Impressions and Lessons from Kierkegaard Exhibit at Haus am Waldsee

13 Oct

Haus_am_Waldsee,Berlin

By Rhea H. Boyden

May 5th 2013 marked the 200th birthday of the Danish Philosopher and Theologian Soren Kierkegaard who is known as the father of existentialism. There have been many celebrations around the world to mark the bicentennial, and The Haus am Waldsee which is a museum for contemporary art in the south of Berlin hosted an exhibit that ran all summer with several performances and lectures being hosted by the exhibiting artists in addition to the exhibit. The Haus am Waldsee is on the edge of a lake in a leafy and idyllic area of Zehlendorf and was originally built as a private villa in 1922. In 1946 it was turned into a museum and the first exhibit it hosted was work by the German sculptor and artist Käthe Kollwitz, who was the first woman to be accepted to the Prussian Art Academy.

The exhibit was based on Soren Kierkegaard’s seminal work ‘Either/Or’ that he wrote in Berlin between 1841 and 1843 and was entitled ‘Either/Or-Through the Mirror of Contemporary Art’. In his book, Kierkegaard distinguishes two personalities: the aesthete whose life is ruled by music, seduction, drama, beauty and sensuality; which is essentially the hedonistic life of a dandy, and the ethicist who values marriage, moral responsibility, critical reflection, political commitment and consistency.

Soren Kierkegaard Poster

The fifteen international exhibiting artists were divided into two groups, the first whose art represented the aesthete and the second the ethicist. The primary concern of the book ‘Either/Or’ was in answering the question posed by Aristotle: ‘How should we live?’ Kierkegaard believed that subjective human experience and the search for individual truth and faith were far more important than the objective truths of mathematics and science which he believed failed because they were too detached to really express the human experience.  He was interested in ‘inwardness’, people’s quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life. He was the inventor of self doubt in its modern form and his work and philosophy is more relevant today than he could have imagined. He believed that each individual had to choose for himself what constituted a life worth living, but that suffering was always going to exist because of regret. One main idea he put forth in ‘Either/Or’ was the question as to whether one should marry or not. His motto was ‘Do it or don’t do it, either way you will regret it.’ The many works in the exhibition especially depict these different major life choices that we must make and stand by. In a world of information overload provided especially by image sculpting in Facebook, it is especially easy to compare our choices to others and to be envious or to believe that the grass is greener. Indeed, how should one live? Get married and have kids, or lead the life of an artist, alone, unmarried, sensual and dreamy? As a 38 year-old single female writer, living alone in modern day Berlin, who sees more and more of my friends settling and getting married, I found the exhibit intriguing and thought provoking.

mirror-and-light-kierkegaard1

       Haus Am Waldsee

The biggest provocation of the past week, however, that has finally made me sit down and write this article was a conversation I had with a married father. I had told him that I had gone to the Kierkegaard exhibition and I had been reading a lot about it and that it had inspired me to write an article about it. He just looked at me and said: ‘I have no interest in art at all and find it a waste of time.’ I paused and then asked him why he thought art was a ‘waste of time.’ ‘Well’, he responded, ‘with all the other problems in the world that are far more important and serious why should one waste time with frivolous things like art. Look at the situation in Syria’ he said. ‘But wait’, I said, ‘Don’t you believe that art can help people find meaning and passion in life and and that art can help save people?’ I told him that a friend of mine was currently filming a puppet show to help refugee children in Syria deal with living in conflict regions and did he see no artistic merit in that? ‘I am married and have a family and have no time for art and exhibitions. You have too much time on your hands and spend too much time analyzing and thinking’, he told me. Well. All I can say is that I feel sorry for his children, who apparently won’t be getting any artistic guidance under him.

