Nietzsche’s mythological conception of the eternal recurrence is captivating for anyone who reads in it the thread of cyclical immortality that spins through everyday life and if realized could give a whole new outlook on the way life is lived. And I take it upon me the task to briefly wring out the essence of life as I interpret in Nietzsche’s account of the eternal recurrence.
Firstly, what is this eternal recurrence? Nietzsche conceptualized it and gave it a perfected form to be expressed in words in his book The Gay Science. Here I give a paraphrased account of it: he says that imagine that one day a demon comes to your room in your solitude and informs you that this life that you are living, along with the spider crawling on your desk, and the earth and the moon and everything that you have done and would ever do will be repeated over and over and over again, not once or twice but eternally. And here Nietzsche stops and asks us to reflect on this thought and then he continues and questions what will be our reaction, he gives to possible reactions, do you feel ecstatic, have you done something once that you were too proud of to be repeated eternally and reply “You are an angel!” and embrace the news. The second reaction could be to become agitated to the extent that you are horrified by the suffocation this demon makes you experience and you run away from the room, actually running away from yourself and your deeds.
This is no cosmological theory or an answer to Tolstoy’s question “What will happen?” It is a mythological metaphorical way of making the reader realize of the process of self-creation or to some self-recreation. Nietzsche wrote this in 1886, four years before collapsing into invalid madness, and considered himself a Messiah who has come to inform, in the voice of Zarathustra, of the transition that is taking place across Europe and in its many domains, whether it be intellectual, social, or specific fields like philology, classics. He considered himself of the same importance as Socrates and Jesus, who appeared at the moment, or as the hinge, of a historical turn.
He pointed out the bourgeoisie revolution and the stinking smell of democracy taking a strong hold on the intellectuals specifically, that is dawning on the 20th century thinking and mind set. In the midst of this unsettled, rapidly transforming world he argued that the religious values have been forsaken and nihilism has taken over as the source directing toward the goal, which is literally nothingness.
This concept of eternal recurrence is meant to find the realization of the importance of oneself in this modernly mythologized world in which the planet earth is a small tiny speck of dust amidst millions of planets and the Milky Way is just one galaxy revolving like billions of galaxies and everything after billions of years, of which our proportion of life is negligible, will come to an end and there would be no meaning to anything. In the face of these magnanimous scientific facts debilitating the life’s meaning as much as it can in the name of reason and truth Nietzsche asks is this the myth worth believing even if true because if one does believe it regardless whether it is the truth or not, nihilism is bound to take over the thinking framework of the herd or common sense aggravated by the helplessness of changing the facts with moral implications of tampering the truth.
With such burdensome facts and scientific discoveries Nietzsche asks the reader to turn inside himself and disregard all objectivity because there is none, for Nietzsche all truths are created not found, like Kierkegaard there are truths no truth. After internalizing the focus Nietzsche questions the reader to reflect on his inner self and find something of such an importance in one’s life that he wants to be repeated and relished forever, even if done the same way forever. Even the mundane cycle could not intrude and impose obtrusiveness on this deed. And I suspect that Nietzsche expects the majority of readers to be flabbergasted at such an audacious, naked sight of oneself staring at one’s self.
If not done then must do such a memorizing eternally recurrent act is Nietzsche’s behest after this realization. This question of the self is best approached with this parable: Imagine your grave with not just your name and dates of birth and death on it, but alongside it a sentence defining you, an occupation or passion or what you did all your days in short. Imagine written on it “A GREAT SHOE SALESMAN” or “A GOOD MARKETEER OF MILK PRODUCT”, “AN EXPERT OF COUNTING PROFITS”, “A MAGNIFICENT OFFICE CLERK”.
Nietzsche, alongside Kierkegaard, is a humanist and an individualist. He wants the realization of recurrence to work from a viewpoint that would a person bear to see this once on his grave and if the disgust overwhelms his conscience then consider the possibility of having it placed on his tomb over and over again forever. Eternity in the sense of immortality is one of Nietzsche’s tool to intensify the experience of what everyone considers to be a simple thing, too simple that it is overlooked as inconceivably insignificant and through this prick of eternity the thorn of realization gains an unforgettable importance in one’s life.
Nietzsche admired a human type very highly which he termed as artistic Socrates’ and it was his notion of Dionysian with a tint of Apollonian way of looking at life. An example would clarify this concept merged with the concept of the eternal recurrence. Hamlet is perhaps the most famous of literary figure ever composed by anyone, in the line of Don Quixote and Odysseus and Faust. First Hamlet was just a thought of Shakespeare’s ferment of thinking and then it became a concrete actor in theatre. What entraps us is Hamlet’s life and his deeds and his words to such an extent that the play is read and acted on a theatrical stage, then musical productions came along, but Hamlet remained Hamlet, then the Hollywood film age dawned, whether it be an adaptation in 1946 or in the contemporary adaptation with Mel Gibson, and who knows what mode of technology may come after DVD’s and laser prints and cinemas, but what remains of Hamlet is Hamlet himself and his eternally recurrent deeds in just different forms. His life outlives the change of all the times.