One of the first facts that Kierkegaard A Single Life tells us about Søren Kierkegaard is that his name is actually pronounced SOO-ren KEER-ka-gor, which is always the sort of thing I’m supercilious about–if we pronounce every person’s name, every city or village’s name, every linguistic acquisition, the way that they were originally pronounced, then it would be chaos. But set that aside for now.
Kierkegaard A Single Life does precisely what it sets out to do–to present in a clear and compelling fashion the life of philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Backhouse is an obvious master of his subject and deals expertly with Kierkegaard’s relationships, the social and political context of his life, his work and writings, and the impact his ideas have had on the world at large in the 150 years since his death. He takes a largely episodic approach, managing to loop the whole story around so that his tale begins with the funeral of an unknown man, and ends with the death of a close friend.
In this book, Kierkegaard is presented as an irascible philosopher, at once reviled by the general public and also revered. A man who had so much to say, but seldom allowed any word he wrote to be actually attributed to him. At once a devious and diabolic opponent of the Church, and also (so Backhouse argues, and I would believe it, since gravestones rarely lie) a staunch follower of Christ. Certainly a man of contradictions–and it would seem that the better part of them were generated intentionally by himself. However, unlike many who take delight in stirring the pot for the mere sake of chaos, it is clear that Kierkegaard suffered very much for his integrity. He broke off an engagement with the only woman he truly loved because he didn’t want to subject her to what hardships life with him would bring. Although an inheritor of wealth, he lived within fairly scant means in order to support himself as a writer until the end of his life. And although his writing brought him more notoriety than fame in his lifetime, he did not waver from his set task of seeking for Truth within Christendom (or outside of it, as the case may have been) and instead planned his publications like military engagements.
That we can get any solid sense of a man in just under 200 pages is credit only to Dr Backhouse. To anyone who has been intrigued by hearing this influential thinker’s name bandied about in any number of contexts, but who have no idea where to even begin to get a handle on his corpus, this book is the perfect springboard. Kierkegaard A Single Life also has an added resource which is nearly worth the cover price, which is a 50 page appendix giving a summary of each of Kierkegaard’s major works and placing them in context.
Kierkegaard A Single Life is extremely well written and part of Backhouse’s genius is that he is able to give a startlingly clear picture of complex, even contradictory, person from another time, another land. And I hadn’t read more that a couple chapters before I found myself sounding out his name as it should be–SOO-ren KEER-ka-gor–out of respect for someone who feels, in turn, like a friend, a teacher, a prophet, and a close and trusted guide on life’s hard journey.
Cannot recommend this book enough. Buy it now on Amazon.com!