When did you stop beating your wife? is the classic – and supremely nasty – loaded question.
Back in the day the accused target – the brute – had a tiny chance to recover his soiled reputation by claiming Who, me? She’s not my wife. But in our post-rationalist, post-existentialist, post-binary, post-modernist, post-truth era, facts don’t matter anymore. Fewer men have wives nowadays. More than a few women have wives. Yet the fix between wives and their beaters endures. Almost all wives insist they are beaten regardless.
As a humanitarian gesture a book of instructions on how to stop beating your wife is overdue. Fine. But that’s not what we have here.
Consider the book How To Stop Beating Your Wife a prequel. Powerful societal forces are already in place to end the shameful scourge of wife beating. The book will wake people up to what is already happening: the evolving right side of history. And why it is already too late for any opposing movements, laws or forces to change this progressive trajectory.
In a mere two hundred years from the book’s publishing date society will routinely acknowledge that Ecclesiastes is dead. The joys of rationalism, existentialism, binary sexuality, post-modernism, and the obsession with truth will be buried like an archeological fossil. As the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) could have predicted, the thesis of beating one’s wife will clash with the antithesis of marriage-and-breeding to produce the longed-for synthesis: a new, equalitarian family. Set your clock by this prediction. Ready or not, within the next two centuries everyone will be swept into better lives.
The inspiration for a two hundred year prediction comes from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
Consider the historic context in which Nietzsche wrote. He did his quill and ink scribbling in the nineteenth century. Until about the eighteenth century – depending on the European lieu – God was at the center of almost all philosophical thought, as well as the center of nearly everyone’s daily lives. Then came dudes like Descartes, Bacon, Locke and Hume, followed by empirical science, to name a few sticks of dynamite. God was no longer the be-all and end-all of polite public discourse. People no longer obediently consulted clerical authorities to determine The Truth.
Between 1883 and 1885 Nietzsche published Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also Sprach Zarathustra), a philosophical novel about an austere religious scholar who spent the previous forty years contemplating the Meaning of Life and whatever similar topics cross the mind of a guy all alone on a mountain top without wifi. Perhaps the book’s most famous moment is when Zarathustra comes down from his lofty perch and instructs the unwashed audience of townsfolk that God is dead. He died when humankind stopped deferring to His many ecclesiastical representatives. People now favor authorities, said the Z-man, who are able to weave pretty, convincing explanations of things in the world without obvious reference to the long-bearded old man on a throne way up in the sky.
Zarathustra, as Nietzsche breathed life into him, went on to observe that the death of God will lead to a period of two hundred years of nihilism, the belief – if belief is the right word – that Nothing Matters. The Western World survived the prior two thousand or more years (two thousand years obviously for Christians, more years if you, like Nietzsche, start the clock with pre-Socratic Greek philosophers like Epictetus) with one certainty: God is the source of all the best answers. Nietzsche’s popgun ended this reign.
Nihilism’s corrosive effect, he predicted, would eventually undermine all moral, religious, and metaphysical conviction. If there’s no certain source of Judgement there is no Right, as in Right or Wrong. Consequently there’s no Good, as in, well, you know the drill.
Nihilism leads to doubt, anxiety and confusion. Under the umbrella of nihilism anyone and anything can make claims to Authority, likely to survive only a moment, to be replaced by the next evanescent Authority, which of course will be replaced ad nauseum. What to do?
Counting from 1883, the first publication date of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, take a look at your calendar to see how far gone we are into the Age of Nihilism. For what it’s worth, this entry’s writing is almost 140 years under the bridge.
Nietzsche suggested the end of the Age of Nihilism will come when people are exhausted by the carousel of Fake Authorities. That vertigo will be replaced by a single arbitrarily agreed upon commonly accepted Fake Authority. Western thinkers might just get together and say: Enough! We know there’s no Certainty, but for the sake of civility let’s just arbitrarily synchronize our watches and minds, and play together on a common playing field as if we don’t know we’re dancing on the edge of a cliff.
Beating your wife will go through a similar two century evolution. But with different Authorities.
The goal of this introductory chapter is to ‘clear the throat’ metaphorically to prepare the reader for wife-o-centric discoveries to be made in the next two centuries. The expression ‘preliminary expectoration’ in the chapter title was first penned by Soren Kierkegaard near the beginning of his book Fear and Trembling.
