Please enjoy this repost of the continuation of my 2004 essay: “Kierkegaard’s Narrative”
Even without the religious and spiritual dimension that was the ultimate foundation of Kierkegaard’s work, the narrative he inspired continues to garner resonance and popularity among a wide audience wrestling with his characteristic existential themes. The book/movie of recent times that perhaps most completely embodies Kierkegaard’s Narrative is Nick Hornby’s “lad lit” classic, High Fidelity (1995, the title is a pun that juxtaposes good audio quality against sexual faithfulness). The story of a young, but not-as-young-as-he-once-was record-store owner, it was hugely popular among an audience of twenty- and thirty-something Generation Xers who could deeply identify with the protagonist. Like Percy’s Binx, and Kierkegaard’s Aesthete, Hornby’s main character Rob is deeply, passionately and compulsively dedicated to an aesthetic pursuit, which, in this case, is the collection, appreciation and occasional sale of classic vinyl records. His aesthetic orientation is so strong, he even claims that “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” or in other words, that your aesthetic choices are your most important characteristics. When he breaks up with his girlfriend Laura, who is transitioning into a mature adult, and who is frustrated by Rob’s refusal to do the same, he attempts what amounts to a combination of Kierkegaard’s concepts of repetitions and seduction, by pursing a renewed connection with each one of his former girlfriends. Later, following the death of Laura’s father, Rob realizes that what he most wants is not an exciting new sexual partner, the repetition of an old relationship, or even a perfect collection of records, but rather the chance to marry Laura, and move forward with his life.
Few other books or movies exemplify the model to such a perfect extent, but echos of the narrative abound in popular culture. The title character in the 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) is a male, forty-year old virgin whose aesthetic obsession is action-figures. Don Jon, from the recent movie of the same title (2013), is a young man whose aesthetic preoccupation is pornography. In the seventies cult classic, Harold and Maude (1971), Harold is a callow, but troubled youth obsessed with the aesthetics of suicide, and in the Northern California romp Sideways (2004), the protagonist Miles has an aesthetic fixation on wine that is indistinguishable from alcoholism. In the critically acclaimed Silver Linings Playbook (2012), the protagonist is trapped, not by aesthetics but by a repetition, the desire to reconnect with his ex-wife. In the Oscar-winning American Beauty (1999), Kierkegaard’s three obsessions are combined uniquely into one, as the main character’s attempts to repeat and recapture his lost youth are symbolized by a series of aesthetically striking fantasies about the seduction of a young girl. In each case, the main character has to make an existential choice to move beyond self-absorption and the tyranny of freedom in order to achieve a genuine connection with another human being.
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