I found this conversation extremely relevant in discussing my impressions of the Kierkegaard expo, and of course I felt a great sense of pride at not having settled for a mundane bourgeois existence. I felt pride in the choices I have made in my own personal search for the truth and I think Kierkegaard would be proud of me too. Now, I am not implying that all bourgeois existence scorns art and the passion and inspiration that many of us draw from it, but one part of the aesthete section of the exhibit did investigate the question: ‘What place does passion occupy within the context of societal conventions?’ Danish artist Tal R’s exhibit asks this question with a whole room of phallic symbols which is not exactly a subtle metaphor for the existence of sexual fulfillment and passion within a marriage. This part of the exhibit challenges openly how sexually fulfilled one can truly be within a marriage. And of course it provokes the question of bourgeois sexual hypocrisy when one sees how much infidelity and adultery exist which seems to be made easier and more accessible by social media. Facebook, for one, is a huge cause of problems in marriages and relationships. Chats that start out innocently can easily become more emotionally entangled or indeed become full-blown cyber affairs. More and more divorce lawyers these days say that there is one word that keeps coming up in divorce cases and that is: Facebook. (I am not even going to begin talking about pornography on the internet. The problems it causes merits a whole article.)

Kierkegaard

       Soren Kierkegaard (source: Royal Library of Denmark)

German artist Birgit Brenner, who was also one of the exhibiting aesthetes, deals especially with relations between men and women. Her piece in the exhibit appropriates text from fragments of online chats and Facebook interactions and investigates dramas in cyberspace. She spends two to three hours a day researching, analyzing and reading chats from internet forums and her art pieces deal with ‘accidents on the internet.’

Why would an exhibit about cyberspace be important in a Kierkegaard exhibition? Kierkegaard flourished at a time when mass media was starting to take off and he was a big critic of it as he felt that individuality was impossible when being bombarded by the press. The press made it easy for an individual with no opinion to take on opinions that the journalists fed him and this was in stark contrast to Kierkegaard’s philosophy that each person should strive toward individual truth. Mass media he felt, made people spectators of life and encouraged a herding mentality. Kierkegaard was a contemporary of Karl Marx and their philosophies and views of life could not have differed more. Marx believed that only the objective mattered and that agonizing over individual concerns was unimportant. Kierkegaard disagreed and thought that any reformation that was not fundamentally aware that every single individual needed to be reformed was an illusion. He felt that the spiritual life of the individual was being stifled by communal political and religious illusions. Kierkegaard commenced an attack on the church and felt that Christianity which originally had intended every man to be an individual had been transformed by human meddling into exactly the opposite. He encouraged people to take a ‘leap of faith’ and form a personal relationship to God. He saw that the modern state was secular through and through and a church tied to it was a big mistake.

It has taken me a long time to sit down and write this article because I will admit that I was completely ignorant of Kierkegaard’s philosophy until I went to the exhibit this summer. But the more I read about him the more I like him because I relate to his life choices. Kierkegaard stated that one can really only become an individual by action and decision. Choice is everything and you become who you are based purely on the individual choices you make. I have been accused of being far too subjective in my writing at times and that I should really not talk about myself so much but should be more objective. It may be completely egotistical, but that is impossible for me. I have always taken my own emotions and feelings about something as a starting point for my writing and that is not likely to change. This is how Kierkegaard lived too. He wrote and published nine books about the possibilities of human existence using various pseudonyms, but his starting point was in writing about himself. Initially he had to justify why he had broken off his engagement to the young Regina Olsen, which had caused much scandal, and why he had dedicated himself to the writing life instead. He was faced with two major choices: get married and have an honorable yet modest happiness, or live the life of a writer and be a poet of the spiritual life, an outsider. Kierkegaard decided not to marry as he believed that the unmarried person could venture more in the world of the spirit than the married person.

Regina Olsen

 

 Regine Olsen painting by Emil Baerentzen

I relate to Kierkegaard because I have made similar choices. I also chose to leave a stable relationship which provided material security and a modest happiness to lead the solitary life of a writer. I knew that the relationship was stifling my individuality and I have not been in a steady relationship since I terminated it 5 years ago. I have dated since, but have chosen the life of a solitary writer. Am I content with this choice? For the most part I am. Naturally, it is hard to see more and more of my friends getting married and having children, but if that was a choice I really wanted to make then I would have made it. I feel at this point the writing life chose me as much as I chose it, so here I am, as always, sitting alone in my Berlin apartment, reading and writing. It’s what I do now and I have embraced this choice even though there are moments of loneliness and doubt. To quote Kierkegaard on writing: ‘I go fishing for a thousand monsters in the depths of my own soul.’ This is what I do too. I am most fulfilled when I look deeply into my soul and ask myself while writing the question posed by Aristotle: How I should live?

