Kierkegaard on seduction

My online-bookstore had it tagged as Chick Lit, even though it was written in 1842. I think they just read the title, although I won’t give up hope that somebody takes it to the beach this summer and discovers a lasting passion for literature. The seducer’s diary is a disconcerting little book by Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. It’s part of his Either/Or but printed separately by Penguin.

Copenhagen, by Mariusz Paździora (Own work)  [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

Copenhagen, by Mariusz Paździora (Own work)

The book starts by showing us some letters Cordelia has written after her fiancé has left her. Johannes has returned them unopened. Kierkegaard makes the multilayered story compelling by telling it in this order; the outcome is inevitable.

“It is grievous for her that he has deceived her; it is even more grievous, one could be tempted to say, that he has aroused in her this many-tongued reflection, that he has developed her aesthetically enough no longer to listen humbly to one voice, but to be able to hear the many points of view all at once.”

Unanswered letters play an important part in the book. Johannes takes a lot of trouble to get to know Cordelia, even before they meet. He becomes very friendly with her aunt, the person she lives with because her parents are dead, and he regularly visits her house in the company of Edvard, a shy young man who is completely besotted with Cordelia. Johannes uses Edvard, he uses the aunt and ultimately Cordelia. He sends her love letters that border on the burlesque and when they go out together, he’s cold, almost to the point of ignoring her. Cordelia doesn’t respond to the letters: that is to say, she doesn’t write back.

“She will believe in me, partly because I count on my art, partly because at the bottom of what I do there is truth. If it were not so, she wouldn’t believe me.”

Johannes is not playing games, even though he sends her a personal note that is delivered by messenger at a dinner party they are both attending. He wants to possess Cordelia and he works towards that end by carefully observing her and by manipulating her thoughts and her environment, almost as if she were a tiger. They don’t talk, they don’t develop mutual trust. Cordelia is enchanted and inexperienced: Johannes is neither.

“Nothing less erotic is imaginable than this talk of the future, the reason for which is basically that people have nothing with which to fill the present. When I’m there I have no fear of that … for I can make her forget both time and eternity.”

After the snowfall, by Cordelia Wilson (1876-1953) [Public domain]

After the snowfall, by Cordelia Wilson (1876-1953) [Public domain]

Johannes is inspired by aestheticism, not by love. His seduction of Cordelia is a work of art, a ritual. He loves her deeply, but he still adheres to his own rules: no relationship is to last for more than six months and after the apotheosis, they should never see each other again. Cordelia’s unanswered letters clearly show she’s wounded by the experience. Johannes feels no remorse:

“I have loved her, but from now on she can no longer engage my soul. If I were a god I would do for her what Neptune did for a nymph: change her into a man.”

The composition shows great care and has the feel of a classic. Love is portrayed like an unavoidable battle, but there’s no blood and gore to be found in Kierkegaard’s descriptions. Starting with the image of Johannes as a perfect aesthete, the philosophical questions constantly well up in the mind of the reader. I’d like to discuss them in the comments section, so please share your thoughts.


20 thoughts on “Kierkegaard on seduction

    • Thank you for your warning, dyssbeia. I published this comment so that people who might read this can draw their own conclusions. I’ve deleted the link I’d put in the original article and I’ve blogged on plagiarism to share my experiences so far.

  1. I can’t think of better seductive literature for the beach so, the Chic Lit was perfect 🙂

    I haven’t read the book but as I read your post, I kept thinking, “Johannes should have been a blogger”. It would have allowed him to express his aestheticism to the attraction of like minded souls, to do so even in an aura of love, and yet, to be separated permanently from the remote admirers. Seeing it from that perspective, I can see his aesthetic passion for what it perhaps is, an intellectual disembodied frollicking. The sad thing is that he didn’t have a blog and that he needed Cornelia for his satisfaction.

    Now, do another 180 and look at any other love affair and ask what truly motivates the lovers? Are they ever on the same page? Aren’t they always pursuing some personal “passion” that may or may not be compatible?

    On another note, it is interesting how a book I haven’t read can make me have such reflections. Is it the question in your post or the flotsam of philosophical debris in my mind? As a non-dualist, I have to say it is both 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Genetic Fractals. I agree that Johannes should have been a blogger. Incidentally: Kierkegaard used the name “Johannes” in one of his many pseudonyms and he broke off his engagement with Regine Olsen. He never married. She did. It looks as if she became some sort of aesthetic ideal to him.

      As to your third point, about the motivations of lovers: I think Kierkegaard read Plato’s Phaedrus with great care before he wrote this. In the dialogue, Socrates lies down under a tree, with a young man he is eager to impress, and patiently dissects all our common assumptions about love.

      “Once upon a time there was a fair boy, or, more properly speaking, a youth; he was very fair and had a great many lovers; and there was one special cunning one, who had persuaded the youth that he did not love him, but he really loved him all the same; and one day when he was paying his addresses to him, he used this very argument — that he ought to accept the non-lover rather than the lover …”

      Socrates then proceeds to explain why the non-lover has Phaedrus’ best interests at heart and why this must be so. It’s brilliant.

      Thanks for sharing the flotsam! I really appreciate it. 🙂

      • I did wonder whether there was more to the use of his pseudonym as a choice for the name in this book. Then I thought, would a smart guy like Kierkegaard be sooo transparent? Towards us, I doubt it, but towards his ex-fiancé, perhaps. Interesting story, Pipteinpteron

      • Oops, the second half of your comment didn’t show on my BB…

        Your référence to Socrates and Phaedrus makes perfect sense. Brilliant characters, both. Yes, Kierkegaard would have been inspired by them. It’s’an ongoing dialogue. And we are pursuing the tradition. 🙂

      • Maybe he doesn’t want long attachments, maybe he wants a love that frees, or maybe he is just amoral and doesn’t care about how the others involved feel.
        I would want to read the story of Don Juan because I think there could be a similarity in someway between the two men.
        If one takes aestheticism to the limit, maybe one would end up in a similar situation, who knows?

        • The good thing is that as readers, we don’t know. I think this goes for all the best literary works. They leave a lot to the imagination, and to wonder. I have the impression that Kierkegaard has thought about different kinds of love and people’s misunderstanding of it. It makes me think of the many types of love that the Ancient Greeks described.

          “Love is the expression of the one who loves, not of the one who is loved. Those who think they can love only the people they prefer do not love at all. Love discovers truths about individuals that others cannot see.”

  2. I haven’t read the book, so the only thing I have to go on are what you and Tongue Sophistries have to say about it. In a way, it sounds both attractive and appalling and basically tells me that there are times when we can push aesthetics and intellectual perfection so far as to estrange, not only others but above all our own souls. The perfect seduction and an inevitable outcome…all in the name of a cruel sense of beauty. The only feeling that comes to mind is, compassion, poor Johannes, Cordelia may be hurt, but she’ll go on, he’s stuck in an illusion without much hopes of an awakening.

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Bastet. I find it very interesting. “All in the name cruel sense of beauty” seems like an apt description. What struck me when I read Tongue Sophistries’ review is a hint of Kierkegaard’s talent as a writer. It unsettles the reader. I’m currently reading his book “Works of Love” where he describes his version of Christianity and he seems to be able to confuse you to a point where black might be white and up might be down.
      I could understand why Johannes wanted to have total control of the whole process and why it had to end when it did; a relationship like this has no future, no life, even. And I thought the same as you: Cordelia will go on. She has even learned some painful, but important things. Johannes might forever be stuck in a room full of mirrors.
      If you do come across this book, read it! It will only take a few hours, but it’ll keep you thinking (and perhaps write poetry!) for days.

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