I interviewed fifty people on a busy city street over the course of a single summer day, a pool of subjects derived from a robust sampling of life: Vendors, cab drivers, business people, tourists and homeless. I asked them all the same question: “What interests you most about Soren Kierkegaard, apart from his religion and philosophy?”
Without hesitation, the first ten answered: “His pseudonyms.” They did not say, “his pen names,” which I thought was interesting, even odd. The eleventh, a mother, with several small children in tow, grumbled, “Regina, his fiancé.” Thereafter, I received varied responses: All in all, twenty-five mentioned the pseudonyms; ten, the girlfriend; another ten, the father; two commented on how prolific he had been within a short time period (8 books and 3 articles written between 1843 and 1846); one was vague and hand wavy concerning physical attributes, assuming wrongly he’d been a hunchback; one cited cigar smoking as paramount and the last said, “I know the name but I’m not sure.”
Lies. All lies. My truth is Shame, the greatest instructor of them all! I am insecure discussing philosophy and not particularly suited for it. I like noir crime fiction, see, cigarette butts and dames. If you could only just see me at this moment, how sorry you’d feel; because the tears are streaming down my face. I'm woofing them. And well, I’ve had “a lot on my plate lately,” as people like to say, but I'm repentant as all get out: I’ve done a bad thing, ethically, in pawning off some fictitious survey as an empirical data set.
But then again, you can’t see me now, can you? You don't know if I’m weeping like I said I was, or what I'm doing. In fact, you can’t see any author’s expression during the moments of their composition. You see words on a page, presumably their words, at a later date; that's it. The author could be doing just about anything. You might have read the Quentin scene in Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury: He’s on the verge of suicide, recalling and rehashing his weird family history; the neurotic mother, the bellerin’ brother, the existential father and the sinful sister. Faulkner might not have been as solemn and as serious as one might think in writing the passage. He may have been picking his nose for a paragraph or two, digging for gold, as is said in the South, or sniggering and sloshing bourbon all over his typewriter keys. We don’t know. The reader, even the most aware academic, could not be privy to what really goes on behind that curtain.
I’ll lay my cards on the table. The opening survey, as I said, was a sham, a means to increase my status as an authority on prominent figures in intellectual history, which I'm not. I'm just a man on the street. But I will reveal, here and now, that the philosopher's name, Kierkegaard, is pronounced in a specific manner (and only on those same streets in that same city within my own mind, where the survey took place), with a trill and a drawing out of the “gaaaaaard” for at least ten seconds as if you were running toward a gaggle of Barbarians holding a forty-pound steel broad sword over your head. But of course, all that’s rubbish as well; and that’s the point: Kierkegaard played with his reader's heads to an extent, presenting them with different realities. So no, I wasn't weeping either.
I struggle with the words of philosophy; after all, words are all there is to struggle with, really: I mean Words with a capital W, bandied about, meaning something specific (I assume) to the philosopher, often different from what they mean to me, the reader. Philosophers appropriate words which you may have heard before, words like angst, then capitalize them to become words like Angst. Beware of capitalized words in philosophy books is all I have to say. It takes several pages to define a capitalized word, sometimes even an entire book. These capitalized words are why I have to read philosophy slowly. When I tried to read Hegel, for instance, I read not just slowly, not even very slowly, but very VERY slowly, then gave up entirely. In fact, one of the things I liked about Kierkegaard was he wanted the rest of the philosophical world to move past Hegel. Hegel presumed most people would not be capable of suckling on the bosom of Godhead; that only he and a few of his smarty pants pals had access to the teat. But Kierkegaard observed no actual latching-on was being accomplished, no real suckling at all, the kind of action he wanted in on: God had been discovered in thought only, on an engineering calculator; not by crossing the street and almost getting run over by a car; by the things that happen in real life.
Kierkegaard nevertheless moved through his own dialectic: Truth, as he saw it, was not static. His various voices, all human and part of himself, deliberately provided opposing viewpoints and it became the readers job to decide what was true or not. In Either/Or the author in the first part espouses a sensuous life; Judge Vilhelm in the second, an ethical one; the short concluding sermon implies either position is in doubt. God and one's connection to God is something else entirely: “The edifying in the thought that against God we are always in the wrong.”
Oh, and I forgot to mention a man came up to me while I was in the middle of that survey I told you about. He staggered out of a bar, careened over to me and said, “They’re all fucking nut jobs, all fucking self absorbed maniacs with the luxury of way too much time on their hands to contemplate whatever bullshit is in their head.” Then he lurched away. No, I didn’t say that, the homeless man said it and I was appalled, really appalled..
