Fear and Trembling

Reviewed by Henry Carrigan
Sunday, May 29, 2005

SØREN KIERKEGAARD: A Biography

By Joakim Garff

Translated from the Danish by Bruce H. Kirmmse

Princeton Univ. 867 pp. $35

For many, the mention of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) brings to mind a Danish thinker faintly recalled from dim memories of an introductory philosophy class. For others, the name is immediately associated with existentialism and phrases such as "subjectivity as truth" and "leap of faith."

Few philosophers have gained more fame for positions they seldom embraced than Kierkegaard. In the history of philosophy, he has been portrayed as an anti-Hegelian, the "father of existentialism" and the precursor of deconstruction.

Even today, many interpreters limit their readings of Kierkegaard to his perceived antipathy to Georg W.F. Hegel, the German philosopher who constructed a complex, sometimes torturous philosophical system that declared that truth could be reached only by using reason and objectivity. His writings seemed distant, abstract and removed from the real world. Kierkegaard, by contrast, proclaimed that each person was engaged in an individual quest for truth in the stages along life's way. While their approaches to truth indeed differ substantially, Kierkegaard never thought of himself as an anti-Hegelian, and he praised some of Hegel's readings as much as he criticized others. The real difference between the two is Kierkegaard's lively, poetic writing style as against Hegel's more formal, turgid style.

In the middle of the 20th century, the existentialists Sartre and Camus embraced Kierkegaard as one of their own.Near the dawn of the 21st century, Jacques Derrida and some deconstructionists have, in turn, claimed Kierkegaard as their darling.

Kierkegaard certainly would have welcomed such attention in his own lifetime. But, as this brilliant new biography by Joakim Garff makes clear, he never thought of himself as a philosopher. One look at his journals makes it clear that he considered himself primarily a poet and, later in life, a preacher. The works that have become classics -- Fear and Trembling , Sickness Unto Death , Either-Or -- offer not a formal philosophical system like Kant's or Hegel's but the reflections of an artist using irony and humor to work out his own struggles with writing and life.

Born the seventh child of merchant Michael Kierkegaard and his wife, Ane, in the depression years in early 19th-century Copenhagen, Søren had by age 8 demonstrated his precociousness by memorizing the Lutheran catechism and completing enough preliminary instruction to enter the Danish Civic Virtue School. As a teenager, he became fascinated with mystery stories and wrote his own "true-crime" thrillers. Captivated by his readings of Goethe's Faust , Kierkegaard even tried his hand at writing his own version of that story. These early experiments paved the way for his later, fully realized efforts. After he completed his dissertation on the role of irony in the work of Socrates and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling( The Concept of Irony ) in 1841, Kierkegaard went on to write three of his most famous works ( Either-Or , Fear and Trembling , and Repetition ) in 1843; he wrote all of his major works between 1843 and 1848.

In minute and sometimes exhausting detail, Garff, an associate professor at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen, provides a year-by-year account of Kierkegaard's life and work. He traces his subject's early schooling and his immersion in Greek and Latin, his theological work at university, his failed romance with with his former fiancée, Regine Olsen, his sometimes difficult relations with his siblings and parents, his attacks on critics (and their attacks on him), and the circumstances in which he wrote his books.

Garff immediately points out the difficulties of his project: "To the dismay of the biographer, Kierkegaard cannot be pursued 'historically.' He has left nothing behind but fragments and scattered traces, and from the very first moment he put pen to paper, he adopted free, fictionalized production as his preferred mode." To make the biographer's task even more difficult, Kierkegaard's journals are not entirely reliable, for his entries "waver between reality and the artistic reproduction of reality." For Garff, however, this "mystification, mummery, and fiction are constitutive features in Kierkegaard's production of himself."

More astutely, Garff reads Kierkegaard as he himself wanted to be read: as a poet. "For Kierkegaard, time was writing. The idea for which he was willing to live and die was in fact the production of dazzling literary work." Garff points out that the literary characters that most influenced Kierkegaard were Don Juan (representing pleasure), Faust (doubt) and the Wandering Jew (despair), and that he used characters based on them in his writings. For example, both Don Juan and Faust personify the demonic in Kierkegaard's Either-Or, Part One .

Kierkegaard's aesthetic sensibility also plays an enormous role in his broken relationship with Olsen. Many critics have speculated that Kierkegaard's breakup with her arose from some sexual misunderstanding or from his sexual insecurity. In Garff's view, Kierkegaard's letters to her were not declarations of love and devotion but an opportunity for him to hone his writing skills. Kierkegaard, Garff argues, simply thought he would be better at being a writer than being a husband. His aestheticism also explains his predilection for pseudonymns. With very few exceptions, he published little under his own name. Instead, he attributed many of his works TO "authors" who represent aspects of HIS personality. "I always stand in an altogether poetic relation to my works; therefore I am pseudonymous," he noted in a journal entry. "Whenever a book develops something, the appropriate individuality is delineated."

But Garff is mainly interested in finding Kierkegaard and his mythmaking self behind the writings. He offers little in the way of critical readings of the works. In addition, he neglects to show how deeply Kierkegaard influenced philosophy and theology in the 20th century, when his writings garnered more attention than during his life.

Such minor flaws do not mar the singular beauty of Garff's prose, masterfully translated by Bruce Kirmmse, or his brilliant insights into the enigmatic life of Kierkegaard. The appearance of Garff's biography in English -- it was published in Denmark in 2000 -- is a momentous occasion in Kierkegaard scholarship. Garff pursues a literary approach rather than an intellectual one, drawing deeply not only on the archives but also on Kierkegaard's newly translated Journals and Notebooks , which will begin to appear this fall. He provides a dazzling account of Kierkegaard's comings and goings, his anxieties and hopes, and, above all, his invention of himself as the Kierkegaard that both his time and ours have come to know. ·

Henry L. Carrigan Jr. writes about books for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Charlotte Observer and the Orlando Sentinel.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company