In the twilight of Søren Kierkegaard’s life, he begins to question his own philosophical fundament. He did not plan this. Actually, he would prefer to avoid it. But it is happening. While lying for nearly five weeks at the Royal Frederiks Hospital certain images, memories, and ideas surface.
Some of these trouble him.
He inscribed himself at the hospital after suffering from a blackout in the middle of the day. The purpose for this inscription is not recovery. Although he is only forty-two years old, he knows that this is a last preparation for the inevitable fact of life: that it ends. Soon he will meet his only master: God.
What he didn’t expect were the questions now emerging.
* * *
All Søren ever knew was that love matters. It was all that mattered. But love didn’t come free. Nothing really did. He had worked hard. Feverishly. Manically, perhaps. In less than fifteen years, he had—alone—put Denmark on the philosophical map. Given the world the term, “Existentialism,” which some French philosophers a hundred years later would make famous. He—Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, who would be known to the world as Kierkegaard, or SAK for those who didn’t dare say his name—had been generous. Lavishly, he had thrown pearls for the plebeian people.
He was not vain, though; it was just that no one else was capable of doing what he had done. This he knew. And he knew this regardless of how difficult it was for the stubborn Danish mentality to accept greatness. His whole existence was an anticipation of the classical paradox of genius. After his death, the Danes would celebrate him, his ideas, and his words as if the Danish mentality resembled him. After his death, that is.
Still, lying here on his deathbed he can’t help . . . help what? Thinking? Wondering? Doubting? He isn’t sure what it is, only that questions pop up in his mind: Did I really do it all, alone?
This question takes him fifteen years back. For a day, everything was clear. It was without doubt the most beautiful day in his life. He had asked for the hand of the young and beautiful girl called Regine. Her hands were soft and always smelled of roses. She had accepted his proposal without the slightest sign of hesitation.
“Yes.” That word alone was an affirmation of life. Yes. They were engaged. Yes. It made sense. Life.
He experienced for the first time serenity beyond reason. His pulse was calm; he even smiled for no particular reason. Yet, already the day after, he was full of scruples. Doubts. No, not doubts—he was certain that he had to make her cancel the engagement. What he didn’t know was how easy it was to ensnare a young girl and how difficult it was to untangle her again. To erase the metaphysical idea about love that he had planted deep inside her. It was almost impossible. Metaphysical treason. Especially because he would have to lie—nothing was more disgraceful than lying. It was against his philosophical conviction.
I lied, he thought underneath the warm blanket at the hospital. He lied to get himself out of it. What was it? Was it not love that he had experienced in that moment? And was love not the anchor of his philosophy, God’s love? Love in general?
He still remembers the question that came to him that evening as he walked home from the apartment of Regine’s parents. He remembers how his legs just stopped walking. For a moment, he was no longer alive. Trembling as if he literally was experiencing something dying.
What is my job in life? Then again, What is my Job in life? The question was pathetic, preposterous. And still, it hit him again and again, like some drunken boxer pumping his fist deep in your belly in a dark alley. Again, again, again: my Job, my Job, and my Job.
It took his breath away, prompting him to sit down on a bench. The city was dark. He could hear the movement of the water as he sat by one of the lakes that he normally passed on his daily walks. Gradually, he regained contact with his body, and his body felt the ground, the bench, his breath. He thought of the word “spirit,” this breath of fresh air that was there. Where did the air come from? Life?
“My Job is to serve God,” he said. He remembers it clearly. It was there that he realized all philosophy was an earnest matter that required a sprinkle of irony and humor to make it bearable. Then he laughed.
And then he cried.
* * *
Since Søren was a little boy, he had expected that his job was to serve immortality, to serve the eternal: God. Meeting Regine made him forget that promise. That predestination. Her smell alone would make his mind drift. She attracted him for no other reason than she was herself. She was everything. Still, all these years later, he could cry just thinking of her smile, so pure. Generous. More important was her approach to life. She was curious and questioned things. She was a philosopher—or she helped him become one.
It took him six months to separate himself from her. She wouldn’t let go of him. It was as if she sensed his staggering mind. At the end, he had to play the role of a charlatan. It was a good literary exercise. It gave him ideas about how to remain impersonal by becoming someone else, using pseudonyms. Actually, it was he who couldn’t leave her without playing a role. Or so he thought: he never left her.
