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Not a Seducer

In response to:

On 'The Seducer's Diary' from the May 29, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

We were pleased to see the article on Kierkegaard by John Updike in the May 29th issue of The New York Review of Books. We have long admired Updike’s work and have a particular interest in Kierkegaard. The article itself, however, was somewhat disappointing. It contained nothing that was not already common knowledge to even casual readers of Kierkegaard and even went so far as to present myth as fact.

The myth in question is that Kierkegaard visited a prostitute in 1836. This myth appears to have originated from some unsubstantiated (and unsubstantiable) speculations by P.A. Heiberg, one of the editors of the first and second editions of Kierkegaard’s Samlede Voerker (Collected Works). Heiberg was apparently convinced that an account in a section of Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way, about a man who once visited a prostitute and later became obsessed with the idea that he might thus have fathered a child, was autobiographical.

There is no positive evidence to support this theory. Heiberg offers only what appear to be several drafts of the text from the Stages and a period of approximately six to seven weeks from the end of April until the beginning of June 1836 when there were no journal entries. The “brothel visit,” he speculated, occurred during the period of this gap.

Heiberg’s speculations were published in a brief monograph entitled En Episode i Søren Kierkegaards Ungdomsliv (An Episode in the Period of Kierkegaard’s Youth) and in a book entitled Et Segment af Søren Kierkegaards religiøse Udvikling (A Segment of Kierkegaard’s Religious Development). Walter Lowrie, one of the first English translators of Kierkegaard, was inexplicably convinced by Heiberg’s unsubstantiated speculations and passed the theory, that has now become myth, along in his two biographies of Kierkegaard. This myth was definitively debunked, however, by Henning Fenger’s Kierkegaard Myter og Kierkegaard Kilder (published in English as Kierkegaard:The Myths and Their Origins). It is thus rather annoying to see that it continues to be perpetuated and, in particular, by such a prominent writer as Updike. We are also somewhat mystified as to why Updike dates the purported brothel visit as having taken place in November of 1836 rather than in the spring and would be very grateful if he could direct us to his source for this date.

M.G. Piety and P.A. Bauer
Denmark’s International Study Program
Copenhagen

John Updike replies:

I encountered the speculation concerning Kierkegaard’s visit to a brothel in Søren Kierkegaard, by Peter Rohde, translated from the Danish by Alan Moray Williams. Rohde ties it to a journal entry of November 10, 1836, reading “My God, my God…” and “That bestial giggling….” As an episode in his rowdy, hard-drinking student life at the time, it seems not unlikely. Whether or not it took place seems hardly a matter for indignation; Kierkegaard in any case was no seducer in the usual sense.

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