Does Care Require Sacrifice? On Suffering and Dignity in Elif Batuman’s Either/Or
Catherine Nichols Goes Looking for Kierkegaard and Finds an Unrequited Crush
Even as a philosophy person, I haven’t been a Kierkegaard person. The outlines of concepts I knew didn’t appear to connect to me personally: the focus on regret and sin, the “leap of faith,” the detailed investigation into Abraham preparing to kill Isaac. Most philosophy reading comprises a few off-putting thought experiments; the explanation of concepts in epistemology and ethics involve locking babies in closets or running people over with trains, and it can be tiring. I didn’t know why I would want to read about the aesthetic pleasure of seducing and destroying young girls as a young girl, and no one had described his work to me in a way that suggested I would learn what I personally needed to know from him—until I heard Elif Batuman’s 2018 interview on the Longform podcast, in which she spoke about writing a novel based on a reading of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. She was thinking about his stories of seduction and destruction, connecting them to a question I found fascinating: does care require sacrifice?
In the podcast, Batuman said that she hadn’t wanted her parents to have to sacrifice themselves in order to raise her. Had it been necessary? I wanted to know more about that, and I wanted to know what Batuman in particular thought about that question, and how it related to Kierkegaard’s Seducer’s Diary and the leap of faith.
Batuman’s previous novel, The Idiot (2017), was about a student, Selin, during her first year at Harvard, written with oddball humor and philosophical profoundness that made it one of my favorite books of the year and possibly several of the flanking years. I trusted her. The way she described her new project, it seemed like she was approaching a large question made of smaller, seemingly unrelated questions: given certain human constants—the need for food, shelter, love, etc.—was it possible to change how our society draws the lines between these things? Which parts of our lives have to be this way, and which could we change in fundamental ways? The question about care and sacrifice was only part of that, but it was a part that I couldn’t stop thinking about.
From one perspective, care obviously requires sacrifice. If you care about something, you contribute to it more than other things; everything else gets less, and you get less from everything else. On the other hand, there are contexts in which raising children to adulthood and caring for your own aging parents means you have more support, more community, more potential resources of all kinds. Caring for the people around you would give you a strong social network; in theory, you would be valuable and respected. Instead, we have a society that draws the lines differently, so raising children or helping more vulnerable people harms our material stability and public standing.
In 2018, we already had Lauren Morril’s tweet “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.” It was tweeted in the context of health insurance, whether we should contribute to one another’s medical care. Everyone knows what happened in the years since 2018 that lead to Morril’s tweet being printed on masks and attributed to Anthony Fauci. When the judgments between care and sacrifice are in the news, which they seem to be every day since 2020, it’s to suggest either that the sacrifices are small and the benefits are large, that the sacrifices are large and should be repaid in some way, or that the sacrifices should not be made at all.
Many times in 2020 and 2021, while I was trying to keep my kid on task with his Zoom class and make some progress on my paid work, wondering when I’d write something for publication again, I’d type into the search bar, “Batuman new novel publication date?” Elsewhere on the internet, there were countless articles saying that parents, mothers in particular, were not okay with the sacrifices they were being asked to make: the harm to their (our) careers, the extra work, the desperation and sadness of seeing how bad things were for themselves and also the children. Anyone who cared about anything was angry and depressed.Thinking about one thing affects the interpretation of another; books read side by side appear to be in conversation.
At some point I stopped clicking on those headlines because being told you are suffering when you’re suffering can only be affirming up to a certain point, and then it feels obscurely insulting. I wanted to spend time with this question, but I didn’t have time. I wanted Batuman’s book to help me understand some of my own unformed reactions, and I wanted to know how Kierkegaard fit into it all.
Galley in hand, I was surprised to find that Either/Or begins right where The Idiot finishes, with the start of Selin’s sophomore year at Harvard University. I was enjoying the pleasures of Batuman’s prose and her deadpan humor, her deep curiosity about the things that interest her and her refusal to engage with things that do not. Midway through the book, Selin says, “I didn’t want to describe any furniture. I didn’t want to describe my bedroom, or anyone else’s bedroom, or my childhood home, or a place I knew well. I wanted to write a book about interpersonal relations and the human condition.”—a sentiment that could be Batuman’s own statement of purpose. That asymmetrical engagement gives her writing an enjoyable particularity. There’s nothing in her novels that’s only there because novels usually have that kind of element.
Still, I was reading for a reason, and I’m an adult, and the book begins with negotiations about housing for college sophomores. I did a bit of mental slapping the jukebox, trying to get the Kierkegaard to play—but a few more pages in, I found it was the book I had been waiting for after all, just from a perspective on care and sacrifice that seemed almost funny it’s so elemental: Selin is suffering because she has a crush, and it’s not reciprocated.
Do crushes require sacrifice, suffering? Yes. Unrequited lovers are not okay. Caring is embarrassing, it makes you easy to manipulate, it makes you eager to be exploited. It makes you foolish, and even eager to look foolish as a sign of how much you care. But like Kierkegaard’s dictum “Marry, and you will regret it: don’t marry, you will also regret it,” caring gives Selin’s life shape and texture, even as it adds suffering. Trying to shake herself free of some of the pain, Selin reads The Seducer’s Diary and then Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider’s 90s dating manual The Rules—both philosophical and practical treatises in their way, with more in common than I had considered.
