After my death, no one will find in my papers (this is my consolation) the least information about what has really filled my life, find the inscription in my innermost being which explains everything… once I take away the secret note which explains it. –Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), 1843
Søren Kierkegaard and I ought to have been allowed to live in the same century.
In the best-known sketch of Kierkegaard, he is facing the viewer. His hair is wild and sweeps up away from his high, gentlemanly collar. He has a narrow face, high cheekbones, and an expression of placidness that borders on either boredom or sadness, depending on one’s mood when one looks at the image. His eyes are made of black ink, and the only thing that gives them the spark of life is white space—a lack of ink, an absence in the place where his eyes reflected the light. This is the spark of emptiness that locks with my gaze and watches me bemusedly.
White space is relief. It is balance. It breathes life and graciously gifts color and darkness with power. It provides room for the viewer to notate or revise. It is easy to forget that white space has its own shape and purpose. In crafting any kind of visual design, forgetting about white space is a mistake.
The white space in Kierkegaard’s eyes is easy to overlook. It takes time and close attention to notice it, appreciate it.
I never tire of this sketch.
This same Søren Kierkegaard is the queerest bird of those we know: a brilliant head, but extremely vain and self satisfied. He always wants to be different from other people, and he himself always points out his own bizarre behavior. –Caspar Wilhelm Smith in a letter to his mother, 1841
Søren Kierkegaard lived at the same time as Hans Christian Anderson. He was a philosopher whose trouser legs seemed to never be even. The Danish king kept trying to convince Kierkegaard to take a governmental position, but Kierkegaard got a particular sort of pleasure in turning him down. He would make fun of people to their faces and they’d never know it. As such, he was known for being egotistical and irritating. He was a Lutheran (I’m a Lutheran). He avoided the sun, even if it meant awkwardly cutting short a stroll with a friend, or moving from one side of the house to the other at various points throughout the day. He often wrote under pseudonyms, making his already complicated works more difficult to understand. It was never clear whether his works truly reflected his own thoughts or whether they were just mental exercises. Kierkegaard’s mantra: “Believe by virtue of the absurd.” That is, faith cannot be logically defended, or else it wouldn’t be faith.
He was engaged for a year to one Regine Olsen, with whom he then broke ties, and though society at large assumed he’d led her on, we can assume from his writings that he rather felt unfit for a life with her. He was too melancholy, too lost in his own worlds, destined for a life sustained by words and ideas, and not flesh and blood at all.
He has been called the Father of Existentialism.
Once I ate at his house every day for five weeks. Merely providing nourishment for his hungry spirit was also a source of unending bother. Every day… coffee was brought in: two silver pots, two cream pitchers and a bag of sugar which was filled up every day. Then he opened a cupboard in which he had at least fifty sets of cups and saucers, but only one of each sort, and said: “Well, which cup and saucer do you want today?” It was of no consequence, but there was no way around it; I had to choose a set. When I said which I would take, he asked, “Why?” One always had to explain why, and then at long last we would be finished and get our cups. (He also had an astounding number of walking sticks.) Next he filled the cup with sugar over the rim and then poured coffee on it. It amused him to no end every day to see the sugar melt. –August Wolff in a letter to Hans Peter Barfod, relating remarks by Israel Levin, 1870
Though he is considered its father (and so postmodernism’s grandfather), Kierkegaard never used the word “existentialism.” Perhaps he would even have disagreed with its 20th century champions—Sartre, Camus. Existentialists see the world as chaotic and indifferent. One’s place in it, then, is an unanswerable question; the thinking, breathing, isolated individual is free to interpret the world as one pleases, and is also responsible and bound to that unique interpretation.
I have a coffee mug, a gift from my grandmother, which says “Lutheran Church Basement Coffee,” with a picture of a mug sprouting wings and covered with a halo. Below the picture, the words: “It’s heavenly.” On the other side of the mug it says, “Pray, and let God worry,” which is a quote from Martin Luther. Except a piece of the printing got chipped off, and now it says, “Pray, and let Cod worry.”
When I, a twenty-something-year-old, choose this mug to drink from, it is for no better reason than that I am feeling particularly “unique” and “isolated” at that moment.
Interpretations begin from the position of uniqueness and isolation.
The Fork. When Søren was a child, between being teased and cheating on tests, he was asked by his sister what he wanted most to be. His response: a fork. Why? Because, he said, then I could spear anything on the dining table.
Hunchback. He wasn’t actually a hunchback, but he had some unknown back ailment. And he slouched often, probably from spending too much time over his desk.
