“Kierkegaard’s Narrative” is an existential humanist plot outline named after the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In general, it runs as follows: An aimless young man drifts through life, obsessed with aesthetics, and seeking sexual fulfillment with a series of women, yet never making substantive choices or real commitments. The climax of the story is the protagonist’s decision to commit to a single woman, and to enter into marriage.
The raw source material for this plotline is found in Kierkegaard’s books “Either/Or,” “Fear and Trembling,” and “Repetition,” in which he takes on the persona of various first-person narrators, and describes their experiences. Among the characters described are:
- “the Aesthete” who is obsessed with art and aesthetic experience
- “the Seducer” who falls deeply in love with a woman and pursues her heatedly until he gets her, and then discards her for a new conquest
- “the Repeater,” who is caught up in past experiences, and the doomed hope of recreating them
These characters are contrasted to a fourth, the “Married Man” who lives an existence that seems ordinary and mundane from the outside, but that is rich and fully lived on the inside.
Walker Percy was probably the first to weave these distinct personas together into a single coherent plotline. In his book “The Moviegoer,” he traces the evolution of a protagonist who spends most of the book as an aesthete, a seducer and a “repeater,” and who finishes it on the verge of becoming Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith” –the married man. (Percy also introduces an additional element, possibly also inspired by Kierkegaard, the death of a person close to the protagonist as a counterpoint to the protagonist’s desire to fully embrace life.) This book was widely admired, and the plotline passed into popular culture, where it has been the foundation of a number of well-regarded books and movies.
The clever joke of this movie is the way it combines experimentalism and conventionality, a union that also happens to fit neatly into the Kierkegaardian model.
Protagonist: Charlie Kaufman
Aesthetic Preoccupation: Screenwriting
Affairs: Susan’s affair with John
Repetition: Charlie tries to recreate the experience of Susan Orlean’s original book
Death: Charlie’s twin brother
Existential Humanist Act: Charlie throws himself into the screenplay –literally –and confesses his love for a female friend.
The significance of the protagonist’s last choice in this movie is it represents his one selfless act of maturity and existential responsibility.
Protagonist: Lester Burnham
Aesthetic Preoccupation: Marijuana
Affairs: Fantasizes about seducing his daughter’s nubile friend.
Repetition: Tries to recapture his lost youth.
Death: Lester (the protagonist)
Existential Humanist Act: Chooses to not seduce the young girl
Clearly in the same mold, although there’s a sense that the protagonist’s aimlessness comes less from his own choices, and more from his over-controlling father’s drug prescriptions.
Protagonist: Andrew Largeman
Aesthetic Preoccupation: Acting, psychotropic drugs
Affairs: Makes out with some girls at a party
Repetition: Returns to his old town
Death: Protagonist’s mother
Existential Humanist Act: Abandons his L.A. life for a girl he’s fallen in love with.
This work makes the subversive suggestion that Benjamin’s proposal to Elaine is just another aimless, meaningless choice.
Protagonist: Benjamin Braddock
Aesthetic Preoccupation: Art was Mrs. Robinson’s major in college
Affairs: With Mrs. Robinson
Repetition: Returns home after school, tries to revisit his relationship with Elaine
Existential Humanist Act: Elaine’s choice to follow Ben despite having just married another man.
This is an surprisingly sentimental movie for a comedy about suicide –a fact explained by the movie’s existential humanist heart.
Aesthetic Preoccupation: Suicide
Affairs: Harold goes on a series of blind dates arranged by his mother.
Repetition: Harold’s phony suicides are an attempt to recreate a single experience of emotional response from his mother.
Existential Humanist Act: Harold’s proposal to Maude
A popular book and movie of modern times which fits the model almost exactly.
Protagonist: Rob Gordon
Aesthetic Preoccupation: Old records
Affairs: A series of failed relationships
Repetition: Looking up his old girlfriends
Death: His girlfriend’s father
Existential Humanist Act: Proposes to his longtime girlfriend
The model for the genre, it features long passages directly inspired by Kierkegaard
Protagonist: Binx Bolling
Aesthetic Preoccupation: Movies
Affairs: With a string of secretaries
Repetition: Returning to an old moviehouse
Death: Protagonist’s half-brother
Existential Humanist Act: Marries his step-cousin.
Like American Beauty, this movie shifts the narrative into midlife.
Protagonist: Miles Raymond
Aesthetic Preoccupation: Wine and writing
Affairs: Jack’s affairs with various women.
Repetition: Miles tries to regain the affection of his ex-wife.
Death: Miles’ book “dies” (is rejected by the publisher) and he “kills” his treasured bottle of vintage wine.
Existential Humanist Act: Miles pursues a relationship with a pretty waitress named Maya, even at the price of distancing himself from the hedonism represented by Jack.
This movie externalizes the existentialism by creating a world whose purpose is to trap and immobilize the protagonist. Significantly, his existential act is to leave a loveless sham of a marriage, and not to commit to it.
Protagonist: Truman Burbank
Aesthetic Preoccupation: Truman’s entire life is an aesthetic/entertainment experience, although he doesn’t know it.
Affairs: Married to a paid actress
Repetition: Lives a repetitious life, and constantly returns to memories of a past relationship.
Death: The faked death of Truman’s “father” –another symbol of the inauthenticity of Truman’s life.
Existential Humanist Act: Goes in search of his “true love.”