Slow Reading (1.20): Deleuze’s DR (pp. 20-22)

The delay between my last post (SR 1.19) and this one is really Michel Foucault’s fault. Though I’ve noted before—in my own private readings—the odd emphasis that Deleuze puts on Foucault’s 1963 work on Raymond Roussel, I had never really considered how fundamental this work is to Deleuze’s understanding of repetition. About a week ago, preparing to write this post on the next two paragraphs of Deleuze’s introduction to Difference and Repetition, I took my copy of Death and the Labyrinth off my bookshelf for the first time in a while, dusted it off, opened it, and read it cover-to-cover. It startles me a little that neither James Williams nor Joe Hughes nor Henry Somers-Hall mention the importance of this work in their respective guides to Difference and Repetition, and as far as I know I have never come across a detailed analysis that inhabits the resonance between Foucault’s work on Roussel and Difference and Repetition (though there is, of course, a ton of comparative work on Foucault and Deleuze). While there is plenty of scholarship I’m unfamiliar with (which I’ll probably never have enough time to read), it is still pretty interesting that all of the major (English) introductions to Difference and Repetition neglect to mention Death and the Labyrinth even once. In fact, the only extended treatment (that I know of) of Deleuze’s interest in Foucault’s work on Roussel appears in Eleanor Kaufman’s brilliant book, Delirium of Praise (2001). Even Kaufman, however, does not address the fact that Deleuze’s interest in this work is fundamental to the arguments of Difference and Repetition.


But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. In the first few paragraphs of this section (pp. 19-26), Deleuze develops his claim that there are two types of repetition: [1] the bare repetition of the Same and [2] a much more fundamental and genetic repetition that is masked by the effects of the first one. To help illustrate his thesis (which he will attempt to earn in Chapters 1 and 2), Deleuze spends the next two paragraphs offering examples from a four different fields: mathematics, music, biology, and literature. It’s worth taking these examples one at a time, but by the end I will circle back to the relationship between Difference and Repetition and Death and the Labyrinth.

Repetition, Symmetry, and Rhythm

A distinction is drawn between arithmetic symmetry, which refers back to a scale of whole or fractional coefficients, and geometric symmetry, based upon proportions or irrational ratios; a static symmetry which is cubic or hexagonal, and a dynamic symmetry which is pentagonal and appears in a spiral or in a geometrically progressing pulsation—in short, in a living and mortal ‘evolution’. Now the second of these is at the heart of the first; it is the vital, positive, active procedure. In a network of double squares, we discover radiating lines which have the centre of a pentagon or a pentagram as their asymmetrical pole. The network is like a fabric stretched upon a framework [. . .] such elements of dissymetry serve as both genetic principle and principle of reflection for symmetrical figures. (DR 20-21)

In truth, I’m out of my depth. Though I have a passing interest in mathematics, I don’t have the know-how to make sense of concepts like “dynamic symmetry” or “asymmetrical pole” without digging a little bit and relying on my intuition rather than some sort of geometrical mastery. Endnote 13 helps the reader locate the origin of Deleuze’s example in the work of Matila Ghyka, particularly his work Le nombre d’or [The Golden Ratio] (1938). In this work, Ghyka explores the geometric implications of the golden “irrational” ratio (≈ 1.618033988), which would become quite influential not only in architecture and music but also in biology and painting. For a fascinating treatment of Deleuze on symmetry and rhythm, which spends some time detailing the golden ratio visually, check out Corry Shores’s essay, “Deleuze and Rhythm: Klee’s Grey Point (Gray Point, Graupunkt), Messiaen’s and Bacon’s Rhythmic Figures (personnages rythmiques), Maldiney, Boulez, Brakhage, and Golden Ratio” here. Shores includes some awesome images that flesh out the intricacies of the mathematic resonances and interests in Deleuze’s thought.

