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Kierkegaard, "Cordelia"

An excerpt from one of the more famous works by this philosopher and native of Copenhagen.  The original Danish volume can be found here.

It was today that my eyes first came upon her.  Sleep is allegedly capable of making an eyelid so heavy that it can no longer close.  Maybe my gazing upon her had something of this form.  My eyes pull shut and still feel the breath of dark powers within her.  She does not see that I see her.  She feels that I see her, feels it over her entire body.  My eyes do not close, and it is night.  But within her is the light of day.

I must rid myself of Edward.  He goes to extremes, so I expect at any moment that he will accost her with a declaration of his love.  No one could know this better than I, his confidant, who with diligence praises him to high heaven so that he can have more of an effect on Cordelia.  But letting him get so far as to confess his love would be too risky.  For I know that the answer will be no; and yet the story will not end there.  He will certainly take the matter very personally.  This may, in turn, serve to touch Cordelia, to move her emotions.  Although in such a case I need not fear the worst, that is, that she undo what has been done, her soul’s pride might all the same be affected by compassion.  Should that happen, then success and Edward will never meet.   

My relationship with Cordelia is beginning to take a dramatic turn.  Something simply has to occur; no matter what, I can no longer relegate myself to observation and there is no time to lose.  She might be surprised, yet that is a necessary step.  But when one wants to surprise her, one has to be ready in position.  That which would generally surprise other women would perhaps not have the same effect on her.  As it were, she has to be surprised in such a way so that the reason for her surprise would be contained in that first instant, whereby something quite ordinary would occur.  Then it must be demonstrated that there is something implicitly surprising in it.  This is the constant law and this same law applies to all my movements involving Cordelia.  When you know the element of surprise, you have already won the match.  For a moment, one suspends the energy in question, makes it impossible for her to act, and then one uses either the unusual or the usual.  It is with no small satisfaction that I still recall a foolhardy attempt with a woman of distinguished family.  For a while I skulked around in vain looking for a riveting way to break the ice when, one day around noon, we came across one another on the street.  I was sure that she did not know me, nor knew that I was a local.  She was walking alone.  I slipped past her so that we came face to face.  I gave way to her, but she did not budge from her flagstone.  At that moment I shot her a wistful glance; perhaps a tear even grazed my eye.  I removed my hat and she stopped.  With a wavering voice and dreams in my eyes I said: “Dear Lady, do not be so upset that the likeness between your outline and a being I once loved with all my soul now living far from me is so remarkable that you cannot forgive my peculiar behavior."  She thought I was just another admirer, and every young girl likes a bit of admiration, especially when she also senses her superiority and deigns to smile at the man in question.  So she smiled, which suited her so indescribably well.  With noble superciliousness she greeted me and smiled.  Then she continued on her way, but she had hardly taken two steps when I was by her side.  Some days later I met her and allowed myself to greet her.  She laughed at me … Patience is a priceless virtue, and he who laughs last … I think you know the saying. 

Various ways to surprise Cordelia came to mind.  I could try to raise an erotic storm which could eradicate trees from the ground.  If possible, I could try on this basis to win her over with arguments, run her down on the strength of our history, and seek in this agitation to evoke her passion with secret means.  The possibility of all this was not out of the question.  A girl with her passion could be made to do anything.  This would be, however, aesthetically unpalatable.  I do not want giddiness.  Such a condition is hardly recommended when dealing with a girl who by herself might so gain poetic reflection.  Therefore one must abstain from such pleasure; far too much confusion is the result.  Its effect would be completely lost on her.  After a couple of inhalations, I would have breathed in what I could have had for much longer a time.  Yes, the worst is enjoying with a cool head that which could have been fuller and richer.  Cordelia does me no good in exaltation.  I might surprise her at that first moment if I so chose, but I would quickly become satiated just because this surprise lay too close to her audacious heart.

A betrothal, pure and simple, would be of all methods the best and most prudent.  Perhaps she would still be less inclined to believe her own ears if she heard me spout off my prosaic declaration of love as I held her hand.  Less inclined still if she were to listen to the entirety of my eloquence, inhale my poisonous and intoxicating elixir, and hear her heart throb at the thought of abduction.

