10 Fascinating Facts About Søren Kierkegaard

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on May 5, 1813, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was a tall-haired theologian who brought about a sea change in Christian thought by challenging state religion and breaking with philosophical traditions that sought to prove the existence of God using logic.

He was also an enigmatic figure whose writing confounded even the wisest minds of the time (and ever since then). Raised in a household that valued intellectual life, Kierkegaard was no stranger to thoroughly and exhaustively challenging thoughts and positions. His contributions to philosophy are immense, even though he never seemed to fully agree with himself. Here are 10 things you might not have known about Søren Kierkegaard.

1. A BROKEN ENGAGEMENT AFFECTED HIS WRITING.

At 27 years old, Søren Kierkegaard was engaged to Regine Olsen, but he wrote in his journal almost immediately afterward that it was a mistake; a year later, he called it off. Some surmised that he didn’t want to share his despair and melancholic personality with anyone. It’s also possible that he decided to avoid marriage because it didn’t allow for the intensity of the philosophical project he wanted to undertake. It’s not clear exactly why he called it off, but it shook him to his soul, and he alluded to her and pled with her in his earliest writings to understand why he’d ended the relationship. The disengagement was also the launching point of a three-year period in which he published seven books.

2. HE WILLED HIS BELONGINGS TO HIS EX-FIANCÉE.

Kierkegaard saw a marriage proposal as contractually the same as a marriage, so when he died, he bequeathed his books to Olsen even though she’d married someone else years before. She did not accept the possessions.

3. HE WROTE UNDER PSEUDONYMS IN ORDER TO DISAGREE WITH HIMSELF.

A hallmark of Kierkegaard’s style of intellectual interrogation was writing under different names in order to fully examine, or sometimes contradict, the claims he made. The practice was used regularly in the late 18th and 19th centuries, with The Federalist Papers being a prime example. Kierkegaard used his own name on religious tracts that didn’t gain as much attention as his philosophical work, but the pseudonymous viewpoints still helped solidify his goal of displaying truth as subjective. All of this, according to Kierkegaard, was in service of asking the main question: how does one become a Christian?

4. HE SURVIVED COMPLETELY OFF AN INHERITANCE.

Kierkegaard’s father Michael retired at the age of 40 after great success as a wool merchant. Not only did he gift young Søren with an upbringing surrounded by thinkers and cultural figures, he left him 30,000 rixdalers, which was enough for Kierkegaard to live off of (and self-publish) for the rest of his life.

5. HE ASKED TO BE MOCKED BY A SATIRICAL DANISH PAPER.

Danish philosopher Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855), the founder of existentialism.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1845, Peter Ludvig Møller, a writer an editor for the satirical rag The Corsair, published a piece which criticized Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way, and Kierkegaard’s response lit a fuse on a minor feud that had a profound impact on the philosopher. In The Activity of a Traveling Esthetician and Dialetical Result of a Literary Police Action, the theologian scoffed at the paper and dared them to make fun of him. So, they did. For months they ridiculed the way he looked, talked, and acted, and the barrage of public insults humiliated Kierkegaard, but he would write later that it left him isolated in the only way that leads one to truly discover Christianity. Still, it’s not smart to attack people who buy ink by the barrel.

6. HE WAS BIG ON INDIVIDUALITY. 

G.W.F. Hegel was a dominant philosophical voice of the 19th century, espousing that reality consisted solely of what was rational. Kierkegaard’s entire philosophical program was aimed at countering Hegelian thought, opening his magnum opus Either/Or by asking, “Are passions, then, the pagans of the soul? Reason alone baptized?”

Kierkegaard also wrote against the church (specifically the Church of Denmark) as a group construct that he viewed as promoting a herd mentality that actively kept people from becoming true Christians. As if the title weren’t enough: in The Crowd is Untruth, he wrote that the formation of a crowd is to place another layer of abstraction between the individual and their personal truth. The height of all his writings extolling the virtue of individuality is probably the Knight of Faith, as seen in Fear and Trembling, who has such faith in himself and God that he can operate separately from the world.

7. HE BELIEVED FAITH IN GOD REQUIRED DOUBT.

Where Hegel sought to bring everything in the universe under the umbrella of reason, Kierkegaard approached religious faith as a paradoxical act of believing something outside the boundaries of reason. In Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard described a “qualitative leap” made by faith that recognizes there can be no sufficient amount of evidence of God’s existence that could justify the kind of total commitment that religion demands. He further concluded that faith had no substance without doubt, writing in his journal, “Doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.”

