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.