However, I have less interest explicating either the applications of the golden ratio or  Deleuze’s example, drawn from Ghyka, of “double squares” and pentagons or pentagrams than I am in his main point: namely, that immanent to symmetrical and repeatable figures like squares there is an irrational logic that can repeat itself in all sorts of wildly radiating ways. Check out these diagrams, which I’ve borrowed from two of Ghyka’s works. The first comes from The Geometry of Art and Life (1946):

Screenshot 2014-01-17 15.09.45

The second (apologies for the poorer resolution) is from A Practical Handbook of Geometric Composition and Design (1952):

Screenshot 2014-01-17 12.53.32

The first page fascinates me because it demonstrates all the ways in which the Golden Ratio (expressed with the Greek letter ϕ) is immanent to a simple network of double squares that can be expressed through a multiplicity of potential relationships and curves and shapes. Indeed, in Figure 5 one sees the appearance of lines that form the sides and points of a pentagram or pentagon, and in Figure 24 we see the sheer explosiveness and genetic proliferation of these shapes. How, then, do we make sense of Deleuze’s interest in static and dynamic symmetries? We might say that subsisting within the most recognizable and repeatable of shapes (e.g., a square) one can discover lines that anticipate the construction of shapes that are utterly asymmetrical or dissymmetrical in regard to them. These simple shapes can be read, then, as nothing but the effect or “the fabric” that irrational ratios (like the golden ratio) determine, create, and even de-compose (as in Fig. 24). So what’s the relation between irrational ratios and repetition? The double square, the circle, the pentagram, the pentagon, and the whole network of shapes and curves and points and intersections that unfold from it comprise the endless repetition of the ratio’s difference. The ratio itself is a virtual entity which repeats and actualizes itself continuously in different ways and fields and by way of different senses.

Deleuze extends his example of symmetry to that of rhythm:

Similarly, the study of rhythm allows us immediately to distinguish two kinds of repetition. Cadence-repetition is a regular division of time, an isochronic recurrence of identical elements. However, a period exists only in so far as it is determined by a tonic accent, commanded by intensities. [. . .] [T]onic and intensive values act by creating inequalities or incommensurabilities between metrically equivalent periods or spaces. [. . .] Cadence is only the envelope of a rhythm, and of a relation between rhythms. The reprise of points of inequality, of inflections or of rhythmic events, is more profound than the reproduction of ordinary homogeneous elements. As a result, we should distinguish cadence-repetition and rhythm-repetition in every case, the first being only the outward appearance or the abstract effect of the second. (DR 21)

What? Even if one knows nothing of acoustics or music theory (like me!), the point should be clear: just as in the case of the repetition of an aesthetic figure (see SR 1.19) or the instance of a double square, a much more fundamental repetition—that concerns the process of performance itself—subsists within, beyond, or beneath all metrical or periodic cadences (e.g., think the tick-tick of a metronome, or the uniformity of a march). Though rhythm and cadence are colloquially synonymous, Deleuze draws a strict division between them, aligning what he calls “rhythm-repetition” with the process by which compositions of identical metrical length are differentiated from one another by way of a repetition that is not at all a repetition of the Same but, rather, a repetition of a “difference without concept” (DR 23).

Again, what? What is rhythm? If cadence, as Deleuze argues, masks rhythm and makes it difficult to locate, what is it? Though I could turn to passages on rhythm in A Thousand Plateaus or Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze does give us enough here to speculate that, for him, rhythm-repetition is the recurrence of the immanent variability of a composition or cadence in general. While this more radical type of repetition may be more noticeable—for a layperson like me—in forms of music that experiment explicitly with interruption, variation, improvisation, transposition, and heterogeneity (as in the work of Pierre Boulez or Dave Douglas), it is important that this rhythm-repetition be immanent even in a simple march or in the tick-tock of a clock. Even if a cadence is repeated a hundred times by a hundred different persons without noticeable variation, this variability still repeats. No matter how exact a cadence-repetition is, no matter how faithful to the “original” composition, there are empty spaces in the cadence in which to introduce errors, idiosyncracies, or (to put it in one word) style. Composers, according to this theory of music, do not just arrange pieces to be played reproductively but pieces to be performed and thus differentiated through this rhythm-repetition, this selection or introduction or actualization of what was always already a virtual or potential variation. I believe this sense of style is what Deleuze means when he refers to “inequalities” and “incommensurabilities” as the components of rhythm that nonetheless repeat the singularity of a musical composition or cadence. Picking a random example, we might say that Glenn Gould becomes something of a reflective surface for the singularity of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. As in the most mundane example of me and my mirrored reflection (cf. SR 1.1), Gould’s performance cannot be substituted for the “original” composition, but it nonetheless succeeds, via style or rhythm-reptition, to reposition the Goldberg Variations within the reception history of Bach’s work: moving it from an esoteric, unplayable work to a central and canonical piece.

