Søren Kierkegaard’s method, dictated by his volatile and provocative temperament, resembles that of a fiction writer: he engages in multiple impersonations, assuming various poses and voices with an impartial vivacity. The method is, in one of his favorite words, maieutic, from the Greek term for midwifery, like that of his beloved model Socrates, who in his questioning style sought to elicit his auditors’ ideas rather than impose his own.
Either/Or, Kierkegaard’s first major work, was a bulky, two-volume collection of papers ostensibly found by the editor, “Victor Eremita” (“Victor Hermit”), in the secret compartment of a writing desk to which he had been mysteriously attracted in the shop of a secondhand dealer. Some time after its acquisition, he tells us, he took a hatchet to a stuck drawer and discovered a trove of papers, evidently composed by two distinct authors. As arranged and published by Victor Eremita, the first volume consists of aphorisms, reflections, and essays by “A,” a nameless young man who styles himself an aesthete, and the second volume of two long letters and some final words to this first writer composed by an older man, “B,” who is named William and has been a judge.
The last item in the first volume is a narrative, “The Seducer’s Diary,” which “A,” with the same mock-scholarly documentary specifics as Victor Eremita offers in regard to the whole, claims to have discovered and to be merely editing. The overall editor ironically complains that this complicates his own position, “since one author becomes enclosed within the other like the boxes in a Chinese puzzle.”
Either/Or’s intricate, arch, and prolix medley, published in Copenhagen in February of 1843, made a significant stir and eventually required a second edition, to which Kierkegaard considered (but decided against) appending this postscript:
I hereby retract this book. It was a necessary deception in order, if possible, to deceive men into the religious, which has continually been my task all along. Maieutically it certainly has had its influence. Yet I do not need to retract it, for I have never claimed to be its author.
In dealing with an author so deceptive, so manifoldly removed in name from his own words, we need to insist that there were events of a sore personal nature behind so prodigiously luxuriant a smokescreen. In brief, Kierkegaard had, just before the surge of literary activity bound into Either/ Or, broken off a year’s engagement with a woman, Regine Olsen, ten years younger than himself. Externally, their engagement appeared a happy one, uniting two youngest children of prosperous Copenhagen households. Michael Pederson Kierkegaard was a retired merchant, and Terkel Olsen a state councilor—an Etatsraad—and a high official in the Ministry of Finance.
Young Kierkegaard, then a university student, first saw Regine when she was fourteen, in May of 1837, at a party of schoolgirls in the home of the widowed mother of another girl, Bolette Rørdam, whom Kierkegaard was pursuing. According to the lightly fictionalized account in the “Quidam’s Diary” section of Stages on Life’s Way (1845), Kierkegaard began to spy on the girl, frequenting a pastry shop along the route whereby Regine went to her music lessons:
I never dared sit by the window, but when I took a table in the middle of the room my eye commanded the street and the opposite sidewalk where she went, yet the passersby could not see me. Oh, beautiful time; Oh, lovely recollection; Oh, sweet disquietude; Oh, happy vision, when I dressed up my hidden existence with the enchantment of love!
Yet she is not mentioned in his journal until nearly two years after the first meeting: “Sovereign of my heart, ‘Regina,’ kept safe and secret in the deepest corner of my breast.” In the summer of 1840, now twenty-seven, Kierkegaard passed his theological examination and made a pilgrimage to West Jutland, the desolate birthplace of his father, who had died in 1838. Soon after returning, on September 8, he went to the Olsens’ house, found Regine alone, and proposed with such abrupt passion that she said nothing and showed him the door. Two days later, however, with her father’s consent, she accepted.
Writing an account in his journal nine years later, Kierkegaard confessed, “But inwardly, the next day I saw that I had made a blunder. A penitent, such as I was, my vita ante acta, my melancholy: that was enough. I suffered indescribably at that time.” For a year, however, the formal attachment held: fond letters went back and forth; calls upon their extensive families were made; the couple strolled together up Bredgade or on the Esplanade; and Kierkegaard, preparing himself for a respectable post in the church or university, gave his first sermon and wrote his philosophical dissertation, On the Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates.
