Kierkegaard, who, according to Lacan, was “the most acute of the questioners of the soul”[1] before Freud, was beset, as he himself testifies, by a problem: “whether repetition is possible, and what it means, whether a thing wins or loses by being repeated”[2]. He says that he is “almost paralyzed” in the face of this question; in order to answer it, he resorts to an experiment: he decides to leave for Berlin, which he had visited earlier, to retrace his steps in order to relive the identical moment of the past and thus find happiness again. Kierkegaard’s project appears here as a philosophy of action, precisely because he responds with an action (the transition to Berlin) that enlists himself in the theoretical problem that concerns him so intensely. This is why Repetition will not be a theoretical essay but rather the author’s recording of an experimental travelogue.

The experiment turns out to be a fiasco. For example, it was impossible for Kierkegaard to feel the same spiritual uplift by re-listening to his favorite drama at the opera. The enjoyment he had felt in every respect belongs to the past and there is no possibility of returning to it. He even mentions that, unfortunately, the trip did not reward him for his trouble, because, in reality, he did not need to move from his seat to become convinced that there is no repetition at all. He had verified that “the only thing that repeated itself was that no repetition was possible” and he “became aware of this by having it repeated in every possible way[3]. Simply, he observes, “one can sit peacefully in one’s living-room, where everything is vanity and passes away; then one travels more briskly than if one traveled by train, despite the fact that one is sitting still”[4]. In the end, the anticipation of repetition was overshadowed by a memory.

How exactly does Kierkegaard’s work intersect with Lacan’s thought? In Seminar IV, Lacan emphasizes that the Freudian problem of the lost object is inscribed not in the field of Platonic remembrance, but in the field that is opened up by the concept of repetition, as introduced by Kierkegaard. If Platonic remembrance is the rediscovery of a “pre-formed knowledge”, repetition is the very experience of the impossible: unlike physical need, repetition is not governed by biological laws and “is…by its nature…impossible to satisfy”[5]. The pleasure principle is what pushes the subject to seek incessantly that first experience of satisfaction that they remember having received from the object, which, however, they will never acquire again. In fact, Freud insists on the idea that what we find, driven by nostalgia for the lost object, is never what we were looking for. It is the rediscovery itself that highlights the impossibility of repetition, because what we find will never be, nor could it be, the same object. The lost object is lost forever.

Thus, Freudian rediscovery is defined in the regime of a loss synonymous with the impossibility of repetition. This is exactly where Lacan locates, in Seminar XVII, the “affinity” between Kierkegaard and Freud. In both the first moment and the second there is no return of the same: any attempt at substitution ultimately leads to failure. Lacan’s answer to the question that troubled Kierkegaard is given explicitly: “what is repeated can be nothing other, as compared to what it is repeating, than in a state of loss”[6]. But what does loss consist of? It is always, he explains, a loss of jouissance. The extremely interesting thing here is that, in Lacan’s text, jouissance is explicitly related to repetition: “What makes repetition necessary is jouissance“. In fact, it is jouissance that places repetition in a field beyond the pleasure principle and therefore in the outer limits of the symbolic order. Repetition cannot be signified precisely because it is impossible. Lastly, jouissance, because it removes repetition from the “network of signifiers”, brings to light its bond with luck (tuché), as opposed to the automaton.

We know that, in Seminar XI, Lacan borrows from Aristotle the term luck, which, however, he translates as the “real as encounter”[7]. The real, Lacan notes, is “beyond the automaton, the return, the coming-back, the insistence of the signs, by which we see ourselves governed by the pleasure principle. The real is what always lies behind the automaton.” It should be noted that what is said here about the real is absolutely true of repetition. One only has to replace the word real with the word repetition in the previous quotation to see that the logic of the Lacanian text as a whole is based on this very possibility of mutually replacing these two terms.

What is it, however, that, according to Lacan, allows us and even leads us to think of repetition as the real and the real as repetition? This is precisely the category of the impossible. The moment of repetition does not indicate a present that is tailor-made to the measurements of the past, but a present that is tailor-made to its own measurements: this is what Lacan means when, in Seminar XI, he affirms that “repetition demands the new”[8]. We will observe that this Lacanian claim masterfully sums up what Kierkegaard calls the “dialectic of repetition”[9]. According to such a dialectic, repetition is never the reproduction of a pre-existing record: “that which is repeated has been, otherwise it could not be repeated; but precisely this, that it has been, makes repetition something new”. We are here very close to the Lacanian “economy of the real”, which, as stated in Seminar XI, “admits something new, which is precisely the impossible”[10]. In other words, repetition opens up to the real precisely because it introduces us to the impossible.

In this paradoxical field that is defined by the concept of the impossible, Kierkegaard’s repetition intersects, “comme par hasard”, with the Lacanian real. What is repeated, therefore, meets the real, which is, however, never on time and incessantly calls for a record that is failing. We know that in Seminar XX the impossible is defined as that which “never ceases not being written”[11]. This is a record which, despite the fact that it impinges on the impossibility of its being made real, is repeated again and again, encore et encore. Although the real is not named, in light of this last observation it would be impossible to avoid the temptation to claim that the title of Seminar XX, Encore, is the “name” of the real.

[1] Lacan, J. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. by J.-A. Miller. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth, 1977, p. 59.

[2] Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, translated by M.G. Piety, New York, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 3.

[3] Idem, p. 38.

[4] Idem, p. 42.

[5] Lacan, J. The Object Relation: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book IV (1956-1957). Ed. by J.-A. Miller. Trans. by A. R. Price. Cambridge: Polity, 2021, pp. 15-16.

[6] Lacan, J. The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII. Ed. by J.-A. Miller. Trans. by R. Grigg. New York/London: Norton, 2007, p. 51.

[7] Lacan, J. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. by J.-A. Miller. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth, 1977, pp. 53-54.

[8] Idem, p. 59.

[9] S. Kierkegaard, idem, p. 19.

[10] Lacan, J. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Ed. by J.-A. Miller. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth, 1977, p. 152.

[11] Lacan, J. Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX (1972-1973). Ed. by J.-A. Miller. Trans. by B. Fink. New York: Norton, 1998, p. 87.