To go back to the main idea posed by Kierkegaard in ‘Either/Or’ which is ‘Do it or don’t do it, you will regret it either way.’ Is there any way we can possibly lead a full life and be fulfilled by the choices we make and not have any regrets? Very likely not. I am a big fan of the work of David Foster Wallace and one quote that was posted on the wall in the museum was ‘Hang yourself or don’t hang yourself you will regret it either way.’ Kierkegaard acknowledged that humans lived in a constant state of anguish and despair, and that the preservation of life was a tough one indeed. I can very easily find connections between the work of David Foster Wallace and the philosophy of Kierkegaard. David Foster Wallace hanged himself five years ago which was a tragic loss to the literary world. I would love to know what his thoughts are on modern social media and Facebook interactions. I may not know what he thinks of Facebook, but I have read enough about what he thinks of bourgeois hypocrisy and how he completely makes fun of the herding mentality in our culture, the same herding that Kierkegaard so despised and criticized. In his short story ‘Another Pioneer’ David Foster Wallace demonstrates society’s lack of individuality and herding mentality by telling us a ridiculously funny story of a primitive tribe that lives in the rainforest and worships ‘ Yam Gods’ without question. In the story Foster Wallace writes:

‘Has this villager ever in quiet moments closed his eyes and sat very still and gazed deep inside himself to see whether in his heart of hearts he truly believes in these ill-tempered Yam Gods or whether he’s merely been as it were culturally conditioned from an early age to ape what he has seen his parents and all the other villagers say and do and appear to believe, and whether it has ever occurred to him that perhaps all these others didn’t really truly believe in petulant Yam Gods either but were themselves merely aping what they in turn  saw everyone else behaving as if they believed and so on and so forth, and whether it was possible-just as a thought experiment if nothing else-that everyone in the entire village had at some point seen into their hearts’ hearts and realized that their putative belief  in the Yam Gods was mere mimicry and so felt themselves to be a secret hypocrite and fraud.’

yam

      Image is a very large yam

To me, this is Kierkegaardian through and through. It is critical of religious herding and of bourgeois hypocrisy. David Foster Wallace railed against bourgeois life in his many writings and will always be remembered for his genius and insane sense of humour.

Another piece in the aesthete section of the exhibition was by Belgian artist Tom Hillewaere whose minimalist work exists in the moment and metaphorically shows us the impossibility of mapping out a certain future, try as we may. His piece showed a felt tip pen attached to a balloon with fans aimed at it to make it float around the place randomly while the felt tip pen draws an undetermined path on a raised platform. Ghostly music enhances the melancholy of the exhibit.

Another piece in the aesthete section was by Dutch artist IEPE and the anonymous crew who poured buckets of coloured paint all over Rosenthaler Platz in Berlin Mitte and then filmed it while cars drove through it covering their wheels in paint. This is supposed to celebrate wit, humour, laughter, surprise and spontaneity, but I don’t find it funny at all, I find it annoying and attention seeking. Soiling other peoples’ property in paint for your art project does not really impress me. This is the point where people will say that I am a bourgeois prude and I am too regimented and lack spontaneity and I am one of the stricter ethical people who thinks too much about right and wrong. One of the exhibits in the ethicist part of the exhibit was a film by American Kerry Tribe in which a father is questioning his daughter in depth about ethical questions such as ‘Does your existence depend on your body?’ or ‘Do you move in space or in time?’ It is clear that his 12 year old daughter has been well raised in the art of critical thinking and reflection as she is well able to give thoughtful answers to many deep questions. I likely won’t ever have kids to have such deep talks with, but I have plenty of younger siblings as well as a growing number of younger people who turn to me for guidance in learning English and writing. I have enough people I can mentor and support without having my own children.

