Norsemen of the apocalypse

Kierkegaard's spirit has never been laid to rest. He is the philosopher of angst and dread: the conscience-stricken companion of modern consciousness

Daniel Johnson

Soren Kierkegaard ought to be the patron saint of geeks. He must have cut a comical, even grotesque figure, in his frock coat and stovepipe hat: the eternal flâneur, promenading around Copenhagen on his spindly legs, with a slight limp due to curvature of the spine, peering through thick spectacles, hoping to glimpse his former fiancée Regine Olsen, the eternally unattainable beloved. After he broke off their engagement, she returned his ring and he had its diamonds reset to symbolise the cross whose crushing weight he bore.

Just as Kafka’s nightmares still haunt Prague, so Kierkegaard is the soul in torment whose remains lie in Copenhagen but whose pseudonymous spirit has never been laid to rest. He is the philosopher of angst and dread: our inconsolable Doppelgänger, the conscience-stricken companion of modern consciousness, who, like Hamlet’s father’s ghost on the battlements of Elsinore, implores us: “List, list, O list!”

We live in an age of introspection. For old guides for the perplexed, this means a new lease of life. But if the majority of these gurus are male, their readers and interpretersare increasingly likely to be female — and this gives rise to a different hermeneutic perspective. Clare Carlisle’s Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard is one of the best biographies of modern masters by a new generation of women scholars. Another outstanding example, which appeared a few months ago, is Sue Prideaux’s I am Dynamite: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche (Faber, £25). She has already written lives of Strindberg and Munch.

What is refreshing about these female critics is their ability to empathise with solitary, depressive, even suicidal men such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, while avoiding the trap of making them larger than life. Male biographers of these pioneers often succumb to the temptation to turn their subjects into heroic, if tragic, supermen; but one only has to peer fleetingly into their tortured lives to realise that the quotidian reality must have been very different. Myopia and misogyny, hypochondria and hypersensitivity, neuralgia and neurosis: both were borderline sociopaths, preachers and conversationalists of genius but almost insufferable as colleagues, friends or lovers. Both used writing as therapy to relieve their loneliness and suffering, but also to sublimate their frustrations and aggressions. To modern eyes there is something irresistibly comical about these intellectual Übermenschen, right down to their eccentric hairstyles: Kierkegaard with his six-inch-high quiff, Nietzsche with his trademark tea-strainer moustache.

Yet these men turned their physical frailty into something positive, even dynamic, which the women who knew them well were the first to appreciate. Lou Andreas-Salomé — the young woman to whom Nietzsche proposed, whom he designated as his beloved disciple, and who later became one of Freud’s — diagnosed him thus: “He is the cause of his own self-induced illness.”

Bizarrely, these two modern monks identified with Don Giovanni. Kierkegaard rarely missed a performance of Mozart’s opera, and perhaps his best-known work remains the “Seducer’s Diary” section of Either/Or, which made the book a succès de scandale. As for Nietzsche, he saw the Don as a fearless seeker of forbidden knowledge, ready to risk eternal damnation for the sake of proclaiming the terrible truth about existence.

Yet intelligence is an aphrodisiac: despite their unprepossessing appearance, both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche displayed such intellectual confidence that plenty of clever, self-educated female contemporaries were drawn to them. Carlisle depicts the young Søren entrancing both girls and older ladies; they flocked to his funeral.

Perhaps the best friend Nietzsche ever had was Malwida von Meysenbug, an aristocratic revolutionary who was also an acolyte of Garibaldi and tutor to the daughters of Alexander Herzen. Prideaux points out that “all his life [Nietzsche] valued intelligent women, making close and enduring friendships with them.” Even his deeply sinister sister Elisabeth — the literary executor from hell, whose machinations sabotaged his posthumous reputation — began, Prideaux reminds us, as an intelligent girl. She alienated her devoted brother by adopting the role of a shallow, snobbish anti-Semite, later to exploit his helpless, psychotic husk.

Yet Nietzsche was also capable of the notorious passage in Also Sprach Zarathustra: “You go to women? Do not forget the whip.” This crass remark (uttered by “an old woman”) has become associated with a photograph of Lou brandishing a whip over Nietzsche and his friend Paul Rée (who was also in love with her). Long afterwards people asked her if she and Nietzsche had ever kissed. “I no longer remember,” she would reply. Lou had many lovers in her long life; Nietzsche perhaps none, apart from a couple of prostitutes from whom he contracted gonorrhoea (not syphilis, as diagnosed by his doctors and fictionalised by Thomas Mann).

Kierkegaard had likewise made his own religious melancholia into the Archimedean point from which he would move the earth. Late in life, Regine — who outlived her fiancé by half a century — gave interviews about their engagement which suggest that she bore no grudge, but perhaps preferred Kierkegaard as a writer rather than a husband.

At the time she did not let him go lightly, however. As Carlisle observes, her own beloved father, a distinguished councillor of state, was also plagued by a depressive temperament and Regine believed that she could cope with the challenges that Kierkegaard’s affliction posed. Carlisle’s evidence implies that the underlying reason why he broke the engagement — with all the opprobrium that this was bound to arouse among the haute bourgeoisie of Copenhagen — was not his religious scruples, but his resolve to be a man of letters rather than a pastor in the established church.

Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard never accepted the responsibilities of a husband or father, nor those of office, refusing to become one of Ibsen’s “pillars of society”. Kierkegaard was born wealthy (though his father was a parvenu peasant and his mother illiterate) and his inheritance lasted just long enough. Nietzsche was the son of a poor pastor’s widow, but a wunderkind, just 24 when offered a professorial chair. It was his good fortune that, having taken early retirement on health grounds aged 32, his university generously paid him a modest pension for the rest of his life. The life of a rentier, a novelty of their prosperous capitalist era, made such subversive existences possible.

Both these philosophers had short, intense writing careers, lasting less than two decades: Kierkegaard died at 42; Nietzsche suffered a mental collapse at 44, from which he never recovered. Their lives followed a similar arc, the ideas bursting forth in a crescendo of intense creativity. Much of their best work appeared posthumously. It is a curiosity in the history of ideas that the same person, the great Danish critic Georg Brandes, was the first to put Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on the map of modern thought. Yet there was no cross-fertilisation: despite the fact that German translations of Kierkegaard’s works were already appearing in Nietzsche’s lifetime, it seems that the latter never read the former.

Would the German have seen his Danish counterpart, not as a precursor but as a foe?The two nations had just fought a war in 1864 over the notorious Schleswig-Holstein question. Nietzsche twice volunteered for military service. But he was no German nationalist, any more than Kierkegaard was a Danish one. They both saw themselves as Europeans, long before “Europe” became an ideology.

Both these iconoclasts were products of the great efflorescence of German philosophy that began with Kant in the mid-18th century and included Fichte, Schelling, Schopenhauer and Hegel. But both also reacted violently against these idols of idealism. In 1841 Kierkegaard travelled to Berlin to hear public lectures given by the aged Schelling, whose audiences included Engels, Bakunin and Alexander von Humboldt. Kierkegaard later wrote to his brother: “I am too old to attend lectures, just as Schelling is too old to give them. His whole doctrine of potencies displays the highest degree of impotence.” Carlisle notes that Kierkegaard saw German academic philosophy as a flight from existence, a mere commerce in ideas. Nietzsche was no less dismissive, ultimately rejecting even his early hero Schopenhauer as inimical to life.

The fact that both grasped with unprecedented clarity was that Christianity, as they encountered it in the liberal theology of their day, had been hollowed out. The authority of scripture had been undermined by German textual scholarship, especially The Life of Jesus by David Friedrich Strauss; the authority of the Church had been undermined by secularism; and God had become remote and inaccessible. Each individual must endure existence unconsoled, unjustified and alone.

On Christianity, though, the Norsemen of the Apocalypse disagree. The presence of God is as palpable on every page of Kierkegaard as is His absence from every page of Nietzsche. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard identifies with Abraham, ordered to sacrifice his only son, to show that “only the one who is in anxiety finds rest, only the one who draws the knife gets Isaac”. The choice is between two kinds of courage: that of the knight of resignation, who must live without hope, and the knight of faith, who leaps like a ballet dancer and lands safely by divine grace. “What matters,” Kierkegaard wrote a few days before he died, “is to get as close to God as possible.”

For Nietzsche — a classicist who had been persuaded by Strauss’s dissection of the New Testament texts that Jesus was “human, all too human” — the only choice possible was to live without faith. He identified with Dürer’s knight errant, who rides on regardless of Death and the Devil in the quest for truth. And in The Gay Science he proclaims his most important insight: “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him.”

It is significant that Nietzsche puts this passage into the mouth of a madman: significant not just because of his own later madness, but because he had always adopted different personae, constantly reinventing himself even in the twilight of his sanity. As a young man he wrote: “I am always having to impersonate someone — the teacher, the philologist, the human being.” In 1889, just before he collapsed in a Turin piazza at the sight of a horse being flogged, he dispatched megalomaniacal missives to everyone from his mother to the King of Italy, including one to his old colleague Jacob Burckhardt, beginning: “Actually I would much rather be a Basel professor than God . . . Kaiser Wilhelm, Bismarck and all anti-Semites done away with.” Euphoria aside, it was a cry for help. Burckhardt showed another of their circle in Basel, Franz Overbeck, who informed Nietzsche that he was coming to the rescue. The reply, signed “Dionysus”, declared: “I am just having all anti-Semites shot . . .” We still do not know quite what precipitated Nietzsche’s breakdown; only that he never recovered.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Kierkegaard’s posthumous repute fared better than Nietzsche’s mainly because the Dane remained a Christian — albeit an unorthodox one, whose writings were deemed too scandalous to mention at his funeral — whereas the German saw Judaeo-Christian morality as the root of all evil. As we have seen, even the psychotic Nietzsche wanted no truck with anti-Semites. But his assault on the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus lent itself to the Nazis’ nefarious purposes. Prideaux tells that grimly fascinating story very well. That there has been a Nietzsche renaissance since 1945 is of course to be welcomed, but his influence has been ambivalent. The seer of Sils-Maria, who taught that there are no facts, only interpretations, remains as hard to interpret as ever.

Of these two Norsemen of the Apocalypse, Kierkegaard had the less troubling afterlife. He became the inspiration, not merely for schools of radical theology and existentialist philosophy, but for “mindfulness”. His beautiful prayer, which serves as the envoi to Clare Carlisle’s book, ends with a plea to the Almighty that “we might from the lily and the bird learn silence, obedience, joy!”

Philosopher of the Heart:
he Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard
By Clare Carlisle
Allen Lane, 339pp, £25

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