Archive for May, 2013

For Arvo Pärt

May 28, 2013


The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt
Andrew Shenton (Ed.)
(Cambridge University Press, 2012)
270 p.

“I was searching for a small island of sound, for a ‘place’ inside me, where… a dialogue with God might occur. To find this place was a vital task for me.”

This was how Arvo Pärt described the musical exploration which led him to his distinctive compositional method, which he calls tinntinnabulation — the music of bells. This very enjoyable collection of essays in the Cambridge Companion series examines his music from a variety of perspectives. The contributors, though almost all academics, write in a manner that is intelligible and interesting to non-specialist readers, albeit with occasional overlardings of academic jargon. Still, it is a splendid book for Pärt enthusiasts.

Arvo Pärt grew up in Estonia, on the periphery of the Soviet musical establishment, and initially he wrote serial compositions after the approved academic manner. But, as he later reflected, he began to chafe against the expressive limitations of serial music: “If the human has conflict in his soul and with everything, then this system of twelve-tone music is exactly good for this,” he said, but his heart had grown tired of conflict. In 1972, at the age of 37, he converted to Orthodoxy, and, through a sustained study of medieval and renaissance masters, was gradually led to a drastic simplification of means, to a music founded on the simplest harmonic unit:

“Holy men have left behind all their wealth and are heading for the desert. Similarly, the composer wishes to leave behind the entire modern arsenal and save himself through naked monophony carrying only that which is crucial — the triad.”

(To get a feel for his early style, here is a section from Collage über B-A-C-H, from 1964. This starts off sounding more or less like Bach, but not for long.)

(By way of contrast, here is his earliest tinntinnabuli composition, Für Alina, from 1976. This is very simple music, but the effect is enchanting.)

Though he abandoned serialism, it is interesting that he has retained in his later music an interest in structure and the permutation methods that one generally associates with serialists — but which, perhaps more relevantly, one can also find in the masters of medieval and renaissance polyphony. In one essay, Thomas Robinson comments that in Pärt’s music “fascinating structures lie hidden and ingenious processes are at work”. There are several analyses in this volume describing the rigorous structure undergirding particular compositions; one doesn’t hear it, exactly, but for me simply knowing it is there adds to the interest of the music.

(Here is a concert performance of Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror), for violin and piano, from 1978, played by Anne Akiko Meyers. This piece has a great deal of symmetry built into it. Unlucky moviegoers might remember it from the opening scene of Gus van Sant’s Gerry.)

A complaint about the book is that the idea of tinntinnabulation, the structural principle at the heart of Pärt’s music, is not very clearly explained. Some years ago I read Paul Hillier’s excellent study of Pärt, and from what I recall tinntinnabuli music is based on the interplay of (in its simplest form) two voices: one called the M voice (or ‘main’ voice) and the other the T voice (or ‘tinntinnabuli’ voice). The main voice always, or almost always, moves stepwise, and the T voice accompanies it at specified intervals, often oscillating back and forth between a position beneath the M voice and a position above it. Something like that, anyway. There is a brief discussion of these matters in the present volume, but for me the main points were not made sufficiently clearly.

(Here is one of my favourite Pärt pieces: De Profundis, for mixed choir, from 1980.)

Naturally, in a collection of this sort some of the essays are better than others. The editor, Andrew Shenton, contributed a piece called “Pärt in his own words” which is a wonderful introduction to the composer and his own understanding of his music. It helps that Pärt is such a fascinating and attractive character. The other essay that most appealed to me was called “Radiating from silence: the works of Arvo Pärt seen through a musician’s eyes”, by Andreas Peer Kahler. Without any academic pretensions, Kahler gives a brief but very insightful account of the challenges of this music and the experience of playing or singing it. He observes that the music’s apparent simplicity is deceptive, not least because the lack of virtuosity requires the musician to fall back on clear articulation, strict control, and careful balance, a combination that exposes the weaknesses of many musicians in a most unusual way. The essay I liked the least (there has to be one) was on the topic of “Arvo Pärt and spirituality”; in it, the author tries to assimilate Pärt to a pluralistic, non-committal kind of spirituality. But Pärt himself has said, “If anybody wishes to know my ‘philosophy’, then they can read any of the Church Fathers”; he is very far from being a religious syncretist.

All told, however, this is an instructive and at times fascinating book.


Let’s hear a little more music! Lest one get the impression that his music is entirely slow and meditative, listen to his (Russian) setting of the angel Gabriel’s greeting to Our Lady: Bogoróditse Djévo, from 1990. This is an amateur choir and the recording is not top shelf, but the singing is excellent:

Perhaps my favourite of Pärt’s compositions is his massive Kanon Pokajanen, for choir, from 1997. It is a beautiful and imposing setting of the Orthodox Canon of Repentance, and it ends with this tender prayer (text and translation):

Tam Lin

May 21, 2013

Further to my recent notes on Scottish faerie, here is a wonderful song from Scotland about a man who escapes the enchantment of the Queen of the Fairies. I had never heard the song, nor the story, until recently, but apparently it has a long history.

This version of the song is sung by Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, and is included on their recent record Child Ballads, which I cannot recommend highly enough

Janet, this one’s for you?

Great moments in opera: Peter Grimes

May 16, 2013

In the minds of many opera lovers, Peter Grimes is held to be Benjamin Britten’s greatest opera. It follows, if the point be granted, that it is among the greatest English-language operas in the whole repertoire (of which there are precious few), and one of the finest of twentieth-century operas. I myself do not grant the original premise — in my mind, it is Billy Budd that takes the palm — but I do agree that Peter Grimes is a work of rare power and depth, with a swirling stew of dramatic themes and a characterful and muscular score.

The story is based on a poem by George Crabbe, but the characterization and dramatic thrust were considerably altered in the course of translation to the operatic stage. Grimes is a fisherman plying his trade, with the help of a young assistant, off the coast of Aldeburgh. Several of Grimes’ assistants have perished on the job in recent years, and he lives under a cloud of suspicion in the small community. In Crabbe’s original version of the story, Grimes is guilty of killing the boys, but Britten’s version is more ambiguous: Grimes is clearly unstable, and sometimes cruel, but his assistants seem to have died in — to use a phrase that appears numerous times in the libretto — “accidental circumstances”. Grimes is nonetheless an outcast, with only one person in the town, Ellen Orford, reaching out to him in friendship. The opera therefore gives Britten an opportunity to explore many themes: social stigma, madness, poverty, justice, friendship, and so on.

Let’s begin at the beginning: the opening scene is one of the most memorable in the work. We join a courtroom inquiry into the death of Grimes’ apprentice, and Grimes himself is just taking the stand. His testimony given and other evidence presented, the boy’s death is ruled accidental, but the townspeople are unconvinced. As the courtroom empties, only Ellen stays behind with Peter, and together they sing what is sometimes called (and what I believe Britten himself called) “the love duet”, though it is an odd love duet indeed. Here is the full scene (about 9 minutes), and embedded below is the “love duet” portion. I like the way it is almost entirely a capella. Note also that Peter and Ellen begin singing in different keys, but gradually converge not only to a common key, but actually to singing together. Pay special attention to the leaping interval (a ninth) when they sing together, “Your voice, out of the pain, is like a hand that I can feel.”; this interval recurs throughout the work at key moments.

For the remaining “great moments” I’ll skip to the final act. Grimes’ latest apprentice, a boy named John, has slipped from atop a wet cliff and fallen to his death, and Ellen, upon finding his sweater washed up on shore, sings a heart-breaking, and very beautiful, song which begins: “Embroidery in childhood was a luxury”. This is certainly among the loveliest moments in the opera; it is sung here by Patricia Racette.

Meanwhile, Grimes has been declining by degrees. A mob of townsfolk, upon learning of the boy’s death, are searching for him, intending harm. For a few minutes he holds the stage to deliver a “mad scene”. Mad scenes have an illustrious history in opera, though they are usually vehicles of dazzling virtuosity for sopranos. Not here: Grimes is breaking down, and the music goes with him. Again, this is largely unaccompanied singing, which has an eerie quality in an opera house.

There exists video of this part being sung by Peter Pears, for whom Britten wrote the role, and so I feel a sort of obligation to link to it: done! Personally I prefer the singing of the great Jon Vickers in this role:

Ellen and an old sailor named Balstrode discover Peter. Ellen attempts to draw him in, but Balstrode instructs him to sail his boat out to sea and sink it. Much had been made of this scene, both musically (for it is the one time in the opera when dialogue is spoken rather than sung, as though to illustrate the low estate to which matters have come) and dramatically (for, if Peter is innocent of harming the boys, why should he accept an unjust death?). It is certainly chillingly effective. Here is Jon Vickers again, in a performance led by Sir Colin Davis; no video per se, but someone has taken the trouble to splice in the sections of the libretto that correspond to the music as it plays:

The clip above will actually carry us through right to the end of the opera. On the morning after Peter sails someone remarks that the coast guard reports a boat sinking off-shore, but too far out for a rescue effort, news which another character dismisses as “one of those rumours”. It brings to an end an immensely sad but humane and thought-provoking masterpiece.

Kierkegaard: Either/Or II

May 13, 2013

My dear friend,

In Part I we looked at the many and varied writings of A, a young man of talent and sensitivity who is, it seems to me, nevertheless lost in life. He has no direction; indeed he lives in such a way that he cannot generate any momentum, for he lives in possibility and will not choose anything decisively. He is afflicted by a self-regard that prevents him from making true and forthright contact with others. And he is unhappy.

We do not know A’s name, but we now turn to the writings of one who does. The author of the letters which comprise most of Part II, known only as B, is a family friend of A. He is an older man, of an analytical bent, and though he lacks the literary flair of A his letters demonstrate that he is a man of generous understanding and personal depth. He has himself read at least some of the contents of Part I, and he is concerned for A’s spiritual well-being. He identifies A’s whole way of living as aesthetic, and against the aesthetic he offers and defends the ethical. His purpose is to convince A to abandon his current way of life in favour of a higher. His approach is twofold: he tries to show A what is bad in the aesthetic way of life, and he tries to show A that what is good in the aesthetic way of life is also found, in a higher way, in the ethical way of life. He tries this second method first.

Part II – The Papers of B

The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage

Is marriage opposed to romance? Is dutiful love true love? B does not waste any time quarreling about minor matters. If we are to be confronted with a choice between the aesthetic and the ethical, we will do so on the highest ground: love. It is first love, romantic love that rejoices the heart of the aesthete: romance is feeling, possibility, vitality. The ethical, on the other hand, is embodied in the institution of marriage with its demands of fidelity and responsibility. Which is higher?

B’s central thesis is this: the ethical both comprehends and enriches the aesthetic. Married love is not inferior to the first blush of love, it is superior. What, after all, are the qualities and characteristics of romantic love? Lovers declare their love to be eternal, but only in marriage, “filled with an energetic and vital assurance”, is the endurance of love firmly promised and lived. Lovers will call on the moon and the stars to be witnesses of their love, but marriage is more ambitious: marriage reaches above and beyond the heavens and calls on God, the Highest, to bear witness. The love of romance is exclusive, and lovers declare that they shall never love another; marriage underwrites and supports that resolution. In each case the natural tendency of romantic love is matched or overmatched by the marriage vow.

If A’s idea of love is opposed to marriage — remember that he called marriage “unmusical” in contrast to Don Giovanni’s “inherently musical” sensuality — what should we think? B declares that A’s love is a weak, diseased thing of which he should be ashamed. What is this love, this sickly victor that is vanquished by a vow? If the love of lovers were truly triumphant then duty could not defeat it.

