Feb 192010

Regine Olsen

A few posts and comments back, I counseled people to step back from taking sides in certain sorts of public cultural debates, to take the Hegelian approach and rise above and restructure the argument itself. I just reread Georg Lukacs essay “The Foundering of Form Against Life, Søren Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen” which, as you might expect given Kierkegaard’s antipathy toward Hegel, suggests the opposite view, or at least constructs an opposite view. (Full disclosure: Lukacs was an Hegelian.)  The opposite view is that the gesture (form) can crystallize or shape life, or attempts to do so, while mostly life presents itself as a muddle of motives and options. This is the germ of the  Existentialist idea of creating value by making choices, by committing oneself. The bulk of the essay is an analysis of Kierkegaard’s gesture of renouncing his beloved Regine Olsen. Not only did he renounce her, but he pretended to be a cad, an inveterate seducer, so that she could more easily give him up in her own mind and get on with her life. If there was a chance that she thought Kierkegaard really loved her, she might wait for him or be uncertain about getting into another relationship. Kierkegaard loved her all the while. The gesture was a concrete act, a kind of heroic pose, and a choice he made. But Lukacs is cagey about tracking the uncertainties and ambiguities in the situation (this is where life beclouds the gesture). Kierkegaard performed the gesture because he thought he would ruin Regine’s life, but it seems also clear that he realized that she might clutter his life with pleasure (possibly happiness) and domesticity. So the gesture wasn’t entirely self-sacrificing. Through the rest of his life Kierkegaard waffled in his heart. He never wanted to see Regine because he didn’t ever want to remind her of the happiness they had hoped for or in case she might doubt that he was a cad and seducer; but it seems clear Regine never really quite bought his story and at least sometimes suspected that it was all a pose (Kierkegaard starts to look a bit comic). And once Kierkegaard wrote her a long letter explaining everything (was he hoping to reignite the old passion?), but Regine discussed the letter with her husband and decided to send it back unopened. So the gesture, examined in its particulars, seems less monolithic, less heroic, and less pure than when viewed from afar.

Reading this story from a contemporary standpoint, one is also surprised at the male comedy of Kierkegaard presuming to decide what is right for Regine without, um, actually talking to her. We don’t ever do that today, do we?

Also this is my sly way of introducing Lukacs who was an interesting thinker. See his book The Theory of the Novel which he tells you himself not to think of as a guide.

—Douglas Glover

  5 Responses to “Søren & Regine & The Decline of Gesture”

  1. No, never.

    What about Regine’s gesture of returning the letter unopened? She out-Kierkegaarded Kierkegaard. But I hope not before pressing the envelope up to the window pane. And I hope she and her husband found some happiness together.

    • Oh, yes, that letter going back is fascinating. So is the fact that she and her husband could talk about it which implies a level of trust and communication. She seems to have understood Kierkegaard pretty well but nevertheless loved him. Makes you want to read more about them.


  2. I did not know at all about the letter going back either, yes it is fascinating, yet I believe him when he states he only loved once, well sort of admits to it

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