Recollecting and Repeating: Or, Kierkegaard vs. Benjamin Franklin: the Final Showdown

by Tom Jacobs Kierkegaard Benjamin_Franklin_by_Joseph_Siffred_Duplessis

There is a wrongly attributed quote associated with Soren Kierkegaard that says something to the effect that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. I have found no evidence that he ever actually said or wrote this, but it is a sufficiently Kierkegaardian sentiment (by which I mean, a sentiment that stops you in your mental tracks and forces you to pause for a moment and reflect about what the hell you are doing with your life) that I will use it here. It points to an essential contradiction in our lives: we are always passing down the ringing grooves of history into the future while constantly looking backwards, trying to figure out what all of this experience means, what it adds up to. We pretend that we know what we are doing, but of course, we don’t.

The idea of repetition fascinated Kierkegaard. What does it mean to repeat something? And in what sense is can we really repeat anything in any meaningful way? Time has passed, things have changed, and we are not the same person we were even five minutes ago (I have always loved the idea that at a cellular level, we are literally not the same person we were seven years ago…every cell has been replaced. And seven seems a good number of years for some reason).

I once went to a little party at the Mount Vernon Hotel and Museum on the upper east side of Manhattan. It was built in 1799, back when the city ended pretty much at 14th street and everything north of that was a kind of country retreat for the wealthy. There is a lovely little backyard garden and on this particular night I went with a friend to have free drinks (revolutionary era cocktails, actually) and to listen to a group of old geezer-musicians who specialize sea chanteys. They were truly great, and it was spectacularly beautiful summer night, and we sat there with a group of maybe forty other people, listening to this group singing surprisingly profane songs that were once sung aboard merchant ships when the new world was still relatively new. I had just moved out of my apartment and abandoned my roommate to move in with my then girlfriend. Since my old roommate was, like myself, a graduate student in the humanities, I figured he would love it. They were going to do it all again the next weekend. So I figured I’d invite him to the next party and repeat the experience.

Of course the second time around sucked. I was with a different person, the weather was crappy, and they had a different group of musicians. I actually apologized to him.

Repetition, the notion that you can in some way return to an earlier time, a younger self, is both impossible and completely necessary. If we can’t map the past onto the present, then what’s the point of even worrying about history? It might be nice to live in an eternal present, but that lot has been foreclosed to us. We are left to piece together the shards, the residues, the bits and pieces of the past so that we can remember who we once were and to find some kind of mild coherence to our identities in the unremitting chaos of everyday life.

An obsession with repetition is, of course, not good. This is what made Humbert Humbert such a monster (“When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a fauntlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time”).[i] But still, this primary desire can’t be denied. We are all melancholiacs in some important sense…the ego, the self, is, as Freud once suggested, the residue of all its lost objects. So what is to be done? And don’t think that I have a real answer to this question…


Image of an image

Here's a photograph of a photograph:

This is where the idea of the counterfeit and the forgery come in.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin says if he could correct his faults he would, but “since such a Repetition is not to be expected, the next Thing most like living one’s Life over again, seems to be a Recollection of that Life; and to make that Recollection as durable as possible, the putting it down in writing.” The idea of recording one’s recollection of the past so that it might be made “durable” is fundamental. This, I think, is why so many facebook profiles contain literally hundreds of photographs. Of course, a photograph is nowhere near as good at documenting the past as the written word, but it does have a kind of phenomenological impact. A photograph may not really contain much content, but it provides a degree of detail that makes it possible to feel a kind of physical connection to that irretrievably lost moment of its taking.[ii] But still, it’s never quite enough. If the past is fundamentally unavailable to us, and true repetition is impossible, perhaps we can at least pretend; perhaps there are real toads to be found in imaginary gardens.

