Memoirs, True or False?

“Kierkegaard Training a Girl”
From the Danish satirical weekly, The Corsair

Memoirs, True or False?

Readers of this column are reminded from time to time that I recently finished a memoir, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, and am looking round the publishing business to see if any editor/publisher will put up the money and the backing necessary to get it published in the right way. I’m reminded of the time I watched a newly-built boat being slid down the ramp and floated out onto the bay. Nice work if you can get it!

Meanwhile, maybe not coincidentally, I’m reading biographies of two well-known people whose first-person memoirs I have read previously.

The first was mentioned in last week’s column: Kierkegaard’s Muse: The Mystery of Regine Olsen by Joakim Garff. I haven’t read Regine’s memoir, nobody has. She didn’t write one. But her biographer covers experiences that Kierkegaard, the fiancé who jilted her, wrote about in partly autobiographical work that is studied in philosophy and theology departments and widely read even outside academic precincts. Kierkegaard’s discussion of the attractions of the seducer, of life at the ethical level, and of spiritual life left a profound imprint on me when I first read it as a young graduate student.

The other biography I’m reading is The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling by Natalie Robins. Diana Trilling was a public intellectual and critic, married to Lionel Trilling, Professor of English at Columbia University, a respected literary critic and opinion shaper. I’ve previously read her memoir, The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling.  

Diana Trilling’s memoir contains 13 indexed references to my parents, all unflattering. My father and Lionel Trilling were the closest of friends at Columbia College and for some years thereafter, though their friendship ended at my father’s initiative. The biography I’m reading now has a cast of characters that includes people I knew and challenges they faced with which I’m personally familiar.

All very interesting, no? So what could go wrong? Aren’t these opportunities to recoup lost time — whether the time of past experiences that formed the family that formed me — or of the past time of reading philosophical and spiritual works that went into my formation on those levels?

Full disclosure: I read stuff about the Trillings mostly to see if they contain any more defamations of my parents. I can’t stop ‘em, of course; I’m not the king. But I think I should know about them and be aware of the shadow they can cast.

In the case of the present biography of Diana Trilling, the author performs somersaults of tact, even to the point of changing the past. For example: in Diana’s memoir, the Trillings accompanied my father to the pier to see my mother off for her treatment in Switzerland for TB. When my father rejoined them after his private farewell and noticed Diana’s tears, he said to her dryly, “I didn’t know you could cry.” The biographer has lifted my father’s rather cool remark to the wife of his best friend and made it into an apology for a different incident.   In the context where the biographer now puts his remark, my father and Lionel criticize Diana’s writing in a way that reduces her to tears and my father says to her penitently, “I didn’t know you would cry.” Both of these incidents are first recorded in Diana’s own memoir, but they sound a lot nicer as the biographer retells them now. So I’d like to thank Natalie Robins for her tactful softenings of the written record, but it might be hard to do that without offending her.

With Kierkegaard, it’s a different matter. I didn’t know any of these people. I don’t know any Danes, much less 19th-century Danes. They sound perfectly recognizable as human characters but I don’t have a dog in their fights.

Or do I? Kierkegaard makes a case for something he terms “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” He means that a spiritual summons can override morality – morality, not just social convention! The example he famously gives is the akedah, the binding of Isaac, God’s command to Abraham to take “thine only son whom thou lovest” and sacrifice him. Abraham’s obedience would be the limiting case of the believer’s submission to the divine decree.

Atheists cite it to show what’s wrong with religion. Believers handle it in other ways. When I was a child, I asked my mother, “Would Daddy sacrifice me if God told him to?” “No,” my mother answered promptly. She didn’t have a degree in psychology from the University of Lausanne for nothing. “Would grandpa?” Grandpa was an eminent rabbi. “Yes, grandpa would.” Since that preserved the principle of obedience but put me out of immediate danger, I never bothered my head about it again.

For Kierkegaard, Abraham’s deep trust that God would make it come out right somehow – while avoiding any shallow certainties-in-advance about what God would do – is the model he limns.

Anyway, for Kierkegaard the real model case was his breaking off his engagement with Regine Olsen because the higher summons to follow his spiritual calling overrode “the ethical level.” Furthermore, on Kierkegaard’s account, he was grateful to Regine when he learned that she had gotten engaged to another man, because, by this “generous” act, she had cleared him of having done her any permanent injury.

It’s a peculiar story, but it seemed to have its own painful plausibility. Generations of students of philosophy and theology have drunk deep from this Kierkegaardian flagon.

Now I learn that this isn’t quite what happened. First of all, his journal records that he wasn’t at all “grateful” to learn of Regine’s new engagement. He’d finally worked through his inhibitions and returned to Copenhagen hoping to renew his suit. He was enraged. He “hoped she’d be recognizable by a black tooth but be green all over her face.” Far from renouncing his early love gracefully, he wrote about her again and again — without the name but everyone knew who he meant. When he died in 1855, fourteen years after the engagement was broken off by him, he made Regine (now Mrs. Regine Schlegel) his heir and trustee, writing as follows: “What I wish to express is that for me an engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage, and that therefore my estate is to revert to her in exactly the same manner as if I had been married to her.”

Of course, on these terms she had to refuse the bequest, which would have made her and her husband bigamists! In this “suspension of the ethical,” there is no discernible higher purpose. Only a stubborn, ego-driven self-will. Here Kierkegaard obeys nobody but Kierkegaard.

Does this truth-behind-the-mask change anything for the philosophical reader? I can’t speak for anybody else, but I take philosophy very seriously. I’ll tell you what it changes for me.

If Kierkegaard’s model was his own case, it leads me to question the concept he drew out of it. Perhaps the cases where it looks as if ethical considerations are being set aside because of overriding spiritual demands have been misconceived. Maybe what is really going on is a conflict of duties, where both demands are compelling but only one satisfies spiritual requirements as well. In that case, a believer will follow the duty with the spiritual component, but that doesn’t mean that the whole realm of duty has been set aside!

Back to the real Kierkegaard. If initially he felt that he couldn’t live in intimacy with a woman, that’s what he should have told her. It was a neurotic suspension of the ethical, not a “teleological” one. Perhaps she could have won him over, coaxed him to try the tests of married life, perhaps not. But at least she would have understood what happened. She would not have allowed him to freeze her into an ideal, of the past or the future, one that couldn’t be lived within the present.

I’ve come to a revised view of Kierkegaard’s idealization of Regine.

It was spiritual seduction. 

It was a contemptible lie.

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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