In my research, I’ve been confronted with the problem of whether or not “repetition” is meant to be a term describing reality as it is (an ontology) or something different. After reading an unpublished piece Kierkegaard wrote under Constantin Constantinus, I’m beginning to have serious doubts about the concept as an ontological option. The piece is a reply to a Denmark professor, Heiberg, who reviewed Repetition and contended that the book was primarily a way to celebrate the beauty of repetitions in nature.
That interpretation is not incredibly difficult to come away with. The book is slippery, and Constantin admits that the terms are intentionally obscured throughout. However, Constantin is overwhelmingly clear that Heiberg has misunderstood his thesis. Instead of providing the basis of an ontology, Repetition seeks to articulate only a spiritual point, a point for freedom. His main criticism of Heiberg is that nowhere in the text does he ever mention the repetitions of the natural world; the subtitle of the book expresses its purpose as a psychological exploration. Repetition is, instead, a task for the self. Ultimately, repetition points toward religious categories–in the later authorship, it almost seems like “repetition” is replaced entirely by “atonement,” and perhaps to a lesser extent “imitation.”
This has severe implications for a variety of thinkers, most especially Deleuze and Rosenzweig. Of course, it’s true that they’re still onto something–the articulation of reality as an amalgam of repeating events and objects is compelling, and not at all incompatible with Constantin’s point here. It does, however, suggest that Deleuze is subject to the same criticisms as Heiberg–he translates a spiritual concept into a natural one, an explicitly transcendent concept into an explicitly immanent one. Difference and Repetition is indeed a great work of ontology and metaphysics, but its metaphysical problems are completely opposite with regard to the metaphysical problems of the freedom of the self dealt with in Constantin’s Repetition.
While “repetition” as a category might form the basis for an ontology, it’s at least exegetically important to name the fact that this is in no way the goal of Repetition. When Constantin accuses Heiberg, who assumes “repetition” is best expressed via poetic recourse to observing the revolving stars, of essentially losing the existential weight and importance of the concept, we might lay the same criticism against Deleuze. “If there is nothing else to offer them but astronomy, then individuals are indeed made to renounce all the tasks of freedom” (Constantin, Repetition, 288).