- The Problem with a Unifying Vision
James Tadd Adcox
57Pages; Print, $15.00
It is fitting that James Tadd Adcox’s latest novel, Repetition is a slim volume. Just as a prayer, repeated each day as an act of faith gains power in the repetition, so too does Adcox’s brief novel seem a part of much larger things. While Adcox’s Repetition is at times a retelling of Kierkegaard’s 1843 manuscript of the same title—which it makes liberal reference to—Adcox’s novel does more than simply invoke Kierkegaard. The novel’s concerns, which begin with Kierkegaard’s concepts of “recollection” and “repetition,” do not end there, but instead enable a surprising lively narrative —surprising perhaps because of its conceptual underpinnings. In the introduction to the Oxford edition of Kierkegaard’s Repetition, E. F. Mooney explains:
Kierkegaard’s narrator, Constantine Constantius, introduces the contrast between ‘repetition’ and the ancient Platonic concept of ‘recollection.’ Plato’s idea is that we already possess the rudiments of all the knowledge we need. It is part of the inherited structure of our minds. Once we begin thinking, we have a glimmer of the idea that 2 plus 2 equal 4, and that we should always do what is good, for instance. All we have to do is remember these truths, and a teacher like Socrates can prompt us.
This is contrasted with a new method proposed by Kierkegaard’s narrator Constantine Constantius, that of “repetition.”
Repetition means getting our cognitive and moral bearings not through prompted remembering, but quite unexpectedly as a gift from the unknown, as a revelation from the future. Repetition is epiphany that sometimes grants the old again, as new, and sometimes grants something radically new.
Adcox’s novel opens with a playful narrative that seamlessly considers this interplay between Platonic “recollection” and Constantius’ “repetition.” As the narrator works in his office at home on the morning of a long prepared for and long awaited conference organized by the Constantine Constantius Society, his wife has just fried him some eggs.
I considered the eggs. Obviously she was offering them to me as a sort of gift, an acknowledgment of how much this conference meant to me and to my career. But how fully the gift went against the spirit of the conference! Of my entire work! This egg gift, a singular thing, appearing disjointedly out of time, felt like a bad omen. [End Page 23]
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Is the “egg gift” this repetition that Constantine Constantius speaks of? A “gift from the unknown”? Or is this “egg gift” an attempt at ‘recollection,’ as the subsequent conversation at the breakfast table leads the reader to consider? Such questions act as homage to the academic world, where in contrast to the business world which often seeks a unified, clarifying vision delivered by a “leader,”—the academic world often contains disagreement about even the basic meaning of a text. “Recollection’s love is the only true love,” Adcox writes, quoting Constantine Constantius, who was in fact quoting another, unnamed author. Even this seemingly simple assertion is undermined by both Constantius and Adcox, who situate it as part of a dialectic. As universities are increasingly run as businesses, this clash between the supposed courage of “leaders’” who insist on a single, unifying vision and the dialectical relationship of ideas in an academic setting is a central concern of the novel. In a subsequent footnote discussing Constantius scholarship Adcox writes: “Thus do these disputes always proceed: the no rising up unfailingly, eternally, against the yes.” Throughout the novel, Adcox insists on the importance of the Hegelian dialectic against the fierce “courage” of the business leader and the suffocating call for the academic to manage his career wisely.
Where Adcox succeeds most in this novel however is in his ability to combine—as Kierkegaard did—a narrative and a metaphysical, conceptual essay. Soon after his breakfast musings, the narrator finds himself in his office within the English building of the university he has a temporary, but renewable appointment in. Registration begins at noon for the...