1882: The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche publishes The Gay Science, a book that contains his first formulation of the concept of the eternal return. ‘What if’, Nietzsche asks, ‘some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more” […] Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine”?’ Scholars are still divided as to whether or not Nietzsche offered up this vision of an infinitely recurring, self-same universe as a serious metaphysical model. Still, its message is clear enough: repetition can be a bitch, but it can also be a kind of bliss.
1977: The American comedian Andy Kaufman takes to the stage on the television variety show The Midnight Special (1973–81) to perform a musical number. Dressed in a flared orange jumpsuit and backed by a simple, bluesy guitar riff, he murmurs his song’s opening words, ‘I trusted you,’ into the mic, repeating them once, twice, 20 times – his voice rising into a pained yelp. After a minute or so, a ripple of laughter passes through the studio audience, as they realize that these four, embittered syllables are the only lyrics on offer. Stony faced, Kaufman pushes on through the crowd’s amusement. He’s hollering the words now, building to what surely must be a crescendo: ‘I trusted YOU! I trusted YOU!’ His backing band stops playing, the comedian bows, the audience cheers and whistles. But, then, the riff starts up once more, and so does Kaufman’s lament. Two false stops and some 30 ‘I trusted you’ later, he abandons the stage, only to be invited back for an encore by The Midnight Special’s host, Wolfman Jack. The audience is getting nervous now. Kaufman’s orange jumpsuit is beginning to look less like a nod to Vegas-era Elvis than to a prison inmate’s uniform, the clothing of a lifer. If this is a ballad of betrayal, where is the narrative development? If this is a joke, when – if ever – will the punchline arrive? The comedian picks up the mic and bounds indefatigably towards the front row: ‘I trusted you, I trusted you …’ You can probably guess the rest. When he gives his final, sweaty bow, having not so much finished his performance as brought it to an arbitrary stop, the applause is deafening. Partly, the audience is paying tribute to Kaufman’s structural moxie, how he somehow creates a dramatic and comic payoff from a single, monotonously incanted phrase. Partly, though, the audience is paying tribute to themselves. They have endured a spell in purgatory and might even (now they’ve been delivered safely back to linear time) remember it with fondness. This is not quite recognizing Nietzsche’s demon as a god, but it’s a start.
2015: The Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson debuts a new live work, entitled Bonjour, as part of a solo show at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo. Viewers are greeted with an elaborate stage set that conjures up a nostalgic, absurdly pretty and wholly fictional corner of France, an amalgam of the films The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Chocolat (2000), Amélie (2001) and – as Kjartansson later points out to me, with self-deprecating laughter – the British TV sitcom ’Allo ’Allo (1982–92). The action begins with a young woman rising from her bed and cranking up Charles Trenet’s classic chanson ‘La Mer’ (The Sea, 1946) on an old-fashioned phonograph. Having dressed, brushed her hair and rolled on her stockings, she picks up a vase of flowers and descends the fire escape that leads down from her first-floor apartment towards a picturesque village square. It is here that she meets the other protagonist, a mustachioed man who viewers have already glimpsed brewing coffee and reading a 1958 issue of Paris Match through the windows of a neighbouring house, and who is now standing by the public fountain in his dressing gown, smoking a cigarette. He bids her, ‘Bonjour.’ She replies in kind and then stoops to fill her vase at the fountain. Walking up the fire escape to her apartment, she glances back, their eyes meet for a brief, pregnant moment, and then they both return indoors. This vignette repeats every five minutes, 12 hours a day, until the show closes some eleven weeks later.
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