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Without question, the two-part Either/Or is Kierkegaard’s most important literary work. Kierkegaard pretends that Either/Or has been edited by a certain Victor Eremita, who, like Kierkegaard himself, lives in Copenhagen and likes to go for trips in the countryside. Having recently acquired a used writing desk, Eremita discovers a manuscript in a secret compartment while looking for money to take with him on a journey. The manuscript turns out to be worth more than any amount of money, though, for it is a collection of valuable aesthetic essays, one of which is a long novel-like piece entitled “Forførerens Dagbog” (“The Seducer’s Diary”), supposedly written by someone called Johannes the Seducer. There are, furthermore, two long essays written by an ethicist in response to the writings of the aesthete, which argue that aestheticism is but a developmental stage that must be replaced by a commitment to an ethical form of life, typified by marriage, of which a public engagement is a precursor.

Either/Or was published in two parts, of which the first part (the Either) contains Victor Eremita’s introduction, as well as the aesthetic writings. A series of aphorisms entitled “Diapsalmata” sets the tone for the volume, while several long aesthetic essays discuss such works as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s two-part tragedy Faust (1808-1833). While arguing that Don Giovanni is the most perfect opera ever created, the title character interests the aesthete because he is an immediate seducer, someone who seduces women indiscriminately in a completely goal-oriented manner. Faust, by contrast, is a reflective seducer who emphasizes the process more than the goal. The aesthete—or “A” as Victor Eremita calls him—regards Giovanni and Faust as two fundamental types of the seducer, who again is the type that serves as Eremita’s archetypical aesthete. Johannes, the narrator-protagonist of “The Seducer’s Diary,” fits the mold of the reflective seducer as he carries out his schemes chiefly in order to be able to later recollect his conquests.

Other aspects of the seducer’s character are an avoidance of responsibility and a pathological fear of boredom. One of the funniest essays in Either/Or is entitled “Vexel-Driften” (“Crop Rotation”), in which it is shown how boring people can be useful as entertainment. The character named A is contradicted, however, by a judge named William who has provided two lengthy essays, in the form of letters addressed to A and published in the second part of the book (the Or), in defense of marriage as an ethical alternative to the irresponsible behavior of the aesthete. William maintains that there is, in fact, greater aesthetic validity in marriage than in a life of serial seduction, and that the aesthete will eventually discover that the contradictions within the aesthetic sphere of existence will force him to abandon this reckless lifestyle in favor of an ethical mode of living. Otherwise, says William, the aesthete will either lose his sanity or commit suicide.

Much as the aesthetic sphere of existence is ruled by the avoidance of boredom, the ethical sphere is focused on doing one’s duty. Ethicists thus make better members of society than aesthetes, but they are also fundamentally much happier, at least according to William and presumably Kierkegaard as well.

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