A less extraordinary mind would have been incapable of worrying so much about an old desk and would never have made the discovery.
Victor Eremita, fictitious editor of Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, tells the story of how he came across the manuscript.
He is in love with an escritoire he has seen in the window of a second-hand dealer’s shop. The item is old and well-used, and he can’t explain why he’s so drawn to it, except to say: isn’t desire a strange and tangled thing? Who can really explain their own preferences?
Every day he walks past the dealer’s and catches a glimpse of his beloved writing table in the window. Sometimes he makes long detours to make sure he gets his daily look at it.
The love affair deepens into something more. He wants to possess the desk. Strange, because he can think of no use for it. He just wants to have it.
Going into the shop on the pretext of other business, Victor makes a casual and very low offer for the desk. If the dealer had accepted, he explains to us, then the escritoire would have come to him almost by chance, an unlikely and fortuitous occurrence to acquire such a thing for next to nothing. He would not only have had a clear conscience – at least he didn’t pay an extravagant sum for such a useless item – but he would have been confirmed in his long-held view that the best life is governed by chance. (A guest asks about the shabby old desk taking pride of place in the apartment, and Victor gives a casual wave of the hand. “Oh, that old thing …”)
Anyway, the dealer refused the offer. Now Victor has got to decide what he wants to do. If he hesitates until someone else buys the desk then it’s all over. He might find it again, even convince the new owner to part with it, but the feeling he has for it right now would, by then, be gone. This is where Victor differs from a lesser, more objective and “mediocre” mind: he gives himself this “either/or.” Either he takes the desk soon, or the moment will be gone forever. Mediocrity always looks for the “both/and”. The objective, reasonable mind would say: well, if it is sold I can always find it again. The objective set of circumstances would be the same: I would have the desk that I love. But the objective mind fails to recognise that that love is itself an “inwardness,” something subjective, and the feeling would be different once the situation had changed. It wouldn’t be the same love. The romance would be gone, we might say.
If Victor had had a more objective mind then the story would have ended here. He walks by the shop for a few more weeks or months until eventually the desk is gone. He goes in to enquire and finds it has been sold. Perhaps I’ll find it again one day, he thinks. And eventually it is forgotten.
But Victor is a man of passion, and therefore greatly troubled by the thought that he will lose the escritoire. He wants it, he needs it, and he cannot betray his desire for it. He goes in and makes a larger offer this time, and comes away with the desk. He finds a place for it in his home, and now he walks by it in his own apartment, just as he used to walk by it in the street. He winks and smiles at it in a state of great elation. And slowly he begins the new joyful pastime available to him: exploring the writing table’s many drawers and recesses. He’s as happy as can be. And then everything changes.
He was about to spend a week in the country, gets all packed and goes to sleep. Wakes up late, to the urgent sound of the postilion’s horn. A rush to get out the door, he just needs some money from one of the escritoire’s drawers. But now the drawer won’t open. Maddened by tiredness, infuriated by his having overslept and the sound of the horn outside, he reaches for a hatchet. The blow he strikes does nothing to open the drawer, but something else happens: a secret compartment, hitherto unnoticed, pops open. Forgetting the money and the blaring horn for the moment, he looks inside. And reaching in, he finds a stack of papers. The manuscript for Either/Or.
The postilion’s horn reasserts itself, he hastily packs the papers and, leaving the money behind – he can always get more – dashes out to the coach. He’ll read the manuscript in the country and discover that it’s an interesting work, worthy of publication.
If Kierkegaard had had a less extraordinary mind, he would never have told such a strange story. He’d have become a Hegelian, presenting his ideas in a cold and systematic way. But just as Victor must fall in love with a desk in order to make the literary discovery of a lifetime, so Kierkegaard must take a circuitous route if he’s going to present the truth to his readers. A literary, rather than a philosophical one. “The target or enemy was philosophy. That in itself dictates that the weapons with which he was committed to prosecuting his campaign were literary rather than philosophical.” We’re being invited to enjoy this book and put dry philosophical concerns to one side for just a moment, and perhaps we’ll find our way back to the deeper questions, now cast in a new light, as if by chance.
(I’ve been reading Either/Or by Søren Kierkegaard, translated with an introduction and notes by Alastair Hannay.)