The fear and trembling part of Kierkegaard’s rendition unwinds as he grapples his way through several versions of the biblical story of the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham (Jewish tradition calls this event Akaida). Like the otherwise unrelated film Rashomon, the famous biblical story told from different angles leads to different insights, eventually leading to Kierkegaard’s signature watchwords leap of faith (of course in his case a Christian leap – certainly not a Jewish leap; even in those pre-basketball days it was well known that Jews don’t jump that way).
Kierkegaard set the table:
An old proverb fetched from the outward and visible world says ‘Only the man who works gets the bread.’ Strangely enough this proverb does not aptly apply in that world to which it expressly belongs. For the outward world is subject to the law of imperfection, and again and again the experience is repeated that he too who does not work gets the bread, and that he who sleeps gets it more abundantly than the man who works.
Kierkegaard reminds us that commonplace reality is deceptive. People who have no other resources may be obliged to work for their bread, but people who have amassed their treasure – fairly or unfairly -may indulge in sound sleep while others work away, and the sleep-enriched may wind up with vastly more storehouses of bread than all those poor busy working stiffs.
As Kierkegaard sees it, while the outward and visible world is sometimes -nay, often – unfair, the other world – which he calls ‘the world of spirit’ – yields its treasures only to those who do the real work – the heavy, lonely, frightening, scary, thorough work of plumbing one’s spiritual depths.
Here it is of no use to have Abraham for one’s father, nor to have seventeen ancestors – he who will not work must take note of what was said about the maidens of Israel, for he gives birth to wind, but he who is willing to work gives birth to his own father.
Putting beating one’s wife to a definitive stop is one of the twenty-first century’s banner aspirations. It will not come easily. Common sense reality is not always what it seems.
The following two centuries’ post-rationalist blah blah blah post-truth meme about beating your wife will teach that only the man who stops beating his wife gets the honey. And the man who stops beating his wife more abundantly gets more honey.
He who is willing to do this work gives birth to his own mother.
Appendix 1: Kierkegaard and the Lower East Side
How our shared progressive society will thoroughly annihilate every last vestige of wife beating in two short centuries.
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It wasn’t until my thirties before I decided to put my self aside to become a father. I was married. After my first love insisted we wouldn’t have children, we went our separate ways. I could have remained single for a few years longer as I was making strides learning how to enjoy life with the ladies. But I wanted a family.
When another woman who seemed right enough came around, I married again.
The two of us grew up in similar, gritty East Coast big city neighborhoods. Our families consisted of mother, father and kids sticking together under one roof through thick and thin. Our parents — her father, actually, and both my parents — fled from the other side. We already had our degrees and professional credentials. We were some flavor or other of Jewish. She rose from her family’s limited resources, eventually mingling with people of great wealth. She was a master of New York pluck. We fancied ourselves as originals in our own ways, though not on parallel tracks.
Despite our stylistic differences, we swore we were ready to give all that up to settle down for the big task in life, raising a family.
It was no secret that marriage and family were institutions under assault on the day we caught each other’s eyes. In the world out there, the signs that the ground was shifting were everywhere. Divorce lawyers were feasting. People were fleeing their marriages instead of trying to fix them. In my days on the outer fringes I was on the same party invitation list as the authors of the book Open Marriage. Some of my friends tried “group marriage” (she and he married another she and he). Nor were the two of us innocent babes in the woods. We had each already been divorced. During my previous marriage I was among the first of my generation who didn’t insist that his wife bear his family name as her last name.
Granting that background, I took my second marriage as the time to pull up my socks and get serious. From the moment we said our vows, I was thoroughly willing to place myself firmly in the arms of this marriage, put away misgivings and doubts, and be a model citizen once and for all. With open eyes I greeted this opportunity to join the family of families.
Our first year of marriage might have been even rougher than the average first year of marriage. Our ‘honeymoon’ lasted maybe two months. Newly-wed bliss, with all the joyful attention and endearments newly-marrieds shower on each other, evaporated rapidly into thin air. The “stylistic differences” I tried to ignore before the marriage kept elbowing their way into our attention, reminding us we might not be so well suited as a couple after all.
Nevertheless, whenever an abyss between us loomed, I brought myself back to the real reason for this marriage. I banked on our commitment to parenthood to eventually trump the rough patches.
