Read Orrin's interview with Caroline Coleman O'Neill
In 1837, when he was twenty-four, Kierkegaard met and soon fell in love with Regine Olsen, then fourteen. They were engaged in 1840. The very next day, Kierkegaard wrote in his journal in 1849, he saw that he had made a dreadful mistake. He tortured himself, and Regine, too, presumably, for over a year. Then he definitively broke the engagement, sending back her ring with this letter:
In order not to put more often to the test a thing which after all must be done, and which being done will supply the needed strength— let it then be done. Above all, forget him who writes this, forgive a man who, though he may be capable of something, is not capable of making a girl happy.
Kierkegaard must have thought well of this note. He not only inscribed a copy in his journal but also published it verbatim in his book Stages on Life’s Way (1845).
In a letter to a friend, Kierkegaard wrote that “I do not turn her into poetry . . . I call myself to account.” One wonders. Those are not mutually incompatible activities. Indeed, given Kierkegaard’s insatiable appetite for self-scrutiny, not to say melodrama, one might say that he could find no more effective way of turning Regine into “poetry,” into an occasion for reflection, than by “calling himself to account.” I suspect she was right when she charged (as Kierkegaard reports): “So you have been playing a dreadful game with me.” As Hannay comments, “far from escaping the thought of marriage, marriage was now something he could think rather than endure.” And think it he did. Over the next several years, Kierkegaard proceeded to devote hundreds if not thousands of pages to showing how marriage is (as he put in the second volume of Either/Or) “the most profound form of the revelation of life.” He regularly declared that “If I had had faith I would have stayed with Regine,” and then enumerated all the reasons it was impossible. Kierkegaard later said it was due to Regine, melancholy, and his money that he became a writer. That is probably true. Before the break with Regine, he had written only an academic thesis and a few pamphlets (including, in 1838, a critical essay about his slightly older contemporary, Hans Christian Andersen). Regine—the idea of Regine—made Kierkegaard into Kierkegaard. But where did that leave Regine?
-What did Kierkegaard want? (Roger Kimball, September 2001, New Criterion)
Before you read this book -- and we do very much recommend that you read it -- you will likely want to brush up a bit on just who Soren Kierkegaard was and why he still matters, else you may wonder why anyone would put up with him. There's an especially valuable resource available on-line, the chapter from A Third Testament where Malcolm Muggeridge describes him, The
Oddest Prophet: Søren Kierkegaard. Here's an excerpt:
Meet Søren Kierkegaard, a renegade philosopher who spent most of his
life at odds with the church, and insisted that every person must find
his own way to God. And who better to introduce him, than British writer
and television commentator Malcolm Muggeridge, who until his conversion
at the age of 80 was a tart-tongued agnostic, and never in his life
stopped asking questions.
The prophets, when they appear on our earthly scene, are rarely as
expected. A king is awaited, and there is a birth in a manger. The
venerable, the bearded, the portentous are usually spurious.
One of the oddest prophets ever was Søren Kierkegaard - a melancholic
Dane, a kind of clipperty-clop, ribald Hamlet who from the middle of the
last century peered quizzically into this one, dryly noting, before they
happened, such tragicomic phenomena of our time as universal suffrage,
mass media and affluence abounding.
Kierkegaard was insistent that the only way out of these gathering
clouds of fantasy was to climb doggedly upwards to the rocky peak above
them, where God dwells. [...]
No voice could have run more counter to the spirit of the age, the
Zeitgeist, than Kierkegaard's. When freedom was seen in terms of
counting heads, he spoke contemptuously of the fallacy of numbers, and
of how, seen as a collectivity, human life must inevitably sink into a
condition of brutishness and mindlessness. "When truth conquers with the
help of 10,000 yelling men, even supposing that what is victorious is
true, a far greater untruth is inculcated by virtue of the manner of
their victory." [...]
To those who caught a glimpse of him when, as often happened, he was
meditating by himself in some lonely place, Kierkegaard must have seemed
a bizarre little figure - a kind of comical monk. Or, better perhaps, a
gargoyle looking down from the heights of his own audacious speculation
at a world whose very imperfections and absurdities, by contrast,
revealed God's presence and proclaimed his name.
Kierkegaard reflected much about reflection:
Reflection is in truth a benevolent helper which discovers and
assists in finding where the absolute object of faith and worship is -
namely, there where the difference between knowledge and ignorance
collapses into a consciousness of ignorance, there where the resistance
of an objective uncertainty tortures forth the passionate certainty of
faith, there where the conflict of right and wrong collapses in absolute
worship with absolute subjection. Reflection itself does not see the
absolute, but it leads...the individual up to it, and says: "Here, I
guarantee, when you worship here, you worship God."
