Research Notes · 12/23/2016


Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, James Tadd Adcox writes about Repetition from Cobalt Press.


I wrote the first draft of Repetition over a three-day period, from August 29th to September 1st, 2014. My goal, originally, was to write 30,000 words over these days. Though I managed 10,000 my first day, I could not maintain this pace; the second day I managed 6,000, and 3,000 the third. I would like to attempt this experiment again at some point, or one like it; perhaps some sort of training regimen beforehand would be helpful.

The title and, to a certain degree, the plot of Repetition come from Søren Kierkegaard’s novella Repetition. I first read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling in high school; ever since, I have been convinced that religious thought, by definition, must be irrational — that, in fact, the point of religion (if it has any point) is to provide a framework for thought to encounter the irrational in an intellectually honest way. Where religion tries to make itself rational, it becomes a kind of science performed in bad faith.

Kierkegaard’s titles are all fantastic. Listen: Fear and Trembling. On the Concept of Irony (with Continual Reference to Socrates). Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. The Seducer’s Diary. Either/Or. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. The Problem of Alder. The Sickness unto Death.

I mentioned to a friend how much I envied Kierkegaard’s titles and that I had been trying for weeks to come up with a title as good as Repetition. The solution was obvious, though I needed my friend to point it out to me: why not write a book called Repetition?

At certain points during my life when I have felt too dissipated, too dilute, I have whispered to myself over and over: purity of heart is to will one thing. This is an excellent motto for a writer, I feel. Or at least for me; I have been plagued as long as I can remember with difficulty believing that I only get one life. It is helpful to remind myself.

In the novel Mountain R by Jacques Jouet, a novelist character, testifying during a court case, muses that the novelist’s work is similar to the work of mountain building. Each day the novelist adds his or her spoonful of dirt to a little mound, with the faith that after a certain number of days it will become a mountain. I remember very little else from this novel, but I remember this image. I imagine this image will continue to be the image I have of novel-writing for the rest of my life. When I think about my own work, I hope that something I write will have that power: to accompany someone, to be in some small way unshakeable.

This is also an image of repetition. The only way to build anything worthwhile is to do the same small thing every day. Those who are unwilling to repeat themselves, Kierkegaard says, are doomed to “vanish completely.”

Or rather: it is not Kierkegaard who says this, but his pseudonym, the supposed author of Repetition, Constantin Constantius. Kierkegaard wrote under a series of pseudonyms, many of whom would quote other pseudonyms, sometimes approvingly, sometimes to pick fights. Critics who reviewed and, in Kierkegaard’s opinion, misread Repetition would receive letters not from Kierkegaard but from Constantius. Very few people in Copenhagen were fooled as to the actual authorship of Kierkegaard’s works — who else was writing in Danish like this? — but that wasn’t the point. Kierkegaard’s corpus is a hall of mirrors, reflecting back at each other, stretching far into the distance.

I allowed myself to write some preparatory notes before I began the three-day period in which I wrote the first draft of Repetition. Below are my complete notes (I have added explanatory material, where appropriate, in brackets).


Something based on repetition, something based on what. Some sort of motif would be good. Thinking of this as three movements. Something actually based on Repetition? The beginning of it. Whether or not repetition is possible. “Well, you’ve been to ____.”

“In what sense is repetition the philosophical problem of his time? Is it still?”

First section begins, “Repetition is the philosophical problem of our time.” So writes the Danish author Constantin Constantius.

Repetition is the philosophical problem of our time.

Or some other fundamental abstraction? What’s nice about using repetition is that it fits the form so nicely: three sections, each repeating a given motif [originally, I had planned to write one section each of the three days. In the final version my novella contains two sections, as does Kierkegaard’s]. Who is my narrator going to be?

An academic, founder of the Constantin Constantius Society, organizing their second? first? conference. The form of the thing would be one day per section, for the three days of the conference.

Repetition is, ironically, the only known complete work by Constantius.” [In my novella, Constantius is the author of Repetition; Kierkegaard, if he exists, is unknown.]

