More on “the Corsair Affair”

SK beats BerlingskeI promised in an earlier post that I would look more closely what scholars refer to as “the Corsair affair,” which is to say the bullying and harassment of Kierkegaard in the pages of the satirical newspaper Corsaren (the corsair) and the effect it had on him. The illustration above is from the February 11, 1848 issue of Corsaren. I have taken this image from Peter Tudvad’s Kierkegaards København. The text that accompanies it reads:

Corsaren had already promised its readers as 1846 drew to a close, that the paper would not dream of forgetting Kierkegaard, who, with his frequent appearances in the paper that year had helped to increase circulation. The promise was kept. Kierkegaard was flayed more than once by the paper through the use of what was then the entirely novel device of satirical drawings. If Copenhageners forgot how strange Magister Kierkegaard looked, Corsaren once more did them the service of reminding them with a depiction [signalement] on February 11, 1848. The drawing by Peter Klæstrup shows Kierkegaard in the process of attacking Berlingske Tidende because the paper had had the audacity to praise him — a privilege Kierkegaard reserved for only Bishop Mynster.

Corsaren is known today primarily as a satirical paper, or as the Danish scholar Johnny Kondrup observes in an article on Meïr Goldschmidt in Kierkegaard and his Danish Contemporaries, “even a gutter paper.” In fact, however, it was a left-wing political paper. “This was thus the situation when The Corsair was created,” explains Kondrup.

The reading public … had become political and polarized. In the press several conservative, royalist newspapers stood opposite a few liberal organs of opposition, which were distinguished among themselves by their degree of nationalism but were united in their demand for a constitutional monarchy. With The Corsair there arose something new: an organ which was independent of party interests and critical of both the government and the opposition. … Moreover, the paper’s program lay far to the left since it wanted to see the creation of a republic.

Kondrup observes that

[i]n Kierkegaard research it has often been claimed that The Corsair discontinued its persecution of Kierkegaard when Goldschmidt, in October 1846, sold the paper. This is, however, incorrect. First, there were new teasing jabs at Kierkegaard from October 23 and to the end of 1846, although they were few and subdued. Second, the campaign continued in the following years, in the first instance until February 1848, and then very sporadically until the paper ceased publication in March 1855.

“In our perspective,” Kondrup continues however, “the Corsair controversy … concludes with Goldschmidt’s departure from the paper, and this seems to have been Kierkegaard’s perspective as well. He was little exercised by the post-Goldschmidt Corsair and found it harmless” (pp. 112-113).

Kondrup cites as support for this some remarks Kierkegaard wrote as part of the draft of an unpublished article entitled “A Frank Word about Myself as an Author.” Here is the text of the passage in question:

Med den Udbredelsens Proportion, som »Corsaren« nu har, med saadanne Redakteurer, som den nuværende, anseer jeg den for ufarlig, tilmed da der jo nu er saa megen Begivenhed i Danmark. Derimod holder jeg mig fuld forvisset om, | at med den næsten vanvittigt uproportionerede Udbredelse den i sin Tid havde, med et Talent som G. og et saa intriguant Hoved som P. L. M. til Redakteurer var yderst, yderst farlig. Det er min Dom, at der vare Andre, som vare nærmere end jeg forpligtede til at handle under saadanne Omstændigheder: det bliver deres Ansvar, at de taug.

With the circulation [Udbredelsens Proportion] Corsaren now has, with the editors such as those it has now, I consider it harmless [ufarlig], in addition to the fact that there is so much commotion now in Denmark. I am certain, however, that with the exaggerated circulation it had in its time, with a talent such as G[oldschmidt] and a schemer such as P.L.M[øller] as editors, it was extremely, extremely dangerous [farglig]. In my judgment, there were others who had a greater responsibility to take action under such conditions: they are responsible for having remained silent.

The passage is clearly about the potential of Corsaren had in its heyday, to create social and political havoc, not about its pillorying of Kierkegaard or the effect that this pillorying had on him. Kondrup’s interpretation makes no sense when one looks at the passage as a whole. That is, the “danger” to which Kierkegaard refers cannot have been to himself personally, because prior to his public criticism of the paper, neither he nor anyone else had any reason to believe that Corsaren represented any sort of “danger” to Kierkegaard personally.

The “danger” to which Kierkegaard refers was to Danish society. Kierkegaard felt a responsibility to take some kind of action to weaken what he saw as Corsaren’s “dangerous” influence on the public and took this action, because though there were others whose responsibility in this regard he felt was even greater, they failed to act.

