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Peter Tudvad
SAK - An Unscholarly Biography of Kierkegaard

Rune Engelbreth Larsen
The Cartoon Crisis and the Danish Prime Minister

Jens-André P. Herbener
New Scholarly Translation of the Hebrew Bible

Rune Engelbreth Larsen
Matrix and the Metaphysical Film Revolution

Carsten Agger
Assault Against the Freedom of Speech

Totalitarian and Fascist Tendencies in Denmark

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Peter Tudvad | THE TORCH

SAK - An Unscholarly Biography of Kierkegaard (1)

November 3, 2000 was an historic day in the history of Danish literature. Rarely have the expectations connected with the publication of a book been so great, and rarely has an author been in so privileged a position to fulfill these expectations. References to the fact that a great biography of Søren Kierkegaard was soon to appear had been in the [Danish] papers for months. When the date finally arrived, the papers were filled with interviews with the author.

The newspaper Information broke its own rule by reviewing the biography the day before it appeared. The reviewer, Klaus Rifbjerg could thus send the book out into the world with an exceptionally fortunate shove. The next day all the other Danish papers followed suit. The first edition of the book was sold out before the sun had set. The book, SAK. Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. En biografi (Copenhagen: GAD, 2000)2 was a triumph for the troubled publisher and for the author, Joakim Garff.

If SAK had achieved only a modest success, if it had not been received as the best biography of Kierkegaard, not merely in recent years, but perhaps ever, not merely unsurpassed but unsurpassable, there would have been no point in my using my time and efforts on a critical appraisal of it. The reviewers have, via their canonization of the book, become accomplices in the spread of a biography that not only gives a distorted picture of Kierkegaard, but which also conceals its nakedness beneath borrowed finery to the extent that it drapes itself in scholarly robes. The reviewers have assumed the authority to judge the quality of the scholarship the biography exhibits without actually being in a position to make such a judgment.

The Errors

I will not deny that Garff has an impressive grasp of the literature on Kierkegaard. Neither will I deny that he has thoroughly ruminated the material. The problem is simply that this literature consists largely of secondary rather than primary sources. If it is to be used in a scholarly biography, the truth of the claims it contains must be verified by consulting primary sources. If no such sources can be found, the claims in question must either be rejected or presented as mere conjectures. The critical appraisal of sources is one of the cardinal virtues of the biographer, yet it is a virtue Garff's work does not exhibit. On the contrary, SAK reveals that Garff has neither critically appraised his sources nor attempted an independent verification of their claims.

Here is an example of how SAK, even while revealing that Garff has failed to study the relevant primary sources, gives the impression that he has. Garff writes on page three about Kierkegaard's father, who ran a dry-goods store on Købmagergade in Copenhagen.

The surviving account books indicate that Kierkegaard's selection of wares included lisle stockings, woven caps, leather gloves from the Jutland town of Randers, and various goods from Iceland, all of which he sold on short road trips to the northern Zealand towns of Hillerød and Elsinore. (p. 3.)3

Garff's wording here undeniably gives the impression that he has himself studied these account books. The problem is that no "account books" survive from Kierkegaard's father's business. This is undoubtedly the reason that Garff gives no information concerning his source for this claim. The description of the wares and the destinations of the elder Kierkegaard's road trips undoubtedly comes from Sejer Kühle's excellent study, Søren Kierkegaard. Barndom og Ungdom [Søren Kierkegaard. Childhood and Youth] (1950).

After M.P. Kierkegaard had become a duly registered resident of Copenhagen, he promptly secured licenses to do business at various markets [around Zealand] and undertook trips to Hillerød and Elsinore, where he sold woolen products from Jutland, lisle stockings, leather gloves from the Jutland town of Randers, various goods from Iceland and woven caps (p. 10).

Licenses were required to do business at the various markets in question. Such licenses were issued at the courthouse. Each license stated clearly at what market the holder intended to do business. Merchants were required in addition to have a permit issued by the customs authorities. This permit described the types of wares the holder intended to sell at a given market. The Stadsarkiv [City Archive] in Copenhagen, to which Kühle refers in a note, contains a permit issued to Kierkegaard's father on the 24th of June, 1784 that lists the wares he sold. This little slip of paper could hardly be confused, however, with account books from Kierkegaard's father's business. The archive also contains papers relating to Kierkegaard's father's business licenses. These papers reveal that the elder Kierkegaard not only undertook "short road trips" to markets in Hillerød and Elsinore but also to markets in the towns of Roskilde and Ringsted and that he had earlier, before he went into business for himself, traveled to markets in Sorø, Slagelse, Næstved and Køge.

Kühle's book is an impressive piece of scholarship. Garff frequently draws from it, even when he does not cite it as a source. Such a citation would not be necessary, of course, if Garff had himself verified the information the book presented through reference to primary sources and had cited these sources instead. Kühle's book appears in Garff's list of what he refers to as "Secondary Sources." That is, Garff distinguishes between "primary" and "secondary sources." That sounds like rigorous scholarly practice. If one examines his lists, however, one will see that only the "primary sources" are actually genuine sources and that even these sources include only published material; there are no references to unpublished or archival material.

