A Symposium on Repetition


A Symposium on Repetition

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Repeated grief

All poetry depends on repetition. Line breaks recur; rhymes repeat sounds. Poetic devices from anaphora to zeugma reuse words, meanings, and lines. The promise of novelty itself is an aspect that so-called modern poems repeat: the poet and scholar John Hollander (riffing on Milton, Virgil, and Ariosto) offered what he called “the Poets’ Paradox”: “I shall say ‘what was never said before.’” Self-consciously experimental, or avant-garde, poets may try to sound brand-new, but they can seek the same effects—disruption, disorientation, disturbance, weirdness—that their modernist precursors sought. Often such poets seem not to know how old their goals, and some of their techniques, are.

Often, but not always. Martin Corless-Smith grew up in Worcestershire, England, came to the United States for various graduate degrees, and now teaches at Boise State University. Most of his earlier books didn’t make sense to me, but Bitter Green, his sixth, certainly does. It’s both a melancholy breakup song, in the form of a book, and a “two-note threnody” on the death of his mother; it’s a small volume (the size of a tall adult’s hand) whose pages’ white space seems to invite you to add your own notes about your own losses. It’s also a book-length consideration of repetition, of whether and how older poets and writers have already said what Corless-Smith most wants to say.

He wants to say something about the fact that all lives end the same way, with a death. “I have written / my own curse for other mouths and mine,” Corless-Smith declares, in conclusive pentameter. The curse is the awareness of death: for this poet, as for the young Albert Camus, to know that we die is to wonder how life can have a credible purpose. Breakups, divorces, and broken friendships can all look like rehearsals for the main event, since they, too, remind us that nothing lasts.

As it tries to parse such reminders, Bitter Green also echoes specific poems. Corless-Smith’s “How strange to die, how ordinary and wonderful” paraphrases Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”; his vision of his own poetry as “My small distempered craft… Or else a bird caught in a net” riffs on Sir Thomas Wyatt. “I have finished a moment more lasting than bronze” comes from Horace, though Horace imagined that he had created a monumentum, a text solid as stone; Corless-Smith instead thinks he can preserve only “a fresh nothing held up to the face of Boreas,” the god of winds: “When I look for myself,” he says, “I am not even there.”

Corless-Smith lets his words repeat themselves, too, as in a quatrain that approximates monorhyme: “Hope is a flower, change is a gardener, death is the soil… Greed is the flower pressed, self is the garden wall / Nothing with nothing built around. Poetry is apocryphal.” As Keats did, Bitter Green asks whether poetry might be futile, not because we recast the scripts of the dead but because we all die: “A mouthful of earth / Awaits us all… A mouthful of dirt our final word.” Is poetry “nothing”? Is the self? The lines permit both ideas. Walled in our gardens, all similarly limited, we are as fleeting as the wonderfully sibilant portmanteau to which Corless-Smith devotes an otherwise empty page: summermeadowshadow.

That single word’s meanings point back to the ancient pastoral, but its style of presentation invokes Corless-Smith’s modern models: Aram Saroyan, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Creeley, Ronald Johnson. If you don’t like any of them, you won’t like Corless-Smith; if you do, you might see how (like Johnson) he sounds proud to borrow, to show where he got his words. You might also see how (like Creeley) he renews lyric conventions by rendering them, in full rhyme, as faux-naïf: “I cannot stand / where I love / the ocean meets the sand.”

This poet simply cannot help repeating, condensing, endorsing the sentiments of the elegists who came before him, even as he remixes and cuts and remodels. And those repetitions, those adaptations, give him partial remedies to the “isolating experience of consciousness,” as he put it in a recent interview, that their words help him describe. “I read and write not to reinforce a version of me in the world,” he says, echoing Johnson and others, “but to actually disappear to a degree into exchange.”

