Cruel intentions - Søren Kierkegaard

The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) was firmly convinced that his first book was also to be his last. His family’s grim medical history led him to assume that he would die young, and he felt that his short time would be more agreeably spent as a rural pastor. But “things did not go as I expected and intended”, he later wrote. “Oh, no.” Because that first book, Either/Or (1843), quickly propelled Kierkegaard to literary celebrity and signalled the beginning of one of history’s most frantic writing careers.

As a child Kierkegaard was sensitive, sulky, ironical and precocious. In other words, he had precisely that youthful temperament which, while not a sufficient condition, is nonetheless a necessary condition for the later burgeoning of genius. In adolescence, Kierkegaard’s shyness gave way to defensive wit, his lack of physical endowments conditioning the need for a different type of strength. At school, he was talented but not exceptional, always overshadowed by his eldest brother, Peter. But posterity has been kind to the younger Kierkegaard: his childhood indolence is seen now as an indictment of the tedious pedagogical system of the time, rather than of his moral or intellectual stamina. Indeed, it is precisely here, in the oppressive nineteenth-century classroom, that the mature Kierkegaard’s radically individualistic, anti-authoritarian attitude developed – even if, for now, it could only manifest itself as naughtiness.

In his twenty-fifth year Kierkegaard’s dwindling family became smaller still when his father died (his mother and five of his six siblings had already done so), leaving him and Peter a fortune. But, in a way that can’t fail to be of interest to the post-Freudian reader, this period of unrest seems to have focused Kierkegaard’s mind, and he took to work on his theological examinations with uncharacteristic vigour. As the ground fell away beneath him, Kierkegaard found his feet.

Around this time Regine Olsen entered his life. Later, Kierkegaard would claim that he had long planned to marry her, but there is little outward sign of this before his awkward, abrupt proposal in September 1840. During his relationship with Regine, documented in a series of startling, passionate but strangely abstract letters, Kierkegaard was not merely courting a kind-hearted and unusually patient teenager, but earthly life and its rewards. Thus when, a year later, he broke off the engagement, he was only ratifying a renunciation he had initiated long before, back while he was still making avowals of love: by identifying Regine with the sum of what the world had to offer, he had barred himself from ever appreciating what she herself had to offer. He had shrouded her particularity in the garb of the universal.

Determined though Kierkegaard was to retreat from life in order to devote himself to his work, his life remained inseparably caught up in that work. At that time, he was working on the manuscript of Either/Or, a long and baffling work, which looked at serious risk of remaining unfinished. Its longest section, “The Seducer’s Diary”, is a haunting novella-like narrative about a philandering aesthete called Johannes the Seducer. Johannes preys on a young woman called Cordelia, dedicating months to inducing her to fall in love with him, something he does with the calculation and guile of the modern-day “pick-up artist”. When he finally succeeds, he instantly and irrevocably takes leave.

Later, Kierkegaard claimed that writing the “Diary” – his most celebrated literary achievement, often published as a stand-alone book – was an act of what elsewhere he called “necessary cruelty”, an attempt to “repel” the still hopeful Regine by making her see him as a pervert and a scoundrel. (In fact, in its relative understatement, the near-contemporaneous Repetition, which also concerns a broken engagement, is arguably the crueller book. And in Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard even went so far as to include a verbatim copy of the letter in which he broke off the engagement.) During this period, both on the page and off, Kierkegaard’s behaviour towards Regine was often truly callous, but it appears that he succeeded more by perseverance than by the believability of the charade.

Like most of Kierkegaard’s better-known works – in fact, as Mark Bernier reminds us in The Task of Hope in Kierkegaard, like many Danish works of the period – Either/Or was written pseudonymously. The first volume comprises the assembled papers of an unnamed young cynic – “A” – who inhabits what Kierkegaard calls the aesthetic “stage of life” or “sphere of existence”. A’s passions lie in music, art and erotic love; his hero is Mozart’s Don Giovanni. His life is organized around a perpetual search for pleasure, which, in his atheistic world view, is the only thing with intrinsic value. Throughout his search, A is haunted by the menace of boredom, that unwanted spectre which always threatens to turn up and spoil the banquet. His solution is nothing short of extraordinary. No stranger to the commonplaces that familiarity breeds contempt and fulfilment spells the death of desire, A advocates nurturing an attitude of arbitrariness towards the world. In such a relation lies “the whole secret” of enjoyment, because it transforms anything into potential material for pleasure – be that the affection of a beautiful lover or, to use A’s own example, watching the sweat gather on and cascade off the nose of an insufferable interlocutor.

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