Y100B: Kierkegaard

Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan 2016, 301pgs.)

As 2016 draws to a close, I found myself doing something I once thought impossible: reading a book published by Zondervan.

Backhouse’s biography of the great Dane purports to be “a fresh look” at the man and his times, but really it’s just Kierkegaard’s life and thought watered-down for generalists. Not that there is anything wrong with that. As Backhouse makes clear from the start, the extant Kierkegaard biographies available either amount to hagiography (e.g., Walter Lowrie’s classic treatment) or dense academic exercises. Backhouse delivers something slightly different, a treatment of Kierkegaard that is not entirely devoid of intellectual seriousness and yet gossipy enough for semi-popular consumption. In the end, however, the Kierkegaard of Backhouse’s biography is not all that different from the Kierkegaard of pious or academic study; he is still the tortured soul who broke a young girl’s heart on his way to attacking “Christendom,” that is, the official iteration of Lutheran Christianity that reigned supreme in 19th C. Denmark.

Mindful of his intended audience’s short attention span, Backhouse divorces his discussion of Kierkegaard’s life from his summary of the latter’s literary output, which constitutes a 50-page appendix to the book. That’s unfortunate since the summaries, rather than inspiring readers to explore Kierkegaard for themselves, are ripe for plagiarizing. Why spend a week with Either/Or or Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments when you can spend 5 minutes with Backhouse? By weaving his thoughts on Kierkegaard’s oeuvre into the text, Backhouse may have been able to entice his audience to explore Kierkegaard for themselves. An opportunity has been missed, methinks.

Overall, I can’t say too many bad words about Kierkegaard: A Single Life. Backhouse’s prose is fluid, his narrative well-paced, and his subject matter fascinating. Even so, Backhouse unintentionally stumbles into banality in a chapter assessing Kierkegaard’s legacy and influence. When he writes on Søren’s reception in European intellectual circles, I am intrigued; when he notes how pop bands and comedians reference Kierkegaard today, I am nauseated. But I suppose everyone has access to Wikipedia these days. It shouldn’t surprise me at all that the lowest elements of our disposable culture can so easily, and thoughtlessly, reference the most interesting man . . . in (1813-1855) Copenhagen.