Bitter Green ends in resonant prose, wondering whether its piles of allusions are nothing more than “a pile of clothes and an unanswered letter,” “a lonely dream in a medieval dark,” and whether its overview of poetic tradition, “grand and immortal seeming,” has just made this contemporary poet feel small. His book about elegy, morbidity, and tradition becomes “a matter of scale in which ‘I’ marked the low point.” Yet the poet resolves to speak of what he has lost, to keep on speaking, as poets of grief try to do, and to notice new things. Carpe diem, YOLO, whatever you call it: no theme is more traditional, and few are more often repeated, than the reminder—all over these spare pages—that no life, no hour, and no day will come again.

Stephanie Burt

The consequences of fanatical restatement

American hardcore supplanted punk in a swift coup. Late-’70s punks aestheticized lumpen hostility plenty, but their successors more often enacted it. Both groups spoke in terms of counterculture, rejecting hippies and zipped-up Reaganites, but among the hardcore set, violence was legion and intolerance reigned. Perhaps not incidentally, hardcore’s musical inclinations themselves proved deeply conservative, distilling the velocity of punk into a style prizing familiarity and repetition.

Antidote’s Thou Shalt Not Kill EP, self-released in 1983 (and, at just over nine minutes, the entirety of the group’s recorded output), is a definitive New York hardcore statement: it’s deftly executed, with galloping guitar riffs, frenzied vocal delivery, and the sort of ensemble combustibility that intimates frantic motion. It’s also very redundant. The opener, “Life as One,” repeats a ten-second musical phrase four times, then ends. The few components are modular; any given guitar riff could lead into any other. Variations on phrases such as “It’s all a game” recur in different songs, sputtered each time with palpable disgust.

Punks were often students of rock and roll. They were frequently well into their twenties, but hardcore groups often featured teens who had learned instruments in order to play hardcore. Consequently, the style emerged with a narrower musical vocabulary. It actually simplified a principle of pop songwriting—establish expectations and fulfill them most of the time— but whereas pop recapitulates melody, hardcore recycles tropes that convey leaden weight. And therein lies its more specific appeal. Antidote’s songs unfurl the way skyscrapers implode: totally, predictably, and with no less might for their careful planning.

So codified is the hardcore vernacular that moments can contain whole songs. Thou Shalt Not Kill, typifying those few ordained conventions, sounds like a sort of étude— for instance, drum intros punctuated by cymbal strikes anticipate the contours of incoming riffs. And history has deemed Antidote’s debut archetypal: aficionados celebrate it for lacking frills, for its usefulness as a formal touchstone not to be improved upon but to be re-created. (Overall, fans commend contemporary hardcore acts’ fidelity to originators; regression is rewarded.) In other words, hardcore offers little incentive to deviate.

And often, the lyrics are just as binary as the music. Antidote is particularly daft: Thou Shalt Not Kill is rife with social conservatism, most vividly in the xenophobia of “Foreign Job Lot,” which opens: “Aliens from another world / They come to us for jobs.” (Chorus: “When will this fucking bullshit end?”) Elsewhere, in less plainly retrograde songs, the group calls for unity, but it’s of the exclusive sort, born more of entrenched aversion to outsiders than of desire for cooperation. There’s an unnerving harmony between the record’s formal purity and its broader message.

Just as hardcore groups have for decades revered and aped records such as Thou Shalt Not Kill, fans’ ideological affinities have historically skewed reactionary. A 2015 book about hardcore gangs, Disco’s Out… Murder’s In! The True Story of Frank the Shank and L.A.’s Deadliest Punk Rock Gang, details the homophobia and sexism endemic to the Los Angeles hardcore scene of the ’80s, in which a typical night out might involve stabbing two or three “poseurs” at gigs or baiting and robbing gay men at known cruising spots. Variations on that sort of prejudice have shadowed the style ever since. Clearly, hardcore’s fanatical restatement is a musical asset; the intellectual equivalent, however, shades into a legacy of exclusion.

Occasionally, hardcore’s political pendulum swings to the radical left, but that’s where punk camps out. Nineties movements such as Latino punk and Riot Grrrl coalesced partly to rebuff hardcore’s aggressively enforced homogeneity. It’s as if hardcore’s stylistic inflexibility— its players’ unwavering, decades-long commitment to a strict formula—can nudge its listeners toward rigid and dogmatic ways of thinking. Punk, however, shoves back. The cousin genre shares hardcore’s sudden fury and weaponized aesthetics, but more often champions progressive causes. The two styles are adjacent, often conflated, but quite polarized, which feels necessary: each is antidote to the other.

