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.

The Curse?

Ane Sørensdatter Lund
Ane Sørensdatter Lund

Peter Tudvad’s new book The Curse (Politiken, 2013) is a “masterpiece,” according to the reviews in the Danish papers. The Curse is partly fact and partly fiction, but Bo Bjørnvig writes in Weekendavisen that Tudvad, being “the meticulous scholar” he is, sticks as closely to the facts as possible until the very end of the book (Weekendavisen, 19 April 2013).

With the exception of the end, that is, The end is where the fictional elements come in. But why introduce fictional elements? Why not just keep the book a straightforward biography? Tudvad’s answer, according to Karen Syberg’s review in Information, is that “being the ‘archive rat’ that he is, [Tudvad] discovered over time where the sources were silent and hence conceived a desire to transcend the limitations of traditional biographical scholarship by making them speak” (Information, 18 April 2013).

Though the reviewers are unqualified in their praise of the first part of the book, not all are equally happy with the fictional denouement (several were even unprofessional enough to reveal its details in their reviews).

I’m not going to spoil the surprise for those of you whose command of Danish is sufficient to allow you to delve into what by all reports is a book well worth the effort it takes to read. I would like, however, to suggest a direction for future speculations concerning the unrecoverable bits of the Kierkegaard family saga. I always found the details of Kierkegaard’s father’s two marriages mysterious. Michael Kierkegaard married the sister of his business partner of many years, Mads Røyen, when he was 38 and she was 37. Michael Kierkegaard must have known Kirstine Nielsdatter for some time before their betrothal. Yet despite the fact that he had been in a position to marry in the sense that he was a successful businessman of a reasonable age for years, he had not proposed to her.

We know nothing of Michael and Kirstine’s feelings for each other. No love letters, if there were any, survive and neither do any accounts of what their daily life together was like. We know only that the first Mrs. Kierkegaard died of pneumonia after less than two years of marriage. We do know something, however, about the nature of Michael Kierkegaard’s second marriage to Søren Kierkegaard’s mother, Ane Sørensdatter Lund. Their union was to all accounts a happy one. The first Kierkegaard union was childless, but the second produced a brood of seven children over which Ane presided with what acquaintances described as pronounced maternal solicitude.

The second Kierkegaard marriage had a somewhat scandalous beginning, not simply because Ane was pregnant at the time of the wedding, and not even because that pregnancy was clearly the result of a liaison that had taken place within an unacceptably short time after the demise of the first Mrs. Kierkegaard, but also because Michael Kierkegaard had drafted a prenuptial agreement that was so unfair to his future second wife that his lawyer refused to sign it.

The precipitous second marriage of the elder Kierkegaard has traditionally been interpreted as a product of the patriarch’s lechery. There is little evidence of this purported lechery, however, apart from the fact of Ane’s pregnancy. That is, there’s no evidence that Michael Kierkegaard had any extramarital liaisons either before, during, or after either of his two marriages. No claimants to the Kierkegaard fortune were produced by women of apparently easy virtue. That is, the elder Kierkegaard does not appear to have been a man of unbridled lusts.

Ane Sørensdatter Lund was from central Jutland, just as was Michael Kierkegaard and both were from similar rural backgrounds. Hence they had something in common that Michael Kierkegaard did not have with his first wife. Perhaps the Kierkegaard family “curse” played itself out in Michael Kierkegaard’s actually falling in love with a woman who would have been considered an unsuitable mate. Ane was to all accounts no great beauty, but the surviving portrait of her depicts a woman with a vivacious expression and a keen, penetrating gaze. It’s not hard to imagine that Michael could have found her attractive, as indeed, history confirms that he did. And if she wasn’t a great beauty, it’s well known that true love often has little to do with prevailing standards of physical attractiveness.

Perhaps Michael Kierkegaard actually married his first wife partly for her generous dowry, but also in order to be closer to Ane. Ane had been in the employ of Mads Røyen until the elder Kierkegaard’s marriage to Kirstine, at which point she went to work for the new couple. By the time of his marriage, Michael Kierkegaard’s social position had risen to the point that marriage to a servant would have been considered inappropriate. And for the wealthy Kierkegaard to pass over the sister of his business partner in favor of one of the latter’s household servants would likely have been considered a positive affront to the Røyen clan. Michael Kierkegaard, whose business acumen is well documented, would certainly have wanted to avoid flouting social convention in a way that might have had negative financial repercussions. How much easier it would have been to consolidate a business alliance through marriage to Kirstine while at the same time arranging that the real object of his affections would become part of his new household.

Scholars have apparently been put off the scent of such speculations by the horrific prenuptial agreement. Why would the elder Kierkegaard have drawn up such an offensive document? He cannot have been unaware of how it would be received. He cannot have been unaware that to offer such terms to the woman one was about to marry would have been considered completely socially unacceptable. Why would the ordinarily shrewd man have done such a thing? It seems more a theatrical gesture than a serious attempt to craft a legally binding document.

My guess, and I offer this in all seriousness, is that it was done deliberately to conceal the true nature of the coming alliance. The whole thing is too reminiscent of the protestations of young boys that they “hate” the little girls upon whom they secretly harbor crushes. Was Michael Kierkegaard trying to convince himself that he’d been seduced by the to all accounts hitherto innocent Ane? That seems not only singularly unchivalrous, but also at odds with his penchant for psychological self flagellation.

What seems more probable is that he hoped the wording of the notorious document would get out, as indeed it did, and that it would lend support to the view that the elder Kierkegaard had not  married Ane out of love, but had been dragged kicking and screaming to the altar. Again, this is a singularly unchivalrous impression to try to create, but one that is explicable if the point was to conceal a genuine affection that would have had far more negative repercussions if anyone actually suspected it. One sexual indiscretion, after all, would be infinitely more forgivable than marrying a woman one didn’t love because of financial expediency, while at the same time scheming to be with the woman one really did love. And if the former died a short time after the marriage, suspicion would inevitably surface that one may, in fact, have been responsible for the first wife’s precipitous end.

If these speculations are correct, Michael Kierkegaard wouldn’t have had to murder his first wife in order to have been racked with guilt over the circumstances of his marriages and for the stain of that guilt to have spread itself over the otherwise happy Kierkegaard household, as indeed the stain of some sort of guilt clearly did.

Did Kirstine Nielsdatter die of a broken heart after learning of her husband’s affection for another woman (and one of lowly station to boot)? Or did she just die, as people were more wont to do then than now? Who knows. Still, the details of Michael Kierkegaard’s two marriages are strange and the speculations presented above make sense of them in a way that is not too fantastical and that hence does not overstrain credulity. In fact, these speculations seem to me to make more sense of those details than does their face value. It’s surprising, in fact, this face value has been so uncritically accepted by scholars.