Recurrence of "Eternal Recurrence"?
I'm nearing the end of my re-reading of Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov and have recently finished chapter 9 of Part 4, Book 11, titled "The Devil. Ivan's Nightmare," which recounts Ivan Karamazov's descent into insanity through an illness called 'brain fever' that brings on a hallucinatory encounter with the Devil that seems to prefigure some of the later Bulgakov's devilish concerns. Some themes come around again and again, I suppose. And that brings me to my point, namely, that Dostoyevsky introduces something rather like Nietzsche's concept of "eternal recurrence" when the Devil tells Ivan:
"Why, you keep thinking of our present earth! But our present earth may have been repeated a billion times. Why, it's become extinct, been frozen; cracked, broken to bits, disintegrated into its elements, again 'the water above the firmament,' then again a comet, again a sun, again from the sun it becomes earth -- and the same sequence may have been repeated endlessly and exactly the same to every detail, most unseemly and insufferably tedious . . ." (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Constance Garnett, page 619)This passage -- as with the entire book of course -- first appeared in print in 1880. Two years later, in Book 4, Section 341 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche's similar thought appears in print:
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in 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!" -- 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 possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you; the question in each and every thing, "Do you desire this once more, and innumerable times more?" would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?Though Nietzsche does a lot more with the idea in this particular passage, the basic concept of "eternal recurrence" appears already in Dostoyevsky -- and both times expounded by a demon!
I'm not claiming that Nietzsche read Dostoyevsky's novel -- and indeed, that seems unlikely -- but the thought of eternal recurrence would appear to have been 'in the air'. Walter Kaufmann, who translated much of Nietzsche into English, suggests that Nietzsche had been reading Heinrich Heine, who earlier in the 19th century had written:
[T]ime is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate numbers, and the numbers of the configurations which, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again. (cf. Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 1959, page 276; see also Helge Kragh, Entropic Creation, page 142)From Heine to Nietzsche? Perhaps so, and if so, perhaps also Dostoyevsky had been reading Heine. Be that as it may, I'm not the first to notice the similarity between Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky on this, for in researching the point, I've discovered that Gino Moliterno, in his article "Zarathustra's Gift in Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice" (Screening the Past, Issue 12, 2001), tells us that the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's "explicit reference to Nietzsche's doctrine of the Eternal Return must appear highly charged with significance" in The Sacrifice (1985), especially since Tarkovsky had considered retitling his film The Eternal Return and seems to have wanted to insist on Nietzsche rather than Dostoyevsky as his own source, as Moliterno tells us in footnote 19:
It seems signficant, too, that Tarkovsky, at least in the film, is at pains to name Nietzsche specifically because, for a Russian filmmaker, another non-philosophical source for the idea of the eternal return would have been closer to hand. The notion appears in nuce in the mouth of the devil who appears to Ivan in chapter 12 of part 4 of The Brothers Karamazov:Both Tarkovsky and Moliterno would seem to have noted the 'recurrence' of Dostoyevsky's idea in Nietzsche (even if Tarkovsky preferred Nietzsche and erred in the Dostoyevsky citation)."Why, you keep thinking of our present earth! But our present earth may have been repeated a billion times. Why, it's become extinct, been frozen; cracked, broken to bits, disintegrated into its elements, again 'the water above the firmament', then again a comet, again a sun, again from the sun it becomes earth -- and the same sequence may have been repeated endlessly, and exactly the same to every detail, most unseemly and insufferably tedious . . ." Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (London: Heinemann, 1974), 683.Curiously enough, in the published screenplay, after Otto has talked about Nietzsche's dwarf and expanded on what the notion of Eternal Recurrence entails, Alexander answers:"That's already been done! Another, Svidrigailov . . . Don't think that you invented it!" Collected Screenplays, 519.What's most curious is that Alexander is citing Dostoevsky but not referring to the relevant passage from The Brothers Karamazov quoted above; the allusion is instead to one of the major characters in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment who commits suicide at the end of the novel without ever making any reference to the notion of Eternal Return.
I'm sure that I could go on and on about sources and parallels concerning "eternal recurrence," but I'll simply end by agreeing with Nietzsche that knowledge of an eternal recurrence of my life as I've lived it would be the heaviest weight, and I prefer Dostoyevsky's happier ending.
Oh, you don't know about that comedy of errors? Well, go forth and read.