Mostly Everyone Loves Some One’s Repeating: Gertrude Stein and Lost

May 25, 2010 at 11:41 pm | Posted in attention, love, poetry, pop culture, publication, repetition | 2 Comments

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.

Okay, so, Lost is a show about people whose lives are drastically altered. The plane crash rips them out of their familiar “repetitions,” their habits and lives, and thrusts them into a terrifying new context. But the “flashback” structure of the show is designed to show us how much of their new lives on the island mirror their old lives before coming to the island. In the first season or two, I was reasonably certain that we were supposed to read these flashbacks as something the characters were in fact experiencing — that is, that the scenes from their earlier lives were things that they were being reminded of by current events. This reading sort of breaks down in the later seasons, when we get flash-forward and flash-sideways bits instead of proper flashbacks, but we are still generally supposed to understand these scenes as parallel to the on-island events. In other words, the show has always been about repetition. As many have pointed out, most characters on the island benefit immensely from this chance to “do over” their lives, and work out their issues in a new context — repetition with a difference. The actions of Jacob and Smokey have this structure, too; they rehearse the same conflict over and over until something happens to change the pattern. I even see this structure in the motto “Whatever happened, happened” — two repetitions of the word “happened,” showing us that just about everything in the show happens more than once. (But also showing us that everything actually happened; I reject the proposal that “they’ve been dead the whole time” on the grounds that it’s stupid and annoying.)

J.J. Abrams has proclaimed from the beginning that he wrote the last ten minutes of the show way back when it was first starting, and the current writers didn’t change it at all from his original vision. I don’t entirely endorse this decision (because, among other things, it means that dumb irrelevant Shannon gets to be there for no reason and that Miles & company don’t), but I do rather like the sort of emotional resolution that this ending offers us. Like many people, I’m annoyed about the number of mysteries that the ending left unsolved, and I’m also unhappy with readings of the alternate timeline in the last season as “purgatory.” One of the things that Lost had excelled at was being Biblical without being allegorical — it had decidedly Old Testament themes, especially in its later seasons, but it could never be pinned down as an allegory for any particular Bible story. I’d hate to think that they were abandoning their canny mash-up approach for something straightforwardly religious at the very end, so here is the way I am choosing to see it:

There has been some lip service paid to the idea that the producers were drawing on “eastern philosophy” in their decision to reveal the characters as being all kind of cosmically linked together, but as a halfway-serious scholar of “eastern philosophy,” I have no idea what they’re talking about. The place I have seen this concept is in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle: in the (avowedly, explicitly) fake religion of Bokononism, there is a concept of a “karass,” which is a group of people who, usually unknowingly, are working together to do God’s will. (Fun fact: on all of my undergraduate college applications, I checked “other” on the religion question and wrote in “Bokononism.”) If indeed the producers were drawing on Vonnegut, we already have a way out of the straightforwardly religious reading, since (a) Bokononism is a fake religion invented by Vonnegut, and (b) the first line of the Book of Bokonon is “All of the true things that I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” But I recognize that this is a stretch.

The secular way to understand this entanglement of lives is, I think, through the idea of repetition: the castaways are people whose life-rhythms shaped one another; they all worked out their problems as a group, rebuilding their identities in relationship to one another. They experienced the kind of radical break from their lives that many of us fantasize about (albeit in a more terrifying way than any of us would choose), but even this violent wrenching out of their habits was not enough to erase the fact that “every one is always repeating the whole of them.” Together, they learned to recognize their own and one another’s repeating on a lot of levels, some of which admittedly involved actual time travel. I take the ending, then, as a religiously-inflected metaphor for the importance of this process, and for the realization that all of life is fundamentally repetition.



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  1. Also — and I just thought of this now — the show’s oft-repeated, much-groused-about-by-fans M.O. of characters changing the subject when asked direct questions can perhaps be read as a microcosm fractal-pattern for the finale’s refusal to answer our questions. I just blew your minds a little there, didn’t I? 😉

  2. Ah, I’d heard that they’d known what the final shot of the series would be from the very beginning, but I didn’t know they’d written the final scene. It kind of helps explain why I was so frustrated with the last 10 minutes of the finale after loving the first 140–it just seemed tacked on, and didn’t follow from what came before it. It was like they suddenly realized that the flash-sideways timeline was building to something huge, but they’d run out of time in the episode, so they were just like, “ok, fuck it, let’s end it this way instead.”


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