Stages on Life’s Way (1845) by Søren Kierkegaard—edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, published by Princeton University Press, second printing 1991—offers insights and reflections into erotic and matrimonial relationships, poetry, and the differences between “the tragic” and “the comic” in narrative constructions.
Organization in Stages on Life’s Way
Historical Introduction (pgs vii-xviii)
Lectori Benevolo! [Latin: To the Kind Reader] (pgs 3-6)
“In Vino Veritas” [Latin: In wine lies the truth] (pgs 7-86)
Some Reflections on Marriage in Answer to Objections (pgs 87-184)
“Guilty?” / “Not Guilty?” (pgs 185-397)
Letter to the Reader (pgs 398-494)
1. What is Unhappy Love, and What is the Variant in the Imaginary Construction? (pgs 404-416)
2. Misunderstanding as the Tragic and Comic-Tragic Principle Utilized in the Imaginary Construction (pgs 416-437)
3. The Tragic Needs History More than the Comic Does; the Disappearance of this Difference in the “Imaginary Construction” (pgs 437-446)
4. Repentance Dialectically Prevented from Constituting Itself; the Last Frontier between the Esthetic and the Religious Lies in the Psychological (pgs 446-454)
5. The Hero—Suffering—Tragedy Aims to Purify the Passions through Fear and Compassion—The Spectator’s Sympathy Varies within the Different World Views (pgs 454-474)
6. To Repent of Nothing Is the Highest Wisdom—the Forgiveness of Sin (pgs 474-485)
A Concluding Word (pgs 485-494)
Supplements & Notes (pgs 495-751)
Original Title Page of Stages on Life’s Way (p 498)
Selected Entries from Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers Pertaining to Stages on Life’s Way (pgs 501-664)
Index (pgs 753-780)
“In Vino Veritas”
Five Speakers at the Banquet:
The Young Man (pgs 31-47), “thought-depression” (p 651)
Constantin Constantius (pgs 47-56), “hardening through the understanding” (p 651)
Victor Eremita (pgs 56-65), “sympathetic irony” (p 651)
The Fashion Designer (pgs 65-71), “demonic despair” (p 651)
Johannes the Seducer (pgs 71-80), “perdition, a ‘marked’ individual” (p 651)
From Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers:
“The purpose of the five speakers…[Caricatures of the Most Holy], is to illuminate women essentially but nevertheless falsely. The Young Man understands women solely from the point of view of the sex; Constantin Constantius considers the psychic aspect: faithlessness—that is, of frivolousness; Victor Eremita conceives of the female sex psychically as sex, its significance for the male, i.e., that there is none; the Fashion Designer considers the sensuous aspect, outside the essentially erotic, of the vanity that is more pronounced in a woman’s relationship to women, for as an author has said, women do not adorn themselves for men but for each other; Johannes the Seducer considers the purely sensuous factor with respect to the erotic” (p 515).
Connections to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
In what Kierkegaard calls his “imaginary psychological construction” (p 400) of “Guilty?”/“Not Guilty?” (published in 1845), the reader can find connections to Nabokov’s infamous Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male (published in 1955).
A) Both begin with a male narrator (Quidam & Humbert) confessing that he is a “murderer.”
Quidam: “So be calm. The point is to remain as apathetic and undecided as possible. After all, I am a murderer; I do indeed have a person’s life on my conscience!” (Kierkegaard, p 198) ~ “Quidam” means “a person of no importance.”
Humbert Humbert: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (Nabokov, p 9).
B) Both make use of the first-person point-of-view “I”, often used for autobiographical and narrative writing.
Quidam: “I was as much in love as anyone, even though not many would understand that I, if my deliberation had not allowed me this step, would have kept falling in love to myself. I marry her or I do not marry at all” (Kierkegaard, p 195).
Humbert: “In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea” (Nabokov, p 9).
C) Both are a chronicle of events that the narrator is in the process of writing. Kierkegaard uses the diary form, also known as an epistolary novel, which runs from January 3 to July 7. Nabokov uses a more poetic narration.
Quidam: “January 3. Morning. So it is a year ago today since I saw her for the first time, that is, for the first time with a resolute soul” (Kierkegaard, p 195).
Humbert: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges” (Nabokov, p 10).
D) Both make reference to Don Quixote.
