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.