Rogue Philosopher, Great Communicator


Jeffrey Frank in the NYT's The Stone:

For years, visitors to the Copenhagen City Museum wandered into a modest room that contains a few artifacts from the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s life: portraits, meerschaum pipes, first editions and, best of all, the desk where he stood and produced with preternatural speed a series of original and difficult works, many of them written pseudonymously and published in editions that numbered in the hundreds — among them “Either-Or,” “Fear and Trembling,” “The Concept of Dread” and “Repetition.” The exhibit has been refreshed to mark Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday on May 5th. His belongings — a large library, furniture, paintings, and knickknacks —were pretty well dispersed after his death in 1855, but the expanded version will add an “outer circle” of relevant material. Manuscripts and papers from the Kierkegaard archives will be on display at the Royal Library.

The philosopher’s grave is fairly close by, in Assistens Kirkegaard—his forbidding name is a variation of the Danish word for cemetery — in the Norrebro district, which is also the burial ground of many other notable figures, including Hans Christian Andersen, Niels Bohr and the American tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.

Though in death he rests in this distinguished company, Kierkegaard was markedly less revered in life. His contemporaries saw him as a troublesome, quarrelsome figure. He was a familiar sight, strolling about the Old City, where he created the illusion that he was merely an underemployed gentleman. The satirical weekly Corsair published nasty caricatures of him and mocked his writing and pseudonymous disguises. He was gossiped about when he broke his engagement to the 18-year-old Regine Olsen, and was feared by his targets, among them, Hans Christian Andersen, whose early novels Kierkegaard eviscerated in his 1838 debut, “From the Papers of One Still Living.” Shortly before he died at age 42, he began a bitter ground war with the state Lutheran church. For his biographers and interpreters, his private life remains a nest of secrets.