Reading Kierkegaard’s letters, selections from his journals and a short biography of this Danish philosopher and author was a rabbit hole I tumbled down while making my way through Kafka and Stach’s biography of Kafka. Kierkegaard comes up numerous times in Kafka’s life, but no so much for his philosophy as for the details about his personal life and his broken engagement. A twenty-four-year old Kierkegaard meets the fifteen-year old Regine Olsen at a mutual friend’s house in 1837 and he is immediately smitten with her. He wisely waits, however, until she is eighteen to begin writing her love letters and courting her. I was surprised, delighted and, at times, just slayed by the tender, caring, erudite and loving messages that Kierkegaard composes for her. The intelligence combined with sincere, true expressions of love are what impressed me most about these letters. He would oftentimes visit Regine more than once a day and hand deliver these letters (letter undated-translated by Henrik Rosenmeier):
Yesterday your brother scolded me for always speaking of my cobbler, my fruit dealer, my grocer, my coachman, etc., etc., etc. By this means he seems to have accused me of a predominant use of the first-person possessive pronoun. Only you know of your faithful friend that I am not extensively but intensively much more given to the use of the second-person possessive pronoun. Indeed, how could he know that, how could any person at all—as I am only yours.
On another occasion, he remembers the details of a conversation on one of their daily visits and thoughtfully sends her a gift (letter undated, trans. Rosenmeier):
The other day when you came to see me you told me that when you were confirmed your father had presented you with a bottle of lily of the valley. Perhaps you thought that I did not hear this, or perhaps you thought that it had slipped by my ear like so much else that finds no response within. But not at all! But as that flower conceals itself so prettily within its big leaf, so I first allowed the plan of sending you the enclosed to conceal itself in the half-transparent veil of oblivion so that, freed from every external consideration, even the most illusive, rejuvenated to a new life in comparison with which its first existence was but an earthly life, it might now exude that fragrance for which longing and memory (‘from the spring of my youth’) are rivals. However, it was nearly impossible for me to obtain this essence in Copenhagen. Yet in this respect there is also a providence, and the blind god of love always finds a way. You happen to receive it at this very moment (just before you leave the house), because I know that you, too, know the infinity of the moment. I only hope it will not be too late. Hasten, my messenger, hasten my thought, and you, my Regine, pause for an instant, for only a moment stand still.
My impression of him before reading this letter was that of a taciturn, melancholy, selfish man but he was clearly capable of being thoughtful, tender and even happy. It shows a lot about his character that he went to some trouble to get this scent for Regine!
And this gift was not a one-time occurrence. He loved to send her all sorts of thoughtful gifts—paintings, a scarf, a handkerchief, and drawings he did himself. He would also include in his letters translations of poems or poetry he composed himself based on famous verses. For example, on Wednesday, the 28th of October, 1840 he writes to Regine and quotes Joachim von Eichendorff: “In the stillness of midnight, for the day does begin at midnight, and at midnight I awoke and the hours grew long for me, for what is as swift as love? Love is the swiftest of all, swifter than itself: Two musicians journeyed thither/From the woods so far away./One of them is deeply in love,/The other would like to be so.”
Much like Kafka, Kierkegaard struggles with making a full commitment to marriage and family life. In the end he decides that he cannot go through with it, but Regine puts up a good fight. There is a hint, I think, in some of the letters of Kierkegaard’s anguish between wanting to be alone and wanting to marry Regine. This passage, from an undated letter, is one of my favorites (trans. Rosenmeier):
In truth, I come, I write, I think, I speak and falter and sigh, and my room resounds with my monologues, and in you alone, my sole confidante, dare I confide what it is that now boisterously wells up in me and then again is lost in silent reverie—in you alone dare I confide—what you have confided in me. For know that every time you repeat that you love me from the deepest recesses of your soul, it is as though I heard it for the first time, and just as a man who owned the whole world would need a lifetime to survey his splendors, so I also seem to need a lifetime to contemplate all the riches contained in your love. Know that every time you thus solemnly assure me that you always love me equally well, both when I am happy and when I am sad, most when I am sad—most when I am sad—because you know that sorrow is divine nostalgia and that everything good in man is sorrow’s child—know that then you are rescuing a soul from Purgatory.
He ends the letter with a tender postscript: “Whenever you catch a breath of that heliotrope at home, which is still fresh, please think of me, for truly my mind and my soul are turned towards this sun, and I have a deep longing for you, thou sun amongst women.” Although he breaks off their engagement, he loves her and thinks of her for the rest of his short life. He never courts another woman and his diaries continue to mention her and so does his will. In an entry of his journal in 1848, a full seven years after their broken engagement, he writes, “The few scattered days I have been, humanely speaking, really happy, I always have longed indescribably for her, her whom I have loved so dearly and who also with her pleading moved me so deeply.” When he dies he leaves all of his money and possessions to Regine: “What I wish to express,” he writes, “is that for me the engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage.”
I am planning on reading Kierkegaard’s work Either/Or and his Works of Love. Please leave me other Kierkegaard reading suggestions in the comments!