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Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (Penguin Classics) Paperback – December 1, 1992
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About the Author
Alastair Hannay was educated at the Edinburgh Academy, the University of Edinburgh and University College London. In 1961 he became a resident of Norway and is now Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oslo.
- ASIN : 0140445773
- Publisher : Penguin Classics; Revised ed. edition (December 1, 1992)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 640 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780140445770
- ISBN-13 : 978-0140445770
- Reading age : 18 years and up
- Grade level : 12 and up
- Item Weight : 15.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 7.81 x 5.12 x 1.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #56,995 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Now, a prefatory note to every reviewer who described this book as a "difficult" or "challenging" or "dense" read: You are all guilty of scaring me away from this book (and Kierkegaard in general) for over ten years. Sometimes I think there exists a very widely represented personality so jealous, stuffy, covetous, and academic that they sort of enjoy making a book appear too difficult for a general audience just so they can feel superior to everyone around them. I hate these little scholastic gremlins and I hope you suffer all the fates eternal of Prometheus, Tantalus, and Sisyphus combined.*
A note to anyone worried this book is too hard to read: IT IS NOT DIFFICULT! It is all those adjectives I used in my review's title: "Lucid, Pithy, Wise, Engrossing, Accessible, Universal, Witty, Beautiful, Immediate, Personal, and Important." (That list comprises my definition of real art; therefore, Either/Or is real art.)
I think Either/Or has been misfiled in bookstores and libraries: This is a work of literature, not philosophy. Like all great literature (and music and paintings and sculpture) Either/Or is innately philosophical but it is written in a kind of lyric, poetical narration that sets it far away from, say, Hegel or Kant. It reads a lot more like a Platonic dialogue or a classical invective. Kierkegaard is both Proust and Aurelius; Either/Or is both A Search for Lost Time and The Meditations.
The book is also very clever and variegated: It's at times cynical, at times sorrowful, at times nihilistic, at times optimistic, and very often it is comedic to the degree that I burst out laughing (we laugh because a mirror has been held up to our eyes).
Either/Or seems to be a book about everything, like Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy or Hugo's Les Miserables: it is what Allan Bloom would have called "a total book." Kierkegaard has a talent for packing the contents of ten books into the clause of a single sentence. And when he is not being utterly concise Kierkegaard can do as good a job as Proust in teasing a whole universe out of fleeting and otherwise commonplace moments: He can slow the camera down to a halt and, to borrow a modern simile, like Morpheus pausing the Agent Training simulation in "The Matrix", walk about the scene commenting with nuance, grace, and an often wholly refreshing acerbity. I promise you will be rereading and quoting paragraph after paragraph--it's that good.
To those worried readers I comfort you with this: You will fall in love with this book on page 43. That's the first page of the Diapsalmata section (the book is divided in two parts; this is the first). The Diapsalmata starts with a series of concise observations in a style similar to the Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, the Analects of Confucious, or the Pensees of Pascal; however, Kierkegaard renders his lines with a style eclipsing, at times, any other writer. This quality alone proves Kierkegaard a genius. (It also proves, one should add, the genius of the translator Alastair Hannay.)
All Kierkegaard's more obscure allusions and metaphors are explained in a very complete notes section at the back of the book.
To conclude: Either/Or is one of the best books I've ever read, full stop.
*Prometheus was tied to the side of a cliff and had his liver eaten every day; Tantalus was doomed to stand in a pool just out of reach of both water and food; Sisyphus was made to roll a boulder up a hill every day only to have it kicked back down the hill once it reached the top. Those Greeks sure knew how to punish didn't they?
Some 'Diapsalmata' were removed from part one. I enjoyed these passages and was slightly disappointed by this. One essay from part one is missing, as are later passages that make reference to it ('First Love, Comedy in One Act by Scribe, translated by J.L. Heiberg'). Other passages are truncated in various places, which hasn't bothered me so far (most omissions are in part two, and I haven't gotten there yet). I also suspect that combining the two parts into one volume also forced the translator to keep his annotations brief.
