August 16, 2001

1. Zen and Sexuality

Two Phlit subscribers in Brazil, Paulo Fernandes and Celina Esteves, recently asked me how Zen treats sexuality. First let me say that Zen is not an organized religion, or a systematic body of thought, and there is no Zen bible. So it’s always a bit risky to say how Zen views any subject, including sexuality. All I can offer is my own opinion on what Zen thinks about sexuality.

Zen doesn’t have the hostility toward sexuality that many religions have, notably Christianity. “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out,” says St. Paul. This remark shows a violent hostility toward sexual desire. The repression of sexual desire strengthens sexual desire, one is caught in a cycle of repressing-strengthening-repressing, and one becomes obsessed with sex. Zen doesn’t repress sexual desire, and doesn’t become obsessed with it. In response to St. Paul, Zen would say, “since my eye never offended me, why should I pluck it out?”

Alan Watts, one of the chief writers on Zen, says somewhere that people in the West have become preoccupied with sexual pleasure, and are as acquisitive in relation to sex as they are in relation to money. He contrasts this attitude with the attitude of animals and primitive men, who don’t constantly seek sexual pleasure, but rather seek it at intervals, and are otherwise indifferent to it.

Sex is not a good in itself, or a pleasure in itself, but only becomes such if we ourselves, if our souls, experience it as such. Isn’t this true of everything? It is how we experience things, not things themselves, that matter. Zen can improve the quality of our experience, including our sexual experience, by teaching us to be aware of the present moment, instead of turning our attention to tomorrow.

Different people will obviously experience sex in different ways, and there is no “best” way. Some people are very susceptible to sexual pleasure, others less so, others do not experience sexual pleasure at all. Some people feel desire for the opposite gender, others for their own gender. If Zen says little on the subject of sex, perhaps it is because Zen thinks that the individual should find his own way with respect to sex. It’s not the way that matters, but the mind, the soul, the self that takes that way.

2. Kierkegaard

Having touched upon the subject of sexuality, I’d like to touch upon the subject of relationships. If relationships are often difficult, they’re especially difficult for writers and artists, who have (in my opinion) a narcissistic tendency, and therefore find it difficult to develop relationships with other people. We see an example of this in the life of Soren Kierkegaard, which I’d like to discuss here, and in the lives of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, which I’d like to discuss in the next issue of Phlit. I’d like to begin with some general, introductory remarks on Kierkegaard, mentioning specific books in case someone wants to read something by Kierkegaard.

Like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard developed under the shadow of Hegel. But while Schopenhauer despised Hegel and ignored him, Kierkegaard took Hegel seriously, adopted much of Hegel’s terminology, and devoted much time to answering Hegel’s arguments. Hegel concentrated on metaphysics, logic and history; he paid little attention to the individual, little attention to ethics. Kierkegaard insisted that the individual was of primary importance. Kierkegaard’s work deals with religion and ethics; his work is addressed to the solitary individual. While Schopenhauer was an atheist, Kierkegaard was a passionate Christian. Kierkegaard combines religiosity with a sense of humor. Kierkegaard is the most humorous of all philosophers; his sense of humor is on a par with Kafka’s. If you want a taste of the humorous and poetic side of Kierkegaard, read the first few pages of Either/Or.

Kierkegaard’s short life was filled with high drama; Kierkegaard’s life is closely related to his work. The three pivotal events in Kierkegaard’s life were his short-lived engagement to Regina Olsen, the ridicule poured on Kierkegaard by a Danish newspaper (the Corsair), and Kierkegaard’s public attack on the established church. Walter Lowrie wrote two biographies of Kierkegaard, one short and one long. The long one is one of the best biographies ever written; indeed, it’s one of the best books ever written. It contains so many quotes from Kierkegaard’s works that one could say Kierkegaard wrote most of it. Anyone interested in Kierkegaard should start with this book. Some of Kierkegaard’s own books are slightly dry, abstract and Hegelian.

Among Kierkegaard’s books, my favorites are his Journals (in an abridged version), The Point of View, The Present Age, and Attack on Christendom. Kierkegaard was capable of the deepest seriousness; this is evident from his Attack on Christendom, which is a work of extraordinary rhetorical power. Here’s a sample of the Attack: “It is a crime, a great crime, to take part in the public worship of God as it now is; for this is at the greatest possible remove from being divine worship.”1 The Attack is clear and readable; its only weakness is that it’s too long, it needs to be abridged.