Among the other exhibits in the ethicist part was a rotating mechanical shadow play of light that was shaped like a church and was covered in lace. It was a piece by Danish Artist Kirstine Roepsdorf. Roepsdorf was intrigued by Kierkegaard’s criticism of the church’s power, which he thought inhibited rather than nurtured the right relationship to God. There was also an exhibit that dealt with the Breivik massacre in Norway which, from what I gathered, showed the firm commitment that the families of the victims had to their political party, despite the tragedy. I found this to be a bit of an overstatement and quite a controversial thing to have in an exhibition to prove political commitment. I did not spend a lot of time pondering it and I have no further comment on it, as xenophobia is such a large issue that I dare not delve into.

Sitting in the beautiful lakeside garden after the exhibit I had to ask myself where I fit into this ‘Either/Or’ aesthete/ethicist spectrum and I concluded that I actually lie in between. I identify with both. I may not be married and I may not go to church, but I am committed to my writing and to maintaining sobriety after many years of heavy drinking which was a part my hedonistic aesthetic lifestyle. I also value consistency and routine and am not by nature such a spontaneous person. I am very punctual and like order on many levels, but I am also very chaotic, dramatic, sensual and in need of culture enrichment constantly to make my life worth living.

Kierkegaard acknowledged that to truly live the life of the ethicist you have to commit to something and there is a certain tragedy in commitment with the multitude of choices we have today. ‘He is such a commitment phobe!’ you will hear the young woman complaining of the latest guy she is dating. She hopes to marry and is having a hard time getting him to commit. I have moaned about men too, but I also have to acknowledge that I am also a bit of a commitment phobe. I have not committed myself to a steady relationship the past few years and, I suppose, I must admit, it is because I have not really wanted it. I have played more with the idea or fantasy of a relationship with long drawn out involved chats on Facebook with unavailable men who live in other countries. The last section of ‘Either/Or’ is ‘The Seducer’s Diary’ and in it Kierkegaard talks more about how the aesthete enjoys the idea and fantasy of something rather than the actualization of this certain thing. The seducer gains sensuous pleasure not so much from the act of the seduction itself but rather from engineering the possibility of seduction. The aesthete derives pleasure from turning boring, everyday humdrum life into something more interesting or poetic, artistic, or even melodramatic. He is accused then by the ethicist of living in a fantasy world. To this I can most truly relate. Settled or married people have told me many a time that I live in a fantasy world, and I can only concede that they are probably right. Still others have asked me how I can possibly go so long with no alcohol, sex or love life. Well, my writing has been my passion and my various long distance chats have more than sustained me since I quit partying. It is very true that I have been able to stay home every Saturday night for at least 50 weeks in a row and I have been more or less happy. The aesthetic fantasy world of chats and reading and writing has sustained me extremely well. Of course, being a lover of words, it is the eloquent Facebook exchanges with educated and intelligent men that have truly fulfilled me. I have been spoilt for choice and have had it all in Berlin and have experienced the typical anxiety that Kierkegaard warns about in his writings: too much choice leads to anxiety. My night life, heavy drinking, dysfunctional dramatic love affairs, which made a mess of me, were all part of my hedonistic, bohemian life. I regret none of it. Without truly getting it out of my system I would not be able to sit at home happily writing.

Zadie Smith

Photo of Zadie Smith by David Shankbone

I have lived and spoken many voices and many tongues, but I see the beauty in simplifying life and committing and narrowing my choices and experiences down to a few choice pearls as I mature. In her story ‘Speaking in Tongues’ Zadie Smith talks about the different accents she has taken on throughout her life; from cockney to Oxford English to then living in New York. Can one be true to oneself and have many different voices, many different choices or is it duplicitous to lead a many-accented life? This is a good question. I have my Irish accent and my American accent and I speak German. I can choose to wear any language or accent cloak that suits my mood or place. Committing to one of these is impossible for me and has in a sense led to my inability to commit to the solid life of the ethicist. Parts of me yearn to completely belong here, this is why, in part, at least, I attempted to commit to the solid German engineer boyfriend(s) who would have provided the security and status that cement me to German civil life. But the more colourful and aesthetic me balked at this. These many voices are a vice and a virtue and tragedy and a blessing. I am in the middle and I always will be. George Bernard Shaw’s character Eliza Doolittle was also a tragic character stuck in the middle, her voice was too posh for the flower girls and too redolent of the gutter for the ladies in Mrs. Higgins drawing room.

