Philosopher of the Heart review: Kierkegaard’s existential angst

Biographer Clare Carlisle wisely focuses on the Danish philosopher’s inward struggle

Søren Kierkegaard: flooded his journals with admissions of vanity, pettiness, rivalry and concerns about status. Illustration: DeAgostini/Getty Images

Søren Kierkegaard: flooded his journals with admissions of vanity, pettiness, rivalry and concerns about status. Illustration: DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Dane Søren Kierkegaard is one of the 19th century’s heralds of modernism in philosophy. A Christian with an ambivalent, ultimately antagonistic relationship to Christianity (“Christendom”, as he disparagingly termed it), Kierkegaard’s autobiographical method, his insistence on the primacy of “the single individual” over and against the crowd, and his literary experimentalism would see him regarded as a forerunner to existentialism. Some of his core themes feel enduringly modern: the ubiquity of unacknowledged despair; the nature of selfhood in a world of social mirrors; the tension between the private self and the masses. Underlying all this was the question of the religious life and the individual’s relationship to God – a question that naturally alienates those of us who do not share Kierkegaard’s faith. After reading Clare Carlisle’s biography, I’m still not sure how much Kierkegaard the religious philosopher has to say to the non-Christian in the 21st century.

This is one of those biographies of a life that was outwardly not all that dramatic. Kierkegaard endured a couple of public scandals and one romantic break-up – nothing markedly more momentous than what befalls an average human being. The great event of Kierkegaard’s life was, of course, what he called his “authorship” and the agonising spiritual drama to which it bore witness. Wisely, Carlisle focuses on this inward struggle, but we only occasionally descend to the emotional depths Kierkegaard sought to plumb.

Kierkegaard’s “authorship” consisted of an outpouring of books and religious sermons over a period of about 10 years in the 1840s and 1950s. He commenced writing in earnest shortly after he graduated as a magister of theology and broke off his engagement with a young woman, Regine Olsen. You can’t frequent Kierkegaard scholarship for long without being reminded of this “break with Regine” (I fear I’ll be hearing about it long after I’ve got over my own most wounding break-ups). It was certainly one of the key occurrences in both their lives. It seriously threatened Kierkegaard’s honour, and the ethical and spiritual questions prompted by it would permeate his entire body of work. The pair would continue to see each other on the streets of Copenhagen for years to come (Copenhagen sounds even worse than Dublin in that regard), though they would not speak a word until, on the day when she left Denmark for good with her husband, Regine briefly broke her silence to wish Kierkegaard well.

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