M.G. Piety

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.

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  1. I haven’t visited your site in awhile so I haven’t read anything else you’ve written about his book. I’m curious what your personal opinion was of the book. I found it engaging, very well-written, and an excellent window into his life. Granted, the only other bio I’ve read of SK is the one by Lowrie, but I still found Garff compelling.

    • Well, the first, and most serious, problem with Garff’s book is that he gets many of the facts of Kierkegaard’s life wrong. He gets so many of the facts wrong that the book is actually closer to historical fiction than it is to a biography (and it was in fact referred to by one Danish journalist as a “novel” after the errors in the book were revealed).

      Of course historical fiction can be compelling and Garff’s style is what one could call “page turning.” Few schoalrs, however, would call it well written. The second charge that can be brought against the book concerns precisely its style. It’s sensationalistic. One Danish reviewer referred to the book as having been written in “BT style” (BT is a Danish tabloid on the order of the National Enquirer). No serious scholar in the U.S. would write in such a style.

      Finally, there’s the problem that so much of the book is plagiarized from earlier biographies of Kierkegaard. That’s where the errors come from. Garff appears to have done little to no original research. He gets his facts from other secondary sources, a considerable number of which got the facts of Kierkegaard’s life wrong. I’ve published several articles on this that you can find on the list of publications on my website: http://www.mgpiety.com. For a fuller account of the controversy surrounding Garff’s biography, see my forthcoming book Fear and Dissembling: The Copenhagen Kierkegaard Controversy (Gegensatz Press).

  2. Well I’m a bit embarrassed not to have known about any of the controversy surrounding that book. It seems to me that many authors have difficulty getting past the legendary mystique that has developed around his life.

    What do you consider the most accurate, least “sensational,” bio of SK?

  3. That’s a toughie. There aren’t too many biographies of Kierkegaard and, I think, most of them get some of the facts of his life wrong because, as you say, there are a lot of myths about Kierkegaard and none of the few biographies there are of him were actually written by biographers. They were all written by philosophers or theologians and they don’t really know how to write biographies. That was Garff’s problem, I think, he simply wasn’t trained to do the kind of research a biography requires.

    One of the best books for biographical information is probably Henning Fenger’s Kierkegaard: The Myths and their Origins. I checked just now and Abebooks.com has a copy. Here’s the link:

    http://www.abebooks.com/Kierkegaard-Myths-Origins-Henning-Fenger-Yale/2596301293/bd

    Many people like Alastair Hannay’s biography. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t tell you much about it. Hannay is a good scholar, but again, he’s a philosopher and not a biographer. I understand his book is more an intellectual biography than a standard biography, so perhaps the fact that he’s a philosopher isn’t such a problem as it would be if he had written a standard biography.

    We still need a good biography of Kierkegaard. I’m hoping Tudvad will do one.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll check it out. I own a copy of the Hannay bio but haven’t read it yet, I’ll have to move it up on my reading list!

  5. I read the Hannay bio a while ago and from what I recall it was written on a very abstract level which I found confusing. The Garff bio seemed a relief – but then that’s probably due to its gossipy style. But didn’t Walter Lowrie also write an SK bio?

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