Different parts of the book use different styles. Particularly striking is the first section, "Diapsalmata," which is not an essay but rather a collection of aphorisms or fragmented thoughts, which have a morbid fixation reminiscent of decadent poetry: "As everyone knows, there are insects which die in the moment of fertilization. Thus it is with all joy, life's supreme and most voluptuous moment of pleasure is attended by death." (43) Whatever else we might say, Kierkegaard was far ahead of his time when it came to stylistic experiments -- in 1843 this must have seemed completely incomprehensible to readers.
But this is not a poem or novel; there was some overarching philosophical objective. If only I knew what it was. The conventional interpretation is that Kierkegaard was using his fake authors to illustrate the differences between a purely aesthetic perception of life vs. one founded on ethics. The second half of the book is written by a different "author," who castigates the first one for his frivolity and defends what he calls "the ethical life." If the translator's introduction is any indication, this "ethical" voice has been treated rather unfairly -- the translator calls him "a hopeless bore and hypocrite" (7) and accuses him of sexism, even though he repeatedly asserts the superiority of women in certain respects (p. 577: "Let man give up his claim to be lord and master of Nature, let him yield his place to woman"), whereas the seducer in the first half of the book is far more creepily misogynistic.
There are quite a few problems with the straightforward reading of "Judge Vilhelm" as the voice of authority. If you try to take the fictional setting seriously, he starts to look very strange. First of all, he has addressed hundreds of pages to this other person, who (it is explicitly said) does not want to receive these letters and never replies. Second, all his "ethical" arguments are actually based on aesthetics. His first essay is called "The aesthetic validity of marriage," the second "Equilibrium between the aesthetic and the ethical in the development of personality." Not only does he not argue against aesthetics, but his whole point is to prove that ethical considerations introduce greater aesthetic value to life. Finally, he occasionally makes admissions like, "It happens sometimes that I sit down and inwardly collapse." (574) Surely this is not what one expects of some self-satisfied judge who believes himself to be "ethical." When the translator says, "Some see in Vilhelm a fantast, a romantic, playing the same kind of game as his friend the aesthete, but with his dreams being played out in social and family forms," (8) I think this is much closer to the truth. At the very least, he has to have a very similar sensitive personality, otherwise there is no way he would ever have thought of this project.
The final essay is written by a fictitious priest who, in some sense, shows the limitations of both worldviews by arguing that no earthly arguments can live up to the absolute goodness of God. This is supposed to be a religious sermon whose author is "confident he will make every farmer understand it." (594) But at the very end, this character writes, "Before we part, one final question, my hearer: did you wish, could you wish, that it were otherwise?" (608) In other words, the reader is being encouraged to deny what he has just read -- not just the sermon, of course, but the entire book. This creates the impression that Kierkegaard is simply toying with his readers; he has no positive program of aesthetics, ethics, religion or really anything else.
Since the modern reader generally does not have any such program either, this work is likely to be quite effective in capturing his or her interest. If you enjoy pure style, viewed as an intellectual puzzle for the reader to dissect (again, Nabokov's work is representative of this approach to literature), then Either/Or is for you. But if one tries to view it as philosophy, it gives an impression of some kind of rigged game, which ultimately leaves one with very little when it ends. Perhaps one way to get some value out of it may be to think of it as a sort of literary exploration of selfhood -- how does one become an individual? how does one develop an inner life, and of what kind? to what extent can one be sure that this life is one's own? Most of the arguments in Vilhelm's second essay actually focus on the value of ethics in developing individuality, what he calls "choosing absolutely" (491). You can only be sure that you are yourself if you have made some sort of choice.
Top reviews from other countries
I would not have bought this version if I knew that. I need the full picture. It is very furstrating to read a book constantly punctuated with [...] meaning "skipped". If you want something full and comprehensive so you don't actually need to buy another book to have full clarity then get another edition.