Constantius defines repetition by contrasting it with recollection. Recollection and repetition are mirror images of each other. “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” (R 131). Both recollection and repetition are attempts to take the present moment seriously, by forming some connection between present and past (recollection), or present and future (repetition). The “now” of the present is always a singular instant, a blink of the eye which immediately disappears and in itself has no preestablished or lasting meaning. Consequently, without either recollection or repetition to give meaning to the present moment, “all life dissolves into an empty, meaningless noise” (R 149).
Recollection was the preeminent category of Greek philosophy. For the Greeks recollection gave meaning to existence by connecting it with a past that is always already beyond one’s reach. In Greek thought there is nothing new under the sun; no genuine discoveries are possible. To know is not to create or uncover but to remember, and this memory provides an anchor of stability and significance to the fleeting moments of one’s experience. In this way recollection bestows meaning on the present, but because that meaning is rooted in a past that is always unrecoverable, it is tinged with sadness (R 132). Recollection makes security and sadness inseparable. “Recollection has the great advantage that it begins with the loss; the reason it is safe and secure is that it has nothing to lose” (R 136).
What recollection was to ancient philosophy, Constantius argues, repetition will be to modern philosophy, even though modern philosophy is not yet aware of this (R 131).
The dialectic of repetition is easy, for that which is repeated has been—otherwise it could not be repeated—but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition into something new. When the Greeks said that all knowing is recollecting, they said that all existence, which is, has been. When one says that life is a repetition, one says: actuality, which has been, now comes into existence. (R 149)
The paradigm shift involved here is not complicated, but its consequences for philosophy are enormous. Shifting the source of meaning into the future creates a fundamentally new relationship to time, and a fundamentally new relationship to the idea of the new. Repetition is an attempt to bring together both new and old in a movement that—like existence—always faces the future.