Hence when Kierkegaard says he considers the post-Goldschmidt Corsair “harmless,” he means to the general public, not to himself. And indeed, as has been well documented, Kierkegaard continued to complain about Corsaren’s treatment of him from 1846 when it began its attack on him until shortly before his death in 1855.

The kinds of personal attacks made on Kierkegaard by Corsaren amounted to a type of bullying. We typically think of bullying as a problem that is restricted to childhood. Studies increasingly show, however, that the bullying of adults is equally pervasive and can have similarly damaging psychological effects. Most the research on adult bullying has been on what is known as “workplace bullying.” For children, bullying typically occurs in school. For adults, on the other hand, it is typically in the workplace. For an author, whose workplace does not bring him or her into contact with other people, bullying takes place in the media.

“[T]he adult brand of bullying,” explains Stacey Colino in an article in U.S. News, “can include … publicly belittling or humiliating someone, social ostracism or undermining him or her.” Corsaren’s attacks on Kierkegaard did all three things, and not for a few months in 1846, but on and off for years. It publicly belittled and humiliated him. It caused people whom he did not know to openly ridicule him and people he knew to avoid his company. It was clearly designed, as Tudvad explains, to undermine Kierkegaard’s base of support in the less affluent and cultivated contingent of society in that it presented him as arrogant and indifferent to the plight of the common man.

Given Kierkegaard’s frequent positive references to the common man, his penchant for striking up discussions with manual laborers, tradespeople, and servants (a practice not common at the time for a person of his social station), his numerous and keen observations on the plight of the poor, and what Tudvad discovered were his generous contributions both to needy individuals and to charitable causes (see Kierkegaards København, pp. 370-377), it’s likely Corsaren’s campaign to make Kierkegaard appear indifferent to the plight of the poor that is responsible for the fact that this view of him is still widely held. See for example, Peter Gordon’s review of Daphne Hampson’s Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique, as well as Terry Eagleton’s review of Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard had reason to complain about Corsaren’s treatment of him. An appreciation of the extent of Corsaren’s campaign against him makes Kierkegaard appear a lot less self-pitying and a lot more deserving of sympathy.


“Positivism” versus Truthiness in Biography: A False Dichotomy

Caricature of Kierkegaard from an 1848 issue of The Corsair

Clare Carlisle took exception to my review in the Times Literary Supplement of her biography of Kierkegaard (“Alone for dinner” TLS 4 October 2019). She accused me in a letter to the editor in the next edition of being either “unable or unwilling to approach [her] life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, i.e., as a literary work combining biography and philosophy” (“Letters,”,TLS 11 October 2019). I have no objection, however, to combining biography and philosophy. In fact, I can’t imagine a biography of a philosopher that wouldn’t do that. How would it be possible to treat fully the life of a thinker without giving any attention to the character of his or her thought? (You can read my response to Carlisle’s letter here.)

No, what Carlisle objected to was not that I failed to approach her life of Kierkegaard on its own terms, but that I did actually approach it on its own terms and exposed it as flawed on those terms. Carlisle didn’t claim that the book was a combination of biography and historical fiction, but that’s what it, in fact, is in that it invents thoughts that Kierkegaard might plausibly have had and then attributes them to him directly, without this qualification (see, for example, “Fictional Biography, Factual Biography, and their Contaminations,” Ina Schabert Biography, Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter 1982 on the difference between historical fiction and biography, as well as the more recent “History’s Handmaids: Historical Fiction and Biography,” a post by the biographer Louise W. Knight to the website for the Wellesley Centers for Women).

Carlisle accuses me of “grim positivism” as if I had an objection to a biographer speculating about the inner life of his or her subject. I don’t object to that, though. My objection was to presenting speculations as fact. If Carlisle had simply prefaced her speculations with qualifications such as “at this point, Kierkegaard might well have been thinking…” or “it is reasonable to suppose that Kierkegaard’s thoughts now turned to…,” etc., etc., I’d have had no problem with them.

The charge of “positivism” is a straw man. Positivism, according to Oxford University Press’s online dictionary, means “A philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism.” I don’t think we should recognize only things that can be scientifically verified or proved with mathematical precision, and I didn’t even imply in my review that I thought such a thing. In fact, it is precisely because of the impossibility of pinning down any historical fact with the precision that is required in the hard sciences that the line between fact and fiction must be rigorously maintained.

Historical facts are established as such not by pinning them down with scientific or mathematical precision, but by showing they are supported by the preponderance of available evidence, all the while laboring to uncover more evidence either to support the existing interpretation of the evidence or to tip the scales in favor of an alternative interpretation.