(For more on this specific example of two versions of repetition, check out the multimedia transcript of Scott Wollschleger and Corry Shores’s presentation at the London Graduate School in 2011, entitled “Rhythm without Time: Difference and Phenomena.” They tend to focus more on the problem of difference rather than repetition [as their subtitle suggests], but they give crucial audio-visual insights that I don’t have the training to produce on my own here.)

Repetition and Evolution

I will keep this section short, but it is worth lingering with the last sentence of this paragraph:

Even in nature, isochronic rotations are only the outward appearance of a more profound movement, the revolving cycles are only abstractions: placed together, they reveal evolutionary cycles or spirals whose principle is a variable curve, and the trajectory of which has two dissymmetrical aspects, as though it had a right and a left. It is always in this gap, which should not be confused with the negative, that creatures weave their repetition and receive at the same time the gift of living and death. (DR 21)

Deleuze’s point here seems straightforward: namely, that the regularity of natural phenomena (whether it be migratory patterns or seasonal cycles or sexual reproduction) also constitute a kind of “cadence-repetition” or “arithmetic symmetry” that hides or masks a much more fundamental repetition, what Deleuze calls “evolutionary cycles or spirals.” What does this mean? This video puts it a bit better than I can:

The symmetries and consistencies of biological reproduction and the legacies of certain traits and behaviors and reflexes and physiologies—as this video instructs us—are the effects of the much more radical rhythm-repetition that occurs at the level of DNA. Each process of reproduction carries with it unforeseen mutational and combinatory potential that is remarkably dissymmetrical in regard to the usual way in which we think about and observe reproduction. When we take a long view, we see that even the most regular of migratory patterns carries with each of its cadence-repetitions the possibility of deviation, the rhythm-repetition that would enable a particular species or flock to alter its courses, shorten its stays, disperse its positions, or—if it fails to do so—become displaced by other species better suited to the larger shifts in environment and climate and food supply. It is in the genetic, positively-charged gap between these assymmetrical repetitions (observable cycles and patterns vs. the spirals of deviation and mutation and style) that, as Deleuze puts it, “creatures weave their [own] repetitions and receive at the same time the gift of living and death.” Indeed, this brief passage anticipates Deleuze last essay, “Immanence: A Life,” in which he enfolds the insights of his earliest work on transcendental empiricism with the collaborative vitalism he pursued with Guattari. There he writes, “A life is everywhere, in every moment which a living subject traverses and which is measured by the objects that have been experienced, an immanent life carrying along the events or singularities that are merely actualized”—which is to say repeated, differentiated—”in subjects and objects. This indefinite life”—this vital rhythm-repetition or style—”does not itself have moments, however close they may be, but only between-times, between-moments” (Two Regimes of Madness 391).

Repetition and Literature

The examples of geometry and music and evolution correspond to “the concepts of nature and freedom” which Deleuze mentions on pg. 19 (and outlines on pp. 13-15). But one additional kind of concept—related to the natural blockage of concepts he outlines in the third section of his introduction—remains to be analyzed in relation to the more radical repetition that must subsist beneath it: namely, the nominal concept (see SR 1.13 and 1.14). Turning, then, to these concepts, Deleuze asks,

is it the identity of the nominal concept which explains the repetition of a word? Take the example of rhyme: it is indeed verbal repetition, but repetition which includes the difference between two words and inscribes that difference at the heart of a poetic Idea, in a space which it determines. Nor does its meaning lie in marking equal intervals, but rather, as we see in a notion of strong rhyme, in putting tonal values in the service of tonic rhythm, and contributing to the independence of tonic rhythms from arithmetic rhythms.  As for the repetition of a single word, we must understand this as a ‘generalised rhyme’, not rhyme as a restricted repetition. This generalisation can proceed in two ways: either a word taken in two senses ensures a resemblance or a paradoxical identity between the two senses; or a word taken in one sense exercises an attractive force on its neighbours, communicating an extraordinary gravity to them until one of the neighbouring words takes up the baton and becomes in turn a centre of repetition. (DR 21-22)

