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.

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