I am convinced I know the exact moment when our child’s life began. From that moment, my part in our squabbling lost a level of its steam. I was no longer tussling with a tough-to-please newlywed, I was addressing the woman who was actually going be the mother of my actual children.
A couple of months later, we were in the obstetrician‘s waiting room. The sight of the written confirmation of a positive pregnancy test caused my brain to momentarily hold its breath. Life before that moment was preparation. Now a special door was opening for me, and I was invited to take my place at the Big People’s table.
Very soon after the visit to the obstetrician we were riding the subway together. The car was crowded. Of course, she didn’t show and wouldn’t show for a few more months. But I knew. We were standing near each other, holding onto a pole for balance. A man bumped her lightly when the car lurched. I found myself ready to tear the man’s heart out if he dared to bump her again, no matter how unintentionally. I rushed to station myself between her and the cave man before anything more came of his depravity.
It would be nice to report that the final confirmation of pregnancy led us onto a path to peace, but a medical emergency intervened. I spent two weeks in a hospital recovering from an emergency appendiceal abscess operation. Unfortunately, my medical emergency robbed her of what should have been one of the glories of her life. Instead of being the center of attention because of her confirmed pregnancy, she had to play second fiddle to a husband who was convalescing from a genuine near-death experience.
Once I was back from the hospital, we returned to our unfortunate emotional roller coaster. We could be sweet and tender. And we could be frozen meteors lost in space. I tried seeing things her way, but my sense of it was that she kept moving the goalposts. Solidarity as a couple kept eluding us. Most ominously, she started using the dread ’d’ word — divorce.
There were a variety of ways to rationalize and minimize her unwelcome way of throwing down the divorce card. Maybe pregnancy was making her hormones go whacko. Surely she knew that with all the expenses of setting up, furnishing, decorating, etc. our new household, our money situation couldn’t be stretched to include the costs of two lawyers plus two households in New York. And, although our bickering could get cold, we did have our good moments.
In the fifth month of pregnancy, in February 1980, I was riding up the crowded elevator to our apartment. A stranger asked my name. Naturally I gave it to him. He handed me an envelope. He had served me with a Summons and Notice for Divorce.
I was wrong about her determination. I must have crossed some red lines.
The divorce threat hung over our heads for another month. Perhaps it was because I was on my best behavior. Perhaps it was the imminence of parenthood. Whatever. As quickly as the storm clouds of divorce appeared, they blew away. Our lawyers swapped letters signaling a truce, hopefully a new leaf.
I carried on as accommodatingly as I could. We went together to appointments at the obstetrician. We took childbirth-preparation classes. We shopped together for baby things. Photos of the baby’s room was the feature of a magazine spread. We entered marital therapy with her psychiatrist. We changed our names.
The name I was born with, my family’s name, is the name of a German town. As a Jew, she felt uncomfortable bearing such an obviously German name; she never used it up to then and didn‘t want a child of hers to be known by it. We struck a compromise I could live with.
Jewish naming tradition follows the pattern of boy’s name plus ‘ben’ (meaning ‘son of’ in Hebrew) plus father’s name. My father’s Hebrew name was Raphael. Once the oddity of changing my name in my adulthood was digested, the very inside joke that I was taking my Hebrew name as my English-language name made the whole process go down with a giggle.
She continued to work at her job until the day of our son’s birth. I was with her for the miracle in the delivery room. He was six pounds, ten ounces, healthy, and unimaginably delicate. I called her parents to announce his birth before I called my mother.
I continued to try to be as good as I could be, making as very few waves as possible. Before I knew it, my efforts to meet her standards seemed to pay off. The next February, her attorney mailed more papers. The new papers requested my signature to bring our still-open dispute to a formalistic, legal close.
If I lulled myself into believing the worst was over, I was woefully mistaken. In April, I was served again with a fresh set of papers. Between the first papers and the second papers, divorce law in New York changed. The brand-new set of papers asked for things she might not have gotten under the old law. Not only did she ask for a divorce, she asked to have me kicked out of our apartment immediately, and for me to give her heaps of money and things until the issue of divorce was finally resolved.
Tolstoy famously wrote “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own fashion.”
Tolstoy lived and wrote in the good, olde days when divorce was a rarely-whispered tragedy wrapped in shame. Surely Tolstoy could never have anticipated how unhappiness would reinvent and multiply itself when, as in the present day, divorce is the reigning fashion.
This is the story of one unhappy family in the age of divorce, my unhappy family.
