Sex for Art’s Sake

Elif Batuman’s curious experiment in fiction

illustration of a woman dressed in white standing with her back turned among more colorful but less solid figures
Dadu Shin

“One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one goes abroad; one is europamüde, one goes to America, and so on.” In Either/Or (1843), the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard calls this ceaseless quest for novelty the defining feature of an “aesthetic life,” one in which meaning is derived from pleasure-seeking (rather than from, say, the stable tedium of marriage). Those who subscribe to it are in constant pursuit of new erotic and artistic stimuli, consequences be damned: “One burns half of Rome to get an idea of the conflagration of Troy.” Fortunately, for the Harvard student Selin Karadağ—the protagonist of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (her fiction debut, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 2018) and its sequel, Either/Or—embracing this quest never comes to arson. A sophomore now, in Batuman’s second novel, she can just declare a new major.

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For Selin, a narrator who treats course descriptions as manifestos, this portends a drastic shift in worldview and sensibility. At the end of The Idiot, she resolved to stop taking classes in the psychology and philosophy of language. She had just spent the summer of 1996 teaching English in a village outside Budapest, a job she took to get closer—physically and culturally—to her crush, a Hungarian math student named Ivan who has now graduated. When the sexual tension built over the summer crescendoed into nothing more than a brotherly hug in a parking lot, Selin was left feeling adrift—and angry about all the linguistics classes she had taken the previous year. “They had let me down,” she seethed. The blunders and miscues that stalled her relationship with Ivan could not be explained away by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that she had sworn by—the idea that “the language you spoke affected how you processed reality.”

In reality, Either/Or informs us, Ivan was just the kind of person who preferred sex on a Thai beach to stilted conversation by the Danube. Like some critics of The Idiot, he turns out to have wanted a little less talk and a little more action. Either/Or shares none of the chastity of its predecessor. Selin and Ivan’s tentative and nerdy emails (in which they pretended to be characters from their Russian-language textbook) and their innocent swims in Walden Pond have given way to an S&M party, K-Y jelly, handcuffs, and talk of a Swedish-twin fetish. It is as if Batuman set out to respond to her detractors and (in the style of her protagonist, who always petitions the dean to take a fifth course) couldn’t help overachieving in the process. But the sex is not gratuitous. Now a literature major who has just discovered Kierkegaard’s Either/Or in a bookstore, Selin—by testing out the aesthetic life—is simply doing her homework.

The novel meanders along as she experiments with sensualism. As Selin bounces from one experience (boys, books, countries, etc.) to the next, Either/Or never gets tied down to any one story line. Batuman is not about to concoct some equivalent to the marriage plot; an aesthetic life necessitates narratological promiscuity.

The sequel is a more explicit künstlerroman than its antecedent. The Selin who spent the last parts of The Idiot in a small Hungarian village gathering anecdotes for a novel is now in possession of a full-fledged creative philosophy. Her new taste for whirlwind sexual affairs coincides with her belief that to be a writer, she must collect experiences that she can churn into art. However, Selin, never one to leave an idea unchallenged, spends much of Either/Or questioning the ethical implications of seeing other people as material for fiction, especially as her setting shifts from Harvard Yard to Turkey. As the novel traverses the globe, we remain fixed within Selin’s mind, a space that vibrates with the intensity of someone young enough to think that she will solve this dilemma once and for all.

Batuman’s first book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), was a memoiristic account of her grad-school days at Stanford. It put on full display Batuman’s now-familiar gift for blending erudition with approachability, sophisticated literary exegesis with self-deprecating humor. She described her choice to study Russian literature as “an impulsive decision, not unlike jumping over a wall and ending up in a graveyard.” Fans of Batuman, myself included, would be lying if we did not admit that, when reading her, we tacitly hope her hyperintelligence might be contagious. Publishers intuited as much when she initially pitched The Possessed as fiction. “Nobody wants to read a whole novel about depressed grad students” was the message Batuman got, she told the magazine Guernica in 2017, “but with a nonfiction book, some people might read it in the hope of learning about the Russian novels they never had time to read themselves. It was supposed to be sort of a time-saving device.”

Like The Possessed, Either/Or could double as a syllabus. Batuman’s newest narrative is propelled by Selin’s encounters with various works of art, which teach her that her dalliance with Ivan, baffling and torturous though it had been, was good material. She recognizes versions of her story not just in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel about unrequited love, but in the lyrics of the Fugees (over email, Ivan had killed her softly with his words), and she is reassured—her agonies will not be for naught. Above all, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or consolidates her allegiance to an aesthetic approach to life. As in The Idiot, her friend Svetlana is her foil, a woman who “wanted to be in a ‘stable relationship’ and to someday have children”—precisely the path that holds no allure for Selin.

Creative writing dovetails well with getting over a breakup. As Selin goes out to amass experiences, Ivan recedes into the background; where we once awaited his emails, we now await Selin’s inevitable UTI. Her sex-shy and teetotaling days behind her, she embarks on a college life more ordinary, saying yes where she would have once said no. With the raw sincerity and droll insight into the rarefied world of academia that readers will remember from Batuman’s previous books, Selin recounts her initial toe-dip into hedonism—which entails, among other things, losing her virginity to a Harvard guy who studies the “depolarization-induced slowing of Ca2+ channel deactivation in squid neurons.” She surprises her friend Lakshmi by dressing “appropriately” for an S&M party. The new thrill-seeking, uninhibited Selin hears the Alanis Morissette song “Head Over Feet,” particularly the line about “wanting something rational,” and feels disdain. She concludes that Alanis must be singing about “some boring guy,” not the kind of person who would make for a good character in a novel.