The Crazy Student. When he was at University, and chambermaids came into his room, he scared them just by the way he looked at them. He would sit stone-like and gaze at them with steam and intensity. He maintained that lewd thoughts should be avoided, but “daring expressions” were acceptable.
Choirboy. In school, he always wore the same, dark tweed clothing—oddly cut, short tails, always with shoes and woolen stockings.
Søren Sock. His father was suspected to have previously been a hosier.
The Other One. Regine was later heard to say, “Oh that [my husband, Schlegel] could ever forgive me for being such a little scoundrel that I became engaged to the other one.”
This, more than anything else, cuts me. To some, Søren is the Father of This and That, and to Regine, the only woman he loved, he was The Other One. Though he sent her a note years after her marriage that read, “You see, Regine, in eternity there is no marriage; there, both Schlegel and I will happily be together with you.” Kierkegaard never knew that towards the end, when she was frail and white-headed, she’d begin talking about her husband, about his goodness and their happy marriage. But she always, always ended with Kierkegaard. He was always the last name behind her teeth, in the back of her throat.
Lately, I live in a basement that I rent from a single man with a child. His wife was diagnosed with stomach cancer when she was twenty-four years old and five months pregnant. The pregnancy had hidden all the signs, and they delivered her child early so that she could begin chemotherapy. It was too late, of course; she died the same year her son was born. Sometimes I wake up to the boy screaming in the night (he is one year old now), and I hear his father go to him and sing. His voice comes down to me through the floor. I am surrounded on five sides by earth, and little creatures with hair-thin legs crawl into my bed and along the walls. I listen to my landlord’s voice through the ceiling and imagine he is singing to me. But when his sisters come over with their husbands and new boyfriends, when his parents or in-laws visit, when they all gather around the table to eat, when I smell their candles and baking ham, I quietly slip out the door and into the night, unsure of where to go, but knowing I can’t stay there.
Søren, I know this has little to do with you. I know that our lives are wildly different, but I think in other ways they are the same. Søren, your egotistical rants don’t fool me for a second. Søren, I would have led you into the sun, and you would have let me. Søren, I believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and I believe in you, and I understand that this, too, is irrational. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be called faith.
The shape of his body was striking, not really ugly, certainly not repulsive, but with something disharmonious, rather slight, and yet also weighty. He went about like a thought that had got distracted at the very moment at which it was formed… There was a sort of unreality about him. –Meïr Aron Goldschmidt, 1879
It did not take long after Kierkegaard’s death to turn his biographies into an industry, especially because he left so much room for interpretation. It seems most of what we know of him has passed through the filter of others’ perceptions. Everything about him is a shadow of a shadow. A voice in a voice. This is no way to know a person, and yet it’s what we try to accomplish, and we do so without apology. These self-proclaimed biographers excuse themselves. As did Kierkegaard’s acquaintance, Israel Levin: “He never managed to understand himself… It was enough for him to form a conception: he ‘poetized himself’ into every kind of existence.”
This is how I poetize him into existence.
I think of the slash through the “o” in his Danish name. I am at a bar with my friends, trying to explain Søren to them. And I tell them everything about him is enticing. The sketch of him is enticing. The slash through his “o” is enticing. I’d like to put a slash through his “o.” I want to peel apart his pockets of words, like pulling apart slices of an orange. I want to open him and watch his organs thanklessly perform. Blood, push. Lungs, grow. Heart, a machine—jerk, convulse.
Existentialism sprang from the seeds of Kierkegaard’s conception of the “single individual.” The problem: if I align my life with external norms and codes, I lose my individuality, but if I fail to do this, my actions and thoughts are meaningless because they lack a way of being interpreted.
If the Abraham of the Bible had not been stopped by an angel, killing his son Isaac would have made him both individual and incomprehensible to philosophy. And God’s command to Abraham that he kill Isaac was a command given to an individual, not meant to extend to others. To us, this is a paradox. To Kierkegaard, this is the point.
The idea that the ‘quest for the individual’ overrides external moral codes is inherently dangerous, especially if one uses such reasoning to justify crimes. Despite this, the idea presents the question: am I only “meaningful” in relation to the external? Or can I have meaning apart from this?
To create meaning, I create logical patterns of thought and construct arguments out of sine cosine tangent, or is it sign signifier? Language is my limping Siamese twin. Though I did not create it, I only know myself through this filter and can’t help but wonder if this is a real knowing, or a real self.
And Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard, you poor soul. Once he said, “Next to taking off all my clothes, owning nothing in the world, not the least thing, and then throwing myself in the water, I find most pleasure in speaking a foreign language, preferably a living one, in order to become estranged from myself.” The world is shaped differently, and one turns it over and over in unsteady hands, suddenly unsure whether it is the same world at all.
