Elif Batuman delves into philosophy and love in novel ‘Either/Or’

Image courtesy of Penguin Press.

It is rare to find a sequel to a critically acclaimed, beautifully written first novel that is of equal exceptionality. It is even rarer to find a sequel that takes the best qualities of its predecessor and elevates them to a new level. I was overjoyed when I found this was the case while reading “Either/Or” by Elif Batuman over the summer, the sequel to her first novel “The Idiot,” which I reviewed last spring

“Either/Or” follows our beloved protagonist from “The Idiot,” Selin Karadağ—an introspective, Turkish-American English major—through her sophomore year at Harvard University. This novel had an immense impact on me, perhaps due to the fact that I read it the summer before my own sophomore year. 

Selin returns to Harvard after a summer spent teaching English in a Hungarian village, growing closer to her good friend Svetlana and pining after Ivan, the man she is in love with, whom she now sometimes corresponds with via email. Selin spends her sophomore year preoccupied not only with Ivan, but also with Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophical text “Either/Or” (after which Batuman’s sequel is named). She is fascinated by his classification of life as either aesthetic or ethical—an aesthetic life being one based on principles of spontaneity and the search for experiences of individual pleasure and beauty, and an ethical life being one centered around societal regulations and living with end goals in mind. 

In the opening section of Batuman’s “Either/Or,” Selin ruminates on the notion of an aesthetic versus ethical life and how these classifications correspond to her and Svetlana. She explains that while she enjoys spending time with less dependable people who could provide her with interesting experiences, “Svetlana liked to surround herself with dependable boring people who corroborated her in her way of being.” Svetlana tends to take university courses that cover the basics before moving onto more advanced work, while Selin takes a different path: “I had a terror of being bored, so I preferred to take highly specific classes with interesting titles, even though I hadn’t taken the prerequisites and had no idea what was going on.” 

Despite concentrating on topics that could be perceived as pretentious, such as Kierkegaardian philosophy and literary analyses of classic texts, Batuman’s writing is deeply funny, strikingly delicate and unpretentious. This comes as an impressive feat and makes the experience of reading “Either/Or” that much more enjoyable. 

Selin, as a sophomore in college, maintains a sense of ignorance and bewilderment for the world around her, a character trait I found refreshing while reading Batuman’s first novel, “The Idiot.” However, her freshman year experiences have solidified her identity and shaped her into a more ambitious, courageous character in this sequel. In the face of overwhelming self-awareness, Selin is able to go after what she wants; she goes on Zoloft to reduce a period of Ivan-centered depression, loses her virginity and decides to embark on a journey to Turkey the following summer, during which she has multiple affairs with kind, but rather uninteresting, men. 

If “The Idiot” is a story about ignorance and the exploration of personhood, “Either/Or” is a story primarily about love—who deserves it, how we reckon with having it and why people fear it. By reading Kierkegaard and questioning how she should live, Selin lands on love as the central aspect of life. Throughout the novel, she raises the idea of colleges having a department of love. In a world that seems to view love as a shortcoming, Selin accepts it as a necessary feeling and something that deserves to be studied. At one point she writes, “I thought of my own mother who adored me, and had also fallen in love with a man who had eventually married someone else. Why did that happen to people? Was anyone even studying this stuff? Was anyone doing anything to fix it?” 

At another point, when reading Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” Selin narrates her thoughts on the heroine Tatiana, who expresses her love for Onegin without fear of retribution or humiliation. Selin admires that Tatiana does not submit to love as a game, but rather writes to her lover an earnest confession of her feelings. This way of navigating love defines it as an honest emotion deserving of verbalization rather than a supernatural force that deems a person weak if properly expressed. 

Selin’s view of love as a commonplace feeling as opposed to an imposing force made me consider what love has become in our contemporary society and how her interpretation of love contradicts today’s norm. In my opinion, love held a more crucial role in romantic attraction in the past than it does today. Today, these attractions are defined as crushes or finding someone “hot” or “cute.” In our world, love is a force that we only feel comfortable engaging with once we have spent a certain amount of time in a defined relationship with a person. I believe this is due to our increasingly materialistic world, in which we find more value in objects than we do in people, thus enabling us to conflate human bodies with objects for our affection and attention rather than as genuine human beings for whom we might feel deeply, feelings that stem from a love for their entire personhood. 

Selin questions this throughout “Either/Or,” reflecting on her love for Ivan. Now, Ivan has graduated and moved to California, and the truth remains that he and Selin never shared any physical intimacy. I found this aspect of their relationship to be mesmerizing—the kind of all-encompassing, nearly painful, obsessive love that Selin has for Ivan mirrors the feelings of someone involved in a sexual or romantic relationship. However, Selin and Ivan’s connection lacks this entirely. They have not once kissed—instead, their relationship resembles an emotionally intense friendship, one based on shared culture, an ability to converse in meaningful ways and mutual intellectual admiration. 

Nevertheless, Selin’s love for Ivan is the electrical current that pervades the entire story; while not always explicitly mentioned, we as readers can feel her longing for him—he is the thought behind every action she takes, the memory in every song she hears and the fantasy in every moment of stillness she experiences.

Although love is Selin’s overwhelming fixation in “Either/Or,” it is certainly not the only issue which Batuman chooses to explore. Batuman also provides the space for readers to understand the importance of Selin’s relationship with her mother. Selin sees herself as a reflection of her mother, as many daughters, myself included, often do. While the two are spending a weekend in New York, Selin, overwhelmed by depression, makes the decision to try antidepressants. At first she feels guilty for the cost, but her mother instantly pushes that worry aside. As much as Selin needs love from her mother, her mother also needs love from her: “Sometimes, she said,  she slept in my bed for once or two nights, because the bed still smelled like me. She smiled conspiratorially, and I felt my heart constrict.” 

Because Batuman reveals a greater view of Selin’s symbiotic relationship with her mother, our understanding of what love means to her expands. Selin is not solely fixated on romantic attraction and how that love (or lack of love) defines her, but builds her identity on familial relationships as well. 

Initially, Selin’s goal in questioning love and exploring the Kierkegaard-inspired aesthetic/ethical dilemma perplexed me. What was it that she was searching for? How did these brain-churning philosophical discussions correspond with her passion for literature and storytelling? The answer to this became clear to me near the end of the novel—the point at which it also becomes clear to Selin. 

Selin decides to fly to Russia because she loves Russian literature. She says, “In the past, I had been in one country or another because of other people: my parents, Svetlana, Ivan Sean. But I was in Russia because I had looked at the literatures of the world and made a choice. Nobody had especially wanted me to come—indeed, the customs officer who stamped my passport had left a distinct impression of wishing me to be elsewhere—yet here I was.” 

Selin is not merely seeking answers or a better way to live; she is searching for agency. She has searched for herself in many different ways: through novels, through travel, through Ivan, through sexual encounters with various kinds of men, through conversations with Svetlana, through her relationship with her mother, through her culture as a Turkish-American woman. After all of this searching, Selin finds her identity by exerting agency over her own life and ambitions. 

“Either/Or” is a novel about love, philosophy, literature and choice. More so, it is a novel about a young woman who decides that she has spent enough time observing the world as a spectator and takes action to change her own life. 

 

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