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Identity and the Eternal Return

Identity and the Eternal Return

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Published by Brian Brian
Paper on the Eternal Return

Explicative summary of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Deleuze's conceptions of the Eternal Return
Paper on the Eternal Return

Explicative summary of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Deleuze's conceptions of the Eternal Return

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Published by: Brian Brian on Aug 04, 2009
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12/03/2014

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 Journal of Nietzsche Studies
,Issue 29,2005Copyright ©2005 The Friedrich Nietzsche Society.
16
Eternal Return and the Problemof the Constitution of Identity
Alexander Cooke
The basic conception of the work,the
idea of eternal recurrence,
the highest for-mula of affirmation that can possibly be attained—belongs to the August of theyear 1881:it was jotted down on a piece of paper with the inscription:“6000 feetbeyond man and time.I was that day walking through the woods beside the lakeof Silvaplana; I stopped beside a mighty pyramidal block of stone which reareditself up not far from Surlei. Then this idea came to me.—Nietzsche,
Ecce Homo
Introduction:Nietzsche and the Doctrineof the Eternal Return
T
he doctrine of the eternal recurrence of the same presents itself as both themost problematic and difficult aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Whiledescribed above,and in other letters of Nietzsches surrounding the month of August 1881 (see Klossowski,1997,55–56),as the “highest formula of affir-mation,in
The Gay Science,
written during the same period,the same thoughtis communicated as the heaviest burden:
The heaviest burden.
—What if a demon crept after you one day or night in yourloneliest solitude and said to you:“This life,as you live it now and have lived it,you will have to live again and again,times without number; and there will benothing new in it,but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sighand all the unspeakably small and great in your life must return to you,and every-thing in the same series and sequence—and in the same way this spider and thismoonlight among the trees,and in the same way this moment and I myself. Theeternal hourglass of existence will be turned again and again—and you with it,you dust of dust!”—Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teethand curse the demon who thus spoke? Or have you experienced a tremendousmoment in which you would have answered him:“You are a god and never didI hear anything more divine!”If this thought gained power over you it would,asyou are now,transform and perhaps crush you; the question in all and everything:“do you want this again and again,times without number?would lie as the heav-iest burden upon all your actions. Or how well disposed towards yourself andtowards life would you have to become to have no greater desire than for this ulti-mate eternal sanction and seal? (
GS,
273–74)
From such a cursory examination,the eternal return seems no more than a belief or an ethical concept. However,the content of Nietzsche’s thought indicates
 
something much stronger than a personally held belief. While its grounds willbe problematized in due course,the doctrine of the eternal return
can
be givena proof,in the strongest sense of the word.The eternal return takes two forms:(1) a cosmological or physical doctrine;(2) an ethical or selective doctrine. As pointed out by Pierre Klossowski,thesetwo aspects are summarized in the following single claim:Act as though youhad to relive your life innumerable times and will to relive it innumerable times—for in one way or another,you must recommence it and relive it”(Klossowski,1997,56–57). How can one provide a proof,first,for the physical doctrine—that one’s life
must 
eternally return—such that the second,ethical or practicaldoctrine can be elucidated from Nietzsche’s philosophy?For Nietzsche,the world is constituted by force. If force is the fundamentalconstitution of the world,it can only nourish itsel
on
itself. It has no exteriorsource or supplement to fuel it; otherwise it would no longer be fundamentaland singularly essential. Force must therefore be finite. If force is finite,it wouldseem that the world is proceeding to an end state of entropy. Nietzsche argues,though,that if the universe had an end,it would already have been reached (
WP,
36). The final state of Becoming—Being—if it were at all possible,would nolonger become. The fact that one experiences time as movement—that the pres-ent moment is always passing—disproves the possibility of having reached anend state. There can therefore only be pure Becoming. There “is”only pureBecoming. Being,then,“ispure Becoming.If there is neither start nor end to Becoming,how does one experiencethe very passing of the Moment that justifies the fact of Being as Becoming?The present or Moment,such that it can be experienced as passing,must beboth past and yet-to-come. For Time to incorporate the Moment in two states(past and yet-to-come),at some point,the same passage of Time must recur orreturn. Insofar as there is no end point to becoming,it must recur eternally. Thephysical doctrine of the eternal return is elucidated by Heidegger thus:“Theworld’s becoming,as finite,turning back on itself,is therefore a
 permanent 
becoming,that is to say,
eternal
becoming. Since such cosmic becoming,asfinite becoming in an infinite time,takes place continuously,not ceasing when-ever its finite possibilities are exhausted,it must already have repeated itself,indeed an infinite number of times”(Heidegger,1991,109). Or,as Deleuzewrites,“It is not being that returns but rather the returning itself that constitutesbeing insofar as it is affirmed of becoming and of that which passes”(Deleuze,1983,48).Regardless of the internal consistency of the physical proof,the fact is notexplained that Nietzsche experienced it as both the highest affirmation
and 
the heaviest burden. It is only by way of elucidating the selective doctrine thatthe burdensome nature of the thought becomes apparent. As will be seen,the
Eternal Return and the Problem of the Constitution of Identity
17
 