Sam Lefebvre

All the women in the state of Texas

When Texas state senator Wendy Davis staged her famous 2013 filibuster against legislation that would close many women’s health clinics, illegalize certain types of abortions, and impose restrictive oversight on others, she used her time on the Senate floor to read testimony from people who were unable to testify. There was a long list. After waiting up to twelve hours to speak about abortion, many had been denied the chance because, in House Committee Chairman Byron Cook’s words, the testimony “[had] become repetitive.” These individual women’s stories were, to him, all the same.

Yet if we read Let Her Speak: Transcript of Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s June 25, 2013, Filibuster of the Texas State Senate, we know that these stories—despite the fact that all involve women, embryos, fetuses, and babies— are incredibly different. Let Her Speak is a print version of Davis’s eleven-hour filibuster, transcribed from video using Mechanical Turk and published by Counterpath Press several months later. The filibuster was newsworthy and the videos are still online, so one might ask why the book is necessary. To use the logic of Representative Cook, why the repetition? If the point of Davis’s filibuster was to waste hours on the Senate floor, why waste them again on paper?

In terms of fidelity to the original event, you might imagine that a transcript would take Senator Davis’s body out of the act: if her blond hair and pink tennis shoes gained attention in the news, the book would disembody her, perhaps separating her from the issues at hand. Indeed, if you were to read just about the book, this would be a fine assumption. But Let Her Speak turns out to be very much about bodies—and, eventually, very much about Wendy Davis’s body, which comes to stand in for the bodies of all the women in the state of Texas.

It is on page 153, in a book with fairly small type, that Davis’s body appears. Another senator helps her put on a back brace during a pause, beginning a long discussion of whether this assistance violates Senate rules, and in turn reminding the reader that Davis has been standing for ten hours without food or water—that she has not sat down or even “leaned on her desk,” which she knows would disqualify her. The word respect comes up multiple times in regard to Davis’s body, and Senator John Whitmire asks rhetorically whether there is not a “greater good of respecting a woman.” He means that the decorum of the Senate floor should be respected without senators becoming unkind—that Davis should be allowed to filibuster without nasty objections and cheap restrictions to stop her. However, as attentive readers, we cannot help but see this line as drawing specific attention, in case we had failed to see it before, to the synecdoche Davis is performing before the senate. This is a bill about respecting women’s bodies, after all.

As the discussion continues, Senator Eddie Lucio states that, though he wants the bill to pass and the abortion clinics to be shut down, “Senator Davis does have the right to oppose this bill until she drops.” This small suggestion of violence against a woman on the Senate floor recalls the violence of the stories Davis has been reading. As the text makes us aware of the spectacle of violence involved in this filibuster, it also puts us into contact with the real, material lives of the testifying women, beyond their singular representation as Davis herself. In other words, this repetition—the transcription of filibuster into book— wages a critique of representation, or even of representative politics. We see the ways that Davis doesn’t just stand up for this issue on the Senate floor, but also stands in for it in the book.

Davis herself speaks slowly and repetitively. The language of the Senate is so musical that readers of modernism might be reminded of Gertrude’s Stein’s prose, in the sense of a sort of pleasurable irritation that literary critic Laura Frost likens to being tickled. Davis speaks this way:

As we began to debate this bill on the Senate floor last week, we talked about the fact that we were here on this particular motion because we had taken extraordinary measures to be here, and I want to talk about that for a moment, how we wound up at this moment, on this day, on the Senate floor, debating this bill. And we wound up here because extraordinary measures were taken in order to assure that we would land here.

This linguistic “waste of time” helps differentiate the women’s stories that Davis is telling: each has a unique tone, style, and pace. In only one place did I notice another type of repetition: “Jane in Austin” makes a very similar statement to “Jane Keytee”—so similar, in fact, that I am fairly certain the same person testified twice. But this similarity stands out because all of the other stories, though they may be in some serious sense acts of repetition, are not the same.