The question with which Deleuze begins should feel somewhat monotonous by now, since it is a repetition of his take on double-square networks, cadences, and “isochronic rotations” (DR 21). We could rewrite this question for these examples: does the identity of all squares explain their repeatability? does the regularity and uniformity of a cadence explain its capacity to recur? does the purported invariance of migratory patterns explain their persistence? The obvious answer, of course, is “No.” (As it was with Deleuze’s take on repression in the earlier section. Freud’s analysis of the “return of the repressed” fails to explain the “why?” either repression or repetition.)

So what explains the repetition of words? How do we understand the role of repetition in the use of words? How might we learn to observe or study the “hidden” repetition immanent to them and to their recurrence?

The example of rhyme—e.g., the arbitrary sonic echo between “climb” and “rhyme” and “time”—is interesting because it emphasizes the very thing that young students of literature often have never considered before: namely, that rhyme does not just make a poem or song catchy, pleasurable, or whimsical (as in the work of Dr. Seuss). Rather, it is a framework or technique that possibilizes associations between words that one might not have otherwise grouped together. This mode of word association illustrates the secret order of repetition, for Deleuze, because it is a difference that has nothing to do with the “nominal concept” (i.e., the definition or set of definitions of a word) but, rather, with the expression of a unique “poetic Idea” that is immanent to the specific symmetries, structures, forms, and effects of a specific poem. A poetic Idea repeats itself, in other words, in all features of a poem, and one of those features, of course, is the sonic relationships that it composes between otherwise unrelated words. These unique relationships, Deleuze argues, shows that “tonic rhythms” (i.e., instances of rhyme, alliteration, assonance, etc.) are independent “from arithmetic rhythms” (which I can only imagine to be “metre” or “prosody”). These tonic/sonic rhythms form lines of relation that are akin to the potential lines that radiate from a network of double squares or the empty spaces of variation immanent to the most basic cadence. Rhyme, in this sense, is not an example of linguistic or literary repetition but the very framework that explains how and why words are capable of repeating and disseminating in such a wide variety of ways (including non-literary and non-poetic ways).

T.S. Eliot (1958)
T.S. Eliot (1958)

This seems to be what Deleuze means in the latter sentences of the passage above: if we think of even the repetition of a single word as a rhyme, we begin to see two of the ways in which rhyme can operate. First, it might gather under one sign and one sound disparate, even oppositional meanings. Second, it radiates toward other words within the “original” word’s proximity, forming a kind of meaning relay sustained not be definitions but by sound’s influence on the expression and manipulation of sense. These two modes of rhyme as a generalized word-repetition is observable in T.S. Eliot’s seminal poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917). Though the poem is well-known for its obscurity and irregularity, many of my students over the years nevertheless feel drawn to its rhythms, alliterations, and widly dispersed rhymes and repetitions. The first type of Deleuzian rhyme is observable in the repetition of the word “pin” in lines 43 and 57:

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin— (lines 42-43)

And I have know the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume? (lines 55-61)

The first appearance of the word “pin” connotes the feebleness of that which secures the speaker’s gentlemanly, socially-appropirate (even elegant) appearance. It’s the glue or the duck tape holding Prufrock together. This pin is a reminder that—despite his coat, his collar, and the rich modesty of his necktie—others may be able to see that he does not belong among “the cups, the marmalade, the tea” (line 88). Indeed, fabricated observations surround lines 42-43—”[They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!’] . . . [They will say: ‘But how his arms and legs are thin!’]” (lines 41, 44)—prompting, perhaps, the most famous lines of the poem: “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” (45-46). The recurrence of the “pin” two stanzas later escalates the anxiety produced in this initial passage, for here Prufrock is now envisioning “eyes that fix” and formulate him. The pin in line 57 is no longer the inadequate key to his ensemble or the weakening glue holding the signs of his confidence together but, rather, that which penetrates him in order to restrain and secure him in the very position he desperately wishes to escape. It is no longer the sign of an underlying anxiety but, rather, the sign of his lack of agency, even his sexual impotence. Indeed, the sense of this amplification could have been achieved with other words, but it is the rhyme-repetition itself—sound’s ambiguous relation to sense, rhyme as repetition of difference—that composes this Idea of a pin as both help and hindrance.