The real action of the story of this family begins when the courts of the State of New York answered our pleas, lumbered into place smack in the center of our household, and rationed the family’s air, food and water supply.
At the beginning of this story I was confident that my understanding of the family – both before and after divorce, if it came to that — was shared by the legal system of the State of New York. And because I was a newly-minted convert to the belief in abiding by the law as written, despite my pre-marital, extended-adolescent, unconventional diversions, I trusted the fate of my family to the courts of the state, thinking that in the end my family would make it through.
It hardly needs reminding that back in the day the family was assumed to be one of the basic building blocks of civilization. What people attach themselves to and call their ‘family’ hasn’t always been what it is today. Once upon a time, a family might have consisted of as many people of as many generations as could manage to squeeze together under one roof. Nowadays, the term ‘family’ is used even when its membership is pared down to the bare elements of a parent and the kids. Whatever its shape or size, whether it’s called ‘nuclear’ or ‘traditional’ or ‘modern,’ family and the creed of ‘family values‘ is one short step below holiness.
Family is at the core of people‘s definitions of themselves. Despite how a particular collection of people calling themselves a family gets kicked around or dented, even when a family has been shattered and miniaturized, regardless of whether a parent gets severed from the physical core of the family because of events — such as the dictates of a divorce court — family is the organizing principle in the lives of its members. Just about every surviving culture lauds and idealizes family as themodel of what humans should aspire to. Among the highest words of praise that can be bestowed on a man is ‘family man.‘ Family is a bond with its very unique biological, genealogical, genetic, religious, historic, psychological, and sociological glue. No matter what fate brings, even under far from standard conditions, being part of a family carries with it certain eternal attachments, responsibilities and privileges. Blood is thicker than water.
Or so I assumed. Until I was awakened from my sweet dream.
As I found out, New York State doesn’t see things the way I do. I might as well have come from a different cosmos. My default ‘family’ does not compute in the State‘s program.
When all is said and done, what happened to my family is a potent civics lesson. This book is the long, shaggy dog story of what the courts of the State of New York taught me a family should be.
Prove you will stop bating your wife!
How our shared progressive society will thoroughly annihilate every last vestige of wife beating in two short centuries.
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The Lower East Side (LES) is the revered name of an area of Manhattan located on the southeastern corner of the island. Because rents were rock bottom in the late nineteenth century and half of the twentieth century it was home in waves to most of New York City’s incoming ethnic groups, such as Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans etc.
The author arrived on the LES as an NYU student early in the 1960s. NYU had no student dormitories for its Manhattan campus at the time. It didn’t really need any because almost all its undergrad cohort consisted of New York kids who started college across the Hudson River, but couldn’t hack it away from New York subways, Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee, roast chestnuts, potato knishes and dirty water hot dogs, so they returned to their accustomed stomping grounds to wrap up their sheepskins at $39 a course credit hour.
Local real estate operators were trying to glorify the northern portion of the LES as an arty community. They started using the designation ‘East Village’ to borrow some panache from the better-known arty West Village, more commonly called Greenwich Village.
The author’s first East Village apartment, a sixth floor walkup (ie no elevator) railroad flat (ie three rooms in a row with only perfunctory walls separating them), rented for $60 a month. His buddies’ tub-in-kitchen joint a couple of blocks away commanded $39 a month.
Time warps numbers. In early twenty-first century each unit would rent for $2000 if you’re lucky. About the year 2000 a British newspaper ran a series of poignant photographs of the awful conditions in the LES a hundred years previously. The pix strung every heart string. The Brits failed to mention though that around the time of this publication the LES had undergone a typical New York neighborhood transformation. Places that once housed whole families in parts of rooms with lead-painted walls were now luxury apartments renting for figures that most of their newspaper’s readers could not afford.
In addition to amazing ethnic restaurants selling meals at $1 a bowl, the LES in the 1960s had its own cultural claims to fame. Hippies were transmogrifying into Yippies. The Fugs were teaching listeners dirty words to a rock and roll beat. Red diaper babies were making their parents proud changing the topography of Tompkins Square Park. Hudson’s Army-Navy store was dressing everyone in blue work shirts at below $2 a pop, bell bottom denims and red paisley bandannas.
The author gravitated to the offices of the East Village Other, a more gaudily designed underground newspaper than its venerable older three-column Gutenberg-style rival Village Voice.