In the words of others, I am a solid individual. I am “put together.” In control.
For a time I thought I was in love with Gene Kelly, with his smiles and tapping feet. He danced with newspapers and his voice was frail, but he sang and sang and was the first to swing around a lamppost in the rain. Gene Kelly was suave. Gene Kelly was immortalized in movie after movie, never tired of the limelight.
I consider him a childish crush. I realize now, instead, how deeply I love Søren. I puzzle over Søren’s obscure, patchy journals and feel this strong urge to laugh at his witticisms, to duly, simultaneously weep and tell him that our love, like one’s belief in a divine being, is utterly absurd, and is therefore the truest form of belief.
I want to chide Kierkegaard for never submitting himself to immortalization via the daguerreotype (photography in its earliest days).The only images that have survived were sketched by his brother. His brother confessed that the sketches were incomplete and only a weak reincarnation, a skeleton of an idea.
There in the annals of stuffy philosophers with squiggly beards and wrinkles, Søren is a breath of clean air. He is rows of swooping, slanted Danish words with generous margins—margins for comments and revision and the relief of white space on a page. By accident I imagine those History Channel documentaries where they get low-budget voice actors to read quotes from historical personas, as though in doing so they bring said personas to life, when really they create cartoonish characters. I picture a harsh voice spitting out Danish, pretending to bring passion into a quote like this: “I have just come back from a party where I was the life and soul. Witticisms flowed from my lips. Everyone laughed and admired me—but, I left, yes, that dash should be as long as the radii of the earth’s orbit ——— and wanted to shoot myself.”
I then imagine a frail Gene Kelly voice saying that, for no other reason than that I have always liked the sound of that voice. This is how I poetize Kierkegaard into existence.
Thank god history has known, probably, countless like me, like us. Søren, you’ll pardon the “us”?
He seemed to be someone who could understand everything, all worry and sorrow, and who could utter words of counsel, but could not share in that sorrow. Of course this could well have been an illusion that would have disappeared if one followed him into his private little space, but who could have known this, and how much do we humans really trouble ourselves about one another before it is too late? As a rule, we are preoccupied with our own egos, and we accept the prevailing opinions. –Meïr Aron Goldschmidt, 1846
Kierkegaard said of Regine, “She did not love my shapely nose, nor my fine eyes, nor my small feet, nor my good mind—she loved only me, and yet she didn’t understand me.” Kierkegaard said, “People understand me so little that they fail even to understand my complaints that they do not understand me.”
This is actually becoming a problem. I resurrect the man, and I am troubled. Because now I find myself wondering, after all, what his hands would feel like. What his eyes could do to you. Those who knew him talked a lot about the looks he could give.
What looks would he give me?
I’m trying to be reasonable about this. Kierkegaard was a man, and after all, what do men do? They eat. They sleep. They shit. They masturbate. Kierkegaard died a virgin. I can only assume this, given his aborted engagement and theological ponderings. It is said that when a man loses his virginity, he becomes a real man. That after entering a woman, he is re-born and emerges from her, made full. I am reminded of what Goldschmidt said about Kierkegaard: that he was shaped like a wayward thought, half-formed, incomplete.
I am sitting in Sarah and Ty’s apartment. They live on the top floor of the house where I live, but they are in Germany, and told me I could come upstairs and use their apartment while they are gone. They know I live in the basement, and they know the only furniture I have is a bed and a toilet, and that sometimes I sit on the closed toilet with my computer on my lap when I can’t afford a coffee—a coffee that is really buying me a hard chair to sit on, something people take for granted. So here I sit, surrounded by their married-life clutter. Unread mail. Half-empty jars of peanut butter. Dirty coffee cups. On the wall above the table is a large framed poster, a painting of a bar. The bartender is reaching under the counter to get something for the couple leaning against the bar. This man and woman are standing close enough so that it is clear they are together, but distant enough that we question their relationship. Close enough that their hands, resting casually on the bar, are touching. Distant enough that they are distracted by other things—he, by the bartender, she, by her nails. His eyes are shadowed by his hat. She is pink and orange and red—her hair, her dress, her skin.
The only other person at the bar is sitting with his back facing us. He is alone. Half of his body is in shadow.
Imagined conversations with Kierkegaard:
Why, Lissa, what a lovely dress. You are a vision.
Thank you, Søren. I picked it especially for you.
Ah, darling, you shouldn’t have.
