The Explosive Maieutics of Kierkegaard's Either/Or

By Howland, Jacob | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2017 | Go to article overview

The Explosive Maieutics of Kierkegaard's Either/Or


Howland, Jacob, The Review of Metaphysics


Soren Kierkegaard published Either/Or: A Fragment of Life in 1843. (1) The first bloom of the extraordinary literary efflorescence that made his name, the book announced the existence of a vital and fecund soul. Kierkegaard's poetic children--unique individuals all--include multiple pseudonymous authors and their distinctive offspring: rich, lively volumes of aesthetic and cultural criticism, psychological exploration, metaphysical inquiry, ethical and religious exhortation, and existential drama; composed of letters, essays, diaries, aphorisms, parables, lectures, sermons, and dialogues; and written in the registers of comedy, pathos, humor, and irony (2)

Either/Or, a work of vast scope fashioned by multiple hands, incorporates the essential elements of Kierkegaard's authorship as a whole. Its main author/characters--an accidental editor, an alienated litterateur, a didactic judge, a solitary pastor--reveal the dialectical instability of the primary modes of human existence (aesthetic, ethical, and religious) that Kierkegaard explores throughout his ouevre. Speaking from different border zones on this broad existential map, all nevertheless stand at the threshold between literature and life, and not simply because their status as distinct individuals is questionable even on the book's fictional premise. (3) For they relate to one another exclusively or primarily in writing and reading, and they are volatilized--as Kierkegaard's readers must also feel themselves to be--by the destabilizing, yet also potentially productive, effects of these literary activities.

Kierkegaard's upsurge of literary creativity may be traced to his 1841 dissertation, The Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates, in which the paradoxical figure of Socrates, a poetic triangulation from the distinct perspectives of Aristophanes and Plato, fluctuates between presence and absence, sterile emptiness and fertile substantiality. While the ethereal philosopher of Aristophanes' Clouds points toward the problem of metaphysical seduction--the arousal of longing for a reality that exists neither in the seducer nor at the heart of the world--Socrates' solid carapace of manly virtue conceals, in Plato's Symposium, a womb teeming with images "divine and golden and altogether beautiful and amazing." (4) For Kierkegaard, this oscillation between void and plenitude, surface and depth, produces a fructifying spiritual electricity; the dissertation has rightly been called "a program for life" and "a life task." (5)

Either/Or exhibits the same potentially generative polarities as The Concept of Irony. Like Johannes de Silentio's Fear and Trembling (1843) and Johannes Climacus's Philosophical Fragments, or a Fragment of Philosophy (1844), the book contains multiple shocks and collisions with intransigent realities. Trapped as they are in cultural eddies of romantic alienation and late-modern triumphalism, however, Either/Or1 s protagonists are generally oblivious of the meaning, and sometimes even the existence, of these deep and intense collisions. Kierkegaard nevertheless seems to hope that they might prove to be birth pangs for his readers, issuing them into a life that is open and responsive to absolute reality--the mysterious, wounding, and yet ultimately quickening reality that presents itself to Abraham as YHVH, and that Socrates, in his maieutic ignorance, calls "the god. (6)

In his "Lecture on Ethics," Wittgenstein asserts that "if a man could write a book on ethics which really was a book on ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world." (7) Perhaps he was thinking of Kierkegaard's accomplishment in Either/Or, a work he read and admired. (8) Part 2 of the book consists of three letters by a certain Judge William; these culminate in a muffled explosion--in a sermon the judge recommends but fundamentally misunderstands--of the foundations of the ethical existence he has described in the previous 300 pages. …

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