The second essay in Either/Or is “Immediate Stages of the Erotic”: which is a discussion of desire. The primary aspect of this essay is a disquisition on Mozart’s Don Juan. Early in the essay, Kierkegaard sets out the three stages of desire: “If you member that desire is present in all three stages, then you can say that in the first stage, desire is defined as dreaming, in the second as seeking, in the third as desiring.” (I am using Swenson’s translation.)
In his discussion of desire and music, he deals a great deal with the matter of reflection and immediacy:
Music can effectively banish thought, even evil thoughts, just as we say about David that this playing exorcised Saul’s evil spirit. On the other, there is a great delusion in this idea, for it is true only in so far as it carries consciousness back into immediacy, and it lulls it therein.
Don Juan, as the writer of this “anonymous” essay explains is “flesh incarnate”, he is desire acting in an individual. He is a seducer. “His love is not psychical but sensuous, and sensuous love, according with its concept, is not faithful, but absolutely faithless; it loves not one but all, that is to say, it seduces all.”
Don Juan is not properly a “deceiver” because he does not even belong to ethical categories. When he seduces, he is not thinking about seduction; it is not a conscious ethical decision. Rather it is merely the constant pouring out of desire, which attaches to any suitable object: “he does not seduce. He desires, and this desire acts seductively. To that extent he seduces. He enjoys the satisfaction of the of desires; as soon as he has enjoyed it, he seeks a new object, and so on endlessly….He desires, and is constantly desiring”.
The one desired by him partakes of his desire which “beautifies and developed the one desired”. The desire itself is so powerful that the desire seduces the object who is changed by the desire. “His power to deceive lies in the essential genius of his sensuousness, whose incarnation he really is.”
There is something here which we should consider. Our contemporary culture functions at the level of such desire. It is a desire which is undifferentiated, erotic (in both senses of the word), and extraordinarily powerful — while completely unreflective. In fact, the ethical and religious stages of life (which Kierkegaard posits as higher levels of life) are utterly subsumed by the erotic: either the ethical and religious are made to point to the erotic as the highest stage of existence, or they are legally driven from public life.
In prior generations, the ethical and religious limited and controlled expression of the erotic; now the erotic has triumphed (see Albert Mohler’s discussions of “erotic liberty”). Kierkegaard’s (it is in the guise of an anonymous essay) discussion of Don Juan thus has more than academic interest. It helps us understand what is happening about us.