Regine, however, observed how her fiancé “suffered frightfully from his melancholy,” and her friends sensed “something sad was hanging in the air.” On August 11, 1841, he sent her back her ring, with a note that said, “Forget him who writes this, forgive a man who, though he may be capable of something, is not capable of making a girl happy.” Regine resisted rejection, taking the bold step of calling upon him in his rooms; he was out. For two months the engagement dragged on, while he defended and published his thesis; then, in October, in response to a plea from her father, he met her for an exchange that he later reported as follows:
I went and talked her round. She asked me, Will you never marry? I replied, Well, in about ten years, when I have sown my wild oats, I must have a pretty young miss to rejuvenate me. She said, Forgive me for what I have done to you. I replied, It is rather I that should pray for your forgiveness. She said, Kiss me. That I did, but without passion. Merciful God!
To get out of the situation as a scoundrel, a scoundrel of the first water if possible, was the only thing there was to be done in order to work her loose and get her under way for a marriage.
Two weeks later, Kierkegaard left Copenhagen for Berlin and began, with Either/Or, the flood of volumes in which he pondered and dramatized such matters as marriage, the ethical versus the aesthetic, dread, and, increasingly, the severities of Christianity. In his mind Regine was the muse and object of much of his production, and it shocked him when, two years after their break, she accepted an earlier suitor, Johan Frederik Schlegel, and they became betrothed, marrying in 1847. To the end of his life Kierkegaard wrote of Regine in his journals; four weeks before his death in early November 1855 he put it succinctly: “I had my thorn in the flesh, and therefore did not marry.”
Was this “thorn in the flesh” the religious melancholia he had inherited from his father, or was it somehow physical? The child of elderly parents, he was frail and slight, with an erratic gait and bent carriage noted by acquaintances and caricaturists, but possessed of no apparent deformity that would explain his self-description as “in almost every way denied the physical qualities required to make me a whole human being.” His sexual experience may have been confined to a single drunken encounter with a prostitute in November of 1836. Though he extolled marriage for many pages, there is little trace, in his surviving love letters or reminiscences, of carnal warmth. His later theology endorses celibacy and declares a frank hostility to the sexual instinct.
“Woman,” he wrote in 1854, “is egoism personified…. The whole story of man and woman is an immense and subtly constructed intrigue, or it is a trick calculated to destroy man as spirit.” He once complained of Regine that she “lacked a disposition to religion.” His hero, Socrates, had been married to a legendary shrew, Xanthippe, and European philosophy had been ever since dominated by bachelors, one of whom, Kant, succinctly defined marriage as “the union of two persons of different sexes for the purpose of lifelong mutual possession of their sexual organs.” Kierkegaard’s breaking the engagement perhaps needs less explaining than the romantic impulse that led him into it.
His attempt to set right, in writing, the botch of his relation with Regine taught him, he wrote, the secret of “indirect communication.” As he came to frame the matter, “The Seducer’s Diary” was part of his campaign to portray himself as a scoundrel and thus make their break easier for her. His journal of 1849 claims that he wrote it “for her sake, to clarify her out of the relationship.” In 1853 he notes that it was written “to repel” her and quotes his Fear and Trembling: “When the baby is to be weaned, the mother blackens her breast.”
“The Seducer’s Diary,” then, is a work with a devious purpose and an uneasy conscience. A number of details connect the real Regine with the “Diary’s” fictional “Cordelia Wahl.” When the Seducer writes, “Poor Edward! It is a shame that he is not called Fritz,” the allusion is not only to a comedy by Scribe but to Regine’s other suitor, Schlegel, who was called Fritz. The hero’s long and loving stalking of a girl too young to approach provides, in fiction as in reality, the peak of erotic excitement. The little party of girls that occasioned Kierkegaard’s first glimpse of Regine is evoked with a piquant vividness but placed much later in the affair, as its cold-hearted dissolution nears. No doubt a number of particulars spoke only to Regine.