Actually, dearest Søren, I’ve been meaning to ask you what you meant when you wrote that “subjectivity is truth, and objectivity is repelled by it by virtue of the absurd.” It seems to me that given the plethora of subjective viewpoints, there would then be a plethora of truths, which denies that there is any one single truth.
My love, your questioning is to be applauded. I could attempt to go on a quest to prove, rationally, that the Christian god is The God. But that runs counter to the point of faith, just as an established church is counterproductive. There is no logical reason for faith. I cannot “convince” you to believe, even if I may want to.
And then he would compliment me on the asparagus and perhaps how my hair looked that day.I might offer to repair his trousers since they seemed uneven. And he might, as usual, gently refuse.
Let’s talk about tragic: The tragic, Kierkegaard said in passing (to Israel Levin, who told it to August Wolff, who wrote it to Hans Peter Barfod), is not the act of pain, or blood, or violence. It implies permanence. He described evening in a cemetery and a girl crying to a grave. “Ludwig, Ludwig, are you asleep? I gave you everything. I gave you my honor. Give it back to me.” And then, Kierkegaard added, she throws herself onto the grave in desperation.
That’s his description. To me, this is tragic: a coffee shop, a cup of coffee, a computer. A girl is frantically running her fingers across the computer keys, imagining a dead philosopher’s eyelids, and his probably quite long eyelashes.
I imagine and re-imagine people. I swallow their ticks and twitches until the day that I pull them out, like a party-trick—impersonations to impress all my friends. A particular turn of phrase, tone of voice, tensing of the jaw, squinting of the eyes. The intent is not to damage. It is an acknowledgement of the physical casing they have received for this time on the earth, and we are all at the mercy of our casings, after all. There is a bitter humor in it, if we allow ourselves to see it. We are all at the mercy of our real-time manifestations, and we are all at the mercy of what others perceive in us and the language they use to communicate such. It is profoundly terrifying to be earnest in the way we portray ourselves, to attempt confidence, or attempt to “own” who we are, because then we are made vulnerable.
Kierkegaard chose to hide and attempted to control himself in the hands of others by giving out, like seeds to ravenous birds, pieces of ideas about himself. In the end, he emerged victorious. A lot of good that did him. A lot of happiness that brought him.
In the end it’s all a question of ear. The rules of grammar end with ear—the edicts of law end with ear—the figured bass ends with ear—the philosophical system ends with ear—which is why the next life is also represented as pure music, as a great harmony—if only my life’s dissonance may soon be resolved into that. –Søren Kierkegaard, in reference to Hegelian thought, 1836
I say I am in love with him because it’s safe to say that I love him. Safe.
People make broad assumptions about me or my identity. “I think you are a perceptive young woman,” or, “You are not willing to take things at face value, you question things, you are curious.” I don’t believe anything I tell myself. Only by hearing about myself through others’ mouths do I crawl my way into reality. Then I know what I am, and I am temporarily at rest. I end with ear.
I imagine Kierkegaard’s tongue—a pale pink. Imagining his tongue resting in his mouth—warm, cozy, nestling behind his teeth—it’s easier to imagine him alive. We never see tongues in pictures. We see hardened teeth. We see things that people try to control, things that can shift with the time and the style—hair, the arrangement of the hands across the lap. But to imagine flesh and life, it’s easier to imagine the tongue, warm, wet and cloistered, hidden in the mouth.
You end with ear, and I have no complaints.
I love you into reality; I grip you into existence. We “hit it off” and are “compatible.” In my mind, you’re sitting at the table across from me, grasping a pen firmly between your thumb and forefinger, and these muscles, along with your tongue, are the strongest muscles in your body. I explain that I actually picked the coffee mug about the Cod by accident—is that allowed? You allow it.
I think you’ll allow me a great many things. I think you won’t waste my time. I think you’ll make observations about the color of my earlobes, and I think you’ll look at me ravenously, like you are about to make fun of me, or like you are about to eat me—“fork” me, so to speak, true to your nickname. Yes. Like you are about to spear me.
Impressions of Kierkegaard in italics above were chiefly drawn from Encounters with Kierkegaard: A Life as Seen by His Contemporaries, collected, edited, and annotated by Bruce H. Kirmmse and translated by Bruce H. Kirmmse and Virginia R. Laursen.
Passages in Kierkegaard’s own words were drawn from his journals as collected with commentary by D. Anthony Storm (sorenkierkegaard.org).
Kierkegaard’s discussion of the sacrifice of Isaac is found in Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric published under Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio.
Art by Matt Monk
Elizabeth Horneber’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, PRISM international, The Open Bar, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere. She was a 2015-16 Loft Literary Center Mentor Series Winner. She teaches writing in Mankato, Minnesota.