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Kierkegaard on the Spiritual and Sensual Power of Music, the Essence of Genius, and the Key to a Timeless Work of Art

“If Mozart ever became wholly comprehensible to me, he would for the first time become wholly incomprehensible to me.”

“Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche bellowed his unmistakable baritone of buoyant nihilism into the vast chorus of great thinkers extolling the singular power of music.

A year before his birth, Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) — another thinker of soaring lucidity, unafraid to plumb the darkest depths for the elemental truths — took up the subject in a portion of Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library) — the 1843 masterwork that furnished his insight into transcending the tyranny of binary choice, our greatest source of unhappiness, and the only true cure for our existential emptiness.

While Walt Whitman was singing the body electric across the Atlantic and contemplating the power of music through the lens of Beethoven’s genius, Kierkegaard placed at the center of a long essay on “the musical erotic” his ecstatic love of Mozart, from which emerges a larger centrifugal meditation on the power of music, the nature of genius, and what makes a timeless work of art in any field.


In a sentiment evocative of Aldous Huxley’s logic-subverting observation that “after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Kierkegaard writes:

I am convinced that if Mozart ever became wholly comprehensible to me, he would for the first time become wholly incomprehensible to me.

Noting that his analysis of the power of music and the criteria for artistic greatness is “written only for those in love,” he proclaims with the unselfconscious exultation of the besotted:

I am like a young girl in love with Mozart and must have him placed highest whatever the cost… and I shall beg Mozart to forgive me because his music did not inspire me to great deeds but made a fool of me — I, who through him lost the last grain of reason I possessed, and now spend most of my time in quiet sadness humming what I do not understand, haunting like a ghost what I cannot enter into… To take him away, to efface his name, would be to overturn the only pillar that hitherto has prevented everything collapsing for me into a boundless chaos, into a fearful nothingness.

I like to imagine that Kierkegaard knew of Beethoven’s only surviving love letter, to his “immortal beloved,” and it was with this knowledge, with the subtlety of the allusion, that he places Mozart above all geniuses, even Beethoven. Switching voices and audiences, Kierkegaard reaches across mortality and possibility to address his master-muse directly:

Immortal Mozart! You, to whom I owe everything, to whom I owe the loss of my reason, the wonder that overwhelmed my soul, the fear that gripped my inmost being; you, who are the reason I did not go through life without there being something that could make me tremble; you, whom I thank for the fact that I shall not have died without having loved…

A century before Aldous Huxley found the secret of the universe in Don Giovanni, Kierkegaard considers Mozart’s crowning achievement:

There is one work alone of his which makes him a classic composer and absolutely immortal. That work is Don Giovanni. Whatever else he has produced may cause pleasure and delight, arouse our admiration, enrich the soul, satisfy the ear, gladden the heart; but it does him and his immortality no service to lump everything together and make everything equally great. Don Giovanni is his acceptance piece. With Don Giovanni he enters that eternity which lies not outside time but within it, which no curtain conceals from human eyes, into which the immortals are admitted not once and for all but are constantly discovered as one generation passes and turns its gaze towards them, is happy in its contemplation of them, goes to the grave, and the next generation passes in its turn and is transfigured in its contemplation.

This latter criterion for immortality, for artistic greatness, is also what makes “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman’s Don Giovanni — one of those rare bridges between the ephemeral and the eternal, swelling the river of time with absolute aliveness for every human consciousness that steps onto it.

