Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 3, 2015

a Good Friday meditation

This semester I’m teaching Kierkegaard’s Either/Or for the first time in a decade or so, and I keep having these little moments of insight and recognition that remind me of just how freakishly brilliant SK is. Here’s one example.

The most famous section of Either/Or is the “Seducer’s Diary,” which appears in the first part — the papers of “A,” the aesthete — and according to A is a manuscript that he discovered. The strong hint, of course, is that A wrote it himself, whether as a faithful account of his own experience or as a clever fiction. (Note also that SK presented Either/Or to the public not as his own work but as the work of one Victor Eremita, who tells us in the preface that he found all of the various papers in an old desk. So there’s a Russian-doll effect: authors within authors within authors.)

Before A presents us with the seducer’s diary, he tells us that he happens to know the seduced girl, and moreover has come into possession of some letters from her. He reproduces a few of them, including this quite remarkable one:


There was a rich man who had many cattle, large and small; there was a poor little girl, she had only a single lamb, which ate from her hand and drank from her cup. You were the rich man, rich in all the earth’s splendour, I was the poor girl who owned only my love. You took it, you rejoiced in it; then desire beckoned to you and you sacrificed the little I owned; of your own you could sacrifice nothing. There was a rich man who owned many cattle, large and small; there was a poor little girl who had only her love.

Your Cordelia

We may note several things here. First, before we ever hear Johannes’s account of his conquest of Cordelia, which he presents as a strictly aesthetic enterprise designed to create something interesting — he calls it the task of “poeticizing oneself into a girl” — we hear Cordelia’s grief and pain, that is, we are alerted to the very ethical dimension of eros which Johannes repudiates. It is a kind of caveat lector for those with ears to hear.

Second, we discover that Cordelia is someone capable of describing her situation with eloquence and metaphorical power.

Third, we see that the primary metaphor she uses derives from Scripture, and that she employs the biblical story in an extraordinarily complex and sophisticated way. The story is that of David and Bathsheba, but Cordelia draws more specifically on the climax of that story, when the prophet Nathan confronts David with his sin. Remember what David has done: in his lust for Bathsheba he has sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, out into the front lines of battle to be killed. David is therefore not just an adulterer but also a murderer.

Nathan knows that David would be unlikely to respond well to direct confrontation; so he concocts a fairy-tale-like story, one that appears to have nothing to do with David, and thereby elicits the King’s morally-charged response. Only then does Nathan reveal the real meaning of the story, whose force David cannot now escape.

Cordelia’s use of the story in her letter to Johannes is remarkable primarily because she does not cast herself in the role of Bathsheba, the seduced woman. Rather, she gives herself a twofold role. Recall that, in Nathan’s story, the rich man is David; the poor man with one ewe lamb is Uriah; the ewe lamb is Bathsheba. Therefore Cordelia identifies herself with Uriah, which is as much as to say to Johannes: You have sent me to my death, and stolen my one treasure, which is my love. Johannes in this version of the story is then not just a seducer but a kind of murderer.

But note also this line from Cordelia’s letter: “You were the rich man.” Her words echo those of Nathan, which calls to our attention that she is casting herself in a second role, that of the prophet — a word that means not “seer” but “spokesman” — who speaks the word of truth into the reluctant ears of sinners. She the victim must also be the spokesman; she must speak for herself because there is none other to speak for her.

And finally, in her retelling of — her midrash on — the biblical narrative, she adds one more element: “you sacrificed the little I owned.” The lamb that had been a beloved companion is led to the slaughter; is made a sacrifice to Johannes’s “poeticizing.”

We do not know what Johannes thought about this letter, but A’s response to it — remember, he is the one who presents it to us — is telling: “to some extent she lacked lucidity in her presentation. This is especially the case in the second letter [the one we have read], where one suspects rather than grasps her meaning, but to me it is this imperfection that makes it so touching.” One suspects rather than grasps her meaning. Yet the meaning is not so hard to grasp — again, for those with ears to hear.

The image of the sacrificed lamb, a lamb that is not merely without blemish but also beloved, thus hovers over the diary that we then read. Which leads me to one final reflection.

At a key point in his narrative Johannes writes, “There is a difference between a spiritual and a physical eroticism. Up to now it is mostly the spiritual kind I have tried to develop in Cordelia. My physical presence must now be something different , not just the accompanying mood, it must be tempting. I have been constantly preparing myself these days by reading the celebrated passage in the Phaedrus on love. It electrifies my whole being and is an excellent prelude. After all, Plato really understood love.”

In Plato’s Phaedrus Phaedrus leads Socrates out into the countryside where they discuss a speech by the logographer Lysias on love. What might Johannes have found so “electrifying” about this debate?

The key question Lysias raises is whether a person should prefer to form a relationship with a lover or a non-lover. Socrates thinks this is a fascinating speech, and gives two different speeches of his own in response to it. It is the first of these that most directly addresses the question. It is a speech which he concludes in very forcible terms: “Consider this, fair youth, and know that in the friendship of the lover there is no real kindness; he has an appetite and wants to feed upon you: As wolves love lambs so lovers love their loves.” Ah.

Such a dark tale. Is there a more hopeful one? I think there is. It begins, “There was a king who loved a maiden”


Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]