Let Her Speak reveals a type of repetitive time that is not wasted, neither for the transcribers nor for those of us who wade through the text. By deciding that Davis’s filibuster should be read, we disagree with Cook’s logic: we see value in the repetition. This historical episode has passed, and so has the bill, but the text is still relevant. Let Her Speak is by turns thrilling, infuriating, and hypnotic; despite its original purpose to run out the clock, it is not boring.

Keegan Cook Finberg

And so…

Chris Ware’s profoundly melancholic graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth revels in the fleeting moments that normally linger between comic-book panels. Jimmy is a pallid, pitiable little man with lousy posture and an ovoid head as kickable as a deflated football.

Tracing the Sisyphean redundancy of Jimmy’s life with painstaking attention to detail, Ware etches his pictures with architectural precision, straight lines and solid shapes of man-made constructs (corporeal, cultural) juxtaposed with sprawling diagrams of life. Each of the book’s 380 unnumbered pages is festooned with minutiae; many contain ten to fifteen panels tightly arranged. Ware uses repeated panels of purported insignificance—a stoic face, a piece of furniture—the way Hemingway uses and to string together long sentences of simple words. A page might contain three, four, five tiny boxes of Jimmy staring off vaguely, each image another note in a riff, so that a slight alteration (an eye flitting, a head bowing) feels jarring, important. Early in the novel, Jimmy sees a man in superhero garb standing atop a looming building across the street; the man squats, arms raised, yellow cape streaming in the wind, and leaps to his death. Sad, sallow Jimmy watches blankly from his office. When the phone rings, he listens to his mom chastise him as passersby pause, briefly, to look down at the ersatz Superman splattered on the asphalt. Then the sky starts to spill and the rain disperses them, washing away their obligation to care. The man stays in the street for five panels while the rain falls. Jimmy’s mom asks if he’s listening to her. “Yes, mom. Yes, I’m here,” he answers. “I’m here every day.”

Greg Cwik

For the sake of the system, never the individual

The deduction that “silliness is not unlike happiness,” with or without context, rings like an obvious truth. Like shaping goofy faces in the mirror or dangling a strand of spit above your pinned-down brother’s face. Make enough blatting fart sounds with your mouth against your palm and your laughter might eventually sound genuine to your ears.

For Will, a character in Tim Kinsella’s novel The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense, silliness means getting the shit kicked out of him at every bar in town, picking fights with two, three, four men at a time, “taking great pleasure in suffering public beatings, fighting back only enough to draw out and deepen his punishments.” He’s missing a piece of his lip and a piece of his tongue and has a milky cataract splashed through one eye: “this violence [keeps] the cycle spinning,” remaking Will into a scarified golem that children run from, screaming, “Monster!” Isn’t that silly? “And he had come to bask in it, his drawn out passion play on slick pavement, no pretense of redemption but through compulsive repetition of the ritual. Resurrection never even occurred to him.” Will’s repeated attempts to secure a proxy for happiness become so addictive that he has to initiate a Twelve Step program to break the habit. Which, in its own way, is pretty silly, too: the silliness of way too much replaced with the silliness of constant, vigilant denial, the overeager yes! yes! yes! warping into the defeated, whispered no… no… no…

In the context of the novel, Will’s behavior is a variation on a theme. Take, for example, the pregnant dancer who can afford to have her child only if she keeps dancing, yet cannot dance if she is pregnant, who must lose the child to keep it (it “never occurred to her she might want to be a mom until after she had decided not to be”). Or the obnoxious fat man strutting in the spotlight of beer-tacky karaoke bars, overly sexual and overwhelmingly unsexy, aiming for an encore that no audience will ever request. Or the man with multiple scripted personae, so deluded as to believe he’s the one being seduced when he has sex with the six-year-old boy he’s kidnapped. Applied to the cast as a whole, Will’s silliness might be better read as absurdity. And, in place of happiness, it might be more apt to say these characters are trying desperately to feel anything at all.

