Why all the things you have been told about Kierkegaard are wrong

Celebrating Søren Kierkegaard’s birthday – 5th of May, 1813


For a change I’m simply going to shoot from the hip, as that wonderful North American saying has it, and tell you some things about Denmark’s only world renowned thinker without any detailed referencing. Søren Kierkegaard preferred to be called a thinker, rather than a philosopher. One reason for that is that he described the philosophers of his age as having accomplished the perverse miracle of turning wine into water. He also suggested that when a city was getting ready for a hostile invasion, philosophers should rush up and down the street, just like Diogenes did when the ancient Greek city of Corinth prepared for siege. When Corinthians – yes they were and are a thing – asked Diogenes why he was rolling his tub up and down the street, he replied that he wanted to look busy like everybody else. With these quotes alone, we can see that Kierkegaard’s thinking and writing was not only incredibly perceptive but also very funny. Where did Kierkegaard get this rep that he was exclusively doom and gloom? He drank wine to beat the bands and was often the life and soul of the Danish coffee and pastry shop – the Konditorier  – and high society soirees to boot.


Of course Kierkegaard wrote about depression, and he was by his own nature depressive, but that was not his view of human nature as a whole and he described depression as a shout for freedom. And do you see this question of sin? According to some, Kierkegaard was no fun at all and ruled out all sorts of sexual fleshliness as being sinful. Quite the reverse is the case. Kierkegaard actually said that sensuality in love was vital for its full expression. The sin came in selfishness. That is, that you fell in love with someone else but failed to then embrace the world because of the joys of that love. Kierkegaard’s other main description of sin – called a category – was untruth. That is, that you were living a lie by not being your true self. You were split. We all know this to be true and we all know that it is our conscience that tells us this.

Below, I publish a poem I wrote about Kierkegaard in response to one of Ireland’s best living poets, Harry Clifton, who asks – in his train journey poem Søren Kierkegaard – what Kierkegaard would know of joy. (Night Train through the Brenner collection).


South With Kierkegaard

(For Harry Clifton)


I took you south with me Søren Kierkegaard

a two day train ride to Florence from Copenhagen

your pulp fiction parables impelling wheels, turning pages

Diary of a Seducer Don Juan –  the Either/Or twin track dialectic

hurtling through the Nordic psyche to the core of existence


Where did this myth arise that you are just a cold fish

Doctor Dread wallowing eternally in fear and trembling?

The Dane opposite me professes never to have read you

but describes your Diogenes rolling his tub up and down the street

in frantic efforts to look busy as Corinth prepared for war


We left on a day of cormorant mist, quiet ice and steaming coffee

no cardboard Danish for you – a connoisseur of Konditorier

the Fred Astaire of coffee shops, an intellectual athlete of  gustation

Pukkelrygget – hunchback , trousers too short for your palate and genius,

gifts from the gods to counterweight the callipers of your father’s curse


Blond men in rough clogs, red doors  in village hamlets

a heron on the wing

Scandinavia slipping intelligently by

a cornucopia of original erudition

your  passionate intuition through windows looking outwards looking in

I see that Kierkegaard must not be read but embraced

like the blue tint of low fjords emerging to frame the wanderlust sky

the Continental drift in your style


In the depths of Germany a flayed, ravished woman flashes by,

a nun, ghastly white and roused by loving hatred

Donna Elvira in pursuit of Don Juan

then your stoic Antigone who rejoices in being called to bear witness

your dramatis personae – stations of the cross flashing up

in a torrent of words, the train swaying again, again, again, again


So much of what you say has come true, Kierkegaard

the collapse of the church under the scandal of its own hubris

pre-disproving Freud by showing that spiritual angst not sex

is our zeitgeist – the desperate search for the self in a world

where nothingness is a fine art


When the German stations stopped  I hopped off

to hear your beloved Mozart


Finally in the soft heat and flowers of Florence

I recalled Regine Olsen

your whole life’s work a eulogy to a woman and the ideal of love

Not a philosopher but a Digter – Poet, Author and Thinker.

For you the mystery of the divine was either absurd or a leap of faith

refusing the host and platitudes from a starched priest’s breath

you died well and honourably

joyously writing for eternity




Paul Larkin