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.

Angsting Over Translation

Kind, das Angst vor einer Spinne hat - © dennisjacobsen -
Kind, das Angst vor einer Spinne hat – © dennisjacobsen –

I took Daphne Hampson to task in an earlier post for referring to Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety as The Concept Angst in her book Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique. There are two problems with changing a title like that. First, it’s confusing to the reader, since there is no English translation of Kierkegaard’s Begrebet Angest with the title The Concept Angst. Second, it is far from clear that Kierkegaard’s “Angest,” or “Angst” (an alternative spelling) is, as Hampson argues “ill-rendered in English as ‘anxiety’” (Hampson, 109). Walter Lowrie, observes Hampson, translated Kierkegaard’s “Angst” (nouns were capitalized in Danish in the nineteenth century) as “dread.” “This is good,” she continues,

in so far as it conjures up the context of Romanticism. Kierkegaard can speak of a ‘sweet angst’ that tantalizes or invites. Angst, he will say, is ‘a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy’ (42). Philosophically the distinction between angst and anxiety (or fear) is said to be that whereas fear has an object, angst is devoid of any such. Animals can know fear, while the human may possess unfocused angst. (Hampson, 110).

I don’t mean to pick on Hampson. Her point isn’t original. I’ve heard many philosophers make essentially the same claim about the German “Angst.” The thing is, there isn’t much evidence to support such a claim. My Oxford-Duden electronic dictionary from 1999 defines “Angst” as “fear,” or “anxiety” with “fear” actually being listed first. Contemporary Danish-English dictionaries do effectively the same thing for the Danish “angst.” See, for example, the venerable Vinterberg-Bodelsen from 1966. It defines “angst” as “dread,” “fear,” “apprehension,” “alarm,” and “anxiety” in that order. Ferrall-Repp, the definitive nineteenth-century Danish-English dictionary defines “angst,” or “Angest” as “fear” or “dread.”

“Anxiety,” “fear,” and “dread,” as well as the German “Angst” and Danish “angst,” may or may not have an object. This can be seen in the online version of Duden, where “Angst” is defined first as “a state of excitement [in the face of danger], and then as “a vague feeling of menace.” I love the illustration for that entry. That’s why I chose it for this post. It makes clear that “Angst” can indeed have an object!

A practice has arisen in among the intellectual elite in English-speaking countries, however, of using the German “Angst” to refer to a generalized anxiety without a readily identifiable object, but that is simply an affectation as even a cursory glance at a German, or German-English, dictionary will make clear. “Angst” is more often used by Germans to identify such a generalized anxiety than is “Furcht,” i.e., fear, but that isn’t its exclusive meaning and indeed, dictionaries suggest such a use is the exception rather than the rule.

The same thing could be said about the English “anxiety.” It can sometimes have an object and sometimes not. One can be “anxious” about a test, for example, or the visit of a relative, or one can be just generally anxious. “Anxiety” is more often used to identify a generalized kind of fearfulness, than are either “fear” or “dread,” but that suggests that “anxiety” is actually a good translation of the German, or Danish “Angst,” rather than an inadequate one.

Texts, as I explain to my students over and over again, need to be interpreted. There are not magic words that always and unequivocally precisely convey an author’s meaning. “Angst” doesn’t more precisely convey to English speakers the meaning of the German or Danish “Angst” than does “anxiety.” In fact, it is arguably inferior in an English translation of Kierkegaard in that it is an affectation and Kierkegaard generally abhors such affectations and scrupulously avoids them in his writings, except, of course when he is using them satirically.