Kierkegaard and Love: Marriage as the Essential Unfaithfulness

Kierkegaard makes quite a striking claim in the midst of his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and in fact sets it aside to lie inconspicuously in a footnote: “the incidental unfaithfulness [in an erotic relationship] is to love someone else.” 

I have to imagine someone who has been cheated on wouldn’t exactly call that unfaithfulness incidental, but Kierkegaard somehow goes a step further. Not only is loving another incidental, but the essential unfaithfulness is not adultery, but marriage. For such a counterintuitive claim, it gives me some semblance of reassurance in his logic to know that Kierkegaard himself followed through on his principle and never married; yet it still takes quite a commitment to one’s own ideas to denounce what most consider the great culmination of love as the very thing that undermines it. This is the commitment that one might see in Camus and other existentialists, the commitment that finds the seams in the dome-shaped firmament and realizes it’s made of cloth and wool and plaster. I imagine Kierkegaard would too appreciate the image of him as the waywardly determined man poking his head through the edge of the sky. 

So, what now: marriage is divorce? How did we get here? 

Kierkegaard relegates this comment to a footnote precisely because it serves only to illustrate and add nuance to his claims about the difference between a subjective thinker and an objective thinker. This distinction later becomes important when he argues about truth and the leap of faith required in eternal decision-making. It is important because it establishes something he believes other thinkers, whom he calls “speculative” thinkers, seemed to have forgotten: that a thinker must exist.

Quite an oversight, one might think. Kierkegaard would agree. But this isn’t a trivial clarification: Kierkegaard notes that, as subjective thinkers, we exist in our own thinking. If we have an objective thought—say, there’s a big cloud in the sky—then we as existing can’t help but also be in relation to that thought. We don’t just have a thought and deposit it into the universe as a fully formed idea. We have thoughts about our thoughts—maybe, you reflect on the related bigness of that cloud to other clouds and why you consider it big, or the fact that it could seem big right now because you left your glasses at home. This is what Kierkegaard calls “double-reflection.”

Double-reflection gives your experience a unique quality: you-ness. You have your specific relation to your own thoughts that nobody else has, even if they have access to your objective thought through communication. Nor can you fully communicate your you-ness in relation to your thought: you can try, artistically approximate and express the gist or a facet of the relation, but you as existing are always changing. You are never static. This is another revelation of your existence as a thinker Kierkegaard thinks we have overlooked—since you exist, and you are always changing, your subjective experience can never be expressed as an objective statement. Objective statements are final, complete. You are becoming. 

Now Kierkegaard believes this is enough to fully render his striking damnation of marriage. Love, he says, is a quality of a subjective thinker. That much seems intuitive. It exists in double-reflection as inwardness, your you-ness and its relation to the always-changing thoughts and feelings you have towards someone else. You could try to communicate it—and looking back upon the history of art and literature, we seem inclined to do so—but you must do so indirectly, what Kierkegaard aptly calls “artfully”. You never get the certainty of direct, objective communication. You never encapsulate the whole idea. You never get assurance of truth. 

And what, says Kierkegaard, is marriage but assurance? 

What is marriage but the desire for certainty? In saying “I do,” you express objectively something that simply has no objective meaning. It is taking a subjective experience wholly tied with your inwardness and becoming and attaching it externally to a set of assurances and standards that already exist. In fact, Kierkegaard argues that it is no longer love. Love is your inwardness, and marriage makes it external. And in this way, it is unfaithfulness, and of the highest degree: because your partner loving someone else is not as unfaithful as your partner no longer loving you. 

Is this the opinion of marriage I might have? No, probably not. It seems like one could have a more charitable view of marriage, one that perhaps views it as an artful statement in itself, consummated between both in the relationship and approximately expressing their connected inwardnesses. But it is certainly a cautionary tale against marriage as it has been employed in the past, as something that binds you to a particular narrative of love. This is the same insight Camus expressed in The Myth of Sisyphus when discussing how each instance of love has a different combination of experience, and as such it would be foolish to categorize each instance under the same term. It is an insight that comes from holding true to certain evidence facts of existence and not allowing them to be forgotten when coming to conclusions you don’t want to consider. For me, it is a key characteristic of existentialist thinkers; the one that does make you feel like, when reading their words, you are also slowly poking your head through the stars painted on cloth that shields us from a more Empyrean reality. 

Jazz is Freedom. You Think about That.

I have included below songs to listen to along with this post, if you are that kind of reader. I am that kind of writer, and listened to them in the making of these thoughts. If the absurd has a sound, I am willing to bet it would be Monk. 

Of all Camus’ thoughts on absurd creation, one particular paragraph struck me. I’m no accomplished creator or artist in any grand fashion, but I do find myself doing it often and in a handful of forms. One of those is music, what Camus calls an art “devoid of lessons.” I don’t necessarily agree. I sometimes believe the medium can be a message in itself, and while the work serves no direct propositional thought, simply engaging as an audience member can be a lesson on its own.

Camus wants to investigate if and how an absurd creator would go about creating an absurd piece of art, one that is “for nothing,” “has no future,” and yet also remains absurd. It seems as if he believes that the art must function as thematically aligned with the absurd, in that it remains wholly indifferent throughout. This was Dostoevsky’s perceived shortcoming. His work “propounds the absurd question,” but is only “existential.” In its conclusion, it does not escape appeal.

But this investigation applies only to the medium that Camus sees as tempted to explain and not describe: fiction. He, rather, sees other media of “form and color” as only descriptive, only involved in mimicking the experience of the creator. Of these, music is one. 

