Joakim Garff, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biorgaphy (Review by Tatiana Patrone)


This is a review of Garff’s huge (pages-wise and achievement-wise, including the ability to make a paperback that is as heavy as a hardback) biography of Kierkegaard by Tatiana Patrone of Ithaca College.  It was published in the recent issue of Metapsychology Online Reviews  (October 23rd, 2007 – vol. 11, no.43) – enjoy!

“Even though Kierkegaard’s journals and published writings seem to tell us almost too much, we have no idea what he was really like” (13).  In his carefully crafted and finely written biography of Kierkegaard, Joakim Garff tells a fascinating philosophical story of Kierkegaard’s life, a story that is bound to interest and to captivate not only philosophers who have long been attracted to Kierkegaard’s thought, but also to anyone who would like to take a look at a great thinker’s life.

Kierkegaard’s corpus is vast and yet, as Garff says, “we have no idea what he was really like.”  Indeed, Kierkegaard himself wrote:  “after my death, this is my consolation:  no one will be able to find in my papers one single bit of information about what has really filled my life” (101).  Garff argues that from the moment Kierkegaard started to write he was very careful to come up and to maintain a myth of himself, an interpretation of his own life story (philosophical and social, romantic and familial), a story that he presents to his future biographers and readers, a story in which every thought and every word is masterfully expressed and documented ‘just right.’  In fact, Garff claims, Kierkegaard was not manipulating his reader; on the contrary — he himself saw his life as a narrative to be uncovered and told in such a way that it would make certain sense to him as the one who was living this life.  That is, looking back at his own past, Kierkegaard was always in the business of recollecting it rather than merely remembering it (97).  Garff goes as far as to remark that in this, “deception and self-deception walk faithfully hand in hand” (202).  However, the picture of Kierkegaard that Garff paints is quite moving — Kierkegaard’s seriousness with respect to his life projects and to how they were to be taken by his contemporaries and by his successors both inspires and humbles.  In this picture, Kierkegaard does not appear to be writing in bad faith; on the contrary — he comes off as a philosopher who treats philosophizing and reflection upon one’s life and work with utmost earnestness.

In view of the fact that Kierkegaard’s scholarly work and his journals contain — among other things — Kierkegaard’s own understanding of his life and, what’s more, an already well-edited story, the task of a biographer is a challenging one.  Garff’s strategy is to look for Kierkegaard’s life story (in addition to how it was compiled by Kierkegaard himself) in Kierkegaard’s writings.  Throughout the monograph, Garff brings to balance three important sources — Kierkegaard’s correspondence, his journals, and his scholarly and popular writing.  The interpretation and the comprehension of Kierkegaard’s journals and especially his published philosophical works is a daunting task — Kierkegaard’s writing style and philosophical vocabulary add to the complexity of his arguments.  Garff skillfully goes through Kierkegaard’s corpus and tells a philosophical story of Kierkegaard’s intellectual journey in a lively, accessible way.  Furthermore, on the assumption that all of Kierkegaard’s works are on some level autobiographical, Garff not only traces Kierkegaard’s intellectual development but also provides numerous insightful interpretations of Kierkegaard’s day-to-day life on the basis of this philosophical analysis.

A peculiar and a welcome feature of Garff’s analysis is that it is inevitably multilayered.  Anyone whohas heard of Kierkegaard is likely to have heard about his complex relationship to his father, about his love-affair with Regine Olsen, and about his late attacks on Christianity and on what he called ‘the present age.’  What motivated Kierkegaard in his unorthodox relationships, decisions, and views?  From Garff’s reading of Kierkegaard, we gather that these questions can be engaged on various levels (only some of which were suggested by Kierkegaard himself).