Beginning of second section: “Repetition is the philosophical problem of our time.” This is ____, the lover of the graduate student who the narrator is in love with.

God, how many times has this situation been repeated?

Perhaps each day corresponding to one level of Kierkegaard’s stages: the aesthetic, the ethical, the religious?

People sitting next to him at the café: “Parapants. It’s one word. One parapants, four parapants. One word.”

“Nobody talks like that.”

“You’re saying I can’t talk how I want? I’m not going to change how I talk just because I moved up north.”

“I’ve known people who moved here before. They don’t talk like that.”

“That’s because I’m not fake. I’m not going to change how I talk just because I moved here.”

Beside him someone was saying, “You’ve never been punched by a girl before? You never have?” [overheard dialogue, not used in the final version]

First section aesthetic, second ethical, third religious. There is kind of a Hegelian construction to this, of course (though Kierkegaard saw himself often in opposition to Hegel). Aesthetic as fundamentally subjective, experiential; ethical as objective, having to do with that which is outside of the self (the self, in other words, becomes an object of and for the community). The religious as a relationship that is simultaneously individual and universal: the individual in “an absolute relationship with the absolute.”

A small child riding around the restaurant on a plastic tricycle. Almost trips one of the characters. “Why is there this child in here?” “Hey, there’s no rule against children in public.” “Why is he on that thing?” Turning to his colleagues: “See, that’s exactly what I mean… Everything is plastic. Even that child is implicated.” [overheard dialogue that appears in the final version]

It’s the fifth or sixth conference, possibly the last. The narrator reflects on changing academic fashions: It’s not that any of this is less true than it once was. Who can say how something comes into or goes out of fashion? “Fashion is always a moment that somehow doesn’t quite exist — things are coming into fashion, then out of fashion, but nothing ever actually is in fashion.” I know I’ve heard that before, he thinks, even as he is saying it. Perhaps I’ve heard myself say it before. [stolen from Agamben, “What Is the Contemporary?”]

A female graduate student who has fallen in love.

Remember: the difference between original and final ending. [In the original version of Kierkegaard’s Repetition, the “young man” Constantius has been counseling commits suicide; in the final version, he disappears]

Panels on gender and Repetition: the line from the Letter to Professor Heiberg: “now my admiration for your later achievements is no less but different, indefinable, feminine, enthusiastic” — he speaks of “relaxing into the arms of admiration.”

quotations [from Kiekegaard]:

“one only becomes weary of what is new.”

“Recollection’s love is the only happy love, says an author”

“Repetition’s love is in truth the only happy love.”

“the question of repetition — whether or not it is possible, what importance it has, whether something gains or loses in being repeated”

those who “find an excuse to sneak out of life,” as if they have “forgotten something.”

“Usually all deeply human emotions disarm the observer in a person.”

“it is often distressing to be an observer”

the “secret agent in a higher service”

“I could not resist stealing an almost enamored glance at him now and then, for a young man like that is just as enchanting to the eye as a young girl.” (questions of Constantin’s sexuality? Also, the grad student’s beloved is most likely giving a paper on the “problematic gender issues” in Repetition.)

Constantin holds that most “lovers’ eulogies” are a “vapid analysis.”

“Recollection has the great advantage that it begins with loss; the reason it is safe and secure is that it has nothing to lose.”

Constantin refers dismissively to those who when writing include “a host of irrelevant things — living rooms and wearing apparel, lovely localities, relatives and friends.” “I like to eat lettuce,” he writes, “but I always eat only the heart; in my opinion the leaves are for the pigs.” [perhaps my favorite quotation from Repetition; appeared in an earlier draft of my novella, but edited from the final]


James Tadd Adcox lives in Chicago. He is the author of two previous books in addition to Repetition: Does Not Love, a domestic novel about domestic terrorism, available from Curbside Splendor Press; and The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, a collection of stories, available from PANK/Tiny Hardcore Books.