As she settles back into Amsterdam life, HANNA BLOM reflects on one of the courses she took during her semester in Copenhagen, Denmark. While Copenhagen was cozy and vibrant, the lack of sunlight and cold weather made it a challenge to continuously keep spirits high. Luckily, one Danish existentialist proved himself to be the right companion for the emotional rollercoaster felt by lost and lonely students abroad.
August in Copenhagen is a hopeful time, as international students arrive on planes and trains galore. They wildly purchase shiny bikes, and bikebaskets, and bikehelmets, and anything else the salesman tells them is necessary in Danish traffic. The sun still comes out, learning the language feels like a reachable goal and everyone around them seems approachable. At this time of new beginnings and adventures, students register for their courses and one of them has grown to be quite popular among non-Danish students; Søren Kierkegaard and The Challenge of Existence. A philosophy course for philosophy novices focused on the great theological existentialist of Copenhagen.
Before students dive into his philosophy, they first get to know his story a bit. His life was riddled with tragedies, starting even before his birth. His father, Michael Pedersen Kierkegaard, grew up in Northern Jutland and while having felt forlorn as a young shepherd boy in a rough storm, he had cursed at God. From that moment on he was haunted with this impermissible sin, growing to be an overbearing religious pertinent, morbidly fanatical with this idea that he had deeply offended God. Søren’s mother was Michael’s (late) wife’s maid, who had become pregnant and married Michael shortly after his wife’s death. While his first wife died childless after two years of marriage, the maid, Ane Sørensdatter Lund, had seven children. Michael had managed to move to Copenhagen and even to retire at fourty after having made a good fortune off of property and merchantry. When many of Copenhagen’s wealthy went bankrupt in 1813, Michael did not and some- how this troubled him even more. His dooming childhood sin, the tragedy of his financial security; all of these troubling thoughts weighed on him and were projected onto little Søren, together with an immense pressure to per- form excellently in school. Many of his siblings passed away before they turned 30, which was seen as Michael’s doomed legacy carrying on, and Søren did not dare to expect a different fate. He was 17 when his father passed away and mostly shocked to see that he had been able to outlive him.
Kierkegaard believed that his normality had been sacrificed on a religious altar, that due
to his father’s glooming presence and how he had involved young Søren with all of his inner turmoils, he would now never be able to enjoy marriage, parenthood or a career. When he became engaged to Regina Olsen, after having groomed her for three years until she reached the appropriate age to be wooed, he abruptly called off the engagement. He felt that he did not deserve to be with her. He then started to misbehave and be seen in bad parts of town, in order for Regina not to question God for having caused her this pain. Kierkegaard was mocked nationally by a satirical magazine because of his weak spine and thus stooped posture with skinny legs. With his critique of the Danish Lutheran Church he also effectively alienated himself from any friends. There are many more stories like these, because Søren Kierkegaard was a gloomy, gloomy man. These tales are told by the teacher while the students go on an outing through the city past his house, the library where he studied, the street where he collapsed a month before his passing, and finally his grave.
As Denmark already starts to grow colder, long before the home countries of international students seem to do, the course has set the stage of plastering this once fun city with Kierkegaard’s personal tragedies, to then dive into his existentialism. The course starts off with his theory of three stages of existence; the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. When one finds themselves in the aesthetic stage, their choices are based on direct satisfaction and not concerned with morality. The arts and erotics are considered inherent parts of this stage, as the only known evil is boredom. In the ethical stage, one does not act because the action will bring them anything personally beneficial, but because it is good. Amorality then equals immorality. In the religious stage, one makes the decision not to allow the laws and customs of one’s people to be one’s highest norm—not to equate socialization with sanctity and salvation but to be open to a voice of greater authority, namely God’s. Going to parties, justifying expensive pastries and craft beers because they belong to the local cuisine, the general Erasmus pressure to make the most out of this semester and to have fun all the time is effectively shot down by Kierkegaard as a frivolous and empty use of your life.
At this point in the course, the amount of time that the sun is out becomes noticeably limited. Recovering from a hangover by staying in bed most of the day equals depriving oneself completely of any vitamine D, unless you have started to consume that through pills or high tech lights. Fitting in with the fashion forward Copenhagen crowd becomes a challenge due to financial and warmth issues. This is when the course takes on Sickness unto Death. Kierkegaard was intrigued by abnormal states of consciousness, to be able to derive the significance of existence. The Sickness unto Death is despair, the longing for death. The person who despairs, despairs of becoming the self he is, so he wishes to become nothing. He despairs because he cannot consume himself and is thus consumed by a death wish. This death wish is usually unconscious, but different degrees of despair exist. The more conscious, the more intense the despair. During the class discussion of Sickness unto Death, all August-jitters are far gone. A third of the students has left throughout the course, and the remaining seem to have finished their Kierkegaardian transformation. All previous colours and prints have long left the class- room, and what is left is rough denim and thick knitted turtleneck sweaters in dark blues and greys. Sunlight deficient, pale faces stare at the teacher wearingly while he recites “Man is spirit, but what is spirit? Spirit is the self, but what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self.” The teacher consults confused and exhausted students between the breaks. Understanding or not understanding Kierkegaard does not define you, he assures them. We are all still smart.
As students return to their home universities, any winter that is not Scandinavian feels like spring. The sun miraculously comes out everyday and thoughts are clearer, now that their brains are not exposed to excessive amounts of candle fumes. Donning their floor-length wool coats, they have fought and beaten the Nordic winter melancholy and they can decide to either take Kierkegaard with them, or leave him in Copenhagen.