Under the wings of performance impresario Bill Graham there were two rock venues, Fillmore East on Second Avenue in New York and Fillmore West somewhere off in San Francisco. An era-defining cartoon featured two zonked out hippy types standing in a ticket line asking their neighbors, “Pardon me, could you settle an argument? Is this is the Fillmore East or Fillmore West?” Fillmore West survives (under different sponsorship). Fillmore East vanished without a trace – no successor theater, no plaques, no nothing.
Graham allowed the Other (or EVO, the more common shorthand) free use of an editorial office in a loft on the Sixth Street side. Two figures whose names were bonded with the Other were Timothy Leary and Alan Ginsburg. The author recalls meeting Leary. Abbey Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Spain Rodriguez, Ishmael Reed, Kim Deitsch and Art Spiegelman also got published there. Our travel notes confirm that R Crumb and the author were at the Other offices at about the same time. The author doesn’t recall if Crumb and he ever were in the men’s room together, so the author has nothing to report about Crumb’s aim.
A survivor from those days who continues to attract buzz well into the twenty-first century is the writer PJ O’Rourke. How much – if anything at all – O’Rourke placed in the publication is something a more astute researcher can scope out. The author’s (addled?) recollection is of O’Rourke being the only person ever to step into the office wearing a clean button-down shirt.
The author’s then-wife started breaking into her writing career contributing almost-weekly articles. The author added photographs.
Most relevant to the How To Stop…. book, she interviewed and the author snapped a woman with an unusual story at the time: by design she was raising a child as a single mother. Only much later did the author learn this form of parenting was encouraged decades earlier in the Soviet Union. Its virtue to the Soviet state was it increased the need for state intervention while reducing the power of fathers and families. In the twenty-first century this pioneer American single-mother-by-choice has an entry in Wikipedia. It appear she still strongly identifies and rolls with her youthful political colors. But recent Wikipedia (perhaps mercifully) does not mention her mothering experience or its results.
The most prolific writer for the Other was Dean Alpheus Latimer, who wrote as DA Latimer. At a moment’s notice he could dash off a thousand word article that sparkled from end to end, such as ‘Sex can be terribly unromantic and ridiculous’ (East Village Other, vol. 4 no. 24 May 14 1969) . The author’s opinion that Latimer was head and shoulders the leading satirist of the era is apparently not shared by the world out there. A Google search of his name conducted in 2020 turned up only a mere whiff of the fellow. If his name is lost to the biggest baddest search engine that’s as good as saying he’s lost for the ages. His past has no future.
From The Realist article “The sound of one clap dripping” by DA Latimer, photo by the author
Latimer hailed from Canton, New York, a small state university town a cow chip’s throw from the Canadian border. As far north as that place is, Latimer insisted it was the northern end of Appalachia. And he dressed the part. In an era when dressing down was becoming the fashion standard, Latimer won the prize. When Esquire magazine asked to interview him for a position as a feature writer he uncharacteristically fretted he had nothing appropriate to wear. The author loaned him his bright-orange-dyed tuxedo jacket to emphasize his counter-culture bone fides. It’s not known to the author whether Latimer was characteristically late to Esquire‘s pow wow, or whether he showed at all. He didn’t get the job. And the author never saw his jacket again.
A few years into the life of the East Village Other a new publication hit the stands, Screw magazine. The two publications had nothing to do with each other except for the conjunction of two stars: both thumbed their respective noses at mainstream values, and Dean wrote for both.
Screw was founded by Al Goldstein, his wife Mary Phillips and Jim Buckley. The author met the men at his apartment before their first issue. They swore they planned to be idealistic pornographers. Although they planned to be appealingly raunchy they intended to be non-exploitive of their women subjects. No violence or humiliation. They found their audience and some success, although time took its toll on their lives.
A couple of years after Screw launched, the author was teaching undergrad and grad Psychology courses at NYU. As the most junior faculty member he was stuck with a course no one else wanted: Adolescent Psychology. Teaching a new course is very challenging. It requires much research and preparation. The Adolescent Psych course was one of six new courses the author had to prep that year. So he tried to ease his load by inviting lots of instant experts to give targeted lectures.
Jim Buckley gave a lecture on his adolescent experience. With no explicit reference to sex (or anything gay, although Jim eventually edited a magazine titled Gay; the time wasn’t right yet). Just clothing and snacks and yoyos and cars and such. Nothing anyone objected to. Nothing that generated any grumbles from higher-ranking faculty or administration. Whew! He got away with that one.
