Reflections on Narrative Repetition

On the fiction of novelty (or vice versa?)

If, as poststructuralist theory contends, all language is fundamentally intertextual, all linguistic novelty is in some sense a fiction.

So says the Preacher:

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” (Ecclesiastes 1.9-11)

(Seemingly) against repetition:

Odysseus, coming up to the present and “back to the beginning,” ends his autobiographical narrative in the Odyssey with this thought (12.450-53):

“Why am I telling you this story?

For I already related it yesterday in this house

for you and your noble wife. And it’s hateful to me

to tell a story again already told quite plainly.”

τί τοι τάδε μυθολογεύω;

ἤδη γάρ τοι χθιζὸς ἐμυθεόμην ἐνὶ οἴκῳ

σοί τε καὶ ἰφθίμῃ ἀλόχῳ· ἐχθρὸν δέ μοί ἐστιν

αὖτις ἀριζήλως εἰρημένα μυθολογεύειν.”

But perhaps he just fears a vicious circle of narrative. After all, the Phaeacians seems to have an insatiable appetite for stories, and seem in no hurry to get Odysseus home.

For or against?

Achilles in book 1 of the Iliad casts an ironic line at his mother’s questions about what’s wrong: “You know. Why should I tell all these things to you who know,” (1.365) because she is a goddess. Of course, we mortals know it all already too, because we just heard the poet tell us about it: a joke about the “divine” omniscience of the audience in regards to narrated events?

In favor of (single? continual?) repetition:

A one-line fragment (fr. 25) of Empedocles reads:

. . . καὶ δὶς γάρ, ὃ δεῖ, καλόν ἐστιν ἐνισπεῖν.

“For it is fine to tell what’s necessary even twice.”


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