Take, for instance, Kierkegaard’s failed marriage to Regine — why did the two people who were sincerely in love with each other and who (arguably) remained devoted to one another till the end of their lives decide never to be together?  Garff offers us an array of answers that range from prudential concerns to inexplicable twists in human psychology, and from deep philosophical reasoning to mere superstition. (i) Kierkegaard might have been afraid that his health condition might affect Regine and their (possible) children.  (Garff suggests that Kierkegaard suffered from epilepsy the causes of which were poorly understood at his time.  He, therefore, had a reason to suspect that his ailment could affect his family and thus he chose to stay unmarried.)  (ii) Kierkegaard might have realized that a marriage would require energy (psychological, intellectual, physical), energy that, otherwise sublimated, allowed him to achieve an incredible productivity as an author.  (iii) Kierkegaard might have been persuaded that Regine was not his intellectual and, most importantly, spiritual equal.  (“The source of unhappiness,” he wrote, “is not that the lovers cannot have one another, but that they cannot understand one another” (190).)  (iv) Kierkegaard might have thought that one could be either an author or a husband and he chose to be the former rather than the latter.  Finally, (v) Kierkegaard might have chosen a total devotion to God that in his mind would have been incompatible with a life of a family-man (“I was engaged [lit. ‘already promised’], in the religious sense, as a very young child.  Alas, I have paid dearly because I once misunderstood my life and forgot — that I was engaged” (191).)

Which one of these answers is correct?  Or, perhaps, did they jointly ‘over-determine’ Kierkegaard’s decision to break up his earthly engagement?  Or, we might think, Kierkegaard concealed the real reason, leaving his reader with a set of possible answers that made for a good philosophical story.  Finally, we might ask whether Kierkegaard himself knew the real motive behind his decision.  Garff tactfully avoids imposing the right answer on the reader, uncovering, instead, the complexity of views that could contribute — and perhaps did contribute — to Kierkegaard’s final choice. 

Another aspect of Kierkegaard’s life that receives ample attention from Garff is his commitment — at least early in his life — to be a ‘man of the people’ and his subsequent transformation into an utter social and religious outcast.  Young Kierkegaard, having adopted the models of Socrates and Christ, “took to the streets”:  “I do not want,” he wrote, “to live in cowardly and prissy fashion at an aristocratic remove, in select circles, protected by an illusion (that the masses seldom see them and therefore imagine them to be somebody” (318).  Later in his life, however, Kierkegaard resembled his great teachers in a quite different respect.  Oftentimes, he became an object of ridicule and contempt in his native Copenhagen, and, whether willingly or not, his social role began to look more and more like martyrdom.  Was this transformation due to the fact that Kierkegaard’s published works became increasingly hostile towards the religious and intellectual establishment and towards the common religious sentiments of the time?  Or, conversely, did Kierkegaard’s works come to be more radical due to the fact that, socially, he was ostracized by both the intellectual elite and the people in the streets?  Both hypotheses are on the table, as far as Garff is concerned.  On the one hand, he explores the psychological and the social phenomenon of turning into an outsider in one’s own city.  (Kierkegaard’s life can very well be divided into pre­-Corsair and post-Corsair affair, he argues, referring to Kierkegaard’s disastrous involvement in a series of publications in the Copenhagen popular press.  As the result of this involvement, “Kierkegaard, who has previously been a natural part of the urban scene, became a walking caricature in the city” (406).)  On the other hand (relying mostly on Kierkegaard’s journals) Garff reconstructs yet another picture, according to which, Kierkegaard (in his own words) “cunningly guided the [entire] intrigue”, in pursuit of martyrdom which “from a human point of view would be the maximal result of [his] life” (633).

“It is my intention that this book provide a comprehensive description of the Kierkegaard complex” (xxi) says Garff in his Preface.  This is exactly what the book does and what it does quite persuasively.  The story that Garff tells is bound to attract a diverse range of readers.  From it, one learns about a life worthy of a philosopher and about a philosophy worthy of living.  One who picks up the book to learn more about the puzzling and the intriguing episodes in Kierkegaard’s life will not be disappointed; one who wants to grasp Kierkegaard’s philosophical point of view will surely be enlightened; finally, one who wants merely to take a look at a great philosopher’s life and at his intellectual development, will be inspired.

© 2007 Tatiana Patrone

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