First of all, this is old news to most of you who know me personally, but all of you in blog-land might be interested to know that I’ve got an article published on H.D.’s Trilogy, her WWII epic poem, and her seances in which she talked to dead RAF pilots. It’s in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory’s most recent issue, and it’s called “‘An Unusual Way to Think’: Trilogy‘s Oracular Poetics.” You can download & read the PDF for free. Yay for the information age!
If you’ve been starved for my friendlier, less academic prose (and what follows below is not enough to slake your thirst), you can also check out the poetry reviews that I recently did for Noö Journal — mine are the first two pieces in the magazine, actually, linked there on the upper right.
Okay, on with the show. In what follows, as the title of this post promises, I will talk about Gertrude Stein for awhile and then I will make some connections to the series finale of Lost, because I am a dork. I will put that section behind the fold, for the spoiler-conscious, and I will endeavor to make the first part of the post worthwhile in and of itself. I will also try to make the section on Lost as general and thematic as possible, so that you can read it and get something out of it even if you haven’t watched the series.
Because I am an immensely unwise person, I have decided that my dissertation requires me to read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a 925-page-long reputedly incoherent tome which is actually blurbed with the following line from the New Yorker: “The first stunningly original disaster of modernism.” But to my great surprise, I am enjoying the hell out of it. Here is part of the section with which I am currently madly in love. I quote at some length so you can get the effect of her prose, but please do try to read this attentively, because the nuances are important:
Every one is always repeating the whole of them. Always, one having loving repeating to getting completed understanding must have in them an open feeling, a sense for all the slightest variations in repeating, must never lose themselves so in the solid steadiness of all repeating that they do not hear the slightest variation. If they get deadened by the steady pounding of repeating they will not learn from each one even though each one always is repeating the whole of them they will not learn the completed history of them, they will not know the being really in them.
As I was saying every one always is repeating the whole of them. As I was saying sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding. This is now a description, of such a way of hearing, seeing, feeling, living, loving, repetition.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Mostly everyone, then, comes to know then the being of some one by loving the repeating in them, the repeating coming out of them. There are some who love everybody’s repeating, this is now a description of such loving in one.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Everyone always is repeating the whole of them. This is now a history of getting completed understanding by loving repeating in every one the repeating that always is coming out of them as a complete history of them. This is now a description of learning to listen to all repeating that every one is always making of the whole of them.
A large part of The Making of Americans is essentially a typology of characters — Stein attempts to describe different “types” of people who live in America. This concept is what she is introducing at the end of this passage; the narrator is someone “who love[s] everybody’s repeating,” and has listened sufficiently to everybody so as to piece together a “complete history” of all of them.
But let’s back up. What does it mean to say that “every one is always repeating the whole of them”? First of all, there’s the sense of verbal “repetition,” which of course this text itself enacts. We all have favorite stories about ourselves to tell, favorite topics to discuss, frequent refrains in our daily accounts of ourselves. I presently have a semi-regular non-appointment with a friend of mine for what generally turn out to be quite long conversations about our presents and pasts. He is a relatively new acquaintance, which means I get to trot out some of my “greatest hits,” and have thus had the opportunity to examine this particular(ly narcissistic) pleasure. It’s the pleasure of a well-told story as much as of a well-lived life; I admire myself for both the events and their recounting equally. Because of course for me, these stories are already repetitions, benefiting from earlier tellings. But I worry that some of these stories have stopped being “authentic” because they have been told so many times, and that I might not be giving my interlocutor as much attention as he deserves by launching into these rhapsodies as often as I do. (Speaking of favorite themes, see this post for an earlier meditation of mine on personal anecdotes and the authenticity thereof.) But Stein loves repetition. She would tell me, I think, that repetition makes my stories more authentic, in the sense that as I refine them, they become more perfect expressions of myself. Not only do they become better vehicles for conveying whatever truth about myself inheres in stories about — for example — my summer jobs in high school, but they become better entertainment for my interlocutor, and I think this latter function should not be overlooked.
So there is verbal repetition — but there is also, like, life repetition. In a mundane sense, we all have schedules. We all have approximately set times when we wake up and when we go to sleep, most of us have some kind of official work schedule we have to abide by, and many of us have more or less ritualized ways that we use our spare time: we go to the same couple of lunch places, we unwind at the end of the day with a beer and The Daily Show, whatever. In a more profound sense, most of our lives are shaped by broader patterns of repetition: the same damn relationship hang-ups playing out again and again, the same nonsense day in and day out from your mother that you thought you both would have outgrown by now, etc. Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit is also about repetition — according to this theory, certain traumatic events leave us numb because we are unable to process them, but then later (often much later) in life, a seemingly unrelated stimulus can set off an emotional reaction out of all proportion with the stiumulus itself, because this reaction is the result of much-belated emotions connected to the original traumatic event.
