Book Review: Either/Or – Søren Kierkegaard

Either/Or: A Fragment of Life was published by Søren Kierkegaard in 1843, making it his first major work. The book was written under the pseudonym Victor Eremita “Victorious Hermit”.

In the preface, Victor Eremita tells us that he has found two papers in an old desk. They express the viewpoints of two distinct figures with radically different beliefs –  the unknown aesthetic young man of Part One, called simply “A”, and the ethical judge of Part II, which he calls “B”.

Part I. Containing the Papers of “A”. Diapsalmata

The first volume opens up with the papers of “A”. Starting with the “Diapsalmata”, which expresses a recurrent mood, capturing A’s moments as an aesthete.

“I feel as a chessman must when the opponent says of it: that piece cannot be moved.”

“When I opened my eyes and saw reality, I started to laugh and haven’t stopped since.”

“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 believe it’s a joke.”

“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 essence of all philosophy.”

Part I. The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic

In the “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic”, “A” expresses what he finds pleasure in: music. He seeks to understand seduction through music, which expresses the most abstract idea: the spirit of sensuality.

Words are unable to express the mood itself, it is too heavy for words to carry, only music can express it. Imagination has no limits, and it is the most useful tool in obtaining pleasure for the aesthete.

He praises Mozart’s opera of Don Giovanni and considers him as one who ranks among the immortals in the realm of music.

The opera is based on the legends of Don Juan, the ultimate aesthete who seduced a thousand and three women, since repetition dulls pleasure. He lives a life of “immediacy” and self-centred pleasure. This makes him an unreflective aesthete, thoughtlessly pursuing pleasure.

The next three essays are directed to the Symparanekromenoi, a Greek expression coined by Kierkegaard, translated as “Society of Buried Lives”. It is an expression used to designate the kind of people Kierkegaard would like to write for, convinced that they would share his views, a society of individuals who are living lives that are spiritually entombed.

Part I. Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern

In the first essay, Ancient Tragedy’s Reflection in the Modern, “A” states that we have passed from the unreflective sorrow of the Greeks to the pain of the reflective modern man. Suffering has not been eradicated but has switched focus.

The pain of modernity is characterised by reflection on suffering, it holds the individual responsible for his own life. However, many do not want to reflect on responsibility as it gives way to anxiety. They prefer to follow what other people say instead of being themselves, losing themselves in the “finite”, as Kierkegaard puts it.

Part I. Shadowgraphs

The next essay “Shadowgraphs”, is an entertainment for the mind in which “A” contemplates the importance of inner experience and if psychologists can really give an accurate picture of it. Sorrow is much more difficult to observe than joy.

Reflective sorrow cannot be represented in art, it is indifferent to the external, the visible. He uses the example of ‘shadowgraphs’ which are not visible straightaway and which must be summoned from the dark side of life. It is an inner picture too refined to be visible on the outside, it is only when one holds it up to the light of day, that one discovers the delicate inner picture. In other words, the outside is the object of our observation, but not of our interest.

Part I. The Unhappiest One

In “The Unhappiest One”, “A” gives his final address to the Symparanekromenoi. It is said that somewhere there is a grave distinguished by a small inscription: ‘The Unhappiest One’. However, the grave was found empty. “A” goes on a quest into the past to search for the one who deserves this title.

The unhappy person is one who has the content of his life outside of himself. He is always absent, never present to himself. One can be absent from oneself in the future (the hoping individual) or in the past (the remembering individual).

“A” states that the unhappiest individual belongs among the unhappy rememberers.

He ends with the following message:

“Rise, dear Symparanekromenoi! The night has passed, the day again begins its untiring activity, never weary, it seems, of repeating itself for ever and ever.”

Part I. Crop Rotation

In “Crop Rotation”, “A” begins with the principle that all people are boring and that “boredom is a root of all evil.”

The worst enemy of the aesthete is repetition and boredom, this includes friends, family, and marriage. His way of life involves a restless seeking of new pleasures.

“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 European, one goes to America, and finally dreams of travelling from star to star.”

To overcome boredom, “A” proposes “crop rotation”. Instead of constantly changing the soil, he plants different crops on the same plot of land, to keep the soil fertile.

