Søren Kierkegaard’s bicentenary is on May 5. I’m observing it this week by blogging about his work, focusing on one quotation per day.
As we saw yesterday, Kierkegaard wanted to make things difficult for 19th century Europeans, setting up a sort of intellectual obstacle course that would keep them from getting soft and would strengthen them for greater feats of mind and spirit. He hoped to train people out of what he called aestheticism. To the aesthete, immediate pleasure is everything and morality and religion count for nothing. An aesthete might say something like this, which is taken from a section of Kierkegaard’s 1843 book, Either – Or:
People with experience maintain that proceeding from a basic principle is supposed to be very reasonable; I yield to them and proceed from the basic principle that all people are boring. Or is there anyone who would be boring enough to contradict me in this regard?
All human beings, then, are boring. The very word indicates the possibility of a classification. The word “boring” can designate just as well a person who bores others as someone who bores himself. Those who bore others are the plebians, the crowd, the endless train of humanity in general; those who bore themselves are the chosen ones, the nobility. How remarkable it is that those who do not bore themselves generally bore others; those, however, who bore themselves entertain others. Generally, those who do not bore themselves are busy in the world in one way or another, but for that very reason they are, of all people, the most boring of all, the most unbearable.
The distinction between those who bore others and those who bore themselves isn’t so different from Nietzsche’s distinction between the overman (Übermensch) and the last men. The overman makes life interesting–dangerous, perhaps, but never boring. In his very person, he is a rebuke to a bourgeois civilization trapped within its own stifling boredom.
Kierkegaard, too, means to criticize the bourgeoisie’s lack of imagination, its concern only for small, safe pleasures. But isn’t it true that the pinnacle of the bourgeois existence is to adopt a disdainful stance toward the bourgeoisie, but without actually giving up any of the advantages of being bourgeois? Doesn’t the quest to be not-boring somehow pin the person ever more strongly to boredom? And so, wouldn’t the true rejection of bourgeois values be to stop caring about who’s boring and who isn’t?
The problem with Kierkegaard’s outlook is that he is critical of bourgeois aestheticism while living an exquisitely bourgeois life. Kierkegaard inherited a fortune, lived in large apartments overlooking busy commercial squares, and never really had to work for a living. This passage was written under a pseudonym (known simply as “A”), which might suggest that Kierkegaard means it ironically, as a satire of an obnoxious, pretentious upper-class twit.
But as we will see later this week, Kierkegaard really does admire the heroic individual who stands above the crowd. Despite his professed Christianity, his heroes are a lot like the “anti-Christian” Nietzsche’s overman: ignoring our humdrum customs, they attract our fascination. Such individuals indeed are not boring, but what should we think about the person whose fantasy is to become one?