Either/Or, A Fragment of Life
[Either/Or (Danish: Enten – Eller) is the first published work of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Appearing in two volumes in 1843 under the pseudonymous editorship of Victor Eremita (Latin for "victorious hermit"), it outlines a theory of human existence, marked by the distinction between an essentially hedonistic, aesthetic mode of life and the ethical life, which is predicated upon commitment.]
Grandeur, savoir, renommée,
Amitié, plaisir et bien,
Tout n’est que vent, que fumée:
Pour mieux dire, tout n’est rien
[Greatness, knowledge, renown,
Friendship, pleasure and possessions,
All is only wind, only smoke:
To say it better, all is nothing.]
"What is a poet ? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music.
It is with him as with the poor wretches in Phalaris’s bronze bull, who were slowly tortured over a slow fire; their screams could not reach the tyrant’s ears to terrify him; to him they sounded like sweet music. And people crowd around the poet and say to him, “Sing again soon”— in other words, may new sufferings torture your soul, and may your lips continue to be formed as before, because your screams would only alarm us, but the music is charming.
And the reviewers step up and say, “That is right; so it must be according to the rules of esthetics.” Now of course a reviewer resembles a poet to a hair, except that he does not have the anguish in his heart, or the music on his lips. Therefore, I would rather be a swineherd out on Amager and be understood by swine than be a poet and be misunderstood by people.
I don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like riding — the motion is too powerful; I don’t feel like walking — it is too tiring; I don’t feel like lying down, for either I would have to stay down, and I don’t feel like doing that, or I would have to get up again, and I don’t feel like doing that, either. Summa Summarum : I don’t feel like doing anything.
I feel as a chessman must feel when the opponent says of it : That piece cannot be moved.
I say of my sorrow what the Englishman says of his house: My sorrow is my castle. Many people look upon having sorrow as one of life’s conveniences.
I have, I believe, the courage to doubt everything; I have, I believe, the courage to fight against everything; but I do not have the courage to acknowledge anything, the courage to possess, to own, anything.
Most people complain that the world is so prosaic that things do not go in life as in the novel, where opportunity is always so favorable. I complain that in life it is not as in the novel, where one has hardhearted fathers and nisses and trolls to battle, and enchanted princesses to free. What are all such adversaries together compared with the pale, bloodless, tenacious-of-life nocturnal forms with which I battle and to which I myself give life and existence.
How sterile my soul and my mind are, and yet constantly tormented by empty voluptuous and excruciating labor pains ! Will the tongue ligament of my spirit never be loosened; will I always jabber ?
What I need is a voice as piercing as the glance of Lynceus, as terrifying as the groan of the giants, as sustained as a sound of nature, as mocking as an icy gust of wind, as malicious as echo’s heartless taunting, extending in range from the deepest bass to the most melting high notes, and modulated from a solemn silent whisper to the energy of rage.
That is what I need in order to breathe, to give voice to what is on my mind, to have the viscera of both anger and sympathy shaken. — But my voice is only hoarse like the scream of a gull or moribund like the blessing on the lips of the mute.
What is going to happen ? What will the future bring ? I do not know, I have no presentiment.
When a spider flings itself from a fixed point down into its consequences, it continually sees before it an empty space in which it can find no foothold, however much it stretches. So it is with me; before me is continually an empty space, and I am propelled by a consequence that lies behind me. This life is turned around and dreadful, not to be endured.
No one comes back from the dead; no one has come into the world without weeping. No one asks when one wants to come in; no one asks when one wants to go out.
How dreadful boredom is — how dreadfully boring; I know no stronger expression, no truer one, for like is recognized only by like. Would that there were a loftier, stronger expression, for then there would still be one movement. I lie prostrate, inert; the only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I live on is emptiness, the only thing I move in is emptiness.
I do not even suffer pain. The vulture pecked continually at Prometheus’s liver; the poison
dripped down continually on Loki; it was at least an interruption, even though monotonous. Pain itself has lost its refreshment for me. If I were offered all the glories of the world or all the torments of the world, one would move me no more than the other; I would not turn over to the other side either to attain or to avoid. I am dying death.
And what could divert me ? Well, if I managed to see a faithfulness that withstood every ordeal, an enthusiasm that endured everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I were to become aware of an idea that joined the finite and the infinite. But my soul’s poisonous doubt consumes everything. My soul is like the Dead Sea, over which no bird is able to fly; when it has come midway, it sinks down, exhausted, to death and destruction.
What, if anything, is the meaning of this life ? If people are divided into two great classes, it may be said that one class works for a living and the other does not have that need. But to work for a living certainly cannot be the meaning of life, since it is indeed a contradiction that the continual production of the conditions is supposed to be the answer to the question of the meaning of that which is conditional upon their production. The lives of the rest of them generally have no meaning except to consume the conditions. To say that the meaning of life is to die seems to be a contradiction also.
In a theater, it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He told them again, and they become still more hilarious. This is the way, I suppose, that the world will be destroyed — amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it is all a joke.
The same thing happened to me that, according to legend, happened to Parmeniscus, who in the Trophonean cave lost the ability to laugh but acquired it again on the island of Delos upon seeing a shapeless block that was said to be the image of the goddess Leto.
When I was very young, I forgot in the Trophonean cave how to laugh; when I became an adult, when I opened my eyes and saw actuality, then I started to laugh and have never stopped laughing since that time. I saw that the meaning of life was to make a living, its goal to become a councilor, that the rich delight of love was to acquire a well-to-do girl, that the blessedness of friendship was to help each other in financial difficulties, that wisdom was whatever the majority as sumed it to be, that enthusiasm was to give a speech, that courage was to risk being fined ten dollars, that cordiality was to say “May it do you good” after
a meal, that piety was to go to communion once a year.
This I saw, and I laughed.
Something marvelous has happened to me. I was transported to the seventh heaven. There sat all the gods assembled. As a special dispensation, I was granted the favor of making a wish. “What do you want,” asked Mercury. “Do you want youth, or beauty, or power, or a long life, or the most beau- tiful girl, or any one of the other glorious things we have in the treasure chest ? Choose — but only one thing.”
For a moment I was bewildered ; then I addressed the gods, saying : My esteemed contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughter on my side.
Not one of the gods said a word; instead, all of them began to laugh. From that I concluded that my wish was granted and decided that the gods knew how to express themselves with good taste, for it would indeed have been inappropriate to reply solemnly: It is granted to you.
It takes a lot of naïveté to believe that it helps to shout and scream in the world, as if one’s fate would thereby be altered. Take what comes and avoid all complications. In my early years, when I went to a restaurant, I would say to the waiter: A good cut, a very good cut, from the loin, and not too fat. Perhaps the waiter would scarcely hear what I said. Perhaps it was even less likely that he would heed it, and still less that my voice would penetrate into the kitchen, influence the chef — and even if all this happened, there perhaps was not a good cut in the whole roast. Now I never shout anymore."