experiment 2: the mark of the flyswatter

In the last post we began to touch on the meaning of ‘experiment’ in Repetition. The notion of the experiment as an exercise in cruelty played a major role in Kierkegaard’s battle with the Corsair, when Moller, his opponent, rightly picked up on the cruelty involved in using an ‘experimental’ method on people, or putting a girl in the “experimental rack.” The point of view on cruelty shifts in relation to the terms in which the discourse is expressed – what is cruelty from the ethical point of view is not so from the aesthetic – and from the religious point of view, as Kierkegaard writes in the Edifying Discourse, “… the cruelty consists in the fact that the Christian has to live in this world and express in the environment of this world what it is to be a Christian.”

There is, at this point, a two-fold question: the first is, what kind of ‘experimenter’ is Constantin Constantinus, the pseudonymn-author of Repetition? And the second is, what does it mean to write a text under the sign of the ‘experiment”? How is a text, formally, an experiment at all?

The first question returns us to the romantic view of the experiment. The romantic physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter, as Brain notices in his essay on the Experiment as Fragment, actually classified physics and poetry as similar kinds of fields, and wrote an essay entitled Physics as Art. Kierkegaard’s notion of the aesthetic seems, similarly, to extend to the observation and construction of science as well as poetry. What may seem to be temptation, in the religious sphere, is here a kind of trial and error procedure.

In Repetition, C.C. refers to a story by Justinus Kerner. Kerner, as it happens, wrote the official biography of Mesmer – and it was certainly in Mesmer’s circle that the first ‘psychological experiments’ were carried out. As it happened, many of the ‘subjects’ who became most famous for being easy to induce into trances were women. The Marquis de Puységur left a note about a conversation he had with one of his sonambules, a woman named Genieve. I can’t say that Kierkegaard read these memoirs – I can say that there is an intersigne between Repetition – in which, at one point, C.C. describes himself chasing flies with a fly swatter – and Puységur’s note:

One day I questioned a woman in the magnetic state about the extension of the empire I could exercise upon her. I had without even telling her forced here, as a joke, to give me some blows with a fly swatter that she held in her hand. Well, I said, since you are obliged to hit me, who are only doing you good, I bet that I could, if I absolutely wanted to, make you do anything I wanted; for instanstance, I could make you take off your clothes, for instance, etc… No, monsieur, she said to me, it isn’t the same; what I am doing doesn’t seem good, and I resisted doing it a long time, but in the end it is only a joke so I yielded, since you absolutely wanted it; but as to what you just said, you could never force me to take off my last garments – my shoes, my bonnet, as much as you please, but after that you will obtain nothing.”

The relation that C.C. establishes with the young man is, one could say, designed as an experiment in suggestion; with the woman he is in love with, one could say, C.C. views her as a side effect – the strong homoerotic band is with the young man; and finally there is C.C.’s own experiment of a return to Berlin. Yet one view of the book is that it is itself – in its totality, including its authorship – an experiment performed by Kierkegaard.

Of course, there are other psychological experiments in Kierkegaard’s works – which seem, at certain points, to merge with the idea of seduction. For the next post.