Through this gateway of Mozart’s genius, Kierkegaard considers the nature of all true genius and the ultimate gift of all transcendent art. A century and a half before Michael Pollan reflected so beautifully on Bach, the cosmos of belonging, and how music allays the loneliness of being, he writes:

From the moment my soul was first overwhelmed in wonder at Mozart’s music, and bowed down to it in humble admiration, it has often been my cherished and rewarding pastime to reflect upon how that happy Greek view that calls the world a cosmos, because it manifests itself as an orderly whole, a tasteful and transparent adornment of the spirit that works upon and in it — upon how that happy view repeats itself in a higher order of things, in the world of ideals, how it may be a ruling wisdom there too, mainly to be admired for joining together those things that belong with one another.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

With this, he turns to the essence of genius, squarely confronting the common hubris — a form of human self-consolation — that genius is merely a matter of chance-conferred opportunity, and that if the same chance befell any one of us, we too would rise to the level of genius. He dismantles the elemental arrogance at the heart of this mindset:

It thinks it an accident that the lovers get each other, an accident that they love each other; there were a hundred other girls he could have been just as happy with, whom he could have loved just as deeply. It thinks many a poet has existed who would have been just as immortal as Homer had that marvellous material not been seized on by him, many a composer just as immortal as Mozart had only the opportunity offered. Now this wisdom contains much solace and comfort for all mediocre minds since it lets them and like-minded spirits fancy that the reason they are not as celebrated as the celebrities is some confusion of fate, a mistake on the part of the world. This produces a most convenient optimism. But to every high-minded soul, to every optimate who does not feel bound to save himself in such a pitiable manner as by losing himself in contemplation of the great, it is of course repugnant, while his soul delights and it is his holy joy to see united those things that belong together. This is what fortune is, not in the fortuitous sense, and so it presupposes two factors whereas the fortuitous consists in the inarticulate interjections of fate. This is what historical fortune consists in: the divine conjuncture of historical forces, the heyday of historical time. The fortuitous has just one factor: the accident that the most remarkable epic theme imaginable fell to Homer’s lot in the shape of the history of the Trojan wars. In good fortune there are two: that the most remarkable epic material came to the lot of Homer. The accent lies here on Homer as much as on the material. In this lies the profound harmony that resounds in every work of art we call classic. And so too with Mozart: it is a piece of good fortune that what in a deeper sense is perhaps the only true musical subject was granted — to Mozart.

The pillar of that “profound harmony,” Kierkegaard argues, is a certain natural discernment which only the artist of true genius possesses — an ability to intuitively match one’s gift, one’s innermost longing, with the medium and vessel of its outward expression in the world:

The poet wants his material; but wanting is no art, as one says, quite rightly and with much truth in the case of a host of impotent poetic wants. To want rightly, on the other hand, is a great art, or rather, it is a gift. It is what is inexplicable and mysterious about genius, just like the divining rod, to which it never occurs to want except in the presence of what it wants.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?

Only by wanting rightly are timeless classics born — the works that stand orders of magnitude above the “ephemeral classics,” those “dusk moths from the vaults of classicality.” The more abstract the idea the artist seeks to express, Kierkegaard argues, the more difficult to achieve this ideal and the more timeless the result if attained. More than a century before Where the Wild Things Are creator Maurice Sendak insisted that “fantasy and feeling lie deeper than words… and both demand a more profound, more biological expression, the primitive expression of music,” Kierkegaard considers the crowning achievement of abstract expression — the fantasy and feeling comprising the erotic:

The most abstract idea conceivable is the spirit of sensuality. But in what medium can it be represented? Only in music. It cannot be represented in sculpture, for in itself it is a kind of quality of inwardness. It cannot be painted, for it cannot be grasped in fixed contours; it is an energy, a storm, impatience, passion, and so on, in all their lyrical quality, existing not in a single moment but in a succession of moments, for if it existed in a single moment it could be portrayed or painted. Its existing in a succession of moments indicates its epic character, yet in a stricter sense it is not an epic, for it has not reached the level of words; it moves constantly in an immediacy. Nor can it be represented, therefore, in poetry. The only medium that can represent it is music. For music has an element of time in it yet it does not lapse in time except in an unimportant sense. What it cannot express is the historical in time.

