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From Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography by Joakim Garff

Why should it be astonishing that many of the most important moments of our adult lives are adumbrated in our earlier lives? Our characters are not (cannot!) be changed by a force of will, and whatever we find happening our lives has probably happened before in a similar way. Sometimes this is a great and even beautiful thing; more often it seems mildly unpleasant – sometimes it’s a real pain in the ass.

Everybody who reads Kierkegaard knows about the “Corsair Affair”, a literary feud in which Kierkegaard ostensibly came out a little worse for wear, but which also inspired him to persist in his writing career (as opposed to becoming a pastor in the Danish Lutheran Church). The feud started when Peder Møller published a review of Stages on Life’s Way (the work to which we here at Korrektiv are most devoted). Møller was also a contributor to the satirical paper The Corsair, so when Kierkegaard published a response to Møller’s review he also wrote that the paper “has enjoyed the recognition of being ignored, despised, and never answered.” Then he literally asked for it:

… the only thing to be done in writing in order to express the literary, moral order of things—reflected in the inversion that this paper with meager competence and extreme effort has sought to bring about—was for someone immortalized and praised in this paper to make application to be abused by the same paper … May I ask to be abused—the personal injury of being immortalized by The Corsair is just too much.(Dialectical Result of a Literary Police Action)

This was a turning point in Kierkegaard’s life, but it was not without precedent. Ten years earlier, when Kierkegaard was only 23, an author printed three articles aimed at Kierkegaard, signing them only as “X”. Eventually “X” wrote a play for another small press, the Flyvepsten, in which Kierkegaard appears as “K. (B. an opponent and also a bit of a genius.” Garff gives some of “K’s” lines:

I said: cheap beer. I said: moral creamed kale. I said: ditto buckwheat porridge. I said: parsely. I said: beef consommé. I said: Niagra Falls. And I said: any port in any storm.

And then:

Indeed, I suffer from [great ideas] a great deal as long as [these ideas] remain inside me. If I did not expel them every now and then with a sweat bath – this is how I metaphorically describe my activity as a writer – they would undoubtedly attack the nobler inner parts.

Garf explains:

Here – quite literally – the bottom has been reached. And aside from a little parting remark Kierkegaard is given no additional lines. But this was more than enough, for with this Freudian jab below the belt his literary activity during these spring months had beeen explained as a sublimation of inner – implicitly sexual – energy which ought to have found a more direct, biological discharge. It is not surprising that his rejoinder – which he never published – was marked by a rather ashen indignation. No one knows the identity of the person who hid behind this heartless X, nor did Kierkegaard, but he asume that it must have been one of “the poets from the aesthetic period of Kjøbenhavnsposten.” Various earmarks, especially in matters of style, point in a slightly different direction, however, namely toward none other than P.L. Møller. Indeed, he was perhaps the only person who possessed the imitative talent needed to take the wind out of Kierkegaard’s inflated style, thus hanrnessing his own irony in order to puncture someone else’s ironic balloon.

This is probably a little hazy without more context, but I think Garff’s work here is remarkable: he has tracked down Møller as someone who had his sights on Kierkegaard long before Kierkegaard ever knew it. Yes, Kierkegaard literally asked for it in the Corsair Affair, and one can argue that in going public, any one lays himself open to scorn and attack. Kierkegaard did his fair share of scorning and attacking, after all. But this earlier version of the ad hominem vitriol of the Corsair Affair puts Kierkegaard in a better light, I think, as he never really knew how deep the animadversion towards his work and person really was. And of course we can also ask what became of Møller – at this point it seems enough to say that he’s a character in Kierkegaard’s biography.

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