I’m doing another independent study on Kierkegaard. We’re reading Repetition. My student was having trouble understanding Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition and so he asked me if there were anything about the Danish term that would help him to make more sense of it. It had not occurred to me that knowing something about the Danish might make the concept clearer. I’m so used to thinking about Kierkegaard in Danish, that I forget, sometimes, just how difficult it can be to understand him in translation. In fact, knowing the Danish term for “repetition,” and its meaning can be a significant help, I believe, in understanding Kierkegaard’s concept of it.
The Danish term for “repetition” is gentagelsen (or Gjentagelsen in 19th-century Danish). It’s a compound expression made by combining at tage (“to take”) with the prefix gen, that itself comes from the adverb igen (which means “again”). So gentagelse literally means “to take again.” And that, in a nutshell is what, I would argue, it means for Kierkegaard. The book Repetition is essentially about temporality, about how time flows unceasingly onward, wresting from us every precious moment of our existence like an irresistible tidal force that consigns them immediately to the unrecoverable ocean of the past. It is about how time, unchecked, in a sense deprives us of our lives. We swim furiously toward the future in an effort to save ourselves. But the effort exhausts us, so that we are finally swallowed up by the waves.
That’s a pretty bleak perspective on human existence, I know. The point of Repetition, however, is to make clear that this is not our inevitable fate. The point is that we must learn to check the flow of time, to stop it. Repetition is a movement forward, but it is not one of flight. “Repetition and recollection,” explains Constantine Constantius, “are the same movement, just in opposite directions, because what is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards (p. 3 Kindle Edition).
How does one “recollect” something “forwards” – by making it present again. I often use the example of my obsession with fountain pens to try to make this concept clear to my students. I have a lot of fountain pens, mostly vintage ones that I buy on eBay. I go through periods where I buy a lot of pens. The problem is that the more time I spend searching for vintage pens, the less time I spend using, and hence appreciating, the pens I have. I have had to learn this over and over again.
I have some truly wonderful pens. The prize of my collection is a Pelikan 100, made sometime between 1934-38. It is just gorgeous, in almost mint condition, and writes like a dream. And yet, I have begun to lust after the new Pelikan M101N red that is a reproduction of the old 100N. I have to keep reminding myself that I would not like it so much as I think, that I don’t like any new thing so much as I like genuine vintage things. I have to force myself to get off eBay and go pull out my actual vintage 100 pen. When I do that, each time I do that, I am delighted anew by what a wonderful piece of engineering my old 100 is, what a beautiful object. Each time I write with it, I am charmed anew by the thought of its past. I wonder if perhaps it belonged to some Jewish scholar, or to a member of a resistance group such as Uncle Emile, the one to which the journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich belonged. Sometimes I think perhaps it might have belonged to a Nazi, and then I think I am redeeming it now when I use it write pieces such as the one I wrote on the concept of collective guilt.
When I make myself return to my old Pelikan, all the joy I took it in when I first got it comes back to me. The thing is, I have to force myself to do that sometimes, to go back to my old pen rather than spend my time searching for a new one. That’s a strange phenomenon when you think about it. I know from experience, from repeated experience, how wonderful my pen is and how much pleasure I will take in it if I can only make myself use it rather than search for a new one.
It is a strange fact of human psychology that we seem always in pursuit of the new and the novel, at the mercy of time, of constant flux, unable to learn, or to benefit, from experience, unable to harness it for the purposes of our own self-actualization, or as Jung would put it, “individuation.” I think it’s that aspect of human psychology that’s the focus of Repetition, the subtitle of which is “An Essay in Experimental Psychology.” Constantine Constantius tries an experiment to see if this enslavement is an essential fact of human psychology or if it is possible to liberate oneself from it. I am not going to answer that question for you. You will have to read the book and decide for yourself whether Constantius’s experiment was successful.
No issue could be more important to Kierkegaard than the one that preoccupies Constantius. Our apparent enslavement to the flow of time keeps us from becoming who we are, or perhaps, more accurately from being who we are. We are supposed to be not simply to have been and to become. We have being, however, only in the present and to have the present, we must, in effect stop the flow of time. That’s an act of will, a refusal to let the uniqueness of our experience slip away into the unrecoverable past. Hence the active voice of repetition, to “take” again.
There is more to the concept of repetition than that. Strangely, Kierkegaard does not seem to use the expression much after 1843. I would argue, however, that the concept remains central to his authorship. The “rebirth” of the individual in the “moment” that is spoken of in Philosophical Crumbs is a repetition, of sorts, of one’s original birth and all the promise it implied. The effort to live Christianly, to imitate Christ, involves a constant renewal of faith, a constant renewal of the effort to bring one’s faith to concrete expression. These renewals are, of course, repetitions.
It would be nice to see more scholarly work done on this rich and yet relatively neglected concept in Kierkegaard’s thought. If no one else does it, then perhaps I will do it myself.