EITHER/OR takes the form of letters between A, a cynical, aesthete romantic, and Judge Vilhelm, a retired authority figure deeply committed to the ethical life. A tries to persuade Vilhelm of his own worldview, in which “[b]oredom is the root of all evil” and “[a]ll men are boring,” and presents the famed “Diary of the Seducer” (written by another character, “Johannes the Seducer”) as a means of defaming the institution of marriage, while Judge Vilhelm tells his young friend that “you are nothing and exist merely in relation to others.” This exchange is presented as having been found and edited by a third person, Victor Eremita. All of them are also, of course, identities of the actual author, Søren Kierkegaard.
Though most don’t contain as many distinct personae as Either/Or, Kierkegaard published each of his philosophical texts under a different identity, each with a unique perspective, background, and set of beliefs — which may or (more likely) may not be those of Kierkegaard himself. (His strictly theological work, however, was all published under his own name.) Take The Concept of Anxiety’sauthor Vigilius Haufniensis, a “humble” man, “a king without a country” and “an author without any claims.” (Many of the footnotes in this work reference and comment on other authors who are also Kierkegaard.) Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript were published under the name Johannes Climacus and followed by The Sickness Unto Death, ostensibly written by Anti-Climacus. These personae mark Kierkegaard as one of the most important practitioners of literary heteronymity.
Heteronymity, or the publication of works under an assumed identity constituting an entirely different character, distinguishes itself from pseudonymous works that express the author’s opinions under a different name. In a sense, heteronymity requires two acts of creation: the invention of an author and the text produced by that author, placing further distance between the original author and the final words in a text. There’s some history for the practice distinct from its pseudonymous cousin, most notably in the works of Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who coined the word “heteronym” to refer to the many voices he used to write poetry and letters, each with their own biography, influences, and style.
Kierkegaard’s work is particularly well suited to heteronymity’s abstraction from straightforward authorial intent. His intricate web of identities allowed him to tackle his central question — how to be a good Christian in contemporary Christendom — from a variety of perspectives, many of which openly disagreed, in the public sphere. (Were Kierkegaard alive today, he might well have been an avid user of multiple anonymous Twitter accounts.) Most of the heteronyms are in turn mocked, even while their arguments are serious — Johannes Climacus, who does not consider himself a Christian, recounts how he became an author through a winking “self-communion” and smoking multiple cigars, in which he decides to try to mimic those with worldly success “out of love for mankind.” But another writer exemplifies the possibilities of heteronymity in another medium — the rapper MF Doom.
To be fair, there’s a long, storied history of rappers using different personae, from Kool Keith’s legendary Dr. Octagon character, an evil, time-traveling, alien gynecologist (killed off by Dr. Doom, another of Keith’s characters) to the fascinating, almost completely fabricated stone-cold thug played by modern-day Jay Gatsby, Rick Ross. But Doom is among rap’s most prominent practitioners of heteronymity, using his many characters over a sustained period in ways that draw attention to its benefits.
The man born Daniel Dumile has recorded music under several different names over the course of a long, at times equally brilliant and frustrating career. Original alias Zev Love X was his identity as part of the group KMD alongside his brother Subroc, who was killed in a car accident the same week Elektra Records dropped KMD over manufactured controversy springing from the cover art of their album Black Bastards. After several years in the wilderness, writing like crazy and occasionally homeless, Dumile returned to hip-hop wearing a mask and the name and identity of MF Doom.
Doom’s first post-KMD album, Operation: Doomsday, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in April, introduced the character ofMF Doom — short for Metal Face, though the MF changes to Metal Fingers when he releases instrumental compilations Special Herbs — the hip-hop supervillain, seeking revenge against the music business that wronged him in a colorful sci-fi world mashed up from comic books and Saturday morning cartoons, “a killer who love children / One who is well-skilled in destruction, as well as building.” King Geedorah, a member of group Monster Island Czars and the featured artist on Operation: Doomsday’s “Red and Gold,” is just another of Doom’s identities: an alien monster observing human customs from the outside who uses Doom as a “million dollar voice-throw trick / […] like a ventriloquist, with his fist in the speaker’s back.”
Geedorah gets his own showcase on Take Me To Your Leader, where he announces his intention to “wake you up out the deep sleeper, like.” Viktor Vaughn, the “young whippersnapper” time-traveling villain appears on Vaudeville Villain and Venomous Villain, hanging out with his friends and chasing girls. Several other distinct names describe Doom as part of a bigger collaboration, most notably Madvillain for his work with fellow identity Katamari Madlib, whose projects include the Beat Konducta series, rapping alter ego Quasimoto, and fake jazz group Yesterdays New Quintet, whose fictional members all also have their own solo releases.
