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Kierkegaard's tortured faith

The 19-century philosopher insisted truth involves suffering

By Heller McAlpin / March 1, 2005

If, as Socrates claimed, the unexamined life is not worth living, the overexamined life may leave little time for living. Joakim's Garff's brilliant but exhaustively detailed biography of 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard makes this doubly clear.

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Like Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard led a seriously constricted personal life, channeling his energies into thought-fueled daily walks and a voluminous outpouring of polemical prose.

Garff, a professor at the University of Copenhagen's Søren Kierkegaard Research Center, obviously has been marinating in Kierkegaard for years. He charts the "complex entanglement of Kierkegaard's works with his times," vividly evoking Golden Age Copenhagen, in which the reigning thinkers vigorously debated each other in print and person daily, creating what Garff dubs an "intellectual greenhouse effect."

His beautifully written and translated biography is scholarship at its best, filled with witty observations, felicitous turns of phrase, and sharp analyses. But it is also scholarship at its most indulgent, with little concern for the casual reader. The level of detail made me yearn at times for the relative superficiality of Walter Lowrie's 1942 "A Short Life of Kierkegaard," especially during years such as 1846, which Garff takes 87 pages to summarize.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813, the seventh and youngest child of older parents. His father, Michael, was a wealthy merchant. Søren's mother, Ane, was Michael's illiterate maid, whom he impregnated and then married after his first wife died. Five of their seven children died by the age of 34, leaving just Søren and his jealous older brother Peter Christian.

After an inhibited, unhappy Christian upbringing, Kierkegaard received a degree in theology. His dissertation, "On the Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates," demonstrated his literary style and "subversive tendency" early. In a typically clever comment, Garff notes that "the master of irony became a magister in irony."

Whereas his brother entered the ministry (and eventually became a bishop), Kierkegaard chose a more iconoclastic, individual path through life, often at odds with the institutions of his day - particularly the Christian church. He thrived on "opposition, harassment, and suffering," which Garff posits were necessary stimuli for his writing.

Considered the founder, or at least the forerunner, of modern existentialism, Kierkegaard held that "truth is subjectivity," and that knowledge and religious belief must be internalized to become a living part of the believer. He rejected Protestant rationalist theology, the position that Christian truth could be vindicated by reason. Instead, he maintained that the search for religious truth is an individual, personal matter that requires leaps of faith and invariably involves suffering. An early journal entry that Garff cites as "a sort of manifesto of authenticity" reads: "I still believe in the validity of an imperative knowledge that has an influence upon men, but it nonetheless must become a living part of me."

At 27, Kierkegaard broke off his engagement to the woman he loved, Regine Olsen, renouncing earthly happiness in favor of an engagement with God. He continued to love Regine, or at least to obsess over her, until his death at 42, in 1855. He subjected her to what Garff calls "radical poetic recycling," sublimating his passion into such works as "The Seducer's Diary" and "Guilty/Not Guilty."