ethical understanding of the eternal return is the most apparent point of equi-vocality among commentators on Nietzsche.Further,the
thought 
of the eternal return can be accused of standing as nomore than a belief. This is as a result of the fact that it indicates the philosoph-ical impossibility of any end point,which must include identity in general,inso-far as it takes itself as its own beginning,presence-to-itself or end point. Fromthe point of view of subjectivity,for example,one can point toward the self-affir-mation of one’s own being in enunciating “I am.Such a statement,accordingto its “common”understanding,presupposes that the “am”is a quality of Being,
not 
Becoming. Further,that it is a category of Being and not Becoming enablesthe “Iwhich enunciates it to say also:“I am not
 x
,and,more important in thepresent context,
 x
is not I.The decision made,in this example,over that whichis proper or not to one’s ownmost being is a claim to what Klossowski,citingNietzsche,refers to as “sovereignty(Klossowski,1997,106;
WP,
255). Onestates:“I am
 x
and you are not.However,the self-affirmation of the eternalreturn is,insofar as it is
thought 
by Nietzsche,a disappropriation of the verypossibility of self-affirmation. As Blanchot puts it,“The affirmation whereineverything is affirmed disperses as it takes place:the very place of its affirma-tion,the thought that bears it,the existence that causes it to exist,the unity of the instance of its occurrence,and the still indispensible coherence of its for-mulation”(Blanchot,1993,274–75).It is only by taking seriously Nietzsche’s doctrine that one begins to realizethe implications that such a thought has on Being,for beings as a whole,and,what is most profound,the implications it has on that being which “experiencesthe “highest attunement.However,unless one can account for the holding swayor self-affirmation of a being
within
becoming from within the doctrine of theeternal return,it remains problematic whether the self-constituted identity thatthinks the highest thought can ever be anyone other than Nietzsche. This prob-lem can be put from a more philosophical point of view:How does the eternalreturn account for the formulation of identity?To address this question I will pay closest attention to two readings of Nietzsche’s highest attunement,given by (1) Martin Heidegger and (2) GillesDeleuze. While in general agreement with the physical proof for the eternalreturn,as will be seen,they differ significantly with regard to their understand-ing of its
selective
or
ethical
aspect. Heidegger,in his lectures on “The EternalRecurrence of the Same(Heidegger,1991),attempts to detail the doctrine inrelation to the Will to Power as the most essential thought:the thought of Beingas a whole,while arguing for the selective aspect as a phenomenological attune-ment. Deleuze,however,introduces a more nuanced understanding of the Willto Power,and attempts to develop a selective ontology in
 Nietzsche and Philosophy
and
 Difference and Repetition
(Deleuze,1983; 1997).
18
Alexander Cooke

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Diaphanous Granite added this note
This article is ridiculous. The eternal recurrence is not an actual cosmological view. It is a question of how well are you living your life; and can a life be great enough that one would be delighted to live it in the same way, over and over. Ontologically such a thing is impossible, but morally it is a good question.
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