More Reviews of Carlisle’s Biography of Kierkegaard

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.

On “Going Low”

I’m teaching critical reasoning this term. It’s one of my favorite classes because it’s so important. Few things are as empowering as being able to reason well. And yet this skill is also a source of enormous frustration in that it is so rare it’s also rarely appreciated. That is, it takes someone who is good at analyzing arguments to be able to recognize when someone else has actually legitimately won an argument rather than simply pummeled his opponent with a hodgepodge of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric.

I have to explain this to my students. I have to explain to them that reasoning well is actually a rare skill and that people who do not have it will often think they’ve won an argument when they haven’t. You can try, of course, to explain to them what is wrong with their pseudo-argumentation but most people won’t even be able to follow the explanation let alone accept they’ve been beaten in an argument.

This point was driven home to me again recently when I found myself on the receiving end of a hail storm of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric in the “Letters” section of the Times Literary Supplement in response to a critical review I had done of a book, Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (Allen Lane, 2019), by one of their regular reviewers, Clare Carlisle.

The first barrage of pseudo argumentation came from Carlise herself who began her letter with the observation that she knew of me only via my “online dissections of other scholars’ work.” Of course I was thrilled to see my blog described this way, but Carlisle clearly did not intend it as a compliment. It was an ad hominem. That is, I am disparaged personally twice in that one sentence. I am purportedly obscure, in that my work has not come to Carlisle’s attention, hence I’m not qualified to comment on her book. Moreover, I’m not a nice person because I “dissect” the work of other scholars (I was actually taught that such dissection was an important part of what scholarship is.)

This ad hominem is followed immediately by a straw man. That is, Carlisle accuses me of being unable to appreciate the unique genre of her book. which is a combination of biography and philosophy. This is a straw man, which is to say a mischaracterization of one’s opponent’s argument, in that my criticism was that the book was in fact a combination of biography and fiction in that Carlisle simply makes up thoughts that she attributes to Kierkegaard without this qualification, and in that she gets some facts wrong.

This straw man is then followed by a claim that is demonstrably false. That is, I had mentioned in my review that the references in the book were incomplete. This charge, claimed Carlisle “is simply false.” Except that it isn’t simply false, as I detailed in a letter in the “Letters” section the following week where I cited by page number four of the many quotations for which she is missing references.

I doubt that Carlisle intentionally lied when she asserted that my charge that the book’s references were incomplete was false. She just didn’t bother to check to see if she might have forgotten to include a reference here or there.

Following immediately upon this falsehood is another straw man. Here, instead of responding to my observation that she had based her claim that Kierkegaard was ambivalent about Christianity on a conflation of two distinct Danish terms, she mischaracterizes my criticism as a claim that ambivalence and deep commitment are mutually exclusive and argues that it is possible to be both deeply committed to something and ambivalent about it. This point needs further qualification, of course, in that while it is certainly possible to have these conflicting feelings intermittently with respect to the same object, it is not possible to have them simultaneously with respect to the same object. They are mutually exclusive.

That’s not the point, however. The point is that whether it’s possible to be both ambivalent about something while also being deeply committed to it was entirely irrelevant to my criticism. My criticism was that Carlisle had used Kierkegaard’s pejorative references to “Christendom” to support her claim that he was ambivalent about Christianity when she should have known that Kierkegaard does not use “Christendom” to refer to Christianity. but to a culture that purports to be Christian but is not. I made that point very clear in my review, so it is disingenuous of Carlisle to ignore it and and argue instead against a point I did not make.

Carlisle next accuses me of “grim positivism,” a charge it would appear she does not even properly understand because she advances it against my criticism that her portrait of Kierkegaard is “not new” whereas positivism concerns whether claims have been adequately supported by evidence, not whether they are novel (for more on this charge see “‘Grim Positivism’ vs. Truthiness in Biography”).

Next Carlisle inserts a red herring in that she observes that “the facts of [Kierkegaard’s] life are expertly documented in the recently completed critical edition of his journals and in earlier biographies.” She doesn’t argue, as one might expect, that these other sources support her account of the facts of Kierkegaard’s life, hence her reference to them is a red herring. That is, whether the facts of Kierkegaard’s life have been documented somewhere else is irrelevant to the issue of whether she has gotten them right.

