Repetition (Kierkegaard)

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The young girl was not his beloved: she was the occasion that awakened the poetic in him and made him a poet. This is why he could love only her, never forget her, never want to love another, and yet continually only long for her.

Repetition : A Venture in Experimental Psychology (1843) by Søren Kierkegaard, is a story of an unhappy love affair in which a young man struggles with his own conscience over a decision he made.

Part One: Report by Constantin Constantius[edit]

  • Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward. Repetition, therefore, if it is possible makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy — assuming of course, that he gives himself time to live and does not promptly at birth find an excuse to sneak out of life again, for example, that he has forgotten something. p. 131
  • Hope is a new garment, stiff and starched and lustrous, but it has never been tried on, and therefore one odes not know how becoming it will be or how it will fit. Recollection is a discarded garment that does not fit, however beautiful it is, for one has outgrown it. p. 132
  • Repetition is an indestructible garment that fits closely and tenderly, neither binds nor sags. Hope is a lovely maiden who slips away between one’s fingers; recollection is a beautiful old woman with whom one is never satisfied at the moment; repetition is a beloved wife of whom one never wearies, for one only becomes weary of what is new. One never grows weary of the old, and when one has that, one is happy. p. 132
  • Who could want to be a tablet on which time writes something new every instant or to be a memorial volume of the past? Who would want to be susceptible to every fleeting thing, the novel, which always enervatingly diverts the soul anew? If God himself had not willed repetition, the world would not have come into existence. Either he would have followed the superficial plans of hope or he would have retracted everything and preserved it in recollection. This he did not do. Therefore, the world continues, and it continues because it is a repetition. Repetition — that is actuality and the earnestness of existence. The person who wills repetition is mature in earnestness. p. 132-133
  • About a year ago, I became very much aware of a young man … [who was] at the captivating age in which spiritual maturity, just like physical maturity at a far earlier age, announces itself by a frequent breaking of the voice. … he told me he had fallen in love, I involuntarily thought that the girl who was loved in this way was indeed fortunate. He had been in love for some time now, concealing it even from me, but now the object of his desire was within reach; he had confessed his love and found love in return. p. 133-134
  • The young girl was not his beloved: she was the occasion that awakened the poetic in him and made him a poet. This is why he could love only her, never forget her, never want to love another, and yet continually only long for her. She was drawn into his own being; the memory of her was forever alive. She had meant much to him; she had made him a poet — and precisely thereby had signed her own death sentence. As time went on, his state became more and more anguished. His depression became more and more dominant, and his physical strength was devoured in mental struggles. He was aware that he had made her unhappy, and yet he was conscious of no guilt; but precisely this, in all innocence to become guilty of her unhappiness, was an offense to him and vehemently stirred his passion. p. 138
  • When the Greeks said that all knowing is recollecting, they said that all existence, which is, has been; when one says that life is a repetition, one says; actually, which has been, now comes into existence. If one does not have the category of recollection or of repetition, all life dissolves into an empty, meaningless noise. Recollection is the ethical view of life, repetition the modern; repetition is the interest of metaphysics, and also the interest upon which metaphysics comes to grief; repetition is the watchword in every ethical view; repetition is condicio sine qua non [the indispensable condition] for every issue of dogmatics. … I follow Hamann’s example, “express myself in various tongues and speak the language of sophists, of puns, of Cretans and Arabians, of whites and Moors and Creoles, and babble a confusion of criticism, mythology, rebus, and axioms, and argue now in a human way and now in an extraordinary way.” p. 149
  • I shall proceed to speak a little of the investigative journey I made to test the possibility and meaning of repetition. Without anyone knowing about it I went by steamship to Berlin. p. 150
  • Only the imagination is awakened to his dream about the personality; everything else is still fast asleep. In such a self-vision of the imagination, the individual is not an actual shape but a shadow, or, more correctly, the actual shape is invisibly present and therefore is not satisfied to cast one shadow, but the individual has a variety of shadows, all of which resemble him and which momentarily have equal status as being himself. As yet the personality is not discerned, and its energy is betokened only in the passion of possibility, for the same thing happens in the spiritual life as with many plants — the main shoot comes last. But this shadow existence also demands satisfaction, and it is never beneficial to a person if this does not have time to live out its life, whereas on the other hand it is tragic or comic if the individual makes the mistake of living out his life in it. Such an individual’s pretensions to being a genuine human being become just as doubtful as the claim to immortality by those who are not even capable of appearing in person on Judgment Day but are represented by a deputation of good intentions, twenty-four-hour resolutions, half-hour plans, etc. The main point is that everything takes place at the right time. Everything has its time in youth, and what has had its time then has it again in later life. And it is just as salutary for the adult to have something in his past life that he can laugh about as something past that draws his tears. p.154-155
  • For a cultured person, seeing a farce is similar to playing the lottery, except that one does not have the annoyance of winning money. But that kind of uncertainty will not do for the theater-going public, which therefore ignores farce or snobbishly disdains it, all the worse for itself. A proper theater public generally has certain restricted earnestness; it wishes to be — or at least fancies that it is — ennobled and educated in the theater. It wishes to have had — or at least fancies that it has had — a rare artistic enjoyment; it wishes, as soon as it has read the poster, to be able to know in advance what is going to happen that evening. Such unanimity cannot be found at a farce, for the same farce can produce very different impressions, and, strangely enough, it may so happen that the one time it made the least impression it was performed best. Thus a person cannot rely on his neighbor and the man across the street and statements in the newspaper to determine whether he has enjoyed himself or not. The individual has to decide that matter for himself, and as yet scant success has attended any reviewer’s prescription of an etiquette for a cultured theater public seeing a farce: here it is impossible to establish proper style. p. 159-160
  • The experience of watching Beckmann perform — he’s full of hilarity and joy – then notices a young girl. “When I had watched Beckmann and let myself be convulsed with laughter, when I sank back in exhaustion and let myself be carried away on the current of jubilation and hilarity and then climbed out of the pool and returned to myself again, my eyes sought her, and the sight of her refreshed my whole being with its friendly gentleness. Or when in the farce itself a feeling of greater pathos burst forth, I looked at her, and her presence helped me to yield to it, for she sat composed in the midst of it all, quietly smiling in childlike wonder. She came there, as I did, every evening. p. 167
  • the recollection of it awakened in my soul; everything was as vivid for me as it was the time before. … no box was available for me alone, … Beckmann could not make me laugh. I endured it for half an hour and then left the theater, thinking; there is no repetition at all. This made a deep impression on me. I am not so very young, am not altogether ignorant of life, and long before my previous trip to Berlin I had cured myself of calculating on the basis of uncertainties.” He went home … everything was out of place – My home had become dismal simply because it was a repetition of the wrong kind. p. 169-170
  • I awoke to have life unremittingly and treacherously retake everything it had given without providing a repetition. And is it not the case that the older a person grows, the more and more of a swindle life proves to be, the smarter he becomes and the more ways he learns to shift for himself, the bigger the mess he makes of life and the more he suffers. … The older a person grows, the more he understands life and the more he relishes the amenities and is able to appreciate them — in short, the more competent one becomes the less satisfied one is. Satisfied, completely, absolutely satisfied in every way, this one never is, and to be more or less satisfied is not worth the trouble, so it is better to be completely dissatisfied. p. 172-173