“Prufrock” is certainly rife with instances of the second mode of Deleuzian rhyme. The lines immediately following the poem’s most famous question are exemplary in this regard: “In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse” (lines 47-48). These lines certainly develop the sensation of a relay, for the rhythms and rhymes (and other sonic features) give a sense of escalating and staggered speed, of a quickly shifting focus, before the slowdown of the stanza break that follows, which transitions into a new refrain: “I have known [them all, the eyes, the arms] already, known them all—” (lines 49, 55, 62).

Interestingly, these two types of rhyme—gathering many senses under one word, dispersing an Idea across several neighboring words—often work together in “Prufrock.” Consider the following stanzas:

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in
      upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

   And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say, ‘I am Lazaraus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all’—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
   Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all.
   That is not it, at all.’ (lines 75-98)

The rhyme schemes in these stanzas are remarkable (abbacceddffd, abbccadeaeaa) not only for their odd patterning and pairing of words (“prayed” and “afraid” stand out as my favorite, though “dead” and “head” effectively point back to the John the Baptist reference: head on platter, head on pillow!) but also in the one line and word that is unrhymed: “question” in line 93. This outlier, this deviation from an already deviant poetic scheme is significant because among all these relay-rhymes Eliot places a significant but subtle repetition that points careful readers back to the very first stanza of the poem, particular to these lines: “Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets . . . that follow like a tedious argument of insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question” (lines 4, 8-10). Separated by over eighty lines, Eliot weaves a two-word rhyme into one of the most sonically dynamic stanzas of his poem. But this rhyme has no pair in its immediate neighborhood . . . a reader will have to flip back and recall and linger with the effect of this long-distance echo.

Deleuze on Péguy; Deleuze and Foucault on Roussel

But Eliot is my example of rhyme-repetition; Deleuze has two of his own: “Raymond Roussel and Charles Péguy were the greater repeaters of literature, able to lift the pathological power of language to a higher artistic level” (DR 22). I dealt with the possible resonance between Deleuze’s positive notion of repetition and Charles Péguy’s theory of history in SR 1.11, but here Deleuze turns his attention to the importance of repetition in Péguy’s style (or what some critics have taken to be a lack of style). As Roger Kimball puts it, “A word, a line, an image would be taken up over and over again [in Péguy], slightly varied, often repeated outright. His style was at once accretive, like a pearl, and relentless, like a tidal wave.” It is actually quite difficult to find English translations that captures this style, but the following lines from The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (part of a larger triptych that includes The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc) may give us something of a glimpse:

And that time, oh that time, since that time that it flowed like a river of blood, from the pierced side of my son.
What must my grace, and the strength of my grace, be so that this little hope, vacillating at the breath of sin, trembling with every wind, anxious at the slightest breath,
be as constant, remain as faithful, as righteous, as pure; and invincible, and immortal, and impossible to extinguish; as that little flame in the sanctuary.
That burns eternally in the faithful lamp.
One trembling flame has endured the weight of worlds.
One vacillating flame has endured the weight of time.
One anxious flame has endured the weight of nights.
Since the first time my grace flowed for the creation of the world.
Since my grace has been flowing forever for the preservation of the world.
Since the time that the blood of my son flowed for the salvation of the world.

A flame impossible to reach, impossible to extinguish with the breath of death.

What surprises me, says God, is hope.
And I can’t get over it.
This little hope who seems like nothing at all.
This little girl hope.

(trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr. [1996], Continuum Ed., pg. 5)

Even divorced from its context, we might begin to understand what draws Deleuze to the various patterns of repetition in Péguyian texts, the modes of “contiguity or combination” by which Péguy weaves tapestries, here his poetic Idea of what hope must be from the perspective of the divine (DR 22). According to Deleuze, “Péguy’s technique” operates by juxtaposing “step-by-step [. . .] tiny differences” in close proximity in order to create “an internal space within [the] words” themselves. Perhaps this is most noticable in the three lines above that are nearly identical, save for the use of “synonymity,” a form of rhyme that has nothing to do with sound but, rather, with meaning and also with a shared attachment to identical neighboring words: “One [trembling, vacillating, anxious] flame has endured the weight of [worlds, time, nights].” It is difficult to make sense of what Deleuze means when he claims that Péguy, by pushing the repetitive effects of language to its limit, “forms a before-language, an auroral language [. . .] which saves against that which enchains,” but perhaps all he means is that against the abyss of history, aging, revolution, “premature deaths,” the unspeakability of divine love, and the feebleness of hope (just a few of Péguy’s themes) this odd and frustrating oeuvre manages to respond with haunting litanies, poetic Ideas that manage to gain some sort of foothold against these very chains. Even for the irreligious, there is something quite breathtaking in the frantic lines above, that is, in the composition of a divine perspective becoming undone, suddenly surprised the effectiveness of hope—”that little flame”—against the weights of worlds, the deepness of time, and the frequency of dark nights. Deleuze refers near the end of his paragraph to Péguy’s “famous tapestry points” (DR 22). I’m not altogether sure what he is referring to, but I can only assume he means Péguy’s various Tapisseries (shorter spiritual verses written near the end of his life). A copy of Les Tapisseries is available on Scribd here.

[Note: Deleuze’s analysis of Péguy brings to mind the work of D.H. Lawrence, whose use of repetition can be just as overbearing, frantic, automatic, and seemingly unedited as Péguy’s. In some sense, my attraction to Lawrence, despite wide dislike for his “style,” resonates with the attraction of Deleuze, and many other French writers before him, to the mystical/Catholic writings of Péguy.] While Péguy works, according to Deleuze, by forming a “before-language” that can never quite express what it aims to express, the work of Raymond Roussel “creates an after-language where, once everything has been said, everything is repeated and recommenced” (22). So what does this mean? Deleuze explains:

Roussel takes ambiguous words or homonyms and fills the entire distance between their meanings with a story presented twice and with objects themselves doubled. He thereby overcomes homonymity on its own ground and inscribes the maximum difference within repetition, where this is the space opened up in the heart of a word. This space is still presented by Roussel as one of masks and death, in which is developed both a repetition which enchains and a repetition which saves—which  saves above all from the one which enchains. [. . .] Both Péguy and Roussel take language to one of its limits: in the case of Roussel, that of similarity and selection, the ‘distinctive feature’ between billard and pillard [. . .] (DR 22)

What on earth is Deleuze taking about? It is here that the importance of Foucault’s most obscure book on Roussel’s work (the only of his major stand-alone texts not recently re-printed by Vintage-Random House in English  translation) should be noted. Indeed, Roussel is still quite obscure—especially in the U.S.—perhaps because his technique is so idiosyncratic. As Foucault puts it in an interview which appears in the appendix of my edition of Death and the Labyrinth, “The interesting thing about Roussel is that he doesn’t use the generic matrix of the novelistic genre as the principle of development or construction” (178). In other words, he doesn’t first development an idea for a character or a plot or a theme and then build from there. Rather, “He starts with the ‘already said,’ and this ‘already said’ can be a sentence found by chance, read in an advertisement, found in a book, or something practical” (178). The billard/pillard example to which Deleuze refers alludes to Roussel’s work Impressions d’Afrique. While there is something of a plot and characters (etc.) in this work, the most interesting thing about the “novel” and the strategy of its composition is the relation between the first and final clauses: “The white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table” (les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard) and “The white man’s letters on the hordes of the old plunderer” (les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard) (Foucault 13). Less noticeable in English, of course, one immediately notices that the original French passages are nearly identical (only one letter differentiates them!). Roussel’s enthusiasm to create emerges, then, from the task of taking a readymade sentence, tweaking it just a bit in order to discovery a completely unrelated sentence, and then (in his own words) “writing a tale that could begin with the first and conclude with the second” (qtd. Foucault 17). It is clear to me that Deleuze borrows this notion of an “after-language” that merely repeats the immanent variability of an “already-said” directly from Foucault’s own analysis of Roussel’s technique: “Far from being a language that seeks to begin, [Roussel’s language] is the second form of words already spoken” (45).

