On ‘The Seducer’s Diary’

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…

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