Excerpts from Søren Kierkegaard’s Repetition

On the impossibility of contentment.


in Archive

[I]s it not the case that the older one becomes the more life reveals
itself to be deceptive, the smarter one becomes, the more ways one
learns to help himself, the worse off he is, the more one suffers. A
small child is completely helpless and yet thrives. I remember once
having seen a nursemaid on the street pushing a baby carriage in which
there were two children. The one, just barely a year old, had fallen
asleep and lay in the carriage dead to the world. The other was a little
girl around two years old, chubby in short sleeves just like a little
woman. She had pushed herself forward in the carriage and easily took
up two thirds of the space. The smaller child lay next to her as if it
were a package the woman had brought with her. With an admirable
egoism, she appeared not to care for anyone or anything except herself,
if she could just make herself comfortable. Then a coach came down the
road. The baby carriage was clearly in danger. People ran to help, but
with one healthy shove, the nurse managed to push the carriage into a
doorway. Everyone was horrified, including myself. Yet throughout this
commotion, the little Madame was completely calm. She continued
peacefully to pick her nose, her expression never changing. Presumably
she thought, what do I care? It is the nurse’s problem. One will seek
in vain for such courageousness in an older person.

The older one gets, the better he understands life and the more he comes to care for and appreciate comfort. In short, the more competent one becomes, the less content. One will never be completely, absolutely and in every way content, and it is hardly worth the trouble to be more or less content, so one might as well be thoroughly discontented. Anyone who has really thought through the issue, will agree with me that no one is ever granted even as little as a half an hour out of his entire life where he is absolutely content in every conceivable way. It goes without saying that more is required for this sort of contentment than that one has food and clothing. I was close to achieving it once. I got up one morning in unusually good humor. This positive mood actually expanded, as the morning progressed, in a manner I had never before experienced. By one o’clock, my mood had climaxed and I sensed the dizzying heights of complete contentment, a level that appears on no scale designed to measure moods, not even on the poetic thermometer. My body no longer seemed weighed down by gravity. It was as if I had no body in that every function hummed along perfectly, every nerve rejoiced, the harmony disrupted by each beat of my pulse which served in turn only to remind me of the delightfulness of the moment. I almost floated as I walked, not like the bird, that cuts through the air as it leaves the earth, but like the wind over the fields, like the nostalgic rocking of waves, like the dreamy progress of clouds across the sky. My being was as transparent as the clear depths of the ocean, as the night’s self-satisfied stillness, as the soft soliloquy of midday. Every mood resonated melodically in my soul. Every thought, from the most foolish to the most profound, offered itself and offered itself with the same blissful festiveness. Every impression was anticipated before it came and thus awoke from within me. It was as if all of existence were in love with me. Everything quivered in deep rapport with my being. Everything in me was portentous; all mysteries explained in my microcosmic bliss that transfigured everything, even the unpleasant, the most annoying remark, the most loathsome sight, the most fatal collision. As I said, it was exactly at one o’clock that my mood reached its peak, where I sensed the heights of perfect contentment. But then suddenly I got something in my eye. I do not know whether it was an eyelash an insect or a piece of dust. I know this though, that my mood immediately plummeted almost into the abyss of despair. This is something that everyone who has ever experienced these heights of contentment and still speculated to what extent complete contentment was possible, will easily understand. Since that time I have given up any hope of ever being completely contented in every way, given up that hope that I had once nourished, of being, if not always completely content, then at least occasionally completely content even if these occasions never became more numerous than, as Shakespeare put it, “a tapster’s [barkeeper’s] arithmetic was capable of summing up.”[1]

1 summing up: Kierkegaard quotes Shakespeare from his Danish version of Schegel and Tieck’s German translation: “en Øltappers Regnekunst var tilstrækkelig for at opsummere dem.” Shakespeare’s words are “a tapster’s arithmetic may soon bring his particulars therein to a total” (Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 2).

M.G. Piety is an associate professor of philosophy at Drexel University. She has published articles on philosophical topics in various books and in journals such as The History of European Ideas and The Journal of Business Ethics as well as in publications such as The Times Literary Supplement. She can be reached at mgpiety@drexel.edu.