Thursday, August 09, 2007

The kingdom of recurrence

Storytelling, there is nothing more worldly than you, nothing more just, my holy of holies. Storytelling, patron saint of long-range combat, my lady. Storytelling, most spacious of all vehicles, heavenly chariot. Eye of my story, reflect me, for you alone know me and appreciate me. Blue of heaven, descend into the plain, thanks to my storytelling. Storytelling, music of sympathy, forgive us, forgive and dedicate us. Story, give the letters another shake, blow through the word sequences, order yourself into script, and give us, through your particular pattern, our common pattern. Story, repeat, that is, renew, postpone, again and again, a decision that must not be. Blind windows and empty cow paths, be the incentive and hallmark of my story. Long live my storytelling! It must go on. May the sun of my storytelling stand forever over the Ninth Country, which can perish only with the last breath of life. Exiles from the land of story telling, come back from dismal Pontus. Descendent, when I am here no longer, you will reach me in the land of storytelling, the Ninth Country. Storyteller in your misshapen hut, you with the sense of locality, fall silent if you will, silent down through the centuries, harkening to the outside, delving into your own soul, but then, King, Child, get hold of yourself, sit up straight, prop yourself on your elbows, smile all around you, take a deep breath, and start all over again with your all-appeasing “And then ...”.
These are the final lines of Peter Handke's Repetition (1986), translated by Ralph Manheim.

Now the final words of Gert Hofmann's Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl (1994):
And then?
That question mark! It's a phrase used throughout the novel, pitching the story forward. In his afterword, the translator and author's son says the phrase, the last words of his father's writing career, cannot be improved upon. "It's the sound of his author's engine, Scheherezade almost, still ticking and willing". The novel certainly gives a wonderful sense of a breezy, unreflective way of living forward, which perhaps makes it more of an historical novel than those detail-laden narratives blithely imposing post-18th Century psychology and narrative forms. But that question mark salts the gift with anxiety. After last words, what then?

For this reason, Handke's – or rather the narrator Filip Kobal's – hymn of praise doesn't quite seduce me. It never has, though, as if fascinated by the possibility of seduction, I've read Repetition more often than any other novel. Earlier, Kobal refers to the blind windows and empty cow paths he sees on his journey into Slovenia as "hallmarks of a kingdom of recurrence, where a locomotive whistle can become equally well the cry of a pigeon or the shriek of an Indian." I'm not sure what this means but that phrase – the kingdom of recurrence – strikes me as just right in capturing both the glorious triumph and unyielding dominion of stories.

The latter condition tends to be ignored. But another great novel from the 1980s raises the issue right from the start by invoking Nietzsche's theory of Eternal Recurrence.
If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens. If eternal return is the heaviest of burdens, then our lives can stand out against it in all their splendid lightness. But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid? The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?
What Kundera doesn't include in his introduction is the way we use literature to answer the question of weight or lightness, even as it is asked. Literature adds weight to every action. Every action described in a novel is repeated until eternity. Every crime in a crime novel is committed again and again. If, as it seems to those of us drawn to writing as writing, our lives are lighter than air and literature is the only reliable ballast, writing rather than living becomes the burden.

So what of the alternative, not writing? That awaits another post under this title.


  1. Anonymous6:57 pm

    Nietzche's theory of eternal recurrence ("If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross.") reminded me of something in Elliot: "If all time is eternally present, all time is unredeemable." And yet, we are made of flesh and blood and live in time. Narrative illustrates both recurrence and change (the operation of time, in that linear sense, on objects and people). EM Forster in Aspects of the Novel speaks of rhythm in narrative, illustrating with Proust and the recurrence of "the little phrase" in the music of Vinteuil. Weight, if you will, builds through repetition. And yet new elements are introduced with many recurrences so that the theme recurs in a slightly different mode, like a theme recurring in a symphony so that by the last recurrence, the phrase has taken on significance and greatest beauty.

    Have no idea if this is what you're thinking of, Steve, but thanks for letting me pontificate.

    I must say that if the writing is the burden, it is beautiful indeed and the "lightness" of life is without skin in comparison, a land where we faintly know each other and are hardly honest.


  2. Thanks Meg. I'm struggling to write a follow-up, because how does one measure the displacement caused by that weight?



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