Part Two: Repetition[edit]

  • A monotonous and unvarying order was established in my whole economy. Everything unable to move stood in its appointed place, and everything that moved went its calculated course: my clock, my servant, and I, myself, who with measured pace walked up and down the floor. Although I had convinced myself that there is no repetition, it nevertheless is always certain and that by being inflexible and also by dulling one’s powers of observation a person can achieve a sameness that has a far more anesthetic power than the most whimsical amusements and that, like a magical formulary, in the course of time also become more and more powerful. p. 179
  • When I was seeing him personally, it did not escape me that before coming out with it all he very carefully insinuated the observation that I was “odd.” Well! An observer has to be ready for that. He has to know how to offer the confessor a little guarantee. In making confession, a girl always demands a positive guarantee, a man a negative one; this is due to feminine devotedness and humbleness and masculine pride and willfulness. How comforting, then, that the one from whom one seeks advice and explanation is — mad! Then there is no need to be ashamed. Talking to a person like that is like talking to a tree … p. 182-183
  • That he should get stuck in a love affair, I had never expected. But life is ingenious. What traps him is not girl’s lovableness at all but his regret over having wronged her by disorganizing her life. he has rashly approached her, he assures himself that the love cannot be actualized; he can be happy without her insofar as he can be happy at all, especially with the addition of this new element, and he breaks off. But now he cannot forget that he has committed a wrong, just as if it were wrong to break off when something cannot be accomplished. p. 185
  • The issue that brings him to a halt is nothing more nor less than repetition. He is right not to seek clarification in philosophy, either Greek or modern, for the Greeks make the opposite movement, and here a Greek would choose to recollect without tormenting his conscience. Modern philosophy makes no movement; as a rule it makes only a commotion, and if it makes any movement at all, it is always within immanence, whereas repetition is and remains a transcendence. It is fortunate that he does not seek any explanation from me for I have abandoned my theory, I am adrift. Then, too, repetition is too transcendent for me. I can circumnavigate myself, but I cannot rise above myself. p. 186
  • Even if he were to seek my guidance, it would be futile. I am unable to make a religious movement; it is contrary to my nature. … But I cannot deny that the more I ponder the matter the more misgivings about the girl, than in one way or another she has allowed herself to want to trap him in his melancholy. If so, I would rather not be in her shoes. It will end in disaster. p. 187

