I am in general in favor of repeating myself, and it seems to me that as a blogger I have a special license to do so. So although I have said it before, this will not prevent me from remarking again here that echo says the impossible. But let me also go a little further and say that the marvelous phenomenon of refrain depends on that same impossible saying. Take the lyrics of this Mountain Goats song:
And I sang “Oh, what do I do? What do I do? What do I do? What do I do without you?”
Needless to say, this refrain is already calculated to make a repetition-lover like me smile. But is it also needless to say that this is not yet a refrain? It is “only” repetition. Only the empty rhetorical words of a broken man for whom nothing is possible, wandering in speech through his own indifferent thoughts just as he “wandered through the house like a little boy lost at the mall.” And please don’t let the force of that image go to waste! For a little boy with his mother the mall may be a place of wonder (even there, perhaps, the gods are present!), with something new to astonish him at every turn—but with his mother’s disappearance, there disappear also all the various and surprising invitations of the place and all that is left is the space between him and his mother, which threatens to be infinite—nothing appears to this child but that his mother is not there, nor there, nor there again, as with each step she does not appear.
“What do I do?” An expression of the impossibility of doing anything. If a man reaches out to speak, or rather to sing, in the midst of the impossibility of doing anything at all, this expression threatens to become all he has and to repeat itself infinitely in all his song. Song itself, the wondrously various and surprising highway of the soul, becomes an exercise in futility.
But if this man sings these words so often that they lose their meaning, he might recognize that they had all along the peculiarity of not meaning what they mean: “What do I do?” A question. How am I to proceed? But the words meant precisely that this question could not be asked, because no answer could be expected, and there is no such thing as a question which expects no answer. A question, to be a question, has to “[get] ready for the future to arrive.” If it does not have this readiness it asks for nothing and is only bitter rhetoric. And in our song this readiness which the singer has is why his repetition of the refrain is emphatically not only a repetition, but a discovery. Suddenly the very words of hopelessness have joined the world in coming alive.
And let me say also this: in order for all of this to be true, the refrain must have already had this life in the first place in order to come alive. If in its first entrance the same saying which concludes the song on an expectant note does not bear itself toward the future with expectancy, it must for that very reason be said that it does bear itself in this way toward its transformation in the end. Waiting: holding back. If the song is a composition, something to be performed more or less according to prescription, then the sense of expectancy is withheld deliberately and knowingly from the first entrance of the refrain, in expectation of the second. The first waits for the second. And only because it does so, because it refrains and holds something back can the second come as a surprise.
—This article was originally posted on Philosophy KTL in December, 2009