There are some works I’ve started countless times, never to finish, yet with a sense of awe each time I begin them again. Kierkegaard’s Either/Or is near the top of that list. I find myself astounded by his writing in the same way he is by Mozart. I’m simultaneously entranced by his words while looking around to see if anyone else realizes how powerful they are. Of course, I know that’s a ridiculous thing to wonder—many people have and still do. But where are they, and why aren’t there more of them? Having a community of people whose hearts are stirred by the same things as yours is a deep kind of joy, and one of the things I miss most about academia.
In “The Immediate Erotic Stages” Kierkegaard distinguishes between good fortune and accident. The latter seems to be how so many of us, myself all too often among them, see greatness. If only situations favored us, if only we were afforded the same opportunities, if only someone were to notice our talents, if only the system wasn’t set against us, if only fate were different, then we too could have created what the great ones have. “This wisdom contains considerable consolation and balm for all mediocrities, who thereby see themselves in a position to delude themselves and like-minded people into thinking that they did not become as exceptional as the exceptional ones because of a mistaken identification on the part of fate, a mistake on the part of the world. This produces a very convenient optimism” (Either/Or, trans. Hong, 47). The irony is that such a view prevents us from doing the one thing greatness demands: losing ourselves in it. Mediocrity, especially our own, does not move us deeper into itself—let alone beyond itself—for there is nothing deeper there. To experience it once is to exhaust it, which is why it must necessarily be followed by others like it. We exchange mystery for triviality, singularity for multiplicity, iteration for novelty, for—let’s be honest—it’s easier that way, both for producers and consumers. (And thus Adorno’s culture industry thrives as it always has.) It also prevents us from understanding the forces behind greatness, which he illustrates with both Homer and Mozart, but the latter above all.
The accidental view supposes fate capriciously gives certain men and women epic themes and events with which to create. Had the Trojan War fallen into the hands of someone else, he or she could have just as easily become Homer. Of course, no one in their right mind would think this is true of everybody. But to the one who comforts himself with this narrative, who explains away his own average life by blaming fate, it’s easy to imagine himself as the next prodigy—once the situation is right, of course. Since there is kind of circularity to this thinking, it can never be disproved. Should he or she never attain such heights, it was because the time had not come. Good fortune, on the other hand, requires two forces: an epic subject matter and a genius to mold it. Kierkegaard rightly notes that the Trojan war itself is not enough; one needs a Homer to make it immortal. To wish for an amazing idea, an inspiration, without taking into account whether or not we are capable of capturing (better: shaping) it is to go about it the wrong way, for we typically wish for what is not present: “To wish properly, however, is a great art, or, more correctly, it is a gift. It is the inexplicability and mysteriousness of genius, just as with a divining rod, which never has the notion to wish except in the presence of that for which it wishes.” (50) It’s easy to think of so many times in my life that I wished for exactly the wrong thing. I remember learning how to play guitar and how frustrating it was to make my fingers do what my mind imagined. If only I had a nicer, more expensive guitar, with lower action, a rosewood fretboard, onboard pickups…then I could really learn to play. If only I had a better voice, one that was more powerful, then I could move audiences….Once I master the 12 modes, then I could really solo….Even then, though, I had inklings that this was not the case, but I couldn’t accept it. At one of my early guitar lessons my friend asked me to choose two strings and two frets—all contiguous (i.e. a box of minor seconds). He would play a pattern and I had to solo using only those four spaces. It seemed ridiculous, not to mention frustrating, and I could not see the point of the exercise until we switched roles. He was able to solo using only those same four frets by seeing and manipulating them in ways I couldn’t imagine. How much more so the genius who is able to see what is right in front of him? Once we realize this and let go of the myth that we could have just as well done the same, we are able to love greatness for what it is, and not be ashamed that we cannot do it justice even in loving it: “Immortal Mozart! You to whom I owe everything—to whom I owe that I lost my mind, that my soul was astounded, that I was terrified at the core of my being—you to whom I owe that I did not go through life without encountering something that could shake me, you whom I thank because I did not die without having loved, even though my love was unhappy.” (49)
To not only understand that in which greatness lies, but to attempt to rank it, Kierkegaard distinguishes between the idea and the medium in which it’s expressed. If all classics are equally great because they are equally immortal, how can one order them? (And yes, I hear the war-cries of the post-modern horde as they smell the blood of what is a fundamentally modern assumption (classics? immortality? ranking along a scale? canon?). And yet it is so much more interesting than almost anything they have yet to replace it with.) The distinction can’t be anything essential, for that would break their equality as classics. But if we think in terms of abstraction versus concreteness, we can introduce the idea of repeatability. The more concrete the idea and the medium, the more it is able to be reproduced. The more abstract both are, the less likely, and the greater the chance that an abstract classic will be final, if not self-sufficient.
