M.G. Piety

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Danish Scholar’s Review of Controversial Kierkegaard Biography

In Publishing News, Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on September 1, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I’ve mentioned in several earlier posts that I am working on a book entitled Fear and Dissembling on the controversy surrounding Joakim Garff’s book Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005). It will begin with the initial reception of Garff’s book upon its publication in 2000 and then the controversy that arose in the summer of 2004 when another scholar, Peter Tudvad, exposed the book as riddled with factual errors and passages that had been plagiarized from earlier biographies of Kierkegaard. The book will be comprised primarily of English translations of articles from Danish newspapers. There were a couple of reviews, however, that appeared in scholarly journals. I’ve translated both of them and have received permission from the authors to publish excerpts from them on this blog. What follows are a three sections excerpted from a review of by the Danish scholar Johan de Mylius, of the University of Southern Denmark, that appeared in the journal Nordika vol. 19 (2002). De Mylius’ review was written before the revelations about the errors and plagiarisms were made public in the summer of 2004, so the review takes no account of them, but comments on what the reviewer sees as the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the work. The parenthetical references are to the English translations of the biography and the wording of passages de Mylius quotes directly is also taken from the this translation.

Kierkegaard scholarship has gotten a spectacular center in Copenhagen. The primary purpose of the center is the production of the new edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works and papers–on the basis of which this fat biography, Joakim Garff’s bestseller, SAK, was produced. But Kierkegaard scholarship as such has for many years had its center, at least in a purely quantitative sense, elsewhere. This is easily established by a glance an the annual Kierkegaard Newsletter, edited by Julia Watkin (formerly of Copenhagen University, now at the University of Tasmania). As far as the number of books and articles, as well as seminars and conferences on Kierkegaard, the U.S.A. is clearly in the lead by a large margin, with several other nations also performing admirably in this competition.

It is thus a little strange to see how this sizeable new biography of Kierkegaard leaves international Kierkegaard research out of its frame of reference. It can’t be because Garff is unfamiliar with this research. Of course he is familiar with it. There is not a single reference, however, in the entire biography to a work published outside Denmark.

The result is that obvious presuppositions for Garff’s own, predominantly esthetic view of Kierkegaard go unmentioned. This is the case, for example, with respect to Theodor W. Adorno’s famous book Kierkegaard. Konstruktion des Ästhetischen (1993) [Kierkegaard Construction of the Aesthetic] and Louis Mackey’s Kierkegaard, A Kind of Poet (1971), but also with other important books. References to Josiah Thompson’s biography of Kierkegaard from 1973 as well as his Kierkegaard: A Collection of Critical Essays (1972), another anthology, Kierkegaard vivant (1966), […] and Sylvia Walsh’s Living Poetically (1994) are conspicuous by their absence.


The entire biography is actually written in journalistic style. It is lively, often detailed and entertaining. Occasionally, however, the language becomes painfully overwrought as is the case when Garff writes of Johanne Luise Heiberg that she was “a goddess sprung from the proletariat, who, at the age of thirteen had become the object of [Johan Ludvig Heiberg’s] distinguished erotic lust and who was now undisputedly the leading lady of the Danish stage, the dazzling, bespangled muse of the age. Everyone admired her, worshipped her and fell in love with her so thunderously and passionately that they became profoundly depressed, or even–in keeping with the tragic style of the day–committed suicide” (68)(as if there at other times had been cheerful suicide!). It is not surprising that this sort of literary style would involve even the Olympian Goethe being referred to as “in” (74). The objective would appear to be to encourage the poor unprepared reader to tolerate, and even to accept, the view that it is “in” to read about Kierkegaard.


The biggest problem is that even though Garff wants his approach to Kierkegaard to be aesthetic, he has little to offer when it comes to the literature of the period, the literature which Kierkegaard as a writer plays up against.  One gets no sense of Kierkegaard as a figure in the literary world of the day, with roots in the period that is often referred to as post-romanticism. What was actually going on in Danish literature at that point? And how did Kierkegaard conceive of his role in these developments? To the extent that the literary world is brought in at all, the issue always concerns Kierkegaard’s personal relationships to literary figures. That is too little, that is journalism on the level of BT[1] rather than of a literary biography.

This is only a small portion of the review. The entire review will appear in Fear and Dissembling: The Copenhagen Kierkegaard Controversy (Gegensatz Press, forthcoming).

[1] BT is a Danish tabloid newspaper.