Cogito

The Seducer’s Diary: how a 19th century philosopher anticipated the pick up artist movement

Daryush Valizadeh. Bartek Kucharczyk-Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Barely a year after Julian Blanc was denied a visa to Australia, the outcry over Daryush Valizadeh’s planned visit and cancelled meetings has once again drawn media attention on the global “Pick Up Artist” (PUA) movement.

Valizadeh, aka “Roosh V.” is one of the more visible PUA figures, and one of the most overtly sexist. He’s written a series of books on how to sleep with women in various countries such as Brazil, (“Poor favela chicks are very easy, but quality is a serious problem”) but advises his readers to avoid Denmark as Nordic social democracy has made Danish women too independent. He cites Arthur Schopenhauer to argue that women are less rational than men and so should be controlled by them. He insists “no” usually doesn’t mean no, and anyway women should understand that men just can’t stop themselves (so much for all that rational decision making…).

And here’s the kicker: he has proposed legalising rape on private property. If Valizadeh meant that to be some sort of tongue-in-cheek Swiftian parody, it’s not a particularly good one, and given the context I’m disinclined to give him the benefit of Poe’s Law.

Other PUAs might insist they don’t go quite that far. But all belong to a movement that presents itself as ‘empowering’ men by giving them tools and techniques (often plainly abusive ones) to manipulate women into bed. It reduces women to sites for the agency of men, mere mechanisms for producing sex and comfort.

On one level the PUA pathology is easy enough to diagnose: it’s just misogyny organised into a self-reinforcing club. It is men who have lost undeserved power – in particular, access to and control of women’s bodies – interpreting this loss as subjection.

PUAs and their “Men’s Rights Activists” (MRA) brethren will, of course, vociferously reject that claim. To do so, they’ll make various appeals: to history, to biological essentialism, to weirdly cherry-picked factoids (“women can’t really be oppressed because men die in workplace accidents more!”). All of it, however, amounts to little more than obvious figleaves for a desire to reclaim power over women.

The Sorrows Of Roosh V

What’s less obvious is that Valizadeh’s own story exposes something crucial: even on its own terms, the PUA approach is a failure. “The Game” (no, not the Game you just lost, the other one) is played exclusively by people who, eventually, lose.

As the blogger David Futrelle noted, Valizadeh’s way of life had already led him into a sort of existential crisis more than a year ago:

Unless I’m looking at an easy one-night stand opportunity, it’s illogical for me based on my experience to go on a date with a girl for any other reason than to enter some type of relationship with her, something that I don’t necessarily want. Otherwise it’s a waste of time that provides me with nothing more than entertainment. Even a one-night stand has lost its luster since the quality will be modest at best and condom use will be usually required, decreasing the overall sexual pleasure. It’s clear to me now that I don’t want what I used to want (as much), but at the same time I don’t care for something deeper. I’m afraid I may have already extracted the most satisfying rewards women could provide me in life, and that this particular oil well in running dry.

At 36, Valizadeh is still chasing sexual conquests while simultaneously tiring of them. His entire conception of the good life is structured around attaining a particular form of pleasure, while simultaneously avoiding commitments and their attendant loss of autonomy and risk of boredom.

What’s interesting about Valizadeh’s musings here, and the project they’re attached to, is how much they echo those of a fictional pick-up artist from a philosophical work written one hundred and fifty years ago.

The Jaded Aesthete

In 1843, a very strange book appeared in Reitzel’s bookshop in Copenhagen, under the enigmatic title Either/Or: A Fragment of Life.

Title page of ‘Either/Or’ by Søren Kierkegaard, 1843. Wikipedia

Not unusually for the era, it was published under a pseudonym. The fictional editor of the book, “Victor Eremita,” describes finding the papers that make up the book in a secret compartment of a second-hand desk. These papers are supposedly written by two different men: a jaded young aesthete, who Eremita simply calls “A”, and his older friend, a married judge named Vilhelm.

The name of the real author – Søren Kierkegaard – doesn’t appear. That’s not so as to hide authorship, however, but because the whole point of the book is to confront the reader directly with two different “spheres” of existence, two different ways of life, and to make them choose between them.