Once you have got hold of the despairing notion that duty is the enemy of love, then your defeat is assured and you have disparaged love and divested it of its majesty, just as you have done with duty, and yet that was the last thing you wanted…

In B’s eyes the conflict A posits between love and duty is entirely false. Marriage preserves the good qualities of first love and purges what is corrupting and inconstant. The duty to which marriage commits one is not a low thing, not degrading or petty. On the contrary, it elevates and sustains the heart’s ambitions.

Duty here is just one thing, truly to love, with the sincerity of the heart, and duty is as protean as love itself, declaring everything holy and good when it is of love, and denouncing everything, however pleasing or specious, when it is not of love.

And it is really true, C, when you stand back and consider the matter. All that B says about marriage is quite solid and incontestable. For most of us, the marriage vow is a lifting of our eyes unto the hills. It is better than we are, and we are better with it.

Moreover, the heroic task which marriage sets before the couple, to love one another from their hearts, makes them strong in the virtues, the fruit of which is happiness. Marriage, we must remember, is not only a collaboration. It is also a serious personal challenge for each person, and reaps personal as well as collective rewards.

[Married love] is faithful, constant, humble, patient, forbearing, indulgent, sincere, contented, observant, persistent, willing, joyful. All these virtues have the property of being inward specifications of the individual. The individual does not fight external enemies; it is with itself and its love that it fights it out, of its own accord. And they have a temporal qualification, for their truth consists not in applying once and for all, but all the time. And nothing else is acquired by means of these virtues, just the self. Married love is, therefore, at one and the same time…the everyday and also the divine (in the Greek sense), and it is the divine through being the everyday. Married love does not come with an external mark, not like the rich bird with a rush and a roar, it is the incorruptible being of a quiet spirit.

These, I believe, are among the most beautiful and thoughtful words I have yet heard spoken about marriage. Do they seem so to you as well, C?

Marriage enjoins, then, what true love desires; the ethical sustains and completes the aesthetic. This is the argument of B’s first letter. Let’s turn now to consider the second letter, which is the longer.

Equilibrium between the Aesthetic and the Ethical in the Development of Personality

Either/Or. These words have always made a strong impression on me and they still do, especially when I mention them by themselves in this way and out of context; the most frightful conflicts can now be set in motion. Their effect on me is that of an incantation… For although there is only one situation where the phrase has absolute meaning, namely where it points on the one hand to truth, righteousness, and holiness, and on the other to desire and susceptibility, and to dim passions and perdition, it is important to choose rightly even when the choice in itself is harmless; to test oneself so as never to have to begin a retreat to the point one started out from…

This opening gesture sets the stage for what follows: an ambitious attempt to explore, from the inside, the nature of the aesthetic and ethical ways of being, and of the transition, natural and necessary for any healthy soul, from the former to the latter.

We begin from the observation that we, as temporal, personal creatures possessing a measure of freedom, are obliged to choose, to make decisions that shape our lives. We are beings for whom choice is unavoidable if we are to retain the dignity of our nature. This obligation falls to us because if we fail to make such choices, they are made for us and we lose ourselves as a result. The crucial moment arises, and if we hesitate or refrain from decision it no longer lies in our power to direct our own path. Our dignity as free persons is damaged.

Entry into the ethical occurs precisely when this obligation is acknowledged and accepted. To live with the self-understanding that one is a responsible agent is to live the ethical. Paradoxically, perhaps, we must choose the ethical. This choice is not, in the mind of the chooser at any rate, a choice between the good of the ethical on the one hand and the evil of the aesthetic on the other. Rather it is the choice between good and evil on the one hand, and their exclusion on the other; it is the choice to live in contact with and in obedience to the realities of good and evil, something which is foreign to the aesthetic way of life (as we saw in the essay on Don Giovanni in Part I, for instance). “The aesthetic is not evil but indifference.”

You might wonder how entry into the ethical can be motivated as a good if the choice in favour of the ethical is prior to acknowledgement of the categories of good and evil. Can we, on these terms, even maintain that the ethical is better than the aesthetic? Objectively, of course, we can, but subjectively, in the mind of the chooser, we cannot. Or so it seems to me. But this is not the last word, for B argues that an aesthete will nevertheless be naturally led to confront the decision. He will experience the tension between the aesthetic and the ethical, not morally, but in the only way open to him: aesthetically. This is so because even the aesthete cannot destroy his nature as a soul endowed with genuine freedom:

There comes a moment in a man’s life when immediacy is as though ripened and when the spirit demands a higher form in which it will apprehend itself as spirit. …If this does not happen and the movement halts and is pressed back, melancholy sets in… If you ask a melancholic what reason he has for his condition, what it is that weighs down on him, he will reply, “I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it.” Therein lies melancholy’s infinitude. The reply is perfectly correct, for as soon as he knows what it is, the effect is removed, whereas the grief of the griever is by no means removed by his knowing why he grieves. But melancholy is sin, really it is a sin as great as any, for it is the sin of not willing deeply and sincerely, and this is the mother to all sins.

Thus melancholy is the spur; it is the self-devouring state in which no one can rest peacefully. When the obligations of choice are evaded, melancholy sets in, and the only escape is to graduate to the ethical life.

The ethical is therefore the telos of every free, rational person. What are the primary inner qualities of this way of life? It is, first, a life in which the categories of good and evil are honoured, as we have said. It is also fundamentally a life of development:

The aesthetic factor in a person is that by which he is immediately what he is; the ethical factor is that by which he becomes what he becomes.