As sad and occasionally grotesque as they sound in digest, Kinsella spells out their strange diagnoses with a grace and compassion that is not only fair but also convincing. Whether or not we agree with their choices, we understand how each character has reached his or her individual crossroads, made his or her bid for the compulsively ridiculous. Because, regardless of where on the spectrum of absurdity each has chosen to live—the mutely hopeless or the flagrantly sociopathic—each faces the same dilemma: in the absence of even simulated happiness, there is only a deep, impersonal emptiness, “no center, no beginning, no end, no momentum, no path traced, no map laid, no landscape, simply flatness.” So you crank “Eminence Front” on the car stereo and cruise so that the passing streetlights fall in step with the beat. You welcome the endless parade of bouncers who gang up on you in every identical bar’s identical parking lot. You groan into a microphone and thrust your hips in the lights, turning all eyes on you when what you want more than anything else is to disappear. And, man, if that doesn’t work, do it again next week in the exact same way. That’s how addiction works: “breaking momentum [becomes] worse than the redundant task itself.” Either embrace the absurd, compulsive continuum or encounter your inner emptiness, “numbness in every way, deeply, numbness without end.” Why wouldn’t you get silly if this is all your life had left you?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. Though sometimes extreme in their depiction, Kinsella’s characters are not caricatures but actual people, perfectly believable in their legally secured pursuit of happiness: the perpetual chase but never the catch. Is there any significant difference between being addicted to getting your ass kicked and spending eight hours a day at a job you hate, five days a week, every week for twenty-five years? Both are struggles against “a fundamental lack of meaning in anything,” toward a lasting happiness that you can only strive for, never possess. Both are equally absurd—as absurd as any life in between. Which proves, by virtue of its sheer ubiquity, that the desire for change is the most defeating and absurd repetition of all, an impossible ideal that, through our continual reaching, forces everyone to “become one of its tropes.”

“It takes a lot of work to make every day the same,” reasons Will, late in the novel, in an effort to explain his recovery. “That becomes the central priority every day.” Kinsella could have assembled any cast of characters to tell this story, and its end point would have remained the same. The game of existence is a self-sustained absurdity, “continuing in and of itself the only value, and its value only for the sake of the system, never the individual.” It’s a perpetual-motion machine, and we—all of us—are the motion.

Douglas W. Milliken

A poem of forking paths

We begin—as in life, though this is not life—in uncertainty. “There are two twins on motorbikes,” Richard Siken writes, “but one is farther up the road, beyond the hairpin turn, or just before it, depending on which twin you are in love with at the time.” You might wonder: Which twin do I love? You might wonder: Why does it matter? Already, our path into the poem is branching. We are presented with options, faced with decisions; we are in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel and want to turn the page, to know how it all works out.

“Do not choose sides yet,” the poet says.

Siken’s 2005 debut, Crush—which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and sold more than twenty thousand copies, or millions in poetry terms—is an echo chamber of desire and pain, in which obsession (with the body, with another, with another’s body) is wrought relentlessly. The craft element of repetition—omnipresent throughout the slim volume—does more than delineate this obsession; it has many purposes, hinging like switchbacks up a mountain.

The various effects of repetition in Crush reach their vertiginous peak in the book’s antepenultimate poem, the eight-page, twenty-four-section Hydra “You Are Jeff.” In the world of this poem, everyone is named Jeff— your father, your brother, your boyfriend, yourself. Beyond this nominal repetition, situations recur, places reappear, words and phrases and whole sentences are repeated. The second section begins by echoing the first: “There are two twins on motorbikes…” But then the scene begins to shift, the camera zooms in, we get backstory, interiority, motive. Siken’s repetition spirals down instead of circling, and we follow it.

We often think of repetition as a speechwriter’s device, a trick of eloquence and emphasis. But consider the verbal tics of Tourette’s or autism or schizophrenia, the agonizing repetition of OCD. “Not every symmetry is beautiful,” writes Charles Baxter. “Compulsions are often symmetrical. Neurosis often has a terrible symmetry built into it.” The propellant urgency of repetition can devolve into horror: another day, another monster. Certainty can start to sound like hysteria. “You Are Jeff ” does not try to hide its neuroses. Repetition is an uncanny but increasingly normal part of the poem’s world, not just the poet’s way of traveling through it: bodies sleep chest to chest or chest to back; they are “neck and neck or cheek to cheek.” The twins on motorbikes are identical, a repetition of genes.

