A Controversial Life - An Excerpt from Kierkegaard
In today’s excerpt from Kierkegaard: A Single Life, Stephen Backhouse introduces us to the fascinating life of the infamous philosopher whose writings have eminently influenced our Christian thought.
A Controversial Life
The new bishop stands at the window, looking at the crowd milling in the courtyard below. He cranes his neck, trying to get a better view of the church door opposite, but it is difficult. He cannot see, but at the same time he does not want to be seen. That would never do. The bishop has pushed himself to the limits of his reputation to avoid any connection to the distasteful funeral going on across the way. Yet he knows, along with all of Copenhagen, that the events below are all anyone is talking about. They will be in all the papers tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. It is of paramount importance that these papers record that the newly minted Bishop of all Denmark, Hans L. Martensen, shepherd to the nation, was not present at the burial of his former student, now the scourge of all Christendom, Søren Kierkegaard.
Martensen had good reason to expect heightened public interest. All of Denmark’s respectable papers, as well as her less respectable (but more popular) magazines had been providing a steady drip of comment on the events leading up to, and following, Søren’s passing. The details of his life, after all, were irresistible to any journalist worthy of the name.
An enigmatic, brilliant loner with more than a whiff of scandal about him, Søren Kierkegaard had long enjoyed the reputation as something of a dangerous dandy about town. Every literate citizen, and more than a few who did not read at all, had an opinion. Sophisticated, artistic citizens recognized his talent, even if they did not actually understand his books.
He was the kind of author who it was important either to be seen to be reading or to pointedly ignore. Morally upright citizens admitted he was a good writer, but was he a good man? The constant trips to the theatre and the flagrant gallivanting about town with all sorts suggested an absence of moral fibre. And didn’t Søren despise his brother Peter Christian, and didn’t he refuse his brother to even attend at his deathbed? In any case, Peter, so earnest and plodding, almost certainly hated his brilliant and infamous younger sibling.
Religious citizens remembered him as the promising theologian who spoke and wrote endlessly about Christianity and yet who did not become a pastor and now never even went to church. Romantic citizens vaguely suspected this stillborn church career was somehow connected to the scandal of his broken engagement years before. “Such a sweet young girl,” they would whisper to each other, “and taken off by her new husband to the West Indies! It’s almost like they were escaping something, or someone.”
Older citizens of Copenhagen could shake their heads and say they always knew Søren would come to a bad end. There was something not quite right about his father, Michael. He was a miserable old miser. And the timing of Michael’s second marriage, to Søren’s mother, so soon after the death of his first wife was positively scandalous. And she was the maid!
Younger citizens knew him from the caricatures and cartoons the satirical magazine the Corsair was always churning out. A magazine that they would hastily sneak a peek at when their more respectable elders were not looking. These respectable citizens knew him as the one the King of Denmark had marked out for special favour.
Less respectable citizens either knew of Søren as the one who stopped to talk to them on his walks about town or as the one they threw stones at as he passed. Student citizens knew that his first name, when attached to a character in a comedy revue, would automatically get laughs. For the same reason pregnant citizens took this name off their list of potential baby names. The novelists of Denmark’s Golden Age, including Hans Christian Andersen, anticipated and yet dreaded Søren’s reviews of their latest works. Poets and playwrights admired the man who wrote provocative fiction. Philosophers read him for his statements on the nature of time, existence, and the meaning of life.
Conservatives liked Søren for his opposition to democracy and revolution. Liberals liked Søren for his championing of the individual and the common man against the forces of inherited tradition. Atheists loved his attacks on the clergy and official religion of Christendom. Reformers, longing for a renewal of Christianity in the land, also loved his attacks on the clergy and official religion of Christendom. Clearly, this was a man of sharp contradictions and puzzling paradoxes. But all the citizens agreed that he was rich. Wasn’t he rich? He must be rich. To whom will he leave all his money?
So it is that when on Friday, November 16, 1855, Denmark’s most venerable newspaper announced: “On the evening of Sunday, the eleventh of this month, after an illness of six weeks, Dr Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was taken from this earthly life, in his forty-third year, by a calm death, which hereby is sorrowfully announced on his own behalf of the rest of the family by his brother / P. Chr. Kierkegaard,” it did so with the full knowledge that enclosed in these simple lines raged a storm that threatened to spill out onto the quiet streets of Copenhagen and beyond. Or so they must have hoped. All these citizens had to get and share their opinions somewhere, after all. It was a good time to be a journalist.
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