The “aesthetic” sphere, represented by “A”, is essentially about pursuing pleasure and avoiding boredom. “A” recommends an approach to life modelled on crop rotation: see only part of a play, read only part of a book, learn to distract yourself with trivia, move from one fleeting moment of pleasure to the next before it has time to become boring.

But boredom, it turns out, always catches you in the end. “A” finds he has to put enormous effort into avoiding entanglement and commitment, to diminishing returns. Compare Valizadeh’s quote above to Kierkegaard’s aesthete:

I don’t feel like doing anything. I don’t feel like riding – the motion is too powerful; I don’t feel like walking – it is too tiring; I don’t feel like lying down, for either I have to stay down, and I don’t feel like doing that or I would have to get up again, and I don’t feel like doing that, either. Summa Summarum: I don’t feel like doing anything.

Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.

The Seducer’s Diary

The aesthetic half of Either/Or culminates in a long series of diary entries attributed to a certain Johannes, detailing his drawn-out seduction of a young girl, Cordelia. “The Seducer’s Diary” as it’s known, contains no sex. Instead, Johannes explains in painstaking detail how he is manipulating Cordelia towards his predetermined end. He is at once both key actor in and passive observer of her seduction, obsessively analysing every minute detail.

Kierkegaard seems to have written “The Seducer’s Diary” partly as a means of presenting himself as the titular cad, in an effort to save the reputation of his former fiancé Regine Olsen after he’d broken off their engagement. But Johannes’ type is recognisable enough from the modern PUA movement: solipsistically self-involved, hyper-reflective, relentlessly objectifying, obsessively classifying, cataloguing and critiquing with a remorseless zeal.

Yet Johannes too is living in a form of despair. Despite his commitment to the 19th century Nordic version of ‘The Game,’ his techniques actually remove him from the present moment rather than allowing him to enjoy it. And when his conquest is complete, he must immediately move on lest boredom catch up with him:

But now it is finished, and I never want to see her again. When a girl has given away everything, she is weak, she has lost everything… Now all resistance is impossible, and to love is beautiful only as long as resistance is present; as soon as it ceases, to love is weakness and habit.

The last thing Johannes’ system of seduction will yield is genuine contact with another human being, let alone anything we might think of as happiness. The hunter is in fact the doomed quarry.

Ethical Choice

The second half of Either/Or is made up of Judge Vilhelm imploring his young friend to choose a life of ethical commitment, such as marriage. Yet he doesn’t tell ‘A’ to make this choice because it’s the ethically right thing to do. Rather he is begging A to choose to see the world in ethical terms at all:

My either/or does not in the first instance denote the choice between good and evil; it denotes the choice whereby one chooses good and evil or excludes them. Here the question is under what determinants one would contemplate the whole of existence and would himself live.

Simply pointing out to an aesthete that what they’re doing is immoral will cut no ice until the aesthete has chosen to see the world through an ethical lens. And the motivation to do so is precisely that a life governed entirely by pleasure has failed.

To this you might reply that PUAs and MRAs already do trade in ostensibly ethical terms, such as ‘rights’ (and the infamous “ethics in games journalism”). But the conception of ‘rights’ being put forward here is wholly self-serving, a set of principles advanced solely to protect their own interests rather than for the sake of the principles themselves. It’s selfishness masquerading as justice.

So while ideally PUAs would simply see the moral repugnance of what they’re doing and stop, it may be that, as a last resort, one way to get traction with them is pointing out that a life-project structured around serial seduction fails even on its own terms.

In other words, even if you could somehow disentangle it from its misogynistic focus of conquest and exploitation and its perpetuation and glorification of rape culture, the PUA mode of existence is a dead end. So even its adherents have self-interested reasons to abandon it, and with it, its selfish worldview.

What might replace the PUA mindset? Perhaps an openness to the encounter with the other person as they are, rather than one that tries to reduce women to instruments to be manipulated. For the Blancs and Valizadehs of this world, minimally decent personhood would be a good start.

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