Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), a hybrid poet, theologian, and philosopher, widely regarded as the Ur-existentialist, argued that there is no riskier strategy in life than being risk-averse. In this, the eighth large-scale biography of the Danish firebrand, Clare Carlisle takes a number of authorial risks. For one, some of the book is written in the present tense and as though Carlisle were in the room with Kierkegaard, as in this scene: “The house is still, and he stands by the tall window looking out at Nytorv, smoke rising from his pipe. On this clear night the wide square is silvery and shadowy in the moonlight.” These mood-setting word paintings will evoke a “give me a break” from some, but will enliven the text for others.
In another daring move, Carlisle’s life of Kierkegaard does not follow a chronological order but instead marches along according to themes. On page one, we encounter Kierkegaard in his twenties; about fifty pages later, Carlisle begins to unveil Kierkegaard’s bizarre childhood. Those already familiar with an author sometimes referred to as the “Pascal of the North” will not be fazed by the temporal switchbacks; these might, however, prove mildly disorienting to those new to Kierkegaard. Still, Carlisle’s penetrating glimpses into Kierkegaard the person, her textual insights, and her concise and well-placed accounts of Kierkegaard’s relation to thinkers who inspired and/or riled him should compensate for any possible confusion.
Kierkegaard’s main aim as a writer was to enhance the inwardness of his readers; at the same time, he took a perverse if not sinful pride in his successful efforts to hide his own inner life. Even on his deathbed, he was pleased to think that no one had discovered the secret engine behind his monumental oeuvre. Of all his biographers, Carlisle, a professor at King’s College London, deserves the laurels for penetrating the heart of this “philosopher of the heart.”
That heart was riven by one of philosophy’s strangest love stories. Kierkegaard became engaged to Regine Olsen in 1840, but a little over a year later, for reasons he never fully explained, he broke off the engagement. Nevertheless, he remained smitten with Regine for the remainder of his life. Even though she married Frederik Schlegel in 1847, Kierkegaard named Regine the sole beneficiary in his will. Mining Kierkegaard’s mountainous journal entries and an interview with Regine that she gave after her husband’s death, Carlisle artfully charts the ongoing effect of Kierkegaard’s feelings for the woman he considered to be his partner in eternity.