For Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, our focus on the past explains the reference to our concern with ourselves, with the stone fact, the ‘it was,’ the musing, brooding preoccupation on the past that is also the poison of ressentiment. Let’s spell this out a bit further by again recalling what Nietzsche’s aggressive demon says in The Gay Science:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you and into 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!” (GS §341).
The demon’s intonation here, the eternity here, focuses on the past: a past elevated to an eternity of the past and not merely the generic idea of the past per se. Living life once, that was bad enough, we might say, living it eternally (and this is worse than infinity: “once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it”), is far, far worse: “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.” (Ibid.)
How are we to say yes to that? And what difference would it possibly make to do so?
It’s the same, to say it once again. And what is more it’s the same without there being any consciousness of repetition.
The past Nietzsche’s demon foretells reliving again and again is not Woody Allen’s phantom vision of sitting infinitely bored through an infinite number of seatings at the Ice Capades, this is not a cinematic, videographic, YouTube playlist — in Nietzsche’s 19th century day, that would have been a zoetropic or praxinoscopic40 experience — replaying Groundhog Day, again and again — as one attempts to shatter the monotony of the same, déjà vu — but and only the self-same.
Not the similar, not the ‘rather like’ and already seen done-drudgery of the been there, lived through that ennui of modern life as we live it, bored as we live our days, but and again and much rather: “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…” (Ibid.)
This demon does not say as we read in Revelations, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Nietzsche’s emphasis on life, and the revenge that we mean to take on life, is an emphasis on created things, “what can be shaken” (Hebrews 12:27).41 It is an emphasis on all the thingswe condemn as philosophers as he writes in Twilight, “Death, change, old age, as well as procreation and growth, are to their minds objections —refutations even.”
Hence Nietzsche’s call to us is to love what becomes in life in all its minor details, all of its trivial changes, all of them progressions towards and including old age and death. He argues that if one can say yes to one thing, anything at all, everything else is also necessary and nothing can be dispensed with: everything must be blessed. Nietzsche shares this insight as we have now seen with the ancient Stoics and with Heraclitus and with Empedocles and indeed Anaximander.
Like a speck of dust, as the demon says, the hourglass of existence is turned upside down, again and again. That is to say, so Nietzsche argues at the end of his 19th century (with the theories of the 19th century echoing in his mind, as we have also noted), and we may think of this as an harmonic oscillator, the universe is so cycled.
So Schrödinger will later argue the point in his own argument for eternal recurrence and as I have compared his argument to Nietzsche’s. But Schrödinger, interested as he is in the Presocratics, is echoing Schopenhauer and the cycling in question is an even older story, dating back before the tragic age of the Greeks: as Empedoclean as it is Heraclitean as it is Parmenidean and Anaximandrean, it is perhaps especially known to us today as a Vedic notion, also resonant in Buddhism.
This is the Atman and as Nietzsche says — more modern than any of us, making the same point Niels Bohr makes about his horse shoes and about superstition in the realm of the Real42 — shaking his head: du wirst es jedenfalls. (KSA 9, 505): Tat tvam asi. I quote the Sanskrit here to quote the Vedic tradition because, as Schrödinger says, translating Descartes’s powerful point about the need for creation and its co-equivalence with conservation, it is you in any case.
To give the last word to Schrödinger here:
It is certain that the earth will give birth to you again and again, for new struggles and for new sufferings. And not only in the future : it resuscitates you now, today, every day, not just once but several thousand times, exactly as it buries you every day several thousand times (…). (For) the present is the only thing which has no end.