Since this is already my longest blog post, I only want to say two things that will help us see the importance of Foucault’s reading not only for Deleuze’s sense of Roussel but also for his very notion of repetition itself. First, in regard to Deleuze’s opposition between the verbs “enchain” and “save,” it is important to note Foucault’s interpretation of the Roussel’s remarkably strange technique. On the one hand, Roussel’s technique draws attention to the sheer inadequacy of language: “there are fewer terms of designation than there are things to designate” (14). Roussel mimics this enchaining nature of language by putting his own approach to writing even more tightly in these chains. Yet within these chains, restricted by his own idiosyncratic task of connecting a sentence to its own slight but wildly distinct variation (a double square to a pentagram?), Roussel rediscovers the “marvelous property of language to extract wealth from its own poverty [. . .] an ambiguity which is both its resource and limitation” (15). Despite its small numbers (when compared to the innumerability of beings in the universe), language is “the unexpected meeting place of the most distant figures of reality”; “It is distance abolished” but also “a proliferation of distance”; it is difference; it is repetition (14). At one and the same time, then, Roussel succeeds—through a strange technique of rhyme as the repetition of difference—in “pointing out all the flaws, of highlighting the impediments to [language’s] being the exact representation of what it tries to duplicate” (23) even as “[t]he movement of repetitions and transformations, their constant imbalance, and the loss of substance experienced by words along the way are becoming, surreptitiously, marvelous mechanisms for creating beings; the ontological power of submerged language” (26-27).

We discover here in Foucault’s analysis a refrain that has repeated throughout Deleuze’s introduction: namely, that repetition is both health and illness; salvation and condemnation; freedom and imprisonment; creation and destruction. His pages on Nietzsche (the eternal return) and Freud (the return of the repressed) perhaps best exemplify this, but instead of turning back there, I want to quote one penultimate passage from Foucault before moving on to my next point:

[Roussel] felt there is, beyond the quasi-liberties of expression, an absolute emptiness of being that he must surround, dominate, and overwhelm with pure invention: that is what he calls, in opposition to reality, thought (“With me imagination is everything”). He doesn’t want to duplicate the reality of another world, but, in the spontaneous duality of language, he wants to discover an unexpected space [e.g., between billard and pillard], and to cover it with things never said before. (16)

I cannot help but feel that Deleuze’s approach to repetition and difference in this book resonates powerfully with this passage: on being, on emptiness, on thought, on creation, on the void, on expression, and on death . . . but perhaps that will have to wait for another post in the future.

Second (and I will try to make this point more quickly), Foucault’s association of a general rhyme with a radical sense of repetition is nearly equivalent to Deleuze’s. He writes,

If ‘rhyme’ is understood to include all forms of repetition in language, then it’s well within its scope that all of Roussel’s work takes shape: from playful rhymes which frame [. . .] the early texts, to the paired words of the first process [e.g., billard, pillard] which create the paradoxical echoes of words never uttered, to the syllable-sequins of the second process [e.g., J’ai du bon tabacJette, Ubu, honte à basJ’aide une bonne abaque] which point out to no one in particular the flashes of a silent explosion where this language [. . .] dies. (45-46)

Rousselian rhyme, for Foucault, is semantic repetition in general; moreover, it discloses that the incredible capacity of language to articulate an infinity of things with a finite number of sounds and markings is itself predicated upon an immanent Death. Words can repeat their difference, move from here to there, envelop and deploy wildly different senses only because the here-and-now of what “I mean” is not stable but fleeting, impermanent, and susceptible to its immediate undoing. Words can certainly take on the effect of symmetry and reproduction, but they can only do so upon the impossible ground of empty being. In this sense, rhyme might become a new way to understand compulsive behavior, physiological patterns, cadences, historical recurrences, aesthetic motifs, and literary style. It might also become a way to understand how one might inhabit empty being, draw masks and roles from it, and (by doing so) attain some modicum of joy, power, pleasure, or their very opposite. But I’ve gone on too long.