But while both language and music address the ear, which Kierkegaard considers “the most spiritually determined of the senses,” it is precisely along this temporal frontier that the two diverge and music emerges as the atemporal conscience par excellence:

Goethe’s Faust is a genuine classic, the idea is an historical one, and so every significant historical age will have its Faust. Faust has language as its medium, and the fact that language is a far more concrete medium is another reason why several works of the same kind can be imagined. Don Giovanni, on the other hand, is and will remain the only one of its kind, just as the classic sculptures of Greece. But since the idea in Don Giovanni is far more abstract even than that underlying sculpture, one sees easily why we have just one work in music but several in sculpture. One can indeed imagine many more musical classics, yet there still remains just one work of which it can be said that its idea is absolutely musical, so that the music does not enter as an accompaniment but, in bringing the idea to light, reveals its own innermost being. Therefore Mozart with his Don Giovanni stands highest among the immortals.

Noting that language is “the proper medium for the idea” yet in it “the sensual is, as medium, reduced to the level of mere instrument and constantly negated,” he concludes:

Music is, then, the medium for that species of the immediate which, qualified spiritually, is specified as lying outside spirit. Naturally, music can express much else, but this is its absolute object.

Complement with Oliver Sacks on how music saved his life in a Norwegian fjord, Regina Spektor’s enchanting reading of Mark Strand’s poem “The Everyday Enchantment of Music,” and the German philosopher Joseph Pieper, writing a century after Kierkegaard, on how Bach will save your soul, then revisit Kierkegaard on the power of the minority, the trap of busyness, and how to bridge the ephemeral with the eternal.


Kierkegaard on Time, the Fullness of the Moment, and How to Bridge the Ephemeral with the Eternal

“The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.”

Kierkegaard on Time, the Fullness of the Moment, and How to Bridge the Ephemeral with the Eternal

“All eternity is in the moment,” Mary Oliver wrote with an indebted eye to Blake and Whitman. “[Is] only the present comprehended?” Patti Smith asked two decades later in her magnificent meditation on time and transformation.

This temporal tension between the immediate and the eternal is one of the core characteristics and defining frustrations of the human experience — over and over, we strain to locate ourselves within time, against time, grasping for solid ground while aswirl in its unstoppable flow. We struggle to hold it all with what Bertrand Russell called “a largeness of contemplation,” but we continually suffer at the smallness of our temporal existence — suffering reflected in our cultural fascination with time travel, which illuminates the central mystery of human consciousness.

How to inhabit the time-scale of our existence without suffering and fill the moment with eternity is what the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) explores in a portion of his 1844 classic The Concept of Anxiety, later included in the indispensable volume The Essential Kierkegaard (public library).

Søren Kierkegaard

A century before Borges’s famous proclamation — “time is the substance I am made of” — and more than a century and a half before Einstein revolutionized human thought by annealing our two primary modes of existence to one another in the single entity of spacetime, Kierkegaard writes:

Man … is a synthesis of psyche and body, but he is also a synthesis of the temporal and the eternal.

Centuries before physicists came to explore the science of why we can’t remember the future, Kierkegaard probes our familiar temporal ordering of events and experiences:

If time is correctly defined as an infinite succession, it most likely is also defined as the present, the past, and the future. This distinction, however, is incorrect if it is considered to be implicit in time itself, because the distinction appears only through the relation of time to eternity and through the reflection of eternity in time. If in the infinite succession of time a foothold could be found, i.e., a present, which was the dividing point, the division would be quite correct. However, precisely because every moment, as well as the sum of the moments, is a process (a passing by), no moment is a present, and accordingly there is in time neither present, nor past, nor future. If it is claimed that this division can be maintained, it is because the moment is spatialized, but thereby the infinite succession comes to a halt, it is because representation is introduced that allows time to be represented instead of being thought. Even so, this is not correct procedure, for even as representation, the infinite succession of time is an infinitely contentless present (this is the parody of the eternal).


The present, however, is not a concept of time, except precisely as something infinitely contentless, which again is the infinite vanishing. If this is not kept in mind, no matter how quickly it may disappear, the present is posited, and being posited it again appears in the categories: the past and the future.

