Kierkegaard's thought, struggle, and questions about faith and despair have been very important in my recent life. At a recent literature conference that I attended, conversations were had about novelist Walker Percy's (another fave) love for and interpretation of Kierkegaard in his own novels. Percy was particularly preoccupied with Kierkegaard's aesthetic/ ethical division from Either/ Or.
This is a gross oversimplification, but here goes: the 'aesthete' ("Either") is fueled by a need for immediacy as he passively, dispassionately consumes pleasure. He is absorbed completely within what K calls the "aesthetic stage". This form of bottomless, noncommital hedonism, as K sees it, leads ultimately to boredom and despair. This is actually a perfect description of the world of all of Bret Easton Ellis' novels.
The ethical life, or stage, ("Or") is defined chiefly by reflection--it sees the interior world, including the spiritual, as more important than the external world of temporal pleasure. Kierkegaard seems to think that the ethical person can also partake in elements of the aesthetic life. In the ethical stage, one is devoted, comitted, sees the importance of self-sacrifice. The third "stage" is the "religious" stage. Both the aesthetic and the ethical, if held as independent extremes divorced from the "religious", can be problematic.
I haven't gotten far enough in Kierkegaard to fully understand the relationship between the first two stages and the "religious" stage, but I am working on it. Any help (in the form of comments) would be appreciated! I chose the title because I am fascinated by this interesting distinction--and particularly of K's description of the "aesthete" which reflects a sort of Victorian Dandyism but also points forward to the decadent, depthless world in much postmodern fiction (satirically depicted in Coupland and Delillo's work; even more darkly satirically and graphically depicted in Amis, Palahnuik and Ellis' work). Last, but not least, Elliot Smith has a wonderful album called Either/Or. I love it that this title, Either/ Or, seems to unite the worlds of philosophy, faith, fiction and music--the major focal points of this blog.