Garff's list of "secondary sources" includes some exceptional pieces of thoroughly researched historical scholarship, but it also includes an enormous number of literary productions that can in no way be considered legitimate scholarly sources such as Jean Baudrillard's Forførelse [Secuction] (Århus, 1985), Kresten Nordentoft's Kierkegaard's Psychology (Duquesne, 1978), Villy Sørensen's Digtere og Dæmoner [Poets and Demons] (Copenhagen, 1965) and one of the most fantastical studies of Kierkegaard ever written, Frithiof Brandt's Den Unge Søren Kierkegaard [The Young Søren Kierkegaard] (Copenhagen, 1929). Garff's designation "secondary sources" is thus actually a euphemism for "secondary literature" (cf., Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen, Til kilderne! Introduction til historisk kildekritik [To the sources! An Introduction to historical source criticism] [Copenhagen, 2001] p. 74).

Garff does not properly distinguish between on the one hand, secondary sources and on the other hand secondary literature with all its entertaining but often false speculations. He thus heaps genuine facts together with mere speculations to support his interpretation of Kierkegaard's life. SAK is, in general, so uncritical of the "sources" on which it draws that the result is a work where it is impossible to distinguish systematically between historical truth and literary fiction. Garff is, of course, not responsible for the fact that many before him have written books on Kierkegaard that are filled with little more than unsupported speculations. He is to be blames, however, for failing to have subjected these works to a thorough, critical examination before appropriating material from them.

The first time I became aware that there were problems with SAK was when, in my capacity as one of the commentators for the critical edition of Kierkegaard's collected works, I was researching Kierkegaard's trip to Jutland in the summer of 1840. I read, naturally, all the material that had already been written on the trip that had achieved nearly mythological status since the destination was Sædding, the birthplace of Kierkegaard's father on the Jutland heath.

The chapter of SAK that is devoted to this trip is called, "A Dandy on a Pilgrimage" (pp. 154-161). The title is very appropriate given the extent to which Garff endeavors to portray Kierkegaard as a dandy. He makes extensive use of a little work entitled, Søren Kierkegaard og Aarhus [Søren Kierkegaard and Aarhus] (Århus, 1968) written by Flemming Chr. Nielsen when he was a 25 year old student of mathematics and physics at the University of Aarhus. The work lists no sources, so even though thirty years later Nielsen produced a thoroughly researched and well documented work on one of Kierkegaard's brothers, Ind I verdens vrimmel [In the midst of the madding crowd] (Lyngby, 1998), one cannot without further ado merely trust that the information in this earlier work is all correct. This is precisely what Garff does, however. Again and again, he uncritically appropriates material from Nielsen's early work, such as here on page 154, though he cites him just once.

So the twenty-seven-year-old theology graduate departed from Copenhagen early on the morning of Saturday, July 17, 1840, accompanied by his servant, Anders Westergaard, two years older than himself, whom he had borrowed for the occasion from Peter Christian. After traveling across Zealand by day coach they arrived at Kalundborg in the late afternoon. (p. 154.)

These lines contain a number of claims, but no references are included that would verify their truth. At the very least, Garff should have included a reference to his source, namely, Søren Kierkegaard og Aarhus, p. 17, from which he should also have been more careful to copy the date correctly:

Søren Kierkegaard leaves Copenhagen early on the morning of July 18th. He travels by day coach across Zealand to Kalundborg, a trip that lasts until late in the evening.4 He is naturally, as the son of a rich man, accompanied by his servant Anders Westergaard, who is actually in the employ of Søren Kierkegaard's brother, Peter Christian Kierkegaard, from whom he has been borrowed.

Nielsen fails, just as Garff does, to provide a reference to his sources for this information. The sources in question are undoubtedly Arthur Dahl's Søren Kierkegaards Jyllandsrejse [Søren Kierkegaard's Jutland Trip] (Ringkøbing, 1948), Jørgen Bukdahl's Søren Kierkegaard. Hans fader og slægten is Sædding [Søren Kierkegaard: His father and family in Sædding] (Ribe, 1960) and Emanuel Sejr's Fra smakke til hurtigfærge [From smacks to steamships] (Århus, 1964-65). The omission of these sources hardly matters, however, because the most significant achievement of these authors is to present and strengthen the myth that the young Kierkegaard traveled with a servant. That is what a dandy does. Yet there is no evidence to support such a claim.

Kierkegaard's travel diary refers twice to a certain "Anders," but make no reference to a servant. The first reference to "Anders" is in a short note, "Anders at the Parade," made in Århus, and the second, "Anders is enjoying himself tremendously, both in relation to the parade in Aarhus and then the shooting club in Holstebro, when the members appeared on the field in full regalia." This is the "Anders" whom Nielsen and Garff erroneously assume to be Anders Westergaard–a farm boy from the country of Thisted who was actually a soldier in 1840 and who, according to the induction protocol, did not leave Thisted County until 1842. He did not enter Kierkegaard's service until 1844 and he was not "two years older" than Kierkegaard, but four years younger.

In other words, it would have been physically impossible for Anders Westergaard to have traveled with Kierkegaard in 1840. I have had to alter my own views on this issue because I too had earlier considered it probable that it was Anders Westergaard, though not in the capacity of a servant, with whom Kierkegaard traveled. I had to abandon this assumption later after it became apparent that the induction protocol precluded such a possibility. It should actually have been obvious even before this, however, that Kierkegaard could not have been accompanied to Aarhus by Anders Westergaard because the name "Anders Westergaard" does not appear with Kierkegaard's in the list of passengers traveling from Kalundborg that was published in various Jutland newspapers.

There are many other errors in Garff's chapter on the Jutland trip, errors particularly well suited to strengthen the view of Kierkegaard as a dandy. He is described, for example, by Garff as installing himself immediately upon his arrival in Århus in the city's best hotel, even though we know nothing of where Kierkegaard stayed that first night. Similarly, Garff presents Kierkegaard, the resident of Copenhagen, as offended by the amount of bovine excrement in the streets of Århus, even though he must have been accustomed to maneuvering his way through such excrement since Copenhagen had three times as many cows then within its city walls as did Århus.

