Anatomy of a Breakup: Søren Kierkegaard & Regine Olsen

“You, my heart’s sovereign mistress (‘Regina’) stored in the deepest recesses of my heart, in my most brimmingly vital thoughts, there where it is equally far to heaven as to hell–unknown divinity!  Oh, can I really believe what the poets say:  that when a man sees the beloved object for the first time he believes he has seen her long before, that all love, as all knowledge, is recollection, that love in the single individual also has its prophecies, its types, its myths, its Old Testament?  Everywhere, in every girl’s face, I see features of your beauty, yet I think I’d need all the girls in the world to extract, as it were, your beauty from theirs, that I’d have to criss-cross the whole world to find the continent I lack yet that which the deepest secret of my whole ‘I’ magnetically points to – and the next moment you are so near me, so present, so richly supplementing my spirit that I am transfigured and feel how good it is to be here…” 2 February , 1839.

Regine Olsen by Emil Bærentzen (1840)

The tormented philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard pursued Regine Olsen for two years before he proposed and ultimately regretted the decision he’d made.  They met in the spring of 1837 while Kierkegaard was still a student.  His liking for her was immediate.  He pursued her as a friend and then a suitor before he confessed his true feelings, which he recounted in his writings about the awkward event nine years later:

“On 8 September I left home with the firm intention of settling the whole thing.  We met on the street just outside their house.  She said there was no one at home.  I was rash enough to take this as the invitation I needed.  I went in with her.  There we stood, the two of us alone in the living room.  She was a little flustered.  I asked her to play something for me as she usually did.  She does so but I don’t manage to say anything. Then I suddenly grab the score, close it not without a certain vehemence, throw it onto the piano and say: Oh! What do I care for music, it’s you I want, I have wanted you for two years.  She kept silent.  As it happens, I had taken no steps to captivate her, I had even warned her against me, against my melancholy.  And when she mentioned a relationship with [Johan Frederik] Schlegel [future husband and former teacher], I said: Let that relationship be a parenthesis for I have first priority…She mostly kept silent.”

Not the stuff made of ladies’ dreams, is it?  Despite his fumbling, Regine agreed to marry Kierkegaard, and they were engaged for almost a year before he sealed his engagement ring in a breakup letter and put it in the post on 11 August, 1841.  Is that today’s equivalent of breaking up via text?  Among a few other lines which aren’t necessary to relate, he wrote: “Above all forget the one who writes this: forgive someone who whatever else he was capable of could not make a girl happy.”

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch by Niels Christian Kierkegaard

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard, 1840. Based on a sketch by Niels Christian Kierkegaard.

Regine was rightfully devastated.  She thought herself in love with a melancholic heart, and the poor girl threatened to commit suicide.  She was so put out that Kierkegaard stopped writing her “I don’t love you anymore” letters (he thought indifference would convince her of his unworthiness) and finally visited her in person on 11 October, 1841…where he said some dick things:

“…I received a letter from him [her father] saying that she had not slept that night, that I must come and see her.  I went and made her see reason.  She asked me: Will you never marry.  I answered: Yes, in ten years time, when I have had my fling, I will need a lusty girl to rejuvenate me.  It was a necessary cruelty.”

Kierkegaard was capable of intellectual romantic excesses and though he broke with Regine because of his depressive nature, his inability to be writer and husband, and what he decided was divine opposition, the complicated man remembered her fondly for the rest of his life.  Upon his death, he wished Regine to have “whatever little I  may leave behind… [his books and author’s rights].  What I want to express in this way is that to me an engagement was and is just as binding as a marriage, and that therefore my estate is her due exactly as if I had been married to her.”  It was later revealed in 1896 that her husband Schlegel refused the inheritance.  Regine is also said to have destroyed her letters to Kierkegaard, so there isn’t much from her point of view, but Kierkegaard, who some biographers say suffered from hypergraphia, later reflected:

