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 (http://cc.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Copenhagen, by Mariusz Paździora (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0
(http://cc.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

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.

The truth about Pandora

According to Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman. She was created when Zeus was angry because Prometheus stole the fire.

Prometheus carrying fire, by Jan Cossiers [public domain]

Prometheus carrying fire, by Jan Cossiers [public domain]

Son of Iapetos, surpassing all in cunning, you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire — a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.”

Hesiod, Works and Days (800-700 BCE) Translation Evelyn-White

Hephaistos, the lame god of fire, mixed earth and water into a lovely maiden and all the Olympian Gods gave her a gift to make her even more attractive. For instance, Hesiod describes how Aphrodite shed grace upon her head and cruel longing and cares that weary the limbs. The woman was called Pandora, which means All-Gifts. Hermes brought her to Epimetheus, who looked at her and forgot that he’d been advised never to accept a present from Zeus. He brought her home, where Pandora took the lid from the jar she carried. Fate came flying out, together with Hard Toil and Sickness and Plagues. All these found a home among men, whose lives were miserable because of it. Pandora and Epimetheus eventually had a daughter, Pyrrha; the first mortal woman.

Hesiod told his story to warn us there is no way to escape Zeus, even though Prometheus managed to temporarily outwit him. In his Theogony, he describes Pandora as “sheer guile, not to be withstood by men”. He certainly gives the impression that both Pandora herself and the jar she carried were unwanted gifts.

Pandora, by Alexandre Cabanel [public domain] CC 3.0 license

Pandora, by Alexandre Cabanel [public domain] CC 3.0 license

If we try to imagine a world without the beauty of women or the cruel surprises of fate, without hard work and sickness, it would not inspire us, however much this blessed but uneventful life might have appealed to Hesiod. I think Prometheus’ fire, Pandora and the contents of the jar conspired to make the life of the pre-Socratic Greeks tragic.

“…since tragedy no less than beauty may be said do exist only in the eyes of the beholder, whose sensibility has been formed and cultivated by art.” Richard Schacht, Making Sense of Nietzsche, in an essay on the Birth of Tragedy

What always fascinates me, is that Hesiod’s is not the only way to tell this particular story.

Homer says in his Iliad that there were two urns, one filled with evils and one with blessings. Zeus can mingle these and bestow them at will. Theognis in his Greek Elegy (6th century BCE) describes the inverse of Hesiod: Pandora opens the jar and all the good gods come out and instantly leave for Mount Olympus: Trust, Restraint and Charitas are lost forever. Therefore, people forget about the rules of conduct and acts of piety. In this version, the people are not the innocent victims of a wrathful Zeus but they become forgetful and can no longer trust each other. This is what brings tragedy to their lives.

Maybe the beautiful maiden was innocent, too. Aesop claims Pandora’s husband had no self-control and opened the jar. (Aesop’s Fables # 526, 6th century BCE). There is one thing all these writers agree on: Hope was kept in the jar, either because Pandora closed it in time or because Zeus had designed it to happen like that.

Is that a good thing? After all, hope does nothing to protect us from the tragedies of life. However, Aeschylus is not alone in arguing that it keeps us alive instead:

Prometheus: Yes, I caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom.

Chorus: Of what sort was the cure that you found for this affliction?

Prometheus: I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.

Chorus: A great benefit was this you gave to mortals.

Aeschylus, from the Greek Tragedy “Prometheus Bound” (5th century BCE) translation Weir Smyth

The texts cited above were found on the Greek mythology site theoi.com.

To know thyself by aphorism

“Philosophy triumphs easily over past evils and future evils; but present evils triumph over it.”

François de La Rochefoucauld, 1664

I’d like to know if that is just an observation, based on the French nobleman’s own experiences and those of the people he saw around him, or a timeless truth. What do you think?

