Musing on Kierkegaard

On April 16, 2014 by Joanna Roche

“Repetition and recollection are the same movement, only in opposite directions; for what is recollected has been, is repeated backwards, whereas repetition properly so called is recollected forwards.”

Soren Kierkegaard


Kierkegaard distinguishes in this passage between repetition and recollection and offers the metaphor of a garment to help the reader comprehend his distinction: “recollection is a discarded garment, which beautiful as it may be, does not fit, for one has outgrown it. Repetition is an imperishable garment, which fits snugly and comfortably, neither too tight nor too loose.”  I am not so sure Kierkegaard is right on this. I think that recollection can actually be a motion that moves the past into the present, an active force that helps us recognize the self and the moment in time through the act of recollection. I listen to a piece of music, “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” and recollect when I first heard the beautiful work. That recollection is also a repetition, a looking backwards. I have heard that work for over forty years, dozens of times, and each time I recollect my first listening, yet I would not want to discard that recollection, it has become part of my experience of that music. When I hear it afresh, I hear it differently. It has been repeated and recollected. In its repetition, which also contains a recollection, I experience the music again, changed. Another example: the moon. How many times do we see the moon and marvel at its beauty and infinite change, yet it is always the moon. Tonight, it is nearly full, with a hazy gauze of translucent clouds; this moon gazing is indeed a repetition that is an “imperishable garment,” but isn’t it also a recollection, in that each time I gaze at the moon, this act encompasses a remembrance of another evening, another moon?

3212929-kierkegaardWhat I like most about Kierkegaard’s, “Recollection is a Discarded Garment,” is the idea that repetition is a delight—“a beloved wife” (he continues, “of whom one never tires.” I don’t know if this analogy disturbs me or if it works. “A beloved husband,” or the less gendered, “a beloved companion,” perhaps better, though I am happy to read that a man of the 19th century appreciated his wife; it is the article “a” that may be problematic). But back to the idea of repetition: today we think of repetition as boring, as drudgery, as not “new.” But this little essay is an excellent corrective and, 170 years after its writing (1843), an astute reminder of how the new has its shortcomings—of a dire nature, in this era of pollution, hyper materiality, and the “doom of the cheap and nasty,” to quote William Morris. Kierkegaard says:

For it is only of the new one grows tired. Of the old one never tires. When one possesses that, one is happy, and only he is thoroughly happy who does not delude himself with the vain notion that repetition ought to be something

new, for then one becomes tired of it. It requires youth to hope, and youth to recollect, but it requires courage to will repetition.

Søren Kierkegaard, BøgerHow have we become so distracted by the new? I admit that there is something wonderful about seeing a movie for the first time, or attending a new exhibition, hearing an unknown song….The new has its lure. But the desire for newness itself becomes a hunger that can never be satisfied. A craving. Perhaps, to tie back to the philosopher’s point about repetition, it is in the re-experiencing of something—the once new—the repetition of a moon gazing or a symphony listening where we discover ways of going deeper, both into ourselves and into the nature of lived experience. “Of the old one never tires.” Is that not a fascination with recollection, something/someone of the past, of an experience, object, or even a person from before? How do we reconcile Kierkegaard’s distain of recollection, as “discarded garment,” with his love for the old? Again, the nature of repetition is a looking backwards from the present moment. I see recollection, the act of remembering, as active and ongoing—a bifurcated (split, but of one “root”) movement of simultaneous looking back and an expansion of the moment, one that is both connecting/bridging past and future in lived experience.


Repetition and recollection are very linked for me. I do not feel I am stuck in the past, that I dwell in a yesteryear that is an escape from being in my time. But I feel that my experience of the past, whether lived (the Tallis piece) or read (history, literature, art of another age) allows me to deepen my being and my experience of today. It is a bringing forward, perhaps one could say, a rekindling, of the past, the “old,” whose repetition in the now makes them/us new again.

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