Both Kierkegaard and Franklin were proponents of the counterfeit. Both cultivated appearances that belied realities, seeking to present carefully constructed, disingenuous images of themselves to the world, knowing that the surface would eventually supplant the substance of things. Kierkegaard pretended to not be working insanely hard, going to the theater and on walks, so that his actual writing would not be associated with himself. And one can imagine Kierkegaard, with his slight hunchback, having just written a corker of a piece of work, steeling himself in his study to take to the streets of Copenhagen with the appearance of casual insouciance, as if he were just another guy taking a walk, bored with life.

On a similar key, Franklin speaks of his desire to counterfeit his appearance thusly:

I began now gradually to pay off the Debt I was under for the Printinghouse. In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman, I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious & frugal, but to avoid all Appearance of the Contrary. I dressed plainly; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion; I never went out a-fishing or Shooting; a Book, indeed, sometimes debauch’d me from my Work; but that was seldom, snug, & gave no Scandal; and to show that I was not above my Business, I sometimes brought home the Paper I purchas’d at he stores, thro’ the Streets on a Wheelbarrow. Thus being esteem’d an industrious thriving young Man, paying duly for what I bought, the Merchants who imported Stationery solicity my Custom, others propos’d supplying me with Books, & I went on swimmingly.

Perhaps the appearance and the reality of things were more closely matched in Franklin’s case, but still, the friction between the two is suggestive, this anxiety about perception, about ensuring that one prepares a face to meet the faces that one meets (as T.S. Eliot has it), is curious. These are extreme cases, but they suggest something about how much of a ruse our public personas are.


Kierkegaard was not a particularly fanatic supporter of Hegel; the idea that oppositions, contradictions, might be synthesized in some kind of dialectic manner was kind of disgusting to him (to Kierkegaard, that is). The past can’t be made to cohere with the present; thought and existence, subject and object will remain forever opposed. Kierkegaard had a profoundly undialectical mind, and it is one that I find appealing. For Kierkegaard, the collision of thought and actuality, of language and experience, of the past and present, are simply at odds, and there’s little to be done about it, other than to recognize the absurdity of the whole thing. These things cannot be resolved or synthesized but will always remain dissonant, off-key chords that play in the background soundtrack of our lives. But still there remain little glimmers of the mystery that makes experience fundamentally and endlessly intriguing. The will to understand is counterposed by the desire to not understand, to live in an enchanted, magical-realist world, where things don’t quite make sense.

“The systematic Idea,” Kierkegaard claims, “is the identity of subject and object, the unity of thought and being. Existence, on the other hand, is their separation . . . . it has brought about, and brings about, a separation between subject and object, thought and being . . .” To live is to bear the weight of this separation.

Which brings us back to the past.

What’s totally interesting is that while Kierkegaard was obsessed with recollection and repetition, Franklin was, in a typically American way, fascinated with the future. Here is the epitaph he wrote for himself as a young man:

The body of B. Franklin, Printer

(Like the Cover of an Old Book

Its Contents torn out and Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)

Lies Here, Food for Worms.

But the work shall not be lost;

For it will (as he Believ’d) Appear once more in a New and More Elegant Edition

Revised and Corrected

By the Author.

This is interesting on many levels (who is “the Author?” Franklin? But Franklin knows he will be dead. So, God, maybe? And what are the “New and More Elegant Editions,” “Revised and Corrected?” And who is doing this revising and correcting? And why are the contents torn out and stripped of lettering and gilding? It’s a bit like Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where the writer imagines the world after he has left it, but still wants to address that posthumous world (“It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not; I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence; I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.”)

Planning for the future is, as anyone who has ever daringly done it, say, in the form of planning a career or trying to control the contingencies of existence by putting all appointments and events on a calendar—is wildly contrived and a bit like pretending, like trying to put appearance ahead of reality. We carve out, Michelango slave sculpture-like, places for ourselves that we want to inhabit: we hew a figure out of the mass of what we think doesn’t belong of apply, to present ourselves as we’d like to be perceived, to appear to both ourselves into the people we want to be. We perform the rituals and hope that faith/reality will catch up with us, or us with it, at some point down the line. We have to make the future conform to our plans, otherwise we relinquish the steering wheel to the drunken vagaries of the underlying unpredictability of events that underwrites the course of events (this, by the way, is the very force that makes some people celebrities, and others with just as much talent, languish in obscurity…who can understand why, say, Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton or Newt Gingrich suddenly appear on our cultural radars and on the front pages of magazines, monstrous and scary?)

