Literature

Either/Or

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

By Dorthe Sondrup Andersen, master's degree in literature and culture writer, 2006

Unsuitable for children 

A young man by the name of Soeren Kierkegaard hurries down the main street in central Copenhagen with an indispensable umbrella tucked under his arm. He has a handsome face, but he is visibly disabled. His back is crooked, and the length of his legs so unequal that he has to make an effort not to walk round in circles. Not an exceptional scene because many both cripples and geniuses existed in Copenhagen at the gold age, but this guy was indeed quite special. 

Historical one-night stand 

The works of Soeren Kierkegaard are hardcore philosophy dressed up as literature. This is also true of his first literary work, Either/Or, which he published under a different name. The content was supposed to be a ream of documents found in a secret compartment of an old bureau. Half of it is written by a man that the publisher calls A. The rest are letters sent to him from someone who, by the same token, is simply called B. They are two very different men. A thinks of nothing but enjoying life to the full, whereas B thinks a lot about how a responsible person should live.

Much of the book makes for awfully dry reading. Soeren Kierkegaard probably chose this style deliberately, for what really makes Either/Or work, is a very naughty story about how one of the men seduces a young girl, only to dump her the next day in order to hurry on to new seductions. 

Guide to picking up girls and existential masterpiece 

Either/Or caused quite a scandal when it was published. The chapter called The Seducer’s Diary (Forfoererens Dagbog) seemed downright pornographic at the time. Even so, it didn’t take people long to guess the identity of the real writer, because Soeren Kierkegaard himself had done something similar, i.e. become engaged to a young girl and then left her shortly after. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he now added insult to injury by revealing the most intimate details of that nasty story in print.
Soeren Kierkegaard’s first book does not seem to be pornography today, but that doesn’t mean his seduction technique no longer works. Male readers can still learn a trick or two about sweet-talking a girl into bed. Female readers can test Soeren Kierkegaard’s tactics on themselves. And blush at the thought that the little weakling of a book nerd might not have been such a bad lover. 

Woodcut by Povl Christensen, 1949. From Søren Kierkegaards In vino veritas (Scripta 1949).
Søren Kierkegaard drawn by Niels Christian Kierkegaard. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
Literature

Did you know?

Source: Niels Jørgen Cappelørn og Joakim Garff: Den hemmelige note: Kierkegaard. Søren Kierkegaard Selskabet og Søren Kierkegaard Forskningscenteret, 1996.

Kierkegaard has been drawn several times: In some pictures he is beautiful as a statue, on other pictures he is a humpback, small man. Which of the portraits that hit the most spot is difficult to say as he never been photographed.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Literature, 2006

“Who ridicules others, ridicules themselves, and it is nothing but mockery upon yourself, a pitiful proof of the weakness of your soul, that your philosophy of life is concentrated into one single sentence: ‘I say simply either/or’.” 

This dressing-down of A – the idle aesthete, who casually enjoys the here and now – comes from the ethicist B. He is a somewhat grey, anonymous official, who tries to get A to realise that the life of an individual is led most fully with social obligations. The conversation between the seducer A and husband B is about love. Either/Or is composed such that A’s letters represent the first part and B’s letters the second. In the first part, the aesthete constructs his life and his relationships like an artwork, in that he uses chance as a tool and tries to avoid binding choices. In the second part, B tries to get him to choose between the aesthetic and the ethical.

The reader is confronted with texts that do not merely present arguments for forms of existence, but contrast these through differences in phrasing and genre. A’s letters thus encompass aphorisms, academic dissertations and conclude with the lively prose of “Diary of a Seducer” in contrast to B’s long personal letters, characterised by the official’s professional sense of problem solving.
The ethicist claims that first and foremost, it is unimportant what one chooses, what is important is way one addresses the choice, i.e. the existential obligation associated with it. Moreover, B asserts that a person makes themselves a free spirit by choosing themselves. Kirkegaard’s authorship is wrapped in Either/Or’s tension between the existential and expressive forms, contained here within a bold prose composition.

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