The ethical is conditioned by choice; it is a life of change, of growth, of becoming. In this choosing the soul manifests its personal nature, for the choices are formed by and in turn form the personality of the chooser. In choosing, one chooses oneself, not in a selfish way, but in a concrete way. One gives oneself shape. The responsibility to choose well is thus a solemn one, and the heart may quiver in the face of it. Who has not experienced that solemnity, that holy dread, when one stands perched on the edge of a life-changing choice, when one confronts one’s freedom directly and cannot deny it, when all the threads of life must be gathered up for the decisive, monumental step? Are you not aware in that moment that you are engaged in spiritual labour, and that you will not be on the far side as you are on the near? B captures that sense of being poised on a precipice vividly:

What a person gives birth to in a spiritual sense is a creative urge of the will, and that is in man’s own power. What then is it you are afraid of? You are not going to give birth to another human being, you will only give birth to yourself. And yet, as I know well, there is a gravity in this which perturbs the whole soul; to be conscious of oneself in one’s eternal validity is a moment more significant than everything in the world. It is as though you were caught and trapped and now could never again escape, either in time or eternity; it is as though you lost yourself, as though you ceased to be; it is as though the next moment you would rue it and yet it cannot be undone. It is a grave and significant moment when one binds oneself for an eternity to an eternal power, when one receives oneself as the one whose memory no time shall efface, when in an eternal and unfailing sense one becomes aware of oneself as the person one is. And yet, one can still let it be! Look: here, then, is an either/or.

The remedy, then, prescribed for A’s melancholy is that he must undertake to live this drama in his own life. He must choose to live his own life in all of its concrete specificity. He must take responsibility for himself, choosing from the inside, not the outside. The task is “to clothe oneself with oneself”. And the first fruit of this entry into the ethical, says B, is repentance. “Choosing oneself is identical with repenting oneself.” In choosing you receive yourself, and part of this reception is a reception of one’s history, constituted by acts which may be judged as good or evil. This is the first step.

What follows is a portrait of the ethical life, highlighted from a variety of angles. One living ethically, for instance, retains and cultivates a memory of his life; the aesthete, by contrast, who thirsts for novel experiences, benefits by forgetting. To choose oneself ethically means not to choose abstractedly or in isolation, but to live soberly, honestly, with both feet on the ground, with acceptance of one’s situation, limitations, and human relationships.

This emphasis on rejecting artificiality leads B into a long digression against monastic vocations, which he considers fundamentally unreal, primarily on the grounds that the solitary life is an offence against God-given human relationships. B holds that every man has a duty to marry. Those who choose to live an uncommon vocation reject this duty, they “repent themselves out of themselves, rather than into themselves”. This is all pretty tendentious, I’m sure you will agree, but it is interesting to recall that Kierkegaard himself never married, and in fact wrote this book in the wake of his broken engagement. I am not sure how many layers of the authorial onion I can licitly peel back, but I am tempted to read this passage as a record of Kierkegaard’s internal battle with himself over his vocation. Step lightly, I know…

Because of his orientation toward becoming, the ethical person is not paralyzed by possibility. This, recall, was the curse of the aesthete: that he needed to float on a sea of possibilities if he was to conquer boredom. In the ethical one sees tasks — tasks of inward growth and development — instead of possibilities, and this awareness of tasks keeps an ethical person from being overwhelmed by circumstances or externals.

The person who lives aesthetically expects everything from outside, hence the sickly anxiety with which many speak of the dreadful circumstance of not having found one’s place in the world. Who would deny the satisfaction of being fortunate in this respect? But such an anxiety is always an indication that the individual expects everything from the place and nothing from himself. The person who lives ethically will try to choose his place rightly, but if he notices that he has chosen wrongly, or that obstacles arise over which he has no control, he does not lose courage for he never surrenders his sovereignty over himself. He at once sees his task and is therefore instantly active.

Finally the letter turns to a critique of certain aspects of A’s way of life. Remember that in Part I A had claimed that duty, because it was principled, constraining, and “unmusical”, was fundamentally opposed to love, which was spontaneous and full of possibility. B believes that love and duty are fundamentally harmonious, and identifies A’s central error as his supposing that “the individual is placed in an external relation to duty”. A sees duty as something imposed on him and on love from the outside. But this, says B, is false, and for the reasons stated in B’s first letter: the natural tendency of love is only augmented, sustained, and encouraged by the responsibilities of marriage. The duty of love respects the nature of love, and in fact makes it healthier than it would otherwise be. At bottom, one who honours the duty of love has seen that the aesthete’s view of love is low and insulting:

He has perceived that it was an insult and therefore ungracious to want to love with one part of the soul but not with all of it, to treat one’s own love as one element and yet take the whole of another’s love, to want to be something of a riddle and a secret. He has perceived that it would be unseemly if he had a hundred arms so that he could simultaneously embrace many; he has but one embrace and wants to embrace only one. He has perceived that it was an insult to want to attach himself to another person in the way one attaches oneself to finite and accidental things, conditionally, so that if difficulties later arose one could make a change.

The aesthete is unable to experience beauty in all of its richness. This is ironic, of course, for beauty is the principal object of the aesthete’s desire, and one would expect him to excel in its appreciation. Not so. The aesthete approaches life with a view to feeding on the beauty, using the beauty to please himself, and when the beauty passes or is no longer new, it dies for him. But the ethical person does not need beauty. As such, he can appreciate it with a calm mind wherever he finds it, accepting it for what it is, not needing to constantly refer it to his own needs:

If occasionally I have an hour free I stand at my window and look at people, and I have a regard for the beauty of each one. However insignificant and humble he may be I see him with a view to his beauty… The beauty I see is joyful and triumphant, and stronger than all the world. And this beauty I see everywhere, even where your eye sees nothing.

That is quite beautiful.

In friendship, too, the aesthete fails. We saw that A expressly forbade the cultivation of genuine friendships on the grounds that they result in obligations, which in turn hobble the capacity for “crop rotation”. Therefore the aesthete hides from friendship. The ethical person, on the other hand, has committed himself to becoming a specific, concrete person. He has no need to hide himself from others, and embraces friendship. This coming-to-be-known by others is an intrinsic part of the ethical life, and is in fact a duty of life:

‘It is every man’s duty to become revealed.’ The Scriptures teach that ‘it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement’ when everything shall be revealed. Ethics says it is the meaning of life and reality that man be revealed. So if he is not, the revelation will take the form of punishment.

