Debunking the Kierkegaard Myths

kierkegaard2_360x450Kierkegaard kept voluminous journals. It’s reasonable to assume from that that his would be an easy biography to write. In fact, it is fairly easy to write a biography of Kierkegaard and quite a few have been written including David F. Swenson’s Something About Kierkegaard (Augsburg, 1941), Walter Lowrie’s A Short Life of Kierkegaard (Princeton, 1942), Johannes Hohlenberg’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Pantheon, 1954), Henning Fenger’s Kierkegaard, The Myths and their Origins (Yale, 1980), Alastair Hannay’s Kierkegaard: A Biography (Cambridge, 2001), Joakim Garff’s Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography (Princeton, 2005), Stephen Backhouse’s Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan, 2016), and most recently, Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart (Allen Lane, 2019). What isn’t so easy is to write a biography that is genuinely revealing, that delves beneath the surface facts of Kierkegaard’s life and his own well-known observations on them to show something of the man behind the biographical myths.

All the existing biographies give essentially the same picture of Kierkegaard, a picture that has been cobbled together from Kierkegaard’s journals and accounts of some of his contemporaries. They present him as a somewhat reclusive, oddly attired, physically misshapen, passionately religious melancholic from a similarly passionately religious melancholic family. There is little question that the “passionately religious” qualification is correct. Kierkegaard came from a devoutly religious family whose spiritual roots were in the individualistic tradition of the Moravian Brethren, and they maintained their connection to this denomination even while enjoying membership in the official Danish Lutheran Church.

The picture of Kierkegaard as a melancholic loner who was the product of an unhappy childhood comes largely from his own observations about himself in his journals. Even Fenger and Garff, both of whom point out how careful Kierkegaard was at crafting the image of himself that he wanted to survive his death, give too much credence to what Kierkegaard writes about himself. Scattered among the many reminiscences of people who knew Kierkegaard are clues that suggest the narrator of the journals is unreliable.

Kierkegaard writes repeatedly that his childhood was unhappy. Observations of the Kierkegaard household, however, by visiting friends and acquaintances invariably describe it as warm and happy, presided over by loving parents who took conspicuous pride in their children’s abilities and accomplishments. See, for example, the reminiscences collected in the section entitled “Barndom og skoleår” (childhood and school years) in Erindringer om Søren Kierkegaard (memories of Søren Kierkegaard) (Reitzel, 1980).

Kierkegaard describes his father as profoundly melancholic. There is little evidence, however, to support that Michael Pedersen suffered from depression until very late in his life after his second wife, and the mother of his children, died and then his children began to die off, one by one, in early adulthood. Kierkegaard’s older brother, Peter Christian, gives a similar picture of the family, and it is well known that he struggled with depression himself. But again, there is little evidence that this was a serious problem until after he lost his mother and siblings to death and after he lost his first wife shortly after their marriage.

The death of a loved one naturally leads to depression and to lose one’s children is reportedly one of the worst kinds of losses. Peter Christian lived through the death of nearly all his siblings, as well as the death of his first wife, and added to the grief of those losses was the undoubtedly disturbing spectacle of his once strong father’s own struggles with grief. That both Kierkegaard’s father and his older brother suffered from depression later in their lives makes perfect sense. That in itself is not sufficient, however, to support that the family had any sort of congenital predisposition to depression, or that Kierkegaard’s childhood home had been characterized by it. My point is not to argue that the traditional picture of Kierkegaard’s family and childhood is necessarily wrong, but simply that there are reasons to doubt it.

Kierkegaard describes his father as authoritarian, yet it is well known, as a contemporary, Peter Munte Brun observes in Erindringer, that the elder Kierkegaard encouraged his children (his male children anyway) to debate with him on points of philosophy and theology. Michael Pedersen may well have been authoritarian in some respects, but most devoutly religious heads of households insist, if they are authoritarian, on conformity on intellectual matters and, in particular on points of theology. So if Michael Petersen was authoritarian, it was not in the traditional sense.

But if this negative view of Kierkegaard’s family and childhood home is inaccurate, why do we find it in Kierkegaard’s journals? There are two possible reasons. The first is that the Romantics tended, paradoxically, to have a positive view of melancholy—it was romantic. Kierkegaard was steeped in the Romantic worldview and appeared to enjoy thinking of himself as a romantic figure. Second, many of his accounts of his family and childhood that support this view were written after the family experienced the tragic losses referred to above, hence Kierkegaard’s later view of his family and this period of his life may well have been negatively affected by these losses in the same way that his brother’s likely was.