I documented these errors, among others, in two articles in 2001 in Jyllands-Posten on the 16th of August and in Universitetsavisen nr. 14. Garff failed to respond to the criticisms I advanced against SAK in these articles and declined my offer to help him correct the errors, with the result that the errors now infect the various translations of SAK.

Anders Westergaard is forced by Garff to assume the role of Kierkegaard's purported servant during his trip to Jutland. Garff later performs a similar transubstantiation on the poor journeyman carpenter Frederik Christian Strube. That is, Garff presents Stube as one of Kierkegaard's servants so that one get the impression of a "comfortable" scholar who has expanded his retinue of domestics from a single manservant, i.e., the aforementioned Anders Westergaard, to two.

Strube was a financially destitute carpenter's apprentice who moved, with his wife and daughters, into Kierkegaard's apartment on Rosenborggade in 1848. Stube was officially diagnosed as "emotionally disturbed" so although from what we know of Kierkegaard, it is reasonable to assume that he would probably have preferred to have the place to himself, he allowed Stube to remain there with his family. Kierkegaard appears to have been afraid it might push Stube over the edge if he asked him to find another place to live, so he allowed the family to remain with him for three and a half years. Garff ridicules Kierkegaard's concern for Strube's emotional problems and obscures Kierkegaard's solicitude toward the man with the entirely unsubstantiated claim that Kierkegaard used him as a "servant" (pp. 532 and 647).

It is symptomatic of Garff that he prefers to imagine Kierkegaard with a large retinue of servants appropriate only for a person of much greater wealth and higher social standing. In the same manner, Garff transforms an apprentice in Kierkegaard's father's store to "one of his servants" (p. 13). This apprentice was not, of course, a servant. He was actually related by blood to his employer in that he was the elder Kierkegaard's cousin.

Garff, so far as I know, is the only one among the many who have written on Kierkegaard who has transformed Strube into a servant. It's a very original thesis; it's just that it has no relation to reality. Strube very likely helped, when he could, with household chores. I described in my article in Information how both Strube and his wife sometimes did small household chores for which Kierkegaard paid them in cash. This sort of work does not, however, in itself make Strube into a servant, as is quite clear in the census from 1850 where Strube lists his occupation as "journeyman carpenter." The existence of this census is no secret. There is even a reference to it in SAK (p. 532).

One would have to be completely ignorant of the laws of the time to transform a journeyman carpenter, who was required to work twelve hours a day, Monday through Saturday, into a servant. This same ignorance of historical conditions is apparent as early as page four when Garff writes that the master of the silk and clothing merchants guild "imposed severe fines" on Kierkegaard's father and other dealers in woolen goods for selling finer merchandise such as "French linens and silk ribbons." The head of a guild did not have the authority to impose such fines. Only the chief of police could do that. And he did impose a fine of 50 rigsdaler on Kierkegaard's father after a raid by two policemen and the head of the guild in question revealed that he was selling the forbidden merchandise.

On the very next page Garff again displays his ignorance of the laws of the period when he attributes to the elder Kierkegaard's attorney the authority to endorse or reject a marriage contract. Only the city officials, or more specifically, the Justice of the Peace, had that authority.

Garff's ignorance of historical conditions shows up again in his explanation of why Kierkegaard's older brother, on the 29th of January 1836, defended his thesis in Regenskirken rather than in the university building on Frue Plads as one would have expected. The reason, explains Garff, was that the university building had been destroyed when the British bombarded Copenhagen in 1807 and the building thus still lay in ruins. That is simply false. The reconstruction of the university building was nearly complete by January of 1836. It had begun in 1831 and by 1832 the roof had already been restored. The official dedication of the new building took place in ceremonial hall on the 13th of October 1836, but philological and philosophical lectures had begun again in the two large auditoriums on the first floor as well as in a smaller auditorium that was adjacent to the them.

Another account relating to the university demonstrates how Garff blithely writes whatever he feels like. He asserts that "Kierkegaard became acquainted with Møller in 1831, …after the latter…began his philosophy lectures in Copenhagen" (p. 90). This claim is surprising, not simply because an esteemed professor would hardly strike up a friendship with a newly matriculated 18 year old university student, immediately after returning from the university in Christiania (i.e., Oslo), but also because Garff had earlier explained that "[w]e don't know what lectures he [i.e., Kierkegaard] attended during his first two semesters" (p. 29). But if we don't know what courses he attended, how do we know he attended Møller's lectures on moral philosophy in the summer of 1831.

The source for Garff's claim here is undoubtedly Valdemar Ammundsen's Søren Kierkegaards Ungdom (Søren Kierkegaard's Youth) (Copenhagen, 1912) where Ammundsen erroneously claims to have found Kierkegaard's name on a list of students who attended Møller's lectures (p. 79). No such list is to be found, however, in the City Archive. On the contrary, the archive contains a note from the dean to the effect that, for most of the faculty–including Møller–he has not kept lists of the students who attended their lectures.


I would like to return, for a moment, to the topic of Kierkegaard's Jutland trip because it exemplifies another pervasive problem with SAK, namely Garff's extensive use of quotations–without quotation marks and often without a reference to the material he has either copied verbatim or paraphrased. The rest of the passage cited earlier from SAK is copied almost verbatim from Nielsen, though there is no reference to him nor any reference that would enable the reader to verify the information in the passage. What follows here are Nielsen's words from 1968 and then Garff's from 2000.