“Your name is Jeff,” begins the poem’s fourth section, “and somewhere up ahead of you your brother has pulled to the side of the road and he is waiting for you with a lug wrench clutched in his greasy fist.” Repetition becomes an attempt to alter ourselves as well as events. You are the brother now, participant instead of observer, loved instead of lover. The second-person point of view is not merely decorative but purposeful: it allows choice, or at least the illusion thereof. It presents stanzas like possibilities.

Throughout these stanzas, Siken’s reader encounters the teeth, hands, and hair of various Jeffs; hallways, rooms, doors, and mirrors; stars, wrenches, and names. Repetition starts to function not, as in Baxter’s theory of rhyming action, to illustrate the distance traveled between iterations, but to negate that distance. The poem might seem to be spinning out of control, but it is spinning around something. The center holds: associative patterns remain despite shifts in scene and character. What is constant and what is fleeting are clearly delineated by virtue of recurrence.

Repetition thus becomes a mode of distinction in a world where other identifying aspects have been blurred—a world, say, in which everyone is named Jeff. Those parts harped upon—a room and a hallway, windows and doors, brothers and lovers—are presented as possibilities, to be defined by each other and decided between. “Do not choose sides yet,” the speaker commands twice in the first section; by the eighteenth, though: “It’s time to choose sides now. The stitches or the devouring mouth?… This is how you make the meaning, you take two things and try to define the space between them. Jeff or Jeff? Who do you want to be?”

Once we thought of repetition as an indicator of certainty. Why else would we go on about something? But consider saying a word, a phrase—I love you, maybe—precisely because you are uncertain, and testing the words on your tongue is the only way to tell whether they are the right ones. Consider the similarity between repeat and repent, that in going back to something you might go back on it. I loved you repeats the phrase above, or near enough. It also repents of it.

An early definition of anaphora, after all, was “a carrying back.” “Jeff is thinking about his brother down the winding road behind him,” Siken writes. “He is thinking that if only he could cut him open and peel him back and crawl inside this second skin, then he could relive that last mile again: reborn, wild-eyed, free.” Jeff wants a do-over, as do we. We crave the second chance of repetition, both in good times—to relive them—and in bad, to make amends. “Let me do it right for once, / for the record,” begs another of Crush’s characters.

This is repetition as revision, allowing us to turn back the page, to choose every adventure. This is, as I’ve said, not life. Life forces us to pick, but art lets us collect. In art, we do not have to decide which work to do, which place to live, which person to love. We can walk through every door. “Here,” the speaker says, “I’ll be all of them—Jeff and Jeff and Jeff and Jeff.”

And in life, that old limiting factor? “Two of these Jeffs are windows,” Siken writes, near the end of the poem, near the end of Crush, “and two of these Jeffs are doors, and all of these Jeffs are trying to tell you something.” These countless iterations of who we might be and whom we might choose tell us something about what repetition can do, and about what it can’t. Something about regret and apology, repentance and forgiveness, but also something about failure and forging ahead. We cannot choose again and again, in life, but we can choose and apologize for our choice. We can choose and stand by it. It’s time to choose sides now. Go ahead, Jeff. Take your pick.

