THE RING OF RECURRENCE

ETERNO RITORNO I

 

 

 

 

The teaching Zarathustra comes down from his mountain to teach is not quite the Good News but and much rather and once again, the eternal return. It is not just anamnesis, recycling the soul for a new playing of a new life, expiating karma and all that, like the eternal whirl of the cosmos in all its complexity, like the spin around our own sun and everything it brings round, again and again, but — Nietzsche emphasizes this — the same. Das Gleiche.

 

It is the sameness that offers the light of eternity and the love song, the round with which Nietzsche concludes the third book of his Zarathustra, The Song of Yes and Amen. But if there is love and blessing — “for eternity and for the wedding ring of rings — the Ring of Recurrence!” This same sameness as “the breath of that heavenly necessity that compels even chance to dance in star rounds” (Z III: The Song of Yes and Amen, §3) is also the same sameness told by the demon who comes at the end of the fourth book of The Gay Science to tell us that we will not be ushered into either heaven or hell.

 

This is the kind of demon only philosophical minds like Descartes or, responding to Laplace, scientists like Maxwell could dream up. And the reference to science is important because the mathematician Henri Poincaré offered a stochastic proof of the Eternal Return, quite independently of Nietzsche and given the assumption that the universe was, for example, closed or finite.

This was the scientific assumption for Nietzsche and for others in his day, and some scientists still assume it.

 

The philosophic question however turns on the sameness of the eternal return of the same. This is echoed in the full presence of eternity, which is of course not in time, and thus the beautiful word scene or painting that Nietzsche gives us in Zarathustra’s conversation with the dwarf in Of the Vision and the Riddle, claiming that the dwarf could not bear the weight of the thought itself. It is at this moment, that Zarathustra himself is no longer weighted down with the weight of the dwarf but lightened: the dwarf literally takes a load off, springing to the ground from Zarathustra’s shoulder where he had been pouring thoughts of lead into his ear (do not forget leaden type, as you read this: do not forget the dwarves among philologists and philosophers, and do not forget the obstacles to made by the dead weight of everything they write).

 

The gateway, Augenblick, has, as Zarathustra goes on to say, two aspects, two colliding, opposing, aspects: paths along which no one has ever travelled to their end. “The lane behind us,” Zarathustra says to the dwarf, “an eternity, the long lane ahead of us, another eternity.” (Z III: Vision, §2) And now we are counting with Cantorian dimensions. Zarathustra asks a geometer’s question, because the point is a matter of mapping the points along the path — tracing the path, namely supposing that one were to “follow them further and ever further,” he asks, “do you think, dwarf, that these paths would be in eternal opposition?” (Ibid.)

 

The thought of the circle is evident here, but the key to the problem is the problem of the parallel postulate that shatters Euclidean geometry. And the circular answer is the answer given, disdainfully, if we remember, by the dwarf: “All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle” (Ibid.)

 

 

The question, the riddle Zarathustra riddles the dwarf, is cosmological, this is the domain of Ernst Mach’s concern as indeed Avenarius and this was Erwin Schrödinger’s field.This is also one of the oldest riddles (and we remember Nietzsche’s focus on “sympotische Räthselspiele” at the conclusion of his scholarly study of Homer and Hesiod)of time, that of the Timaeus, as indeed it is also the riddle of Kant’s antinomy concerning the eternity of the world.

Zarathustra repeats the point in his own recounting:

 

 

‘Behold this moment,’ I went on, ‘From this gateway Moment a long eternal lane runs back: an eternity lies behind us.

‘Must not all things that can run have already run along this lane? Must not all things than can happen have already happened, been done, run past? And if all things have been here before: What do you think of this moment, dwarf? Must not this gateway, too, have been here – before?

And are not all things bound fast together in such a way that the moment draws after it all future things. Therefore — draws itself too. For all things that can run must run once again forward along this long lane.” (Z, Vision, 2)

 

The solution to the riddle of the crossroad of past and future, the moment, fore and aft, the now of the present, is not merely as Small reads Heidegger as “as invitation to enter the gateway,” but much more than that a presence to presence, as Heidegger himself says: “Den Augenlick sehen, heißt: in ihm stehen” where the language of standing here is and can only be a matter of presence to the eventuation of the present, the moment that by definition does not stay. What Heidegger says, strikingly extraordinary for an understanding of Nietzsche turns upon becoming as what is coming to be: the advent of the event and Heidegger connects it, he takes several passages to do so over a number of pages, with the notion of biting off and spewing forth, all as the physiological articulations of overcoming, which as we know also corresponds for Nietzsche to revaluing, and hence to the dangers of Ressentiment. For Heidegger,

 

 

that which is is in advent [was künftig wird] is exactly a matter of decision, the ring does not close upon itself somewhere in the infinite but possesses its unbroken closing together in the Moment as the center of conflict [Widerstreit]…

That is what is most difficult and singular in the teaching of eternal recurrence, that eternity is in the Moment, that the Moment is not the fleeting ‘now,’ not the moment only rushing past a spectator, but the collision [Zusammenstoß] of future and past. In this the Moment comes to itself.

 

 

At the same time what must also be considered in Of the Vision and the Riddle, as one lists the dramatis personae, as it were, here now in addition to Zarathustra himself, the dwarf, the lanes of past and future, the gateway moment is the howling dog: the dog of Hecate,33 that is Cerberus, and so on. It is “stillest midnight, when even dogs believe in ghosts” and Zarathustra finds himself, not coincidentally as at the end of the fourth book of The Gay Science “alone, desolate, in the wildest moonlight.”

 

There Zarathustra sees what may well be the strangest rebus image of all in Nietzsche’s text. Like a literary Hitchcock, Nietzsche does not paint his word picture directly but tell us that this is the sight that so agitates the dog he hears howling (Heidegger emphasizes Nietzsche’s striking choice of language for the dog’s anguishedly uncanny, otherworldly howl). The word image Nietzsche then proceeds to give us is archaic in its darkness, rustic and so beyond the civic order and steeped in mystery: “a young shepherd, writhing, choking, convulsed, his face distorted; and a heavy, black snake was hanging out of his mouth.”

 

The man, so Zarathustra wondered — and Nietzsche was not unfamiliar with the dangers of obliviously open mouths — had perhaps been asleep. Perhaps thus the snake had “crept into his throat — and there it had bitten itself fast.”

 

The problem, this is the snake of time is also the problem of the past, thus Nietzsche speaks of the dyspeptic, those who cannot have done with the past, with time and its ‘It was.’ The recommendation that comes to him is not a considered reflection but spontaneous — “a voice cried from me — ‘Bite! Bite!’” Nothing else works to dislodge the snake but the sudden insight that one is not to be paralyzed or frozen ‘in disgust and pallid horror’ — think of the image of Laocoon but to act against the biting snake: to bite back and have done with the past.

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