Kierkegaard sails Sunday morning…by smack to Aarhus…but the "Dania" is an old, dirty tub whose shabby condition and sluggishness made it an object of much complaint…. It was commanded by Captain Luja and owned by the steamship company SAS…, If Kierkegaard was in an ambivalent mood when he left Kalundborg, his mood was completely soured by the trip to Aarhus. He noted the address of the steamship company in his diary, so we can assume that he planned to complain to the head of the firm after he returned home. (p. 17.)

The next morning the boarded the Dania, which despite its proud name was an old, flat-bottomed tub, a regular smack, whose sluggishness and shabby condition made it the object of much complaint. The Dania was commanded by Captain Luja and owned by the steamship company SAS, which was certainly going to get an earful about its wretched transportation–Kierkegaard noted the address" "282 Nyhavn, on the Charlottenbog side" (p. 155)

I documented in the articles I published in 2001 that the smack was not called the Dania and the captain's name was not Luja. I also documented that Kierkegaard did not write the address of the shipping company in his travel diary but in a separate notebook that was unrelated to the trip.

Students at university are not allowed to copy from an author without indicating that they have done so and without providing a reference to their source. Students who fail to do this can be expelled. Scholars appear, however, to be exempt from this rule. Despite its fame and glory, SAK is largely botched and plagiarized. It would be rejected if it were presented as the senior project for an undergraduate degree, an M.A. thesis or a Ph.D. dissertation. Yet it is now considered the authoritative biography of perhaps the greatest Danish thinker of all time.

There are countless examples of Garff's plagiarisms. In some instances Garff copied other texts so hastily that amusing mistakes creep in, as when Garff says of the volatile Grundtvigian, J.C. Lindberg, that "there were rumors that he was to be incarcerated and executed [henrettes] on Christiansø, a notorious prison island" (p. 33). The work to which Garff refers in his note gives a much less dramatic presentation of Lindberg's situation. Lindberg is described there as in danger of being "imprisoned and sent in exile [hensættes] to the remote island of Christiansø" (p. 41).5

In some instances, the texts from which Garff copied are not identified at all, yet the information he copied gives the impression of precise accuracy as when, for example, on page 22 he writes, "[w]hen Søren Aabye Kierkegaard went up for his matriculation examinations in Latin he was responsible for more than 11,000 lines of poetry and 1,250 pages of prose." It was not Garff, however, who carefully determined the amount of poetry and prose for which Kierkegaard was responsible, but Per Krarup, who presents his findings on page 26 and following of Søren Kierkegaard og Borgerdydskolen (Søren Kierkegaard and the School of Civic Virtue) (Viborg,1977) where he explains that "The extent of Kierkegaard's familiarity with Latin texts can be seen from the application for his matriculation examinations which lists more than 11,000 lines of poetry and approximately 1,250 pages of prose."

Garff's cavalier attitude toward details is obvious on page 11 when he discusses "the Moravian Congregation of Brethren, whose meetinghouse was on Stormgade, where on Sunday afternoons the Kierkegaard family regularly gathered with the so-called Gehülfen [German: ‘those who have been helped']" (p. 11). These Gehülfen were a kind of governing committee for the congregation and were thus not identical with the weekly meetings as Garff's text makes it appear, nor were these gatherings the sort of casual meetings Garff suggests.

Again, Garff gives no reference to his source for this information, but the source is undoubtedly Jørgen Bukdahl's Søren Kierkegaard og den menige mand (Copenhagen, C.A., Reitzel,1996), page 38 (Søren Kierkegaard and the Common Man, trans. Bruce H. Kirmmse [Eerdmans, 2001] pp. 31-33), where Bukdahl writes of Kierkegaard's father that "[a]though he never joined the Society of Brothers,6 Michael Kierkegaard was always among the listeners at the Sunday evening gatherings in Stormgade."7 It is not unreasonable to assume that "Gehülfen" referred to the meetings rather than to the governing committee. Such an assumption is reasonable, however, only if one neglects to consult Bukdahl's source, namely Kaj Baagø, who in his excellent study of the Moravian Congregation of Brethren in Copenhagen, Vækkelse og kirkeliv i København og omegn i første halvdel af det 19. Århundrede (Copenhagen, 1960, page 21–refers to "the so-called ‘Gehülfen,' a sort of governing committee."8

Let me give another example of plagiarism. This one gives an impression of the skilled historian's overview of the period–to the extent that one would call Jørgen Bukdahl a skilled historian. Let's look first at Bukdahl's evaluation of the "awakening movement" [vækkelsesbevægelsen] on page 20 of Søren Kierkegaard and the Common Man and then Garff's evaluation of this same movement on pages 32ff.

The religious awakenings were marked by a mixture of reaction (i.e., back to true Lutheranism) and revolution (i.e., the battle against the power of the clergy, both in their role of proclaiming the gospel and as representatives of the ruling class in society). The awakenings were prosecuted on the basis of a 1741 law against assemblies and were punished both with fines and imprisonment, which only served to accelerate the movement's growth and strengthen its internal9 solidarity (Bukdahl, p. 20)

Composed of roughly equal portions of reaction (back to true Lutheranism) and revolution (down with the power of the clergy as a ruling class in society) the godly awakenings10 were a threat to the State Church. So attempts were made to stifle the movement by imposing fines and imprisonment, but this only served to strengthen its solidarity. (Garff, 32.)

There is no reference to Bukdahl in the notes.