Praising the strengths of the ethical life, B concludes:

[The ethical] affords to life peace, assurance and security, for it is constantly crying out to us: quod petis, hic est [What you are seeking is here.]. It saves one from all infatuations that would exhaust the soul and it brings to it health and strength. It teaches us not to overvalue the fortuitous or to idolize good fortune. It teaches one to be happy in good fortune… It teaches one to be happy in misfortune.

Thus his long essay on the virtues of the ethical life draws to a close. Believe it or not, I have excluded some noteworthy material! I have not mentioned, for instance, B’s passionate and thoroughly politically incorrect attack on feminism, which makes for bracing reading and it not without merit. But all good things must come to an end, my friend, and this letter is no exception.

But we are not quite at the end after all.

The Edifying In The Thought That Against God We Are Always In The Wrong

No, we are not quite at the end, for Kierkegaard, or Eremita, or B, has seen fit to round off the book with an enigmatic essay on a religious theme. B claims in his notes that the sermon — it is really a sermon — was written by a friend of his, and he notes that he thought it especially fitting that A read it. The style here is that of Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses, and I think we must interpret it as a last-minute intervention from the religious sphere — Kierkegaard’s highest, but thus far silent, sphere of life.

The enigma of the piece is not so much in its content, but in its relation to the rest of the book. The sermon argues that when we love, we would rather accuse ourselves of wrongdoing than accuse our beloved, and that this same dynamic applies to our love of God. It is edifying, therefore, to think that when we are against God we are always in the wrong. What has this to do with the foregoing? I am remembering that entry into the ethical bears the fruit of repentance, and I see that if we are edified at the thought that “we are always in the wrong” then we must acknowledge the categories of right and wrong, which was a condition of the ethical. In this sense, the sermon asserts that it is edifying to live in the ethical — at least. But it seems a roundabout way of making the point, less forceful than what preceded it, and I suspect that I am missing something. Can you do better?


What shall I say in closing? This is a large, ambitious work that resists neat summary. It is a beautiful work, a masterpiece.

How should we receive it? It has to be kept in mind that this book is the opening move in Kierkegaard’s “indirect communication”. Reading your notes on his later, retrospective Point of View I am reminded of his tactic: to disguise himself, suppressing his true purpose, in order to lead his readers out from the wilderness in which they wander. It is a strategy that risks misunderstanding and failure, as Kierkegaard knew, for later in life he said, “I held out Either/Or to the world in my left hand… but all, or as good as all, grasped with their right what I held in my left.” We must not make the same mistake.

Clearly the book is an exploration of these two ways of being in the world: the aesthetic and the ethical. It is not a book from which one can extract a pithy lesson or an abstraction. As a faithful reader of Kierkegaard I will instead let the author speak to me, man to man, and where he speaks words that reveal or convict I must not dissemble within myself, for he condemns only in order to reform, and stings only to mend. If I have recognized myself in aspects of his portrait of the aesthete then that insight may not be simply dismissed. If it is a truth that touches me, then it edifies. Let it become a matter for reflection and prayer.

Perhaps my voice is not strong and warm enough to penetrate to your inmost thought; ah! but ask yourself, ask yourself with the solemn uncertainty with which you would address a person you knew was capable of deciding your life’s happiness with a single word, ask yourself even more seriously, for in truth it is a question of salvation. Stay not the flight of your soul, do not sadden what is your better part, do not enervate your soul with half wishes and half thoughts. Ask yourself, and keep on asking until you find the answer, for one can recognize a thing many times and acknowledge it, one can want a thing many times and attempt it, yet only the deep inner movement, only the indescribable motions of the heart, only these convince you that what you have recognized ‘belongs to you’, that no power can take it from you; for only the truth that edifies is the truth for you.

My friend, until now my reading of Kierkegaard has focused on his later works, so it was a pleasure to turn to his early writings. For the opportunity your request gave me, I thank you. I have been reminded once again why I admire Kierkegaard as I do, for here I have met the same passionate voice, penetrating insight, and, in an uncanny way, personal contact that I have valued before. If reading this overview has failed to convey that experience to you, it is entirely the fault of

Your friend.

Kierkegaard: Either/Or I

May 10, 2013

My dear friend,

I hardly know where to begin! Like Victor Eremita, to whom sly old Kierkegaard has shifted responsibility for this clamouring collage of addresses and aphorisms, I am tempted to keep my distance: just set the things in some sort of order and let them be, a beautiful mess. But conscious that I am reading the book in your stead, and wanting to report back in more than superficial detail, I’ve decided to wade as deeply into the swirling waters as my own modest ability permits. I hope that you will find the result satisfactory.

Like an actor in some one-man theatre show, Kierkegaard in this book assumes a cast of different personae. Like a Russian doll, the pseudonymous identities are packed one inside another. Eremita, in his playful way, would have us believe that he came in possession of these writings quite by accident. He sets the stage with a tale of an impulsive purchase of a writing desk and the chance discovery therein of a secret drawer containing sheaves of writings, writings which, upon inspection, fall roughly into two parts. The first are the papers of a young man whom Eremita dubs simply A. They are ironic and restless, now lyrical and now despairing. The second set, the work of an older man, a friend of A’s whom Eremita calls B, follows. He is mildly pedantic, but patient and obviously concerned with A’s spiritual welfare, for in his plodding way he submits A’s writings to an ambitious critique. Both A and B have supplemented their own writings with others, chosen, one suspects, as illustrations and elaborations of their own thoughts. I see no way forward but to examine each section as it arises.