The damned thing about getting engaged was the ethical side.  The ethical was as tedious in science as it was in life.  What a difference: in the world of aesthetics everything is light, pretty, and fleeting; when ethics are incorporated, everything becomes hard, angular, and endlessly boring.  Strictly speaking, a betrothal has, however, no ethical reality, just as a marriage is only valid ex consensu gentium.  This ambiguity can be very useful to me.  The ethical component is simply that Cordelia, in her lifetime, wishes to get the impression of passing beyond the boundaries of the ordinary.  So the ethics involved are not too serious, and I should feel nothing more than an uneasy shudder.  I have always had a certain respect for the ethical.  Never have I made to any girl a promise of marriage that was not in the end stamped out, as one might have guessed beforehand, because it was nothing more than a feigned gesture.  Thus I will arrange matters so that it will be she who breaks off the engagement.  My chivalrous pride has great disdain for promises.  I loathe when a judge promising freedom incarcerates a culprit upon the latter’s confession.  Such a judge renounces both his power and his talent.  In my practice, I still encounter the circumstance whereby I wish for nothing, which is freedom’s gift in the strictest sense of the word.  Let second-rate seducers use such means.  What do they gain by doing so?  He who doesn’t know how to accommodate a girl so that she loses sight of everything that one doesn’t want her to see, and he who doesn’t know how to invent himself for a woman so that everything quits her because he so wishes, this person is and will remain a bungler.  I will not begrudge him his enjoyment.  Such a person is and will remain a bungler, a seducer, a label which one can by no means affix to my broad brow.  I am an aesthete, an erotic who has grasped love’s essence and point, in that I believe in love and know it for the simple reason that it only has a private meaning reserved for me.  I also know that every love story lasts half a year at most, and that every relationship is over as soon as one has enjoyed the last.  All this is known to me; I also know that the greatest pleasure I could imagine is to be loved.  Being loved is greater than everything in the world.  Inventing yourself for a girl is an art, and creating yourself from her is a masterpiece.  But the last depends very much on the first.

Yet there was another way.  I could do everything in my power for her to become engaged to Edward.  I would become the family friend in this picture.  Edward would trust me unconditionally – after all, it was to me that he owed his happiness.  And I, I would benefit from this concealment.  But this wouldn’t do.  She could not get engaged to Edward without disparaging herself in some way.  And it would result in having a relationship with her that was more feisty than interesting.  The unending commonplaceness of an engagement is the echoless nadir of what could possibly be interesting.

Everything was more critical in the Wahlske house.  One plainly noted that a hidden life grazed our own from beneath the daily platitudes, and that it soon had to emerge as a similar revelation.  The Wahlske house was made for an engagement.  An outside observer would now think about the fact that there sat no one but a couple: the aunt and I.  What couldn’t be achieved in such a marriage for the expansion of agronomical knowledge for coming generations?  So here I became Cordelia’s uncle.  I was a friend of freethinking; and no thought was absurd enough for me to have anything against it, at least for a while.  Cordelia feared a declaration of love from Edward; Edward was hoping that such a declaration would be the answer to everything.  And now he can be sure of that.  So as to spare him the unpleasant consequences of such a step, I would simply have to beat him to the punch.  I now hoped to dispatch him quickly: he was truly in my way.  And today I felt right.  Today he did not look dreamy and lovesick enough for one to fear that he might suddenly get up like a sleepwalker, confess his love before all of mankind, objectively viewed, and get any closer to Cordelia.  Today I took a look at him.  Just like an elephant seizes what it wants with its trunk, so did I seize him with my gaze, long as it was, and threw him back.  Although he was sitting down at the time, I think he felt it in every part of his body.

Cordelia was not as sure towards me as she was before.  She would always approach me like a woman, sure of herself, and now she wobbled a bit.  This did not mean, however, anything of importance, and I would have little difficulty in getting things back to where they once were.  And yet, this is not what I want.  I just want an exploration, and then an engagement. That should present no difficulties.  Overwhelmed with surprise, Cordelia will say yes, and the aunt, amen.  She will be beside herself with joy for gaining an agronomist of this kind as a son-in-law.  Son-in-law!  Everything now hung together like peas and pods when one ventured into this area.  I would become not her son-in-law, as it were, but her nephew.  Or, more correctly, volente deo, neither of the two.

Reader Comments (2)

Dear Lady, do not be so upset that the likeness between your outline and a being I once loved with all my soul now living far from me is so remarkable that you cannot forgive my peculiar behavior.

I used the same line with Kitty. He's right. Doesn't work.

June 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMelancholy Korean

Such is the fate of the chivalrous, although I think Soren is still laughing.

June 12, 2008 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

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