Garff is critical of scholars who read Kierkegaard's works biographically. He puts special biographical emphasis, however, on one of Kierkegaard's works: The Stages on Life's Way. Garff recognizes Kierkegaard in the story of the broken engagement the pseudonym Quidam relates in diary form under the title "Guilty?/Not Guilty?" This is entirely reasonable. The stories of Quidam's and Kierkegaard's engagements largely parallel each other. Kierkegaard goes so far as to present his letter to Regina in which he breaks the engagement in the diary as Quidam's. So far so good.

Garff next subjects the so-called "inserted passages," six stories that do not immediately appear to have anything to do with the story of the engagement, to a very particular interpretation. He asserts that these short pieces are Kierkegaard's exploration of his relationship to his father. Thus Garff explains that the young bookkeeper who allows himself to be persuaded to visit a bordello is in reality Kierkegaard's father, who in his youth often visited a prostitute. Kierkegaard's bookkeeper is driven mad by the thought that in his inebriated state, he might actually have impregnated the prostitute and thus have fathered a child with respect to which he would never be able to fulfill his paternal obligations. Garff refers to this characterization of the bookkeeper's fear, however, as a "poetic diversionary tactic" (p. 344), for Kierkegaard's father's fear, he asserts, was actually that he might have contracted a "contagious disease" (p. 344).

Garff then goes on to reveal specifically what disease the elder Kierkegaard feared he had contracted by decoding what he presents as a cryptic confession in another of the inserted passages, namely "A Leper's Self-Observation." Here we meet the leprous Simon, who sits in a graveyard talking to himself. We learn, from his monologue that he has developed a salve that "causes all skin eruptions to turn inward, so that no one can see them" (p. 345) and so that the priest will thus declare that he is healthy even while the disease continues to consume him internally. Another leper, Manasseh, takes the salve so that he can enter the city unnoticed and vent his hatred by breathing on all the inhabitants and thus infect them with his disease.

How should this parable be understood? Garff helps the reader here by explaining on page 345 that "leprosy is a metaphor for syphilis" and that the salve in question

is not a poetic invention but existed in the real world as a mercury salve, known as ‘the gray ointment,' which physicians believed to be effective in treating syphilis. The curative effects of the mercury salve treatment were only visible after fifteen or twenty years, however. If the treatment was ended too early, the contagious material circulated within the organism and could pass through the cerebral membrane, causing cerebral paralysis, the most striking symptom of which was so-called megalomania. If the infection went into the spinal marrow, on the other hand, it led to the shaking palsy. Both leprosy and syphilis, which are characterized by the sores and nodules that accompany them as well as by varying degrees of bone loss, typically of the nasal bone, end in death, but as a rule, decades pass before this takes place (346).

Kierkegaard's father had been to a doctor who had treated him with the mercury salve and then declared him healthy. He waited 15-20 years though before marrying and having children in order to avoid infecting them with syphilis. He had a very active imagination, however, so after his first wife and five of his seven children suffered untimely deaths, he conceived the idea that perhaps he continued to be the carrier of some kind of disease that continued to take the lives of those in his family. The aged Kierkegaard shares this idea with his youngest son who thus comes to fear that he too may be infected and thus dare not marry and risk further spread of the infection. This is the idea that Kierkegaard presents in the inserted passages "in all their pain, though with the pathos of distance that liberates the trauma from the merely private sphere and lets it be reborn as art" (353).

The argument is well developed and draws impressively on an extensive knowledge of medical history. Unfortunately, both the thesis and the argument that support it were appropriated by Garff from another scholar, Carl Saggau. Saggau was himself a medical doctor, hence the esoteric knowledge of medical history. Saggau is not even mentioned, however, in Garff's notes to this passage. Saggau argued in his book, Skyldig-ikke skyldig? Et par kapitler af Michael and Søren Kierkegaards ungdomsliv (Guilty-not guilty? A couple of chapters from Michael and Søren Kierkegaard's youth) (Copenhagen, 1958), that the bookkeeper's pathological fear was a "poetic device" (p. 50), designed to conceal that syphilis was the disease Kierkegaard's father had actually suffered from. "He had been to a doctor who had prescribed the gray ointment, the mecury salve," writes Saggau on page 52 of his book, after which he goes on to develop the thesis that is presented in Garff's book in such a way that the reader cannot help but conclude that the thesis is Garff's.

What follows is a passage from page 53 of Saggau's book where he describes the mercury salve cure. If one compares Saggau's text with Garff's, the latter appears to be a collage of sentences appropriated from the former:

If the treatment was ended too early, the contagious material circulated within the organism and could work its way eventually into the heart, blood vessels and other vital organ, or pass through the cerebral membrane, causing the dreaded heart and spinal cord inflammation, namely cerebral paralysis, also referred to as progressive paralysis, the most striking symptom of which was a specific form of mental illness: megalomania. If the infection went into the spinal marrow, it led to the shaking palsy–tabes dorsalis. . Both illnesses [i.e., leprosy and syphilis] developed progressively and ended in death, but as a rule, decades, or in any case many years passed before [the patient finally] died. These diseased developed very slowly. It was often only after fifteen to twenty years after one became infected before one could determine whether the infected person had been cured (53).

Even if one feels no obligation to credit his sources in other instances, one must at least appreciate this obligation when the material in question is an original theory appropriated from a scholar who has diligently slogged through all the relevant historical material. Saggau's book appears in Garff's list of "sources." There is no indication, however, in the passage where Garff presents the syphilis theory, that the theory originated with Saggau. Indeed, there is no reference to Saggau at all in this passage.

