This is the riddle Zarathustra now riddles his interlocutors — because this is no speech that Zarathustra tells to his own heart — ‘Who is the shepherd? … who is the man …” And while riddling his “venturers and adventurers and those of you who have embarked with cunning sails upon undiscovered seas,” Zarathustra also reports the shepherd’s extraordinary response, biting as one who “bit as my cry had advised him; he bit with a good bite! He spat far away the snake’s head — and sprang up.”
Thereby, so we read, the shepherd, shades of Attis and Montanus, but also prefiguring a certain hero of recent youthful literature and cinema, Harry Potter, is thereby transformed, transfigured: “surrounded with light, laughing” — a human being like no other Zarathustra had ever seen. I guess the snake’s blood is magical, or maybe it’s just the magnificent spitting out, spewing says it better, of the snake’s head that does it. Whatever it is, the result is an other-human laughter “Never yet on earth had a human being laughed as he laughed.” (Z, Vision, 2)
So far so good, and all of us, know this passage. But how can the thought of “what is heaviest and blackest,” the snake of the past that weighs on us, be countered as Nietzsche says it can and what does it mean to say that one must bite into it? Heidegger himself goes on to note that just a bit later in The Convalescent there is a reprise of the seemingly circular problem of embracing the vision of time as circle, using the theistic language of the straight and the crooked:
» ‘ — Oh, you jokers and barrel-organs be still now, answered Zarathustra, and smiled again. How well you know what had to be fulfilled in seven days.« —
— and how that beast wriggled down my throat and choked me! But I bit its head off and spewed it far away from me. [Aber ich biß ihn den Kopf ab und spie ihn weg von mir.]
And you? — you’ve made a hurdy-gurdy song [Leier-Lied] out of it! But now I lie here, tired of this biting and spewing-away, still sick of my own redemption. And you just watched it all?
How would this “thought of thoughts” as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra names it, change one’s life, assuming we were able to think it to begin with? Like all paradoxes, like all riddles, it is hard to think, thus Nietzsche’s Zarathustra underscores the simple difficulty of thinking it. But, still, to ask an easier version of the same question: why on earth would thinking it, assuming we could think it, change us utterly?
Well it’s the same.
Sameness is what is at stake. Thus the point Nietzsche underscores is the exclusion of any change, much less any utter change, all change, any alteration, big and small, excluded at the outset. Isn’t this also part of the mathematician’s paradox that Hilary Putnam borrows from Abbot’s Flatland (a topological insider’s plagiarism none of us would care to fault, so I presume) when Putnam points out that, and this is just Leibniz’ point regarding a difference that would not (in this case because it could not) make a difference, that were we all, in fact, so many analytic brains in analytic vats, the very idea of being one would mean nothing (to us) and would-could not be true (there’s a hermeneutic rider here, but I am not going to do work Putnam never bothered to do).
The frozen temporal tableau of the ‘Moment’ in Vision and the Riddle reprises the personal dynamism of a lifetime, as Nietzsche puts the same insight into the mouth of the tightrope walker better said, tightrope dancer [Seiltanzer], the performing acrobat who falls to his death in the middle of Zarathustra’s first speech. (Z, Prologue, §6)
The figure of the tightrope-walker is essential rather than a simple background or decorative touch because after the death of God — as Hegel puts in quite explicitly in the wake of Kant —we are all of us dancing without a net: suspended in our human, all-too-human lives as Nietzsche puts it, an interval, a breath, “a hiatus between two nothingnesses.” (KSA 12, 473)
Zarathustra pays no attention at all to the tight rope dancer — he doesn’t see him and the drama is played out, as if in Plato’s cave, above and behind the speaking Zarathustra.36 And the dwarf is there too, this time in the guise of an evil hunchback, causing all manner of trouble, jumping over the tightrope dancer and causing him to lose his footing, crashing to his death in the marketplace below.
Zarathustra, who goes to the side of the fallen performer as he dies, comforts the dying man by telling him just what follows from the Enlightenment account: “…there is no Devil and no Hell. Your soul will be dead even before your body; therefore fear nothing anymore!” (Ibid., §6), the crushed man is not comforted as he hears the logical and nihilist implications of naturalist science:
If you are speaking the truth,’ he said, ‘I leave nothing when I leave life. I am not much more than an animal which has been taught to dance by blows and starvation.
So what is the point of sameness here? What is the problem? Is what Nietzsche says any different from the Socratic alternative offered in Plato’s dialogues, either a dreamless sleep, nothing at all, or the afterlife of poetic myth and faith? Plato teaches the same cycle as other Greeks, his theory of knowledge and learning depends on it: anamnesis. But Nietzsche’s account excludes memory and identity in the sense of recognition. There is no memory, there is no recognition.
You, you yourself return but not as you are now, or better said exactly as you are now. You ‘return’ but not as a re-animated self with everything you take now yourself to be: you as you now suppose (or imagine) or remember yourself to have been and you now as expect yourself to become.
Instead what returns cannot be discerned from what is now. What returns is exactly what was: and there will be nothing different in it.
My title for this discussion of Nietzsche’s teaching of eternal recurrence as set between The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra is Future Past. What is at stake is the past, the same as it was and every tiny and every major aspect of it: this is das Gleiche: the same old, same old.
And the point of it all is the thought of death, which thought of course we do not think because we all already know it: like Zarathustra’s companions and like his animals, like Rilke’s spectators, everywhere and all around. And to say this as both Nietzsche and Heidegger say is to say that we do not think it. Indeed, not even when we claim that we do. Of course not.
I take this reading to a discussion of Beyond Good and Evil inasmuch as the problem of Beyond Good and Evil is nothing other than the problem of truth, considered as a problem and just as Nietzsche also raised the problem of science in the same light and questioned as a problem. Most of us are so keen to emphasize art or life that we have forgotten that it was Nietzsche’s emphasis to raise the question he pronounced himself the very first to raise, very radically and in the spirit of the first critique, the very critically Kantian question of science, as such.37 And if I had even longer I could include Twilight.
But I don’t have more time — and part of the point of this essay is that none of us ever do — so let’s go back to the thought Zarathustra calls his ‘most abysmal thought’ as this echoes the conversation with the demon in The Gay Science. As noted this is also the thought of death and The Gay Science has an aphorism titled with the same name, suggesting that the brotherhood of death that we share as mortal beings is the only brotherhood there is for living subjects of consciousness, subjects of desire, subjects such as ourselves, all of us, born to mortality and thus bound to die, whether we think about it or not.
Nietzsche’s point is the philosophical point that living subjects abjure the thought of death: it is the furthest thing from their minds.
For his part, the economically (or dismally) minded Schopenhauer reflected that life was a business that did not cover its costs, a business that from an economic point of view, a business point of view, made absolutely no sense “as an enterprise,” and therefore was the only thing that really compelled reflection. Nietzsche added more biology and more thermodynamic statistics to the same reflection, recognizing that abundance and waste was the way of life — and of death. Hence he could argue with the best of 19th century cosmology that a dancing star was born of chaos, excess, confusion.
Not that it mattered given that that dancing star too would have to die.
In another essay dedicated to Schrödinger and Nietzsche and life, I point to the parallels that may be made if one likes, beyond Nietzsche, to the philosophical problem of consciousness and personal identity but also with eastern philosophy. Thus it matters that here is (and for the Stoics it was essential to reflect that there could be) no difference between the you that says I and the universe. You are already everything and you do not know it, with the one crucial exception that it is available to you to master the trick of thinking this identity, as Nietzsche also mused. To this extent, Nietzsche too could suppose that we are those who have figured out that we are figures in the dream of a god who dreams.