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  • Constantin Constantius Goes to the Theater
  • Michael Fried

A basic assumption behind the remarks that follow is that Kierkegaard's writings, especially Either/Or (1842) and Repetition (1843), contain long stretches that deserve to be recognized as among the most luminous and far-reaching adventures in esthetic thinking, reflection on the arts, in the entire nineteenth century. This is true, or so I contend, despite the fact that the esthetic as such is for Kierkegaard the least or lowest of what in Stages of Life's Way (1845)—a sequel to Either/Or—he calls three "existence spheres" (476; see also 440-443).1 The esthetic, he writes, is the sphere of immediacy, the ethical that of requirement, and the highest, the religious, the sphere of fulfillment, though of course the actual relationships among these, especially between the first two and the third, is anything but incremental (the crucial notion, of course, is that of a "leap of faith"). And in fact Kierkegaard's most original esthetic thinking, in the ordinary, not Kierkegaardi an sense of the term, sometimes lies elsewhere than in the esthetic existence sphere, where one might expect to find it. Thus in my book on Kierkegaard's contemporary, the German painter and draftsman Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), I try to show that Judge William's ethical reflections on marriage in part II of Either/Or, specifically his claim to the effect that the everydayness of a successful marriage—the absence in the latter of events that are essentially momentary (the absence of intensiveness, is how he also puts it)—defeats what he calls esthetic representation, [End Page 1019] amount to a marvelously original contribution to esthetic thinking in the ordinary sense of the term (Fried, Menzel's 141-166; see also Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part II 87-184). Indeed I go on to relate those reflections to Menzel's thematization in numerous paintings and drawings of the subject of brickwork (another version of the everyday, one more or less identical item laid alongside another, in principle endlessly), which is to say that I suggest that Menzel in effect finds a way around Judge William's strictures (as regards the representation not of marriage but of the everyday). And I associate those strictures more directly with Theodor Fontane's novel Effi Briest (1896), which I understand as engaging explicitly with Kierkegaard's thought in the narrative's almost complete elision of more than six years of Instetten's marriage with Effi following their move from Kessin to Berlin, a transition that put an end to her affair with the practiced seducer Crampas, about which Instetten knew nothing. When by chance he learns of the affair he kills Crampas in a duel and breaks off relations with Effi, despite recognizing—it is hard to know how to put this—that the six-plus years of Judge William-style marriage that he and Effi have just experienced render his actions absurd, or at the very least mindl essly conventional and destructive. (I shall bring back Menzel briefly at the end of this paper.)

Constantin Constantius's "report" in the first half of Repetition, however, takes place entirely in the existence sphere of the esthetic, so that it is without the inbuilt ethical "seriousness" of Judge William's reflections. (The second, shorter half mostly comprises letters from a young man to Constantius, who has been making a study of him; the subtitle of the book as a whole is "A Venture in Experimenting Psychology.") The pages I have in mind, fifteen or so in the Hongs' translation, begin with Constantius's ruminations about the naturalness of an as yet unformed young man's (any young man's) interest in the theater, which allows such a person—quite properly, it is implied—to imagine multiple existences. In Constantius's words, "the individual's possibility wanders about in its own possibility, discovering now one possibility, now another. But the individual's possibility does not want only to be heard; … it wants to be visible at the same time" (155). And beyond that, "in order not to gain an impression of his actual self," the hidden individual (the as yet unformed young man...


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