Cheap Sensationalism

Reviewers who were not themselves Kierkegaard scholars and who lauded SAK as an unparalleled scholarly achievement may be forgiven for their failure to identify the many factual errors that infect the work as well as the extent to which it was plagiarized from earlier works on Kierkegaard.11 There are other problems with the book, however, that ought to be obvious to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with generally accepted standards of scholarship. It is, for example, highly speculative in places and marked throughout by cheap sensationalism. Garff claims, for example, that "there appeared to be a masterbatory gene in the [Kierkegaard] family" (p. 108). His evidence for this generalization about the entire Kierkegaard clan is one equivocal medical diagnosis of a psychological crisis Kierkegaard's uncle, Peder Pederson, appears to have suffered in 1786. No other such diagnoses exist, however, for any other the other members of the Kierkegaard family. The accuracy of the diagnosis is itself highly dubious. Moreover, there is no reference to it in the notes, which leaves the reader to wonder whether it is not, like Kierkegaard's father's account book, purely an invention of Garff's overly active imagination.

The situation is even worse, however, with respect to Garff's prurient speculations concerning Kierkegaard's relationship to his father, who Garff accuses, without any evidence whatever, of "a quite drastic warping of his son's sex life" (p. 108). Kierkegaard's father, Garff asserts, put "a fateful mark upon the son's desire reversing what is natural and unnatural, and to that extent had sexually molested his child" (p. 109).12

The theme of pedophilia returns in Garff's treatment of Rector Michael Nielsen, who taught Latin to Kierkegaard and his classmates at Borgerdydsskolen [The School of Civic Virtue]. Garff says of Nielsen

In addition to Latin exercises, Nielsen also enjoyed other exercises of the more physical sort, including deep knee bends, and he is said to have been reasonably competent at stick ball, a game he played with his students on the common in a nearby park. When the fun was over the heavyset man and his skinny pupils went for a common swim (p. 19).13

Garff does not give his source for the information contained in this mildy vulgar insinuation against Rector Nielsen. His source, however, is once again undoubtedly Sejer Kühle, whose excellent study, Søren Kierkegaard. Bardom og Ungdom [Søren Kierkegaard: Childhood and Youth], has been put through Garff's poetic mill. Kühle writes

Some of what was said on the head of the school was not terribly positive. It should be remarked, however, on Nielsen's behalf that he aimed at maintaining discipline. He believed in the importance of exercise and was careful to ensure that the weaker children were shown special consideration–he accompanied the students himself to swimming and Edv. Collin revealed that the rector, who was a good player, also accompanied them to the common in a nearby park when they played stickball (p. 36).

It's clear that stick ball and swimming had nothing to do with each other, but were two separate disciplines. The children could not have gone swimming after a game of stick ball on the common. The swimming instruction took place at one of the designating bathing areas at the beach, not at a swimming pool, and the beach was too far away from the park. When Nielsen thus "accompanied the students himself to swimming," "swimming" should be understood to refer to swimming lessons, which took place at, for example, Rysensteen Badeanstalt [Rysensteen's Swimming Club] at Kalvebod beach.

Kühle says nothing to suggest that the heavyset Rector Nielsen braved the waves to swim along with his skinny pupils, but that apparently doesn't matter. Incest and pedophilia don't need to be documented. All one has to do is to raise suspicions. Three pages earlier the Freudian Garff described Kierkegaard's love for his father as "the sort of emotional ambivalence and misunderstood loyalty that brings to mind the paradoxical devotedness of incest victims" (p. 15). It would appear Kierkegaard's intense admiration for his fearsome Latin teacher is to be understood as the no less paradoxical surrender of the victim pedophilia.

The Pseudonyms

Garff identifies Kierkegaard with Isaak in his reading of Fear and Trembling. It's strange though to stumble across such an identification of Kierkegaard with a literary figure in a pseudonymous work when Garff sneers at others for having identified Kierkegaard with his pseudonyms and thus having "fallen for the temptation to close their eyes to the historical facts" (p. 17). Despite this apparent abstemiousness, Garff quotes one of Kierkegaard's pseudonyms, Quidam's statement that "[m]y old headmaster was a demigod, a man of iron!" as if the statement had been made by Kierkegaard and referred to Rector Nielsen.14 In a similar manner, Garff concludes that Kierkegaard did not know English, because his pseudonym, Vigilius Haufniensis, declares that "I myself don't read English" (p. 22). 15 Indeed, he quotes Haufniensis as if he were quoting Kierkegaard.

Despite Garff's questionable identification of Kierkegaard with Haufniensis, Garff is too quick to deny the probability of the identification of Kierkegaard with his pseudonyms when he cites the pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus's memory of how, when as a child, and was not allowed outside, "his father made up for it by offering to take him by the hand and stroll up and down the floor" (14). As is well known, the father had an exceptional imagination and was thus able to call forth such vivid and picturesque scenes of everyday life on the streets of Copenhagen that little Johannes felt almost as if he had been for a walk through the city. "One quickly forgets," writes Garff, "that this this episode took place only ‘one time,' just as one quickly comes to identify Johannes with Søren Aabye, so that the scene silently slips into the parlor of the house at 2 Nytorv [the Kierkegaard family residence]" (15).

Kierkegaard wrote to his sister-in-law, however, in a letter dated from the middle of the 1840s that he often took such "walks" with his father when he was a boy. That is, he, Søren Aabye, not a pseudonym, often took such walks with his father.16 The scene was in other words in the parlor of 2 Nytorv.

