4 – The Eternal Return

Driven by Dionysiac intoxication, the poetic making which marks the will’s self-overcoming, we project appearances as we embody what we make. We make concrete what we have envisioned. Philosophy too requires an opening to the creative will. Its concepts embody the constant reflexivity between what is given and the “fictive” appearance of new values or goals. Nietzsche describes the inexhaustibility of this fund of energy as inspiration — philosophy which reflects embodies poeisis as fundamental to human life. Yet the key to creative self-overcoming of the fertile will lies in the doctrine of the Eternal Return, which is both the highest and the most enigmatic expression of Nietzsche’s philosophy.
If we maintain that the doctrine of the Eternal Return is fundamentally poetic, one recognizes that the philosophic power of this notion lies not in a literal or exact duplication of any given moment over and over again eternally. Otherwise, the notion of a literal replication would require one to believe in it as an unverifiable article of faith. This misunderstanding unfortunately receives some support from Nietzsche himself who seems to speak about the Eternal Return as a literal-cosmological or physical axiom that reflects the law of the conservation of energy.
In Nietzsche: Life as Literature, Alexander Nehemas observes, “The model for the eternal recurrence is therefore not to be found in Nietzsche’s superficial reflections on thermodynamics but in his deep immersion in writing”39. Nehemas makes perhaps a bookish mistake by claiming that Nietzsche treated life as if it were a story filled with “characters” and that the metaphoric truth(s) he offers emerges in the same way that a novelist thematizes the world he or she creates. However, Nehemas’ examination of what is wrong with the cosmological notion of the Eternal Recurrence is shrewd in that it cites not only the contradictions it entails as a “scientific” or literal hypothesis about the universe, but also in that it highlights the real strength of the concept, the power to test, and to enhance creativity.
In a similar vein Olefia Shutte remarks in Nihilism: Nietzsche Without Masks:

When Nietzsche’s major teachings, like those on Ubermensch, the will to power, and the eternal recurrence, are read in a purely discursive way, one is back to the alienated Socratic standpoint of trying to make the world intelligible exclusively through logic. Because these teachings are meant to go beyond logic and somehow express the dynamic unity of life and the richness of nature’s artistic/creative process, it is a fertile procedure to apply a method of inter-pretation which is incompatible with what the teachings are trying to express. 40

And Kaufmann has already situated the connection between the redemption of the earth and the eternal recurrence in his study, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist:

This is the ultimate apotheosis of the supra-historical outlook, the supreme exhalation of the moment. Negatively, the doctrine of eternal recurrence is the most extreme repudiation of any deprecation of the moment, the finite, and the individual — the antithesis of any faith in infinite progress, whether it be evolution, Faust’s un-bounded striving, or the endless improvement of the human soul in Kant’s concept of immortality. It is the antithesis, too, of any faith in another world; it is the creed of one whose message began: I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth and do not believe those who speak to you of other-worldly hopes. 41

It is necessary, however, in order to make the final connections to go directly to the source, the aphorism in The Gay Science in which the concept first appears:

The greatest weight: What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live it once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain 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 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 is in each and everything, “Do you desire 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?” 42.

This section which follows in The Gay Science contains Nietzsche’s first mention of Zarathustra. The poetic conception of Zarathustra is concieved, biographically and conceptually, as an immediate corollary of the Eternal Recurrence. They were dual or co-relative experiences for Nietzsche. Some of the same imagery, concerning the Eternal Recurrence, some of the same challenges are found in Zarathustra. Indeed Nietzsche repeats the theme of the hourglass and the affirmation of the small, the minute with the grand or the experiential magnitude implied by the concept:

Sing and overflow, O Zarathustra; cure your soul with new songs that you may bear your great destiny. For your animals know well, O Zarathustra, who you are and must become: behold, you are the teacher of the eternal recurrence — that is your destiny! That you as the first must teach this doctrine — how could this great destiny not be your greatest danger and sickness too?
Behold, we know what you teach: that all things recur eternally, and we ourselves too; and that we have already existed an eternal number of times, and there is a great year of becoming, a monster of a great year, which must like an hourglass, turn over and over again and again so that it may run down and run out again; and all these years are alike in what is greatest as in what is smallest; and we our- selves are alike in every great year, in what is greatest as in what is smallest.
And if you wanted to die now, O Zarathustra, behold, we also know how you would then speak to yourself. But your animals beg you not to die yet. You would speak, without trembling, but breathing deeply with happiness, for a great weight and sultriness would be taken from you who are most patient.
‘Now I die and vanish, you would say, ‘ and all at once I am nothing. The soul is as mortal as the body. But the knot of causes in which I am entangled recurs and will create me again. I come again, with this serpent — not to a new life or a better life or a similar life, in what is greatest as in what is smallest, to teach again the eternal recurrence of all things, to speak again the world noon of earth and man, to proclaim the overman again to men. I spoke my word, I break my word: thus my eternal lot wants it; as a proclaimer I perish. The hour has now come when he who goest under should bless himself. Thus ends Zarathustra’s going under. 43