The details of the Other’s payments to its creative staff are lost in time. Some people claim they were paid $40 a submission. The author recalls hearing that that the IRS once threatened an audit of the Other‘s books. Joel Fabrikant, the paper’s accountant, decided his best defense was to go full Hippy. He papered every free space around the office with scraps with numbers, rendering rational inspection useless. The gods of hippydom were with him. The Other got itself into heaps of trouble for many of its escapades, but the IRS never shut it down. His ploy worked!
After the Other, Latimer drifted to High Times, where he was the sordid affairs editor for the magazine of record for dope smokers, then Screw.
The author took a liking to Kierkegaard (1813-1855). He visited the philosopher’s Copenhagen studio with its upright writing desk during his first trip to Europe. Latimer must have been impressed. Once on the Screw payroll as a certifiable porngrapher, Latimer passed on to the author two memorable gems of scuttle-butt about Soren Kierkegaard.
The two greatest personalities Denmark sprung on the world stage in the nineteenth century were Hans Christian Anderson and our man Soren K. Latimer asked if the author knew that Hans and Soren used to chase skirts together when they were hormone-driven college buddies.
No, the author didn’t grock that. For a very good reason, as he eventually learned. The two guys attended the same college eight years apart. Maybe they both appreciated the same Danish blondes, but on very different calendars.
But wait! It turns out the Anderson-Kierkegaard story could sneak in the back door. About the time Kierkegaard was finishing his first go round of college his father had a personal existential crisis. Father’s wife and three of his children died within two years of each other, which father interpreted as God’s punishment for his sin(s). Exactly which sin(s) he had in mind is lost in time. One credible version is that at age 82 Dad was paralyzed with guilt over an incident when at age 11 he cursed God. Or maybe the story behind father’s existential crisis was that he admitted to his son that he had diddled around with a house serving girl, and married her two months before the birth of their child Peter, Soren’s older brother. Soren had the same birth mother as his older bro. They had five more children, none of whom survived.
Regardless of whether it was behind curtain A or curtain B, Soren took his trembling father’s news very hard. He dropped out of school, found a group of hard drinking and hard partying arty friends (which included Hans Christian Anderson), charged all his lavish expenses to his father’s eighteenth-century equivalent of a credit card and became the Playboy of Western Copenhagen. For two rummy years.
In the introduction to Soren’s collected works in Gutenberg.org L. M. Hollander acknowledged that for a couple of years Soren engaged in much rebellious behavior “but we feel reasonably sure that he committed no excesses worse than ‘high living.'”
Skeptiks might wonder how likely it is Soren had flings with some babes, given his youth, good looks, thick wallet and state of rebellion. It is known from within his writings that he was fascinated by Don Juan, Faust and Nero, three paragons of the unchaste life. There’s no claiming he was ignorant of matters of the flesh.
But we’re talking Kierkegaard here. On every other day of his life since at least the age of 22 he scribbled notes memorializing the events of the day or his inner musings. And those inner musings could plumb hundreds of kilometers deeper than the average person’s musings – always aware of his relationship with the purest fundamental Christian ideals, including sexual purity ideals. That leaves the reader with a choice: Kierkegaard did the deed and spent the rest of his life covering it up in the most self-righteous way imaginable vs he spent his entire life a virgin. What’s the answer?
When it comes to important choices in life it might pay to quote the Danish Master himself:
I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”
― Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life
If it means anything: in his overflowing volume of notes and doodles covering just about every moment of his adult life there is not one jot expressing regrets for any sexual acts in which he might have participated. Circumstantial support at best for claims of chastity, but enough to shush most critics.
Latimer also claimed that Kierkegaard had an enduring reputation among pornographers. If he had engaged with sex with three people porno history might have used the label ‘threesome.’ If he had done sex with four people those archives might have used the label ‘foursome.’ Latimer asserted the groan-worthy label ‘handsome.’
In the twenty-first century that jejune accusation would barely register on the naughtiness scale. But in most other centuries, including the nineteenth, in which Kierkegaard lived, his handiwork would be judged nasty enough to disqualify him as a religious Christian avatar.