The eternal, on the contrary, is the present. For thought, the eternal is the present in terms of an annulled succession (time is the succession that passes by). For representation, it is a going forth that nevertheless does not get off the spot, because the eternal is for representation the infinitely contentful present. So also in the eternal there is no division into the past and the future, because the present is posited as the annulled succession.

Time is, then, infinite succession; the life that is in time and is only of time has no present. In order to define the sensuous life, it is usually said that it is in the moment and only in the moment. By the moment, then, is understood that abstraction from the eternal that, if it is to be the present, is a parody of it. The present is the eternal, or rather, the eternal is the present, and the present is full.

Illustration by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick, 1960

Nearly two centuries before the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard so poetically observed that “if our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” Kierkegaard arrives at the problem of definition and the paradox of defining time-as-succession via the instant:

If at this point one wants to use the moment to define time and let the moment signify the purely abstract exclusion of the past and the future and as such the present, then the moment is precisely not the present, because the intermediary between the past and the future, purely abstractly conceived, is not at all. Thus it is seen that the moment is not a determination of time, because the determination of time is that it “passes by.” For this reason time, if it is to be defined by any of the determinations revealed in time itself, is time past. If, on the contrary, time and eternity touch each other, then it must be in time, and now we have come to the moment.

With an eye to the ancient Greeks, Kierkegaard considers the not uncomplicated loveliness emanating from what Plato called “the sudden”:

“The moment” is a figurative expression, and therefore it is not easy to deal with. However, it is a beautiful word to consider. Nothing is as swift as a blink of the eye, and yet it is commensurable with the content of the eternal… Whatever its etymological explanation, [“the sudden”] is related to the category of the invisible, because time and eternity were conceived equally abstractly, because the concept of temporality was lacking, and this again was due to the lack of the concept of spirit. The Latin term is momentum (from movere [to move]), which by derivation expresses the merely vanishing.

Thus understood, the moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity. It is the first reflection of eternity in time, its first attempt, as it were, at stopping time.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

At this meeting point of the ephemeral and the eternal, Kierkegaard argues, our entire experience of time plays out:

The moment is that ambiguity in which time and eternity touch each other, and with this the concept of temporality is posited, whereby time constantly intersects eternity and eternity constantly pervades time. As a result, the above-mentioned division acquires its significance: the present time, the past time, the future time.

And yet this temporal taxonomy suggests that past, present, and future don’t exist on equal terms:

The future in a certain sense signifies more than the present and the past, because in a certain sense the future is the whole of which the past is a part, and the future can in a certain sense signify the whole. This is because the eternal first signifies the future or because the future is the incognito in which the eternal, even though it is incommensurable with time, nevertheless preserves its association with time… The moment and the future in turn posit the past.


The fullness of time is the moment as the eternal, and yet this eternal is also the future and the past. If attention is not paid to this, not a single concept can be saved from a heretical and treasonable admixture that annihilates the concept.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly revelatory The Essential Kierkegaard with T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to time, the story of how Einstein and Gödel redefined our understanding of it, Virginia Woolf on the past and how to live more fully in the present, and Hannah Arendt on time, space, and our thinking ego, then revisit Kierkegaard on boredom, the trap of busyness, the power of the minority, and why haters hate.


Either/Or: Kierkegaard on Transcending the Tyranny of Binary Choice and Double Regret

“True eternity lies not behind either/or but ahead of it.”

“You can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth,” Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek observed in his beautiful meditation on complementarity as the quantum of life.

Nearly two centuries earlier, the influential Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) explored the abiding metaphysical dimension of this notion in his 1843 masterwork Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), which also gave us his abiding wisdom on our greatest source of unhappiness and the only true cure for our existential emptiness.


Shortly after his contemporary Charles Darwin compiled his amusing list of the pros and cons of marriage, Kierkegaard begins with this common conundrum and extrapolates from it the larger principle of how we confront our existential dilemmas:

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; whether you marry or 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; whether you laugh at the world’s follies or you weep over them, you will regret both. Believe a girl, you will regret it; if you do not believe her, you will also regret it; if you believe a girl or you do not believe her, you will regret both; whether you believe a girl or you do not believe her, 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; whether you hang yourself or you do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the sum of all practical wisdom.

