Job and the thunderstorm in Kierkegaard’s Repetition

Well I just caught up with my (rough) Kierkegaard reading schedule having finished Fear and Trembling and Repetition.  Both were re-reads and I found Repetition a much more illuminating re-read.  I think Fear and Trembling has had so much press that despite how arresting it can be it may need another form in order to achieve ‘repetition’ which leads me to Repetition.

Kierkegaard (Constantin Constantius) frames repetition saying that it,

will play a very important role in modern philosophy, for repetition is a crucial expression for ‘recollection’ was to the Greeks.  Just as they taught that all knowing is a recollecting, modern philosophy will teach that all life is a repetition. . . . Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward (131).

The account is a reflection by Constantin Constantius (CC) as he relates to a young man going through relationship difficulties.  He councils the young man in how to best end the relationship (as with Either/Or there is much speculation regarding the extent to which this reflects or addresses Kierkegaard’s own engagement break-off with Regine Olson).  The following text then is littered with suggestions and reflections on the manner which in the present we are able to simply ‘recollect’ the past or the extent to which we can ‘repeat’ in the future (how can the young man repeat his state prior to his entanglement).  The simplest example is CC’s return to Berlin in which he tries to ‘repeat’ his initial trip . . . which is an utter failure (I can relate with regards to my attempt at ‘repeating’ the youthful road trip this past summer).  However, upon returning home and brooding over this failure he finds that “my home had become dismal to me simply because it was a repetition of the wrong kind” (169).  He clarifies this later and says,

Although I convinced myself that there is no repetition, it nevertheless is always certain and true that by being inflexible and also by dulling one’s powers of observation a person can achieve sameness (179).

What I did not initially notice is that contrast between recollection and repetition is also a contrast between knowledge and life.  To what extent can we know something ‘new’ if it did not already have a pre-existent context in which it could be meaningful?  There is a certain correspondence in knowledge.  However, with respect to repetition we are talking about life.  And so since repetition assumes that something has been (in life) when it is repeated then it is by definition something new.

In time CC and the young man end their conversations though later CC begins to receive letters from the young describing his experience of ending his relationship with his fiance.  What is significant about these letters is the manner in which the young man takes up Job as the figure of repetition.  ‘The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.’  These reflections on Job culminate in Job’s encounter with God.

The young man ultimately considers Job’s case to be an ‘ordeal’.

Job is, so to speak, the whole weighty defense plea on man’s behalf in the great case between God and man, the lengthy and appalling trial that started with Satan’s creation of discord between God and Job and ends with the whole thing having been an ordeal.

This category, ordeal, is not esthetic, ethical, or dogmatic – it is altogether transcendent.  Only as knowledge about an ordeal, that it is an ordeal, would it be included in a dogmatics.  But as soon as the knowledge enters, the resilience of the ordeal is impaired, and the category is actually another category.  This category is absolutely transcendent and places a person in a purely personal relationship of opposition to God, in a relationship such that he cannot allow himself to be satisfied with any explanation at second hand.

. . .

That this category could tend to cancel out and suspend all actuality by defining it as an ordeal in relation to eternity, I readily perceive.  But this doubt has not gained the upper hand over me, because, inasmuch as ordeal is a temporary category it eo ipso is defined in relation to time and therefore must be annulled in time (210).

So Job stands as the image of a human brought in absolute relationship (that is in opposition) with God.  This is of course necessary for Kierkegaard’s notion of entering into existence or actuality (an act of repetition as it is outline here).  No explanation can be received ‘second hand’.  What is so significant in terms of interpreting Job is the way the young man (and latter CC) understand the ‘thunderstorm’ of God’s response.

It is by passing through the thunderstorm that Job becomes intelligible again to those around him (remember in F&T the nature of Abraham’s act of faith is that it is unintelligible).  Job receives back double in life and “this is called a repetition” (212).  Job is restored by the thunderstorm which is when “every thinkable human certainty and probability were impossible. . . . With that the knot and the entanglement are tightened and can be untied only by a thunderstorm” (212-13).

The thunderstorm for the young man is news that his ex-fiance is married.  This releases him and he says, “I am myself again” (220).  However, reflecting on the young man’s letters CC calls a thunderstorm a ‘trump card’ in comparison to his sagacity (and this is given some credence by the young man who says that repetition makes things again ‘intelligible’).  This dialectic is fascinating with respect to recent interpretations of Job by Zizek.  God’s ‘thunderstorm’ according to Zizek is an admittance of divine impotence in the face of human suffering in that it is no answer at all.  Where do Kierkegaard’s readings fall with respect to Zizek?  CC views a ‘thunderstorm’ as a trump card, as a bypassing of the potential for human possibility (sagacity).  For the young man the thunderstorm is pure transcendence in its ability to untie what humanity cannot.  However, the thunderstorm only comes on certain terms as outlined in the life of Job, which is the relentless pursuit of gaining God as your audience (discarding all idols along the way . . . as represented in the ‘friends’).  It would be difficult to call this process a ‘trump’.  But what is it?  It is the movement of repetition; “actuality, which has been, now comes into existence” (149).

The ongoing question that now emerges for me as I continue reading is the extent to which Kierkegaard really does play a ‘trump’ (transcendence, faith, absurd, etc.) and to what extent is his understanding of stages and movements necessary (which include those beyond intelligible description)?  This plays heavily on our understanding of the possibility of knowledge.

Hopefully I will provide a short summary of the end of Repetition which offers an interpretation of the interplay between the universal and the exception.

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