Part I – The Papers of A

The papers of A are comprised of two essays, three addresses, and a collection of aphorisms, supplemented by a series of journal entries which A says he copied down from somewhere else.


These ‘musical interludes’ look like occasional writings: aphorisms, parables, and reflections thrown together in no discernible order. They reveal the unhappy mind of an aesthete, a man who has lost interest in life and doesn’t know how to move forward. “I feel,” he says, “as a chessman must when the opponent says of it: that piece cannot be moved.” Resigned and melancholic, he looks on the world with an ironic eye. Its activity and concerns do not concern him, and are in fact beneath him, for he has seen through them:

Of all ridiculous things in the world what strikes me as the most ridiculous of all is being busy in the world, to be a man quick to his meals and quick to his work. So when, at the crucial moment, I see a fly settle on such a businessman’s nose, or he is bespattered by a carriage which passes him by in even greater haste, or the drawbridge is raised, or a tile falls from the roof and strikes him dead, I laugh from the bottom of my heart. And who could help laughing? For what do they achieve, these busy botchers? Are they not like the housewife who, in confusion at the fire in her house, saved the fire-tongs? What else do they salvage from the great fire of life?

Even as he holds himself superior to the bespattered businessman and his kind, he has no wish to share his resigned wisdom with the riff-raff of the world, for who would understand him? This sense of futility he captures with a finely wrought parable that draws again on the imagery of fire:

A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who think it’s a joke.

And though A is a young man of considerable intellectual gifts, even the intellectual life he judges to be a realm of false promises where the distinction between earnest inquiry and dry joke has been blurred:

What philosophers say about reality is often as deceptive as when you see a sign in a second-hand store that reads: Pressing Done Here. If you went in with your clothes to have them pressed, you would be fooled; the sign is for sale.

But perhaps A’s attitude, with its lack of both conviction and hope, is best captured here:

If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both; whether you marry or you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both. If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.

Keep this in mind, my friend, for here the book’s crucial dichotomy, which Kierkegaard, behind the scenes, is constantly labouring to place before our eyes — namely, that of the choice, the either/or — rises into view. Is it true that our choices, however important we may think them, are ultimately personally irrelevant? Are we fated? A thinks so, and holds it as dearly bought wisdom.

The Immediate Erotic Stages, or The Musical Erotic

I know, my dear C, that you are a music lover. This next section therefore, an animated and passionate essay on music and its relationship to sensuality and desire, and more particularly a celebration of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, will be of special interest to you.

What does A mean when he speaks of the spirit of sensuality in the abstract? How shall we recognize it when we encounter it? Sensuality, says A, is possessed of an intense inwardness; it is not mere lechery, then, that he is considering. On one hand it is a quest for immediacy, for experience without the mediation of reflection or self-consciousness; it is experience pure and simple, here and now. On the other hand it is relentlessly successive; it does not rest in any one object, but moves always from one experience to another, one object to the next. As such it is closely related to the art of music, which is also inward, immediate, and successive. Indeed, of all the arts it is really only music that can truly express the spirit of sensuality.

A takes Mozart’s operas as illustrations of stages in the awakening of the true erotic spirit. The first and lowest level is represented by the page in Le Nozze di Figaro. In this stage desire is stirred but not fully awake; it is a dreaming sensuality manifest as yearning and melancholy. It yearns because it is desire; it is melancholy because it has not risen to the level of fixing its desire on any particular object. “Desire is lost in the present in a quiet longing, engrossed in contemplation, and yet it cannot evacuate its object, essentially because in a deeper sense no object exists.” In the second stage, for which A turns to Die Zauberflöte and chooses Pagageno as exemplar, desire awakes to a particular object, and seeks it. Yet according to A Papageno’s quest is badly marred in one respect: its goal is marriage. Marriage is ethical love, which A considers “absolutely unmusical”. Here we touch on an important theme which dominates the entire second half of the book: the nature of marriage and its relationship to love and duty. It is enough for now to note that A regards marriage as the enemy of true love, just as ethics is the enemy of pure aestheticism.

It is the musical figure of Don Giovanni who portrays the sensual spirit to an unsurpassable degree. Don Giovanni is the very personification of desire, “flesh incarnate”.

One can indeed imagine many more musical classics, yet there still remains just one work of which it can be said that its idea is absolutely musical, so that the music does not enter as an accompaniment but, in bringing the idea to light, reveals its own innermost being. Therefore Mozart with his Don Giovanni stands highest among the immortals.

The Don is a force of nature; an endless fount of gaiety and desire, a tireless seducer. “When he is interpreted in music…I have the power of nature, the demonic, which as little tires of seducing, or is done with seducing, as the wind is tired of raging, the sea of surging, or a waterfall of cascading down from its height.” He is not bothered by ethical reflection on his actions, past or future. His experience is entirely immediate, a state which only music can capture. The Don is, in A’s judgement, “inherently musical”. He must speak in music, for no other means of expression could truly portray his spirit; were he to speak without music, he would be subject to the reflection of language and therefore decline from his unselfconscious immediacy.

What do you think of A’s interpretation of the opera? He certainly has some interesting things to say. His comment, for instance, that “the very secret of this opera is that its hero is also the force animating the other characters” seems to me worthy of consideration. Yet I retain some doubts about the central thrust of his essay. He has illuminated the character of the Don in a wonderful way, but has he really understood the opera? I am thinking in particular of the Commandatore character, who seems not to fit A’s view of the opera, and who indeed directly contradicts it. The Commandatore, after all, is the ethical, and he triumphs over Don Giovanni in the end. Even the aesthete, even desire, must face judgement. A makes just one comment about the Commandatore, that he is “unmusical” and therefore restricted to the periphery. But the Commandatore commands the stage at the opera’s end — if it is a periphery it is a strange periphery indeed.