To get caught in this bind of “double regret,” Kierkegaard cautions, is to reduce eternity to “a painful succession of moments in time.” He writes:

It isn’t just in single moments that I view everything aeterno modo [in the mode of eternity], as Spinoza says; I am constantly aeterno modo. Many people think that’s what they are too when, having done the one or the other, they combine or mediate these opposites. But this is a misunderstanding, for the true eternity lies not behind either/or but ahead of it.

Transcending the trap of either/or, Kierkegaard suggests, is an immense expansion of possibility, which is in turn life’s greatest reward:

Were I to wish for anything I would not wish for wealth and power, but for the passion of the possible, that eye which everywhere, ever young, ever burning, sees possibility. Pleasure disappoints, not possibility.

Complement the indispensable Either/Or with Kierkegaard on boredom, the trap of busyness, the power of the minority, why haters hate, and how anxiety enhances creativity rather than hindering it, then revisit Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska’s wondrous poem “Possibilities” — the most beautiful articulation of the burden and blessing of choice ever committed to words.


Kierkegaard on Ideals, Happiness, and the False Allure of the Extraordinary

“The Highest is not to comprehend the Highest, but to do it, and note this well, including all the burdens it involves.”

“Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake,” William James wrote in contemplating how to be extraordinary. “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” A century and a half earlier, on the other side of the Atlantic, Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) — another one of humanity’s most enduringly insightful minds — tussled with the perennial problem of enlisting one’s full resources in attaining one’s ideals.

Writing in his journal, later published as The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — which also gave us the great Danish philosopher on why haters hate, the power of the minority, and the only cure for embitterment in creative work — Kierkegaard considers the parallel threads of humility and ambition of which greatness is woven.

In a diary entry from November of 1846, he writes:

I realize more and more that I am so constituted that I shall not succeed in realizing my ideals, while in another sense, and precisely in the human sense, I shall grow far beyond my ideals. Ordinarily, most people aim their ideals at the Great, the Extraordinary, which they never attain. I am far too melancholy to harbor such ideals. Others would smile at my ideals. It is certainly true that my ideal was simply to become a husband, to live solely for being married. And lo and behold, while I despair of attaining that goal I become an author and, who knows, maybe a ranking author.


I have been content to be regarded as half-mad, though this merely was a negative form of being something out of the ordinary. And this may quite possibly remain my essential form of existence, and I shall never attain the pleasant, becalmed existence of being something very small.

And yet what made Kierkegaard extraordinary, despite his resistance to the notion, was his ability to transmute this resignation into a vitalizing force and to grant both burdens — his irrepressible idealism and his fatalistic melancholy — equal gravity as he marched forward. In another entry from the same year, under the heading “How I understood my whole activity as a writer,” he crystallizes this disposition beautifully:

I have conceived of myself as intent upon standing up for the Ordinary — in a bungled and demoralized age — and making it lovable and accessible to those of my fellow-creatures who are capable of realizing it, but who are led astray by the times and who chase after the Un-Common, the Extra-Ordinary. I have understood my task to be like that of a person who himself has become unhappy and therefore — if he loves human beings — particularly desires to help others who are capable of realizing happiness.

But a true effort at amplifying the happiness of others, Kierkegaard cautions, can’t be a mere vehicle for narcissistic self-gratification:

I have been especially vigilant that my efforts should not be tainted with self-seeking vanity and, above all, that I served Thought and Truth in such a way as not to derive any secular and temporal advantages therefrom. Therefore I know, in all good conscience, that I have worked with true resignation.

In an autobiographical reflection from 1852, under the heading “My life’s course,” Kierkegaard writes:

The Highest is not to comprehend the Highest, but to do it, and note this well, including all the burdens it involves.

Complement the enormously insightful and satisfying The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard with the Danish philosopher on our greatest source of unhappiness and the only true cure for existential emptiness.


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