Underrated: Søren Kierkegaard

Thanks to his leap of faith, this gloomy Dane has been neglected by the intelligentsia

Philosophy Underrated
© Ellie Foreman Peck 

We all love gloomy Danes, from Hamlet to The Killing. But the taciturn Sarah Lund would not intrigue us as she does if we did not intuit that, while staring into middle distance and chewing nicotine gum, she must have a rich inner life, wrestling with the ethics of crime and punishment — even if she never says much more than: “Lagde pistolen!” (“Put down the gun!”). What makes The Killing so compelling, though, is an untranslatable concept the world has borrowed from Danish: “angst”, a word which combines anxiety, anguish and dread. We owe its ubiquitous adoption to Søren Kierkegaard, the great Dane who is absurdly underrated today for one simple reason: he was a devout, though idiosyncratic, Christian.

Although he was born 200 years ago this month, Kierkegaard’s anniversary has barely been noticed outside Denmark. By comparison with the period when existentialism was in vogue, and Kierkegaard was recognised as one of its progenitors, his name rarely surfaces in public life. We are, however, all in his debt, for nobody had confronted the problem of how to live with more courage and originality. 

In his short life — he died in 1855, aged 42 — Kierkegaard wrote 38 books; all were published under a variety of pseudonyms. But the almost equally voluminous manuscripts recording his private thoughts remained unpublished until long after his death. Now, having completed its 26-volume edition of Kierkegaard’s Writings, each volume of which includes relevant extracts from the unpublished papers, Princeton University Press is proceeding with a complementary edition of the Journals and Notebooks which will run to 11 magnificent folio volumes; Volume 6 has just appeared. Elegantly laid out so that the reader can follow the author’s text and marginalia, and copiously supplied with notes and commentary, these books are a pleasure to read. The complete works in English will run to 55 volumes — perhaps the finest translated edition of any philosopher. 

But why read Kierkegaard anyway? Attached as we are to the Shakespearean archetype of the noble soliloquist, few of us dare to venture into the abyss of melancholia bequeathed by a man who could not decide whether he was a martyr or a genius, and whose very name means “churchyard” in Danish. His elegiac, introspective eloquence, at once submissive to God and defiant to man, is alien to the 21st-century cultivation of self-esteem and “cool”, as it was not to the troubled souls of the 19th or early 20th. W.H. Auden found solace in Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein admired him as a “saint”. 

And then there was Kafka. In his brief but brilliant new biography, Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt (Yale, £18.99), Saul Friedländer devotes several pages to the elective affinity of the two writers. Kierkegaard and Kafka both suffered from father-complexes which burdened their engagements with Regine Olsen and Felice Bauer respectively; each broke off the relationship out of a neurotic conviction of his own unworthiness. Kierkegaard was obsessed with the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, to which he dedicated Fear and Trembling, and the notion of a father sacrificing (or emasculating) his son struck a chord in Kafka, several of whose stories have filicidal themes. Just because their predicaments were so similar, Kafka found Kierkegaard at once irresistible and “hateful” like no other writer.

Kierkegaard, like Kafka, found a sense of release in the renunciation of his beloved, which furnished the material for his most successful book, Either/Or, with its famous “Diary of a Seducer” that has itself seduced generations of readers, only to disappoint salacious expectations. “But to walk like this alongside a girl whose love I truly had not disdained,” he later wrote in his journal, “but which I had to give the appearance, humanly speaking, of disdaining: Yes, this is the task for me.” 

Kierkegaard wrote Either/Or immediately after setting himself this strange task, on his first visit to Berlin, where he was present at the most serendipitous convocation of the century. Schelling, the last great philosopher of German idealism, had re-emerged from retirement by royal command, an aged Jason to confront the dragon’s teeth of the Young Hegelians. Attending Schelling’s first lecture was the cream of the Continent’s intellectuals: Bakunin, Engels, Stirner, Burckhardt, Humboldt, Ranke, Savigny and Trendelenburg. Kierkegaard was not impressed. He came home determined to take philosophy neither to the Left nor the Right. Instead, he decided to take a leap of faith. 

For that, he has never been forgiven, either by the atheists or by the orthodox Christians. He does not figure on many academic reading lists. Yet his life story was stranger and more romantic than fiction. Regine told her side of it some 60 years later. Kierkegaard remains the patron saint of anyone who has ever been lonely, despairing or unhappy in love. And that includes most of us.