An intellectual biography of Denmark’s second-most famous melancholic.
Hannay (Philosophy/Univ. of Oslo) has produced several works on Kierkegaard, one of the 19th century’s most iconoclastic thinkers, and he has translated many of Kierkegaard’s books into English. Here he applies his formidable knowledge of the philosopher’s work to the task of grounding it in the minutiae of the man’s life. From the outset Hannay admits that many will dispute the relevance of his project, and those who believe that the story of an author’s life sheds no light on the meaning of his works will find little to savor here. Those of other theoretical persuasions will be richly rewarded, however. Moving chronologically through Kierkegaard’s life with somewhat breathtaking familiarity, the author deftly isolates the influences that specific events had on his thinking. Most interestingly, the Danish-speaking Hannay is able to situate Kierkegaard in his Copenhagen milieu, revealing local, often petty battles where others have seen earthshaking disputes with Great European Thinkers. The problem with Hannay’s approach, however, is that in the end not terribly much happened to Kierkegaard. Apart from the well-known jilting of his fiancée (which effectively began his writing career) and the self-immolating attack on the church (which ended it), Kierkegaard’s adult life was surprisingly uneventful. Twenty years of studying German philosophers and writing like a fiend produced some fascinating books, but it did not make for riveting biography. Furthermore, the breadth of Hannay’s knowledge occasionally pushes him towards the hagiographic; he tends to find a rationale for every utterance of Kierkegaard’s, no matter how small or strange, despite the strong possibility that Kierkegaard (with his love of pseudonyms and propensity for depression) may have been a bit unstable. For those with the patience and willingness to work their way through, though, a remarkably nuanced, delicately drawn picture of Kierkegaard’s thought eventually emerges here.
Kierkegaard’s great fear was that later thinkers would cram his life’s work into a two-paragraph précis; Hannay has gone to great lengths to prevent that from ever happening.