Danish Scholar’s Review of Controversial Kierkegaard Biography

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.

Exhibition on Jews in the Danish Theater takes a Page from Tudvad’s Book!

There is a new exhibition entitled “Teater og kultur” (theater and culture) in the museum that is part of Hofteatret (the court theater) at Christiansborg Palace on Slotsholmen in Copenhagen. It concerns the relation between theater and the social-political life in mid-nineteenth-century Denmark. This was an extremely tumultuous period in Danish history. It was the beginning of genuine democracy in Denmark as well as the period of the Three Year’s War in Schleswig, a war as divisive for much of Danish society as was the Civil War for American society.

There are three parts to the exhibition. The first is entitled “Breve fra et grænseland” (letters from a borderland) and concerns the effect of the Three Year’s War on Fridolin Banner, a soldier on the Schleswig front, and his father, Johan Daniel Bauer an actor in the Danish Royal Theater who endured not merely constant rumors relating to the conflict in which his son was involved, but also a raging cholera epidemic in Denmark’s capital.

The second part of the exhibition is entitled “Kærlighed og magt I korridoreren” (love in the corridors of power) and concerns Frederik the Seventh and his lover, Louise Rasmussen, also known as Grevinde Danner (Countess Danner), to whom he was “married” as the Danes say “til venstre hand” (to the left hand).

Finally, the third part of the exhibition is entitled “Salomon, Esther og Shylock–jøder på scenen” (Salomon, Esther and Shylock–Jews on the stage). The following is a quotation from the AOK-Guide online (AOK stands for “Alt om København” which translates as “everything about Copenhagen”):

“As Peter Tudvad shows in his book Stadier på antisemitismens vej (stages on the way of anti-Semitism) (2010), Søren Kierkegaard went about in the middle of Golden-Age Copenhagen and contributed to the debate concerning the assimilation of Jews into Danish culture. One can also read in Tudvad’s book about the view of Jews in the theatrical community and their role in the Danish theater. The Theater Museum at Slotsholmen has taken up this thread from Tudvad’s book with an exhibition entitled “Salomon, Esther and Shylock–Jews on the stage.” The exhibition covers the period of Kierkegaard and Johanne Luise Heiberg up until the premier of Henrik Nathansen’s “Indenfor Murerene” at the Royal Theater in 1912–the same year the theater was opened.”

Click here for the AOK-Guide. The article didn’t say for how long the exhibition will be up. My suspicion is that it will be up all summer, so if you are planning a trip to Copenhagen this summer, you should definitely check it out.

I will have more on Tudvad’s book soon!