Sunday, November 28, 2021

Either/Or

Lately I've been in the bad habit of not quite finishing books. I get antsy toward the last twenty pages or so, distracted like a fickle lover by the thought of what I'm going to read next. Normally, I can at least power through the last chapter before I move on. But over the last month or so I keep bookmarking the final pages of whatever I'm reading and then reaching for the next book.

Kierkegaard and pirate ships? This blog has everything

Well, enough is enough. I decided to take advantage of the holiday break this week to finish a few of these abandoned books, including The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and The Sickness Unto Death by Kierkegaard, neither of which had more than ten pages left. I think Boethius especially suffered from the delay – his whole book builds a certain sweeping momentum, and if you bail right before the conclusion it really throws a wet blanket on things.

Kierkegaard suffered less. When I finished Sickness, which ends with some pretty harsh words for the ol' Danish church, I was curious about its reception, and so I poked around on Wikipedia. I didn't find what I was after, but I did stumble on this quote from one of Kierkegaard's critics:

"There are two types of the artistic soul. There is the one which needs many varying experiences and constantly changing models, and which instantly gives a poetic form to every fresh incident. There is the other which requires amazingly few outside elements to fertilise it, and for which a single life circumstance, inscribed with sufficient force, can furnish a whole wealth of ever-changing thought and modes of expression. Soren Kierkegaard among writers, and Max Klinger among painters, are both great examples of the latter type."

William Shakespeare; A Critical Study, by George Brandes

It was an odd little synchronicity, coming on the heels of Austin Kleon's Friday newsletter in which he linked to his blog post, “The Pirate Gardener.” In it, Kleon lays out several versions of a theory very similar to Brandes's. Here's one example that Kleon gives from the critic Dave Hickey:

“I am going to explain this to you very simply. All human creatures are divided into two groups. There are pirates, and there are farmers. Farmers build fences and control territory. Pirates tear down fences and cross borders. There are good pirates and bad pirates, good farmers and bad farmers, but there are only pirates and farmers."

I'm always skeptical of this kind of thing because it seems so deliberately hard-nosed. There are days to be a farmer and days to be a pirate, and it seems a lot more useful to try and figure out what kinds of problems each approach can help you to solve. Why restrict yourself to a role that's only going to work 50% of the time?

But in the view of Brandes and Hickey, these roles aren't tools so much as they are the fixed qualities of a person's identities. You are born a this or a that, and you're only causing yourself trouble if you don't accept your lot in this life. A farmer who thinks he's a pirate will be miserable at sea, just as a pirate who thinks he's a farmer will get nauseous at the sight of a plow.

In a funny way, though, it's fitting to read about this theory after reading Sickness, which spends a lot of time talking about despair as a function of identity. Despair, for Kierkegaard, is the result of a misalignment between how you relate to yourself. It can be the result of both wishing to be someone else and wishing to be yourself. The former is probably the most intuitive – if you spend all your time wishing you were somebody else, then yeah, you're going to feel pretty shitty.

But what about “wishing to be yourself?” Isn't that a good thing?

Done correctly, yes, actually, it is, which is why Kierkegaard has to qualify what he's describing. Wishing to be yourself isn't despair until you over-identify with something that's actually harmful. It's like you've misunderstood who you are, and now you can't let go of something that's hurting you.

A concrete example here would probably help: Imagine a person with serious anger issues. They yell at cashiers, they cuss out their boss, they scream at family and friends. They gradually become more and more isolated as their anger drives everyone away, and it's no exaggeration to say that anger is ruining their lives. Yet they refuse to change or seek any help because “that's just who I am.” This, Kierkegaard says, is a form of despair.

But what he doesn't do is argue that it's an either/or situation. There are different kinds of despair, sure, but a person may move from one to the next throughout the course of his life. One experience is not mutually exclusive to the other, and Kierkegaard never argues otherwise. 

For my part, there have been times when I wished I was somebody else, just like there have been times when I over-identified with harmful beliefs and behaviors. Having experienced both is a big part of the reason Kierkegaard's writing resonates with me. Likewise, what I like about the "pirate/farmer" theory is that it describes two different but familiar ways to be in the world. There are times when I love to get lost in a new city, wander around, and discover; and there are other times when I need the solidity of my boring, daily routine to do my best work. To say that a person must be one or the other feels short-sighted and limiting.

As for Brandes's binary, I don't like it any better. As Flannery O'Connor said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Kierkegaard's own life, though brief and confined mostly to Copenhagen, was nonetheless as fully colored by love, sorrow, joy, and grief as anyone's. His day-to-day may not have taken him far from home, but his “varying experience” came in the form of conversations with strangers in the streets of his city, every encounter a chance to learn more about somebody else. While I see what Brandes is trying to get at, it's hard not to feel as though his categorizations lessen the actual human beings he's talking about, rather than helping us understand them.

Binaries like these are so tempting because they make the world seem so much more ordered. It gives us a story to tell ourselves and to others about why we are the way that we are. If we must be this or that, then the narrative of our own lives is much neater. If it's up to us to decide when to be this and when to be that, things can feel a lot messier. But the latter is richer and more interesting, I think, and also more true to life.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...