Kierkegaard anticipated that his biography would be of greater interest to posterity than his writings: “Some day,” he wrote, “not only my writings but especially my life will be studied and studied.”2

Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1813. Like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard lived on inherited money. Kierkegaard’s father was a hosier (a maker of socks and hose), who benefited from a monopoly granted by the Danish king. Kierkegaard revered his father, all the more so after his father died; he dedicated many of his books to his father, describing him as a “late hosier of this city.” “My father’s death,” Kierkegaard wrote, “was a terribly harrowing event for me, I never told a single soul how terrible it was.”3 While Kierkegaard’s books and journals are filled with references to his father, he never mentioned his mother, a servant girl whom his father had made pregnant, and then married.

As a boy, Kierkegaard spent his time with books, or with his father, he didn’t play with other children or with toys. Sometimes his father would take him by the hand, and they would walk back and forth in the house, pretending that they were outside: “They went out of doors to a near-by castle in Spain, or out to the sea-shore, or about the streets, wherever [Soren] wished to go, for the father was equal to anything. While they went back and forth in the room the father described all that they saw; they greeted passers-by, carriages rattled past them and drowned the father’s voice; the cake-woman’s goodies were more enticing than ever.”4

Kierkegaard said that his father was a man of iron will, a trait that he passed on to his son. Few people in history have had more will power, more inwardness than Kierkegaard. If the young Kierkegaard encountered a difficulty in his studies, “if after an hour he was tired of the effort, he used to employ a very simple method. He shut himself up in his room, made everything as festive as possible and said then in a voice loud and clear, I will it. He had learnt from his father that one can what one will.... This experience had imparted to [Soren’s] soul an indescribable sort of pride. It was intolerable to him that there should be anything one could not do if only one would.”5

Even as a youth, Kierkegaard had his father’s melancholy. “I was already an old man when I was born,” Kierkegaard wrote. “I leapt completely over childhood and youth. I lived through the pain of not being like others. And of course at that period I would have given all to be able to be that, if only for a short time.”6 Like most writers and artists, especially philosophers, Kierkegaard was highly introverted: “he never in his life confided in anyone or expected anyone to confide in him.”7 Introversion and melancholy often go hand-in-hand.

With his tremendous will power, and his tremendous talent, Kierkegaard felt that he could do whatever he set out to do, except for one thing: to cast off his melancholy. He had the enormous confidence in himself, in his genius, that one finds in Schopenhauer: “It never at any time occurred to me,” wrote Kierkegaard, “that there lived a man who was my superior, or that in my time such a man might be born.”8 But he also had the melancholy that one finds in Schopenhauer: “I was the most miserable of all,” wrote Kierkegaard.9 According to Aristotle, “all geniuses are melancholy.”10

Though Kierkegaard had large eyes and a handsome face, he was very small, and had a misshapen spine. As a result, “one could never keep to a straight line in walking with him,” said one of his friends; “one was constantly pushed against the houses or the cellar stairs or over the curb-stone. When at the same time he was gesticulating with his arms or his cane, it became still more like an obstacle-race. And one had to seize the opportunity now and then to get on the other side of him so as to gain room.”11

Kierkegaard often walked the streets of Copenhagen, and while walking, he sometimes conducted “psychological experiments.” “With one glance at a passer-by he was able to put himself irresistibly en rapport with him, as he himself expressed it. The person who encountered his glance was either attracted or repelled, thrown into embarrassment, uncertainty, or irritation.... While he explained his theories he put them into practice with almost every person we encountered. There was not one upon whom his glance did not make an impression.”12

When Kierkegaard was about 25, he met a 14-year-old girl, Regina Olsen, and fell in love with her at first sight. He waited for three long years before broaching the subject of marriage. She told him that she was fond of one of her former teachers, Fritz Schlegel. Kierkegaard said, “You could talk about Fritz Schlegel till doomsday—that wouldn’t help you in the least, for I will have you.”13 And sure enough, Regina agreed to become engaged.

The next day, Kierkegaard realized that he had made a mistake. As long as he was courting her, and trying to win her, he had no doubts, but once she said “Yes,” he had second thoughts. He described the situation thus (referring to himself as “he”): “So long as the contest lasted he did not observe any difficulty—then she surrendered, he was loved with a young girl’s whole enthusiasm—then he became unhappy, then his melancholy was awakened, then he drew back, he could combat the whole world, but not himself.”14

Kierkegaard’s ambivalence about marriage reminds one of other intellectuals — Kafka, for example. Kafka wrestled for years with the question of marriage; “the idea of a honeymoon,” said Kafka, “fills me with dread.”15 Kafka saw similarities between his situation and Kierkegaard’s. The idea of marriage filled Kierkegaard with dread. He said that his love made him indescribably happy in the moment, but as soon as he thought of time he despaired. “I was a thousand years too old for her.”

