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The Great Conversation

by Norman Melchert


An excellent chapter on Soren Kierkegaard highlights Norman Melchert’s text. Melchert describes Kierkegaard's pseudonymous authors, showing the sorts of individuals we make ourselves into, and what it means to be those individuals. Kierkegaard wants us to see ourselves as we are, stripping away comfortable self-deceptions.


One of Kierkegaard's authors is “A.” "A" would be satisfied just merely being, merely flowing through life with constant pleasure, without anxiety, self-consciousness, and awareness of consequences. Thoughtlessly chasing pleasure, unfortunately, often fails. Pleasure often takes thought and anxiety to produce. Direct pursuit of pleasure leaves one bored and jaded, producing anxieties. His solution: Viewing his own life merely as a work of art. Instant gratification fades, but cultivating aesthetic pleasures provides lasting enjoyment.


For "A," boredom is the enemy. His life consists of two poles: Boring and interesting. He judges everything (implicitly or explicitly) boring or interesting.


One method, the “vulgar, inartistic method,” of maximizing the interesting is called the rotation of fields, Using this method, one keeps mindlessly changing channels, relationships, environments.


The other way of maximizing the interesting is the thoughtful, carefully chosen method--the rotation of crops. This can be done while staying in the same environment. One chooses to think a pleasant thought, one chooses to forget unpleasant thoughts. One chooses to enjoy the worst show on television as if it were the most humorous show ever seen. Or one chooses to revel in a gob of spit resting on a speaker’s lip.


Whatever the aesthetic method, commitments must be avoided, so one is never forced to do anything, especially anything boring. The appearance of control must be maintained.


One form of aesthete is the Don Juan, the non-reflective stud who mindlessly struts and performs like an alpha elephant seal flopping around a beach, crushing lives blundering into his path.


“A” describes another aesthete, Johannes Climacus, the charmer who plans and carefully manipulates. He tricks Cordelia into loving him merely to seduce her. Then using tricks--“It’s not you, it’s me.”--he gets her to dump him (what he wants). He uses her, and she does not know it. Not only does he not care about what he does, he thinks he helps her because he made her life more interesting. He taught her “the delights and terrors of the possible.” The chase and his bird’s eye enjoyment of the chase were all that mattered to him. “He is the playwright, actor and audience in his own life.” The life of the aesthete becomes a multitude of lives, one following the other, each life interested in something else.


Another character is The Judge. The Judge recognizes that early love comes from infatuation and spontaneous romance. But since this love arises from stuff happening, bad stuff eventually happens. The end of love happens as spontaneously as the beginning. Laziness, thoughtlessness, and cynicism about love end up producing serial relationships or evasions of relationships. Or sometimes marriages of convenience, marriages of mere habit or contract. Intuitive love does not lead to lasting love. Lasting love requires will, choice, and reasoning.


Conjugal love escapes art. Novels and movies are almost never about conjugal happiness. Art describes overcoming opposition while falling in love. Art ends with “happily ever after,” but in the real world the most incredible events should begin. Married couples have “not fought with lions and ogres, but with the most dangerous enemy—with time.” Marriage is worthless to art sellers and creators, but to the married couple, it can offer greater delights, including ethical enjoyments.


The Judge recommends the ethical life. The ethical life demands taking choices seriously. Aesthetes have choices, but it hardly matters which alternative they choose: Moose tracks ice cream or mint chocolate chip ice cream? “[A]ny choice might as well have been the opposite—and can be tomorrow.” Whatever one does, new pleasure is not far away. And for goodness sake, says the aesthete, keep tinges of regret away. Flush commitments down the drain, except the commitment to the interesting.


But eventually the tomorrows end. One can captain a ship that plows into rocks because one was indecisive for too long. One can plow into the rocks by choosing trivial alternatives. And one can plow into the rocks by simply choosing awful alternatives. If we do not act with ethical decisiveness, “we will lose ourselves.” He writes: “Good versus evil” is on a different planet from “interesting versus boring.”


Marriage is not the only ethical life, but it symbolizes ethical living. For marriage to succeed, it requires nurturance and commitment. Shuff happens is no philosophy for marriage. Proper responses to the vagaries and ills of life matters. Simply being is for the herd. Marriage and, by analogy, ethical living are matters of doing and becoming.


Secrecy and nowism, immediacy and fragmentation infiltrate the aesthetic mind. Permanent detachment and wallowing in blather mark the aesthetic world. Reason, autonomy and the requirement to do better than given circumstances distinguish the ethical world.


Kierkegaard says we should become a “self.” In doing so, we should resist habits urging us to drift. Or impulses sending us in vile directions, including the “wish to be a god or an unthinking brute.” We must face facts we can do something about and facts we can do nothing about. Paradoxically, living an ethical life can often be more enjoyable than the aesthetic life, though one was not pursuing pleasure.


Kierkegaard then claims the ethical life is not the ultimate, recommending instead a religious-ethical life. He describes a “Knight of Infinite Resignation” who pursues a religion of inner peace and detachment from the world. Avoid this life, he says. Another knight, “The Knight of Faith” lives passionately in the world—the ethical life—and also with a passion for religion.


The aesthete moves on when she loses interest. The ethical and the Knight of faith are whole-heartedly committed to becoming a self, even up until the moments before death. When one fails to become a self, writes Kierkegaard, one is in “despair.” Apathy, nihilism, and indolence reek of despair. Mawkishness and self-destruction, self-loathing and other-loathing stink of despair. Fantasies and misplaced emotions wallow in despair. Destructive information delivers despair. Constantly exploring possibilities, without pursing them, oozes despair. Herd activities and low standards multiply despair. Being manipulated fills us with despair. Creating harms to please influential fools ratchets up despair.


No matter what life one chooses, one must choose without certainty. No permanent solutions exist, yet one should not merely be a hovering observer. The difficulties of involvements have their rewards.


A tiresome chapter on Martin Heidegger, who is either over my head or a yogi of fascism, who duped philosophers, finishes Melchert's book. I think the latter more probable. Worth browsing.


Book review article by JT Fournier, last updated July 24, 2009


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