What I like about Stein’s formulation (“every one is always repeating the whole of them”) is that it levels all these senses of repetition, from the echoing effect of profound emotional trauma to your verbal tics and your morning coffee ritual, and says that in all of these repetitions you are repeating “the whole of [you].” It reminds me of fractals, geometric drawings made up of pieces that are each smaller-sized copies of the whole. We all, I think, worry about the degree to which our lives our repetitive. Most of us have escape fantasies, whether or not we have any actual desire to act on them. Maybe I read too much Jack Kerouac as a teenager, but I suspect I am not the only person who sometimes fancies that she could be living a better and freer and more authentic life if she could just summon the courage to quit her job and hit the open road. What Stein does here is show us that repetition is authenticity — we can’t escape it even if we try. If we didn’t have desires that lead us to the same perfectly-calibrated cup of coffee every morning, or habitual turns of phrase that are uniquely our own, then who would we be?
The counterpart to this is the theory of love that Stein espouses here: “Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating.” This is, by necessity, a theory of long-term love. She reminds us that “sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding.” If repetition is authenticity, then repetition demands attention — not boredom or disengagement, which might be our more automatic responses. Importantly, Stein recognizes that the repetition in our lives is never exact repetition, though it may look that way to outsiders. Love, for Stein, becomes paying attention to the nuances of somebody’s repetitions. Change does not always happen drastically — in fact, most change in our lives probably occurs at a gradual pace, as a matter of drift in a series of repetitions rather than as a radical break. And what is sharing your life with someone if not the process of gradually letting your repetitions overlap and shape one another?
This is the part where I’m going to start talking about the television show Lost. If you’ve been watching the show but haven’t seen the finale yet, you should probably stop reading. If you’ve never seen it and/or have only vague plans to watch it someday, you can go ahead and continue, because I will not reveal any answers to any mysteries; I’m just going to describe the kind of emotional closure that the show gives us while avoiding specifics as much as possible.
Hello again! I apologize for my lengthy absence from the blogosphere; upon returning from Vegas I proceeded to get horrendously ill for several days, and then the deadline for my Weil/Bataille paper came upon me and I had to spend another week getting that together. You’ll get the cliff-notes version of my definitive Weil/Bataille thoughts in the not so distant future. For now, some laughs at a dead man’s expense.
It seems to me that the March 7th installation of Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics can be read as a commentary on the death of Jean Baudrillard. In the first panel, T-Rex declares, “Okay! I am going to write a story and it is going to be BRAND NEW. It will be the most
staggeringly original story ever. It will feature action and characters that COULD NEVER HAVE BEEN CONCEIVED BY ANYBODY BUT ME.” T-Rex, T-Rex, T-Rex. If he hadn’t died earlier that day, Baudrillard would have told you that there are no new stories left; the best you will be able to do is re-assemble the cultural ideas to which you have already been exposed. But T-Rex’s defiant cry is especially poignant in the wake of Baudrillard’s death — now that the prophet is dead, maybe we can pretend his message was never true.
In panel 2, T-Rex, of course, fails utterly. The name of his “staggeringly original” story is “Tuggy the Tugboat Tugs . . . In Space.” Not only is it a ripoff of the beloved children’s book Tuggy the Tugboat, but the “In Space” calls to mind some of the worst sequels of all time: Leprechaun IV, Jason X, etc. Oh simulacra. In Jason X, for example, Jason is cryogenically frozen (because, of course, he can’t be killed) and then discovered by a team of explorers a thousand years in the future, after Earth has been destroyed by warfare and humans have been dispersed throughout the galaxy. He is taken to their spaceship and unthawed where he proceeds to — you guessed it — butcher teens who are getting drunk or having sex. At one point, in order to distract him, some of the crewmembers lure him onto the holodeck, where they project a simulation of Camp Crystal Lake, site of the original Friday the Thirteenth massacres, and some simulated well-endowed teen girls gigglingly ask him if he’d like to smoke some pot or have some premarital sex. Cut to the crewmembers: “I think he’s buying it!” Cut back to Jason: he is beating one of the girls with the other one, whom he has stuffed in a sleeping bag. Nope, there is nothing new under the sun.
In panel 3, Dromiceiomimus advances the formalist position that “there’s only 10 or so stories, and all narratives are just variations on these themes,” but T-Rex calls shenanigans. By panel 5, he has leapfrogged over 50 or so years of literary criticism and discovered Baudrillard’s hyperreality: “But then you might as well treat EVERY story as as sequel, prequel, or rewrite of Terminator II!”
The consequences are obvious: “Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most disappointing Terminator sequel yet.” Welcome to the desert of the real, T-Rex, where the copy has replaced the original.
But the desert of the real has always been T-Rex’s abode. Every single Dinosaur Comics is exactly the same. The dialogue changes from day to day, sure, but the infinitely repeated drawings ensure that the same basic structure repeats itself again and again: T-Rex proposes something ludicrous in panel one, it has hilarious consequences in panel 2, he scorns Dromiceiomimus’ reasonable suggestion in panel 3, he fights with Utahraptor in panels 4 and 5, and in panel 6 we inevitably find him persisting in error, and shouting into the void.
Aren’t we all, aren’t we all.