The simplicity of the experience-for-art’s-sake mantra is itself a clue that the cerebral Selin will soon grow suspicious of it. For a seminar on chance she reads Nadja (1928), by the surrealist André Breton, a novel based on his brief, real-life affair with a young woman who was later institutionalized. The idea that, as the back cover puts it, “Nadja is not so much a person as a way she makes people behave” freaks Selin out. She’s more than a little repulsed by this instrumental view of a human being. Yet doesn’t she go on to adopt a similar attitude in her dealings with the boys she encounters in her sensual makeover? As if on cue, Svetlana (who delights in passing judgment) pronounces, “That’s what can happen when you fetishize an aesthetic life. It can make you irresponsible and destructive.” But even Svetlana concedes that “people like that can invent a new style, and I can appreciate that.”

Selin is not terribly troubled by the prospect of using the young men in her life, and rightly so: After all, they seem just as eager to dispose of her as she of them. The ethics of being an autobiographical-writer-in-the-making who feeds on turmoil become murkiest for Selin when she thinks about her family, who made an appearance in The Idiot and return in Either/Or. She considers the lingering effects of her parents’ divorce, now brought into relief by an illness that accentuates her mother’s vulnerability. Selin recalls the little jokes her mother would make about which of her bad habits would end up in Selin’s novel. A fiercely loyal and empathetic daughter, Selin is unsettled by the notion that her parents’ lapses have served as a kind of creative resource for her as a writer. “The disorder you experienced in your childhood was somehow to your credit, or capitalizable upon later in life,” she thinks—“even though, or precisely because, it was a discredit to your mother.”

Batuman has spoken frequently about her indebtedness to the 20th-century Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who argued that the novel is defined by its ability to accommodate different registers of language and dialect and to contain multiple genres (letters, essays, poems, etc.). Either/Or takes full advantage of that capaciousness; along with song lyrics (Tom Waits is also on the playlist), it includes letters and poetry from a street magazine sold by unhoused people in Cambridge, Harvard course-catalog offerings, live-chat messages, and a series that proves surprisingly suited to raising even wider-ranging questions about the aesthetic approach to life: the Let’s Go travel guides. Selin gets hired by the longtime publisher of the Harvard-student-written books even though she fails the Let’s Go test (enough language proficiency to pay a bribe) for her desired destination, Russia: Selin fudges the grammar when she tries to offer a fake Russian cop $4, so she is assigned to Turkey instead.

One of the criticisms levied at The Idiot was that Selin seemed to lack a political consciousness. However one comes down on the debate over whether literary fiction should be held to such a standard, Either/Or is enriched by Batuman’s decision to raise the stakes of the novel’s central theme. Like Batuman’s, Selin’s family is from Turkey, and the guidebook she has been tasked with updating forces her to confront what it means to have your own way of life aestheticized by others. In Ankara, she stays with her grandmother, who tends to speak in proverbs. “I was used to tuning them out,” Selin says, but now she realizes that this is precisely what Let’s Go readers want to hear—some local color to accentuate the foreignness. “If it had been Russia—I would have been trying to learn the proverbs,” she admits, and so “I started writing them down.” At a hostel, a German tourist overhears Selin speaking Turkish and asks her to belly dance.

Selin finds herself stuck between the wishes of Turkish hospitality workers, who want her to advertise their services in Let’s Go, and the demands of foreign travelers, who are expecting her to deliver vivid experiences (which always seem to involve paying as little as possible for the wares and services of locals). The Turkish characters are confused by Selin’s actions—why is she making life so hard for herself, taking two buses to a small, remote village? “The book I work for is for Americans,” she explains. “If their life is too easy, they worry that they’re missing the authentic essence of Turkish existence.” Her interlocutors remain authentically puzzled. Batuman devotes her final chapters to ferry captains and the people who work front desks at hostels and bus depots. In other words, she shines a light on what you could call the experience supply chain and the labor that goes into furnishing people with a life they might consider worth writing about.

As for what kind of life is worth reading about, some will no doubt be prompted to wonder just that after closing Either/Or. To paraphrase the publisher who considered Batuman’s first pitch for The Possessed, plenty of people might ask themselves why they should bother with a whole novel about an antic undergrad obsessed with the dilemmas of art-making. I confess I felt a tinge of the same vexation. Unsure how to think about that, I did what Selin does in Either/Or when she finishes Nadja—I read the back-jacket copy: “How does one live a life as interesting as a novel—a life worthy of becoming a novel—without becoming a crazy, abandoned woman oneself?” I decided that Batuman is warning us (and Selin, not that she’s listening) against just that sort of fervent need to identify with fictional characters, to see their demons and desires reflected in our own lives. Perhaps it should be enough to say of reading Either/Or that I enjoyed the experience.


This article appears in the May 2022 print edition with the headline “Sex for Art’s Sake.”