Saturday, June 28, 2008

Returning to The Eternal Return, Part I

The following is a series of attempts at grasping the concept of The Eternal Return in Nietzsche’s thinking. Through all the years I have read and studied his works I haven’t really come any closer to an understanding of this cornerstone in his philosophy. Now I want to try. So I guess I’m talking to myself and I apologize for filling up space if nobody else is interested. (Warning: there will be a lot of quotes, some rather long).

Nietzsche himself has not given a coherent explanation of the concept, which really is not surprising, given his (shall we say) lapidary, as well as evocatively poetic style of writing. Here and there in his works there are only fleeting references to The Eternal Return which he himself nevertheless considered “the highest form of affirmation that can be achieved”.

In his autobiography Ecce Homo(1888), there’s a short and powerful passage about the inspiration behind Thus Spake Zarathustra,

I shall now tell the story of Zarathustra. The basic conception of this work, the idea of eternal recurrence, this highest formula of affirmation that can possibly be attained—, belongs to the August of the year 1881: it was jotted down on a sheet of paper with the inscription "6,000 feet beyond man and time." I was walking through the woods that day along the lake of Silvaplana; I stopped beside a mighty pyramidal boulder towering up not far from Surlei. Then this idea came to me.

At first glance the whole idea of “eternal recurrence” seems as old as Antiquity or even earlier in Buddhism as the view that the universe as well as life is cyclical – the great wheel of being ever turning – but Nietzsche’s definition expands this into a philosophy of time, or more precisely the status of The Moment. The relevant passage in Zarathustra is to be found in The Vision and the Enigma in Part Three,

"Look at this gateway! Dwarf!" I continued, "it hath two faces.
Two roads come together here: these hath no one yet gone to the end of.
This long lane backwards: it continueth for an eternity. And that
long lane forward- that is another eternity.
They are antithetical to one another, these roads; they directly
abut on one another:- and it is here, at this gateway, that they
come together. The name of the gateway is inscribed above: 'This
But should one follow them further- and ever further and further on,
thinkest thou, dwarf, that these roads would be eternally
"Everything straight lieth," murmured the dwarf, contemptuously.
"All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle."
"Thou spirit of gravity!" said I wrathfully, "do not take it too
lightly! Or I shall let thee squat where thou squattest, Haltfoot,-
and I carried thee high!"
"Observe," continued I, "This Moment! From the gateway, This Moment, there runneth a long eternal lane backwards: behind us lieth an eternity.
Must not whatever can run its course of all things, have already run
along that lane? Must not whatever can happen of all things have
already happened, resulted, and gone by?
And if everything has already existed, what thinkest thou, dwarf, of
This Moment? Must not this gateway also- have already existed?
And are not all things closely bound together in such wise that This
Moment draweth all coming things after it? Consequently- itself also?
For whatever can run its course of all things, also in this long
lane outward- must it once more run!-
And this slow spider which creepeth in the moonlight, and this
moonlight itself, and thou and I in this gateway whispering
together, whispering of eternal things- must we not all have already
-And must we not return and run in that other lane out before us,
that long weird lane- must we not eternally return?"-
Thus did I speak, and always more softly: for I was afraid of mine
own thoughts, and arrear-thoughts.

This, of course, is a suggestive extract on many levels but if we concentrate on the central issue of This Moment the obvious questions seems to be how can the present pass? As Deleuze points out in the first of his several tries at re-defining (and neo-creating!) the concept in his Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962) the passing moment could never pass if it were not already past and yet to come – at the same time as being present.

The present must coexist with itself as past and yet to come. The synthetic relation of the moment to itself as present, past and future grounds its relation to other moments. The eternal return is thus an answer to the problem of PASSAGE. And in this sense it must not be interpreted as the return of something that is, that is “one” and the “same”. We misinterpret the expression “eternal return” if we understand it as “return of the same”.

We can only understand the eternal return as the expression of a principle which serves as an explanation of diversity and its reproduction, of difference and its repetition. Nietzsche presents this principle as one of his most important philosophical discoveries. He calls it WILL TO POWER. By will to power “I express the characteristic that cannot be thought out of the mechanistic order without thinking away this order itself.”
p. 48f in op. cit.

So instead of the “naïve” (Deleuze’s expression) assumption that the eternal return is the return of “the same”, it is rather an expression of Nietzsche’s general constructivistic philosophy, as the formula of the German das Werden = the continuous creation, the eternal becoming, the flowing dialectics of active and reactive forces. This also points to the over-arching theme of nihilism and how to overcome it. To the nihilist the thought of the return of THE SAME in life is unbearable since his life is composed of suffering and ressentiment. He is always obsessed with bringing this life to an end.

In “The Gay Science”, 1882, Book IV, essay # 341 Nietzsche has described this horror – and affirmation,

341. The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in 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; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!"— 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!" If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you; the question in each and every thing, "Do you desire this once more, and innumerable times more?" would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? —

(to be continued)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I for one am interested in your thoughts about this and I will look forward to seeing more.

In that these comments substantiate the concept of affirmation, they are very relevant to everything we have tried to do.


6:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first important statement of the doctrine is in the second Untimely Meditation, 'On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life', where it is mentioned in connection with Pythagoras.

Therefore the doctrine must be seen in relation to history.

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