Of Artichokes and Lightning Bolts

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Spring, summer, fall and winter. Spring, summer, fall and winter. On and on and on. We find in the cycle of the seasons an exceptionally clear example of the repetitious nature of organic life, a single utterance repeated to the end of time, presumably. Maybe that’s why the sharp turn from spring to summer has me thinking about repetition. We are beset by repetitions, tessellations, patterns. Look around: the stars circle overhead, the nautilus appears to be a cousin to the artichoke, and the fractal pattern of a fern repeats itself in mountains, rivers, even in a bolt of lightning.

In the arts, repetition put to smart use bears fruit almost instantly. Take a phrase of music or a line of poetry and read it, hum it, then repeat it. Again and again. Crack the circle open and you find a spiral, spinning, a single pattern among many. Repeat the line until your mind purges itself, feel the words—their grit, their slick hard shells—transformed into a prayer. Of course, it doesn’t take long for our egos to break down under the pressure of a repetitious cycle, an hour will certainly do it. Bach knew the power of phrase repeated. So did Stravinsky, Satie, and a man named Francis Ponge. Theodor Adorno, the German musicologist, saw in repetitious music the thanatos or “death drive” described by Freud: repetition in extremis undermines the idea of a single, special soul, when we follow a pattern we leave part of ourselves behind and move towards a catatonic state of un-being. It’s awfully hard to carry on believing that you are one of a kind, a single chink in a great chain, when a pattern rises up around you, swallowing you whole. Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.


Back to Ponge. Before the occupation of France by Axis powers, Ponge was known for writing short, precise prose poems. In an effort to create a kind of poetical phenomenology, Ponge described in great detail a single pebble, some potatoes, a mollusk or a pack of cigarettes, recreating the experience of the objects. Then the war began, the Nazi occupation drove Ponge deeper into Vichy France, and objects, such as cigarettes and soap, became extremely scarce. Ponge, in response, began to experiment with a new kind of poetry, obsessive and “processual,” repetitive in the extreme, which focused on the object-ness of words and ideas. The result was Soap, a meditation on scarcity, cleanliness and restitution that unpacks and repeats a single utterance, creating what Serge Gavronsky called “perhaps one of the longest running metaphors in literature.” The book begins with a warning:

“You will be started, perhaps—as it is not very usual in literature—by the frequent, the tedious repetitions which the present text contains.

Very often you will remark: ‘But he repeats himself! But I have already heard that, just a few minutes ago!’

Well then, should I apologize for this? No!…This is how, after all, I work, this is how development happens in me, this is how the mind goes forward.”

As a formal device, repetition is surprisingly subtle in its effects. Simultaneously closed and open, a repeated pattern seems to mutate even though its essential properties remain unchanged, each successive cycle brings the subject closer to madness or ecstasy or clarity, all of which have been associated with the annihilation of personal identity. Children’s games, nonsense songs, religious chants and prayers use repetition to help us to withdraw from the world of phenomena. This “decay of the ego,” to use Lacan’s phrase, is a road that leads to both death and awakening.

When I write I often listen to a single song on repeat. Over and over until the music beats like another heart in my ears. The lyrics, if the song has any, dissolve or melt, they become as slippery as…well, as a bar of soap. There is one song in particular, “Like An Arrow,” by Lavender Diamond, which if my work is going well I can listen to for four or five hours at a stretch. The song has one lyric, repeated maybe 100 times in four minutes: “Fly like an arrow, closer, closer.” The nature of a pattern is to approach perfection, to approach without ever arriving. Closer indeed.

Lacan spoke of repetition as it relates to the pleasure principle, using the word “Jouissance” to describe the pain experienced by any subject who attempts to transgress the normal boundaries of a pleasurable action. If you take something essentially pleasurable like a line of music and repeat it infinitely (or even for an hour) eventually the dimensions of the pleasure become more than your subjectivity can bear. At that moment the pleasure becomes something else. Lacan calls the something else pain but to be sure it is an ecstatic sort of pain pain. Pleasure/pain that transports us, which, by the way, seems like a pretty spot on definition of what art is. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily