On Kierkegaard, Authenticity, and How a Person Should Be

A Conversation with Sheila Heti, Noreen Khawaja, and Clare Carlisle


May 5, 2020

Søren Kierkegaard, the influential 19th-century Danish philosopher, has been the subject of many excellent biographies. But none, until Clare Carlisle’s new biography, Philosopher of the Heart, have considered so seriously, and with such depth and eloquence, the issue that surely would have most interested Kierkegaard himself: what it feels like to live the question of existence, the question of how to be a human being.

Taking inspiration from Socrates, Kierkegaard refused to compromise in his search for an authentic spiritual life. He wrote a series of remarkable, genre-defying philosophical works, and battled with his fellow Christians to keep alive the questions, ironies, and longings that sustained his relationship to God. Carlisle’s study allows us to find Kierkegaard in his loves and hesitations, his fantasies and fragilities and bursts of courage, and the intimate, dynamic, unsettling play of thought and life. A book that seeks to restore the human gravity to Kierkegaard’s life of work, it is as concerned as Kierkegaard himself was with the quiet miracle of how we relate to one another, and to ourselves, in search.

Sheila Heti is the author of books including How Should a Person Be? and a longtime reader of Kierkegaard; earlier this year, she found her way to Clare’s new book, about which they began corresponding. Noreen Khawaja is the author of The Religion of Existence: Asceticism in Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Sartre. She and Sheila have been in dialogue since meeting several months ago at a literary festival, while Clare and Noreen met many years ago at a conference about Kierkegaard, and have carried on speaking since. For this conversation, the three of them spoke together for the first time about Kierkegaard and Carlisle’s book.

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Sheila: Reading your biography, I was moved to think about Kierkegaard as one of the early modern celebrities. He is mocked, parodied and caricatured in the press, and there is both a resentment of him, and an interest in him. The resentment was in part because of his seriousness, and his self-seriousness—and there are lines in the book where you also seem to be teasing him a bit for his self-seriousness.

I like the fact that he’s a human being, not a saint, and part of being a human being is to be self-involved, and to care about what people think.Sheila: What do you make of the fact that he couldn’t reason his way out of caring what people thought? That to me is a bit of a mystery: why couldn’t this incredible mind get himself out of that fix?

Clare: Well… that’s just not Kierkegaard, and that’s not his ideal. The ideal of detachment is almost the temptation for him—the temptation to be a recluse. And I think one thing the relationship to God meant to him was being looked at very differently from how the eyes of the world see you. The kinds of judgements human beings make of each other all the time are very natural, we can’t really help judging other people—that’s the world; but the relationship to God is a way of stepping outside the claustrophobia of human judgement, and maybe gives some perspective on it, rather than the judgement of other people being the final word on your life.

Noreen: He’s interested in the person so much; the person at the heart of the performance. I never fell in for a lot of the talk which presents the aesthetic and the ethical—these different spheres or phases or shapes or stages—I never fell in for talk that insisted on their tension implying something exclusive, as if one were choosing one or the other.

Clare: I think for Kierkegaard, those categories are a way of directing attention to the question of how one lives. What you do—being a Christian, for example, or being a philosopher—stays the same, but how you relate to it can be so radically different. Aesthetically, being a Christian can be about trying to have an experience, or you can find it intellectually interesting to do some theology; or it can be a more ethical pursuit, where it’s about commitment and relating to other people; or it can be religious, where your primary orientation is to God, and to the question of God. I think for Kierkegaard, the aesthetic—his authorship as a work of art—is his relationship to God, and it’s his offering to God.

So by coupling the aesthetic with the religious, the aesthetic is transfigured. His work has a devotional character. I talked about the claustrophobia of being subject to the judgements of other people. Well, the aesthetic provides a certain relief from that, just as the religious does; a freedom from moralizing judgements and from expected patterns and forms. You know, it’s a very experimental place to be, the aesthetic. There’s an opening of horizons that art can make possible.

Sheila: Reading your book made me consider Kierkegaard in relation to these thinkers who made modernity and the twentieth century, like Marx and Freud. If in some way they all use themselves as a laboratory to perceive what’s wrong in us, or the nature of the condition that we’re all in together, well, I can see really tangibly the results of Marx and Freud’s writings and influence—there was Communism, there are psychiatrists. But where do you see Kierkegaard? Did he have a similarly large effect on who we are?

Clare: He does have a powerful effect, but the nature of his work is to appeal to what he calls “the single individual”. He’s not trying to build a new world externally, or create new practices in the way Freud did. Of course, you could point to a cultural phenomenon like Existentialism, but I think the most powerful effects are within his readers. One of the nice things about writing the book is receiving emails or letters from readers, who often tell me how important Kierkegaard has been to them. I enjoy hearing how much people care about him, and how much his ideas have shaped peoples’ relationships to themselves and their inner lives—you know, Kierkegaard is addressing the inner life, and he’s reminding people that they have an inner life. So it’s there, in the very possibility and sustaining of an inner life, that his influence is felt and his work is done.

Kierkegaard is addressing the inner life, and he’s reminding people that they have an inner life.Noreen: I see thinking into oneself as requiring muscles or practices that are very hard to maintain in all of the kinds of conditions that we’re in. Sheila, you asked the question of where the imprint of Kierkegaard’s writing and work is, and I wonder if writing is another site where we could think about it. In your own work as a writer, does he show up?

Sheila: Well, so much of modernism is people writing about the interior life of characters—take Thomas Bernhard or Virginia Woolf. And that’s also Kierkegaard. So much of my writing and the writers I love the most—that’s what the concern is with: the inner movement. I wish there was more of Kierkegaard’s influence in our world, in terms of his idea of commitment just to a few things. It’s like you take a few things—the woman, or the lover, and God, and your work—and then everything is sort of funneled into and through these. He’s one of the few examples I have of how you actually only need to make one or two decisions in life. If you just choose one or two things, that is enough content and mystery and emotional engagement—and those things can provide enough of a standard to suffer by how much you’re missing the mark—for the rest of your life. I don’t know where I see that sense of seriousness when I look around the world, or the idea that you can also follow a thought so long, and give so much importance to following it to its end.

Noreen: I love the way you turn the question from one of imprint to one of, Why am I not seeing this imprint? Because I share that, and I think that was where my question was coming from. But I think it’s not really about the number of people we’re in relation to being few, or that we care only about one or two things, but rather that our cares can be organized in only one or two ways.

Sheila: What do you mean organized in one or two ways?

Noreen: So I might say my life is organized around work or love or those two things together, and then suddenly the world changes in a small or a large way that I wasn’t expecting, something enters my horizon. Or I start to get interested in something I didn’t think I was interested in, or I’m being called to do a kind of work that I didn’t anticipate. So it’s more a way of saying, How do you think about your cares, and relate them to one another, such as to be responsive in the least exhausting ways and the most giving ways, when those cares change and the objects of those cares reveal themselves to be unexpectedly fragile?

Clare: Yes, Kierkegaard has a great anxiety about loss, and a very acute sense of fragility and vulnerability. The whole world can be lost; that’s what Fear and Trembling is about, in a way. But Kierkegaard wasn’t just aware of this possibility. I think he actually experienced it many times. I mean, he was on track to become a priest, probably a theologian, to have a career, to get married, and then his life completely changed. After publishing Either/Or, he develops a sense of himself as an author, and a sense of his authorship as something he’s going to devote his life to, and this vision of himself as a successful author becomes his identity. He starts off as a successful author, but then he kind of loses it, and I think he became very disappointed by the fact that he didn’t have the glittering career that he expected to have.

During the 1840s, he realized that the people whose opinion he valued most, who would most be able to recognize him and crown him as a great figure, thought he was a bit weird, and didn’t take him as seriously as he thought he should be taken. That was a crushing disappointment, and it changed his theology. In the early 1840s he saw the religious life as receiving the world back after you thought it was lost. And then he realizes, “Oh no, I’m not going to get the world back. It’s only after I die, or in eternity, that the fulfillments of my life are going to come.”

Sheila: But that also has to have been a bit of a reassurance, because Socrates had the same experience, and Jesus Christ had the same experience, so on some deeper level that was exactly what should have happened to him: to be able to suffer the loss of esteem that is supposed to come with being a true Christian. The fact that that’s what he actually had to suffer is the best possible thing that could have happened to him, and then to be able to write out of those feelings of having lost the whole world—what could have been better?

Clare: Yes, and I think he did come to understand worldly success as precisely the price he had to pay. That’s why Jesus became an increasingly important figure for him. He wasn’t writing about Jesus much in the earlier years of his work. Then, after 1848, he got really interested in the idea of following Christ, and imitating Christ, and the high price the Christian life demanded.

Sheila: I found it very moving, the letter you cite at the end of your book, where he says that he loves the people of Denmark or Copenhagen and that he never thought he was better than them. Those lines illuminate so much about his whole entire life.

Clare: Definitely. I mean, that’s why I put them in the book. [laughs]

Sheila: The end of your book is so incredibly moving and heartbreaking.

Clare: Yeah, it really moved me to write it. You know what it’s like when you end up reading your book quite a lot, because you’re reading drafts, and then you read proofs—but even so, I always found that bit about the last days of his life—it can still make me cry.

Sheila: It almost seems like he killed himself, like he worked himself to death or willed or chose his death in some way—as though it was an aesthetic and religious act to bring his death about when he did.

Clare: Yes, it’s really uncanny in a way. I do have a very strong sense of him just pouring himself into his authorship—all his energy, his whole soul, and his money as well. It’s such a curious thing that his money ran out at the same time as his life-force ran out. It all kind of came to an end, but that end was also somehow a fulfillment.

His money ran out at the same time as his life-force ran out. It all kind of came to an end, but that end was also somehow a fulfillment.Noreen: I think the extent to which he suffused his life and work with the value of choice is maybe what gives him some kind of kinship to certain modern artists. So much of what we respond to in modern art is a choice. You know, putting an object in a different context, and the choice of what that context is becomes enough to hang an aesthetic judgement on. This is a two-thirds formed thought, but it just struck me that, I don’t know, it’s performative, it’s dramatic, that final choice. Is there a way we can think about that as a kind of performance art which—like great performance art—doesn’t think of the difference between art and life as something rigid?

Clare: That’s really interesting. I think for Kierkegaard there’s also the idea of choice not as something that’s chosen, but as something that’s given—like, say, an unexpected pregnancy—which can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. Then freedom and choice open up down the line in asking, how do I receive this? It becomes a choice of how to relate to something, rather than a choice in the primary sense of, what am I going to make? I think there’s a tendency to caricature Existentialism as about these big moments of choice, but often it’s more like: something just presents itself and then one has to respond. Kierkegaard’s favorite biblical text was “every good and perfect gift is from above,” and he’s interested in the question, How do you actually receive the things that life often throws at you, especially when they’re not chosen, as ‘good and perfect gifts’?

Sheila: Kierkegaard also gives me the feeling that the question of choice is about: Do you pay attention? And how closely do you listen to what God wants of you? You can choose to listen carefully, sensitively, and interpretively, or not to listen. I think the hardest thing for me to do when I read Kierkegaard is to remember that I’m not Kierkegaard; I’m Sheila. I’m probably not called to do the same things with my life that he was called to do with his. Yet whenever I read Kierkegaard, I fall into taking him as an example of how to live. But he’s not an example of how to live except perhaps in the sense of listening to how you are called to live, and then being very thorough, and sacrificing what needs to be sacrificed, without fear, in order to live that.

Clare: His works are like mirrors, aren’t they? His works are in many ways about himself, but when you’re reading them, they’re also about you. And that’s deliberate. That’s another amazing thing about his writing—that it can be both all about him, and all about you, at the same time; the same text can do that.

Sheila: I often feel ashamed of how I’m living when I read him. Ashamed and inspired. I guess that’s what a sermon sort of wants you to feel, to the degree that some of his texts are sermons.

Clare: I don’t think he would want you to feel ashamed of yourself.

Sheila: I do!

Clare: I don’t. I think he would want you to think, What am I doing with my life?

Sheila: But I mean, What am I doing with my life?—inevitably the answer would make most people feel ashamed.

Noreen: Yeah, I feel judged by him all the time, but the same way I accuse my therapist of judging me. It’s my judgement boomeranging back through the attentiveness of Kierkegaard’s observations. It’s the intimacy that his writing generates that allows us to feel that we’re alone with some of our demons when we’re reading him. In one of the prefaces he says that the book seeks to give itself to the reader, to be received by her so wholly, “as if it had arisen in her own heart.” That’s an incredible ambition, to embody a voice that will be so subtle in its way of reaching you that it almost appears to disappear, and leaves you alone with yourself. So many of his characters are what he calls vanishing persons, and I think there’s something of that in his own presence. It’s not that he wasn’t there. He is the subject of this beautiful biography. He was there. But there’s something about the way his voice reaches us that it’s as though he’s not. I don’t know how he learned that. From sermons? How did he learn how to disappear?

Clare: His really extraordinary capacity to disappear—it’s so paradoxical given his reputation for self-involvement. It does make me think how misunderstood he is. He has the capacity to reach out to his reader and to disappear in order for the other person to see themselves and to come into being, while at the same time being a really charismatic figure. I don’t know how he does that really. I can’t answer the question.

Noreen: You know, as I asked, “How did he learn to do disappear in order for the reader to appear; and how did he learn to want to do that?” a sudden shudder came over me. I realized, maybe he learned it from God.

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Clare Carlisle teaches philosophy and theology at King’s College London, and is the author of several books on philosophy and philosophers, most recently Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard.

Noreen Khawaja writes about thought and culture and teaches in the Religion and Modernity program at Yale University. She is the author of The Religion of Existence: Asceticism in Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Sartre.

Sheila Heti is the author of eight books of fiction and non-fiction, most notably, the novels How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood.

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