Mairead Small Staid

Repetition: a film in three parts

It begins as a black-and-white comedy of manners. Title card: REPETITION, BY SØREN KIERKEGAARD. Constantin Constantius is at home, his studio-set study situated in what we are told is Copenhagen but looks a good deal like every European city portrayed in American cinema circa 1936: flimsy elegance, painfully dignified servants, good depth of field. The master—crushed velvet, dangling cigarillo—is an aesthete and a bad influence on the young. C.C. narrates: “I was enjoying a brandy after a singularly mediocre leg of lamb when a young man with whom I’d shared an acquaintance came knocking at my door to beg my advice.” The young man is, oh, baby-faced, doomed, wooden, the sort of actor who dies long before he has a chance to disappoint us. This handsome blockhead tells C.C. he’s met a wonderful young lady. At a dance, or maybe a play: montage of swirling frills. Young A.—that’s what we have to call him; it’s that sort of movie—is in love, or anyway that’s what he tells his mentor and thereby us. “It’s serious,” he says, and then, probably, “It’s all gone wrong.” There have been dinners with her family, see, many evening walks down a single studio street clumsily re-dressed to imply a whole city’s worth of cozy, unthreatening promenades. A. proposes, in our flashback, and the woman accepts, upon which A. immediately gets cold feet. Runs like hell, in fact. We’ve returned to the present: young A. paces and paces in C.C.’s study. It’s clear to C.C. as well as to the audience that this guy’s a virgin, doesn’t have the least idea how to behave in the company of a woman. All he knows how to do is venerate them, take them for walks, be charming for them. He’s romanticized his fiancée so completely that the prospect of having to abide the real thing at close quarters for the rest of his life is terrifying. How to stomach the daily dreariness of domesticity while retaining the ideal and necessarily chaste notion of love he’s construed thus far?

C.C. to the rescue, we think, but no: his reassurances are heavy with monastic irony, reformed sinner that he is. He explains that the young man is in love with his recollection of the young lady in question, yet is unable to bear the repetition of her. A marriage between two people is founded on repetition: repetition allows us to anticipate what’s coming, allows us to adjust ourselves to that reality, allows us, paradoxically, the new in the guise of the old, whereas the idealized woman in A.’s mind is a recollection, a figment, an artwork impervious to revision. If A. really wants to be happy (or “happy”— everything C.C. says is layered with scare quotes), he must give up recollection and be content to “repeat.” And repeat. And repeat.

A. is aghast at this prospect. Nary a swirl nor a frill. He storms out of his adviser’s house and into harsh, oversaturated super 16.


After the claustric, faked spaces in Repetition, this Repetition is shot entirely on location. Everywhere, indoors or out, is a blank, green-brown desolation. Hills, mountains, mud; patches of habitation, mist. Cold, wet, just this side of frozen. A. carries a rucksack and a walking stick as he trudges through mud, ruts, puddles of cow blood. Title card: REPETITION, BY PETER HANDKE. The voice of C.C. still narrates, but it is now the voice of the older A., reminding: A. has become Filip Kobal, searching for his missing brother. They are ethnic Slovenes raised in Austria. His brother disappeared many years before, under mysterious circumstances, during World War II (or whichever war is best— maybe the breakup of Yugoslavia, to update things a bit). There is almost no dialogue in this portion of Repetition. Lots of very long (duration), long (space) shots of Kobal walking, walking, walking. He crosses the landscape, left to right. He approaches a tree. He picks up a rock. He meets a farmer or sign-painter working nearby; they exchange a few words but we can’t really make them out. Kobal stays at an inn. Already we get the sense that his quest is unlikely to succeed. It’s not that sort of movie.

He tells us his brother, the favored son in his family, was meant to accomplish great things. What Kobal means to try to be is a repetition of his brother, though we get the sense he will succeed only by disappearing himself. There are additional scenes of additional non-actors having additional inscrutable exchanges with our protagonist. He’s aging, looking shabbier and shabbier, thinner and thinner. The voice-over begins to read from Kobal’s brother’s journal, which mainly concerns gardening. What we’re being told is that history is a perdition of recurrence: homelands lost and lost again, exiles taken and retaken, sons consumed. The social self can’t help but be static; understanding won’t free us from the cycle, cannot be outside of it, because anything like a functional understanding is dependent, as Constantin Constantius so recently informed us, upon at least the expectation of repetition. If history were not to repeat, if we were to stop repeating our own actions and decisions, would we be able to see it happening? What would it look like? We would have no frame of reference. Only repetition allows us to glimpse the possibility of an end to repetition.

A little grim, this bit.

At some point, Kobal will have to board a train. And when the conductor comes asking for his ticket, we transition to bright, faux, three-strip CinemaScope.