Soon, at least officially, their relationship was over. He went to Berlin to lick his wounds and heal himself through writing. It was in Berlin that he realized, while listening to the boring German philosophers, that he had to contribute. No one encounters God sleeping. He needed to take a circuitous route through philosophy to awaken people.
To serve God, Søren would have to make the people see what he had seen, things that they could only see with his help. He knew that he would have to show them how their life was full of despair because they lacked faith. The reader needed to be guided gently, with care and literary tricks. They needed to gradually learn to gain more confidence in their intuitive belief rather than their all too predictable reason. Søren would lead them towards love.
* * *
Lying in his hospital bed, half asleep, Søren summarizes his achievements. For fifteen years, he did his service writing for God, leading human beings towards love through an uncompromising faith . . . He stops; it’s the word “love” that makes him uncomfortable. He calls the night nurse and asks her to relieve him from the blanket.
“You’re sweating, Mr. Kierkegaard. Are you okay?”
“I am fine. It’s life that makes my body boil with passion. Do you know how to write?”
“Yes, of course, but I have other patients,” she tells him.
“Of course you have. My writings haven’t cured people yet.”
“Don’t apologize, my dear. Go and check on the others. They need you more than I.” The night nurse leaves him with the blanket folded around his feet and a glass of water within his reach. He takes a sip.
Where’s the wine? How can people encounter death on a glass of water? Kierkegaard laughs and then coughs. He recalls writing how Jesus didn’t just transform water into wine; he confronted his followers about whether they were willing to suffer for their faith.
I will suffer drinking this lukewarm water with a damp aftertaste. He coughs again. Damn this cough. Now I can’t dictate anything when the night nurse returns. He is convinced that she will return.
Who wouldn’t take pleasure in capturing his last words?
Once Søren had written to Regine that “freedom is the element of love.” This is a true sentence, by far the truest sentence in Danish literature. He knows that because he wrote as if taking dictation from God. Since no one else had noticed, he had the advantage of being the messenger. His words are sacred because they aren’t really his. Nothing is his but freedom. Not even life.
Freedom is the element of love, of course. This is obvious. Since Plato, philosophers have tried to debate whether human beings are born free or whether free is something that they may become. Philosophy is obsessed with freedom because, without it, there is no love. Søren had always thought that you are not born free; free is something you become. Becoming free is a way of becoming worthy of God’s love. Søren’s Job was to free people, to make them capable of loving.
I am ready, my Lord. Are you?
As he hears the night nurse looking for something—paper, perhaps—he is stricken by new questions. Was I ever free? Was God really my true love Was it she?
He remembers her face, her hands, but mostly the way she smiled and laughed and sighed the first time he took her hand in his. He can still, after fifteen years, locate her smell in his nostrils. These are memories that he has never been able to delete or edit. Her presence is his anchor even now, even after having lived so many years without her. She is here. Now. She, Regine Olsen, is—for a time—his, Søren Kierkegaard’s, betrothed. Or, more likely: he is hers.
* * *
Another nurse comes in. “How are you today, Mr. Kierkegaard?”
“In relation to God, it’s not a good day. But can it ever be?”
“That depends,” says the nurse. She’s not the one from yesterday. He wonders if he has slept.
“How you choose to live.”
“One life or the other, one love or the other. How do you choose, if I may ask?”
“I follow my heart.”
“Hmm, your heart; But that is just a muscle,” he says.
The nurse hesitates. “I mean I can feel it, or I feel touched in a certain way.”
“Are you a sentimentalist, Nurse?”
“Is that bad?”
“Yes, it is”—he looked at her and saw her face full of insecurity—“but perhaps by your heart you refer to your intuition. I guess you just lack the words.”
“Don’t you ever feel touched?”
“Affected, you mean?”
The nurse hesitates again. “Maybe?” she says.
“Sometimes when I read out my manuscripts in a high voice, I can be—” He coughs.
“Are you okay, Mr. Kierkegaard?” The nurse helps him to take a sip of water. Again, the absence of wine flimmers in his mind. Is it a sign of a lack of faith?
“Thank you, Nurse. Now I feel better, but I am not better. You see the difference?”
“I am glad you feel better, Mr. Kierkegaard.”