I wish I knew the work of Roussel and Péguy a bit better; they might very well enrich my understanding of the early resonances and philosophical intimacy between Deleuze and Foucault. But perhaps I don’t need them . . . I certainly don’t need them to tremble with enthusiasm at the closing sentences of this paragraph:

Both [Roussel and Péguy] substitute a vertical repetition of distinctive points, which takes us inside the words, for the horizontal repetition of ordinary words repeated. Both substitute a positive repetition, one which flows from the excess of a linguistic and stylistic Idea, for a repetition by default which results from the inadequacy of nominal concepts or verbal representation. How does death inspire language, given that it is always present when repetition is affirmed? (DR 22)

In my next post, I will struggle to make sense of Deleuze’s answer . . .


  1. … its one thing to say that within a square we can discover lines that anticipate the construction of shapes that are utterly asymmetrical or asymmetrical in regard to them. But why should a square necessarily be defined as “nothing but the effect” of irrational ratios, …or life a “between-times, between-moments”….its an amusing and powerful phenomena in literature when symmetry emerges out of asymmetry but why all this alternative ontology of forms and life. I still am not able to follow. But once again THANK YOU

    1. Thank you for sharing your concerns! As I say in my post, I am on unfamiliar ground when it comes to geometry and theoretical mathematics (I’m a literature teacher!), but it seems to me that Deleuze’s interest is in the process of square-formation rather than the static symmetric of a finished square itself. If there are lines within a square that anticipate other shapes (what we might call genetic lines), then it follows that the square is always already sustained by other lines that have made its own shape and symmetry possible (that’s what I meant by it being an “effect”). For Deleuze, these other lines (which are also the effects of invisible ratios like the Golden Number) are the true ground of geometric repetition and variation. Deleuze might not offer us much evidence here, but I’m less interested in the veracity of his claims than I am in tinkering with them. I’ll let mathematicians verify or refute his claims about double squares . . .

      Why “all this alternative ontology of forms and life”? Though that’s a loaded question, it seems to me that Deleuze is attempting to illustrate how fundamental his reconceptualization of repetition (and difference) is. It goes all the way down, from every time I look in the mirror to every festival that celebrates a revolution or coronation to every architectural symmetry or Lego brick to every word I draw upon to write these posts. Because of this fundamentality of repetition not as the repetition of the Same but as the repetition of difference – that is of the empty spaces of variation within even the most basic symmetries or cadences or rhymes – Deleuze’s theory has some disconcerting consequences for how we think about sensation, thought, agency, political action, and (in his later work) desire, posthuman life, the brain, and so on. I know it would be nice if Deleuze would just get to the point, but this isn’t a manifesto. Even Hegel (whom Deleuze sees as an antagonist) insisted that philosophy was a genre one had to struggle through as a reader. Its purposes cannot be easily summed up in an introduction or preface.

  2. Good morning!

    I want to comment on this sentence in particular:

    “When we take a long view, we see that even the most regular of migratory patterns carries with each of its cadence-repetitions the possibility of deviation, the rhythm-repetition that would enable a particular species or flock to alter its courses, shorten its stays, disperse its positions, or—if it fails to do so—become displaced by other species better suited to the larger shifts in environment and climate and food supply.”

    At some point–or in a few different places–Deleuze (and Guattari) assert that virtuality (which is, I believe, at stake here) is not merely possibility. The only textual evidence I have right now is Boundas’s entry in The Deleuze Dictionary. I’m sorry I can’t find anything else right now. Anyway, I think the objection would be that it is not the mere possibility of deviation that is the virtual or the rhythm-repetition because that implies a linear conception of time, which doesn’t match up with Deleuze’s Bergsonism. Right? This attributes the power of variation to the selective force of time rather than the variable interactions of bodies. Of course, in tightly controlled milieus and populations, this is reduced to a “bare” repetition which appears as the linearity of time.

    My thoughts aren’t well-ordered, sorry, this is the bit of Deleuze with which I have struggled the absolute most. Please help me through this!

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