In Either/Or, Volumes I and II, Kierkegaard constructs different models of human existence. They seem to be primarily intended by him as mirrors in which his readers may recognise themselves, or as fictions which could function as indications of different ways in which individuals may live their lives, with a view to highlighting the implications of these models.

One of these, the “aesthetic model” — which I will discuss here, keeping the “ethical” and the “religious” models for future posts — seems to be the outcome of reflections on the assumption that boredom is the one thing that ought to be combatted above all else in life — something that should resonate with so-called consumers in our globalised world, who often depend on the culture industry to supply them with interesting things to do, instead of being able to occupy themselves creatively. (How many people do you know who can keep themselves busy in a constructive way, without resorting to passively watching things like sport or soapies on television?)

The question therefore is: how does one combat boredom most effectively? And Kierkegaard’s answer is: by ensuring that life is interesting, of course. And how is that achieved? By maximising one’s enjoyment of life. Contrary to what may seem to be the case, however, this is not a matter of simply indulging in passive reception of mediated cultural goods such as those mentioned earlier, or in sensory, sensuous or sexual enjoyment.

In his reflections on the matter, Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous character A (for Aesthete?), muses on the exploits of Don Juan, immortalised in Mozart’s opera (Don Giovanni), whose amatory conquests in Spain alone exceed a thousand women, and comes to the conclusion that, to be able to sustain sexual activity at such a level of intensity, one has to be nothing short of an elemental natural force of some kind. Moreover, he finds it difficult to reconcile “enjoyment” with such concentrated, explosive physical activity, which does not seem to allow for any reflective “distance” to savour the pleasure, as it were.

This leads A to infer that the true antidote to boredom can only consist in the pursuit of the interesting at the level of reflective, as opposed to immediate enjoyment (as in the case of Don Juan). His paradigm for this kind of enjoyment is the “rotation of crops”, an agricultural metaphor that captures the insight that boredom is not effectively combatted if, in desperation, one changes one’s environment by, say, moving to a different town or city. Rather, as the metaphor suggests, one has to change or vary (“rotate”) oneself, in a manner of speaking, the way a farmer “rotates” crops with a view to giving the vegetation in each an opportunity to recover before allowing one’s sheep to graze there again. This way they are given the chance to regenerate, in the same way as one has to prevent one’s own receptivity to enjoyment of various kinds to become stale from overuse — compare the way that one destroys one’s enjoyment of your favourite music by listening to it too often.

The most telling instantiation of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic model, however, is encountered in the so-called “Diary of the Seducer”, which affords him a glimpse into the psyche of a consummate aesthete as far as squeezing optimal enjoyment from life is concerned. Johannes the Seducer, as he is known, adheres to the golden rule of avoiding friendships and manipulating relationships “from a distance”, without ever truly getting “involved” with a woman, let alone fall in love with her (except in the “aesthetic”, that is, distanced, reflective sense) — this would destroy the possibility of true enjoyment, and be very boring in the end. To keep things interesting one has to plan things carefully, setting the “trap”, as it were, for an unsuspecting woman by appearing irresistibly interesting and distant at the same time, in this way arousing the “chosen” woman’s interest and lifting it to a peak of intense desire for oneself — for the seducer. This is what seduction is all about: exquisite, reflective manipulation of someone’s feelings with the sole aim of conquering her or him by any means at hand. (The film, Dangerous Liaisons, based on a famous novel, captures this perfectly.)

Needless to say, this model of seduction is not only applicable to men who seduce women; there are many women, especially beautiful ones, who are equally consummate seducers, and who attract men for the enjoyment it gives them to enthral these poor sods, only to suck whatever enjoyment they can get — financially or materially, sensually, sexually — out of them until their appetite for enjoyment, or aesthetic enhancement of their own lives, has been satisfied (or the person concerned, man or woman, proves incapable of yielding the same degree of excitement as before, becoming boring instead) and they become receptive for a different kind of excitement or “fun” that they can extract from, or generate with the help of, another victim. Whether it is a man or a woman who does this, as Kierkegaard indicates, there is scant evidence of conscience on their part — to develop moral scruples is anathema to “aesthetic” enjoyment of this kind. Consequently, individuals who fit this description are usually unabashedly self-, instead of other-centred. They may even “seem” to be genuinely interested in their so-called friends, while in truth the latter merely serve the purpose of providing colour and enjoyment for themselves. (Does anyone — be honest — recognise him- or herself in it?)