Cynicism or Love

Garff's book, as well as the entire tradition of Kierkegaard scholarship is rich with speculation such as that relating to Kierkegaard's supposed reconciliation with his father. I argued this point in the article from June 3, 2004 in which I drew attention to the tendency among scholars to assume that one of Kierkegaard's household ledgers provided an exhaustive account of how much–or, more appropriately, how little–Kierkegaard was prepared to give to charity. This misunderstanding of the significance of the ledger is revealing if one actually takes time to examine its contents. The ledger could serve as a definitive statement concerning Kierkegaard's financial assistance to the poor only if every time Kierkegaard gave a shilling, mark or rigsdaller to a beggar on the street, he asked his manservant, Anders Vestergaard to write it down in the household ledger.

Such an assumption, however, is clearly absurd, yet Garff uncritically makes it and gleefully compares the relatively modest sum identified as contributed to charitable causes with the much larger amount Kierkegaard spent on carriage rides in Northern Zealand. He also compares the amount of Kierkegaard's charitable contributions as listed in the ledger with the amount Kierkegaard spent on food according to other calculations provided by a certain Andersen. Yet he fails to identify who this Andersen is, namely a publican. In other words, Kierkegaard did not eat the infamous ducks at the expensive and fashionable d'Angleterre, but in Andersen's basement pub, or in his own home where 19th century Danes, like contemporary Americans, sometimes consumed inexpensive take-out.

The problem is not that Garff focuses on Kierkegaard as a dandy, but that he transforms him into a dandy when the evidence suggests he was anything but. In a similar fashion, Garff presents a picture Kierkegaard as less compassionate than the available evidence would support. Two examples will serve here to show what I mean.

Garff compares Kierkegaard's reaction to the many deaths in the family in the years 1832-34 with the reaction of his older brother.

Apparently, the family tragedies that periodically plunged Peter Christian into complete inactivity had no effect, or perhaps even the opposite effect, on his younger brother. Søren Aabye's journals, to which he devoted more and more attention as time went by, are as silent as the grave in regard to deaths, without even so much as a little cross to note them (p. 47).

Once again, the reader gets the impression that Garff's claims are supported by historical facts. The fact is, however, that Kierkegaard did not keep a regular journal until around 1837. In addition, there are no biographical entries in what journals he did keep before this period until 1835. That is, there are no biographical entries of any sort in Kierkegaard's journals from the period during which there were so many deaths in the family. There is no way of knowing from the journals what sort of effect the deaths had on Kierkegaard.

The second example of how uncompassionate a picture of Kierkegaard Garff presents concerns a letter Kierkegaard wrote to his sister-in-law. "No matter what, do not lose the joy of walking," he wrote to Henriette Kierkegaard in 1847. "I walk my way to health and away from every illness every day. I have walked my way to my best ideas, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it" (p. 313). Henriette Kierkegaard was confined for long periods to her bed because of pains that appear to have been more psychological than physical. Kierkegaard's letter can hardly be understood as anything other than an attempt to free his sister-in-law from the thoughts that weighed so heavily on her that they confined her to her bed. According to Garff, however, Kierkegaard was at best distracted and at worst cynical because "his sister-in-law was crippled and would therefore have difficulty following his well-meaning advice" (p. 313). Kierkegaard is thus presented as having suggested to a cripple that she could walk herself back to health! But Kierkegaard's sister-in-law was not crippled, so why does Garff write that she was?

Literary Status

The questions are legion, because the examples given above of problems with the biography are far from exhaustive. I have not read through the whole work critically, but only a small portion of it. This small portion provides sufficient evidence, however, for the conclusion that the work is generally sloppy and amateurish. It is marred by the author's insufficient knowledge of the period during which Kierkegaard lived. It is methodologically inconsistent, overly speculative, and much of it is plagiarized. As I explained, however, at the beginning of the present essay, my criticism is directed not merely against Garff's book, but against the scholarly tradition on which the work draws. For example, Garff is not the only one who neglected to investigate whether scholars were correct in their claim that The Corsair's attack on Kierkegaard was limited to the year 1846. Everyone accepted this account of the facts until I demonstrated in Kierkegaards København [Kierkegaard's Copenhagen] (Politiken, 2004) that the attack that began in 1846 continued right up until Kierkegaard's death in 1855. Garff is responsible, however, for having uncritically appropriated material from secondary literature so that through his award-winning book, much that is actually false has now achieved the status of rigorously verified truth.

Garff must acknowledge that his book is not a scholarly work and that he unjustifiably flirts with a scholarly rigor that he does not actually adhere to himself in his work as a biographer. He comes very close to doing this when he addresses the discrepancies between the portrait he paints of Kierkegaard in SAK and the one that emerges in Kierkegaards Købehavn, with his remark, published in Information that "for me, a biography is a story" (Information, May 29, 2004). The reader needs to be informed, however, that SAK is merely "based on a true story," as they say in Hollywood. Garff composes and in this respect his art is impressive. But this does not qualify him as a scholar, or SAK as a trustworthy biography.