Part of The Corsair’s merciless caricaturing of Kierkegaard included depicting him as hunch-backed with trouser legs of two different lengths. Was Kierkegaard hunchbacked? Most accounts of contemporaries make no mention of this purported deformity and the medical records from Frederiks Hospital, where Kierkegaard breathed his last in 1855, include no reference to it. There are a few accounts of Kierkegaard from contemporaries that describe him as “slightly hunched” (Erindringer, 67-68), but that’s very different from saying he was hunch-backed. Strangely, even Fenger gives too much credence to the view that Kierkegaard was hunch-backed. There is actually no evidence, however, to suggest that Kierkegaard suffered from anything more than poor posture, or what is sometimes referred to as a “scholarly slouch.” Even that is largely conjecture given that the few references we have to this purported physical characteristic of Kierkegaard date from the period after he was portrayed this way in the caricatures published by The Corsair when people’s memories of Kierkegaard might well have been influenced by those caricatures.

Were Kierkegaard’s trouser legs of two different lengths? Anyone who knows anything about Kierkegaard and gives this idea a moment’s thought will realize that it’s extremely improbable Kierkegaard would ever have appeared in public in such poorly-tailored attire. Kierkegaard was a notorious flâneur whose excessive tailor bills were the bane of his father’s existence. This is likely the reason, in fact, that The Corsair chose to depict him as poorly attired. Nothing would have irked the vain Kierkegaard more than being presented as anything less than impeccably dressed.

I address the myth that Kierkegaard was reclusive in a publication that will appear shortly, so I won’t scoop myself by going into that issue here. Suffice it to say that it makes little sense to suppose that a well-known flâneur could also have been a recluse.

So there you have it. More support could be presented, of course, to challenge each of the prevailing myths about Kierkegaard that turn up in nearly every biography of him like so many bad pennies. Again, my point here is not to argue that there is no truth to these myths, but only to point out that there is reason to suppose that there is less truth than has traditionally been thought.

Mr. McBeevee

The Andy Griffith Show” is one of my favorite televisions shows. It isn’t just that it’s well written and well acted, it’s that it’s life affirming. It sends consistently positive messages about people’s potential for goodness. I’ve heard it characterized as saccharine. It isn’t though. The peace of Mayberry, the little town of which widower Andy Griffith is the sheriff, is repeatedly disturbed by drunkards, con men, and even violent criminals, to say nothing of jealousy, pettiness, and mistrust. Even Andy succumbs occasionally to mistrust.

There is an episode in the first season where Andy mistakenly assumes his son Opie’s reluctance to contribute to a charity to which all the other children in his school have given generously stems from selfishness, only to find out in the end that Opie has been saving his money to buy his girlfriend a coat because her family is too poor to buy one for her. There’s another episode where Andy assumes that Opie’s claim that he did not start a fire in the barn of a local farmer is a lie, only to find out later that Opie had been telling the truth, that the farmer had started the fire himself.

My favorite episode, and the one that has occasioned this post, is the first one from the third season. The episode is entitled “Mr. McBeevee.” The opening scene is of Opie riding his imaginary horse, Blackie. Later Opie tells his father that he can’t help him clean the Sheriff’s office because he has to help his new friend Mr. McBeevee, a man who, he explains, wears a shiny silver hat, walks about in the treetops, jingles as if he were wearing bells, and can blow smoke out of his ears.

Both Andy and his faithful sidekick Deputy Barney Fife assume, from this description, that Mr. McBeevee is as imaginary as was Opie’s horse Blackie. Opie insists, however, that Mr. McBeevee is real.

The plot takes a dark turn when Opie shows his father a quarter he claims Mr. McBeevee gave him. Where can that have quarter come from? Andy informs his Aunt Bee, who serves as his housekeeper and surrogate mother to Opie, that if Opie will not admit that Mr. McBeevee isn’t real, he’s going to have to “get a whipping.”

Andy makes his way up to Opie’s room and explains to him that he won’t punish him if he will admit that Mr. McBeevee isn’t real.

“Opie,” he says, “there comes a time when you have to stop the play acting and tell the truth, and that time is now, right now. Opie, I want you to be man enough to tell me that Mr. McBeevee is just make believe. That’s all you have to say and it will all be forgotten. But if you don’t, then something else is going to happen. I believe you know what I mean, don’t you.”

“Yes, Pa,” Opie mumbles without looking up.

“Alright,” says Andy, “I want you to say that Mr. McBeevee is just make believe.”

