Kierkegaard by Alastair Hannay – A Summary

25 Nov

Alastair Hannay’s Kierkegaard is, over all, an exemplary contribution to the very peculiar genre that is the biography of the philosopher. Biographies on philosophers tend to make a few common mistakes. The first would be a mistake common in any kind of biography: the writer highlights a few sensational aspects of the subject’s life as if in desperate competition with writers of detective novels and erotica. Another common trap is when the writer tries too hard to synthesize the ideas of the philosopher with the events of his life, which the writer accomplishes by acts of grammatical ingenuity that are often awkward in execution or just downright disingenuous.

Hannay not only avoids these traps but offers a well rounded account of the philosopher’s life and work. His style is almost entirely contextual. Any means of getting an idea across—whether it be about Kierkegaard’s personal life or his work—could be said to come about through a kind of dialogue. Sometimes it is Hannay’s dialogue with history. Sometimes it is how one philosopher’s work compares to another’s and what the intellectual climate of Copenhagen or different parts of Europe were at different times. There is Kierkegaard’s dialogue with his own work, with other thinkers and with the people in his own community—which include the journalists that antagonized him and the church that he antagonized.

For a book this large, it’s impressive that Hannay goes so long without resorting to personal speculation or opinion. We’re given accounts of friends, pieces of letters, journal entrees and excerpts from the news. It has often been said of Kierkegaard’s short life that it was ‘uneventful.’ That may be the case if we talk about the mere number of major events, but the events themselves were significant in the body of work he left behind. We’re given a picture of him as a young man in school, constantly outwitting and annoying boys twice his size and more physically capable and carried through university by his highly polemic nature and by the seemingly inexhaustible abilities of his mind. He’s painted as something of a cheerful dandy, highly sarcastic and playful in public, melancholy and obsessive in private. He keeps detailed journals that offer up the fruits of his thinking and the instant points of his obsession, while relaying little of the rest of his days—days much the same in which he reads and writes for hours in cafes, takes walks and runs up bills all over town.

It is inevitable that all accounts of his life are bisected between what happened before and after the events surrounding his canceled engagement to Regina Olsen, and it is only right that they do so. One wouldn’t be exaggerating much to say that this was the pivotal turning point of his life. Not only did it prompt him to tuck himself away and write book after book for the last two decades of his life but the engagement, in some way, pervaded all of his work. John Updike rightly described Kierkegaard’s first work, Either/Or as a very flirtatious one, full of hints and seductive turns as if meant for only one reader. His subsequent works were just as haunted by the matter, this obsession being a luxury he allowed himself through his anonymity (he had dozens of pseudonyms).

When it comes to Kierkegaard’s philosophy, Hannay takes neatly constructed detours from the ‘life’ of the man as he tackles the ideas from a historical standpoint and from a contextual standpoint within the spectrum of philosophy. It is interesting to see how this private figure related to his contemporaries. He lived on the tail end of academic Hegelianism, a system he was determined to wander far outside of, no matter how all-encompassing its proselytizers claimed it to be. We learn that he felt more of a kinship with Schopenhauer than one might expect.

As it happens in some biographies, the prose can be compromised by the sheer volume of information it tries to convey in a short space so as to move on quickly to the next subject instead of breaking it up, as in this knotty sentence:

‘Whether a dramatist and novelist like Arthur Schnitzler (1862 – 1931), who has many Kierkegaardian traits, actually read Kierkegaard is largely academic, as is whether, if he did do so, he read him well.’

The book is surprisingly brief in its detailing his attack on the institutional church of his community, though it could just be that the event was brief despite his most concentrated preoccupation with it. The book’s concluding chapter details the complex relationship his works have had on subsequent philosophers and different artists until now.

Clear and well-executed, it’ll be a work invaluable to anyone interested in the author’s work and its direct relationship to both his life and the history surrounding it.

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