8. HE WAS THE FATHER OF EXISTENTIALISM.

A portrait of Søren Kierkegaard
By The Royal Library, Denmark - Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

Existentialist philosophy’s core concern is the nature of man. In embracing his emotional anguish, recognizing humanity as a passionate animal, and celebrating freedom and the individual, Kierkegaard gave birth to a movement that sought authenticity in thought by reconciling abstract reason to personal experience. Subjective truth lies at the heart of existentialism, and Kierkegaard’s work went on to influence Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidigger, Jean-Pau Sartre, and others.

9. HE STAYED CLOSE TO HOME.

By all accounts, Kierkegaard only left Copenhagen five times: four to go to Berlin, and once to go to Sweden. He spent his spare time attending the theater or talking to strangers on the street during walks. Even during The Corsair debacle, when he became the butt of Copenhagen’s jokes, he refused to leave town, visiting cafes and taking walks as he normally would have.

10. HE DIED YOUNG AFTER A SPINAL PROBLEM.

It’s a good thing Kierkegaard was so prolific, because he died in 1855, at the age of 42. He had developed a spinal disease (perhaps the long-gestating result of a childhood fall) and collapsed in the street. He died about a month later in Frederiks Hospital, leaving behind a dizzying array of philosophical ideas that wouldn’t make their full impact known until his writings were translated in the early and mid-20th century.

11 Memorable Facts About Cats the Musical

Mike Clarke/Getty Images
Mike Clarke/Getty Images

“It was better than Cats!” Decades after Andrew Lloyd Webber's famed musical opened on Broadway on October 7, 1982, this tongue-in-cheek idiom remains a part of our lexicon (thanks to Saturday Night Live). Although the feline extravaganza divided the critics, it won over audiences of all ages and became an industry juggernaut—one that single-handedly generated more than $3 billion for New York City's economy—and that was before it made a return to the Great White Way in 2016. In honor of Andrew Lloyd Webber's birthday on March 22, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

1. The work that Cats the musical is based on was originally going to include dogs.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939, is a collection of feline-themed poems written by the great T. S. Eliot. A whimsical, lighthearted effort, the volume has been delighting cat fanciers for generations—and it could have become just as big of a hit with dog lovers, too. At first, Eliot envisioned the book as an assemblage of canine- and tabby-related poems. However, he came to believe that “dogs don’t seem to lend themselves to verse quite so well, collectively, as cats.” (Spoken like a true ailurophile.) According to his publisher, Eliot decided that “it would be improper to wrap [felines] up with dogs” and barely even mentioned them in the finished product.

For his part, Andrew Lloyd Webber has described his attitude towards cats as “quite neutral.” Still, the composer felt that Eliot’s rhymes could form the basis of a daring, West End-worthy soundtrack. It seemed like an irresistible challenge. “I wanted to set that exciting verse to music,” he explained. “When I [had] written with lyricists in the past … the lyrics have been written to the music. So I was intrigued to see whether I could write a complete piece the other way ‘round.”

2. "Memory" was inspired by a poem that T.S. Eliot never finished.

In 1980, Webber approached T.S. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, to ask for her blessing on the project. She not only said “yes,” but provided the songwriter with some helpful notes and letters that her husband had written about Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—including a half-finished, eight-line poem called “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat.” Feeling that it was too melancholy for children, Eliot decided to omit the piece from Practical Cats. But the dramatic power of the poem made it irresistible for Webber and Trevor Nunn, the show’s original director. By combining lines from “Grizabella, the Glamour Cat” with those of another Eliot poem, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” they laid the foundation for what became the powerful ballad “Memory.” A smash hit within a smash hit, this showstopper has been covered by such icons as Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow.

3. Dame Judi Dench left the cast of Cats when her Achilles tendon snapped.

One of Britain’s most esteemed actresses, Dench was brought in to play Grizabella for Cats’s original run on the West End. Then, about three weeks into rehearsals, she was going through a scene with co-star Wayne Sleep (Mr. Mistoffelees) when disaster struck. “She went, ‘You kicked me!’” Sleep recalls in the above video. “And I said, ‘I didn’t, actually, are you alright?’” She wasn’t. Somehow, Dench had managed to tear her Achilles tendon. As a last-minute replacement, Elaine Paige of Evita fame was brought aboard. In an eerie coincidence, Paige had heard a recorded version of “Memory” on a local radio station less than 24 hours before she was asked to play Grizabella. Also, an actual black cat had crossed her path that day. Spooky.