The great year expresses the magnitude of the cycle and turning the hourglass over endlessly sorts out each detail of the world. The miniature coexists with the monumental in eternity. Emphasis on the exactitude and precision of the smallest feature brings into full relief the intricate “knot of causes” in which every element of our lived experience finds its meaning. Inexhaustibly rich in detail, the will breathes novelty into the “same” fundamentally. The “great noon” of earth and man flows from the uncanniness of the enigma of life presented to our esteeming, our creation of value. Eternity is neither the addition of discrete moments in a linear progression beyond life nor the pulse of the unconscious which seems timeless, but poetic making which dawns from the future and the past the creative inexhaustibility of life. Before the enigma of life’s meaning, the uncanny self-reflection of life in the regress of self-consciousness discloses that “time” is created by the same inexhaustive fund of power which allows us to perceive it in detail, and in its magnitude.
Instead of an addition of segmented moments, we have a flux of constantly changing reflections on this world presented to human consciousness reflecting back to what makes consciousness possible. The drawing of the past and the future into the present is the “eternal” experience. It is in the present that making, the genius of novelty, which flows from the fertility of the will, which allows us to experience the will, and the eternal expression of its power as world-creator.
There is no need to be distracted by another world or a disembodied “future” which offers a fictional paradise when what is given in perception is already permeated by an perpetual process: the creation of human meaning. The great noon within the great year is a poetic engagement with the immeasurable productivity of the will. And so, instead of thinking in a linear fashion, we affirm, redeem, “yea-say” the cyclical fertility which celebrates and creates meaning for this world.
We are presented again and again with the fullness of what is given as the overflow of our highest esteeming: eternity. The Return is not, then, another teleological principle. Instead, Nietzsche allows for the accidental: ” … the creative breath … that constrains even accidents to star-dances”. Life is not somehow re-ordered by a purpose, but arranges itself through the joy of eternity, a joy intimated by the rites of Dionysius.
The somewhat romantic refrain, “For I love you, O eternity!” In “The Other Dancing Song (Book III) which asks: “… all that is heavy and grave should become light; all that is body, dancer; all that is spirit, bird — and verily, that is my alpha and omega. Oh, how should I not lust after eternity and after the nuptial ring of rings, the ring of recurrence? 44″ — is surely a poetic query. Why, then, has the theme of recurrence been so often taken seriously only after it has been evaluated as a conceptual claim having literal significance? Since it is, according to Nietzsche himself, the “crown” of his philosophy (and Heidegger reiterates this in The Will to Power as Art after translating it into his philosophy of Being) — how are we to take this thesis seriously if it really is first poetic and only subsequently philosophic?
The eternal return is a poetic expression of the inexhaustibility of the real world given us through the senses. Time and existence collect, draw back into the present as the creative fertility of the will becomes evident to human consciousness. A strong affective reaction accompanies the insight, the vision of Eternity. Since this vision is not a “transcendent” but an immanent eternity, a this-worldly insight into the nature of becoming, it is surely not a religious experience. Nietzsche seems not to doubt this feeling precisely because it is sensual. It does not lead us to worship. It is not akin to any of the affects of conceptualizing, not even to the feeling of profundity. It is “profound” not because of some conceptual disclosure of a given truth, but the phenomena of creating a truth. Nietzsche’s claim that truth is radically creative regardless of the changes in (historical) modes of estimating, keeps the Eternal Return from becoming an article of religious or academic faith. Poetry as such, then, does not rate any higher as a mode unless it fully embodies this joy which consummates our ability to experience through an immanent, this-worldly vision of Eternity, unless, in short, it retains its humor and affirms earthliness. For, again, this is the meaning of the Eternal Return, that we keep arriving back freely in time to this earth’s mode of experience in and through our own creativity, our redemption of the present.
The concept of the Eternal Return functions as a metaphor and as a conceptual realization of the will to power. It promotes a constant flow between the worlds of poetry and philosophy. In the case of the redemption of the earth we clearly have a synthetic discovery. It works as a metaphor for the Dionysiac rite of fertility, and as a conceptual richness to the values of the immanent creativity and celestial disinvestment of the will. Nietzsche affords to poetry the respect which philosophers have jealously confined to science and even more exclusively to philosophy itself. The conceptual translation of the Eternal Return presents the same sort of difficulty as the translation of poetry from one language to another. Yet Nietzsche’s philosophy required him to draw from preconceptual sources. His was always a Dionysiac affirmation. Yet the conceptual translation of the Eternal Return, both by Nietzsche (though his conceptual “proofs”: remain principally in the re-arranged marginalia of The Will to Power) and by academic interpreters who often lose continuity with the major resistance in Nietzsche’s philosophy to all belief. And the metaphor of the Eternal Return, even if it is properly considered an “immanent” Eternity, demands belief only when it is considered primarily as a concept. It is a poetic experience and a poetic reality which invites philosophic reflection, even if it remains something “only” akin, or better, something essential, to an earthly truth.