Preface to Stages on Life’s Way: Recollection vs Remembering

On one particularly hot, lazy summer afternoon, my wife complained that she was bored. After numerous sighs, I finally helped her pass the time by placing one of my favorite books, “Stages on Life’s Way,” by Soren Kierkegaard, in her hands to keep her occupied. After all, it is her life to live, and I can only offer her tools to making the most of it.

Little did I know that my attempt to discourage her from bothering me when she was bored would come back to haunt me. It wasn’t like her to engage in meaningful discussion about books, but there was something about “Stages” that immediately aroused her curiosity.

Sure, she was well read and quite versed in literature and philosophy, but I thought that passing the responsibility for her amusement to my writer-of-choice would decidedly end such complaints in the future.

So, as we’re lying there in bed last night, Jenna started talking about the Preface to “In Vino Veritas” as though it was a matter that demanded immediate clarification.

“Joel, I don’t understand why Kierkegaard makes his first order of business to distinguish between “recollecting” and “remembering” an event,” Jenna said, turning the lamp on.

“I’m trying to sleep,” I replied, trying to nip the idea of having a full conversation in the bud.

Jenna looked at me with insistence in those gorgeous blue eyes of hers. “We’re both not going to sleep unless you help me understand.”

“Gosh darn it, Jenna,” I said playfully.


“Well, if that’s the way it’s going to be, I may as well satisfy you,” I conceded. “Otherwise I believe you really will keep me up all night.”

“I would for sure,” Jenna said with a smile. “However, if you help me understand this book I’ll reward you for it.”

“Feels like bribery,” I observed.

Jenna nodded. “Don’t tell me you’re above being bribed.”

“I’m really not,” I admitted with a laugh.

“Well?” Jenna asked with an expectant tone.

“Hmmm . . . I think if he is about to go into detail about stages, he wants you to be able to recognize the role of “recollection” as your life plays out.”

“Still, how is recollection different from remembering?” Jenna asked.

“When we first met, Jenna, you were serving us beer, and were wearing a black, short-sleeved shirt as well as a skirt. My friend was flirting with you and you were humoring him, but I could tell you weren’t really interested in him. The first time I piped in and said something, you winked at me.”

“What’s your point, Joel?”

“That would be remembering,” I explained. “It is detail oriented, with little emotional attachment to the occasion.”

“So what would a recollection be?”

“When I first saw you approach our table, there seemed to be something different about you. The sun felt warm and the smell of the harbor and good food and the festive atmosphere seemed to disappear as you captured my attention. I wanted to do anything to get you by myself so that I could get to know you better.”

“So you’re saying a “recollection” is like mentally transporting yourself to a moment in your past, like you are reliving the moment, sensations and all?”

“Yes, I think that this is a fair statement. But I think Kierkegaard qualifies this mental transportation by acknowledging that the moment relived is somewhat idealized.”

Jenna sat up in bed and stared at me. “Would your recollection of our first meeting be idealized then?”

“No way,” I said with conviction. “In fact, my senses were so confused that the idealization would be in deciphering any rational thought at all.”

“Sure Joel.”

“I like that he talks about recollection in relationship to repentance – that you can’t just remember the details. In fact, you can be distracted from true repentance by remembering the details instead of recollecting the offense. He says that to repent requires the idealization because you have to relive the transgression in order to repent of it.”

“So when you brushed me off to watch football and apologized the next day, you really wished that you had that decision back?”

“Absolutely,” I lied. “Believe me, it wasn’t worth it.”

“For some reason I doubt your sincerity,” Jenna said with a smirk.

“But you have to think that Kierkegaard chooses to define recollection as a way of setting the table for the recreation of Plato’s Symposium and the discussion of love that takes place at the banquet he had with his friends.”

“Can you recollect the moment you fell in love with me?” Jenna asked innocently.

“Sure, it was the moment I first noticed your ass.”

“Quit playing with me or there’ll be no reward for answering my questions so late at night.”

“Alright, alright. I think I knew I loved you when we stayed at the bed and breakfast at Niagara on the Lake. As beautiful and scenic as Niagara on the Lake is, it paled in comparison to how beautiful I considered my company.”

Jenna shook her head as though dismayed. “You know you’re a suck up.”

“Perhaps I’m just one of those guys who can get flowery when given the proper incentive.”

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