When reflection is completely exhausted, then faith begins. Everything
which reflection can hit upon, faith has already seen through and
thought through and merged on the other side.
Those who see deeply into the nature of life are able to project this
knowledge into the future, and so in some degree to foretell it. Thus we
find Kierkegaard again and again diagnosing with uncanny precision the
ills that would befall a materialistic society, especially when
Christianity, the only possible corrective, partook of the same spirit -
so that not only did science insist that men could live by bread alone,
but the spirit of Christ was invoked to say that they should.
In our time, the greatest menace comes from the natural sciences.
Psychology will ultimately encompass ethics. And already there are
intimations of a tendency to treat ethics as a brand of physics to be
calculated statistically, working over averages as in calculating
vibrations in laws of nature.
Foreseeing the obsessive interest to come in a social morality only
vaguely related to personal behavior, Kierkegaard said,
We have totally abolished the notion of imitation and at best hold
to the paltriness called social morality. In this way men cannot become
truly humbled so that they genuinely feel the need of Grace. What is
required of them is no more than social morality, which they fulfill
Is not the truth of the matter really this, that man is just like a
child who would rather be free from being under his parents' eyes? Is
not this what men want? To be free from being under the eyes of God?
When Christ resolves to become the Savior of the world, a lament goes
through all humanity. Sighing grievously they ask: Why do you do this?
You will make us all unhappy. Simply because to become a Christian is
the greatest human suffering. Christ, being an absolute, explodes all
the relativity whereby we humans live. In order to live in the spirit
rather than the flesh, as he requires, one must go through crisis after
crisis, being made thereby, from a human point of view, as unhappy as it
is possible to be.
As Kierkegaard became increasingly gripped by the great drama of the
Christian faith, in his own terms moving into the third, or religious
phase of his spiritual pilgrimage, it was almost inevitable that he
should fall out with the Church. This nearly always happens, as a Wesley
could find no place for himself in the Anglican establishment a century
earlier, and a Tolstoy was to discover when he was excommunicated by the
Russian Orthodox Church.
It would be hard to detect a saint in a temperament as cantankerous as
Kierkegaard's; even his undoubted mystical insights were often laced
heavily with irony. Yet without any question, as his short life drew
towards its close, his sights were fixed ever more firmly on what is
transcendental and eternal in our mortal life.
"Renegade philosopher," earthly "saint," "oddest prophet"--when you consider those weighty designations and the ideas he espoused it's no wonder that he was a notoriously difficult and socially awkward man. Consider the fate of the beloved of that other "melancholy Dane" and you'll have some sense of what Caroline Coleman O'Neill's true-life heroine, Regine Olsen, is in for as she is courted by, engaged to, and then breaks with Kierkegaard.
Ms O'Neill has done something that may be unique here, she's combined a romance novel with a learned and thoughtful presentation of religious and philosophical ideas. If we know before we begin that the boy doesn't end up with the girl, the drama of their courtship is nonetheless genuine and the attraction Regine feels to Kierkegaard, who is as obviously a genius as he is deeply troubled, is easy to comprehend despite his often abominable behavior. Ms O'Neill has drawn extensively on primary sources in order to be able to present the characters in their own words as much as possible, but she never lets the tale slip into mere pedantry. And the most effective aspect of the novel is that she presents Regine -- whether this is accurate or not -- as someone who understands the fatal flaw in Kierkegaard's philosophy, as revealed in this interchange with him:
"It's not possible to love God and be happy in this world."
"That's your pride speaking. You could be happy, Soren, if you believed God could forgive you, if you believed in grace. Really believed -- passionately -- not just intellectually. You like to think of yourself as this melancholy, clever man. What if God is calling you to wholeness and you're just too enamored of this melancholy image of yourself to listen?"
"And marriage to you is part of the cure, Regina?"
"I'd be a terrible husband, Regina. You have no idea."
"Isn't that my choice? Besides, I don't want a perfect husband."
Although he was effectively an extreme individualist rather than a collectivist, Kierkegaard nevertheless manifested the kind of absolutism that Eric Hoffer outlined in his great study, The True Believer, and Ms O'Neill's Regine seems to embody the healthier alternative that Hoffer espied:
Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect.
Regine's comprehension that Kierkegaard's philosophy is too unforgiving, ultimately too selfish, and that man can not find wholeness in isolation, makes her more than his equal and makes her tolerance of his antics explicable, even heroic. This is a wonderful novel, engaging emotions and mind in equal measure.