“I cannot quite place her impact on me in a purely erotic sense.  It is true that the fact that she yielded almost adoringly to me, pleaded with me to love her, had so touched me that I would have risked everything for her.  But the fact that I always wanted to hide from myself the degree to which she touched me is also evidence of the extent to which I loved her… Had I not been a penitent, had my vita ante acta not been melancholic, marriage to her would have made me happy beyond my dreams.  But even I, being the person I unfortunately am, had to say that without her I could be happier in my unhappiness than with her – she had touched me deeply, and I would so much, ever so much, have done everything.”  24 August, 1849

You can read more about Kierkegaard’s writing on Regine in Papers and Journals: A Selection. I also did a series of posts a while back on Napoleon’s letters (Achy Breaky Heart part one or part two) to Josephine if you find yourself in an epistolary reading mood.

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5 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Breakup: Søren Kierkegaard & Regine Olsen

  1. “I cannot quite place her impact on me in a purely erotic sense. It is true that the fact that she yielded almost adoringly to me, pleaded with me to love her, had so touched me that I would have risked everything for her. But the fact that I always wanted to hide from myself the degree to which she touched me is also evidence of the extent to which I loved her… Had I not been a penitent, had my vita ante acta not been melancholic, marriage to her would have made me happy beyond my dreams. But even I, being the person I unfortunately am, had to say that without her I could be happier in my unhappiness than with her – she had touched me deeply, and I would so much, ever so much, have done everything.”

    I actually like this guy. That statement above makes me still chuckle. Not sure if he had (a) intimacy issues, (b) bipolar disorder, (c) depression, or (d) all of the above.

    1. The more I learned about him, the more I found it impossible to dislike him. He’s the anti-hero in their love story–does something bad for a very good reason–and appears without feeling because of it. It would be easy to think he was unkind, but his writings reveal the opposite. But what a boatload of issues!

  2. I liked your blog post and referred it to my local artist friend, Chris Ruggia. My email to Chris describing how some elements reflect a coffee-time discussion e had recently. I am including a copy of my email here:
    Hi, Chris —
    Hope you’re not too busy to read this.
    While trying to find out more explicit and correct(?) information about Soren Kierkegaard’s year-long engagement to Regine Olsen, I came upon this blog site which has some details more consonant with the small bit in the Introduction to my volume of Fear and Trembling/Sickness Unto Death.
    https://lifetakeslemons.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/anatomy-of-a-breakup-soren-kierkegaard-regine-olsen/
    I like this post, although even it could have been a bit fuller, I believe. The important thing about it is how it affects my report to you Friday on how Bertrand Russell described the cause of the “break-up”: an inability or unwillingness on Regine’s part to go along with part of Kierkegaard’s philosophy.
    This blogger, relying on other’s (including Kierkegaard’s) comments, reports that it all boils down to Kierkegaard’s self-image; he felt his depressive nature and obsessive writing habit would make him unsuitable for a husband. (I can sympathize with that.) Also, both in this blog post and in other places I read that Regine did not take the rejection at all well–unable to sleep, crying often for weeks, and even threatening suicide. So, Russell’s remark that she “very sensibly married someone else”* is a bit over-stated. However, she did marry her tutor and lived a happy married life.
    As for Russell, who was a rake and adulterer, his negative attitude toward Kierkegaard can be explained, I believe, by the contrasts in their values: (1) he did hold to the commitment which S.K. felt marriage entailed; (2) he was an atheist, while Kierkegaard, despite his severe criticisms of the established Danish church, was a Christian theologian of the existentialist type; and (3) Russell was among the early and pre-eminent symbolic logicians, who opposed S.K.’s and Nietzsche’s insistence that the passions, not reason, should rule the self.
    Another positive thing about this lady’s blog post is that she includes sizable copies of the portraits of S.K. and Regine in their youth. Take particular note of S.K.’s hair: very different from the Napoleonic style common at the time (if we are to take romance novels’ cover art seriously).
    Enjoy
    Bob
    * Wisdom of the West, Bertrand Russell (Doubleday: 1959), page 254(if I remember correctly).

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