We last left me on the second floor of my college library. It is quiet. The building's ventilation shushes gently at students hunched over their books and papers. They will not speak. There is a reverence to the space.
My fingers rasp on the page of Søren Kierkegaard's Either, the first volume of his exploration of life and morality, Either/Or. I knew nothing of its history, its context, except those words I was reading:
What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music.
I checked out the book, took it back to my dormitory, elated, but I didn't read much past the first few sections. I liked the book as an artifact, for what it represented to me, a me that I saw in the writings of this Mr Kierkegaard, more than 150 years after its publication.
Looking back, twenty years on, I see something else in this coincidental meeting, something that set me to writing about it here in the first place.
Either/Or is written from the perspective of various authors, each expounding their own lived experience and, by extension, some argument for how one should live. The authors in the Either volume operate in an aesthetic mode of subjective experience and feeling, detailing their lives through vivid imagery and metaphor.
Authors in Or, by contrast, urge for a different understanding of life, a level of engagement requiring adjustment and responsibility to the objective world. They argue that one must choose life in this way for life to have meaning.
It was as if these volumes were bookends to my life. I had been going along, nearly unable to choose, until I washed up on the shores of adulthood, starved for understanding, desperate for direction.
Kierkegaard was Christian, a philosopher and pastor that wrote many critiques of the religious practice he saw about him. I was attending a Christian college but was becoming increasingly frustrated with my Christian contemporaries.
Kierkegaard's arguments in Either/Or are his arguments with himself, about his place in the world and how he must live. I needed to decide for myself how I would live my life, and I had never done that before.
Kierkegaard recognized the yearning of the self, the internal poet, but could not help but counterbalance that desire with a recognition of everything else, others' yearning, the requirements of society, the requirements of the soul.
Have I recognized myself, by my own understanding? Do I need a page of another's words to define me? Can I convince myself of my own needs, the fundamental rights of my existence?
More Kierkegaard, from the section entitled 'Diapsalmata', seems appropriate:
My soul has lost its potentiality. If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.
In finding, does one lose the search?
Either/Or also functions as an examination of Aristotelian and Hegelian logic, the important concept being that of the "excluded middle" in relations of identity. Something must be one thing or another: if you are A, you cannot be Not-A. You are one, or the other. True or False. Either / Or.
This is well and good when we rational thinkers consider objects, like rocks or mushrooms or clouds (hmm, maybe not the amorphous collection of vapors).
Hegel went ahead and threw a wrench into Aristotelian thinking when he argued that things are never static in such a way. A cannot simply be A, because there is no static being, only becoming. While we're at it, A could very well become Not-A sometime.
The German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote about the complications of applying this sort of logic to rational thinkers in The Science of Knowledge. In short:
rational thinker thinks
reflects to self: what is this that is thinking, it must be something. (A)
further reflection brings complication: what is it that can be reflected in my thoughts in such a way, if I have only just thought of it? (B)
what is B in relation to A?
This makes my brain hurt, but Fichte resolves his argument by saying it is impossible to say meaningful things about the identity of this 'B' given what we know about 'A'.
Put another way, in a living context if you will, statements about one's thoughts, beliefs, opinions, commitments, dreams, et cetera, fail to perform as anything beyond vapid identity statements about oneself.
This is where Either/Or comes in, with Kierkegaard dressing up as other characters and dancing on a knife's edge, navigating Aristotle, Hegel, Fichte and self identity.
I'll leave this here for the moment, with some final words. I am using my current "right-now" existence to analyze myself, through the lens of my past, with aid of information my past self did not have. As I've said, I was not a Kierkegaard fan in college. I had no wider context. I read maybe forty pages of that book, but it stuck with me.
I'm sitting here now on my couch, tapping away on my laptop keyboard with a few Wikipedia articles open in my browser. My cats are running around because my wife fed them some catnip earlier. My dog is currently licking the floor clean of said catnip.
My logic probably sucks. My feeble understanding is feeble.
I'm not trying to convince you of anything. I'm trying to convince myself.
I'm a slim glass of water, and when the sun hits sometimes, I can see color and light on the table before me.
Thanks for stopping by. I'll be continuing this series of introspections over the next few weeks. Maybe subscribe if you want more like this, or perhaps ramblings about currencies or capybaras.
You can read the first part of this series here.
Thanks to Wikipedia for information on Kierkegaard and Either/Or.
Lead photo by Dobromir Hristov from Pexels