One could therefore add to Kierkegaard’s analysis of such an “aesthetic” mode of existence that it appears to display a strong hedonistic, possibly even an eudemonistic (eudaimonistic) side, in so far as the (usually sensuous or physical) pleasure-seeking associated with hedonism — as well as the psychological well-being connected with eudemonism (eudaimonism) — seems inseparable from the eradication of boredom in the aesthetic quest for enjoyment. It takes no genius, of course, to realise that, for the true aesthete, hedonistic enjoyment and eudemonistic pleasure are linked: it seldom happens, except in the case of the most unsophisticated of hedonists (and this would surely be a contradiction in terms), that hedonistic enjoyment does not lead, almost by way of a kind of sublation, to pleasure of the mind, or eudemonism (etymologically, “good or noble spirit”).

The greater the verisimilitude of one’s actions and words in the process of seduction, the better the chances that one might succeed, provided one also succeeds, concomitantly, in casting oneself in the light of such irresistible attractiveness — physically, morally (which presupposes insincerity, therefore), emotionally and intellectually — that the object of one’s seductive intent is consumed with desire for this putative paragon of virtue. The girl on whom (Kierkegaard’s character) Johannes’s seductive planning focuses, is Cordelia, and the reader witnesses every carefully planned step on the road to the final conquest in the relationship, after the consummation of which Johannes abruptly leaves the poor girl. After all, the point of the whole, drawn-out procedure is to intensify the “interesting” or aesthetic enjoyment optimally. It is the manipulative process, in various stages, of luring Cordelia into the trap of falling in love with him, that interests Johannes. Kierkegaard often uses descriptions to suggest something predator-like in this behaviour: “My mind is like a turbulent sea, swept by the storms of passion … [but] … high on the mast a lookout sits on watch.” And again: ” … for though I sit there, visible to everyone in the living room, still I am really lying in ambush.”

The upshot of this depiction of the procedure of seduction (as in the case of the “rotation of crops”) as “archetype” of the aesthetic mode or possibility of living, may already be inferred from the above, namely that it entails the endless generation of novel situations, novel appearances, interesting new approaches, adaptations, facades, for the sake of combating the boredom of repeating the same thing over and over; in short, it entails the fragmentation of time and of personality with the purpose of generating the optimal degree of variety — the point of living according to this “aesthetic” model is, after all, to be interminably interesting.

But why are fragmentation and the “interesting” associated? Because this model rests on the assumption that any chronological “connection” or continuity between the various positions or “fragments” comprising the space of seduction or “rotation of crops” would compromise the novelty of each component by injecting a moment of sameness into those that are perceived as being “connected” in some way or another.

As far as the identity of the aesthete (or of the seducer, who is a variation of the aesthete) is concerned, this endless succession of “masks” or simulacra (as Baudrillard might say, that is, copies without originals) entails its disintegration — in an effort to escape from the suffocating boredom of repeating the same things or experiences, the aesthetic agent subjects him- or herself to an inventive fragmentation sans integration. The result: identity evaporates.

This is precisely the message that Kierkegaard wants to get across to his readers, namely that the price one pays for leading the life of an “aesthete” in the sense described here, is that one ceases to “be someone” — you become a mere series of masks. But fortunately (for those who seek some sense of identity, even a paradoxical one) there are other possibilities of existence, to which I shall turn next time.

(For an extended treatment of Kierkegaard’s models of existence in relation to different kinds of art, see my paper, “Beyond Kierkegaard’s aesthetic and ethical models as paradigms of art”, South African Journal of Art History 20, 2005, pp. 176-187; reprinted in my book, Philosophy and the Arts: Collected essays. London and Frankfurt: Peter Lang Academic Publishers, 2009.)


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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