This and/or that

What’s the difference between a note composed and a note improvised? Pretty much nothing, at least according to Søren Kierkegaard. Not that Kierkegaard ever explicitly addressed the issue; in his most sustained exploration of music, the section of Either/Or entitled “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic,” Kierkegaard is primarily intent on demonstrating a) that the true value of a musical work is how well it seamlessly matches form with content, and b) the significance of music “as a Christian art or, more correctly, as the art Christianity posits in excluding it from itself, as the medium for that which Christianity excludes from itself and thereby posits.”

But Kierkegaard’s philosophical spelunking of the process of decision makes an interesting frame for a consideration of both compositional and improvisational choice. Here’s the turn-of-the-last-century Danish philosopher Harald Høffding writing about Kierkegaard:

The “qualitative dialectic” appears in Kierkegaard’s theory of knowledge in the sharp antithesis he draws between thought and reality. Even if thought should attain coherency it does not therefore follow that this coherency can be preserved in the practice of life. So long as we live we are imprisoned in becoming; hence we stand ever before the unknown, for there is no guarantee that the future will resemble the past.

In a lot of ways, this problem—the actual philosophical and psychological process of collapsing passive possibility into decisive actuality—is at the core of Kierkegaard’s work, the fixed point he aimed at from multiple pseudonymous angles. From Either/Or:

In making a choice it is not so much a question of choosing the right as of the energy, the earnestness, the pathos with which one chooses. Thereby the personality announces its inner infinity, and thereby, in turn, the personality is consolidated. Therefore, even if a man were to choose the wrong, he will nevertheless discover, precisely by reason of the energy with which he chose, that he has chosen the wrong. For the choice being made with the whole inwardness of his personality, his nature is purified.

Høffding explains:

No gradual development takes place within the spiritual sphere, such as might explain the transition from deliberation to decision…. Continuity would be broken in every such transition. As regards the choice, psychology is only able to point out possibilities and approximations, motives and preparations. The choice itself comes with a jerk, with a leap, in which something quite new (a new quality) is posited. Only in the world of possibilities is there continuity; in the world of reality decision always comes through a breach of continuity.

For Kierkegaard, theologically, that breach of continuity at the point of decision is a leap of faith, and marks the boundary between what he characterized as the aesthetic and the ethical modes of living. This contrast is easily seen in Either/Or; the famous/infamous “Diary of a Seducer” section, a wry ventriloquism of the aesthete’s disconnected, indecisive sensual limbo, shifts into the sober prose of “Judge William,” delineating ethical choices.

But the point here is that no amount of preparation for the decision, no amount of reflection or consideration, eliminates the decision’s essential discontinuity. To restrict the number of choices doesn’t smooth over the break. (“Anyone who seeks the aid of probability is lost in imagination,” Kierkegaard writes, “whatever else he may try to do.”) All choices—be they measured compositional considerations or spur-of-the-moment improvisations—are equally intuitive, equally risky, equally discontinuous. Composition and improvisation become like the two actresses director Luis Buñuel cast as a single character in his 1977 film That Obscure Object of Desire. A while back, filmmaker Errol Morris discussed the movie, and the two-actress stunt, on his New York Times blog:

ERROL MORRIS: Yeah. Perhaps Buñuel sees love as a series of continuity errors? People assume there are no continuity errors in reality.

—which is, in fact, a quintessentially Kierkegaardian idea. Kierkegaard’s writings about love and sensuality always mirrored his own experience; though sincerely in love with Regine Olsen, Kierkegaard nevertheless broke off their engagement. Nominally, the reason was concern over his own melancholic personality, but throughout his works, echoes of the relationship are constantly heard whenever Kierkegaard discusses a refusal to decide, a preference to remain lost in possibility. To declare a love for someone is to choose who to love, which, somewhat paradoxically, shifts the action from the sensual plane to the ethical. From Kierkegaard’s Either/Or discussion of Don Giovanni:

Don Juan… is a downright seducer. His love is sensuous, not psychical, and, according to its concept, sensuous love is not faithful but totally faithless; it loves not one but all—that is, seduces all…. But its faithlessness manifests itself in another way also: it continually becomes only a repetition.

A cursory extension of that analysis might extol improvisation as intuitive creation and devalue written composition as rule-bound repetition, but that misses Kierkegaard’s point—that Don Juan’s repetitive patterns are not a choice at all, but a symptom of his inability to make the leap—aesthetic to ethical—that a decision entails. (Even this is an either/or, as the French philosopher Jean Wahl explains: “But let us observe that for Kierkegaard inside freedom itself there is an action of the grace, of a divine necessity which guides us; that in the second place, the act of repetition is an act by which we say yes to our necessity and reality; and this leads us toward the understanding of what Kierkegaard means when he says that in the utmost freedom there is no more question of choice.”)

Maybe it’s an American thing. From a late lecture by the 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich:

When I came to this country and first used the word aestheticism in a lecture, a colleague of mine at Columbia University told me not to use that word in describing Americans. That is a typical European phenomenon. Americans are activists and not aestheticists. Now I do not believe this is true. I think there is quite a lot of this aesthetic detachment even in popular culture. It is present in the buying and selling of cultural goods… in which you often see a non-participating, nonexistential attitude. Here Kierkegaard’s criticism would be valid. Perhaps on the whole this is not a very great danger among the American intelligentsia. My observation has been that they jump very quickly out of the detached aesthetic attitude—in all lectures and discussions, in philosophy and the arts—to the question, “What shall we do?” This attitude was described by Kierkegaard as the attitude of the ethical stage.

Make a note of it. Doesn’t matter how.


  1. Aesthetes I've met (aka freaky American record collectors) are always hyper-aware of the need to shift quickly between ethical & aesthetic points of view. In a crowd of 'em, the first person to figure out when some moral action needs to be taken is always the one who owns several power electronics or black metal lps. It's never the doo wop collector. Could even argue folks are out there looking to cross & recross this line in their lives as a way of defining it's edge. As much Borges' Don Quixote as Don Juan…

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