But Opie can’t do it. He tries, but he stops before he can complete the sentence.

“I can’t Pa,” he says trembling and looking directly into his father’s eyes. “Mr. McBeevee isn’t make believe. He’s real.”

Andy shakes his head sadly.

“Don’t you believe me Pa? Opie asks pleadingly, ”don’t you Pa?”

Opie, lower lip trembling, is on the verge of tears. Andy stares disappointedly into his son’s face. Then suddenly his expression changes. There’s a brief look of incredulity, not at what his son is saying, but at something else, something at which the viewer can only guess. He sighs resignedly, smiles slightly, and responds:

“I believe you.”

When Andy comes downstairs again to Barney and Aunt Bee, he informs them that he has not spanked Opie after all.

“Well that’s good,” says Barney with obvious relief. “He learned his lesson. A good talking to is the best thing. Making him stay in his room…”

“I didn’t do that either,” says Andy, lighting a cigarette.

“Well what did you do?” asks Barney.

“I told him I believed him,” responds Andy.

“You told him you BELIEVED him,” Barney blurts out. “But Andy, what he told you is impossible!”

“Well,” Andy explains, “a whole lot of times I’ve asked him to believe things that to his mind must have seemed just as impossible.”

“But Andy, the silver hat, the jingling, the smoke from his ears, what about all that?”

“Well,” says Andy, “I guess at a time like this, when you’re asked to believe something that just doesn’t seem possible, that’s a moment that decides whether you’ve got faith in somebody or not.”

“Well how can you explain it all?” asks Barney.

“I can’t,” responds Andy.

“But you do believe in Mr. McBeevie?”

“No,” responds Andy. ”But I believe in Opie.”

You can hardly get a more Kierkegaardian picture of faith than that! It’s not faith in Christ, of course, but it is faith in all its improbabilistic glory. I wouldn’t go so far as to try to argue that Andy Griffith, or the show’s writers, must have read Kierkegaard. There is an Andy Griffith-Kierkegaard connection, however, that may surprise readers. Griffith had originally planed to become a Moravian minister before he turned to music and acting.

The Moravian Church, also known as the Bohemian Brethren, or the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren), dates from very early in the fifteenth century and is thus the oldest protestant denomination, predating even Martin Luther’s break with the Church of Rome. A group of Bohemian Brethren established a village called Herrnhut in Berthelsdorf, Germany and hence became known as the Herrnhuters.

Kierkegaard’s father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, was a member of the Herrnhut sect. Its view of Christianity had a profound influence on his own and hence on the view of Christianity with which Kierkegaard was raised.

The Moravian Church, interestingly, has no official doctrine.

“Just as the Holy Scripture does not contain any doctrinal system, so the Unitas Fratrum also has not developed any of its own because it knows that the mystery of Jesus Christ, which is attested to in the Bible, cannot be comprehended completely by any human mind or expressed completely in any human statement,” its Ground of the Unity document states.

That is probably partly why Kierkegaard’s own view on the importance of doctrine is so minimalistic. Personal faith was emphasized over doctrine in the pietistic tradition of the Herrnhuters.

Back to Andy Griffith… After his talk with Opie, Andy takes a walk in the woods where Opie claimed to have been helping Mr. McBeevee.

“Mr. McBeeving” he blurts out in exasperation as he swats at the grass with a stick.

“Hello,” replies a voice from the treetops. “Somebody call?”

Andy looks up to see a telephone repair man descending one of the tree trunks, or what at least appeared to be a tree trunk, the tools dangling from his belt jingling like bells.

“McBeevee at your service,” he says when he finally reaches the ground. “What can I do for you?”

“You walk around in the trees,” Andy says grinning incredulously. “You’ve got a silver hat, and you jingle. You can make smoke come out of your ears, can’t you!” he says. (This, it turns out, is a trick Mr. McBeevee showed Opie where he exhales cigarette smoke into his cupped hand and then releases it after moving the hand to his ear.)

“I sure am glad to meet you!” says Andy, who then proceeds to shake Mr. McBeevee’s hand with a vigor that threatens to remove his entire arm from its socket.

So Andy’s faith in his son was justified. He couldn’t have known this, though, when he chose to believe his son, or when he realized that he did believe his son, despite the apparently fantastical nature of his story. Griffith would have realized, of course, that faith is rarely justified in a manner that is demonstrable to others. I think that was the message of the show, that love and faith are inexorably intertwined and that we must hold fast to them – especially when life makes that difficult.