I find I repeat myself constantly.
Sometimes not even myself. I repeat my mother and father, siblings, friends. I repeat the people I love and admire, the dead and the living alike. I repeat those I have never met and never will. I doubt I have said or written one small original thing in my life.
I suppose I can hardly be blamed for that. Language is learned by repetition. Trivia and knowledge, athletics and surgery and music: internalized with brute repetition. Further internal repetitions mark each field: a syllable, or gesture, or note. If there’s a first time for everything, it certainly appears there’s a next time for everything as well.
My piano teacher taught me to regard the repeat sign — two vertically aligned black dots before a black double bar — as a challenge. The error was to regard the repetition of a passage as repetition alone. You had to shift and locate some different value the second (and third, and fourth) times round. To imitate oneself was bad form, an insult to a listener, who craved dynamic performance and elasticity, perhaps without even knowing it.
But the marks on the staves were the same. The musical genome, the rhythms and chords, all the same. And often I echoed the same mistakes. The effort of repetition became that of a twin asserting her unique persona. It was the ephemeral interplay of hands, the relation of pianist to piano, that could be said mutate. Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Just over the course of a short sonata, the mind must reconfigure.
I experience terrible guilt about never reading the same book twice, especially in talking to people who do, who can put down a bad book and turn to an old favorite. It wasn’t always like this, of course: as a child I reread the same Gothic tales by John Bellairs endlessly. Then, as a white, male, middle-class adolescent, I was obliged to read Slaughterhouse-Five and The Catcher in the Rye in single sittings at frequent intervals, sliding into a cozy nihilism on the dull Saturday mornings that most required it.
Without warning, I lost the art of rereading. There were too many new and unrevealed books to get to; I could no longer force a book to surprise me when I reopened it. Books began to seem artifacts that had but a single life to live, reliant upon impermanence, not unlike most films. I’m reminded of a puzzled remark my father made when I asked for a VHS copy of Jurassic Park, then my favorite movie: “You’re going to watch that again?”
I did, and did, until the tape itself degraded. I studied The Simpsons and Seinfeld in syndication until I spoke their vernacular. Today I screen movies like Primer at least twice to understand their design; I rewatch black comedies like Dr. Strangelove or Fargo because they continue to shock and delight, however familiar they’ve become. When there’s a song I fall in love with — Le Tigre’s “Eau D’Bedroom Dancing” is a notable example — I can leave it on a perpetual loop and love each beginning in turn.
It strikes me, however, that these repetitions have scant in common with the sort my piano teacher wanted. The Le Tigre song thrills because exactly nothing is modified: the instruments, the vocals, are just as I recall them — better, in fact, as the song recalls itself perfectly, it knows its own qualities, and in silence I am stuck with my own flawed impressions. The song may play in several contexts, when I am in various moods, but it cannot fail to bring me to the euphoric center of how it actually sounds.
There’s a tension, then, between déjà vu and jamais vu in all our repetitions. We can seek out sex every weekend, hoping for both novelty and the fully expected. We are bored by too much of the latter, frightened by an excess of the former. We abuse the same intoxicants over and over — multiple brands and strains and flavors — with the notion that we’ll return to past bliss, and yet discover an unprecedented sort.
How is habit such a soothing irritant? In college I shared a bathroom with a window next to the sink. The view: a little annex, separated from my dorm, in which six other students lived. Brushing my teeth in the morning, I’d look out the window and notice a badger crawling out of its burrow, or sett, below the annex. When I brushed my teeth and looked out the window and the badger did not appear, dread flooded my system. Had it been killed? Did it settle deeper in the woods? Would I ever see it again?
Around the block there’s a sprawling family that spends its afternoons outside on the city sidewalk in lawn chairs, the children chasing each other on scooters while the adults chat and smoke. When the weather precludes this, they can be seen sitting in the building’s vestibule. For months I envisioned their apartment as a foul, infested hole to be escaped at any cost. Now I credit the power of routine. Why should rain have any effect? Rainy days are days like any other. There’s only so much that can change.