In 1843, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wondered whether it was possible to repeat an experience. He attempted to relive experiences he once had in Berlin by revisiting haunts of his earlier self. After several days, he concluded that his repetition of experience was unsuccessful. Many people make similar attempts at repetition when they make, for example, the pilgrimage to Camino de Santiago multiple times. What could a person hope to gain by this repetition?

What prevents successful repetition, suggests Kierkegaard, is beginning with the end in mind rather than traveling merely to collect random impressions. Repetition fails, argues Kierkegaard, when it is tried as some kind of experiment rather than a commitment, and this failure of immersion makes us a passive observer of ourselves.

An authentic repetition, he argues, can only happen after one surrenders control of events. One must give something up to get anything back. To experience Berlin again, or to repeat a pilgrimage, one must give up expectations and surrender to whatever unfolds. In this way, the repeat traveler would surrender the objective stance of someone comparing events with earlier ones. Instead, they would be actively engaged, and thus able to actually re-experience something like what happened before. In contrast to passively ‘recollecting’ past events, Kierkegaard advises that a successful ‘repetition’ is to live with a repeatedly renewed commitment to living in the present. Repetition is, paradoxically, not about the past but, rather, about ‘the earnestness of existence.’

Pilgrims, however, often try on identities and roles in attempts to experience what they have heard of in other pilgrim’s stories. It may be that some repeat pilgrims are not so much nostalgically reliving their previous experiences, as trying to experience what others have experienced, and that they themselves did not experience the first time. It will be argued that this imitation of life can never be fully engaged in, and thus, it will always be disappointing because it necessarily involves self-consciously observing oneself in the role.

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