A Man Likes to Repeat Himself

W. H Auden’s biographer, Edward Mendelson, wrote,

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

According to Mendelson, we moderns are hopeless romantics, allergic to repetition. How would marketing departments across the country feel to learn that their promises to constantly innovate are nothing more than romantic puffs?

Combined with this overweening optimism is the worship of the new. Our culture is addicted to novelty. In the days of Shakespeare, “innovation” meant the same thing as “confusion.” Those who constantly upended the past were dangerous, out of their minds. Now, of course, we are so hyper-aware that others may have something or know something that we don’t, we race to adopt new fashions, electronics, attitudes. We have convinced ourselves that keeping up with the New is our civic duty. And if we meet someone who doesn’t read the newspaper, doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter, and doesn’t have an iPhone, we treat them as some kind of fanatic. They must be tripping on something to want to avoid the New.