HE SLOUCHED IN A CHAIR across my office table, his sweater rumpled and his eyes dim. His pained expression was like a mask that made him hard to recognize. Given pandemic measures at the university, it had been months since I’d seen him in person. As with many of my students, the isolation of Covid protocols had not only stolen a normal college experience from him; it had worn his emotional fragility threadbare. No one so young should look so haggard.
The source of his pain, I would learn, was an existential struggle. Nearing graduation, he was feeling torn between the tug of a creative calling and an overwhelming weight of ethical obligation. While he knew the joy of using his gifts to create something new in the world—he was an aspiring poet—a life devoted to this seemed indulgent and selfish in a world where injustice was a reality constantly bombarding his generation, demanding attention. I found myself moved and humbled by his acute sense of the world’s need.
I could also sense the religious intensification of this for him. Something like the disciples’ brutal moralism echoed down through the years: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” How could you waste time making beautiful things when injustice is at the door? How could anyone choose creativity over compassion?
Or, who among us could justify time absorbed in a novel when the world demands action? How can we waste hours in the studio or gallery when the globe is burning? To paraphrase the psalmist, how can we sing under conditions of exile?
A similar bind is experienced by Selin, the narrator of Elif Batuman’s new novel, Either/Or. We originally met Selin in Batuman’s first novel, The Idiot, set in 1995. Precocious and awkward, she is emerging into adulthood at Harvard and over summer adventures in Hungary and Turkey. Droll and funny, bookish and without guile, she aspires to be a woman of letters.
The novels capture how kaleidoscopic it is to live in your head: The thrill of how books overlap and intertwine. The way the hint of an allusion pulls you into another world, as if everything is a link, a hypertext that adds another layer to reality. The sense of self-congratulation when you catch a reference, and the feeling of belonging to something bigger. Batuman’s novels are a gleeful swirl of Russian literature, nineteenth-century philosophy, nineties music, and more. Selin is built of books and now wants to write her own.
As one might guess, in Either/Or the tension Selin experiences is Kierkegaardian: “Either, then, one is to live aesthetically or one is to live ethically.” Upon reading that sentence, she tells us, “My heart was pounding. There was a book about this?”
Kierkegaard’s sprawling book of the same name binds together the aphorisms and notations of a fictional young aesthete with letters he receives from Judge Wilhelm, the stern voice of “the ethical.” Selin is most taken with the section in the aesthete’s voice called “The Seducer’s Diary.” Upon first reading the seducer’s playbook, she is unsettled by recognition: she now sees how a math student named Ivan seduced her, as if the seducer’s diary had been Ivan’s handbook. But it gets more complicated, and more interesting. As an aspiring novelist, Selin is trying to discern just what a novel is, and hence what a novelist does. (There’s a self-conscious justification of autofiction that need not distract us here.) The novel folds upon itself such that we start to wonder whether Selin, like every novelist, is the seducer.
To the moralist, the aesthetic life—the life of, say, a novelist cloistered at her desk inventing worlds, or of devoted readers who happily seclude ourselves with her book—looks like irresponsibility. Both a life of making and a life enjoying what’s made seem like indulgent evasions of the ethical. How dare we?
In some contexts, I get similar pushback when I admit my deepened sympathies for the mystical and monastic traditions of spirituality. Isn’t fleeing to the desert running away from one’s neighbor? How could anyone care for the world from the isolation of the cloister? The desert and the writing desk, the monk’s cell and the artist’s studio all run afoul of the stern demands of social justice.
We might expect the religious life to be proximate to the ethical life. But what if, rather, the religious life lies closer to the aesthetic life?
Selin first encounters the possibility of an aesthetic life when she reads Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans for a class. The novel, famously the archetype for the fabled “yellow book” that ruined Dorian Gray, is a hymn to indulgence, a paean to pleasure, an ode to artifice. The sole character, Des Esseintes, is a feeble aristocrat who retreats to a country villa to indulge his aesthetic appetites. (Not unlike that episode from the Gospels, perfumes figure prominently.) But in so many ways, his is a life of devotion. “The life he was leading,” the narrator observes, “was very similar to the life of a monk.”
