Kierkegaard’s Muse

This biography would not have been written if the woman portrayed, Regine Olsen (1822–1904), had not been loved and jilted by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), who went on to devote a massive body of philosophical work to her. Kierkegaard courted Regine for a year, then broke it off when he realized his aloof, melancholic disposition made him unfit to be a good husband. When she fought his decision, even going so far as to say she would be willing to live in a cupboard in his apartment—for she was a small woman, but loving, fiery, intelligent, sardonic—he acted like a rogue to try to make her hate him enough to accept their separation.

He never quite succeeded in convincing her he was a rogue. For six years Regine saw Kierkegaard on walks and at church; they would smile and sometimes nod at one another but they never spoke. In the meantime, Fritz Schlegel was courting her. One Sunday in church, Regine smiled and looked questioningly at Kierkegaard; he nodded back. What he did not know was she was asking if he approved of her marrying Schlegel. Since they never spoke, it was a bit unfair of him to be as alarmed as he was at their marriage. Biographer Joakim Garff (University of Copenhagen), describes Fritz Schlegel as, “practically the exact opposite of Kierkegaard: stable, harmonious, healthy, un-ironic, and patient...thus made for marriage.”

These words comes from Garff’s earlier effort, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, a 867-page tome published in Denmark in 2000 and in English in 2005, which was both an account of Kierkegaard’s life and a reading of his philosophy. Since Kierkegaard’s life and work were one and since this life-work was devoted to Regine, there was much of Regine in the biography. However, one summer, during the writing of this biography—he mentions it in the book—a “well-preserved elderly couple” asked if Garff would be interested in correspondence between Regine and her sister Cornelia from the five years Regine lived in St. Croix after Fritz was appointed governor there. The elderly woman was the granddaughter of Cornelia. Garff was amazed at his good fortune.

Garff uses Regine’s letters as jumping-off points to comment on Kierkegaard and his work, of course, but also Danish colonial history and West Indian history in general. The whole colonial world was based on the slave trade. The Danes bought slaves in Africa, shipped them to the West Indies to work on the sugar plantations, then filled the empty holds with sugar for the voyage back.

At first Regine looked down on the slaves as little more than big children; some of this attitude, besides pure prejudice, was due to the recent freeing of the slaves after a violent uprising, and the government’s failure to make that freedom real. Later though, Regine turned a blind eye to the food disappearing from her larder. “There is indeed no conspicuous turnaround [in her attitudes toward the blacks], but the imported prejudices seem to give way to a more humane and sympathetic attitude,” Garff writes, “that, on several occasions, led to Regine’s overstepping traditional class distinctions and forgetting her status as First Lady of the West Indies.” She and Fritz lived a double life, themselves not really caring for island intrigues and gossip, but still acting the roles of “courtly hosts.”

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