It goes without saying that this distinction in and of itself is horribly abstract, if not bewildering. Kierkegaard says the more concrete the idea, the more it is permeated by the historical. And the more concrete the medium, the closer it is to language. If we think about this long enough, though, it begins to make some sense, at least in the way he means. That which is historical is fundamentally delimited, its essence is specificity, a kind of thus-ness, even if we can’t possibly know all the details, even if our knowledge is essentially subjective. If I wake up tomorrow and make a cup of coffee, one can break down almost every aspect of it: the beans I use, how they were roasted, the quality of the water, how I grind them, how long I let them steep, whether or not I add milk and sugar, etc. It can be repeated, if not perfectly, at least in a way that is close enough to produce something similar the next day. In the same way, language is a medium whose concreteness can be captured and reproduced, whether through text, memory or spoken repetition. A brilliant speech can be recited, a great story can be reprinted, a witty line can be quoted, an entire book can be photocopied. The distinction is made easier if we separate written text from spoken. Once a text is written it can be reproduced at will. Barring mistakes in transcription, a sentence written by Shakespeare can be typed by me and the two are equivalent. Once we introduce speech it becomes trickier, as we are, in a way, moving closer to music. A poem recited by one person is not the same as one by another, even if every word is identical. Now we have to take into account inflection, accent, body language, timbre, tone and everything that personalizes the delivery in real time (but more on that later). Language, to stay with the current point, can even be translated, the objections of linguists acknowledged and notwithstanding.
This is also true of the idea. The more concrete the idea, the easier it is to reproduce. It’s one thing to fabricate a pair of drumsticks that are pitch paired. It’s another altogether to decide what makes something musical. Likewise, ask someone what it’s like to take a walk in nature, and she will tell you with little effort. But ask her what separates nature from civilization and be prepared for a conversation that will strain the limits of language itself. But this is an oversimplification. It’s easy to set up a contrast between ideas that are concrete (a mechanical bolt) versus ideas that are less so (the concept of torque). To try to rank abstract ideas, however, is much more ambitious. This is precisely what Kierkegaard seems to think we can do. If we return to our example of a nature walk versus the idea of nature itself, it’s easy to see how the latter is more abstract. But to take the idea of nature in and of itself and compare it to the idea of love seems to be precisely the kind of move only philosophers love–and ordinary people hate (or at least mock: enter Aristophanes and The Cloud). Yet Kierkegaard believes we not only can, but must, find an idea whose abstraction corresponds to its medium. And it may be that the key to this (at least to understanding this–I’m not yet sure whether or not he’s right), is the idea of repeatability. For the sake of this argument let’s think in terms of singularity. That which is most singular is least repeatable. Its expression is final and definitive. To come up with it and to express it is to define it. It is to capture an aspect of reality that can be captured in no better way. (Yes, yes the language of better and worse is fatally modern. And yet…) The expression of the thing is actually the thing itself. Any simulacrum, any repetition, is, in its nature, a step removed, a different thing. If he’s right, even an idea as abstract as nature, expressed in the medium of language, is somewhat concrete, somewhat repeatable. This is not to say that when Emily Dickinson writes
To him who keeps an Orchis’ heart —
The swamps are pink with June.
anyone can just come along and pen the same. But one would be hard pressed to cite a singular example of a nature poem, as great as Emily is.
Next we will see (i.e. attempt to see) if he’s right to posit both a medium and idea that are the most abstract, the most definitive, the least repeatable and the most moving. For, regardless of how this turns out, or whether or not he’s right (let’s be honest: we’ve long left the realm of right and wrong), he is at pains to move us. He wants us to feel what he feels, to lose ourselves in the mystery in which he is lost. And I can think of no better argument to make. All others are a waste of time.