Carlisle’s biography of Kierkegaard is impressively well researched, and brings its subject vividly alive. Almost everything you need to know about him as a man can be found here, along with a little more information than is strictly necessary. Since not much tends to happen to philosophers – Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in 1813, studied theology, philosophy and literature there, and lived in the city for much of his life – a biographer needs to compensate for this lack of dramatic action with an excess of domestic detail. It is not vital to an understanding of Kierkegaard’s inner life that he once sent Regine Olsen, to whom he was engaged at the time, a bottle of lily of the valley cologne, but one has to fill one’s pages. He may have been, as Carlisle has it, ‘a philosopher of the heart’, but rarely has it been so rigorously anatomised. Even so, Carlisle provides us with some lucid, perceptive accounts of Kierkegaard’s writings, which make stringent intellectual demands on the reader. She is illuminating about some of the rather obscure scholars who influenced his work, and valuably explores his relations with Romanticism. She is also quite right to suggest that in some of his writings, ‘different narrative voices perform conflicts between life-views, with no clear resolution; they exhibit errors and misunderstandings as often as they elucidate truths.’
Clare Carlisle has written a fluent, sometimes devotional book on her hero, in which she begins the account of his life nel mezzo del cammin di sua vita. She of course quotes ‘We understand our lives backwards but live them forwards’ — a remark which has been attributed to many authors, including J.B. Priestley — and is likely to confuse a reader who doesn’t have a basic grasp of Kierkegaard’s life. Only later do we learn of his tormented relationship with his father, where the misery began... What seems remarkable is that at no point does Carlisle feel constrained to criticise, or even to imply criticism, of someone whom I find difficult not to regard as a monster, however painful he may have found life, alternating between his study (always to be maintained by his servant at precisely the same temperature) and his box at the theatre. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether Carlisle is giving her own view or summarising her hero’s.
Carlisle has pulled off the feat of writing a truly Kierkegaardian biography of Kierkegaard. Her non-linear narrative goes back and forth in time, bringing to life Kierkegaard’s ideas about the impossibility of repetition: every time an incident recurs we see it from a different angle in a different context, and its meaning changes. Just as Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writings were meant to enable the reader to understand different modes of existence from the inside, Carlisle’s biography takes us inside Kierkegaard’s troubled, complicated life, portraying a man who both compels and repels in turn.
Carlisle makes much of his wranglings with ministers and theologians, and indeed the entire Christian community, which he more or less accused of hardly being Christians at all... His most famous observation is that life must be lived forwards but understood backwards, and Carlisle declares that she wants to write a “Kierkegaardian” biography, so she abandons conventional chronology... Carlisle quite clearly loves and knows a lot about her subject. Her emphasis is on his religious struggles, which is appropriate in that Kierkegaard thought these the most important part of his work – indeed, its whole point. But one wonders if she couldn’t have told the story forwards, the way we live life.
Of course it is Kierkegaard’s philosophy, not his character, that is important. Carlisle shows that with him, even more than with most philosophers, the two are indissolubly interwoven. He is often considered to be the founder of existentialism, and ideas integral to the philosophies of Heidegger and Sartre originated with him – the rightly dizzying precipice of choice; the authentic individual’s heroic duty to spurn the conforming “they”; anxiety as the ineluctable flip side of our sense of being free... She wonderfully conveys how, pelican-like, Kierkegaard tore his philosophy from his own breast, but ultimately she fails to transmit its tortuous complexity and why, despite or because of his defects, he is considered to be so great.
Kierkegaard’s life is exemplary, as Carlisle shows with such plain and accessible eloquence, because it was organised around the fear of being ridiculed. He reveals to us what we might do, what might be made, out of our fear of humiliation. As she suggests, after Kierkegaard, our most urgent question may not be why do we suffer?, but how should we suffer? [...] Kierkegaard’s life and writing are a testament to the cruelty, the generosity and the inventiveness of those who believe in the Real Thing, the prophets of authenticity. Carlisle’s timely book gives us a good way of thinking about all this and of thinking about Kierkegaard again.
In fairness, Carlisle’s heterodox approach is an attempt to honour her subject’s prodigious literary experimentalism (Kierkegaard wrote one book consisting of prefaces to unwritten books, invented multiple pseudonyms who interacted with one another, and so on).
It’s clear that Kierkegaard’s religious and existential concerns are very much alive to her, even if she cannot entirely convey the urgency of those concerns to the reader. For that, it seems, we must return to the original works – Søren Kierkegaard’s strange, difficult, contrary books, wherein we might “grasp the secret of suffering as the form of the highest life, higher than all good fortune”.
Throughout the whole of Part Two, Carlisle uses the present tense and talks of “now” when describing events in 1848, and the past tense when she is describing events in earlier years. It is every bit as confusing as it sounds. Finally – much, I expect, to the relief of most of her readers – Carlisle closes the book in Part Three with a chronological account of the last six years of Kierkegaard’s life, ending in 1855, when he was 42. [...] It is a fault of this book that Carlisle seems unaware that the person she presents as providing deep solutions to the problems of life would just as naturally be viewed as insufferably self-absorbed, as obsessed with his own sufferings as he is indifferent to those of others.
Kierkegaard’s questions about existence were more interesting than his solutions, which, boringly, were very Christian. The Christian Kierkegaard is fully in evidence in Carlisle’s book. Although it is usually readable and entertaining, many will find themselves becalmed in the sections that deal with the meaning of Christianity and the theological failings of various Danish bishops. I’m no Kierkegaard scholar and Carlisle, reader in philosophy and theology at King’s College London, very much is. I’m sure the picture of Kierkegaard she presents here is the accurate one. But amid all the theologising, I missed the crazily quiffed nihilist I once knew.