He slips back, meditating on his life, his love. He feels deep gratitude for having lived part of his life with Regine. First as acquaintances, then as fiancés. Once it was over, and she later married another man, he felt convinced. No, he convinced himself that he was right in choosing the path leading to God.
No. Søren tries to shake his head. I was chosen. It was my Job to serve. Once you accept that you’re chosen to do something, you know what is of importance, and you can make decisions that liberate you. Most people just see freedom as a right to decide. So little imagination, so little education. He thinks of Socrates’s idea about the intimate relationship between self-knowledge and self-deception. One really has to know himself in order to take care of himself, and if he cannot care for himself, other people will have to do so. Why do so many refuse to think and live for themselves? And then, just as he is getting pompous, he is hit not by self-irony, as usual, but by doubt. Did I deceive myself? Is God, my Lord, just a character in my philosophy? Did I ever seduce anyone but myself?
He screams, a silent scream that penetrates everything. Later, the Norwegian painter Edward Munch immortalized the silent scream. Rumors say that Munch knew about Kierkegaard’s scream. Much later, a writer would refer to this particular incident with the words, “The horror! The horror!” Of being judgednot by God but by yourself when you come to realize something.
Søren instantly knows that such a scream is the work of God. A lesson. In the beginning was the word, in the end silence. Silence, he thinks. The only thing that I could not fulfill. I had to talk. I was a philosopher, not a sage. He sighs, throwing the glass on the floor. It doesn’t break.
* * *
Søren always thought that the most important moment was when the temporal crossed the eternal, or vice versa. A moment of truth that would forever mark a before and after in the midst of life’s flow. That moment was Regine. From the day he met her to the day that she left him, the eternal forces of love, gratitude, and even happiness touched him. It was servitude that made him leave her. He knew that a philosophy of happiness was something for the pulp magazines. He wanted his thoughts to be eternal, immortal like Socrates’ and Plato’s. For this reason, he needed a secret element, his secret story.
What was my relationship with God? Did my father really abandon God, and did his silliness affect me? These questions are glossy; one can only have a personal relationship with God. Søren never did moralize on behalf of God like the priests. No, he wrote to become immortal, to sit next to God and his great buffet together with all the immortalized men and women. Regine would be there, some would say because of him, his words. Now, having thrown the disgusting glass of water on the floor, he knows that it is the other way around. He was immortalized because of her, because of what she did to him. All he could do was write as a way of asking for forgiveness. “Do you forgive me, Regine?” he says out loud.
“Did you call, Mr. Kierkegaard?” asks the nurse.
“What do you want?”
“A second chance.”
“I am not sure I understand,” she says.
“Could you please contact my friend Emil Boesen?”
* * *
“Boesen, my dear friend, you remember how the Bible speaks about how the truth will set you free.”
“Of course, even those who haven’t read the book know that.”
“But it’s not true. Only when you are free will you be able to grasp the truth, really understand how things are related.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have asked you for many years to keep me informed about Regine.”
“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But, with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood, exactly because there is no single moment when time stops completely in order for me to adapt to the position of going backwards.”
“You’re quoting yourself.”
“Yes, for the last few weeks while I have been lying here, I have come to see that I am already death. Now I just wait for death to manifest itself. I am in a vacuum. Outside of time. These last few weeks I have been going backwards. I have lived my entire life heading towards God, trying to become worthy of his or her love. Yes, I am not even sure that God is a man. It doesn’t really matter, does it?”
“No, not really,” says Boesen.
“I have lived too fast. I have compensated for that by writing books; you can only read slowly. But, in my rush, I have noticed, no, I have neglected or ignored the fact that Regine was my moment of truth. All I ever did I did for her.”
“I am not sure I understand.”
“I was not yet free when I met her. Now I am free. I became free by writing and writing, and I see that why I wrote was not for the sake of meeting God but for her to understand that I loved her.”
Boesen doesn’t know how to reply.
“I could have lived a different life … a better life?”
“Don’t say that,” says Boesen.
“Everything should be dedicated to her.”
“Of course,” his friend says.
Then they are silent together. Søren looks at his friend before closing his eyes. Boesen smiles. He takes his dearest friend’s hand. He holds it until Søren Aabye Kierkegaard doesn’t breathe anymore.
He may have written for her, but he actually wrote on behalf of all of us, Boesen thinks. She is everything.
“You are the most generous person I will ever know,” Boesen says, and kisses Søren’s forehead.