Kierkegaard’s Narrative

Please enjoy this classic post from 2004:

“Kierkegaard’s Narrative” is an existential humanist plot outline named after the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In general, it runs as follows: An aimless young man drifts through life, obsessed with aesthetics, and seeking sexual fulfillment with a series of women, yet never making substantive choices or real commitments. The climax of the story is the protagonist’s decision to commit to a single woman, and to enter into marriage.

The raw source material for this plotline is found in Kierkegaard’s books Either/Or (1843), Fear and Trembling (1843), and Repetition (1843) in which he takes on the persona of various first-person narrators, and describes their experiences. Among the characters described are:

1. “The Aesthete,” who is obsessed with art and aesthetic experience,

2. “The Seducer,” who falls deeply in love with a woman and pursues her heatedly until he gets her, and then discards her for a new conquest, and

3. “The Repeater,” who is caught up in past experiences, and the doomed hope of recreating them.

These characters are contrasted to a fourth, the “Married Man,” who lives an existence that seems ordinary and mundane from the outside, but that is rich and fully lived on the inside.

American author Walker Percy was perhaps the first to weave these distinct personas together into a single coherent plotline. In his book The Moviegoer (1961), he traces the evolution of Binx Bolling, a protagonist who spends most of the book as an aesthete, obsessed with movies; a seducer, having carried on a series of affairs with his secretaries; and a “repeater,” in constant search of his own past; but who finishes by taking a leap of faith into the life of a married man.

Percy also introduced an additional element for narrative interest, the death of a person close to the protagonist as a counterpoint to the protagonist’s desire to fully embrace life. The book was widely admired, and the plotline passed into popular culture, where it has been the foundation of a number of well-regarded books and movies.

The reason for the appeal of this narrative is that it speaks directly to the unique challenges of modern times. In a world of weakened traditions and societal demands, where individuality is elevated, and where culture and religion are matters of personal choice, many people have found themselves adrift in a sea of overwhelming options. Traditional cultures may have been often oppressive and suffocating, but they provided a pre-established context, larger than the self, in relationship to which a life of significance and meaning could be built. In the absence of such a context, many people in real life take on the same series of attempts of establishing self-referenced meaning as described by Kierkegaard and Percy: They lose themselves in the pursuit of sexual and sensual pleasures, they dedicate their lives to the cultivation and appreciation of aesthetics, or they pursue a doomed attempt to recover an imagined idyllic past.

The transition from the arrested development of such pursuits into the mature life of the pair-bonded individual is particularly fraught with modern tensions because in the weakening of the social pressures towards marriage of earlier eras, it represents an entirely voluntary surrender of a significant measure of personal freedom, individuality and identity. The married individual can no longer be wholly selfish or self-indulgent. His new relationship takes on the position of centrality and preeminence in his life formerly held by his devotion to his aesthetic or sensual passions. He is forced to embrace not only new responsibilities, but also the reality of his own mortality. To cross that threshold in a world where you have the choice to not do so requires what Kierkegaard termed a “leap of faith.” Kierkegaard’s Narrative promises us that what awaits us on the other side of that leap is the door to a new world, not to a prison, a world larger on the inside than on the outside.

It never made it into Percy’s book, but Kierkegaard’s writings do outline a further phase of personal development, in which one enters into relationship, not with another human being, but with God; a phase at least as much deeper, richer and more endlessly novel than the life of the married individual (as described by Kierkegaard) as the life of the married individual is deeper, richer and more novel than the life of the aesthete, seducer or repeater.

Continued in Part II

8 Responses

  1. mikael moore says:

    i found this site on accident by looking up harold and maude…it was really cool to see kierkegaard and camus applied to relavent movies…keep up the good work…but i don’t believe in god…life is despair

  2. Winston says:

    You might also want to consider John Fowles’s The Magus as an addition to this category.

  3. steve says:

    quite a good little piece there. i also read somewhere that this could be applied to "Fight Club" by Chuck Palahnuik, which has been compared (in some ways) to being similar to The Graduate.

  4. DeLarge says:

    Interesting to see where some of my favourite movies took their inspiration from. Could you also include Manhattan in this genre, Isaac being an example of an aesthete?

  5. dre says:

    Manhatten. It could be argued Isaac has infinite passion, and is located in religious sphere but still Kierkegaard. Barfly? The Third Man?

  1. March 12, 2015

    […] this is an existential humanist parable, with strong echoes of Kierkegaard’s Narrative, but without the same sense of a breakthrough to a higher level of meaning.  Dustin Hoffman stars […]

  2. May 13, 2015

    […] Read Part I […]

  3. December 3, 2015

    […] of you may have enjoyed my recent repost of my popular essay “Kierkegaard’s Narrative“, about the influence of Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard on several popular books […]

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