Kierkegaard’s dad came up through the hawsepipe as they say, a self-made man formed in part by his arduous journey out of poverty. Soren was born when Dad was 56, by then a well-established Copenhagen merchant with a reputation for being pragmatic and fair. His father recognized his son’s intelligence and held him accountable for logic in all his daily expressions. He also imbued him with a capacity to place himself imaginatively within foreign lands: Dad and Soren travelled extensively; and all without leaving the family library. Devotion to God and moral principle were insisted upon. Their relationship became, at times, precarious. Soren did not share his father’s strict pragmatism and staggered in and out of debt most of his young life; as Dad saw it, he was not living up to his potential. At Kierkegaard senior’s death, they were reconciled to an extent: Soren viewed him as a friend and further, that his death represented a gift; that his life might come to fruition. He inherited a small fortune which he used to further his publishing endeavors. As a result, Kierkegaard did end up, like that crazy homeless man said, having a lot of time on his hands to do nothing but worry and write. And write he did.
Then there was Regina Olsen, his girlfriend, paving the way for a jaded and angst laden reworking of Romeo and Juliet into the canon of modern philosophy. She was 18 when they met. He was 27. She from a respectable Copenhagen family and as a result, there had been expectation, with his inheritance, the couple would marry; Soren would become a preacher and they would live happily ever after.
“Tyger, tyger burning bright, in the forest of the night. . . “
He proposed, then thought about it. What made the accounting of this infamous romantic disaster all the more poignant was Regina’s unrelenting patience for the lugubrious, fickle and painfully self-referring philosopher-to-be. Despite expressing his views on his un-suitedness for the union, she remained steadfast in her commitment until Soren lowered the boom. Soren, it seemed, found himself a good gal, but “spazzed out.” He would have been great fodder for a 19th century Copenhagen Miss Lonely Hearts: “Having more than realized what he had lost, the sad sack Soren lived the rest of his life in agony, tearing off petals from his ox eye daisy.”
Kierkegaard recognized in himself the composite man: Lover, husband, asthetic monk. He chose the monk, formed a sect of one, and broke off the engagement with Regina at the last minute. Kierkegaard continued to profess and dwell upon that love, however, even took the diamonds in his returned engagement ring, fashioned them into a cross and wore the modified ring on his finger for the rest of his life. The left-hand turn at the crossroads set a precedent for further intellectual and religious ostracization and, of course, tuh-tah tuh-tah, paved the way for his use of pseudonyms.
Kierkegaard’s life and philosophy were more intimately related than Hegel’s had been: Dad, Regina and Kierkegaard’s devotion to God comprised the holy trinity. The resultant chorus line of narrators he enlisted with arms linked, high kicked across the Radio City stage of philosophy and Christendom. Few writers have created such a convoluted world of plays within plays. Kierkegaard, like Plato and his dialogues, wished his reader to consider reality from different perspectives and so assumed the subjective voice in his “teaching.” He also wrote religious discourses (as opposed to sermons) in tangent with the pseudonymous works. His fictitious voices generally represented non-Christian, anti-Christian and deluded-Christian perspectives.
“There is not a single word by me,” he says. “I have no opinion about them except as a third party, no knowledge of their meaning except as a reader, nor the remotest private relation to them.”
He wanted to force his readers to engage in the work of thinking and grapple with each book as opposed to taking an author’s word for it. In the “First and Last Explanation” at end of Concluding Unscientific Postscript he notes: “The pseudonymity. . . has not had an accidental basis in my person. . . but an essential basis in the production itself.”
Copenhagen was conservative back then, and the use of pseudonyms for Soren, known as something of a preacher, absolved him of direct scrutiny and possibly condemnation (the first-person narrator in the Diary of a Seducer section of Either/Or was a dicey cad). Vulnerability is not an uncommon reason for authors to choose to write under another name. Kierkegaard initially and playfully made it difficult to trace the origins, even using third parties when dealing with publishers; but ultimately made is clear that all the works were penned by himself and explained why.
Kierkegaard was concerned with the gap between philosopher and human being. He addressed implicitly the issue of academic narrow mindedness, somewhat similar to Plato’s exhaustive analysis of the scope of rhetoric. He explored the gulf between thinking and living. Actuality, one of his capitalized words, is not something residing in the mind.
That Kierkegaard used so many pseudonyms was the reason I became motivated to read him, I wanted to know why he did what he did as a writer, not so much I wanted to explore the essence of true Christianity or understand existentialism better. I started with Either/Or, written just after his love life debacle, and the first of his pseudonymous texts. I read him slowly; but thankfully not very very slowly. His ploy of providing entertainment in all the convolution, that he made it all perversely interesting, hooked me like a fish. I suspect this was part of his diabolical plan: All of a sudden, I was reading philosophy.
1) Kierkegaard, A Single Life by Stephen Backhouse; Zondeervan, 2016
3) Either/Or: A Fragment of Life; Edited by Victor Eremita, originally published by S. Kierkegaard, Penguin Classics
4) Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments: A Mimetic-Pathetic-Dialectic Compilation, An Existential Plea, by Johannes Climacus, published by S. Kierkegaard