Søren Kierkegaard and Lesson of Love

Never will I call you “my Johannes,” for I certainly realize you never have been that, and I am punished harshly enough for having once been gladdened in my soul by this thought, and I yet do call you “mine”: my seducer, my deceiver, my enemy, my murderer, the source of my unhappiness, the tomb of my joy, the abyss of my unhappiness. I call you “mine” and call myself “yours,” and as it once flattered your ear, proudly inclined to my adoration, so shall it now sound as a curse upon you, a curse for all eternity. (From Søren Kierkegaard’s Seducer’s Diary (Princeton University Press: 1997) pp. 15-16)

Valentines Day is just around the corner, and I think there is no better place to turn than Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) love life. However, before engaging such a subject I do believe some background information is in order. Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, Denmark; a city at this time only consisting of about 125,000 people (now ranging at about 1.2 million). Søren’s father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, “whose lively intelligence and business acumen were matched only by the depth of his religious torments, was the constant childhood companion of his son. . . ” [1].

The influence Søren’s father had on his life really can’t be dismissed as a relevant factor to the literary potency of his work. A number of biographies and introductory texts on Kierkegaard acknowledge this fact [2]. However, as Charles E. Moore accounts, “[Kierkegaard’s] father was a pietistic, gloomy spirit, an old man whose melancholy sat like a weight on his children” [3]. The Christianity that Kierkegaard was exposed to as a child (along with his seven other siblings) was a “severe form of Christianity” [4] which “emphasized the sufferings of Christ” [5].

Another determinative event in Kierkegaard’s life would be his broken engagement to Regine Olsen; a girl ten years younger than him and whose engagement would only last a year. It is to this area of Kierkegaard’s life that I turn.

 

Søren’s Engagement to Regine Olson

Kierkegaard, at the time when he was just a young university student, met Regine Olsen when she was just 14 years old in 1837. In a small section in his Stages on Life’s Way (1845) he accounts his spying on Regine, frequently visiting a pastry shop nearby where she had music lessons:

I never dared sit by the window, but when I took a table in the middle of the room my eye commanded the street and the opposite sidewalk where she went, yet the passerby could not see me. Oh, beautiful time; Oh, lovely recollection; Oh, sweet disquietude; Oh, happy vision, when I dressed up my hidden existence with the enchantment of love! [6]

In the summer of 1840, Kierkegaard (now 27) went to the Olsen’s house to find Regine alone, thence proposing to her in an abrupt passion where her only response was to show him the door. Fortunately enough, with a two day passing and her father’s consent, Regine accepted the proposal. However, in his journal, eight years after the event, Kierkegaard writes that “inwardly – the next day I saw that I had made a blunder. . . I suffered indescribably in that period” [7]. Regine of course was not blind to the melancholy associated with her fiance, and so, in 1841 Kierkegaard sent her back her ring with a note that read the following: “Forget him who writes this, forgive a man who, thought he may be capable of something, is not capable of making a girl happy” [8].

Kierkegaard at this time was working on his dissertation (The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates), and for two months after the break up he would continue to work and defend his thesis. Kierkegaard finally meets Regine for an exchange which he accounts as follows:

I went and talked her round. She asked me, Will you never marry? I replied, Well, in about ten years, when I have sown my wild oats, I must have a pretty young miss to rejuvenate me. She said, Forgive me for what I have done to you. I replied, It is rather I that should pray for your forgiveness. She said, Kiss me. That I did, but without passion. Merciful God! . . . To get out of the situation as a scoundrel, a scoundrel of the first water if possible, was the only thing there was to be done in order to work her loose and get her under way for a marriage. [9]

Some explanation must be underway in order to understand his latter statement. To break off an engagement at this time was – in a social sense – not so good for the woman. Kierkegaard knew this and, in an attempt to save Regine, took all the blame of the engagement upon himself. As Charles Moore writes, “[F]or the next several months he posed as an irresponsible philanderer, noisily showing off in public and striving to turn appearances against himself by every means in his power. Not surprisingly, he quickly aroused the indignation of public opinion and the disapproval of friends” [10].

When the break up took place in 1841, Kierkegaard wrote: “When the bond broke, my feeling was: Either you plunge into wild dissipation, or into absolute religiousness – though of a different kind from that of the pastor’s melange” [11].

The Resulting Story of Kierkegaard 

The consequence of Kierkegaard’s breaking engagement is the full devotion he is now able to apply to his writing. From 1843 to 1846, Kierkegaard would produce an impressive body of works, even by today’s standards. In February of 1843, his two-volume work Either/Or is published under the pseudonym Victor Eremita (Victorious Hermit). In May of the same year, Two Edifying Discourses is published under his own name. Later, before the year is out, Repetition,Fear and TremblingThree Edifying Discourses, and other works are also produced.

Those these works are an impressive bunch – some of Europe’s greatest works of philosophy, indeed – it would be a mistake to suppose that “his melancholy and gloomy spirit [darkened] her radiant youth and beauty” [12]. Kierkegaard loved Regine Olsen very deeply, and would proceed to write about her in his journals even towards the end of his life. As C. Stephen Evans writes, “[Kierkegaard] believed he was called by God to be an ‘exception’ who must sacrifice Regine and the joys of married life” [13]. The broken engagement most certainly gave Kierkegaard the proper materials for becoming a prolific author; one that would that develop in a such a maturing fashion over his years as a writer.

The Lesson to Be Learned 

To remember, Valentines is approaching us. If you are thinking about confessing your love for that special girl/guy, or even (as I hope not), breaking up with that [apparently not so special] girl/guy, then the lesson is of course clear: Read Kierkegaard.

 

__________________

Notes:

  • [1] John D. Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard (Granta Publications: 2007) p. 2
  • [2] See C. Stephen Evans’ Kierkegaard: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press: 2009) p. 4; John D. Caputo’s How to Read Kierkegaard (Granta Publications: 2007), pp. 1-2; Soren Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity. trans. Walter Lowrie (Vintage Books: 2004), xxiii. Soren Kierkegaard’s Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. ed. Charles E. Moore (Orbis Books: 2003), xiv, xvi.
  • [3] From Charles E. Moore, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (2003), xiv.
  • [4] C. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard (2009), p. 4
  • [5] Soren Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity (2004), xxiii. The quote in full reads: “The senior Kierkegaard’s religious denomination was the Herrnhuter fraternity, and he practiced a strict form of Christianity that emphasized the sufferings of Christ.”
  • [6] Quoted from Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary (Princeton University Press: 1997), ix.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., x.
  • [9] Ibid., xi.
  • [10] Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (2003), xvi.
  • [11] From Training in Christianity (2004), xxv.
  • [12] John Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard (2007), p. 2.
  • [13] C. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard (2009), p. 5.

 

For further reading:

  1. C. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press: 2009)
  2. John Caputo, How to Read Kierkegaard (Granta Publications: 2007)
  3. Alastair Hannay, Kierkegaard: A Biography (Cambridge University Press: 2001)
  4. Murray Rae, Kierkegaard and Theology (Continuum Press: 2010)
  5. Soren Kierkegaard, The Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing (HarperOne: 1956)
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