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.

Once Upon a Time in Denmark

j9987For as long as I can remember I’ve had what Kierkegaard would call “an extraordinary hankering” to get into The New York Review of Books. In fact, my entire literary and scholarly production: my translation, my book, my many articles and two blogs, has been one long and elaborate attempt to attract the attentions of Robert Silvers, the editor of the Review, in the hope that my work would so impress him that he would decide to add me to his stable of reviewers. So when I saw that Princeton University Press had released a new edition of Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary with a foreword by John Updike, I was immediately reminded of the one time I did actually make it into the NYRB–sort of.

I’ve been an avid reader of the NYRB since I was a child. My father, who was an editorial writer for a newspaper, used to get it at work and bring it home for me to read. I loved the NYRB. The articles were always so interesting and so well written. I would read nearly the whole thing, cover to cover.

Naturally, I tried to keep up with it even during the years lived in Denmark. I don’t remember whether I subscribed to it then, or whether I simply collected my father’s old copies on my occasional trips to the U.S. Somehow though, I kept up with it, despite the fact that it was nearly impossible to find a copy on a newsstand in Denmark (a detail that will be important later in this story).

I was pleased, one day in 1997, to see an article by Updike on “The Seducer’s Diary” portion of Kierkegaard’s Either-Or in the May 29, edition of the Review. Updike is a wonderful writer, so I knew the piece would be good.

I was disappointed, however, to see Updike cite the apocryphal story that Kierkegaard had once visited a brothel as if it were well-documented historical fact. Most Kierkegaard scholars know that the story is pure speculation, but almost no one knows how the speculations got started. That is, no one except my then boyfriend Paul A. Bauer who, though I don’t think he had read any Kierkegaard when I met him, had spent the seven years we’d been living together in Denmark acquainting himself with the more arcane facts surrounding Kierkegaard’s life and writings.

“God I wish I knew how that story got started,” I complained to Paul.

“I’ll tell you how it got started,” he answered placidly. “P.A. Heiberg started it. [Heiberg was one of the editors of the first edition of Kierkegaard’s collected works.] Heiberg decided,” Paul continued, “that Kierkegaard’s account in the book Stages on Life’s Way of a man who visits a prostitute and becomes obsessed with the idea that he might thus have fathered a child was autobiographical. He didn’t have any real evidence to support this theory though,” Paul explained. “All he had in the way of ‘support’ was a few drafts of that passage from Stages and the fact that there was a gap in Kierkegaard’s journals of about six to seven weeks from the end of April until the beginning of June in 1836. Heiberg figured the brothel visit had occurred around the beginning of that period and that it has so traumatized Kierkegaard that he couldn’t write again for weeks.”

Paul knew this because among the arcana that made up his growing library was a monograph by Heiberg entitled En Episode i Kierkegaards Ungdomsliv (an episode in Kierkegaard’s youth) from 1912 and a book entitled Et Segment af Søren Kierkegaards religiøse Udvikling (a segment of Kierkegaard’s religious development) from 1918 where Heiberg presented these speculations, and Paul, unlike probably anyone else alive today, had actually read both these works.

Ecstatic at the realization that I was more knowledgeable about something than was John Updike (well, okay, Paul was the one who was really more knowledgeable), and that maybe I could leverage this knowledge to get into the NYRB, I suggested we write a letter to the Review pointing out Updike’s error in presenting mere speculation as fact.

We drafted the letter and sent it off directly to the NYRB. I assumed we’d be notified if they decided to print the letter, which I was initially confident they would, since revealing as it did for the first time in modern memory, the source of this famous story about Kierkegaard, it promised to create something of a stir in scholarly circles.

Weeks passed.  The whole thing had faded from my memory when my eyes unexpectedly lit upon my own name in a sort of “Heard About Town”column entitled “Dyt-båt” (that’s supposedly the sound of an old Model-T horn) in the Danish newspaper Weekendavisen.

“Two University of Copenhagen students really took it to John Updike in the most recent edition of The New York Review of Books” the column blared.

I leapt right out of my chair.

“We’ve got to get a copy of The New York Review of Books!” I exclaimed to Paul.

I can’t remember now how long it took us to find a copy. I do remember, though, that we combed almost the entire city looking for one. When we finally found one, we went immediately to the “Letters” section at the back. There it was, our letter in all its lengthy erudition. My joy at this triumph was somewhat short lived, however, because following our letter was a disappointingly curt reply from Updike, who appeared to think that our objection to the brothel-visit story had been motivated by some kind of prudishness.

So there you have it. That is the story of how my longtime ambition to appear in the pages of The New York Review of Books was finally realized–sort of.