La Rochefoulcauld, Inner Court, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

La Rochefoulcauld, Inner Court, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

An aphorism is a short, pithy statement of an evident truth concerned with life or nature. The word was first used by Hippocrates in 400 BCE in his collection that started with the words: “Life is short and Art long; the crisis fleeting…”

Everyone who thinks they’ve heard that before doesn’t need to be convinced of the usefulness of aphorisms: they stick in your mind, even though they are often remembered incorrectly or misappropriated. Such a short statement easily gets misinterpreted, of course, but I like to think that is part of its charm. I first encountered La Rochefoucauld’s collection because Nietzsche apparently read them, when he was in Sorrento working on Human, All Too Human in the company of Paul Rée. Nietzsche remarked that writing aphorisms in German is almost impossible, because one always ends up with a cumbersome load of auxiliary verbs at the end of an otherwise terse sentence. He also wondered if a person who had never tried to write one could appreciate the work involved.

“…for even the subtlest mind is not capable of properly appreciating the art of polishing maxims if he has not himself been brought up for it and competed at it … Hence, the present-day readers of maxims get a relatively paltry satisfaction from them, hardly any pleasure in tasting them, so that they respond to them just like people generally do in looking at cameos: they praise them because they cannot love them, and are quick to admire and even quicker to run away.”

Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, I: 35 SUP 1995

Cameo, by Bellezzedinapoli [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Cameo, by Bellezzedinapoli [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

On a French website, I read how La Rochefoucauld used the second half of his life to write about his experiences in the first half. And most of those were disappointing. He was married at fifteen and joined the army a year later. He fought in the aristocratic uprisings of his time and got seriously wounded, once by a bullet in the head. These experiences and his being a French nobleman made him a pessimist in a detached, elitist way.

“We are never so happy or so unhappy as we suppose.”

In the introduction to his “Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims” he makes such an effort to describe his own face to his readers that I wasn’t surprised to find quite a few thoughts on vanity and  amour-propre. He writes that self-love is the greatest of flatterers and that “Whatever discoveries have been made in the region of self-love, there remain many unexplored territories there.” This inspired the translator to say that La Rochefoucauld wished to find a motive for all our actions in pride, vanity and egotism.

La Rochefoucauld, salon, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

La Rochefoucauld, salon, by Thierry de Villepin [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

La Rochefoucauld certainly identifies these as our driving forces, rather than nobility, morality and love:

“If there is a pure love, exempt from the mixture of our other passions, it is that which is concealed at the bottom of the heart and of which even ourselves are ignorant.”

Nietzsche writes about the pros and cons of these psychological observations and decides they are necessary, not from a need for witty coquettishness, but because they tell us how we are human. A good aphorism looks us in the eye and tells us an uncomfortable truth, which was certainly Nietzsche’s intention. To end on a suitably pessimist note:

“We have all sufficient strength to support the misfortunes of others.”

La Rochefoucauld

A feather tale

“This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and it carries with it all my good intentions.”

Amy Tan, the Joy Luck Club

The feather Amy Tan describes is a swan feather, the sole reminder of a swan that was carried from China and wasn’t allowed into the United States. Her character kept the feather as a token. The paradox appealed to me. One swan feather looks exactly like another; nothing Chinese about it. Only the story remains.

Mirrored, by aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Mirrored, by aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://cc.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Here, at pipteinpteron, you might catch a falling feather. It may seem worthless, or not. At best, this blog will start you musing. The writer’s quill is powerful, but who said I was a writer?

This won’t get personal and it won’t get opinionated. I’m looking for those fragments of knowledge that spark a thought, open your eyes or make you feel like flying, if only for a moment. Just imagine how:

“What opposes, unites.” Heraclitus DK 8

I’m delighted to see the many translations of ancient texts on the internet. Many people spend their time creating these sites, making the work of philosophers like Heraclitus more accessible than ever before. So that’s all good. Or is it?

“Your invention [of writing] will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.” Plato, Phaedrus

Maybe a genuine interest in philosophy means you read closely, and read again. And then you write about it. And hopefully, someone reads you.