Wrestling with himself by Søren Kierkegaard

Imagine a well-educated and well-off European in his twenties, seemingly one of the privileged people of fortune, suffering from crippling feelings of hopelessness and guilt. For no apparent reason, he breaks up with the woman everyone thought he was going to marry – not because he loves someone else but out of a sudden conviction that he is incapable of marrying and can only do so. make miserable. He abandons the career for which he has been studying for ten years and hides in his apartment, where a kind of graphomania forces him to stay up all night writing at a frantic pace. His activity is so fierce that in a few years he has accumulated many volumes of manuscripts.

If that happened today – say, in Denmark, the prime example of a rational modern society – the man would sooner or later end up in a psychiatrist’s office, where he would likely be diagnosed with depression or disorder. bipolar. He would start seeing a therapist and might be prescribed medication. The aim would be to bring him back to normal, as the world defines “normal”: able to enjoy life, to form relationships, to fulfill his obligations as a member of the family, friend and citizen. Man would seek professional help, because in the twenty-first century he would recognize his propensities as symptoms– proof of a psychological problem.

But when Søren Kierkegaard lived these experiences in 1940s Denmark, they had a different meaning. “Sometimes there’s such a noise in my head that it’s like my skull is being lifted, it’s just like when the hobgoblins lift a mountain a bit, then hold a ball and have fun inside.” , he wrote. in his diary in February 1838, when he was twenty-four. But Kierkegaard had learned from romantic literature that wild emotion was a sign of genius, especially when it was painful. “True depression, like ‘vapors’, is only found in the highest circles, in the former understood in a spiritual sense,” he wrote two months later. He considered his “melancholy” not as an illness but as a “close confidant”. . . the most faithful mistress I have known.

Alongside this fashionable sentiment, Kierkegaard inherited a rigorously introspective Protestantism from his ancestors. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, grew up poor in the countryside, moved to Copenhagen to become a merchant, and became one of the richest men in the city. Michael Pedersen raised his seven children, of whom Søren was the youngest, under strict religious discipline, instilling a sense of fear and guilt that has never left them. “Oh, how scary it is when I think for a moment about the dark background of my life, from the first days! Kierkegaard recalled. “The anxiety with which my father filled my soul, his own dreadful melancholy. “

For Kierkegaard, misfortune has not become a condition but a vocation. In a new biography, “Philosopher of the Heart”(Farrar, Straus & Giroux), the British scholar Clare Carlisle shows that this vocation consumed her life. After leaving school at the age of seventeen in 1830, he enrolled as a theological student at the University of Copenhagen in order to prepare for a career in the church. But it took him ten years to graduate, and he never became a pastor or had any other type of job. He never married or had children. Apart from a few visits to Berlin, then the capital of philosophy, and a trip to Sweden, Kierkegaard never left Denmark. He was not interested in politics. In 1848, liberal revolutions sweeping across Europe reached Denmark, as protests forced the king to promise a new constitution and a new parliament; but Kierkegaard was indifferent. “So the king fled – and so there is a republic,” he wrote in his diary that year. “Nonsense.”

What he did instead was write. Until his death in 1855 at the age of 42, Kierkegaard lived off his heritage and produced a flood of unclassifiable books – hybrids of philosophy, autobiography, fiction and sermon. As he went deeper and deeper into the experience of suffering, he emerged with a profoundly new way of thinking about human existence. The grim demands of Kierkegaard’s books, which he sometimes published two or even four at a time, are clear from their titles: “Fear and trembling, “The concept of anxiety, “Illness until death. “

In this last book, published in 1849, Kierkegaard offers an uncompromising diagnosis of the human condition. “There is not a single human being who does not despair at least a little, at the bottom of which does not reside an uneasiness, an anxiety, a discordance, an anguish in the face of something unknown”, he writes. If you think you are not desperate, you are lying to yourself, which is an even worse form of desperation. It is only by recognizing our condition, he says, that we can begin to understand that the real name of despair is sin, challenge to God. We are only freed from it when we accept that “a human being is under an obligation to obey God, in all his secret desires and thoughts.”