What Carlisle objected to was not my purported “positivism,” but that I exposed that there were errors in the book that would have been flaws even in a work of historical fiction, to the extent that writers of historical fiction endeavor to get the historical facts on which they creatively elaborate correct (see Schabert. op. cit.) . Leon Edel asserts that a biographer “may be as imaginative as he pleases, so long as he does not imagine his facts” (see Schabert, op. cit., p. 1). But that’s what Carlisle does, she imagines facts. That is, she doesn’t simply impute thoughts to Kierkegaard without qualifying them as speculations, she makes claims about him that are demonstrably false according to the generally accepted standards of the verification of historical claims, standards that are far looser than those required by positivism, but which are standards nonetheless.

In particular, Carlisle presents Kierkegaard’s “pubic humiliation and ridicule” at the hands of the satirical newspaper Corsaren (the corsair) as restricted to 1846 (see Philosopher of the Heart, 61). Peter Tudvad revealed, however, in Kierkegaards København (Politiken, 2004), his groundbreaking study of Kierkegaard’s life and the city in which he lived, that the The Corsair’s campaign against Kierkegaard was not restricted to 1846, as earlier biographers had supposed, but began in 1846 and continued, off and on, right up until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855. Moreover, the The Corsair was not the only periodical to make public sport of ridiculing Kierkegaard. Paul Bauer discovered back in the mid ‘90s that at least one other newspaper, Folkets Nisse, had done so as well. That these facts cannot be established with mathematical precision does not mean they can be ignored, or that an alternative account of the facts is just as valid.

Charges of “positivism” are the last refuge of intellectual scoundrels —i.e., people whose claims have been exposed as having insufficient evidence to support them. Nothing outside the hard sciences can be proven with scientific or mathematical precision, they point out, so the requirement that a particular claim needs more evidence to support it is portrayed as a misguided demand for the impossible. There is an enormous difference, however, between a demand that a claim be supported by a preponderance of available evidence and a claim that it should be proven with mathematical precision. To conflate the two is either an expression of disingenuousness, as in the case of the tobacco industry’s repeated denial that there was proof cigarettes caused cancer, or feeblemindedness, as is the case with some, if not all, climate-change deniers.

Does it matter very much whether we ever get a really good biography of Kierkegaard? Probably not. That we endeavor assiduously to maintain the line between fact and fiction, however, no matter how challenging that may be, matters a great deal. If intellectuals abandon that distinction, there is little hope that anyone else will maintain it.

The above caricature of Kierkegaard is an illustration from Tudvad’s book that comes from an 1848 issue of The Corsair. Check back here for a post that looks more closely at the subject of the extended public pillorying of Kierkegaard and which will include another caricature of Kierkegaard from 1848 as well as English translations of the text that accompanies these caricatures.

(Earlier versions of this article appeared in the October 18, 2019 issue of the online political journal CounterPunch, as well as in The Life of the Mind, the blog on my website

Kierkegaard as Cult Figure

Kierkegaard attacks Berlingske Tidende

Prudence Crowther, a senior editor at the New York Review of Books, saw my blog post on the hitherto unknown caricatures of Kierkegaard in which I mention that there had apparently been an auction of Kierkegaard’s personal effects after his death. Crowther wanted to know the source for that information, as well as for my assertion that Kierkegaard “had become a kind of cult figure at the time of his death.” The NYRB is publishing a review of the British theologian Daphne Hampson’s book on Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique (Oxford, 2013) and they were thinking of using the caricature that accompanied that blog post to illustrate the review.

It is fairly well known among Kierkegaard scholars that Kierkegaard had become something of a cult figure by the time of his death. Hansine Andræ, the wife of C.G. Andræ, a mathematician and liberal Danish politician observed in her diary that Kierkegaard had a “large readership” and that his attack on the church at the end of his life “aroused a great sensation” (Kierkegaard in Golden Age Denmark [Indiana, 1990] p. 483). Many, though not all, prominent Danish intellectuals reacted badly to Kierkegaard’s attack on the church, but there was a great deal of sympathy with it on the part of common people.

