stopped since.” He saw life as inevitably unsatisfying: “Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way . . . hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.” He also wrote about anxiety as the inevitable state of human life, a product of the almost infinite choices that are presented to us and which we can never hope to make informed decisions about.

Kierkegaard’s questions about existence were more interesting than his solutions, which, boringly, were very Christian. The Christian Kierkegaard is fully in evidence in Carlisle’s book. Although it is usually readable and entertaining, many will find themselves becalmed in the sections that deal with the meaning of Christianity and the theological failings of various Danish bishops. I’m no Kierkegaard scholar and Carlisle, reader in philosophy and theology at King’s College London, very much is. I’m sure the picture of Kierkegaard she presents here is the accurate one. But amid all the theologising, I missed the crazily quiffed nihilist I once knew.


Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Soren Kierkegaard by Clare Carlisle, Allen Lane, 368pp; £25

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