Whether “The Eternal Return” is “Unbearable”

Whether “The Eternal Return” is “Unbearable”[1]

 The heaviest weight. – What if some day or night a demon were to steal 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 again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must 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 over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?[2]

It could be natural if Kundera readers misunderstand Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return as pessimistic, if they have encountered Nietzsche only through The Unbearable Lightness of Being[3] read as a novel, i.e., only as a piece of literature. Putting it side by side with Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, opened to the page containing paragraph 341, however, throws them into confusion (although not immediately, but through a discombobulation by a student on the course on Nietzsche, oriented with it through a Deleuzian reading).

Reading it as a thesis, I skipped over the plot and scanned through the pages where the author/narrator talks about Nietzsche and/or the eternal return. It is not for me to declare that Kundera’s thesis is wrong, and that what some have done are entirely misreadings of the novel. But there are two main points that I would like to clarify (or argue). First, although Kundera assures that the eternal return is only metaphorical, he goes on to argue from a literal perspective, thus leading to a conclusion that Nietzsche is wrong and that the idea of the eternal return is a false premise. Second, Kundera’s understanding of the eternal return is pessimistic.

Immediately in Part 1, Chapter 1, Kundera assures us that Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return can only be metaphorical. He goes further by explaining (or confusing) that it is a theory “that everything we experience has happened an infinite number of times already and will continue to repeat itself infinitely.” His assurance that the eternal return is only metaphorical, but explaining it through his literal understanding, is paradoxical. To my mind, there are two possible ways as to why the distinction between metaphorical and literal is blurred in Kundera’s view as presented in the novel. First, understanding that “metaphorical” means “imaginative” by imagining what could happen if the metaphor is applied in a literal sense could easily make one reject the metaphor as unreal, false, and won’t happen at all. But, in fact, it is only a metaphor. The madman, too, which appears in The Gay Science, where the demon presenting the idea of the eternal return also turns up after some pages later, is a metaphor. The madman, not just his words and his appearance, is the one that is rejected (thereby labeled “mad”): unreal, false, impossible. But, again, the madman, like the demon, appears only as a metaphor to make us think, i.e., to think about the message, not to argue about the non-possibility of the messengers’ existence.

Einmal ist keimal.” This is a phrase that appears several times throughout the novel which some misattribute to Nietzsche and misinterpret as that which he means by his idea of the eternal return. I insist, however, that this is only Kundera’s insertion to support his pessimist position against Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. My position is already supported by a slip, if not only unobserved by readers, by one of the characters, Tomas, who translates for the reader the “German adage”, i.e., not necessarily Nietzsche’s, that “what happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.” Kundera disagrees with the idea of the eternal return, and argues that “human time does not turn in a circle…it runs ahead in a straight line.”

I see it as pessimistic because of Kundera’s dwelling so much on the past, that everything that happened in the past, including all pain and suffering, plus what has just happened—the demon telling him that everything is going to happen again—is going to happen again and again an infinite number of times. Of course, the thought that such eternal dark, gloomy past will happen again and again an infinite number of times in an eternal future is unbearable, and better not to have been thought of at all. With this line of thinking, it is understandable as to why Kundera maintains that “the eternal return is the greatest burden.”

On the other hand, from my understanding of Nietzsche, having been oriented by Deleuze (Nietzsche and Philosophy) and Bolaños (“Nietzsche’s Critique of Nihilism and the Possibility of the Eternal Recurrence as Moral Imperative”[4]), both of whom mention Kant’s categorical imperative, I see Nietzsche and his idea of the eternal return as optimistic. Looking at it from an optimistic viewpoint, there is still something (or a thousand things) one can do between the moment of the apparition of the “metaphorical” demon and the moment when everything “actually” begins the act of recurrence. From this perspective, one just have to (immediately) accept everything that has happened in the past plus everything going on at present (or simply take it into just one continuous present) and will to do something (or the thousand things) that one would want to add to everything that would eternally recur.

To further play with the imaginative variations, what if there are only a few hours, minutes, or seconds left between those two moments. For this I would recommend Dostoyevsky, the Russian novelist whom Nietzsche immediately claimed affinity through the former’s Crime and Punishment. But it will not be through that novel this time, nor through The Brothers Karamazov where Dostoyevsky shows himself as more of a nihilist than Nietzsche, that is, if Nietzsche really is a nihilist, but the Dostoyevsky in The Idiot (sounds like “the madman”), the novel written after, and inspired by the author’s personal experience of being there, thinking of what might one be able to think of doing while walking towards, then standing at such place, where he is going to be executed. His conviction was lifted just as he was about to be executed, and so he was able to describe the face and the emotions of such man later as he put it down into writing in The Idiot.

Again, Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return must be understood in the metaphorical sense, and must not be confused with imagining it as happening literally. On the second point, we can further understand that it is optimistic if we see Nietzsche’s eternal return as an upgrade of Kant’s moral categorical imperative: From Kant’s “act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature” to Nietzsche’s new formulation, “whatever you will, will it in such a way that you also will its eternal return.”[5]

Ivan Richard F. Deligero

October 2012


[1] It took a long while for me to finally put my thoughts on Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return into writing. After months of reading and re-reading “The Heaviest Weight” (par. 341) in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, referring it with his other writings, comparing it with previous works by previous philosophers, such as the Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Morals and the Critique of Pure Reason by Kant, and other literatures such as The Idiot of Dostoyevsky and The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, and arguing on all those works, treating them as opposing theses, with different philosophy and literature instructors and professors, I think I should push forward still my own take of Nietzsche’s eternal return. The arguments of the opposing opinions were not convincing enough to make me abandon the position I am still firmly standing on to.

[2] F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, par. 341. See The Gay Science, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, Inc., 1974), 194-195.

[3] Kundera, M., The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Heim, M.H. Trans. (1999), New York: Perennial Classics.

[4] Bolaños, P. A., “Nietzsche’s Critique of Nihilism and the Possibility of the Eternal Recurrence as Moral Imperative,” in Ad Veritatem, 2:2 (March 2003), 537-558.

[5] G. Deleuze, Nietzche and Philosophy, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. by Hugh Tomlinson (1983) New York: Columbia University Press, 2, 14.

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