Evenings with Kierkegaard

by David Wemyss (July 2012)

A lot of people have heard of Kierkegaard but only a few have read him. He was born in Copenhagen in 1813, the youngest of seven children. By the time he was 21, four of his siblings and his mother were dead. It’s an amazing story of family melancholy, and even madness. Some think he was forged years before he was born, when his troubled father, little more than a boy at the time, cursed God on a blasted Jutland heath – and was still brooding over it at the age of 82! Kierkegaard certainly had a religiously claustrophobic upbringing – to say the least – but by the time he entered the University of Copenhagen in 1830 to study theology he had managed to reinvent himself as something of a young man about town.

In 1837, when he was twenty-four, he fell in love with Regine Olsen, the daughter of a local dignitary. Three years later they were engaged. Thirteen months later he broke it off. His writings suggest that he wanted to protect Regine from his “thorn in the flesh”, although it may also be of note that the letter of farewell that accompanied the return of the ring pleased him well enough to use verbatim in Stages on Life’s Way. In October 1841 he left for Berlin, where, in the same lecture theatre as Karl Marx – there’s no evidence they ever met – he sat listening to the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Here his authorship began to take shape.   

Four months later he returned to Copenhagen and spent the next thirteen years as a sort of literary-philosophical gadfly, living on his inheritance. The gloomy father had ended up making a lot of money from hosiery, and just as well too. Eliot worked in a bank and Kafka was an insurance man, but it’s impossible to imagine Kierkegaard working for a living in an office. In fact, although it sounds a bit gnomic, a lot of what you need to understand about him is probably there in microcosm in that single thought – in a good way.

In 1855 he was dead at 42, worn out after a year of polemical pamphleteering against the Danish State Church, which he had believed to be run by careerists promoting little more than bourgeois humanism. There was a disturbance at the funeral. The theologian N F S Grundtvig observed drily that one of the icicles hanging from the underside of the Church roof had melted and fallen off. The more percipient might have foreseen that Kierkegaard was going to have to wait until the 20th-century to make his mark.

He was always drawn to the Lutheran idea that you can do nothing under your own powers. You can only sit tight and be open to the possibility of grace. Modern sensibilities are repelled by this, but Kierkegaard is never obedientary or conservative. He thinks we can do nothing under our own powers but he turns a searchlight on them to illuminate every last corner of their limitation.  

Some of his writing is breathtakingly beautiful devotional literature that could be used in a mainstream church service. Some of it is a pastiche of Hegel, densely philosophical. And some of it bears comparison with 20th-century modernist novels. The cast list of pseudonyms and fictional characters is unprecedented in western literature.  

But, behind the literary polyphony, even Kierkegaard scholars determined to take the pseudonyms seriously still usually accept that there’s a “real” Kierkegaard behind all the masks. The pseudonym Anti-Climacus, author of The Sickness Unto Death and Practice In Christianity, is a popular candidate here. He assumes the existence of a God-grounded self that can be lost without noticingeasier than losing a banknote – and so its recovery presupposes that we do notice. Deep disquietudes are simply necessary. But then things begin to look up.

Our life-histories can just be “spoilt”, as it were, for as long as we live – even until the end of time – but all the dead words and overcast feelings and regrets can somehow be repeated mysteriously – unaltered but yet also anew – in what the earlier pseudonym Constantine Constantius calls Repetition. For those of us who remember and notice too much, our memories are made easeful in spite of themselves – even if the gift can never be in our own hands to hold onto.

And it can only come to those who have reached the point of needing it in the first place, so the issue can’t be forced. Kierkegaard was particularly fond of attributing this kind of thing to Old Testament sufferers like Abraham and Job. Every word is backlit all of a sudden, and the torment of a few words is forced to give way to the continuity of them all. The trajectory of a whole life comes into view.  

It’s a lovely formulation. But how many people will be capable of appreciating it? Doesn’t Kierkegaard sound too religiously over-heated for contemporary taste? Isn’t he in danger of alienating readers who started out enjoying the literary sparkle and fizz but now have to worry about where he’s taking them? Well, yes. Definitely. However much he comes across as a 20th century modernist exploding all over the middle of the 19th century, he’s also beginning to sound as if his position really does rest on literal religious beliefs, and, if you have an antipathy towards such beliefs, you’re going to feel increasingly uncomfortable. But it’s a shame we’re all so theologically phobic these days because, although his presuppositions are metaphysical, the structure of his thought remains compellingly elegant from a purely secular point of view.

It might look as if that can’t be right, because repetition (or grace, or whatever) is evidently supposed to be some kind of miracle, but, then again, secular understanding has always recognised the odd little remissions that come unannounced to those able to sit out a defining melancholy, and let it shift a little of its own accord.

Of course some will say that, yes, this is all very well, but it’s really to do with serotonin and synapses, and drugs if necessary. Some people are wired up to be melancholy, or acutely self-aware, or obsessive-compulsive, and it’s all in the neuroscience. It’s got nothing to do with miracles, and talking about remissions of fate is just an aggrandisement of what the good days feel like for those mildly gloomy sorts who don’t need drugs but might benefit from some sort of cognitive therapy. And I’d actually go along with most of that – except that there are all kinds of mildly gloomy sorts, and you might as well say that they’re wired up to notice the evening light and the lengthening shadows.  

Indeed, sticking with that analogy, imagine a fifty-seven year-old woman not remotely in need of anti-depressants but simply aware that she’s living in the evening of her life. It’s not unnatural. The evening light just is paler. Or how about a twenty-seven year-old man whose regrets and losses are already such that, even with his whole life ahead of him, the evening is the time of day from which he draws analogies of self-understanding. Then vary these evening scenes, hundreds and thousands of times. Kierkegaard works his effect in these quiet little landscapes, not just in the wild Jutland heath of popular imagination.

In Manhattan, Diane Keaton accuses him of terminal adolescence, and I know what she means. He’s the perfect discovery for a young person going through that “nobody understands me” phase. But I’m getting on for sixty now, and one of the great discoveries of my autumnal years has been that nobody does understand me. I just had to wait thirty years to grasp that that probably means I’m definitely alive.


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