Copenhagen is, and was even more so in Kierkegaard’s day, a small town with an even smaller community of intellectuals. Nearly everyone who did not actually know Kierkegaard personally, knew of him, if for no other reason, because he was so often caricatured in popular periodicals such as Corsaren and Folkets Nisse. As I mentioned in the blog post that had drawn Ms. Crowther’s attention, “[o]ne of the most important discoveries Peter Tudvad made when working on his book, Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004), was that the attacks on Kierkegaard in the satirical newspaper The Corsair, were not confined to 1846, as scholars had assumed, but actually spanned the period from 1846 until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855.” The caricature above was published in The Corsair in 1848. It depicts Kierkegaard beating up on the newspaper Berlingske Tidende for its having the audacity to praise him when this, according to Tudvad’s caption to the drawing as it appears in his book, was a privilege Kierkegaard granted only to Bishop Mynster.

Kierkegaard also enjoyed a certain popularity with the common people because of his edifying writings, his pietist leanings, and his skewering in his writings of important Danish cultural figures. So Kierkegaard was known either personally, or by reputation by nearly everyone. This was likely the reason for the crowd at his burial, as well as for what Flemming Chr. Nielsen refers to as the “scandal” (Nielsen, p. 7) and what I have heard other scholars refer to as the “riot” caused by Kierkegaard’s nephew, the physician Henrik Lund, when he made a speech during Kierkegaard’s burial protesting that Kierkegaard had not wanted a church burial. It wasn’t actually a riot, according to Tudvad’s description at the end of his Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen) (Politiken, 2004 [pp. 483-484). Rioting is a little extreme for Danes. The muted applause with which Lund’s speech was met by some in the crowd is about as close to rioting as the Danes get.

So it seems relatively safe to say that Kierkegaard had become something of a cult figure in Denmark by the time of his death. I realized, however, after I received Ms. Crowther’s email, that I had no source for my observation that there was apparently an auction of Kierkegaard’s personal effects, no source, that is, other than the caption of the drawing. It says, literally, “Scene at the Auction of Søren Kierkegaard.” Well, okay, “efter” doesn’t usually mean “of.” It usually means “after.” Still, the meaning of the caption is pretty unambiguous. Realizing, however, that I had no other evidence to substantiate the claim that there had been an auction of Kierkegaard’s personal effects, I wrote to Peter Tudvad, to see if he could enlighten me on this point. Scholars have long known that Kierkegaard’s books were auctioned off after his death, though they know as well that Kierkegaard began divesting himself of certain of his books before he died, so the facsimile of the auction catalog that one can purchase from the Royal Library in Copenhagen is not the final word on whether Kierkegaard ever owned a particular book. Until I saw the caricature of two women fighting over one of his shirts, however, I had not heard anything about his personal effects being auctioned as well.

They were. Tudvad sent me a link to the book Alt Blev Godt Betalt: Auktionen over Søren Kierkegaard’s indbo (Everything was Paid For: The Auction of Kierkegaard’s Personal Effects) by Flemming Chr. Nielsen (Holkenfeldt, 2000) an annotated version of the auction catalog of Kierkegaard’s personal effects from which I quoted above. My curiosity was piqued, however, so I didn’t want to wait for the book to arrive from Denmark. As luck would have it, the library over at the University of Pennsylvania had a copy.

Kierkegaard apparently had little of real value, just the sort of comfortable furnishing anyone in a similar situation would have (although he had lots of curtains, apparently because, he worried about the effect of bright light on his eyes [Pap. X3 A 144]). He had a few other peculiarities such what his personal secretary, Israel Levin, described as an “unbelievable number of walking sticks” (Nielsen, p. 30) and 30 bottles of wine (quite a cellar for a small apartment such as the one in which he was living when he died).

There was nothing really out of the ordinary among Kierkegaard’s personal effects, yet the sale netted more than twice the amount it had been estimated it would, and that lends further support to the view that Kierkegaard had become something of a cult figure in Denmark by the time of his death.

Nielsen made an interesting discovery when doing the research for his book on the auction. It concerns a framed print that it appears Kierkegaard’s older brother, Niels Andreas, must have sent to him from the U.S. where he’d emigrated in 1832. Nielsen actually wrote a whole book on Niels Andreas Kierkegaard, Ind i verdens vrimmel: Søren Kierkegaards ukendte bror (In the tumult of the world: Søren Kierkegaard’s unknown brother). I’ve never read that book, but now I am curious about it, so I ordered a copy from I’ll do a post about the book, and about the print Niels Andreas apparently sent to Kierkegaard, after I have had a chance to read it. If you are interested in reading it yourself, abebooks still has one more copy available.

That book has to make its way over here from Denmark, however, so it will be a while before I can post about it. Hampson’s book, on the other hand, is available as an ebook, so I’ve already started reading it and will be posting about it soon.