The paragraph that struck me particularly, and reminded me of the song above, was Camus’ insight into why exactly art is a useful practice in maintaining the absurd. The absurd is described as a tension, the edge of a chasm, a moment—all of this one must diligently maintain. To not lose awareness, Camus suggests a practice of “unfailing alertness”. It calls for “daily effort, self-mastery, a precise element of the limits of truth, measure, and strength.” It is a practice of artistic ascesis. In my experience as a jazz musician, this struck me as a wonderfully on-point assessment of what the musical genre entails, and a fairly damning assertion of why I’m a mediocre one. 

When I speak of jazz here, know that I have come to the conclusion that all musical genres are essentially equivalent, and while some have similar aims and desired outcomes as jazz, some do not. In my experience classical is the closest in practice. Jazz as music that is inseparably linked to tradition, and to play and understand one needs to not only learn the skills and techniques but also the repertoire and the history. This is necessitated by the practice itself: when a jazz musician sits down with other musicians, there is a large canon of classic songs, “standards”, they are expected to know by heart. Hundreds and hundreds of songs, all complex in form, structure, and harmony (although some quite more than others). 

I began playing jazz in middle school, not too long after I picked up drumsticks and sat down at a kit. It just so happened the local rock band summer camp had filed for bankruptcy, and the jazz camp was still available for signups. I continued throughout middle school, but only in bands and camps. In other words, I had no discipline. Nobody forced me to practice, so I didn’t. I made my way only because I had played for a decent amount of time and figured some things out on my own. In high school, I worked my way up to better bands, more difficult camps. At one I had a teacher named Ndugu Chancler, an elderly drummer with an effusive, warm, and tightly disciplined disposition. He was the kind of teacher for whom a drummer in over his head like myself would sit two rows back, as to hope not to be called up to the kit to demonstrate. 

Ndugu was a great. This camp was known for attracting some legends of the music to come and teach—the year after Ndugu’s passing in 2018, a drummer who toured with Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Rollins was his replacement. Ndugu himself is the drummer on Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. He was larger than life, and when he sat down at the kit at the age of 66, his solo was all anyone talked about walking out of the theater. 

I was 15 when I attended Ndugu’s masterclasses for a week. I remember no specifics from camp save for what Ndugu said over that week. He insisted on every drummer in the room knowing all 40 essential drum rudiments, and any student who claimed to know them was called up to play them as slowly as possible to as fast as possible and back down again. He insisted on each drummer not only being able to recognize each standard, but sing it, as well as know the lyrics if there were any. He insisted that this was something to practice every day of every week, to pick a rudiment and song and drill it until you could move on to the next one. Of course, he led by example: there wasn’t a standard he couldn’t sing, a rudiment he hadn’t mastered, and when asked of practice, he detailed how he woke up at 6am every day since he was a teenager to get extra practice time in around school and work. Even doing his homework, he had a practice pad in his lap. 

Ndugu, I came to learn, was a jazz ascetic. And he truly recognized that to be great, or to even be good, one needed to aspire to the same level of asceticism. And he wanted his students to be great. 

In high school, I began to warm up to Ndugu’s kind of asceticism. I began to really practice; to sit with rudiments, at about as slow as I could play them, and continue for as long as I could. The connection to mindfulness isn’t a stretch. It is a task wholly dependent on focus and the mind. It takes exactly what Camus describes as an act of creation: “patience and lucidity.” It takes discipline. And to be honest, I’ve never been much of a disciplined creator. I do it because I enjoy the moment, and I practice when I have time to devote to it. I find, however, there is value in just the attempt. I may not be an ascetic, and hence, I am pretty mediocre on the scale of things. But to sit and remind oneself of the practice of discipline, and to force oneself into that space—that practice, even in the hands of the creatively indulgent, is useful. 

I started by mentioning that music can be a thought in and of itself. Perhaps it takes a musician’s mind to think so, or perhaps I’m wrong; judging by how many people or pieces of media seem to think jazz is “dead”, I can imagine this level of appreciation is not all too common. But I can’t help but feel that Monk is making an intelligible statement with his playing. A man technically capable of so much in any style one could imagine, he plays jarringly. He throws in our face the melody in awful intervals or obscures it under a cascade of syncopated descending lines. Yet he still swings. He keeps the music alive. You can tap your foot to it. Monk himself would get up at the piano when it wasn’t his solo and dance do it. Through discipline, Monk held on to the dissonance of his character and the typically sweet and sonorous songs he played. If anything musical speaks to an absurd work, a tradition of discipline and skill used for pure expression existing only and exactly in time, it should be Thelonious Monk. It is no wonder he is famous for a quote that reveals his absurdity: “Jazz is freedom. You think about that.”

Video Essay on Ansel Adams: Review

Ansel Adams’ photography, and photography as fine art generally, is a difficult topic to cover in a way that respects the process and intention of the artist—in the video above, Evan Puschak (Nerdwriter1) does a valiant job of doing just that. Covering Adam’s career, unique techniques, body of work, philosophy of art, and more, I find this video essay to be one of the best at conveying what exactly makes one of the legends of photography so great. Puschak’s video essays are as well produced as they are thoughtful, and in my opinion, are some of the best in both categories that I’ve come across on the Internet. His essays are cinematic, constantly visual, and pull you along in a (somewhat cheesy but altogether genuine) arc of drama propelled only by Evan’s insatiable desire to explain why what he’s discussing is as fascinating as he thinks it is. Puschak utilizes primary footage of Adams himself seamlessly; not only hearing his words but seeing the man himself express his philosophy within Puschak’s framing and explanation gives the entire video weight, gravitas, and engagement you wouldn’t expect from a typical YouTube video essay. The concepts aren’t just explained, or taught: they’re shown, and in such a clear and well-visualized way that one doesn’t even notice they don’t know what aperture or F-Sto means. If the goal of good educational media is to teach and change perspective in a short but engaging creative work, Puschak’s video is a very well-executed example.