This understanding of sin and redemption was not Kierkegaard’s invention. Something like this was preached in Lutheran churches in Denmark every Sunday. What made his work explosive was his insistence that these same churches had become the main obstacles to true Christian belief. Nineteenth-century Europeans took for granted that they were Christians simply because they lived in “Christianity,” in countries where there were “as many Christians as there are people,” he writes. But a Christian, for Kierkegaard, is not something you were born; it is something that you have to become through a tremendous inner effort. His “fatherhood,” as he called it, was meant to be a wake-up call to wake the modern world from its spiritual slumber.

Kierkegaard published his books at his own expense, and they started out with a small readership: the most popular, “Whether or, has not sold its first edition of five hundred and twenty-five copies for three years. Nonetheless, he became a local celebrity, thanks mainly to his eccentricities and penchant for public quarrels. The editor of a Copenhagen newspaper, the Corsair, observed that, in “the whole of Kierkegaard’s appearance and personal mannerisms, there was something bordering on the comical.” When the Corsair portrayed him in a series of mocking caricatures, in 1846 he became even more famous. “Every kitchen boy feels justified in almost insulting me. . . young students sneer and smile and are happy to see a prominent person stepping on, ”he complained.

Upon his death, presumably from tuberculosis, although the diagnosis remains unclear, Kierkegaard had few or no readers outside of Denmark. This did not begin to change until he found an influential champion in Danish literary critic Georg Brandes, who in 1877 wrote the first book on Kierkegaard and brought it to the attention of a wider European audience. (Later Brandes did the same for Nietzsche.) Kierkegaard’s first English translations appeared in the 1930s, and it was not until the 1960s, more than a century after his death, that the translators Howard and Edna Hong began to produce a complete English edition of his works.

By this time, the eccentric of Copenhagen had become one of the most important influences on twentieth-century theology and philosophy. Although the term “existentialism” was not coined until the 1940s, Kierkegaard appears in retrospect as the first existentialist, thanks to his insistence on life’s most important questions: How should I act? What am I to believe? – cannot be solved by abstract reasoning. They present themselves as urgent problems for everyone, requiring commitment and action. “To be fully present to oneself is the highest thing and the highest task of personal life,” he wrote.

The intimate connection between Kierkegaard’s thought and his personal life has made him an essential subject for biographers. Read the “Critique of pure reason”Won’t tell you the first thing about Immanuel Kant, and you don’t need to know anything about Kant’s life to understand it. But Kierkegaard’s work emerged, in a complex but unmistakable way, from his own experiences. Other great thinkers specialize in technical fields such as logic or metaphysics, but Kierkegaard, as Carlisle’s title suggests, was a philosopher of the heart, “an expert in love and suffering, humor and anxiety, despair. and courage ”.

Yet Kierkegaard also resists the biography. The genre is inherently opposed to its way of thinking about human existence. One of the best-known Kierkegaardian sayings, paraphrased from an entry in his journal, is that life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forward. In other words, every moment we are making a decision on how to live, a decision that cannot be made for us by history, society, or even religion – none of the causes that might emerge when we try. to analyze the course of our lives in retrospect. My future is no one else’s responsibility but mine. This is what Kierkegaard calls “the vertigo of freedom”, which he compares to the vertigo one feels when looking into a “yawning abyss”.

The biography, however, is necessarily written backwards. He treats life as a known quantity, obscuring the reality of contingency and choice. Carlisle, who has published three previous books on Kierkegaard, has tried to avoid this problem by writing what she calls “a Kierkegaardian biography of Kierkegaard,” a biography that “does not consider Kierkegaard’s life from a standpoint. distant and knowledgeable, but joins him on his journey and confronts his uncertainties with him.

In practice, this means that Carlisle tells the story in chronological order and adds novel-style staging passages. “Never before had he moved so fast! And yet he sits quite still, not uncomfortable – resting, even – in a “wonderful chair,” “begins the first of the three sections of the book. We are with Kierkegaard in 1843 as he takes a train, this new invention, from Berlin to Copenhagen. Carlisle then completes his story until 1843, before jumping forward, in the next section, to 1848 and again filling in the missing years – a cumbersome and at times confusing method.


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