Kierkegaard attracted much attention in Copenhagen, his beloved home town. Plenty of that attention was negative. Members of mainstream Christian churches not sympathetic to Soren’s austere standards questioned his values. A popular satirical publication made fun of his odd looks and habits, as well as his conservative politics. They printed many cartoons emphasizing his stork-thin legs and odd clothing choices.
In none of his publications and none of the surviving letters and notes collected years later and published in Kierkegaard’s Muse is there anything but wispy, indirect hints of any physical sexual exploration by Kierkegaard. Just words on paper – and even then, no words on paper that would arouse suspicions of “sinfulness” by any fair-minded critic.
It is entirely possible these negative vibes encouraged critics to take a step further and make up factoids out of whole cloth about what Kierkegaard might have done when he wasn’t in the public eye. Enterprising pornographers might have sensed their opportunity: make money flogging counterfeit titillating tales about a guy more than half the city’s population disliked already.
To place Kierkegaard in his historic context, most Western philosophers until the nineteenth century called themselves rationalists or objective thinkers or logic-oriented or idealists. They suggested or pointed to things outside peoples’ skins as the ideal or absolute truth. Plato’s cave, for example. Even Descartes’ I think therefore I am used subjective thinking as a jumping-off point to a more ideal reality outside in the aether.
Kant (1724-1 804) broke that string with his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). In his maddeningly turgid prose he established to most persevering readers’ satisfaction that reason alone cannot solve all the most important philosophical issues.
Two of that century’s post-Kant rock star philosophers wove their philosophies around standards other than reinen Vernunft – pure reason. Kierkegaard took his leap of faith. Nietzsche rediscovered long neglected pre-Socratic philosophers, then projected his understanding of their thinking into the future. These two masters are often labeled the fathers of existentialist philosophy, meaning their ways of grappling with major issues had more to do with a search for the meaning of existence than a search for rules of rationality.
And two of that century’s post-Kant rock star fiction writers, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, also hammered away with the same existential introspective tools to tell their tales. Like their existentialist philosopher models, their novels’ characters filled pages with endless monologues asked over and over “why am I doing this?” and “really?” and “what am I missing?”
The trajectories of Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s love lives followed similar paths. Both fell deeply in love, yet as close as both came to marriage – or engaging in plain mutual or solitary sexual jollies – there is no evidence either consummated the usual urges.
Effectively at first glance, at age 24 Kierkegaard fell in love with a young girl nine years his junior. Over the course of the next two years they found accidental and manufactured ways to hang out – including exchanging furtive side eye glances while attending church. Eventually he proposed marriage and got her father’s permission. But he dawdled another 13 months before punking out. Recognizing what an oddball character he was, he realized he didn’t really want marriage to interfere with his mission in life: to become a writer – a highly principled and devout Christian writer at that. His romance with Regine Olsen (1822-1904) is a barely-disguised leitmotif in many of Kierkegaard’s publications, especially Either Or, his first major book, which he finished within months of the end of the opening three years of this storied romantic misadventure.
Regine, then a teenage girl first learning about the dance of female-male attraction, also kept light years away from ‘sinful’ lapses. Maybe the closest she came on paper was this poetic fancy:
And if my arm doth give such pleasure,
Such comfort and such ease;
Then, handsome merman, hasten; Come take
them both—oh, please!
Sorry, twenty-first century post-modernist readers and the author’s dear departed buddy Dean, sex really was different in the olde days. As much as Kierkegaard expert Joakim Garff tried to tempt readers to buy his book with juicy hints to the contrary, in the end Garff concluded:
passion in platonic love can be as intense as in consummated eroticism, that indeed platonic love can in certain cases be much stronger and significantly deeper than the erotic variety.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844- 1900) seems to be cut from the same cloth as his near-contemporary Kierkegaard. With some original variation.
Both had multiple Lutheran clergy forebears. Nietzsche’s pastor father died when Nietzsche was five years old, soon followed by his younger brother in that child’s second year of life, which left the young Nietzsche to grapple with the quandary of why the all-powerful God who demands good behavior caused these good people – his father and brother – to die young. Much later he enrolled as a seminary student, but got cold feet. He announced to his astonished mother that he could no longer abide Christianity, and redirected himself into philology, a common direction secular philosophers took in his era. He was an utterly brilliant student and got himself appointed as a university professor even before completing his thesis. That good fortune lasted only a few years. His chronic ill health caused him to resign and live on his miserly academic pension until book royalties rolled in – which they never did in his lifetime.
