According to Kierkegaard, there are three stages or “spheres” of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. In The Seducer’s Diary, the author depicts the life of someone who has made a conscious choice for the aesthetic way of life, with all the consequences that implies.
I was torn between joy — that this amazing text-within-a-text is in print and available to an English-language audience — and concern, that it is taken out of the context of its intellectual home, the monumental philosophical work Either/Or. Be that as it may, The Seducer’s Diary alone is an entrancing read. The layers of metafiction and seduction are dizzying, the tone and pace wonderfully genteel, and filled with visionary metaphors, which only adds to its beauty, but with a hard and frightening core that has given me an almost ominous pause.
The plot is simple, and the book is very short, but all the same I became easily involved with the characters. Johannes is a seducer for vocation and profession: being a seducer isn’t really his job, but that is undoubtedly what gives meaning to his life. He likes women only until they have given him everything: it is then that he leaves them, and searches for a new love. He isn’t capable of that one big love that’s believed last forever, but rather of many fleeting little loves, with a definite time limit. In an autobiographical confession, Johannes writes,
I am an aesthete, an eroticist, who has grasped the nature and the point of love, who believes in love and knows it from the ground up, and I reserve for myself only the private opinion that no love affair should last more that a half a year at most and that any relationship is over as soon as one has enjoyed the ultimate.
The story is told by Johannes, a man ten years Cordelias senior, who spins a web, to bring this young girl of seventeen, into womanhood through an erotic seduction of the mind. Johannes, a brilliant intellectual, uses the ripple effect of thought to determine the out come of each move that he plots. For instance, when you drop a stone into water, it sends out a ripple of rings, each one, a different path to take, each with its own set of consequences. Constantly, he’s questioning, thinking, and calculating.
Johannes, purposely studies everything about Cordelia’s life. Her circle of friends, her family, her daily schedule. Then he makes sure to intervene unnoticed. For example, he knows that at 11 in the morning she will be walking down a particular street, he makes a point to walk past her. A day of shopping, to be in the store where she is at. But he never approches her, always standing in the shadows. Subconsciously, he’s placing his image in her mind. When he discovers that she lives with her Aunt, he sets out to court the Aunt, and befriends Edward, a shy, awkward boy, who’s infatuated with Cordelia. But Johannes only uses Edward — to his own advantage of course — exposing Cordelia to the differences between Edward and himself. Eventually, Cordelia takes notice, and poor Edward is soon discarded. It’s at that point when Johannes asks the Aunt for Cordelia’s hand, in an engagement. The Aunt agrees, and Cordelia and Johannes begin their journey.
Far and away, the primary focus of The Seducer’s Diary is not the re-telling of this strange narrative, but rather the examination of the mind of the aesthete par excellence. The seducer seems to embody in actuality what being a libertine means. Marriage and friendship are both an infringement on his freedom and a potential detriment to his quest for amusement. Engagement is, in its essence, laughable. He fears boredom and cannot comprehend why one would want to have a child. One can observe his implementation of the rotation method in the variety of ways in which he refers to the seduction itself. He calls the seduction: the “attack,” the “web into which she is spun,” “her baptism,” “the trap door through which she falls,” his “pulling the bow of love tighter in order to wound all the deeper,” her “falling to the ground,” “war,” “war of liberation — a game,” and “war of conquest — a life and death struggle.” Note how he varies the metaphors around a theme of conquest. He is not even content to call his seduction by a single name.
Frequent attention is given to the subject of possession. Johannes addresses all of his letters to “My Cordelia” and signs them, “Your Johannes.” On more than one occasion, he specifically asks what do these possessive pronouns (“my” and “your”) actually mean. At an advanced stage of the engagement, Johannes observes that Cordelia does not have the courage to call him “her” Johannes in conversation. He encourages her; she tries but cannot. We should note that the narrator includes three letters from Cordelia to Johannes which are placed at the beginning of the diary. This entire project is his: his seduction of his prey to be described with painstaking detail in his diary for his recollection of his victory of his game.
The existence of the diary itself is an illustration of its author’s insatiable appetite for the recollection of how his desires have been fulfilled. These memories are meticulously planned beforehand, masterly orchestrated, and eloquently described on the pages of the diary. We get the impression that, for Johannes, the events exist so that they might be recorded — not the other way around. The intent is obviously to provide its author/reader with further amusement and enjoyment when the entries are re-read and remembered. In the closing entry, he even postulates on the possibility of a variation on this theme of seduction which the author thinks will make “a very interesting epilogue.” The seducer is not the least but bothered about a young girl’s life which may be ruined in the next seduction; he is concerned only that his diary have a proper and interesting epilogue.
Kierkegaard’s decision to describe the aesthetic stage or sphere of existence through the creation of a narrative is most incisive. This is a very effective medium for communicating his content. More importantly, for Kierkegaard, this is indirect communication. The reader sees Johannes’ perspective, his decisions, and his motivations, and the reader must ask himself or herself, “In what ways is this a description of my own life? And what should I do about it?” We may be shocked and offended, and this, of course, is one of Kierkegaard’s intended consequences. Many of want to live a merely aesthetic life, and yet we do not want to embrace the dark melancholy which is a necessary part of the aesthetic sphere of life.
If you have ever been in love, truly in love, you will feel it written within the pages of this book. The kind we may only find once in our lives, if we are lucky enough for fate to expose it with open eyes. I believe that Johannes found the truest, purest love, with Cordelia, but chose to play a game of the mind, instead of listening to the heart. Which in the end, haunted him the rest of his life.