Repetition as rule, repetition as defamiliarization,and repetition as deceleration

As promised, back to Shklovsky! In Part 1, we examined his fundamental concepts of device and defamiliarization. In Part 2, we saw how context and history deepen what defamiliarization means. (That’s what led us to take our New Sincerist detour.) Now, in this third part, let’s return to Chapter 2 of Theory of Prose, where Viktor Shklovsky discusses “special rules of plot formation.”

Here it’ll be useful to remember that one of the meanings of rule’s root, regula, is “pattern.” Because Shklovsky is talking less about “rule of law” than he is about the patterns that devices combine to make.

Whenever you write—and it doesn’t matter whether you’re me or Chris Higgs or Mike Kitchell or Kathy Acker or Georges Bataille or whomever—you’re working with conventions. None of us invented these words, nor words, nor their spellings, nor syntax, nor sentences, nor punctuation. We didn’t invent writing. Nor did we invent literary criticism, or essaying, or blogging, or the HTTP protocol that transmitted this post to your computer. We’re all working within overlapping systems that, by virtue of the accident of birth, we find ourselves in. This should cause us no distress because rather than stifle our creativity or inhibit our originality, these systems and their rules provide the very basis for originality and creativity. Without any patterns or conventions we would be left with only noise, in which no innovation whatsoever is perceptible or even possible. It is in fact patterns and conventions that provide the opportunities for disruption and deviation.

In Chapter 2, Shklovsky is trying to understand patterns that authors use when stringing devices together. He isn’t interested in defining every pattern; nor is he interested in critically evaluating them (e.g., “this pattern’s better than that one”). Rather, he wants to examine commonly used ones and demonstrate (the following point is crucial) how even though the patterns are simple and common and predictable, they provide practically infinite opportunity for defamiliarization—and therefore artistry.

In the rest of this post I’ll focus on the simplest of those rules, repetition, with examples taken from Nirvana, Weezer, and Tao Lin.

How is repetition a pattern? And what possibilities for deviation does it provide? And does it do anything else?

1. Repetition as differential perception

Consider Nirvana’s single “Sappy” (1993–4). (There are multiple versions of this song; let’s go with the one found on the No Alternative compilation).

And if you save yourself
You will make him happy
He’ll keep you in a jar
And you’ll think you’re happy
He’ll give you breathing holes
And you’ll think you’re happy
He’ll cover you with grass
And you’ll think you’re happy now

You’re in a laundry room
You’re in a laundry room
The clue just came to you, oh

And if you cut yourself
You will think you’re happy
He’ll keep you in a jar
Then you’ll make him happy
He’ll give you breathing holes
Then you’ll think you’re happy
He’ll cover you with grass
Then you’ll think you’re happy now

You’re in a laundry room
You’re in a laundry room
The clue that came to you, oh

[bridge]

You’re in a laundry room
You’re in a laundry room
The clue that came to you, oh

And if you fool yourself
You will make him happy
He’ll keep you in a jar
Then you’ll think you’re happy
He’ll give you breathing holes
Then you will seem happy
You’ll wallow in his shit
Then you’ll think you’re happy now

You’re in a laundry room
You’re in a laundry room
You’re in a laundry room
The clue that came to you, oh

Clearly this song employs a lot of repetition. But what does that accomplish?

Well, for one thing, do you see how the repetition causes the unique words/moments to stand out? The lines are all perceived against one another, and the patterns the repetition creates. We quickly become accustomed to the repeated words, causing minor variations to stand out:

And if you save yourself / And if you cut yourself / And if you fool yourself

You will make him happy / And you’ll think you’re happy / And you’ll think you’re happy / And you’ll think you’re happy now

You will think you’re happy / Then you’ll make him happy / Then you’ll think you’re happy / Then you’ll think you’re happy now

You will make him happy / Then you’ll think you’re happy / Then you will seem happy / Then you’ll think you’re happy now

He’ll cover you with grass / He’ll cover you with grass / You’ll wallow in his shit

You’re in a laundry room / You’re in a laundry room / The clue that came to you, oh

What’s more, the verses make the chorus stand out, and vice versa. Moving away from one to the other, then back again, allows us to feel the structure, rather than just growing accustomed to it. It’s not unlike one of my favorite games, peekaboo! (The bridge at 1:40 works the same way.)