Where the Seducer is trying to have the most interesting experiences of love without any of the boredom of commitment, and the Rules are about forcing a romance toward commitment, their methods and goals are remarkably similar. The Rules Girl and the Seducer both make a plan to enrapture the object of their desire through strategic withdrawal, refusing frankness, letters or phone calls, promises; they differ because the Seducer plans to disappear when his beloved is prepared to “give him everything,” while the Rules Girl accepts only marriage, and commits to maintaining a haze of mystery around herself until she dies (or the husband/pursuer dies first). Both plans are about offloading the struggle and pain of love onto another person as much as possible, and keeping only the pleasure for yourself.
The project of enticing someone into permanent thrall is obviously manipulative toward the object of seduction, but also toward oneself, and oddly pleasure-denying, if there are pleasures in spontaneity, intimacy, or trust. In both cases, a reader might wonder: is it really less of a sacrifice to love with this high degree of control, rather than just falling in love the regular way, even if that’s sometimes excruciating?
Selin cries all the time in this part of the book. Her friends are pairing off and she feels lost, still unable to shake the burden of her unrequited love for Ivan, even after he has graduated and moved away. Her wretchedness makes her look for ways to care less, to feel like the independent person she used to be. In a way, the Seducer and the Rules Girl have already lost the battle for dignity by trying to care less. No plan of offloading the sacrifice of caring would appeal if it didn’t start with abjectness—a sense that the sacrifice would be too much for them, personally, to bear.Do crushes require sacrifice, suffering? Yes. Unrequited lovers are not okay.
There’s no dignity in this attitude. In the case of the Rules, it is obvious to Selin as well that the marriage in which you can never speak freely is a humiliation, even if your husband does consider you “a creature like no other” for qualities other than your actual personality. Kierkegaard’s “aesthetic life”—the goal of the seducer, something like hedonism with more rigidity and self-denial—doesn’t look as obviously humiliating as the Rules marriage, but it’s also far from desirable.
Since Kierkegaard has the highest respect for people who make his famous “leap of faith,” he would have to think badly of someone who wants to control the flow of care and sacrifice so tightly in their relationships. After all, the Abraham and Isaac story is not about people controlling their relationships with one another, or with God.
In some ways, the public discourse has moved on from the sacrifices we should make for one another amid the pandemic, as we’ve collectively decided to shift most of the pain onto the most vulnerable people. For a while, the news headlines were about how much we should sacrifice—and care—about the war in Ukraine, and then more about the sacrifices of parenthood. Thinking about one thing affects the interpretation of another; books read side by side appear to be in conversation. This is the mechanic of Batuman’s novels as Selin reads and thinks about various texts in the context of her life, and also the experience of reading them.
Likewise, questions of sacrifice and care seem to be everywhere I look. It was useful to read about Selin’s thinking, her squeamishness about being “nurtured” in any kind of “environment”—she neither wants to sacrifice nor be the beneficiary of other people’s sacrifices, if she can help it. She is relieved when she doesn’t have to be the one to look after her mother post-surgery, and she takes notes on Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, how to avoid being scorned as Rachel was: quote the Lady of Shalott correctly if making a reference to her period, avoid wearing concealer that could clog the pores and cause pimples, and “be the writer.”
Selin starts to enjoy music more during this time; love songs are all about her own situation. She’s still crying all the time—sadness and sex are very close, she observes. She sees an analogy between Lauryn Hill’s role in the Fugees and Tatiana’s letter in Eugene Onegin: how seeing yourself through the eyes of another person can help you understand yourself better. Even though she doesn’t see Ivan anymore, Selin develops her aesthetic taste and tries dressing better. She discovers more of her own capacities through this unrequited love. Partly it’s the love itself, the way she appeared to herself in Ivan’s company; partly it’s the engagement with art and philosophy inspired by her pain; and partly it’s finding her own mettle as she struggles out from under her sadness. She is creating herself.
This is the part of the book where I felt like I was getting the solidarity I had been seeking. The sacrifices are also your life. They are your experiences and your intensity. You become yourself through caring, even if you can’t make serious progress in your own writing during a year of Zoom school. That’s partly what I found so grating about the framing of the “mothers are not okay” articles: At some point, this is my life, even the difficult parts. Even when it’s too much, it’s still mine.You become yourself through caring, even if you can’t make serious progress in your own writing during a year of Zoom school.
It’s a complicated line to walk between believing that you became yourself through difficult experiences and also believing that others shouldn’t have to experience those things. We should cancel student loan debt! We should cancel student loan debt and also leave room for people to be proud of themselves for paying off their loans? It’s a paradox of sacrifice. The experiences that shape us are also often ones we should protect others from.
When Selin returns to her family’s native Turkey for the summer, she visits a museum that her mother had taken her to as a child. Earlier in the book, her parents’ love and support made her feel anxious and unworthy, but the museum reminds Selin of her mother goofing around and making her laugh, creating silly translations for ancient Hittite scrips. Something else that’s made possible by care, energy freely given: easy mutual trust that turns into laughter.
At the end of the book, Selin is reading Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and thinking about the art of making a self, as Isabel Archer does, or at least tries to. Isabel seems to go astray, in Selin’s view, without a clear purpose, or lacking the imagination to do anything really original. She just gets married. Selin, meanwhile, does something that she has no blueprint for doing, something new. She goes to Russia. In context, this is a blazing novelty, the result of all that selfhood built from her suffering. It reminded me of the reason I wanted to be both a writer and a parent in the first place: to learn things that weren’t known before, not just by me but by anyone.
It’s possible that a larger society could also do something new and good, if we embraced the voluntary sacrifice involved with caring for one another. It’s not an obvious foundation for original action, but Batuman makes a good case: that care, including its struggles, is the basis of originality and the foundation of a leap of faith.