How does this essay contribute to the book as a whole? It is an exaltation of immediacy and desire, divorced from ethical considerations. It anticipates, it seems to me, Nietzche’s eagle, the violence of which is not subject to censure because it is merely an expression of its nature, unreflective, almost unconscious and impersonal. Desire is the Don’s nature, and A sees it likewise as beyond ethical evaluation. In A’s mind ethics destroys the beauty and spontaneity of life.

Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern
The Unhappiest One

Oh, dear. In these three short orations delivered before the Symparanekromenoi — the “fellowship of the dead” — the morose savouring of the finer points of sorrow that was hinted at in the Diapsalmata returns, this time augmented and expanded. We are in a candle-lit world soaked in the dark tones of nineteenth century romanticism. “I toast you, dark night, I toast you as victor, and this is my solace, for you make everything shorter, the day, time, life, and memory’s tribulation, in eternal oblivion!” Themes of tragedy, sorrow, and death, respectively, are offered for our contemplation. We are treated to morbid reflections that seem to relish decay and death as bearers of glad tidings: “Happy the one who died in his old age, happier the one who died at birth, happiest of all the one who was never born.” The orations are animated by that peculiarly self-indulgent unhappiness that one suspects is not quite in earnest: “…What is life but madness, and faith but folly, and hope but reprieve, and love but salt in the wound?” It’s all so deliciously gloomy.

The import of these three sections, it seems to me, is that they further illuminate aspects of the aesthetic sphere of life. In A’s world beauty has little to do with goodness. Our author is able to find beauty in sorrow and death, and transmute it into art. It is a sickly kind of appreciation that these addresses evoke, but it would be futile to deny that the appreciation is real. For the Symparanekromenoi suffering is art, and their dedication to art manifests as an embrace of suffering.

We, too, form an order; we, too, sally forth now and then into the world like knights errant, each along his own path, although not to fight monsters or to come to the aid of innocence or be tried in adventures of love. None of that occupies us, not even the latter, for the arrow of a woman’s glance cannot hurt our hardened breast, and it is not the merry smile of happy maidens that moves us, but the secret beckoning of sorrow. Let others be proud that no girl near or far can withstand the power of their love, we do not envy them; we would be proud if no secret sorrow escaped their attention, no private sorrow were too coy and too proud for us to succeed in probing triumphantly into its innermost hiding places!

They are minor pieces, then, in the overall architecture of the book, but not insignificant.

[Joy and sorrow]
…joy is far easier to represent in art than sorrow… It is of the essence of joy to reveal itself, but sorrow wants to hide, yes, even sometimes to deceive. Joy is communicative, sociable, open-hearted, and wants to express itself; sorrow is reserved, silent, solitary, and seeks to retire into itself.

[A parable]
If someone possessed a letter which he knew or believed contained information concerning what he had to consider his life’s blessedness, but the written characters were thin and faded, and the handwriting almost illegible, he would read it and reread it, with anxiety and disquiet certainly, but with passion. At one moment he would get one meaning out of it, the next another. When he was quite sure he had managed to read a word, he would interpret everything in the light of that word. But he would never pass beyond the same uncertainty with which he began. He would stare, more and more anxiously, but the more he stared the less he saw; sometimes his eyes filled with tears, but the more that happened, again the less he saw. In due course the writing became weaker and less distinct; finally the paper itself crumbled away and he had nothing left but eyes blinded with tears.

Crop Rotation: An Attempt at a Theory of Social Prudence

People of experience maintain that it is very sensible to start from a principle. I grant them that and start with the principle that all men are boring. Or will someone be boring enough to contradict me in this?

Such is the elegant beginning of this short but, so it seems to me, critical essay in which A describes a method he calls “crop rotation”. Crop rotation is a discipline by which an aesthete may govern his inner life with the aim of enhancing the aesthetic quality of his experiences. The ideal for an aesthete is to live immediately and unreflectively, as we saw in the essay on Don Giovanni. A’s problem is that he is naturally reflective and is unable to attain the ideal of immediacy. In consequence he must contend against the great foe of the aesthete — boredom. Evasion of boredom requires constant change, an infinite variety of new experiences which ordinary life is unable to provide. Crop rotation is a method for defeating boredom even in the ordinary circumstances of life.

Constant change, says A, may be achieved in two ways. The first is by varying the external circumstances of one’s life: different places, different people, different things. This method may be pursued for a time, but eventually exhausts itself:

One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one travels abroad; one is europamude, one goes to America, and so on; finally, one indulges in a dream of endless travel from star to star. Or the movement is different but still an extension. One is tired of dining off porcelain, one dines off silver; one tires of that, one dines off gold; one burns half of Rome to get an idea of the conflagration at Troy. This method defeats itself; it is the bad infinite.

The alternative is not to change the external, but to change oneself: to live in the same circumstances, with the same people, but yet to have different experiences. This method requires that one draw on and develop internal resources. The secret is to pay attention to the minor details that change, to focus on the arbitrary or the tangential, or to view a familiar situation from a new and original point of view. It demands creativity, attention, and great command of the inner life to succeed in this discipline, for “it requires deep study to succeed in being arbitrary without losing oneself in it, to derive satisfaction from it for oneself.”

Perhaps this is too abstract. A provides us with a vivid example of the kind of attitude to life that he is advocating:

There was someone whose chatter certain circumstances made it necessary for me to listen to. He was ready at every opportunity with a little philosophical lecture which was utterly boring. Driven almost to despair, I discovered suddenly that he perspired unusually profusely when he spoke. I saw how the pearls of sweat gathered on his brow, then joined in a stream, slid down his nose, and ended hanging in a drop at the extreme tip of it. From that moment everything was changed; I could even take pleasure in inciting him to begin his philosophical instruction, just to observe the sweat on his brow and on his nose.