Following on this red herring is another ad hominem. Among the earlier biographies that she asserts, erroneously, have expertly documented the facts of Kierkegaard’s life is “Joakim Garff’s monumental SAK, which Piety has been hounding through the dark tunnels of her blog for years.” Unfortunately, whatever the strengths of Garff’s biography may be, expert documentation is not among them. In fact, some of Garff’s facts were proven by another Danish scholar, Peter Tudvad, to have been wrong. That is not the point, however. The point is that Carlisle invokes non-argumentative rhetoric (“dark tunnels”) to disparage both my character (I am a bully) and a blog that she clearly has not even read because if she had read it, she would realize that of the more than 115 posts, fewer than half a dozen have Garff or SAK as their subject and that one of those is very positive.

Carlisle closes, finally, with the informal fallacy known as the sob story, or appeal to pity, in that she asserts that she found it “rather difficult” to write Philosopher of the Heart, as if the fact that she struggled to produce the book could legitimately be advanced as a defense against substantive criticisms of it.

Carlisle’s letter to the editor of the TLS is, from beginning to end, nothing but informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric. Nowhere does she present a genuine response to any of the substantive criticisms I advanced against her book. What would possess Carlisle, a scholar, to write such a letter?

To return to the point about how few people have well-developed reasoning skills, people sometimes “go low,” so to speak, in their “argumentation” simply out of ignorance, or because they can’t distinguish legitimate arguments from pseudo-arguments. Public discourse in the U.S. is so riddled with informal fallacies, etc., and our educational system is generally so bad that it isn’t surprising that even purportedly educated people in this country often stoop to illegitimate rhetorical tactics to defend their positions.

I’d assumed that the situation was better in the U.K. I have to assume, however, that Carlisle is unaware that her letter is nothing but a collection of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric or she wouldn’t have allowed the TLS to print it. After all, scholars usually want to avoid creating a public record that their reasoning skills are weak. What’s going on, I wonder, with the the teaching of critical thinking in the U.K.? I was subjected to a similar hail storm of informal fallacies and non-argumentative rhetoric by another U.K. theologian, Daphne Hampson, a couple of years ago.

But even if Carlisle is unaware just how poor the reasoning in her letter was, she certainly cannot have failed to be aware that it is bad form to cast aspersions on the character of someone simply because she doesn’t like their evaluation of her work.

It’s tempting to conclude that Carlisle is simply very ill-mannered. I have it on good authority, however, that she’s actually ”a very fine person.” How is it possible, then, that a very fine person could behave so very badly?

The answer to that question is contained in the letter itself. Someone has clearly disparaged me to her. By her own admission she does not know me and is unfamiliar with my work. She has not even actually read my blog or she would have known better than to charge that I use it to harass Joakim Garff. No, Carlisle has herself no first-hand knowledge of the blog, or at least had none when she wrote her letter. Someone had simply told her about it, and about me. Someone had slandered me to her, told her that I was a bad person, so she felt entitled to “go low” in her letter to the editor on the basis of that slander.

“Civility is a wonderful thing, when shared among equals,” writes Jennifer Weiner in a recent article in the New York Times entitled ”Why Did It Feel So Good To See Trump Booed? We are supposed to ”go high” she observes, quoting the former First Lady, even when others go low. ”Except,” she continues, ”it turns out, going low feels wonderful. More than that, if feels effective and proper and just.” “When you’re confronted with evil,” she continues, however, “you don’t shake its hand … If booing is incivility, bring it on.”

Carlisle has been led to believe that I am a bad person, so rather than responding to the substance of my criticisms of her book, she has effectively booed me. That doesn’t mean, of course, that she is not generally “a very fine person.” I’ve seen other purportedly very fine people behave similarly toward individuals they thought were undeserving of civility. It’s an ugly sight. It reminds me of pack animals turning on a member of the pack they deem to be weak. It makes me doubt sometimes that there really is a significant difference between human beings and those animals.

If standards of decency and decorum really are reserved for those we deem to merit decent treatment, then we really are no better than those animals and civilization as we like to think of it, is a chimera.

I will close with the very Kierkegaardian point that the way one treats another person should be a reflection of one’s own character, not of the character, or imagined character, of the other.

(This essay originally appeared in the 1 November 2019 issue of the online political journal Counterpunch.)



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.