And yet a cool shimmer of falsity plays over the finespun fabric; the Seducer’s desire seems curiously abstract. Contemporary readers, especially younger readers, may be put off by Kierkegaard’s tone of sexist condescension; under the name of a seduction he conducts a perverse sort of educational experiment. Seeking to “teach her to be victorious as she pursues me,” he retreats before her, so that she will know “all the powers of erotic love, its turbulent thoughts, its passion, what longing is, and hope.” In an artful teasing that is close to torture, he labors at “cheating her of the essentially erotic” and thus bringing her to a new power and certain freedom, “a higher sphere.” He mentions Pygmalion, but he reminds us more of heartless Dr. Frankenstein, in one of Romanticism’s first masterpieces.
The nineteenth century was romantic from beginning to end; the eighteenth century’s man of reason yielded as a cultural ideal to the man or woman of sensibility, of feeling. As the old supernatural structures faded, sensation and emotion took on value in themselves; the Seducer exults in the turbulence of his awakening love. “How beautiful it is to be in love; how interesting it is to know that one is in love.” He likens himself to a bird building its nest on “the turbulent sea” of his agitated mind and proclaims, “How enjoyable to ripple along on moving water this way—how enjoyable to be in motion within oneself.”
The inner turbulence is a piece of nature’s magnificent turbulence, and the female an emissary of this same worshipped nature: “Woman is substance, man is reflection…. In a certain sense man is more than woman, in another sense infinitely much less.” Women were both the objects of romantic desire and, in their susceptibility to love, Romanticism’s foremost practitioners. Female psychology became an object of fascination to seducers and their chroniclers. Nineteenth-century novelists from Jane Austen to Henry James embraced as a patently major theme the sentimental education of their heroines; the outcome could be comic and triumphant, as for Austen’s Emma Woodhouse and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, or tragic, as for Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. Kierkegaard would not have been aware of these novels, but Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni was much on his mind, and he breathed the same dandyish intellectual atmosphere that produced Byron’s Don Juan and Stendhal’s superb study of erotic psychology, On Love. Even the classic texts offered touchstones and handbooks: “The Seducer’s Diary” cites both Ovid and Apuleius’s Amor and Psyche.
In the vast literature of love, “The Seducer’s Diary” is a curiosity—a feverishly intellectual attempt to reconstruct an erotic failure as a pedagogic success, a wound masked as a boast, a breast blackened to aid a weaning. It sketches a campaign of hallucinatory cleverness: “If I just keep on retreating before her superior force, it would be very possible that the erotic in her would become too dissolute and lax for the deeper womanliness to be able to hypostatize itself.” Yet a real enough Copenhagen, with its tidy society and sudden sea views, peeps through, and a real love is memorialized, albeit with a wearying degree of rationalization—much like the tortuous Winkelzüge with which Kafka, Kierkegaard’s spiritual heir, was to fend off Felice and Milena in his letters to them. Kierkegaard did succeed, in “The Seducer’s Diary” and his other apologetic versions of the engagement, in immortalizing Regine. “I shall take her with me into his-tory,” he told his journal. She out-lived him, and then her husband, and was remembered by the Danish critic Edvard Brandes, who saw her in her middle age, as “radiantly beautiful—with clear, roguish eyes and a svelte figure.” She lived into the next century, until 1904, and as a white-haired celebrity gave gracious and modest interviews, recalling those dim events of over sixty years before, when she was but eighteen. Her fame was a vestige of her old suitor’s convoluted gallantry. If our impression is that she behaved with the greater dignity, consistency, and human warmth in the affair, it was Kierkegaard who created the impression.
May 29, 1997