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.
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."
Getting a bit carried away, Garff calls this "one of the great love stories in world literature," ranking it up there with Dante and Beatrice, Abelard and Heloise, and Romeo and Juliet. He comments that Kierkegaard essentially sacrificed his sexuality for the sake of art, like a castrato, and "had in fact aestheticized his relation to God ... made God into the 'muse.' "
Kierkegaard is a tricky subject for biographers, not just because he meticulously planned the posthumous presentation of himself by editing his journals and letters, but because he alternately hid and exposed himself in his writings by using pseudonyms, fictive characters, and surrogates so that his texts "constituted his own actual 'concave mirror.' "
Garff bravely hacks a path into the thicket of such complex works as "Repetition" ("the darling of deconstructionists") and "Either/Or," with its existentialist themes. It's a path some readers may find arduous. Garff doesn't spell out Kierkegaard's philosophy or boil it down to simple, clear explanations. He discusses the works in great detail, but he's mainly interested in the philosopher's entanglements with the men and ideas of his day. To some extent, this is a biography that presupposes a familiarity with Kierkegaard's philosophy or assumes that you can tease it out yourself.
He declares "Fear and Trembling" "one of Kierkegaard's most perfect creations," and analyzes how this "Dialectical Lyric" uses the Abraham and Isaac story to address the leap beyond rationality required to reach faith. Kierkegaard, he explains, was "writing his way toward his own salvation, toward greater self-understanding." Garff's intrepid literary exegesis concludes rather stunningly, "Kierkegaard does not write bildungsromans but anti-bildungromans, novels that tell not of the integration but the disintegration of the self."
To fulfill his declared goal of scrutinizing "the cracks in the granite of genius," Garff quotes at length from Kierkegaard's 62 journals, as well as from the "theological torpedo" that the "anticlerical warrior" launched with scores of diatribes against "cultural Protestantism" and organized Christianity in the last year of his life.
On a more mundane front, Garff examines Kierkegaard's finances and paltry sales figures. It's astounding what a name for himself he made while selling fewer than 300 copies of each book. Garff even studies volumes from Kierkegaard's personal library to check his marginalia and determine how thoroughly he read various contemporaries.
We learn that Kierkegaard, who went through his inherited fortune, enjoyed the "lifestyle of a connoisseur," with a fondness for duck, goose, and salmon.
To mitigate his weak legs, he had his shoes specially fitted with expensive flexible cork inlays, which he wore out frequently on his long rambles - "people baths" - around Copenhagen. Garff dissects the philosopher's physical and mental ailments, including his melancholia and graphomania, and considers various diagnoses, such as bipolar disorder and temporal lobe epilepsy.
In short, Garff lightens an often heavy subject with engaging anecdotes and observations. "Søren Kierkegaard" was a big hit when published in Denmark in 2000, but then, Kierkegaard is a national hero there, and winter nights are long in Scandinavia.
• Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.