Letters from the Young Man, August 15 – January 13[edit]

  • I can imagine that you will promptly take out my case history, as it were, and say: Right! It’s the fellow with the unhappy love affair. Where did we leave off? p. 188
  • Suppose she had tearfully pleaded with me, beseeched me by my honor, my conscience, my eternal salvation, my peace in life and death, my peace both here and in eternity! I shudder just to think of it. I have not forgotten the specific hints you dropped, since I did not dare to raise any objections at all and was only all too enthralled. “If a girl in using these means is within her rights, then one should allow them to work their influence — yes, more than that, help her to use them. In relation to a girl, one should be chivalrous enough not merely to be oneself but also to be the prosecuting attorney on her behalf. If she is not within her rights, then it is all meaningless, and one lets them slip past.” That is true, absolutely, perfectly true, but I do not have that good sense. “What foolish contradiction is often found in human cowardliness and courage. One fears to see something terrible but has the courage to do it. You abandon the girl; that is the terrible thing. For that you have courage, but you lack the courage to see her grow pale, to count her tears, to witness her distress. p. 191-194
  • My unforgettable benefactor, tormented Job! Do I dare to attach myself to your following, may I listen to you! Do not push me away; I do not stand fraudulently by your hearth, my tears are not false, even though I am able to do no more than to weep with you. Just as the joyful person seeks rejoicing, shares in it, even if what makes him most joyful is the joy residing in himself, so the sorrowing person seeks out sorrow. I have not owned the world, have not had seven sons and three daughters. But one who owned very little may indeed also have lost everything; one who lost the beloved has in a sense lost sons and daughters, and one who lost honor and pride and along with it the vitality and meaning of life — he, too, has in a sense been stricken with malignant sores. Your nameless friend p. 199
  • Who am I? How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations and just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought from a peddling shanhaier of human beings? How did I get involved in the big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? If I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager — I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint? After all, life is a debate — may I ask that my observations be considered? If one has to take life as it is, would it not be best to find out how things go? What does it mean: a deceiver? Does not Cicero say that such a person can be exposed by asking: to whose benefit? Anyone may ask me and I ask everyone whether I have benefited in any way by making myself and a girl unhappy. Guilt — what does it mean? Is it hexing? Is it not positively known how it comes about that a person is guilty? Will no one answer me? Is it not, then, of the utmost importance to all the gentlemen involved? p. 200
  • Who is to blame but her and the third factor, from whence no one knows, which moved me with its stimulus and transformed me? After all, what I have done is praised in others. — Or is becoming a poet my compensation? I reject all compensation, I demand my rights — that is, my honor. I did not ask to become one, I will not buy it at this price. –Or if I am guilty, then I certainly should be able to repent of my guilt and make it good again. Tell me how. On top of that, must I perhaps repent that the world plays with me as a child plays with a beetle? — Or is it perhaps best to forget the whole thing? Forget — indeed, I shall have ceased to be if I forget it. or what kind of life would it be if along with my beloved I have lost honor and pride and lost them in such a way that no one knows how it happened, for which reason I can never retrieve them again? Shall I allow myself to be shoved out in this manner? Why, then, was I shoved in? I requested it. p. 202-203
  • If I did not have Job I do not read him as one read another book, with the eyes, but I lay the book on my heart and read it with the eyes of the heart, in a clairvoyance interpreting ,,, Have you really read Job? Read him, read him again and again. I do not even have the heart to write one single outcry from him in a letter to you, even though I find my joy in transcribing over and over everything he has said, sometimes in Danish script and sometimes in Latin script, transcription of this kind is laid upon my sick heart as a God’s hand — plaster. Indeed, on whom did God lay his hand as on Job! But quote him — That I cannot do. That would be wanting to put my own pittance, wanting to make his words my own in the presence of another. p. 204
  • He affirms that he is on good terms with God; he knows he is innocent and pure in the very core of his being, where he also knows it before the Lord, and yet all the world refutes him. Job’s greatness is that freedom’s passion in him is not smothered or quieted down by a wrong expression. In similar circumstances, this passion is often smothered in a person when faintheartedness and petty anxiety have allowed him to think he is suffering because of his sins, when that was not at all the case. His soul lacked the perseverance to carry through an idea when the world incessantly disagreed with him. It can be very becoming and true and humble if a person believes that misfortune has struck him because of his sins, but this belief may also be the case because he vaguely conceives of God as a tyrant, something he meaninglessly expresses by promptly placing him under ethical determinants. p. 207
  • I am doing my best to make myself into a husband. I sit and clip myself, take away everything that is incommensurable in order to become commensurable. Every morning I discard all the impatience and infinite striving of my soul — but it does not help, for the next moment it is there again. Every morning I shave off the beard of all my ludicrousness — but it does not help, for the next morning my beard is just as long again. I recall myself, just as the bank calls in its paper money in order to put new money in circulation — but it does not work. I convert my whole wealth of ideas, my mortgages, into matrimonial pocket money — alas! alas! In that kind of coin my wealth amounts to very little. p. 214-215