The goal is to take the same activities and produce fresh sources of enjoyment, maximising one’s happiness and avoiding boredom. It is an intensive cultivation of pleasure rather than extensive.

The whole secret lies in arbitrariness. He gives the example of being forced to listen to a boring philosophical lecture, on the verge of despair – he notices the perspiration of the lecturer, entertaining himself in focusing on the beads of sweat, so much so that he urges him to keep on with the lecture.

“A” is a reflective aesthete, he turns away from the world to find something more interesting in his reflections. He follows a science of pursuing pleasure, contrary the immediacy of don Juanism.

Part I. The Seducer’s Diary

The next section is The Seducer’s Diary, “A” tells us that this is not his work, but rather written by “Johannes the Seducer”. A man who documents his journey of seducing a woman by the name of Cordelia, not so much for love, as for the aesthetic fun of abandoning her later.

He stalks her and takes great pleasure of planning the seduction. They ultimately get engaged.

As soon as she is deeply in love, he calculatedly gives way to tension and manipulates her. The letters cease, the unrest increases, marriage is scorned as ridiculous and so on. He succeeds in having her break the engagement herself.

Once Johannes has exhausted all his imaginative possibilities and having her reach the highest level of passion, giving herself totally to him, he leaves her – as it would lead him to boredom. It is spiritual violation.

“A” cannot help but feel anxiety upon reading these papers, it is one of the most horrifying things Kierkegaard ever wrote, and a warning to aesthetes.

Part II. Containing the Papers of “B”. The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage

Part II of the book contains the papers of “B” who writes two letters to “A”. He tries to persuade  him over to the ethical sphere of life, characterised by a social and morally proper life. However, he does not want to lose his attention, as “A” will perceive it all as boring. Thus, he begins with his interests: the aesthetic validity in marriage.

The aesthete believes marriage is a limitation, as he enjoys the game of romantic chasing. The ethicist, however, argues that marriage is the actual poetic love which consists of a continual rejuvenation of one’s first love. It is not a regretful backward glance at unstable romantic love, but rather a duty one must fulfil, which is a testament of romance.

Part II. Equilibrium between the Aesthetic and the Ethical

In the second letter, “B” proposes an equilibrium between the aesthetic and the ethical.

The aesthete’s Either/Or is to “do it or don’t do it, you will regret it”, he never chooses because he would regret the choice he doesn’t make.

He is in constant conflict and crippled by his choices, preferring to experiment with life, escaping the moment into fantasy. His existence is devoid of personality because choice itself defines personality.

The ethicist’s Either/Or is to choose between the aesthetic or the ethical. He chooses the ethical and immerses his whole personality in what is chosen.

“I choose absolutely, and I choose absolutely precisely through having not chosen to choose this thing or that.”

The ethicist who focuses on duty ends up receiving more pleasure than the aesthete, who seeks pleasure only to find unhappiness and despair. Happiness is one of those things that we’re much more likely to find if we are not looking for it.

Part II. Last Word

In the Last Word, “B” includes a sermon which he has received from a friend. He writes:

“Take it, then, read it; I have nothing to add, except that I have read it and thought of myself, and thought of you.”

It is noteworthy to observe that he conflates the religious and ethical spheres. A theme Kierkegaard would later explore in Fear and Trembling.

Part II. The Edifying in the Thought that Against God We Are Always in the Wrong

The sermon serves as spiritual advice for the aesthete and the ethicist. To realise that against God, we are always in the wrong. By accepting this, one’s restless mind and anxious heart can find rest.

Each individual can become conscious of a higher self than oneself and embrace this spiritual self in an eternal understanding.

Kierkegaard was far more interested in making us think than in giving us answers. We are thus encouraged to decide for ourselves the merits of the various viewpoints presented.

“I know only that I was born and exist and it seems to me that I have been carried along. I exist on the foundation of something I do not know. In spite of all uncertainties, I feel a solidity underlying all existence and a continuity in my mode of being.”


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Either/Or | Søren Kierkegaard

Either/Or: A Fragment of Life was published by Søren Kierkegaard in 1843, making it his first major work. It was written under the pseudonym Victor Eremita “Victorious Hermit”.


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