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.

Newly Discovered Caricatures of Kierkegaard

Caricature
Women fight over one of Kierkegaard’s shirts

One of the most important discoveries Peter Tudvad made when working on his book, Kierkegaards København (Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen), was that the attacks on Kierkegaard in the satirical newspaper The Corsair, were not confined to 1846, as scholars had assumed, but actually spanned the period from 1846 until Kierkegaard’s death in 1855. This makes Kierkegaard’s continued preoccupation with the Corsair, and its merciless caricaturing of him, appear less neurotic than has been assumed. He continued to be preoccupied with the newspaper because it continued to be preoccupied with him. Kierkegaard was hence not exaggerating when he described himself as an object of public ridicule.

The situation was even worse though than scholars have assumed. The Corsair was not the only paper to ridicule Kierkegaard. Another paper, Folkets Nisse (the people’s elf) also published caricatures of or relating to Kierkegaard over an extended period. The drawing above is one such caricature. Apparently, Kierkegaard’s effects were auctioned off after his death. The drawing depicts two women fighting over one of Kierkegaard’s shirts. It’s interesting not simply as an example of a hitherto unknown collection of contemporary caricatures but also because it tells us something about how Kierkegaard was viewed around the period of his death. Scholars have often portrayed him as a marginal figure in Danish history, one whose brilliance was really first discovered beyond the borders of his own country. The drawing makes clear, however, that he had become a kind of cult figure by the time of his death and that there was thus probably far more sympathy with his attack on the Danish Lutheran Church than is ordinarily assumed.

There are many more drawings like the one above in Folkets Nisse. I cannot claim credit for having discovered them. They were discovered by Paul A. Bauer in the late 1990s when he purchased a bound volume of Folkets Nisse from an antiquarian book dealer in Copenhagen. I am indebted to Anne Marie Furbo of the The Royal Library in Copenhagen for tracking down this particular drawing which I had remembered only vaguely but which I wanted to use for the cover of my forthcoming book, Fear and Dissembling: The Copenhagen Kierkegaard Controversy.

If you plan to go to Copenhagen, stop by The Royal Library. I’m sure the folks there will be similarly helpful to you if you want to track down more of these hitherto unknown caricatures.