4. To finance the show, Andrew Lloyd Webber ended up mortgaging his house.

Although Andrew Lloyd Webber had previously won great acclaim as one of the creative minds behind Jesus Christ Superstar and other hit shows, Cats had a hard time finding investors. According to choreographer Gillian Lynne, “[it] was very, very difficult to finance because everyone said ‘A show about cats? You must be raving mad.’” In fact, the musical fell so far short of its fundraising goals that Webber ended up taking out a second mortgage on his home to help get Cats the musical off the ground.

5. When Cats the musical came to Broadway, its venue got a huge makeover.

Cats made its West End debut on May 11, 1981. Seventeen months later, a Broadway production of the musical launched what was to become an 18-year run at the Winter Garden Theatre. But before the show could open, some major adjustments had to be made to the venue. Cats came with an enormous, sprawling set which was far too large for the theatre’s available performing space. To make some more room, the stage had to be expanded. Consequently, several rows of orchestra seats were removed, along with the Winter Garden’s proscenium arch. And that was just the beginning. For Grizabella’s climactic ascent into the Heaviside Layer on a giant, levitating tire, the crew installed a hydraulic lift in the orchestra pit and carved a massive hole through the auditorium ceiling. Finally, the theater’s walls were painted black to set the proper mood. After Cats closed in 2000, the original look of the Winter Garden was painstakingly restored—at a cost of $8 million.

6. Cats the musical set longevity records on both sides of the Atlantic.

The original London production took its final bow on May 11, 2002, exactly 21 years after the show had opened—which, at the time, made Cats the longest-running musical in the West End’s history. (It would lose that title to Les Miserables in 2006.) Across the pond, the show was performed at the Winter Garden for the 6138th time on June 19, 1997, putting Cats ahead of A Chorus Line as the longest-running show on Broadway. To celebrate, a massive outdoor celebration was held between 50th and 51st streets, complete with a laser light show and an exclusive after-party for Cats alums.

7. One theatergoer sued the show for $6 million.

Like Hair, Cats involves a lot of performer-audience interaction. See it live, and you might just spot a leotard-clad actor licking himself near your seat before the curtain goes up. In some productions, the character Rum Tum Tugger even rushes out into the crowd and finds an unsuspecting patron to dance with. At a Broadway performance on January 30, 1996, Tugger was played by stage veteran David Hibbard. That night, he singled out one Evelyn Amato as his would-be dance partner. Mildly put, she did not appreciate his antics. Alleging that Hibbard had gyrated his pelvis in her face, Amato sued the musical and its creative team for $6 million.

8. Thanks to Cats the musical, T.S. Eliot received a posthumous Tony.

Because most of the songs in Cats are almost verbatim recitations of Eliot’s poems, he’s regarded as its primary lyricist—even though he died in 1965, long before the show was conceived. Still, Eliot’s contributions earned him a 1983 Tony for Best Book of a Musical. A visibly moved Valerie Eliot took the stage to accept this prize on her late spouse’s behalf. “Tonight’s honor would have given my husband particular pleasure because he loved the theatre,” she told the crowd. Eliot also shared the Best Original Score Tony with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

9. The original Broadway production used more than 3000 pounds of yak hair.

Major productions of Cats use meticulously crafted yak hair wigs, which currently cost around $2300 apiece and can take 40 hours or more to produce. Adding to the expense is the fact that costumers can’t just recycle an old wig after some performer gets recast. “Each wig is made specifically for the actor,” explains wigmaker Hannah McGregor in the above video. Since people tend to have differently shaped heads, precise measurements are taken of every cast member’s skull before he or she is fitted with a new head of hair. “[Their wigs] have to fit them perfectly,” McGregor adds, “because of the amount of jumping and skipping they do as cats.” Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, over its 18-year run, the first Broadway production used 3247 pounds of yak hair. (In comparison, the heaviest actual yaks only weigh around 2200 pounds.)

10. A recent revival included hip hop.

In December 2014, Cats returned to the West End with an all-new cast and music. “The Rum Tum Tugger,” a popular Act I song, was reimagined as a hip hop number. “I’ve come to the conclusion, having read [Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats] again, that maybe Eliot was the inventor of rap,” Webber told the press.

11. Another revival featured an internet-famous feline for one night only.

On September 30, Grumpy Cat made her Broadway debut in Cats, briefly taking the stage with the cast. Despite being named Honorary Jellicle Cat, she hated every minute of it.

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

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