The Woman on the Pedestal

Soren Kierkegaard, sketch by Niels Kierkegaard,1840
 Regine Olson, painting by Emil Baerentzen, 1840

The Woman on the Pedestal

I’m pretty near the end of Pamela, the novel about the heroine whose virtue gets rewarded that I cited last week. How does she manage to hold on to her “treasure”? (It really is, since once “fallen,” she’ll be pregnant and nobody in the whole 18th century will offer her shelter. By shelter, I don’t just mean social protection. I mean a place to come in from the rain!) For hundreds of pages, she flees one threat after another and hats off to her! Although a girl without social status, Pamela is never confused by the wiles, manipulative insinuations, threats, insults, and near-violence of her “fine gentleman” pursuer. With praeternatural insight, she sees how he risks his own soul every time he menaces her innocence.

For his sake as well as her own, she wants to reform him and her resistance has such a stunning effect on his villainous intentions that he experiences a complete turnaround. He comes to share her high ideals, to love her devotedly and ultimately they marry. Thus he raises her socially while she lifts him up spiritually. (If you can read about this without a little sigh, you’re more liberated than I am.)

What I find striking is that Pamela never loses her presence of mind. In the martial arts of this unequal struggle, she never makes a self-defeating move. Since, in the course of their combat, she comes to be enamored of him, she wins on every front!

Of course, this “virtuous woman” was penned by a man. She knows how to shift back and forth between female wiles and unisex intellectual weaponry. In the real life cases of serving girls pursued by the squire they work for, the underling’s victory is doubtful. Effective simultaneous use of the weaponry from yin and from yang is rare. Some women in her shoes might bring it off but I doubt that I could.

The fact that no higher-ranking professor ever backed me into that precise corner (“be nice to me or I’ll ruin your career”) as I climbed laboriously up the academic ladder, is no evidence that I shared Pamela’s achievements in the “virtue” competition. Advances from powerful men in the field probably would have seemed incestuous to me because my father was also a philosopher. So, subliminally I may have been signaling that I was not that kind of victim. It doesn’t mean I was cannier or purer than other women who were coercively approached. Factors may enter here that have little to do with skill or merit.

A different book arrived via Fedex today: Kierkegaard’s Muse: The Mystery of Regine Olsen. In case you don’t know the name of Regine Olsen, she’s the girl whom the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard jilted, and of whom he famously said:

“I shall take her with me into history.”

He meant take her image into the history books, not herself into real history. Kierkegaard is one of the important and original philosophers — a herald and forerunner of what, a century later, would be called “existentialism.” He is not just studied in classrooms. He is really read by philosophers, theologians, and seekers who gain insights from him about how to relate to God and how to achieve personal authenticity. And yet, for Kierkegaard, unethically breaking it off with his fiancée made everything possible in his work, even as he continued to love and idealize her. Everyone who knows Kierkegaard knows about Regine.

Rightly or wrongly, Kierkegaard felt that he could not make her the right kind of flesh-and-blood husband. He recognized that renouncing their engagement after capturing her heart was scandalous socially and wrong ethically. Yet he felt spiritually summoned to do it. Having broken all the rules of life in 19th-century Denmark, and broken a good girl’s heart, he went ahead to open the possibility for his readers that the spiritual life might at certain times become ethically indefensible yet higher in the God’s eye view.

Like many philosophy students, I’ve read with fascination Kierkegaard’s versions of what happened between him and Regine when he vowed to leave the real girl behind but take her memory with him “into history.” But what was it for her?

It was, so far as I can tell, her utter undoing — though she did manage to get engaged to another man and to marry him — much to the relief of Kierkegaard who took it as her act of personal generosity toward him. (By marrying, she lifted the onus of what he had done to her.) Her personal papers, reviewed in this new biography, reveal that she never detached her mind from the man who had loved and jilted her, though she survived him by fifty years! The life of a woman whom a man hasn’t scrupled to freeze into his inspiration – when he was unprepared to live their joint story together – what is it? What can it be? A frozen life, one that dare not step forward enough to outlive the moment when she became his ideal.

Are these illustrative cases, the fictional Pamela’s and the historical Regine’s, dated? Are they figures of yesterday or the day before yesterday? Maybe, but offhand I can think of a number of women, some of them in the forefront of the feminist movement, who became the better angels of men who betrayed or disappointed them profoundly.

In public, many feminists repudiate the whole structure: the pedestal and the woman trying to stand on it. I don’t. One can go too far in the other direction and profane one’s image to avoid the traps of idealization. I would be very careful here. Cattiness and rivalry haven’t disappeared with feminism, only acquired new masks. When invited by another woman to tarnish your image — because idealizations are so yesterday – look around first to see if there’s anything she might want for which you’d become less eligible if your image were tarnished. Tread carefully. The world of women is a subtle world. Beware of the Big Simplifications.

What’s the middle way, between the extremes?

Take your beloved with you into history.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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