Interestingly, one of SAK's most enthusiastic reviewers seems to have had an intuitive appreciation of the fact that the work was closer to a piece of fiction than to an attempt to present an accurate picture of what kind of person Kierkegaard really was. That is, Rifberg wrote that "there will never be a more entertaining and informative ‘novel' than Joakim Garff's huge biography of Søren Aabye Kierkegaard" (Information, Nov. 2, 2000). Others were seduced into believing that the book was a trustworthy biography. The reviewer in Jyllands-Posten referred to the work as "a popular book of sterling merit" and predicted, correctly as it turned out, that it would be translated into all the major languages. The reviewer in Politiken, Bjørn Bredal, was not completely blind to the weaknesses inherent in the biographical genre, but his praise for the level of scholarship exhibited by Garff was unreserved. The book, he wrote, "is the largest, most comprehensive and insightful biography of Kierkegaard ever to see the light of day and in these respects it is unlikely that it will ever even be approached, let alone surpassed" (Politiken, Nov. 3, 2000).

Garff's flirtation with scholarship succeeded beyond what even he could have expected. It succeeded so well that is secured for him the Georg Brandes-prize for its "scholarly rigor" and "trustworthiness." Thus the prediction of the reviewer in Berlingske Tidende that "in terms of its quality, SAK could hardly avoid achieving the status of a sort of ‘official' Danish biography of Kierkegaard" was very close to being fulfilled. It is the attempt to credit the work such status that I have undertaken here to thwart, not out of any animosity toward the author, but out of both a profound respect for the responsibilities of scholarship and a commitment to the truth.

By Peter Tudvad (translated by M.G. Piety)
The Torch (, January 2007

1 Translated from the Danish by M.G. Piety. What follows is a substantially revised and edited version of the paper that originally appeared in the Danish publication in 2004. All the footnotes are also the work of the translator. The translator takes full responsibility for any diminution in the quality of the piece that may have resulted from the changes.

2 The English translation, by Bruce Kirmmse, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. A Biography, was published by Princeton University Press in 2005.

3 All references to specific pages in the biography, unless otherwise indicated, are to the English translation.

4 So which was it, afternoon as the English translation of Garff's text reads, or "evening" as Nielsen's text reads? This passage from the original Danish edition of Garff's biography actually includes precisely the same expression, "sent om aften" (late in the evening) as Nielsen's text. The expression was altered to "afternoon" by the translator with the result that the plagiarism is more difficult to spot.

5 The passage that reads "there were rumors that he was to be imprisoned and executed [henrettes] on Christiansø, a notorious prison island" in Bukdahl and the passage that reads: "there were also rumors that he was to be incarcerated and executed on Christiansø, a notorious prison island" in Garff are actually identical in the original Danish editions of the books with the exception that Garff has the erroneous "executed." Kirmmse has elected to translate the single Danish expression "fængsles" by two different English expressions (i.e., "imprisoned" and "incarcerated") in the two translations. This, unfortunately, obscures the fact that Garff has copied Bukdahl's text verbatim.

6 This is the same term, "Brødremenighed." Kirmmse translated as "Congregation of Brethren" in Garff's book. That is, he has elected to translate the same term in two different ways in the two books, once again obscuring the extent to which Garff's text resembles Bukdahl's.

7 Kirmmse's translation of Bukdahl continues, "and was a member of the governing committee [the so-called ‘Gehülfen.'] until his death." The bracketed material is in Bukdahl's original Danish text. Kirmmse omits it in his translation of Bukdahl, but reinserts it in his translation of Garff's appropriation of this passage from Bukdahl. The effect of this departure from the original text is to obscure the fact that Garff has once again copied material verbatim from Bukdahl without indicating that that is what he has done.

8 The wording here indicates that Bukdahl actually copied his text from Baagø. There is no indication, however, in Bukdahl, that he has done this.

9 Kirmmse has added "internal" here. There is no corresponding adjective in the Danish text. Its addition obscures the similarity between Bukdahl's text, to which it was added by the translator and Garff's text, to which Kirmmse did not add it.

10 The Danish expression that is translated by Kirmmse in these two texts first as "religious awakenings" (Bukdahl), and then as "godly awakenings" (Garff), is actually identical in the two Danish originals. The expression in question is "gudelig vækkelse," though it is plural in Garff whereas it is singular in Bukdahl.

11 It should be noted here that the list of errors and plagiarisms in SAK provided here is only partial. There are more errors listed in the original Danish version of this article and according to Tudvad, many more instances of both than would be possible to list in any single article.

12 The material in the first two paragraphs of this section has been added by the translator.

13 Kirmmse has "took a shower together" where I have chosen the more literal translation "went for a common swim." A literal translation is necessary, as the reader will see, to understand Tudvad's comment on the passage. It is interesting to note, however, that Kirmmse's deviation from the Danish text, which was undoubtedly discussed with the author, confirms Tudvad's view of what Garff is attempting to insinuate here. That is, while Danish readers would have understood that the participants in the "common swim" were nude, English speaking readers might not have. In order to preserve Garff's inuendo, "swim" had to be changed to "shower."

14 Garff places the statement in quotation marks and includes a reference to the new critical edition of Kierkegaard's works Søren Kierkegaard's Skrifter [Søren Kierkegaard's Writings] (GAD, 1997-present). There is no way, however, for the reader who does not have access to this 25 volume scholarly work (it will eventually be 55 volumes) to know that Garff is quoting from one of Kierkegaard's pseudonymously published books rather than from Kierkegaard's personal correspondence or his journals.

15 Garff includes a reference in the notes at the back of the book to the Danish edition of Kierkegaard's journals and papers. It would be impossible for a reader who did not have access to this sixteen volume (in 25 tomes) work and who could not also read Danish to know that the statement in question was not made by Kierkegaard about himself, but was taken from a draft of The Concept of Anxiety, and thus from the mouth of the pseudonymous author, Vigilius Haufniensus.

16 See Kierkegaard: Letter and Documents, tran. Henrik Rosenmeier (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 174.