There is a passage in the writings of Karl Marx that is as fateful as it is famous, and indeed its fatefulness is not unconnected with its fame: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." If this is indeed the second time this thought is expressed in history, it must by its own criterion be farce, and its first occurrence in Hegel tragic. And something like this did in fact come true: since every Marxist knew this line--it is the kind of slogan that gets printed on T-shirts--it was necessary for them to dismiss repetitions as farcical, as the learned revolutionaries in the Columbia University uprising of 1968 did when the learned students of Harvard underwent their uprising a year later. The overall effect was that there could be no cumulative revolutionary movement, veterans of first happenings being obliged to scorn such events' repetitions.
Hegel's statement is far less well-known than Marx's, and indeed certain Marxist writers, such as my Nation colleague Alexander Cockburn, have expressed doubt that Hegel ever said any such thing. But here the passage is, from the section on Rome in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History: "In all periods of the world a political revolution is sanctioned in men's opinions, when it repeats itself. Thus Napoleon was twice defeated, and the Bourbons twice expelled. By repetition, that which at first appeared merely a matter of chance and contingency, became a real and ratified existence." Marx's jest appears in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which he began in 1851, and it refers to that year's coup d'etat by Louis Bonaparte, the nephew of the great Napoleon, who had himself executed a coup d'etat in 1799, on the 9th of November--the 18th of the revolutionary month of brumaire. Had Louis Bonaparte been a reader of Hegel, he would have seen in the repetition not farce but a "real and ratified existence." And had the Columbia students of 1968 been readers of Hegel, they would have seen the Harvard uprising as a ratification of their own. The moral, perhaps, is that if one wants one's writings to inspire revolutionaries, it is prudent to resist wisecracks, for one's readers may take them as literal.
Since my writings on the end of art, which I began in 1984, repeat a thought expressed in the marvelous lectures on art that Hegel delivered in Berlin in 1828, I would clearly rather see in the repetition a ratification of historical necessity than a farcical reenactment--not the only reason I prefer being a follower of Hegel than of Marx. But in truth I am a follower of neither, for I don't especially believe in historical repetitions. If anything, I suppose, I am a follower of Wittgenstein, who held that the meaning of a sentence is often a function of the role it plays in what he termed a "language game," so that the same sentence has different meanings if repeated on different occasions. Or, better, I am a follower of Paul Grice and his thesis of "conversational implicature," which says, simply put, that to understand what someone means by an utterance one must fill in the conversation in which it is uttered and see what movement of thought the sentence advanced. And since I think of history as having something of the structure conversations have, I might speak of historical implicature, which would mean that on noticing, for example, that philosophers in different periods have said outwardly the same thing, one would find that the sameness dissolved when one filled out the discussion in which the sentence was uttered. Even within a context, repetition is never simply that: Vladimir Nabokov, an admirer of Robert Frost, points out how vividly the second "And miles to go before I sleep" differs in force and meaning from the first.
As a critic, I am never put off by the fact that what an artist does has been done before. That someone did it "first," it seems to me, is often an observation that only blinds you to what the artist did who did it "second. …