In 1841, a young Danish intellectual called Soren Kierkegaard abruptly broke off his engagement to his fiancé, the beautiful Regine Olsen. They were very much in love. So why break up? Biographers speculated it was because Kierkegaard didn’t think he would make a good husband and father. Perhaps he needed to be a bachelor to pursue his true calling as an outcast philosopher. Either way, he brooded over the break-up for the rest of his lonely life, and it fed into many of his books.
In Repetition, for example, he discusses how to break up with a lover, and decides the most ethical way is to turn yourself into a monster.
It is despicable to deceive and seduce a girl. It is even more despicable, however, to leave a girl in such a way that one avoids becoming a scoundrel, but instead makes a brilliant retreat in that one puts her off with the explanation that she was not the ideal, but comforts her with the fact that she was one’s muse. [Therefore] we should] lay waste to everything. Transform yourself into a contemptible person whose only pleasure is in tricking and deceiving. If you can do this, then you will have established equality.
In Either / Or, Kierkegaard creates the alter-ego of the Seducer, a Dorian Gray figure who roams Copenhagen, breaking hearts without compunction. This was not what Kierkegaard was really like at all. Was he trying to push Regine away, to turn himself into a monster, to make it easier for her?
There is a famous passage in Either / Or, where the Seducer muses on how to make major life decisions. He concludes: it doesn’t really matter. When you come to a crossroads in life and choose one way or the other, either way you will regret it:
If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it; if you marry or if you do not marry, you will regret both. Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them, you will also regret it; if you laugh at the world’s follies or if you weep over them, you will regret both…If you hang yourself, you will regret it; if you do not hang yourself, you will regret it; if you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.
I discovered Kierkegaard during the worst crisis of my life. I graduated from Oxford, and was terrified about my next move. The trauma, post-traumatic stress and social anxiety within me was getting worse and worse. I couldn’t even get through a job interview without having a panic attack. I wasn’t sure if I should stay with my girlfriend of three years and marry her, or whether I needed to break free to become healthy again. I consulted everything — astrology, palmistry, therapy, the I-Ching. What to do!
Then I received the answer from Kierkegaard. I should break up with my girlfriend. But not in a normal humane way. I should break up in such a way that she should think I was a monster. And then I should move to Copenhagen and become a freelance philosopher. This seemed such a genius move to me, such a brilliant leap of faith, I was exultant. I undertook my plan, breaking up with Katharine in a particularly callous way, announcing my move to Denmark to friends and family, and taking out a book from the local library, How To Learn Danish.
But then, mid-leap, I prevaricated. Danish was very hard. And what would I do there? How would I employ myself? Would I get lonely? Would I go mad? My anxiety got worse, and so did my guilt at the break-up with Katharine. She haunted my dreams for years.
I never went to Denmark. I went to Spain instead, tried and failed to write a novel, became really sad, and finally limped into a financial journalism job in London, which I hated, staying in it for three years. I did eventually become a freelance philosopher, but that was a decade later. And I have not — yet — stayed in a relationship for as long as those three years with Katharine.
This week, I finished a three-and-a-half-year run of therapy, which I began after my messy ayahuasca retreat in October 2017 (so…I guess that’s six months longer than I was with Katharine). In our last session, my therapist said to me: I think ambivalence is quite central to you, to your stance towards life. And I think maybe it always will be.
She is right. I call myself an agnostic, these days, but if there was a deity called Ambivalence, I would probably worship at its altar. Or not.
I am ambivalent about being in a relationship. I profoundly yearn to be in a relationship. When I am single I think about it all the time. When I am in a relationship, I think about being single, and I usually break up after three months or so.
I am ambivalent about working in an institution. I long to find a home and a tribe of colleagues. But when I join an institution, like academia, or the BBC, it arouses all kinds of antipathy in me. I find myself railing against the institution and its shortcomings. I long to be out of it. I call myself a ‘semi-academic’ or something like that.
I am ambivalent about where to live. I spent most of my life in London, but eventually found it too big and lonely. Move to India? Yes, no, maybe, maybe not. California? Perhaps, perhaps not. Bristol? Sure why not. But why? Now, at present, I find myself living in between places, hopping from one to another.
I am ambivalent about the philosophy or spirituality I follow. I embrace Stoicism, I get a Stoic tattoo, I help to launch the modern Stoic movement, but then I see the shortcomings of Stoicism, and have to move on. I convert to Christianity, yet I struggle to believe it, and do those nice Christians really accept me or just want my soul? I move on. Buddhism, yes but, all those abusive gurus. Spirituality, yes, but all those stupid conspiracies. And so on. Really, my philosophy or spirituality is ambivalence. That is the zig-zagging path I am following.
I am even ambivalent about life and death. ‘To be or not to be’, as another ambivalent Dane put it. During my messy post-ayahuasca experience, I felt like I was in limbo. I called it ‘the in-between place’. Not quite alive, not quite dead. Not quite in this world, not quite in the world beyond.
Do I commit to this life, this world, this material existence, or do I strive to transcend it? Yes, no, maybe, maybe not. When I’m in a relationship, I think of becoming a monk. When I’m on retreat, I can’t stop thinking about sex.
My friend Tim Read — a student of Stanislaf Grof — thinks spiritual emergencies are sometimes related to birth trauma. And the ‘inbetween place’ is the place between the Eden of the womb and the Fall of the world outside.
Perhaps that is the fundamental ambivalence all humans feel, and on which all of existence rests. Either the safety of the Cosmic Oneness, or independence, separation and differentiation.
All is One. But that gets boring, so the Many spills out from the One and the universe arises. But then the Many feel the pain of individuation and separation. So we set out to realize ourselves.
Then we realize ourselves, and return to the Source. And the process happens again, and again, and again.
Separation, Anxiety, Realisation, Return.
The ambivalent ebb and flow of the cosmos.
A child is born, grows up, leaves its home and sets out boldly to explore the world. Then it gets lost, it gets hurt, and it desperately seeks its way back home. How long have we been doing this?
It felt helpful to realize this reoccurring pattern of ambivalence within me. To be able to witness it and see it. Like being diagnosed with ADON (Ambivalent Disorder…Or Not).
It means I can relate to it, and try to work with it.
Perhaps I can learn to live with ADON, accept the fact of it, rather than trying to collapse it in some manic leap into Either / Or.
What would living with ADON mean? Perhaps I could build a life with someone, but also with my own space. A life in one place, but also other places. A life in one spiritual tradition, but also in others. A life in this world, but also in the next world.
It reminds me of the relationship Aldous and Laura Huxley built for themselves, when they married in the last years of Aldous’ life. It was a life together, but also apart. Aldous sent Laura this drawing of a house design for them, as a joke, but it looks perfect to me.
In fact, Diego Rivera and Frida Karlo developed something rather similar!
PS Regine married someone else.