Famed twentieth century historians Will and Ariel Durant said about Nietzsche that he was “chaste as a statue to the last.” Nietzsche favored us with only one documented case of love with a woman close enough to touch. Thirty-eight year old Nietzsche and friend Paul Ree had an arrangement with Lou Salome, said by some who keep such scores to be the most intelligent woman of the nineteenth century. Salome demanded no sexual involvement whatsoever while these three had a chaste menage while living together and collaborating on intellectual projects in Paris. But Nietzsche broke the rules and fell in love, with a heaping side order of jealousy, thus proving the unwritten rule that it’s damn near impossible for men and women to be ‘just friends’ without sex. Salome departed when Nietzsche got too demanding, precipitating a bad case of the blues in Nietzsche. Once the burn came down, he swore he’d never again fall in love, thus insuring no notches on his belt.
For his last dozen years of life Nietzsche was comatose, probably from an advanced case of syphilis. Some historians claim he contracted this disease from youthful sexual indiscretions. Others – obviously including the Durants – claim he got the disease while he was a wartime ambulance driver transporting infected soldiers under unsanitary conditions.
As noted above, Jews were one of the ethnic groups which settled en masse and left their mark on New York’s Lower East Side. That circumstance can serve as a superficial excuse to compare different approaches to philosophical issues.
Judaism and Western philosophy have different ways of approaching metaphysics. Western philosophers almost from their first days in ancient Greece proposed many and fascinating ways to deal with the nature of reality, the subject matter of metaphysics. Judaism skips past metaphysics very quickly because Jewish thought assumes from the git go that G-d created the world and it’s man’s job to apply the religious and moral commandments – mitzvot – passed on primarily by Moses, not to waste energy speculating about the origin of these rules.
In the West the nineteenth century produced philosophers like Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Nietzsche and Kierkegaard who put aside traditional subjects like rationality to focus systematically on other approaches toward reality. Kierkegaard, for what it says about the new era in Western existential philosophy, vehemently denounced even Kant for suggesting that Truth could be determined by any external criterion.
In the previous century the approach to Jewish studies called mussar got a huge boost when in 1740 at the age of 33 the Italian kabbalist Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wrote Messilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just). This book begins with the author’s warning:
I have written this work not to teach people what they do not know, but rather to remind them of what they already know and clearly understand.
Students of Jewish thought usually begin by studying the mitzvot, the subject matter Luzzatto assumes all his readers already know. His book is a kind of step-by-step method to adjust one’s internal thought and motivation processes to thoroughly absorb these commandments and achieve the highest level of piety.
The title of one of Nietzsche’s books, Human All Too Human, could very well be this chapter’s title. Fame doesn’t necessarily mean living an uncomplicated life. One cannot discuss being that one can become an expert on topics like sex and the family while having no skin in the game. Indeed the overwhelming majority of philosophy masters cited in textbooks going back many millenia were single to their dying days (as were most of feminism’s leading spokeladies, according to Stacy McCain). In his observations on the dubiousness of the rewards of marriage Nietzsche once wistfully observed that many a philosopher has died when his child is born.
Mississippi John Hurt, You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley
You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley,
You Got to walk it for yourself,
Is nobody walk it for you,
You got to walk that valley by yourself.
My mother had to walk that lonesome valley,
She had to walk it for herself,
Is nobody else could walk it for her,
She had to walk that valley by herself.
My father had to walk that lonesome valley,
He had to walk it for herself,
Is nobody else could walk it for him,
He had to walk that valley by himself.
Jesus had to walk that lonesome valley,
He had to walk it for himself,
Is nobody else could walk it for him,
He had to walk that valley by himself.
Woodie Guthrie, You Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley, 1909
You got to walk that lonesome valley,
You got to walk it for yourself,
Is nobody walk it for you,
You got to walk that valley by yourself.
You Got To sleep in that lonely graveyard,
You Got to sleep there by yourself,
Nobody here can sleep there for you,
You got to sleep there by yourself.
There’s a road that’ll take you to Glory,
Through a valley not far away,
Nobody here can go there for you,
They can only point the way.
on Thursday the 25th of September 1855, when, in his last ever journal entry, he wrote: “This life’s destiny is: to be brought to the highest pitch of world-weariness. The person who is brought to that point can insist … that it is God who, out of love, has brought him to that point: in the Christian way he has passed life’s examination and is ripe for eternity.”31