Apologies to Kierkegaard

“Young Couple”
Angelo Morbelli, 1905

Apologies to Kierkegaard

In a previous post or two of “Dear Abbie,” I found myself sharply critical – denunciatory even – of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). He is the Danish philosopher/theologian who is still studied by serious people today, both inside and outside classrooms. I denounced him for having used his considerable talent, his genius really, to capture the heart, mind and soul of a girl to whom he first proposed marriage and jilted not long after.

My objection was not to his getting cold feet about marriage. Hell, that’s how a lot of us felt just before we tied the knot. To a sensitive loner, trying to keep his precariously assembled molecules together, that can happen.

What I castigated was his acting toward her so that she could never be free of him. If a guy’s gonna let you down, the least he can do is get out of your way after that. If he takes himself out of the picture, you can at least visualize a future for yourself without his silhouette cluttering the horizon as far as eye can see.

That said, I’ve long considered Kierkegaard a serious thinker who tried to be truthful, not merely clever. My conscience was uneasy after these posts about him. Since I don’t think we die when bodily life ends, I also wondered what Kierkegaard thought of my columns. And Regine Olsen, the woman he jilted but never ceased to love, what did she think? (Women don’t usually appreciate it when you criticize their guy, no matter how much of a rotter he’s been.) I didn’t know how he or she would feel, but sensed I might be running in the red with them.

I try not to do that with dead people. Death does not, to my mind, obscure the view of what we have done or what we still mean to each other. An Australian anthropologist once told me that he no longer writes anything about a South Sea tribe that he wouldn’t want its younger members to read in their grad school anthropology courses. There are no far away places any more. If you can’t say it to their faces, don’t say it.

Thus bestirred, I read a long biography of Regine Olsen, the girl Kierkegaard loved, jilted, and – in his view – took with him “into history.” Then I read a still-more-definitive biography of SK. (She left very little paper evidence. He kept every scrap.) On the strength of this further study, I’ve come to a rather different opinion. I withdraw my previous condemnations, with apologies.

SK came to young manhood in a Protestant culture where human life was practically defined as sinful. His mother, a former housemaid, was pregnant when his father, a respectable merchant, married her and thereby saved her from the downfall he had brought on her. This same guilty father had once been a poor boy tending sheep on the cold moors of Jutland. In his solitary misery, the boy had cursed God. To this original sin of the family founder, the whole family attributed the early deaths of five of his seven children. Only one of Kierkegaard’s siblings survived what they all believed was the family curse.

It was an age when girls of respectable families were unavailable to young men. There was no “dating.” Masturbation was viewed as an offense against God. Even one visit to a prostitute could bring death from syphilis, and the fear of it could haunt the man who had incurred the risk for the rest of his life. In this tormenting atmosphere, Kierkegaard passed his first youth and got his higher degrees.

How can a young man, finding himself ardently in love, want to inflict these deep and morbid psychic tangles on a healthy-minded girl? Now add the genius that SK must have recognized in himself. Wouldn’t he feel a primary obligation to protect his gift from the embarrassments of a tortured intimacy? He said later, “Had I had more faith, I would have married Regine.” But he didn’t have more faith!

It was part of his truthfulness, his spiritual sincerity, not to forget or trivialize Regine’s imprint. True, by continuing to idealize her in his published work, he imprisoned her in his public framing of what they had meant to each other.

Although she was a girl, later a woman, of active spirit and mind – she had nothing like his gift. She made a good wife to the decent man she eventually married, but there was a part of her that, understandably, she kept in reserve. When Kierkegaard was long dead, and her husband gone too, slowly, by stages, as her memory faltered, she came to think of Kierkegaard as her real – as we say today – significant other. With her last energies, she answered questions about him asked by later researchers, and made sure that SK’s works were suitably archived.

I now think they both did the best they could in this imperfect world. On reflection, I am more inclined to honor the ardor for one another that was kept in the secret heart of each.

Is lifelong ardor so common a thing?

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, soon to appear in a revised second edition. 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, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) 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. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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