Judge William and Johannes the Seducer are two fictional characters created by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in his book Either/Or. The Judge, representing an ethical way of life and love, argues that love, if it is to be moral, must be sustained by an ongoing, energetic effort of the will to repeat the first love, that is, to constantly reaffirm one’s commitment to the beloved. The Judge argues lovers will live for the development of a continuous history from the past into the future, a history that is the condition for the possibility of their integrated and morally responsible personalities. Kierkegaard’s “The Diary of the Seducer” (a part of Either/Or) shows us how different Johannes the Seducer is from the Judge. In many ways, Johannes is a romantic. He has an interest in creating and overcoming distance, he wants to face and overcome impossible odds, he thinks engagements, marriage, and raising children are irrational and sickening, and he loves chance and spontaneity. But most importantly he hates repetition and seeks out novelty at all times. Johannes lives what Kierkegaard refers to as an aesthetic life in which the only thing that matters is having interesting experiences and avoiding boring ones. The Judge’s moral issues don’t interest him—they are boring. What is interesting to him is, of course, seduction.
Johannes’ version of seduction has to do with the moment. Consider this passage from Johannes:
“To have an understanding of the moment is not such an easy matter, and one who misunderstands it is doomed to boredom for life. The moment is everything, and in the moment woman is everything; the consequences I do not understand. One such consequence is having a child. Now, I fancy myself to be a fairly consistent thinker, but even if I were to go mad, I am not the man to think that consequence”.
What does it mean to say that in the moment a woman is everything? To the majority it may mean some kind of momentary sexual enjoyment or psychological manipulation. But for Johannes these vulgar approaches afford only imaginary enjoyment. His seduction is after something very different: he wants to get a free woman to freely handover her freedom to him. Once she does she is no longer interesting since all further relations with her can only be repetitious and boring. Therefore seduction really seeks one moment in which the freedom of the seduced is lost:
“The majority enjoy a young girl as they enjoy a glass of champagne, at one effervescent moment – oh, yes, that is really beautiful, and with many a young girl that is undoubtedly the most one can attain, but here there is more. if an individual is too fragile to stand clarity and transparency, well, then one enjoys what is unclear, but apparently she can stand it. The more devotedness one can bring to erotic love, the more interesting. This momentary enjoyment is a rape, even if not outwardly but nevertheless mentally, and in a rape there is only imagined enjoyment; it is like a stolen kiss, something nondescript. No, if one can bring it to a point where a girl has but one task for her freedom, to give herself, so that she feels her whole happiness in this, so that she practically begs for this devotedness and yet is free – only then is there enjoyment, but this always takes a discerning touch.”
When Johannes is able to get Cordelia to freely hand her freedom to him then he is done with her; after all, “now all resistance is impossible, and to love is beautiful only as long as resistance is present; as soon as it ceases, to love is weakness and habit”. And so seduction must continue again and again, seeking moments where freedom is lost, seeking moments where time stands still and the past and future fade from view and only the eternal remains: “Who I am is irrelevant; everything finite and temporal is forgotten; only the eternal remains, the power of erotic love, its longing, its bliss.”
I interpret this view of seduction, this seeking of moments in which the freedom of the other is lost, as an attempt to destroy time. Johannes thinks living for the moment allows love to remain fresh and new as the first love. But his effort to seduce woman after woman is actually doomed to prevent love. After all, relations between persons require not just the moment but the past and future as well; they require the promises, responsibility, and the history of the Judge’s ethical life. Johannes admits to having no friends: “I have no friend; whether this is an advantage I shall leave undecided, but I regard being free from his advice as an absolute advantage”. But it appears he can’t have any loving relationships either. If this is the case then perhaps many seducers are really attempting to destroy time so they can avoid love and the ethical commitments associated with it. They may appear to be lovers of many things to be sure! But their efforts to steal freedom and live in the moment disintegrate, rather than integrate, the self since the self can only be integrated if it heeds its past and moves from it into a future.
Johannes’ form of seduction is self-destruction.