Oscar Wilde once declared that he only put his talent into his works; his true genius, he insisted, had been reserved for his life. Foppish, brilliant, gleefully self-caricaturing (not even Bunthorne, Gilbert and Sullivan’s attempt at parody, could come close to the real thing), Wilde’s public persona was a triumph of self-creation: the ability of the self to determine its own being-in-the-world.
For some theologians, such as Renaissance humanist Pico della Mirandola, self-creation was an integral part of being: a fundamental affirmation of man’s inherent status imago dei. But for Soren Kierkegaard, (no less careful with his public persona, in many ways, than Wilde himself), self-creation, exemplified by the kind of dandified aesthete Wilde would later come to embody, was more than just a theologically dangerous proposition: the figure of the self-poeticizing dandy in works like The Seducer’s Diary becomes downright diabolical, the need for self-creation lying at the very heart of what it means to sin.
For Kierkegaard’s Seducer, after all, “everything is image; I myself am a myth about myself, for it is not rather as a myth that I hasten to this meeting? Who I am has nothing to do with it.” The Seducer projects himself into the world, the protagonist of the fiction he is writing, “accomplish[ing] the task of living poetically” as he recasts his destructive, even abusive relationship with the innocent Cordelia as an opportunity to play the role of the debonair Don Juan.
In so doing – Kierkegaard reveals – the Seducer displays the dark side of self-creation: the autonomy and ironic detachment he so craves – the ability to adopt the sub specie aeternae perspective, living life as dispassionate author rather than as creature wedded to the contingent nature of existence – comes at the price of Cordelia’s freedom. Denied agency and autonomous selfhood, Cordelia becomes merely clay that the Seducer can mold, an objet d’art glorifying his creative genius. It is no coincidence that artistic possession, for the Seducer, takes on the rhetoric of rape: “you blush; your bosom too full to find relief in breath; your look is angry, proudly contemptuous; there is a prayer, a tear, in your eyes; both are equally beautiful and I am equally entitled to both.”
Self-creation, the ultimate artistic act, is thus revealed as a violation: to become the author and protagonist in my own drama, I must reduce those around me to mere bit players, their purpose merely to serve and glorify my own ends. The witty, ironic detachment of a Wilde or a Seducer only serves to highlight the way in which a Cordelia or a Sybil Vane, the ill-fated lover of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s most famous protagonist, are deprived of that same autonomy: the power to tell their own stories.
The question Kierkegaard raises is at once aesthetic and theological. How, as artists, can we avoid bonding art to oppression? Here too, Kierkegaard provides us with a hint of an answer. If artistic creation is analogous to divine creation, then – he suggests – we must seek not a position of detached irony, standing above and outside our own being, but rather a kenotic, loving relationship defined not by our sovereignty but by our willingness to sacrifice it: a model rooted firmly in our ideas about the Incarnation: as Kierkegaard puts it “in the Incarnation, creation is fulfilled by God’s including himself in it.”
In so doing, Kierkegaard offers us a model of Christian artistic creation – and self-creation – based not on power or autonomy but instead on love and receptivity: the acceptance of the self’s own being not merely as paradigmatic storyteller but also as part of the story being told: a protagonist in one storyline and a bit player in another, wedded to facticity as well as freedom – a view of the self not merely as poet, but – as Kierkegaard sees the “true Christian” – “poetically composed.”
Tara Isabella Burton is a writer, theologian, and theatre practitioner living between Tbilisi, Georgia, and Oxford, England. She is currently pursuing a DPhil in theology and literature at Trinity College, Oxford. Her fiction and creative non-fiction has been published widely in such journals as Amoskeag, Imagine, Gigantic Sequins, and more, and you can find her on the internet at www.taraisabellaburton.com.