Either/Or is a two part/two book set; this book is part I, that is, the Either of Either/Or. For those unfamiliar with this work by the Danish philosopher, Either presents what Kierkegaard terms the esthetic view of life. And since the esthetic view of life embraces multiplicity and variation, this book isn’t a straightforward philosophical essay; rather, Kierkegaard’s esthetic individual (herein called ‘A’) writes 8 different papers, each one from a different esthetic angle.
For example, the first paper is a series of short journal entries, dozens of them, written in a highly polished literary language, covering the wide emotional range of A’s philosophical self-examination. In one entry we read, “I say of my sorrow what the Englishman says of his house: My sorrow is my castle.”, and in another entry we read, “I have never been joyful, and yet it has always seemed as if joy were my constant companion, as if the buoyant jinn of joy danced around me . . . “. If this sounds contradictory . . .well, such is the esthetic life.
The esthetic life finds delectable fruit in music. In the nearly 100 page paper “The Immediate Erotic Stages” the author analyzes Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Anybody interested in Mozart and/or music will find this paper highly engaging and insightful. Toward the end, we read, “What It means to say – that Don Giovanni’s essential nature is music – is clearly apparent here. He dissolves, as it were, in music for us; he unfurls in a world of sound. . . . Such is his life, effervescing like champagne. And just as the beads in this wine, as it simmers with an internal heat, sonorous with its own melody, rise and continue to rise, just so the lust for enjoyment resonates in the elemental boiling that is his life.” This passage is typical of what one finds in Kierkegaard’s writing – colorful, poetic, highly engaging and thought-provoking.
One of the most lively papers is entitled ‘Rotation of Crops’ where the author invites us to consider ways to avoid boredom. For example: if you are obliged to listen to the words of a person you find boring, then simply shift your focus, rather than listening to him speak, watch the perspiration on his forehead or nose. Again, another example: if you are bored of living in your current city or country, simply move to another city or country. The trick is learning how to vary your activities and surroundings, to rotate your pleasures the way a farmer rotates his crops.
In the spirit of rotating pleasures to experience novel sensations, the author encourages his own country of Denmark to do something dramatic: “Borrow fifteen million, use it not to pay off our debts but for public entertainment. Let us celebrate the millennium with fun and games. . . . Everything would be free: the theater would be free, prostitutes would be free, rides to Deer Park would be free, funerals would be free, one’s own funeral eulogy would be free. I say “free” for if money is always available, everything is free in a way.” A bit of ironic tongue-in-cheek but, then again, why not, if life is to be lived on the level of an esthete.
Jean Richepin, the decadent Fin-de-siècle French author, wrote a story about an man who took the esthetic life to the extreme, becoming ‘the dandy of the unpredictable’. This man possessed all the qualities needed to become a great poet, musician and painter, but rejected such things seen he saw these accomplishments as too vulgar and altogether beneath him. So, what did this dandy of the unpredictable do? He murdered his mistress, embalmed her, and continued to be her lover. Then, living up to his creed of unpredictability, he confessed his crime and spent the last hours of his life in jail inventing a new dance-step and creating a new oyster sauce. Kierkegaard’s esthetic A would understand and appreciate his actions, for, after all, he avoided boring himself and certainly didn’t bore others.
So, the esthetic life is to live for the moment; to live on the surface of things, where one has a need to continually keep changing activities since one has become inured to the simple joys of life. Does all this sound vaguely familiar? Recall how back in the 1970s Alexander Solzhenitsyn said the Western world, in his estimation, would never serve as a model for a free society since it was enslaved to commercialism, intolerable music and TV stupor. In other words, according to Solzhenitsyn, we are an entire society of esthetes. Kierkegaard viewed his task to be the Socrates of Copenhagen, to wake us up from our comfortable stupor, to look inward and examine our lives as individuals capable of spiritual depth. This book by Kierkegaard is not only imaginative, vibrant literature but also deeply profound philosophy.