Meanwhile, while the song repeats the same musical phrases throughout, its arrangement consistently changes. The brief breakdown at 2:30, and the use of the Pixies’s famed “loud/quiet/loud” principle—minor changes though they are, they “reintroduce” us to what we’re already hearing.

Repetition is a very simple way to create patterns—indeed, it’s arguably the simplest pattern that one can create. It’s also one of the simplest ways to enable an audience to perceive differences—and thereby explore defamiliarization. In this way, the pattern and the deviations from it work together in tandem. (The peekaboo moments plus the small changes in the arrangement complement one another well.)

Here’s another example: Weezer’s “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here.” (Here’s a YouTube copy. And, yes, I’ve been nostalgic as of late for the early 1990s.) In particular, listen to how Rivers Cuomo sings the refrain:

The world has turned and left me here
Just where I was before you appeared
And in your place an empty space
has filled the void behind my face

What we have here is repetition, but repetition with difference (“differential perception“). In all, we hear the refrain five times:

  1. 0:20–0:40 (this establishes the basic form)
  2. 1:10–1:30 (this repeats it, pretty much identically—establishing repetition)
  3. 2:00–2:20 (this introduces a variation on the final two lines of the chorus)
  4. 2:45—3:05 (this is like the third time, but varies the second line, and changes the backing vocals somewhat)
  5. 3:05—3:25 (this is also like the third time—which has become the new pattern—but adds different backing vocals)

A more concise version of this aesthetic principle can be heard at the very end of the song (3:05–3:47), with the repetition of the line “Do you believe what I sing now?”

Do you believe what I sing now?
Do you believe what I sing now?
Do you believe—?

It begins as backing vocals before the band shifts it to the foreground. They repeat it and then, as their voices trail off, the melody is picked up and repeated by the lead guitar (3:44–4:05)—so we hear it three times in a row, but differently each time.

Repetition with variation is a way for us to keep experiencing something we enjoy (a pleasant melody) without getting sick of it. It can also create powerful emotional effects—does anyone else find that “Do you believe what I sing now?” repetition as moving as I do? Were I willing to wax poetic, I might offer the following reading: first the lyric occurs in Cuomo’s subconscious, then he articulates it but breaks off, and then only the electric guitar is able to continue the sentiment. “The tragedy of loss becomes the opportunity for the creation of art”—all in 60 seconds.

Just like in “Sappy,” we quickly perceive differences in the repetition, as evidenced by the line “You remained turned away / turning further every day”:

  1. 1:00–1:10
  2. 1:48–1:57 (this time it’s different at the end)
  3. 2:38–2:45 (this time it’s mostly like the second time)

Both of these songs, despite being “simple” pop tunes, actually get complex pretty quickly; each one’s comprised of overlapping patterns of repetition with variations. But even a much simpler repetitive pattern can accomplish quite a lot. Consider Tao Lin’s poem “i went fishing with my family when i was five“:

when i was five
i went fishing with my family
my dad caught a turtle
my mom caught a snapper
my brother caught a crab
i caught a whale

that night we ate crab
the next night we ate turtle
the next night we ate snapper
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
the next night we ate whale
[&c.]

What’s happening here?

The first time Lin says the line “the next night we ate whale,” it isn’t funny. It can’t be, not yet.

The second time he says it, it’s somewhat funny, because it’s experienced against two things: the pattern established by lines 7–9 (crab/turtle/snapper), as well as his already having said it once. (It is simultaneously deviation from a pattern and repetition.)

As the line repeats, a new pattern takes hold. But the line continues being experienced against itself. The thirtieth time Lin says it is different than the tenth time, by virtue of it being the thirtieth time.

Familiarization and defamiliarization are constantly at work here. For instance, as Lin repeats the line, it alternates between being a discernible sentence that means something concrete, and a more abstract-sounding string of sounds. It also alternates between being funny and tedious. (The audience alternates between laughing and not laughing.)

Finally, when the poem ends, we are surprised by the sudden termination of the pattern. (Since it’s just an arbitrary repetition, there’s no way for us to predict when Lin will finish. He could repeat it 50 times or 500 times or 5000.) And so at the end we experience, for a few seconds, his not speaking in a way we couldn’t have otherwise. The repetition serves to defamiliarize silence. (A similar effect often occurs at the end of a Philip Glass piece, and many other minimalist compositions.)

