A Keeper of Love’s Flame: Regine Olsen and Søren Kierkegaard

ON MARCH 17, 1855, the 33-year-old Regine Olsen was due to leave Copenhagen for the Danish West Indies, where her husband of eight years, Johan Frederik Schlegel, had been appointed governor. The appointment would keep the couple abroad for more than five years, making the toll of saying goodbye to family and friends especially great. After all, one did not embark on a journey of almost 4,500 miles in the middle of the 19th century without courting very real dangers — shipwreck, weather, disease, to mention a few. Regine was well aware of the risks: her oldest brother Oluf Christian, employed as a toll inspector on Saint Croix from 1845 to 1857, lost both his wife, Laura, and his younger sister Olivia, during his difficult time on the island.
Whether in spite or because of the ominous journey ahead of her, Regine made an important decision, it seems, on the day of her departure: she sought out a strange man to whom she had once been engaged; a man who had left her, and to whom she had not spoken in 14 years. But if they had not spoken, Regine Olsen and Søren Kierkegaard had not exactly remained strangers either. For years they had passed each other on their walks throughout the city, often in an openly calculated fashion. On Kierkegaard’s 39th birthday, for instance, Regine suddenly appeared on the street in front of his home on Østerbro. “As often happens to me of late, I can’t help but smile when I see her,” the melancholy Dane wrote in his journal. His smile was returned, whereupon the birthday boy removed his hat in greeting. Then, as if by agreement, the old lovers again went their separate ways.
The silence between them remained unbroken until the day of Regine’s departure. Suddenly, in the midst of her travel arrangements, she rushed from her apartment in Nybrogade out into the Saturday morning crowds. After a frantic search she eventually came across the familiarly stooping figure on a random Copenhagen street. Quietly she approached him and exclaimed, in a delicate voice, “God bless you — may good things come your way!” Then she departed again, leaving her ex-fiancé standing there with his hat in his hand, speechless, stupefied.
It was the last they ever saw of each other. Regine left for the Caribbean later that day, while Kierkegaard, after a final paroxysm of intense literary production, departed this world permanently just eight months later, on November 11, 1855.
This, more or less, is the story that opens Joakim Garff’s biography, Regines gåde: Historien om Kierkegaards forlovede og Schlegels hustru (Regine’s Mystery: The Story of Kierkegaard’s Fiancée and Schlegel’s Wife), published in Denmark just last year. The book is a moving, penetrating insight into one of the greatest and most perplexing love stories in literary history, written with the same scholarly vigilance and imaginative affection that made Garff’s biography of Kierkegaard (Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, published in 2000 and translated into English in 2005) such a monumental achievement. Garff’s new book is the first to render its particular kind of attention to Regine, and it goes further than any previous attempt to explore and understand the relationship between Regine and Kierkegaard. Scholars as well as gossips have been fascinated by the relationship since it first became public, over 150 years ago — conventionally, Regine is imagined as a more or less brokenhearted victim of Kierkegaard’s philosophical disregard. Garff challenges this account, describing a surprisingly intimate bond between them, behind and alongside the dissolution of their relationship. And yet Garff’s is also a radical attempt to free Regine from Kierkegaard’s embrace, to allow her to step a little further into the light so that we may attempt to see her on her own terms, as an individual human being and not merely a recurring, if invisible, central character in Kierkegaard’s literary-theological oeuvre.
Garff would surely be the first to admit that any such attempt is bound to fail. To begin with, no single book could undo the mythologizing of Regine that Kierkegaard’s massive output commenced 170 years ago. Secondly, and more practically, Regine is fated to remain a mystery because she left so little of herself behind — no confessions, no diaries, no howling indiscretions. Even the discovery, in 1996, of several hundred letters Regine wrote to her sister Cornelia from Saint Croix offers precious little insight into her innermost being. From these letters, Graff explains, we learn about the public Regine — Regine’s husband would often read or add his greeting to the letters — rather than the private. There are hints, allusions, intimations, but nothing more. What the two sisters spoke about in private, we can only imagine or guess at; Regine remains hidden, her relationship to Kierkegaard a secret between lovers. But perhaps this quiet itself is a small key to the romance; as Kierkegaard’s Aesthete A says of Antigone in Either/Or, “Perhaps nothing ennobles a human being so much as keeping a secret.”
A strength of Garff’s book is that it simultaneously acknowledges the lack of decisive knowledge about Regine and Kierkegaard’s romance and renders it movingly, almost viscerally. As Garff recounts, the couple first met in 1837, though it would be another three years before Kierkegaard, as he later wrote in his journal, “left home with the firm intention of deciding the matter.” On a September day in 1840 he showed up in front of the house in Børsgade where Regine lived with her parents. They met on the street outside and went upstairs. Standing uneasily in the parlor room, Kierkegaard asked Regine to play him some music on the piano. She obliged, but Kierkegaard quickly seized the music book and exclaimed, “Oh, what do I care about music? It’s you I’m looking for, you I’ve been seeking for two years.” This event marked the beginning, as Garff writes in his biography of Kierkegaard, of “one of the great love stories of world literature.” Drawing comparisons to, among others, Dante and Beatrice, Abelard and Héloïse, he says of the couple that they are “together in eternity because they never could be together in earthy life.” Indeed, Kierkegaard and Regine’s story often reads like the stuff of folk tales and verse epics (cryptic notes and secret gestures abound). For instance, the 31 letters Kierkegaard sent Regine between their engagement and its dissolution a year later, Garff says, are “not ordinary communication; they are art” (the passage in Regines gåde appears word-for-word in Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography):
[…] by virtue of their indisputably aesthetic qualities, the letters make it clear that their author was to become not a husband but a writer. So they were actually farewell letters, grandiose exercises in the art of indirect communication: With enormous discretion and employing the entire panoply of the most nuanced shades of language, they try to make Regine realize that the person who sings her praises in letter after letter has long since disappeared from her life because he has lost himself in recollection of her and is thus utterly unsuited for married life. Indeed, recollection, from which fantasy draws its life, is also the source of the death that divides the lovers. In looking back upon events, Kierkegaard claimed that the very next day after Regine had said “Yes,” he had already realized that he had “made a mistake.”
Reading Kierkegaard’s work, it’s hard not to see an ongoing scrutiny of this mistake. Repetition (1843), for instance, is haunted throughout by the specter of Regine Olsen. In that book the narrator, Constantin Constantinius, befriends a Young Man who has fallen in love and become engaged only to regret it almost immediately: “He was deeply and passionately in love, this was clear, and yet he was already, in the earliest days, in a position to recollect his love. He was basically finished with the whole relationship.” His love had already become a memory, the young woman a muse of the past: “She had permeated every aspect of his being. The thought of her was always fresh. She had been important for him. She had made him into a poet, and with this signed her own death-sentence.”


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