Søren and Copenhagen: A Complicated Relationship - An Excerpt from Kierkegaard
In today’s excerpt from Kierkegaard: A Single Life, Stephen Backhouse introduces us to the fascinating and complicated relationship between the infamous philosopher and the people of Copenhagen, his home city.
Copenhagen itself became crucial to his writing process. Lengthy walks around Copenhagen were part of the authorial process, because it was on the city streets that Søren “put everything into its final form.” Søren “wrote” while walking. The hiking stage was only the first part of his process. The second stage occurred when he got home, where he would be observed by his servant, Anders Westergaard, standing at his desk, hat still on head and umbrella tucked under arm, furiously scribbling down with his hands the words he had already written by foot. Yet Copenhagen was no mere inert backdrop. The living, breathing people of the city were key.
I regard the whole city of Copenhagen as a great social function. But on one day I view myself as the host who walks around conversing with all the many cherished guests I have invited; then the next day I assume that a great man has given the party and I am a guest. . . . If an elegant carriage goes by with four horses engaged for the day, I assume that I am the host, give a friendly greeting, and pretend it is I who has lent them this lovely carriage.
Søren called these excursions his “people bath,” and he became known for plunging into conversation with everyone and anyone, whatever their age and stage. In 1844 Søren remarked that “although I can be totally engrossed in my own production, and although together with all this I am doing seventeen other things and talk every day with about fifty people of all ages, I swear, nevertheless, that I am able to relate what each person with whom I have spoken said the last time, next-to-the-last time . . . his remarks, his emotions are immediately vivid to me as soon as I see him, even though it is a long time since I saw him.” Such a claim might seem an exaggeration except for the multiple eyewitness accounts that appear to affirm the assertion. “He preferred to involve himself with people whose interests in life were completely different from his own or which were diametrically opposed to his own.” The sight of Master Kierkegaard gently but firmly taking someone by the arm while walking with them down the street, talking all the while and swinging his walking stick for emphasis, is one well attested by many contemporary Copenhageners.
Some people loved it and found Søren sincere, humorous, and good natured. Others disliked the feeling they were being pumped for information, suspecting they were fodder for a character study in a future book. Both reactions were valid. “His smile and his look were indescribably expressive,” remembered his old friend and tutor Hans Brøchner. “There could be something infinitely gentle and loving in his eye, but also something stimulating and exasperating. With just a glance at a passer- by he could irresistibly ‘establish a rapport’ with him as he expressed it. The person who received the look became either attracted or repelled.”
Brøchner recalled how Søren would “carry out psychological studies” with everyone he met. The practice sounds more sinister than it really was, however. For Søren, a “psychological study” was synonymous with meaningful conversation focussed on the individual before him. Søren, Brøchner tells us, would “strike up conversations with so many people. In a few remarks he took up the thread from an earlier conversation and carried it a step further, to a point where it could be continued again at another opportunity.” Undoubtedly some people felt ill-used by the Kierkegaard treatment, such as his secretary Israel Levin.
Levin was employed in 1844 as a proofreader and scribe (he would stay on until 1850). Levin was a notoriously cantankerous individual and seems to have been retained by Søren partly for his ornery (and therefore psychologically interesting) nature. A daily fixture in the home, Levin was often drafted into helping prepare the morning coffee. He hated this duty, as invariably Søren would ask him to choose a coffee cup from the jumble in the cupboard and then demand that Levin give a personal accounting for why he chose that particular cup on that particular day.
Overall, the intense, honest attention was welcomed by others. In personal relations, Søren would often employ a psychological directness that eschewed the normal platitudes of everyday chatter. His letters to mourning or infirm acquaintances, for example, show a man who faces difficulties directly and thereby validates the person experiencing the problem. Hans Brøchner recalled with fondness the way Søren once helped a grieving widow of a friend. “He comforted not by covering up sorrow but first by making one genuinely aware of it, by bringing it to complete clarity.” A case in point is Søren’s cousin, Hans Peter, who was granted rare permission to visit Søren at home rather than on the street. Peter (as he was known) was paralysed on one side, and the infirmity seems to have awakened in Søren a kinship of feeling for a fellow awkward figure. The two would spend hours talking together, with Søren unapologetically transmuting Peter’s condition into a spiritual treatment of a man with physical weakness in a section of Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits. Peter was deeply touched by the attention. “He is so unspeakably loving and understands me so well, but I am really afraid to make use of his arm when he offers it to me to help me into my carriage.”
Back out on the streets, there was another reason for the city walks. At the same time Copenhagen was illuminating the human condition to Søren, it was also helping the secretive author hide in plain sight. In The Point of View, written near the end of his life, Søren claims he used these public appearances as a way to keep up his authorial project of indirect communication. The city walks served as a way of disguising just how much time and effort was going into the authorship, which was supposed to be by many different people. Often, while writing and editing these works, Søren had no time to walk as he would like. So instead he arranged to be at the theatre for ten minutes at a time, presumably during the intervals. This way the “gossipmongers” would still see him and the word would be put about that as Søren was always out and about…
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