All three of these examples demonstrate how repetition enables differential perception and defamiliarization. But Shklovsky proceeds in Chapter 2 to observe how repetition (as well as other patterns) also provide another important function: deceleration. Simply put, repetition delays the end of the work. This claim is more complex than it may initially seem.

2. Repetition as deceleration

In spite of [the] repetition, the action does not come to a stop. It advances, only more slowly. — Theory of Prose (28)

Heaven / Heaven is a place / a place where nothing / nothing ever happens. —David Byrne & Jerry Harrison

As the work of art progresses, patterns accumulate, the resolution of which brings the end of the artwork. The Hobbit, for instance, is built on a very simple pattern: Home-Away-Home. (Peekaboo! Or A-B-A. ) One of the jobs of the “Away” section (B) is to delay Bilbo’s return to the Shire. (The Lord of the Rings is built on the same basic pattern, with an even longer B.)

Repetition is means of delaying a pattern’s resolution. The Talking Heads song “Heaven” provides a contemporary demonstration of this principle. For an older one, let’s look at a story that Shklovsky includes in Chapter 2:

A certain pious and compassionate hermit kept a mouse. Through prayer, he had secretly transformed it into a beautiful woman so that it wouldn’t be shunned by his family. When the girl reached adulthood, the good hermit began searching for a worthy suitor for her.

Since she asked for the strongest man alive, the solicitous guardian turned to the sun, who was the most powerful being in the universe, and pleaded with him to marry his daughter. In doing this, he explained why he was turning to the sun and to no one else. But then the sun answered:

“I will show you someone who is stronger. It is the cloud, which covers and detains all of my rays and eclipses my rays.”

Then the hermit went to see the cloud and said to him what he had earlier said to the sun. But the cloud answered:

“I too will show you someone who is stronger. Go see the wind, who moves me back and forth and drives me to the east and west.”

So the hermit went to see the wind and said to him what he had already said to the cloud. The wind answered:

“I too will show you someone stronger. It’s the mountain, which I cannot move.”

So the hermit came to see the mountain and repeated his speech. And the mountain said to him:

“I will show you someone stronger. It’s the rat, from which I am powerless to protect myself when he bores a whole into me and secures for me his dwelling.”

So the hermit went to see the rat and asked it: “Won’t you please marry my daughter?” And he answered:

“How can I marry her when my burrow is so narrow. On the contrary, a rat would rather marry a mouse.”

So the hermit, with the consent of the young woman, began to pray to his Lord, imploring Him to turn his  daughter back into the mouse she had once been. So God turned her back into a mouse and she and the rat lived happily ever after.

The underlying pattern here, just like in The Hobbit, is the simple A-B-A (or A-B-A¹): mouse -> human -> mouse again. (Because the hermit’s Lord consents and the daughter becomes a mouse again, the story is a comedy. But if we omit the final paragraph, it is a tragedy.)

B—the hermit’s quest for a suitor—is drawn out and laborious. (Note also how it progresses from the seemingly powerful sun to the seemingly lowly rat—another organizational pattern.) This elongated path sufficiently separates the beginning from the end (A from A¹), delaying the resolution of the formal pattern that comprises the story, and thus providing more satisfaction when we finally return to A—a return we feel all the more strongly. Because the story could be much shorter:

A certain pious and compassionate hermit kept a mouse. Through prayer, he had secretly transformed it into a beautiful woman so that it wouldn’t be shunned by his family. When the girl reached adulthood, the good hermit began searching for a worthy suitor for her; he went to see a rat and asked it: “Won’t you please marry my daughter?”

The rat answered: “How can I marry her when my burrow is so narrow. On the contrary, a rat would rather marry a mouse.”

So the hermit, with the consent of the young woman, began to pray to his Lord, imploring Him to turn his  daughter back into the mouse she had once been. So God turned her back into a mouse and she and the rat lived happily ever after.

The pattern is the same, but its easy resolution is found wanting.

This is why predestined lovers who meet-cute in the first ten minutes of a romantic comedy must overcome numerous obstacles—usually 90–105 minutes’ worth—before they, too, are allowed to live happily ever after.

This is also why my Monday posts are so long.

See also:

Next Monday: Another way to generate text #5: “synonym clusters”