- Drinks and Dinner with Kierkegaard
Applying Søren Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic,” “ethical,” and “religious” categories to the interpretation of literature can be revealing; in some cases they are truly illuminative. Not that the authors of the works had to be directly inspired by Kierkegaard, or even know anything about his way of sorting human lifestyles. These Kierkegaardian ideas not only turn out to be dramatic lenses exposing the meaning of choices the literary characters make; the stories and plays in turn may enlarge and deepen the categories. I want to offer such an approach to T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party and Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast, where something like Kierkegaard’s three “stages” are strikingly present as dramatic determinants.
All that in due time. First we must grasp, basically, what the celebrated three labels mean in the works of Kierkegaard.
Aesthetic, Ethical, Religious
The “aesthetic” way of being sounds attractive and it is, but it is at the same time severely limited. As its name implies, it is related to the life of the senses, and just for that reason, quite able to appreciate [End Page 125] the beautiful in many of its forms. It is where we think of freedom as keeping all options open, and where we live for what is pleasant, where good times are most important, and where we thirst for the new and interesting. The pursuit of pleasure, or conquest, or the new, or all of the above has its heroes, such as Don Giovanni. Kierkegaard writes a compelling commentary on Mozart’s opera by that name where he claims that the music perfectly expresses the wonderful energy and high spirits of the erotic quest as lived by the hero, who flies above all questions about paying the piper.1 The seduced women, to say nothing of the Comendatore, do line up to force payment, and Don Giovanni has to run faster and faster to stay ahead of them all. Yet the women, like all of us, are attracted to this life-force, this ebullience, and prefer it to bourgeois doldrums.
There are darker expressions of the aesthetic, such as the chilling “Diary of a Seducer.”2 Or, adding our own example by anticipation, there are less energetic, simply more compromised versions, as in a settled bourgeois style that finds what meaning there might be in diversions such as cocktail parties. Naturally there are “commitments” here, but they are weak and not of the essence. The key point is that the aesthetic is a fundamentally selfish style where people are easily wounded and equally easily elated by the sensuous immediate. Time is a string of interesting, amusing, or pleasant events, the continuity supplied only by a controlling ego that inevitably fears death as the end of the string. The aesthetic person has not grown up to the ethical.
It is just the ethical grown-ups who would make that judgment of course, and we might want to take it cum grano salis. The ethical level, however, is not as boring as it might sound. It is where we dig in, in serious commitment, where that commitment is deep and honest enough to completely redirect life toward the fruitfulness that can result. Marriage and family are the paradigm here, and Kierkegaard’s most well-known exposition, indirect as usual, is found in the second volume of Either/Or. The loyalties of the ethical can go quite far, a long way past the comfort zone we might think of [End Page 126] as characteristic of it in its bourgeois aspect. Kierkegaard considers Greek tragedy the highest expression of the ethical, as in Antigone’s fierce determination to bury her brother whatever the cost. Her life is not, to put it mildly, about having a good time; it is about fidelity to a deeply held value. Time here is not measured out in coffee spoons; it gathers to greatness through the unfolding of a commitment to a deeply held value.
The “religious” is something else again, though it is in a way prepared for by the ethical so that sometimes Kierkegaard will speak of the “ethico-religious.” If on the aesthetic level...