Must one completely commit to belong, or can one lead a mish mash colourful life in the middle and be happy? This is of course, the very reason that Kierkegaard’s philosophy is so hot on his 200th birthday, because so many of us want to truly ‘have it all’ these days even if this leads us to unhappiness. We may want to have it all, but we certainly don’t want to show it all or express it all. Kierkegaard challenged the reader to look for a second face hidden behind the one you see; to really see the truer deeper soul of the person and how he/she feels emotionally and perceives the world. In her story Zadie Smith talks of a Janus-faced duplicity if we do use all our different voices and do not commit to one (Janus being the Roman God with two faces). Tal R’s exhibit of a room full of phallic symbols shows these different faces nicely. The face one shows in honouring a straight up and dutiful life in society, and the deeper, darker, secret passions one has buried deep inside. The person you show yourself to be on your Facebook timeline versus the deeper more in depth chats you have within the safe confines of the lovely rectangular chat box. The box where you tell the person you have come to trust over the months all that moves you deep down; that second face, and those many voices. As Kierkegaard says: ‘Marry or don’t marry, either way you will regret it, hang yourself or don’t hang yourself either way you will regret it’. You have many choices, many voices. It’s up to you to decide. David Foster Wallace reminded us that we get to decide what to worship. This is a big decision. And we get to decide what to show to other people.

DFW

David Foster Wallace (Hammer Library L.A. 2006, Creative Commons)

In his short story ‘Good Old Neon’ David Foster Wallace talks at length about being a fraud in life and how there are ‘all the inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices and infinities that you can never show another soul’. This is why, he reminds us that it is good to break down and bare all at times, to speak in tongues to another soul and bear the truth, because you can only keep it all locked up for so long. Outbursts, revolutions and uprisings will always come to the fore. Long involved Facebook chats come to a head and the truth is told. David Foster Wallace speaks of dying as one of these moments when all your voices come out: ‘As though inside you’ he writes ‘is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in old doors.’ Is this dying? Is this the lure of suicide? That everything you always wanted to say and express that was hidden in you gets to come out?

Before I die, (of old age hopefully and with not too much pain) I hope to refine what is true for me and where I fit into this spectrum of either/or aesthete/ethicist. A lot of my heavy drinking came from the typical self-pitying alcoholic stance that is: ‘no one really understands me, I am an outsider, I belong everywhere and nowhere.’ Kierkegaard also felt like this. He said: ‘People understand me so little that they do not even understand when I complain of being misunderstood.’

Now that I am 19 months sober I have left this self-pitying state behind me and have come to see that I can make these many voices and this outsider syndrome work quite well for me. I can write it all down. I can keep on writing it and keep on analyzing it. I can keep on searching for my truth and what best works for me from the multitude of influences that I have been blessed with. I have barely scratched the surface in my search for the truth and I have barely even begun to read Kierkegaard, but I like him a lot so far and I want to continue my study of him. It is a rainy October night in Berlin and I realize I am alone as another winter sets in, but I am determined to keep on searching, and keep on writing and keep myself open to the truth.

Featured images of Haus am Waldsee courtesy Press office at Haus am Waldsee

One Response to “Impressions and Lessons from Kierkegaard Exhibit at Haus am Waldsee”

  1. John Bibby October 22, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    Thanks so much for this, Rhea. I can see how much spoke to you personally and I identify
    with a lot of what you say, having spent much of my life looking for certainties and compensating for the shortfall with alcohol. Finally I can accept living at the interface and also at the margins of things, and appreciate those thin times of the year such as now when boundaries are blurred. Struck by your quoting David Foster Wallace’s remark that we get to decide what to worship.

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