Frater Taciturnus, who is the fictional author of “Guilty?”/“Not Guilty?”, explains in “Letter to the Reader”: “It is well known that Don Quixote believed that he himself was a knight-errant. His madness by no means reaches its climax in this idea—Cervantes is much more profound than that” (Kierkegaard, p 402).
Humbert: “He, mon cher petit papa, took me out boating and biking, taught me to swim and dive and water-ski, read to me Don Quixote and Les Miserables, and I adored and respected him and felt glad for him whenever I overheard the servants discuss his various lady-friends, beautiful and kind beings who made much of me and cooed and shed precious tears over my cheerful motherlessness” (Nabokov, pgs 10-11).
E) Both analyze their memories, thoughts, emotions, and motivations.
Quidam: “My mind comes up with one suspicion after another, the demon of laughter is continually knocking; I know what it wants—it wants to whirl her off like an abracadabra. Depart from me, you unclean spirit! My honor, my pride order me to believe her; my depression is on the lookout for the most secret idea therein lest I be allowed to sneak away from something… After all, I am not an observer, not a counselor for the conscience, but one acting—that is, the guilty one. Consequently, my imagination is permitted to picture her in all her misery; my depression is permitted to lecture on the application: You are the murderer” (Kierkegaard, p 198).
Humbert: “I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity? When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternative and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past. I am convinced, however, that in a certain and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel” (Nabokov, pgs 13-14).
F) Both involve young girls in their teens and much older men.
Quidam: “She by virtue of her seventeen years and I by virtue of the artificial leg I use” (Kierkegaard, p 248); and, “If yesterday I became ten years older, today I became ten years younger—no, younger than I have ever been… Have I really become ten years older, I who was almost an old man—the poor girl, who was to nurse one who is dead; or have I become young as I never was young—what an enviable fate to be able to be so much to a person” (Kierkegaard, p 211).
Note: Kierkegaard makes mention in his notes that the young woman was Regine Olsen (1822-1904), who in 1845 (year of publication) was 23 years old, and 21 years old when the journal entry was made on May 17, 1843 (see pages 505, 507, 742). In 1843, Kierkegaard was 30 years old, almost ten years her senior.
Humbert: “Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’” (Nabokov, p 16).
Note: Humbert states he was born in Paris in 1910, and later met Lolita “a girl of twelve” in 1952, making the man 42 years old (pgs 9-18). In Lyon in 1923, Humbert met Annabel when he was 13 and she was “a lovely child a few months [his] junior” (pgs 9-12).
G) Both imagine being judged in a courtroom before a jury (likely in the “court of public opinion”).
Quidam: “Is this a crisis? Is this the wavering decision? Estne adhuc sub judice lis [Is the case perhaps still before the court]” (Kierkegaard, p 211).
Humbert: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns” (Nabokov, p 9).
Additional reading for your personal pleasure and research, see:
“Mythic Seriousness in Lolita” by Charles Mitchell. Texas Studies in Literature and Language. Vol. 5, No. 3 (Autumn 1963), pp. 329-343
The Hero: Tragic vs. Comic
In his “Letter to the Reader” (pgs 398-494), Kierkegaard provides some insightful comments and analysis on the differences between the “tragic” and the “comic” in literature (or what he calls the “imaginary construction”), which is useful for any serious writer. One of the first and major distinctions between the tragic and the comic is how the tragic needs the historical far more than the comic does.
“It is by far the common practice to utilize the historical and with considerable reservation to understand the Aristotelian dictum that the poet is a greater philosopher than the historian because he shows how it ought to be, not how it is. The comic poet, however, does not need a historical foothold such as this. He may give his characters whatever he wants it, if only the comic ideality is there so there is sure to be laughter” (p 437).
To further illustrate his point, Kierkegaard uses the two lovers in “Guilty?”/“Not Guilty?” as an example to explain more about the tragic and the comic in his imaginary construction.
“Now to my imaginary construction. I have placed together two heterogeneous individualities, one male and one female. Him I have kept in the power of spirit in the direction of the religious; her I have kept in esthetic categories. As soon as I posit a point of unity there can be plenty of misunderstanding. This point of unity is that they are united in loving each other… The conjunction in this misunderstanding is that they love each other, but in their heterogeneity this passion must express itself in essentially different ways, and thus the misunderstanding must not come between them from outside but develops in the relationship itself that exists between them. The tragic is that two lovers do not understand each other; the comic is that two who do not understand each other love each other” (pgs 420-421).
