Screen Shot 2020-05-09 at 6.37.43 PMA couple more reviews have emerged of Claire Carlisle’s new biography of Kierkegaard Philosopher of the Heart. The first, by Parul Sehgal, appeared in the April 28 edition of New York Times Book Review, and the second by Adam Kirsch, is in this week’s New Yorker.

I’m having the weirdest déjà vu experience. This is uncannily like the time, many years ago when John Updike reviewed Joakim Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard in the New Yorker. I had published some critical articles on Garff’s book before Updike’s review appeared. Updike’s review, unlike the other reviews up to that point, was strangely silent on this issue of the quality of Garff’s book. My guess is that Updike had probably done a little research on the reception of Garff’s book and had learned it was somewhat controversial. Not in a position to judge the facts of the controversy, Updike may well have thought it safest to simply use the book as a point of departure for his own thoughts on the life of Kierkegaard.

Something like that appears to have been the case with these most recent reviews of Carlisle’s biography. Neither actually says very much about the book. Despite this, however, Sehgal’s review is fairly negative. She writes, for example, that

The narrative slips in and out of a breathless present-tense voice with flourishes of soppy characterization: “Writing became the fabric of Kierkegaard’s existence, the most vibrant love of his life — for all his other loves flowed into it, and it swelled like the ocean that crashed restlessly against his native land.” At times Carlisle succumbs to outright fiction.

Kirsch’s review is more positive. The reader has to take it with a grain of salt, however, because it would appear, as will become clear below, that Kirsch hasn’t actually read the book.

Neither of the reviews mentions the errors in it that I pointed out in my own review for the TLS. The problem, I suspect, is the same as Updike’s. That is, my guess is that both Sehgal and Kirsch are aware that Carlisle’s book was the subject of some controversy, but since they are not themselves Kierkegaard scholars, they can’t really take a position on it.

I have to hand it to the TLS, who published my negative review of Carlisle’s book. I’m still annoyed with them for their refusal to let me to respond to George Pattison’s tendentious letter to the editor defending Carlisle, as well as for their failure to disclose to readers that Pattison’s defense of the book was not disinterested (the book’s dedicated to him). Still, the TLS actively sought out someone who was competent to review a biography of Kierkegaard, and even more to their credit, published the review, though it reflected unfavorably on Carlisle, who was one of their regular reviewers. That sort of editorial conscientiousness appears rare these days.

Kierkegaard liked to disparage book reviewers. That always seemed ungenerous to me, given that his own books tended to be favorably reviewed. One of the accusations he made against reviewers was that they didn’t always read the books they reviewed. That, as I mentioned above, would appear to have been the case with Kirsch.

It’s a good idea, if one is going to review a book one hasn’t actually read, to stick to the kinds of vague and general statements that cannot be proven to be false. You know, stuff like that the book is “creative,” or “compelling,” or “an interesting read,” etc.

Unfortunately, Kirsch chose to ignore this time-honored practice of hack reviewers and went right out on a limb too conspicuously cracked to bear his weight. Kierkegaard had ceased his “feverish productivity” toward the end of his life, Kirsch claims in his review. “[I]n his last years,” Kirsch continues, “Kierkegaard truly earned the pseudonym under which he had published Fear and Trembling,” Johannes de Silentio—John of the [sic] Silence.”

But of course Carlisle never said anything of the sort, nor did anyone else who actually knows anything about Kierkegaard’s life because its not merely demonstrably, but spectacularly false.

Kierkegaard never ceased writing. He did not publish any new books between 1852 and 1855, but he continued to write in his journals. More importantly, he ended his life with the same “feverish productivity” with which his career had begun.

Kierkegaard launched his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) attack on the Danish Lutheran Church just before he died. The attack consisted of a number of newspaper articles that actually first started appearing in 1854, and a series of ten pamphlets entitled The Instant (Oieblikket) published in 1855, the year he died.

These late works, and Kierkegaard’s journal entries relating to them, take up more than 600 pages in Volume XXIII of Kierkegaard’s Writings: The Moment and Late Writings. So it is hardly accurate to describe Kierkegaard’s exit from this life as “silent.” In fact he went out screaming bloody murder at institutionalized Christianity.

The existing biographies of Kierkegaard are so problematic that I’ve decided, finally, that I am going to try my hand at writing one myself. It shouldn’t be too difficult given how low the bar has been set by the more recent contributions to this genre.

I may even have an agent lined up. I’ve twice contacted an agent in relation to another project and each time he responded that he wasn’t interested in the project about which I’d approached him, but that he would be interested in a biography of Kierkegaard. The first time he said this, I responded that I was not a biographer and suggested that Peter Tudvad wold be a more appropriate choice for such a project.

Nothing ever came of that, however, and since it is now apparent that one doesn’t have to be a biographer to write a biography of Kierkegaard, and since it is equally apparent that few people know very much about Kierkegaard’s life, I figure I should take a stab at it. It seems the only way we are likely to get a relatively accurate book-length portrait of the man in the near future.


  1. Go for it, M.G.! My friend Stephen Backhouse published a very good popular-level biography recently. Reading it inspired me to write a short story re-presenting one episode in SK’s life, but it needs heavy editing and I haven’t edited it yet! Pattison was my external examiner for my DPhil. I’ve heard Carlisle give papers a few times–though haven’t read this book yet.

    1. Well, if you see George, ask him how he can have let Carlisle publish the book with so many problems in it. It would appear Carlisle hasn’t even read Tudvad’s massive Kierkegaards København, a book Niels Jørgen Cappelørn, the head of the Kierkegaard Research Center when the book appeared, called “groundbreaking.” I find that just incredible.

      That is so cool about your short story!

  2. M. G., thank you for your post on this topic. Do you have any thoughts on Hannay’s biography?

    1. I have to confess that I don’t remember Hannay’s biography very well. I will have to go back and read it again before I start on my own biography of Kierkegaard. I remember thinking that Hannay’s was very dry, that it was more a portrait of the development of Kierkegaard’s thought than it was a portrait of him as a person. Also, since it came out in 2001, it doesn’t include any of the revelations of Tudvad’s research. Also, while I think Hannay is usually very good at grasping the substance of Kierkegaard’s thought, I don’t think he sufficiently appreciates how profoundly religious Kierkegaard was and his failure to appreciate that sometimes leads him astray. Hannay’s is a very sharp mind, though. He never tries to be clever in the way that both Garff and Carlisle do. His writing is never sensationalistic or “soppy” and always conceptually rigorous. So, though I don’t remember Hannay’s biography well, I’m sure it is worth a read.

  3. I would be very much interested in a biography of Kierkegaard from your own pen. I have read both the Hanney and the Garff. From what I recall, the former was indeed somewhat abstract and very much on a detached philosophical level whereas the latter, though highly readable, was equally questionable and seemed prone to taking a “modern” (“postmodern”?) approach with a predictably reductive view. I don’t want to come across like a reactionary, but I get annoyed about the present tendency (which is probably the common tendency of any age) to assume that we occupy a higher ground than all previous generations. And so, in our case, we may take a causally dismissive attitude towards what were clearly major concerns in the past. Thus, we may say e.g. “Oh well it was just down to a traumatic sexual encounter”. Kierkegaard was very sensitive to what you might call the arrogance of the contemporary.

    I realise that the writing of such a biography would be a very demanding task requiring as much immersion into the written records as possible and a refusal to project in later and distorting prejudices. But I like everything you have written – and I think you’re the one for the job!

  4. Sorry – when I wrote “a causally dismissive attitude” I meant “a casually dismissive attitude”

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