After his conversion to Catholicism, Huysmans wrote a new preface to Against Nature describing his realization that the posture of the aesthete was, in a way, closer to the spiritual life than the moralism it refused. “I thought myself so far from religion!” he recalled. “I did not imagine that it was only a short step from Schopenhauer, whom I admired beyond reason, to Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job.”
For Des Esseintes, there were “only two ways of arranging a bedroom: you could either make it a place for sensual pleasure, for nocturnal delectation, or else you could fit it out as a place for sleep and solitude, a setting for quiet meditation, a sort of oratory.” The aesthete has a hunger and availability to experience that is more like openness to grace than the earnest rule-following of the ethicist. Imagine the aesthetic life as a preambula fidei, a “preamble to faith,” as Aquinas calls it. A scandal to the bourgeoisie, Das Esseintes feels himself on the edge of something. “In short, although he had no vocation for the state of grace, he was conscious of a genuine fellow-feeling for those who were shut up in religious houses.” The refusal of the dichotomy might look like a short leap from the aesthetic to the religious.
You can sense that Selin wants to refuse the dichotomy too. “I wasn’t sure why the two should be opposed,” she admits. Which, of course, was exactly Kierkegaard’s point: the resolution is nowhere found in Either/Or because, like the incarnational heartbeat of Christianity, the resolution is both/and. That is the scandal of what Kierkegaard elsewhere calls “the Religious.” If Selin is bored by the ethical alternative in Either/Or, it’s because Kierkegaard was too. As Walter Lowrie, one of his earliest translators, put it: “It was difficult for S.K. to impersonate with great enthusiasm the ethical stage as such, for he himself was well beyond this sphere, having leaped at once into the religious.”
Ours is an age still ensnared by the false dichotomy between ethics and aesthetics. We seem to lack the resources to refuse. And while it is just as true of those for whom a kind of progressive purity is demanded, Kierkegaard would be most inclined to skewer all the seemingly religious folk who retreat to comfortable moralism—whether left or right—to evade the risks of the genuinely religious. And unsurprisingly, such Christian moralism usually has little room for the aesthetic and little time for the arts. As in Plato’s republic, where moralists govern the city of God, the poets are exiled. “Could not this money have been given to the poor?”
For Kierkegaard, “the religious life” is a peculiar way of inhabiting the world, one that transgresses bourgeois conformity. (Abraham, as Kierkegaard shows in Fear & Trembling, was hardly a “family values” father.) If the aesthete resembles the monk, it could also be the case that sometimes the contemplative looks like an aesthete. But is devotion to the contemplative spaces of the arts—as well as the contemplative disciplines of the desert or convent—a way of evading responsibility? Do we abandon our neighbors when we withdraw to write (or read) our novels?
In his Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen interrogates his own concerns about so-called withdrawal into the life of the monastery, but then realizes: “compassion belongs to the center of the contemplative life.” “True contemplatives,” he says, “are not the ones who withdrew from the world to save their own souls, but the ones who enter into the center of the world and pray to God from there.”
A similar insight dawns for Selin. She realizes that writing, far from being a withdrawal from the world, is a way of acting in and on the world. (It’s not an accident she’s taking a course in the philosophy of language and considering different sorts of “speech acts.”) She reflects that, even through a series of fanciful, quasi-literary emails to Ivan, “I had caused so many things to happen in the world—sleep to be lost, plane tickets to be bought, money to change hands. In a way, it had been a test of what a person could achieve just through writing.” From the cocoon of her writing nook, the novelist makes a dent in the world outside. She retreats into her imagination in order to reach and influence a world bigger than books.
“It’s someone’s job to write novels,” Selin concludes. “Every civilized country had such people. They were in some way the very mark of civilization.” We depend on such artists to withdraw from us to show us ourselves. We need those who retreat in order to give the world back to us in a novel, who give us the gift of a mirror. The attention of the novelist, trained on the particulars of the human condition, is its own act of love. Those of us caught up in the thrum and bustle of the world, perhaps especially those wrangling with the principalities and powers of injustice and heartbreak, need that gift.