“This is how I have designed the imaginary construction—simultaneously comic and tragic” (p 430).
Also in “Letter to the Reader,” Kierkegaard discusses various aspects of the “esthetic hero,” which is still applicable and visible in contemporary literature almost two hundred years later.
“The esthetic hero, excelling by his quantitative difference, must possess within himself the conditions for being victorious, must be healthy, strong, etc.; then the difficulties come from the outside” (p 458).
In simple speak: “The esthetic hero must have his opposition outside himself, not in himself” (p 407).
Elaborating on the idea of the esthetic hero overcoming his/her external challenges, Kierkegaard defines for the writer-reader what is meant by an “esthetic outcome” for the esthetic hero and how that compares to a “religious outcome.”
“The esthetic outcome is in the external, and the external is the guarantee that the outcome is there; we see that the hero has triumphed, has conquered the country, and now we are finished. The religious outcome, indifferent toward the external, is assured only in the internal, that is, in faith. Indifferent toward the externality, which the esthetic needs (there must be great men, great subject matter, great events; so it becomes comic if there are small folk or petty cash), the religious is commensurate with the greatest man who has ever lived and with the most wretched, and equally commensurate, commensurate with the prosperity of nations and with a farthing, and equally commensurate. The religious is simply and solely qualitatively dialectic and disdains quantity, in which esthetic has its task” (pgs 442-443).
In further plain speak: “The esthetic hero is great by conquering, the religious hero by suffering” (p 454).
On “the ethical,” Kierkegaard further explores a deeper question in his imaginary construction “Guilty?”/“Not Guilty?” and how the ethical can be connected to the religious.
“The ethical asks only about guilty or not guilty, is itself man enough to be a match for men, has no need for anything external and visible, to say nothing of something as ambiguously dialectical as fate and chance or the tangibility of some verdict document. The ethical is proud and declares: When I have judged, then nothing more is needed. This means that the ethical wants to be separated from the esthetic and the externality that is the latter’s imperfection; it desires to enter into a more glorious alliance, and this is with the religious” (p 442).
Not stopping with the religious connections to the ethical or to the esthetic hero, Kierkegaard makes strong arguments on how the object of faith can still be relevant today by explaining the act of belief. What one must also keep in mind is Kierkegaard’s understanding and use of the terms “actuality” and “ideality” (see page 426 for more details), which makes for an enlightening duplexity.
“There is nothing, therefore, more foolish in the religious sphere than to hear the commonsensical question that asks when something is being taught: Now, did it actually happen this way, for if it did one would believe it. Whether it actually happened this way, whether it is as ideal as it is represented, can be tested only by ideality, but one cannot have it historically bottled.
“I have been made aware of this by producing the story of suffering I have carried out as an imaginary construction. Alas, if I were a famous author, then a reading public that is energetic about believing, indefatigably energetic, would be distressed, for it would worry about the book and ask: But did it actually happen—for if so we will surely believe it. What is it the reading public wants to believe? That it actually happened. Well, one does not get anywhere along that road” (pgs 439-440).
Taking these concepts of actuality and ideality and moving away from literature and closer to human spirituality, Kierkegaard continues to explain the duality:
“It is spirit to ask about two things: (1) Is what is being said possible? (2) Am I able to do it?
“But it is lack of spirit to ask about two things: (1) Did it actually happen? (2) Has my neighbor Christophersen done it; has he actually done it?
“And faith is the ideality that resolves an esse in its posse and then conversely draws the conclusion in passion. If the object of faith is the absurd, then it still is not the historical that is believed, but faith is the ideality that resolves an esse in a non posse and now wills to believe it” (p 440).
“If someone were to declare that swimming is lying on dry land and threshing around, everyone presumably would consider him mad. But believing is just like swimming, and instead of helping one ashore the speaker should help one out into the deep” (p 443).
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a been member of the Hemingway Society, Americans for the Arts, PEN America, Club Med, & the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a been Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America (2020); A Time to Forget in East Berlin (2022), and Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being (2023).
Forthcoming: The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 470,000+ followers
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