From one point of view it is humorous, but from another it is quite sad, for while he is enjoying that sliding bead of perspiration he is certainly not listening attentively to his interlocutor’s words. Indeed, to the extent that he is always hunting for the accidental in order to feed his appetite for novelty he alienates himself, and A is quite explicit about the need for this estrangement. He cautions against friendship, marriage, and vocational commitment on the grounds that all three will try to involve one in obligations, in which the ethical intrudes into the arbitrary play of inner experience. The key is to vary oneself, and this cannot be done if one is tied down by others.

You might be tempted, dear C, to take A’s theory as a misguided but mostly harmless entertainment for an asocial recluse. I believe that A may have thought that himself at the time of composition, yet the next and final section of Part I disturbs that complacent assessment, for it unfolds in detail the harrowing consequences of A’s method.

The Seducer’s Diary

This section was not written by A. He discovered the papers in a drawer of an acquaintance, and copied them out furtively. Our editor Eremita attributes them to “Johannes the Seducer”. The papers consist of a series of diary entries and letters which vividly illustrate A’s method of crop rotation, the pursuit of the “interesting”.

Johannes’ writings recount the stages of his seduction of Cordelia, a young girl of 17 years. It makes for uncomfortable reading, I don’t mind telling you. It is not that Johannes is a lecher, or that his writing is sexually lurid — it isn’t. He seems largely uninterested in physical seduction; his ambitions are spiritual. He does not want Cordelia to give only her body; he wants her soul: her love and admiration. He wants to conjure out of her the passion of young love, though without any intention of truly returning it. He wants to have her in his power, and with masterful subtlety he manipulates her feelings until she renders herself up. It is spiritual molestation.

The specific details of how he achieves his end — and he does achieve it — are not edifying and I will not dwell on them. Johannes is an aesthete, indeed a virtuoso of the aesthetic life. Like A, he cannot escape being reflective and so cannot be Don Giovanni. Instead, he deploys a carefully calibrated strategy in which he manoeuvres his young prey, setting traps for her, springing surprises.

I tense the bow of love to wound the deeper. Like an archer, I slacken the bowstring, tighten it again, listen to its song — it is my martial music — but I do not take aim with it yet, do not even lay the arrow on the string.

Throughout, his interest is in coaxing out of her the desired response. When he succeeds he is elated, like a young man in love. But he is not in love. He remains always both in and yet above the situation, he is “not only the one baptized but also the priest”. Ultimately, Cordelia herself does not matter to him. Only he matters, and when once he is satisfied, she is dropped.

Thus Part I comes to an end. I hope, dear C, that my summary has been helpful to you. You said that you had no time to read the book yourself; you may complain that this précis is so long it defeats your purpose in soliciting my help — I apologize! I have gone on at some length, yet I have missed so much. I am no philosopher, as you know, and my psychological acuity pales beside Kierkegaard’s own, so I fear that I have not done him justice. But I do hope I have captured at least the main points. Casting a quick eye back over the ground we have covered, we see Kierkegaard — or his various characters, if you wish — exploring from many angles the aesthetic stage of life, the aesthetic way of being. It thrives on feeling and spontaneity. It can evoke melancholy, but gaiety as well. In its lower forms it may produce mere hedonism, but for those with the ability it can be developed into a highly reflective, disciplined art of appreciation. A mature aesthete may be a connoisseur of suffering, but he is a connoisseur. Above all, the aesthete despises duty, commitment, and anything that would make him something concrete, or fetter his scope for self-variation. I must admit that this sphere of life has its attractions, though I am not prepared to admit that it attracts my better nature.

In Part II, which I will defer to a later letter, we turn to the papers of B, an advocate for the ethical mode of being. His conscious task is to subject A’s writings to sustained critique. Until then, be assured of the best wishes of

Your friend.


May 9, 2013

Some people have an impish sense of humour. Here is a Twitter feed which combines, in a volatile mixture, excerpts from Kierkegaard’s writings with gleanings from Kim Kardashian’s Twitter account. It is easy to tell who contributed what:

Can’t sleep & I’m googling double chin exercises! I’m petrified to get one! Here at last I have a definition of the tragic in modern times.


Weary of people, weary of myself, so weary that I need an eternity to rest. That’s why I always carry a pillow when I’m traveling.

Some of the entries can be quite pointed:

Transformed into a Tahitian princess by Bruce Weber! Made fantastic in this way, one fails to notice that in a deeper sense one lacks a self.


From lashes to blushes, makeup plays a huge role in all of our lives! By changing us outwardly, it helps us forget who we really are.

Perhaps Twitter isn’t all bad.

Should I now make an effort to learn who Kim Kardashian is? No, I don’t think so.

Happy belated birthday, Søren

May 8, 2013

The 200th birthday of Søren Kierkegaard came and went earlier this week. I had been planning to write something to mark the occasion, but circumstances conspired against me.

Celebrations appear to have been muted in the wide world as well. Apart from a brief appreciation in the New York Times and an enthusiastic (though, at times, misleading) essay in Aeon magazine, our popular media seems to have let the day slip by without comment. Even at the Korrektiv blog, where Kierkegaard’s tombstone is a masthead, silent observance was the order of the day. Google did honour the day with a special doodle, so that was nice.

Kierkegaard comes in for a good deal of admiration around here, and from time to time we have been known to dilate at length about this or that aspect of Kierkegaardiana. If you have a hankering, for example, to read didactic and often puzzled ruminations on a haphazard collection of his minor works, you could hardly do better than to sojourn right here: Repetition, Philosophical Fragments, Stages on Life’s Way, Judge for Yourself!, The Present Age, The Point of View for my Work as an Author, and De Omnibus Dubitandum Est.

If anyone cares to recommend worthwhile writing on the great Dane, please do so. Meantime, I know I have a copy of the Concluding Unscientific Postscript around here somewhere…

Springtime in Alberta

May 1, 2013

I am back from a few weeks vacation:


If pressed, I will admit that conditions were not quite this bad, but to say that they were entirely unlike this would also be false. It was a great vacation nonetheless.