“Fancy Clown” off Doom’s magnum opus, Madvillainy (a decade old as of March), is a downright dizzying example of this interplay. At the beginning of the track Doom (already laboring as one half of Madvillain) announces, “It’s Viktor,” taking on the Viktor Vaughn persona before creating a tale of heartbreak as Vaughn discovers his girlfriend has been cheating on him and in turn reveals his own unfaithfulness in retaliation, tearing down their toxic relationship out of spite. But Vaughn insults his girlfriend’s lover by calling him “tin head” and chastises her for wanting “a dude who wear a mask all day” — the other guy is Metal Face. Here, Doom is able to deploy his aliases in opposition, creating a story of inner strife that runs both parallel to and deeper than a mere spurned lover lashing out. Vaughn wants to “pound his [Metal Face’s] tin crown face in,” evoking the often-pointed interactions between Kierkegaard’s characters, like Vigilius’s wry speculation in the footnotes of The Concept Of Anxiety that Constantin Constantius, if he permitted himself vanity, would be “stark mad.”
Each of Doom’s characters is also a way of showing off the full range of his musical talent — the Metal Face, Viktor Vaughn, and King Geedorah characters all have distinct syntaxes, flows, and levels of vulgarity, and are tied to different elements of hip-hop. The Metal Face name appears on albums that Doom has both produced and written himself — the closest thing to a pure expression of himself — while King Geedorah is primarily a behind the scenes producer, executing a “script” over the course of Take Me To Your Leader in accordance with the “voice-throw trick” the character uses to control Doom, and Viktor Vaughn raps and promotes himself (including on a series of tracks representing an open mic night), but leaves the beat making to outside producers woven into the narrative as his friends.
Kierkegaard is, if anything, even more sensitive to the connection between form and content, if not in a sonic capacity. See, for example, the famed opening passage of The Sickness Unto Death (and several others throughout his work), which takes the form of an extended parody of Georg Wilhelm Hegel’s writing, implicitly separating Kierkegaard from Hegel’s dialectical method without requiring a word of substance or argument. Either/Or depends upon its epistolary form for its own persuasive force, pitting the two ethical and aesthetic perspectives it embodies in direct, plausible opposition without a clear victor rather than engaging in a didactic dialogue like, say, one of Plato’s. That seems to be one of the more salient, playful aspects of heteronymity: toying with the ways changes in the style of art and argument effect the substance.
Kierkegaard and Doom’s work highlights one of those changes above all others: a separation of a text from the author. Kierkegaard may find the arguments espoused by, say, Johannes Climacus useful to engage with, and even close to something he himself believes, but whether or not he truly advocates for those positions is irrelevant. Likewise, Viktor Vaughn can be (and often is) consumed by heartbreak and romantic woes, but the Doom persona on MM.. Food is too preoccupied with wordplay and smoking blunts to be fazed by any girl, and King Geedorah has no business with human emotions. The creation of voice that supplements the base creative act of heteronymous writing is crucial to this project, forcing engagement with different forms of life.
In turn,the man behind the mask often bleeds into the creation of the character. Kierkegaard used the Johannes de Silentio persona’s obsession with Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac to work through his feelings over the sacrifice of his engagement to Regine Olsen, and wrote an entire book (Repetition) from the perspective of a psychologist, Constantin Constantius, trying to help a “Young Man” work through a similar decision. And Doom’s deceased brother Subroc finds his way into a few tracks, most notably on Operation Doomsday’s“Doomsday” (“Ever since the womb ’til I’m back where my brother went”) and MM… Food’s “Kon Karne” (“I dedicate this mix to Subroc the Hip Hop Hendrix”). On “Banished” off Key to the Kuffs (his collaboration with Jneiro Jarel), he channels his real-life inability to return to his family in America because of a customs dispute in the guise of Metal Face’s exile: “Villain got banished / Refused out the U.S., he ain’t even Spanish.”
These characters let the artist give full expression to a part of themselves, with an important element of distance: As Viktor Vaughn, Dumile can be a young, unabashed womanizer. As Geedorah, he can express his deep-seated horror with the world that took away his brother and a music industry that chewed him up and spit him out, while putting a pleasant face on in interviews about his work in that industry as Doom. And as Metal Face, he can be, in his own words, “a motherfucker that really, really don’t give a fuck.” Kierkegaard’s massive heteronymous project might have been a way of addressing several sides of a problem surrounding modern Christianity, but it also gave voice to his conflicted feelings about his engagement and his own perception of himself as an author — perhaps even one engaged in parodic “self-communion.”
The tenuous, shifting relationship between authorship, character, and text suggests a vast amount of untapped potential for heteronymous work in the written (and rapped) word. The power of these distinct characters has a tendency to bleed into an artist’s life, and vice versa. Besides Kierkegaard’s published, oblique interior journey, Doom’s character’s villainy serves as justification for one of his most frustrating real-life habits — not appearing at his own scheduled shows. When first confronted about the practice of sending imposters wearing his signature mask (Doombots) to lip-synch, Doom turned to the demands of his persona: “Everything that we do is villain style,” he told Rolling Stone, “Everybody has the right to get it or not get it. Once I throw it out, it’s there for interpretation.”
Eric Thurm writes about pop culture for publications including The A.V. Club, Complex, and The Week.