I find Kierkegaard’s obsession with the past both more appealing and more to the point. The past is interesting to us because we know it in some sense. We were there, we witnessed it, we feel some kind of pressing obligation to it. But it remains inaccessible, and we have to re-imagine ourselves into our photographs, into our diaries, into anything that retains the residue of history. Otherwise it’s dead. The future? As Kerouac once noted, no one knows anything about what’s going to happen in the future. It’s worth quoting at length (and these are the last lines of On the Road, for whatever it’s worth…they are good last lines):

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

So I find myself thinking right now a lot about previous Holidays. I remember being unable to sleep haunted by my hopes that I would get the new Millennium Falcon, or a yo-yo, or a juggling kit. I suppose I as eight or so. The same physical envelope, but unrecognizable in all the invisible cognitive transformations, in all the important ways. It’s heartbreaking that innocence, once lost, can’t be unlost. What did I know then of my mortality, or of the ways that I would remember these moments by the fireplace in my pajamas opening presents on Christmas morning?

As much as I want to go back, these are mere recollections, unrepeatable and irretrievable to me in some important sense, even though I have the pictures and know that I was there, holding my Millennium Falcon as though it were some sacred fetish on Christmas day.

There are two things that all of this calls to mind. One is a scene from Wayne Wang/Paul Auster’s “Smoke.” I posted this a year ago, but it’s never bad to try to repeat and retrieve. (oddly, the clip as I originally posted it is no longer available, which seems totally thematically appropriate. But rather than post an abbreviated version of the story, here’s my original link to the story, where the entire video somehow remains intact. Scroll down to the bottom and watch the story. It’s lovely and in various ways relevant to all of the above).

Spelunking the Space behind the Bathroom Mirror

The other is the last line from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It is a line that both acknowledges the future and the past, but not in a Hegelian dialectical manner where they can be neatly resolved each to the other. We owe an infinite obligation to those who have made us who we are, and we must acknowledge that we ourselves will (nay, “are”) no doubt play(ing) a similar role for unknown future generations. The effect of each of our small contributions to the discussion on this short day of frost and sun is incalculable and diffusive, and much more than we ever fully understand hinges on unhistoric and unremembered acts. This, I think, is cause for both celebration and sadness. And you can’t have one without the other, even if they refuse to resolve themselves into some kind of larger coherence. They are, nevertheless, the substance of things hoped for.

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

[i] Humbert’s slippery narrative of exoneration enacts the very sort of desire to recuperate a loss that Humbert himself spends the narrative seeking to realize, as if he were telling a story that was not only about loss but that also, like Keats’s Grecian urn, freezes that sense of loss in an enduring form. According to Nabokov’s framing of the novel, the narrative we are presented with is the result of John Ray, Jr., Ph.D’s editing of the memoir Humbert wrote while languishing in prison awaiting his trial. Having died before the trial began or before he could publish his memoir, Dr. Ray re-presents Humbert’s story as a case history—one that he assumes will become “a classic in psychiatric circles,” even though Humbert and Nabokov both dismiss psychologism in all its forms (5). The novel itself, then, is a twice-told tale, a re-presentation of a re-presentation (with the “two hypnotic eyes” of Humbert—and Nabokov?—glowing through the multiply re-told text), and thus performs in a sense the themes of re-presentation, repetition, and copying.

[ii] One thought that haunts me about the nature of facebook is: eventually, we will all be dead. And one assumes that if facebook endures, our ghostly profiles will remain, like unvisited graves. I don’t whether this is a happy or sad thing.