We want a North by Northwest feeling. Bloody, bloody reds, exsanguinated blues. We’re primed by the early Cold War hats and coats to believe that this must be a spy story. And, sure enough, Kobal/A.’s young lady is back. (Perhaps she played Kobal’s mother in part II?) There’s the repeated rattle-rattle of train wheels over tracks. Other passengers, other accents. (German? Slovene?) Title card: REPETITION, BY ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET. The servants of part I can be recycled as conductors or porters; it’s unclear whether they’re in on the plot, or, indeed, whether there’s a plot for them to be in on. The theme song here is David Bowie’s “Repetition,” or maybe the Au Pairs’ cover/repetition of that (whichever is cheaper). The lyrics run through the scenario of a little-minded little man who beats his wife for, among other crimes, not being a repetition of the woman he’d rather have married. We are getting the picture.

On-screen it’s more bondage than battery, though. A. forces his way back into his sleeper to find the lady in question bound hand and foot. Sinister forces are at work: our old friend Constantius is stalking from compartment to compartment. No matter where A. goes on the train, each compartment contains the same thing: a bound woman, an older man pursuing. Perhaps A. is the culprit and C.C. the police? Perhaps the landscape out the windows looks like the landscape we so recently saw Kobal trudging through? Perhaps the train is even heading to Constantin Constantius’s unconvincing house in Copenhagen? We could have it pass through a tunnel and reemerge in black and white. The audience might begin to suspect that the title of this segment refers to generic repetition: hasn’t this all been exceedingly familiar?

As C.C. points out, after A. staggers back into his sitting room, seeking asylum and closing the circle, no work of art—explicitly repetitious or otherwise—can be legible to its audience except insofar as it repeats the strategies of artworks already experienced. Genre, in that sense, is marriage, is history, is recollection. If repetition is really so repugnant to him, A. can never make any sort of progress. He will forever be starting from scratch. To deny repetition, to flee it, is only to be damned to repeat the most fundamental error: believing in your own originality.

Jeremy M. Davies

Reading List

In an interview with this magazine, Gordon Lish claimed “the power to see the heart of the writer through a single word.” And Donald Barthelme, in “The Indian Uprising,” wrote: “Some people… run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word.” Perhaps surf band the Trashmen put it most succinctly when they observed, “The bird is the word.” In writing, as in life, we are what we do to death, and over dependence on a given word, especially a ten-dollar word like profligate, modular, or jejune, can be a keyhole to a writer’s soul. Witness Edgar Allan Poe’s insane reliance on minute (as in teeny-tiny) as an adjective, or the young Albert Camus cluttering his ruminations with the noun lassitude (it’s the same in French). Sadly, the rise of word processors and tight-knuckled editors has seen a decline in the kind of semantic tic-as-window-to-the-soul that it used to be so much fun to spot in print. In his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal about the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, statistician Ben Blatt runs a plenitude of diagnostics on folios—that is, a series of tests on books—to determine the prevalence of clichés, irregular punctuation marks, and gender preferences as revealed by the telltale verb (men mutter and kill; women shiver and scream). Most important, he makes note of a few writers’ most telling repetitions. Here are just a few of his findings, with a representative sentence.

Jane Austen: imprudence (“Imprudence or thoughtlessness in money matters would be unpardonable in me.” Pride and Prejudice)

Ray Bradbury: dammit (“I’m alone, dammit!” Fahrenheit 451)

Truman Capote: geranium (“… in the next compartment, the lovely girls leaned loosely, like six exhausted geraniums.” “A Ride through Spain”)

Chinua Achebe: kinsmen (“A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving… We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” Things Fall Apart)

Willa Cather: cottonwood (“The long, porous roots of the cottonwood are irrepressible.” The Song of the Lark)

Ian Fleming: trousers (“Then he slipped on his dark-blue tropical worsted trousers, white sea-island cotton shirt, socks and black casual shoes (he abhorred shoe-laces).” On Her Majesty’s Secret Service)

Michael Chabon: nostalgia (“No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.” The Mysteries of Pittsburgh)

JW McCormack
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