Incidental Observations by Constantin Constantius[edit]

  • Although I forsook the world long ago and renounced all theorizing, I nevertheless cannot deny that because of my interest in the young man he set me off my pendulum beat somewhat. It is easy to see that he is caught in a total misunderstanding. He is suffering from a misplaced melancholy high-minded that belongs nowhere except in a poet’s brain. He is waiting for a thunderstorm that is supposed to make him into a husband, a nervous breakdown perhaps. It is completely the reverse. In fact, he is one of those who say: Battalion, about-face! — instead of turning around himself. This can be expressed in another way: the girl must go. p. 216
  • She would have tried her hand not only with the little multiplication table of erotic love, which would be permissible and she would be within her rights, but also with the big multiplication table of marriage. She would have had God to vouch for her, called on everything that is holy, impounded every precious memory that could reside in his soul. In this sphere, when the occasion arises, many a girl quite unabashedly uses a deceit that not even a seducer allows himself. One who moves in the real of the erotic by the help of God or wants to be loved for God’s sake ceases to be himself and tries to be stronger than heaven and more important than an individual’s eternal salvation. p. 218
  • If she were unable to use the idea as the regulator of her life, then the point would be that by his pain he would not have interfered with her use of another mode of advance. p. 219

Letter from the Young Man, May 31[edit]

  • She is married — to whom I do not know, for when I read it in the newspaper I was so stunned that I dropped the paper and have not had the patience since then to check in detail. I am myself again. Here I have repetition; I understand everything, and life seems more beautiful to me than ever. It did indeed come like a thunderstorm, although I am indebted to her generosity for its coming. Whoever it is she has chosen — I will not even say preferred, because in the capacity of a husband any one is preferred to me — she has certainly shown generosity toward me. p. 220
  • The beaker of inebriation is again offered to me, and already I am inhaling its fragrance, already I am aware of its bubbling music — for first a libation to her who saved a soul who sat in the solitude of despair: Praised be feminine generosity! Three cheers for the flight of thought, three cheers for the perils of life in service of the idea, three cheers for the hardships of battle, three cheers for the festive jubilation of victory, three cheers for the dance in the vortex of the infinite, three cheers for the cresting waves that hide me in the abyss, three cheers for the cresting waves that fling me above the stars! p. 221-222

Concluding Letter by Constantin Constanius, Copenhagen, August 1843[edit]

  • If it is assumed that anyone who reads a book for one or another superficial reason unrelated to the book is not a genuine reader, then there perhaps are not many genuine readers left even for authors with a large reading public. Who in our day thinks of wasting any time on the curious idea that it is an art to be a good reader, not to mention spending time to become that? Of course, this deplorable state has its effect on an author who, in my opinion, very properly joins Clement of Alexandria in writing in such a way that the heretics are unable to understand it. p. 225
  • An inquisitive female reader who reads the end of every book she reads on her bedside table to see if the lovers get each other will be disappointed, for surely the two lovers do get each other, but my friend, who also is indeed a male, gets no one. Since it is also apparent that this outcome is not due to a negligible coincidence, it becomes a grave matter for marriageable, man-hunting girls, who see their prospects diminished just by having to cross off one single male. p. 225
  • His reverence will assert that there is too much philosophy in the book; His Right Reverence’s mental eye will seek in vain for what the congregation, especially in our day, needs so very much, the genuinely speculative. (...) A reviewer will find it difficult to understand the movement in the book, for it is inverse; nor will the aim of the book appeal to him, either, for as a rule reviewers explain existence in such a way that both the universal and the particular are annihilated. p. 226
  • On the one side stands the exception, on the other the universal, and the struggle itself is a strange conflict between the rage and impatience of the universal over the disturbance the exception causes and its infatuated partiality for the exception, for after all is said and done, just as heaven rejoices more over a sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous, so does the universal rejoice over the exception. On the other side battles the insubordination and defiance of the exception, his weakness and infirmity. The whole thing is a wrestling match in which the universal breaks with the exception, wrestles with him in conflict, and strengthens him through this wrestling. If the exception cannot endure the distress, the universal does not help him any more than heaven helps a sinner who cannot endure the pain of repentance. p. 226-227

Primary source[edit]

  • Repetition, A Venture in Experimental Psychology, by Constantin Constantius, October 16, 1843, by Søren Kierkegaard, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1983, Princeton University Press

External links[edit]

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