5. Kierkegaard’s Demonic Fashion Designer

Soren Kierkegaard

The Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), via his pseudonym Vigilius Haufniensis (a Latin transcription for “the watchman of Copenhagen”), put forth a disturbing and ground-breaking account of demonic evil in chapter four of his 1844 work The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton, 1980). In this work he claims the demonic person has anxiety about the Good which means he is both repelled by, and attracted to, the Good. And the “The Good, of course, signifies the restoration of freedom, redemption, salvation, of whatever one would call it” (119). This anxiety gives rise to freely chosen defiant actions that seek to undermine the Good in order to free from the anxiety it causes. This active defiance has three modes of interrelated behavior: (1) shutupness or the effort to shut oneself up with oneself in order to be alone; (2) the contentless or the effort to corrupt or destroy forms of goodness that inspire one to leave one’s isolation; and (3) the sudden or the disintegration of the self in which continuity gives way to discontinuity. This discontinuity reveals that demonic people, however much they may harm others, are ultimately self-defeating: as they defy the Good they destroy themselves (see pp. 118-154).

I go over Kierkegaard’s theory of demonic evil in far more detail here. But this brief summary will allow us to consider an interesting and overlooked example of the demonic in part 1 (“In Vino Veritas”) of his book Stages on Life’s Way (Princeton, 1991). It is here that we encounter the troubling words of a demonic “Fashion Designer” who seeks to reduce all vestiges of taste, beauty, and virtue to crassness, vanity, and silliness.  True style is an authentic expression of one’s individuality.  But fashion can be a means of negating the good content of free individuality into something with no individual content at all, something totally superficial, something determined from the outside. Consider these words the Designer speaks to his dining guests:

“Describe, then, the wretched, stunted affection of the fashion-addicted woman, describe this insidious reflection that devours her, and depict the feminine modesty that least of all knows something about itself, do a good job of it and you will also have condemned woman and in reality condemned her terribly. If I ever find a girl who is humble and content and uncorrupted by indecent association with women, she will fall nevertheless.  I bring her into my snare; now she stands at the place of sacrifice, that is, in my boutique. With the most contemptuous glance that snobbish nonchalance can exercise, I measure her. She is perishing with dread; a laugh from the next room where my trained minions are sitting demolishes her. Then when I have her dolled up in fashion, when she looks crazier than a mad hatter, as crazy as someone who would not even be admitted to a loony bin, she blissfully sallies forth from me. No one, not even god, could dismay her, for she is indeed in fashion.” (70)

The Designer in his boutique, like the Devil in hell with his legion of trained minions, snares virtuous women, sacrifices the humble content of their characters, and sends them into the world of fashion. This world facilitates a fall from grace in which a desire for superficial sameness replaces the desire to be a profound individual. Humans seem to be miraculously transformed into dolls that, despite being objectified, manipulated, and mocked, feel no dismay in their blissful world.

James Ensor, Death and the Masks (1897)

The Designer thinks his successful corruption justifies his cruel treatment of women. He declares that “if a woman has reduced everything to fashion, then I will use fashion to prostitute her as she deserves. I never rest, I, the Fashion Designer; my soul rages when I think about my task; eventually she is going to wear a ring in her nose” (71). And why not resort to prostitution and mockery? After all, “there is nothing so sacred that she does not immediately find it suitable for adornment, and the most exclusive manifestation of adornment is fashion. No wonder she finds it suitable, for fashion, after all, is the sacred” (67). The sacred, which is an end in itself and is never to be used as a means to an end only, is now nothing but a means to vanity. Even “the fear of God is a matter of fashion” (67) and without fashion a wedding “is still an invalid act or else a very plebeian affair” (69). Shouldn’t we join the Designer and rage against such superficial desecrators? Don’t they deserve all the mockery and exploitation they get?

Many a deluded misogynist in this world will say yes. But I think we should reject the Designer’s rationalizations which reveal what he trying to do: he is attempting to remain alone by sucking the meaningful content out of those fellow human beings who can potentially lead him out of his stronghold. He is exemplifying shutupness via the contentless: staying alone by making women into fools with no content. Since such fools can’t be taken seriously let alone befriended and loved, he can remain isolated. He concludes: “So do not go looking for a love affair, stay clear of erotic love as you would the most dangerous neighborhood, for your beloved, too, might eventually wear a ring in her nose” (71).

This may seem perplexing: why would he want to remain isolated? Well, Kierkegaard wisely observed that many people, rather than embracing their freedom, try to run from it since it requires two difficult things of us: (1) we must face future possibilities for choice which generate anxiety and (2) we must face past necessities that flow from our choices which bring guilt, remorse, regret, and so on. In many people the burdens of possibility and necessity lead to cowardice, inaction, and denial. But in the demonic person they give rise to actions that anxiously defy manifestations of the Good, like relationships, communication, love, and so on, so that existential choices can be avoided.  

