How ambiguity showed its face
December 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
As a means of differentiating between the various pseudonyms of Søren Kierkegaard, I will have to take part in the fantasies he draws for his readers (the novel creations he makes of — & for — himself). Keeping this in mind, let’s call him Victor Eremita today, the editor of Either/Or (1843) & lucky discoverer of the works that comprise it.
The story begins with Eremita’s attraction to an antique writing desk, on which he will be able to compose his masterpieces. After much deliberation & serious pining for the object, he happily pays for the desk, telling himself, “every time you look at it you will be reminded of how prodigal you were; with this desk commences a new period in your life” (5). The life that he is to be reborn into is one of literary success: the desk certainly brings this, only not in the way he imagines. Nothing occurs quite as it ought to in the works of Kierkegaard — separate from philosophy en serio because his works require careful attention not on account of their difficulty but rather for their literariness.
At one point, a drawer on the desk fails Eremita’s quick tugging. In a panicked fury, the problem is solved by means of a hatchet, & in the process a secret compartment is unveiled. Herein are found a mass of papers that constitute the rather large body that comprises the two volumes of Either/Or. The volumes are divided by two distinct voices (identified by the editor) which come to be called A & B in order to avoid arbitrary nomenclature.
All throughout the Preface ‘he’ attempts to lay as little claim to authorship as possible, announcing himself even to be “twice removed” (9) from the last section of Volume I, ‘The Seducer’s Diary’, which was supposedly only edited by A. This device, he calls, “an old literary device to which I would not have much to object if it did not further complicate my own position, since one author becomes enclosed within the other like the boxes in a Chinese puzzle” (9). The image used deliberately mimics the tale of the secret compartment of the wooden writing desk, almost denouncing the strategies he himself employs. At once he is doing it & calling it trite. It both is and is not the one thing & the other: that is the ‘either/or’ of the title.
The Preface, supposedly the imaginary Eremita’s last original words in either volume — save for the titles of certain sections — concludes with the idea that “these papers come to no conclusion” (14). This is looked upon as a very fortunate occurrence by the editor who insists on two separate volumes which can be held one in each hand, always mimicking judgement. The philosophical statement of Either/Or is in this lack of definition, independent of the contradictions between & within the volumes themselves.
The acknowledged father of existentialism, Kierkegaard uses this, his first pseudonymous work, as a subtle introduction to the theme of ambiguity (in the school of which, the ampersand belongs). Ambiguity is the condition of humanity alone, for “[m]an knows and thinks this tragic ambivalence which the animal and the plant merely undergo” (de Beauvoir Ethics 1). It derives from an inconclusiveness within each individual & is generally looked upon as the modern condition. This can be explained; it can be explained away:
Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition… Perhaps in no other age have they manifested their grandeur more brilliantly, and in no other age has this grandeur been so horribly flouted. In spite of so many stubborn lies, at every moment, at every opportunity, the truth comes to light, the truth of life and death, of my solitude and my bond with the world, of my freedom and my servitude, of the insignificance and the sovereign importance of each man and all men… Since we do not succeed in fleeing it, let us therefore try to look the truth in the face. Let us try to assume our fundamental ambiguity. (de Beauvoir Ethics 3-5)
If it is the modern condition, it is only because we have pulled the mask off of truth & found ambiguity there. What do we do with this discovery? Is it as ugly as our instinct tells us?
Any theory of ambiguity must be dialectic, if not polyvocal. In our division, “the soul is hiding an emigrant who has withdrawn from the exterior face in order to watch over a buried treasure” (174), to quote A as edited by Victor Eremita & written by Kierkegaard. This is the reason this nature has had the opportunity to remain veiled for so long. No more. No more. For once you have looked into the face of ambiguity, you must choose to ossify or dwell therein best you can!