Kierkegaard decided that he would have to break the engagement. Kierkegaard later wrote, “I suffered indescribably in that period.... It is so hard, upon her I had set my last hope in life, and I must deprive myself of it.”16 He sent her back the ring. But she resisted, “beseeching him in the name of Christ and by the memory of his deceased father not to desert her.”17 He decided that he must do something to wean her from him, to weaken her love for him. He pretended to be a scoundrel who was playing with her affections. Though he was busy with literary projects, he went to the theater every night for ten minutes. Since he was well known in Copenhagen, he knew that someone would tell Regina, “he goes to the theater every night.”

After two months, she agreed to break the engagement. When Kierkegaard left her house, he went to the theater. There he was accosted by Regina’s father: “‘May I speak with you?’ I followed him to his home. She is desperate, he said; this will be the death of her, she is perfectly desperate. I said, I shall still be able to tranquillize her, but the matter is settled. He said, I am a proud man, this is hard, but I beseech you not to break with her. In truth he was proud, he touched me deeply. But I held to my own. I took supper with the family that evening. I talked with her, then I left.”18

“Next morning I got a letter from him saying that he had not slept all night, that I must come and see her. I went and talked her round. She asked me, Will you never marry? I replied, Well, in about ten years, when I have sown my wild oats, I must have a pretty young miss to rejuvenate me. She said, Forgive me for what I have done to you. I replied, It is rather I that should pray for your forgiveness. She said, Kiss me. That I did, but without passion.... In parting she begged me still to remember her once in a while.... I passed the night weeping in my bed. But in the daytime I was as usual, more flippant and witty than usual—that was necessary. My brother said to me that he would go to the family and show them that I was not a scoundrel. I said: You do that and I will shoot a bullet through your head.”19

So Kierkegaard broke his engagement to Regina. The people of Copenhagen were scandalized, and regarded Kierkegaard as the scoundrel that he had pretended to be. Kierkegaard vowed to himself not to love another woman: “Thou art to know that thou dost regard it as thy happiness never to have loved another besides her, that thou dost make it a point of honour never again to love another.”20 He kept this vow. Regina later married her former teacher, Fritz Schlegel. Shortly before her engagement to Schlegel, she caught sight of Kierkegaard in church: “I let her catch my eye. She nodded twice. I shook my head. That meant, you must give me up. Then she nodded again, and I nodded as kindly as possible—that meant, you retain my love.”21

The impact of this relationship lasted for the rest of Kierkegaard’s life; many of Kierkegaard’s books and journal entries allude to this relationship. He summarized the relationship thus: “She did not love my well-formed nose, nor my fine eyes, nor my small feet—nor my high intelligence—she loved only me, and yet she did not understand me.”22

Although Kierkegaard had been raised as a Christian, whatever faith he had diminished as he grew older. By the time he was 23, he had surrendered himself to nihilism, and he thought seriously of suicide. But when he was 25, his father died, and that shattering event started him on his climb back from nihilism. When he was 28, his engagement to Regina ended, and his attitude toward life became even more serious. He was no longer living apart from life, living against life.

When he was 35, he finally attained the Christian faith that he had long sought. He finally became whole, he finally got the best of his melancholy and his nihilism. He confided to his journal, “My whole nature is changed.... Now by God’s help I shall become myself, I believe now that Christ will help me to triumph over my melancholy.”23 He spoke of, “an unfailing and ever fresh source of joy: that God is love.”24 He learned to love not only God, but himself as well: “it is required of me that I should love myself and renounce the melancholy hatred of myself which in a melancholy man can be almost a pleasure.”25

He wanted to re-connect with Regina, and become a friend of her family. But his overtures were rebuffed, the door was closed to him. Kierkegaard died in 1855, when he was just 42. The people who had touched him most deeply were his father and Regina: “I owe everything that I am to the wisdom of an old man and the simplicity of a young girl.”26

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. Attack on Christendom, “What Christ’s Judgment Is About Official Christianity” back
2. Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie, I, 2 back
3. The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, edited by A. Dru, long version, Oxford University Press, 1938, #775 back
4. Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie, I, 2 back
5. ibid back
6. ibid back
7. ibid, II, 3 back
8. ibid, II, 1 back
9. ibid back
10. see Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. 2, #31 back
11. Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie, II, 3 back
12. ibid back
13. ibid, III, 1 back
14. ibid, III, 2, i, a back
15. Makers of the Modern World, by Louis Untermeyer, “Kafka” back
16. Kierkegaard, W. Lowrie, III, 1 back
17. ibid back
18. ibid back
19. ibid back
20. ibid back
21. ibid, III, 2, i, B back
22. ibid, III, 1 back
23. ibid, V, 1 back
24. The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, edited by A. Dru, long version, Oxford University Press, 1938, #752 back
25. Kierkegaard, by Walter Lowrie, V, 3 back
26. ibid, III, 1 back