But is the Designer at peace in his loveless stronghold that resists freedom? At one point he refers to his victims as “phantoms” (69) and claims their fashion-obsessed lives are the “most devoid of ideas” (67). These phantoms lack what Kierkegaard calls “inwardness” or the development of an integrated self through passionate choice. And without inwardness they are candidates for the sudden or that discontinuity which marks the disintegration of selfhood. But the Designer appears to be a candidate as well: “The other one they called the Fashion Designer, which was his occupation in civil life. It was impossible to get a genuine impression of this man…One moment his behavior was not without aplomb, but the next moment his walk assumed a certain dancelike festiveness, a certain floating motion…Even when he was talking most maliciously, his voice always had an element of boutique-pleasantness and polite sweetness, which certainly must have been extremely nauseating to him personally and only satisfied his defiance” (22). These contradictions exemplify a point Kierkegaard makes when discussing the demonic in The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton, 1980): “At one moment it is there, in the next moment it is gone, and no sooner is it gone than it is there again, wholly and completely. It cannot be incorporated or worked into any continuity, but whatever expresses itself in this manner is precisely the sudden” (130). Those marked by the sudden lose that continuous thread of integrated selfhood since “the sudden is a complete abstraction from continuity, from the past and the future” (132). Kierkegaard’s depiction of the Designer suggests that his demonic agenda to isolate himself by corrupting others is self-defeating: in turning others into phantoms he has become a phantom himself. One “cannot get a genuine impression” of him since he is a demonic and disintegrated being with no authentic relation to himself or others. No wonder we find the Designer admitting that he is a “madman” (65).

So we see that Kierkegaard is able to exemplify the three traits of demonic evil through his portrait of the Fashion Designer. His analysis is relevant in our media-saturated society where people have unprecedented opportunities to use – or be used by – the images and trends of fashion in ways that thwart existential freedom. The Designer, of course, is really all around us: he represents all those forces that draw our focus to superficial sameness in ways that undermine our individuality. As always, Kierkegaard helps us see these forces so we can guard against them in the name of authenticity. But he does something far more important: he helps us avoid becoming what the Designer accuses his dining guests of being, namely, “fellow conspirators” who use snobbish mockery and contemptuous glances to increase evil in the world.

Giandomenico Tiepolo, The Charlatan (1756)

I go over Kierkegaard’s theory of demonic evil in far more detail in a post here.

2 replies on “5. Kierkegaard’s Demonic Fashion Designer”

  1. Brigitte Lowther on

    Hello Dwight.
    I have a question that I have not been able to find the answer to thus far. I found your website asking the question: At the end of Soren Kierkegaard’s “In Vino Veritas”, when he asks (or wrote) “Who am I?”, who is it? Or perhaps what is it? I cannot figure it out… I thought perhaps these answers: Conscience. Truth. God. Would you be able to give me the simplest answer? Thank you very much.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Hi Brigitte

      Thanks for writing! Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way is an exploration of his three stages of life or spheres of existence: aesthetic, ethical and religious. “In Vino Veritas”, the first section of the book, is an exploration of the aesthetic stage. This stage of life, to oversimplify a bit, is essentially characterized by two fundamental motives: pursue that which is interesting and avoid boredom. The enemy is repetition: once some novel experience is repeated boredom sets in. Thus the aesthete must constantly pursue novelty and avoid various things, like marriage (explored in part 2 of Stages), that lead to repetition. The problem is that such a life leads to despair: no new moment can stay and the aesthete is caught in a frantic search for more and more novelty that continually slips away. Moreover, living for novel moments prevents the aesthete from developing a self since selfhood, for Kierkegaard, can only come about if one acts; and action can only occur if 1) one recognizes the conditioning necessity of the past and 2) based on this necessity one chooses from among possibilities of the future. Thus the aesthete, in seeking to live in fantasies of possibilities untarnished by the past, never develops a self. But, of course, the potential for selfhood is there and this potential, in accordance with Kierkegaard’s theological view of the self as a synthesis of necessity and possibility sustained by God, will continue to make a demand on the aesthete and, in some cases, generate so much despair that a leap out of the aesthetic stage occurs (Kierkegaard’s writings seek to precipitate this despair in reader’s who live in the aesthetic stage). Should a leap occur, then the self becomes an ethical self concerned with good and evil and interested in developing a historical continuity from the past into the future, relating to others, taking on obligations that lead to repetitions, and so on.

      Now, with this backdrop we can, I think, see what is going with the mysterious character William Afham. All his comments on recollection, his praise of the solitary life, and his final cryptic comments about being “pure being” betray him as a delusional aesthete who, incoherently, aspires to exist without having any determined existence. Existing as a free self comes through real action that moves forward based on past necessities and cancels future possibilities. But Afham says he is “continually being annulled” in all his relations like the “line with an arithmetic problem” that helps link things but is unaffected by the calculations. He, like Johannes the Seducer in Either/Or, is a watcher who will never have any personality because he never enters into relations with others that affect him. He is in despair.

      I hope that helps a bit. See my post “seduction as destruction” for more on this topic (here) and let me know if you have any questions.

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