A Constantin Constantinus Repetition Søren Kierkegaard

Dr. Constantinus–The Need for Healing

I’ve been plugging through Niels Nymann Eriksen’s Kierkegaard’s Category of Repetition in the library. It’s very thorough and is probably one of the most clear treatments of the topic I’ve come across so far. One puzzle for me in studying repetition has been my inability to determine why the experiment ends in failure. Constantinus and the Young Man are both examples of an inability to actually achieve true repetition. Though the reasons are debated, it seems most reasonable to me to conclude that Constantinus’ failure is the result of reflection and the assumption that scientific experimentation might yield a repetition. The Young Man fails, according to Constantinus (and I think he’s right), because he ends in poetry and cannot quite make it to the religious stage (of course, neither does Constantinus). But if, as Constantinus says, repetition is going to become the “new category” for philosophy, why does it fail existentially–twice?

Eriksen offers some help. He contextualizes the book in a trajectory of two other failed repetitions, the first being Don Juan’s as articulated by A in Part 1 of Either/Or, the second being A’s failure to achieve a true repetition via crop rotation. Including Constantinus and the Young Man we now have four failed attempts to carry out or receive a repetition. So much for the concept? Not so fast, according to Eriksen.

The expression of the failure of these attempts, culminating in Repetition and Constantinus’ observations in particular, is in fact a means of uncovering a true repetition. Each character presents a failure to grapple with the problem of historicality. That Kierkegaard does not offer us a solution here is in fact a strategic move; a solution can only come from a religious approach (we see more of this, according to Eriksen, in the religious writings published in the same period as the aforementioned works). The articulations of these failures marks a via negativa approach, suggests Eriksen, something he also refers to as a negative phenomenology. He writes:

Constantinus’ gradation of the forms of consciousness thus constitutes a negative phenomenology that not only observes the coming to itself of consciousness in the individual, but like a doctor, makes a diagnosis, and exposes the concealed need for healing in each form of consciousness. (37)

He concludes a page later saying:

To sum up: the subtitle to Constantinus’ book–a Venture in Experimenting Pyschology–makes sense on two levels. On one level the designation “experimenting” characterizes the author’s relationship to his imaginary figures [the failed psuedonyms], and on the other level, it describes his relationship to his reader. If, on the first level, Constantinus is an observer who depicts the progression of consciousness through its various forms, on the second level he is a doctor who uncovers the need for healing. That repetition is the only way out of the conflict intrinsic to the historicality of existence is a riddle Constantinus is left with rather than a solution he suggests. (38)

Constantinus, then, is a doctor who can diagnose but is unable to cure. This is actually a paradigmatic shift for me in interpreting the text, as I have often struggled to consider Constantinus a “good guy” or a “bad guy,” as it were. Conceptually, I found him intriguing, but his discussions of experience were comedic at best. Considering Constantinus a figure that helps to diagnose a particular problem, indeed culminates several problems so that they can be articulated, makes me far more willing to revisit him with less skepticism.

2 replies on “Dr. Constantinus–The Need for Healing”

How about this: in addition to the flaws you catalog, there’s a mistaken assumption both the Young Man and Constantine hold: that the occurrence of repetition is something they can effect, or strive to attain. But Job doesn’t strive strategically to make the whirlwind happen or appear (however much he wants a hearing). Of course for those in need, it’s also a matter of preparation, readying, receptivity. But when it happens, it just bursts forth as new life. Constantine thinks he can do a controlled experiment; the Young Man pines and pleads. Neither have the trustful receptivity to the unknown that is a precondition of receiving a saving repetition.

I think that’s absolutely right. Repetition as a concept is critical of a modern autonomy, and perhaps that’s the strength of it as a religious category–one cannot force it to happen, either by scientific rationalism or Sturm und Drang. As Constantin admits, repetition is too transcendent for him.

I am going to have to dig through my e-mail archives. Believe it or not, I actually e-mailed you maybe a year or two ago regarding a question about repetition. Your response had to do with music if I recall and was helpful at the time–would you mind if I posted it here?

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