Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

penguin nietzsche reader

Dipping into Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

Part One

Nietzsche is both a heroic and tragic figure. He epitomises the individualist; the person who finds the ordinary conventions and values of life trivial and stultifying. Who cannot be moved by the picture of him striding over the mountain tops, ‘6000 feet beyond man and time’, when ‘the abysmal thought’ came unannounced into his mind.

Nietzsche’s master- stroke is his much misunderstood Eternal Recurrence. The relevant passage is from The Gay Science/The Joyful Wisdom:

The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you 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!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… 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?

The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann, translator

Buddhist metaphysical ideas about karma are too complex to go into detail here but suffice it to say that everything we have thought or done in the past determines the sort of person we are in the present. One saying which has become common currency is – what we think today determines who we are tomorrow, which suggest it is widely understood outside of Buddhism. Here is a simple example of how we could create negative karma: if we are nasty to people habitually, one of the consequences is likely to be a lack of friends. If we are always criticising others we will suffer consequences; probably again people will avoid us. Why bother? (some might say!) The whole point of Buddhist training for me from the beginning was that I was sick of myself; I wanted to do something about myself. I wanted to change! (Keep this in mind as you will come across the same idea in Ivan Osokin’s story.) Any genuine spiritual training addresses these questions, ‘is it possible to change for the better? Is it possible to find lasting peace of mind?’ Surely everyone of us, if we are honest and have enough courage for self-reflection, has regrets about our past? (Not that many of us are like Edith Piaf with her Je ne Regrette – although perhaps she was only putting Nietzsche’s philosophy into practice?)

I wrote the above before I’d read the relevant chapter in Alexander Nahamas’, Nietzsche, Life as Literature. He dismisses a cosmological view of eternal recurrence preferring to interpret Nietzsche’s idea in psychological terms. His chapter devoted to Nietzsche’s idea is of considerable subtlety so I will merely pick out a few of the peaks and ‘free-associate’ a little.

It is vital to grasp that although Nietzsche describes his insight as ‘that abysmal thought’ – he paradoxically sees it as the ultimate spiritual test wherein we either succumb to life’s ills and challenges or completely accept them (how Buddhist is that!). This is how he puts it:

My formula for greatness for a human being is amor fati (love of one’s fate): that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary – but love it.

Ecce Homo

Nehamas describes how all actions, situations and circumstances are interconnected in ways which sound to me very similar to the Buddhist idea of Indra’s Net; here is a typical description:

In the realm of the god Indra a vast net stretches infinitely in all directions. In each “eye” of the net there is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever effects one jewel effects them all. The metaphor illustrates the interpenetration of all phenomena. Everything contains everything else. At the same time, each individual thing is not hindered by or confused with all the other individual things.

At the same time Nehamas wonders why Nietzsche’s demon does not offer an opportunity for us to put right the mistakes we made in our previous life/lives, instead of mechanically repeating the life as if it were fixed. (Remember Nietzsche is thinking hypothetically.) The answer is related to Nietzsche’s view of the self being non-substantive (more Buddhist parallels):

There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything. . . our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language. . (This ‘no self’ in Buddhism is referred to as ‘anatta’)

The Genealogy of Morals

and

our bad habit of taking a mnemonic, an abbreviated formula, to be an entity, finally as a cause, eg. to say of lightening ‘it flashes.’ Or the little word ‘I’.

Will to Power, 548

Nietzsche believes that everything is so interconnected that if one detail in an event of the past were hypothetically changed the whole event would be different. Therefore – ‘there is no thing without other things.’ We need to accept good and evil as we imagine them to be; the warp and woof of existence.

Zarathustra asks:

Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamoured; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, “You please me, happiness! Abide moment!” then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamoured.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Nehamas continues: a life that was different in any way would simply not be our life: it would be the life of a different person. To want to be different in any way is for Nietzsche to want to be different in every way; it is to want, impossible as that is, to be someone else.. . if we were to have another life it would necessarily have to be, if it were to be our life at all, the very same life we have already had.

Now, you are probably thinking that this is all very theoretical and that it doesn’t have much practical relevance for our actual lives. I personally have found that if you use Nietzsche’s idea as a ‘thought experiment’, it sheds considerable light on how we regard such things as regret, shame and contrition. One of Nietzsche’s enduring ideas is that interpretation and re-interpretation are essential approaches to experience; this is a very optimistic standpoint which may alleviate the possible pessimistic reaction to the idea of his eternal recurrence.

Other thinkers have wrestled with the problem. Consider the Russian writer, P. D. Ouspensky’s novella, The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. (Ground Hog Day uses the same idea of eternal recurrence to great effect.) Ivan – in the novella – goes to a magician and asks to be sent back to his childhood in order to live his life over again and avoid all the mistakes he’s made. As we reflect on our past mistakes, naturally shame and regret will arise and it takes courage even to look; many people will not even acknowledge they’ve made mistakes. The question Nietzsche poses is; can we embrace all of it; the joys, woes and shame together; could we go back to our childhood and welcome the magician’s deal on condition that everything would occur exactly as the first time?

If you are wondering what happened to Ivan Osokin, he goes back to his childhood and repeats his life and makes exactly the same decisions as before, because he could not remain ‘present’ to the present. In Ouspensky’s terminology he was too identified with the situations he found himself in. (This aspect of mindfulness in the present moment is not something that Nietzsche discusses (and probably isn’t familiar with?) and could be considered to be the one factor missing from his account.) It is quite moving towards the end when he has glimpses of deeper realities when he is more alert; more present. This is the magician speaking when Ivan returns to him after re-living his life:

You know that everything repeats again and again. There have been other people who made the same discovery but they could make nothing more of it. If you could change something in yourself you could use this knowledge for your own advantage. You say you have nothing. Not quite. You have your life. So you can sacrifice your life. (my emphasis)

In the story, Ouspensky could have had Ivan become aware of his habitual reactive responses to life, and hence show him able to change. (Change often happens if we acknowledge our mistakes and vow not to repeat them, and then live in the ‘Now’. ) However, to show Ivan repeating the same mistakes drives the message home, that he is pinioned to the ‘wheel of life.’ Ouspensky’s view is somewhat pessimistic compared to Nietzsche’s.

To sum up: Osokin illustrates our common experience of regret and wanting to change the past. If this regret leads to us re-orientating our lives, becoming less self-concerned then all the better. This is where Buddhism, or any genuine spiritual practice, scores over Nietzsche! Ouspensky’s story is the antithesis of Nietzsche’s view as Osokin certainly cannot accept his past. He is ultimately a ‘nay-sayer.

As I’ve tried to argue, Nietzsche does not intend the idea of Eternal Recurrence to be taken literally. It is a thought experiment to focus our attention on the will, past events, self forgiveness and a celebration of life, ‘in spite of’. No amount of thinking will enable most of us to shout a resounding ‘Yes’ to the question, ‘Would you be prepared to live your life again exactly as before?’ But it may be possible to forgive ourselves and live in the present.

This is a good place to end Part One. Part Two will be posted some time in May. For anyone new to Nietzsche I’d recommend the ‘Penguin Classic’, A Nietzsche Reader (Translation by R. J. Hollindale) in which extracts from Nietzsche’s books are arranged chronologically. There is also a humorous and accurate short video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti9zdpLlXf0

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Blake the Ecologist

thel frontspiece

As I wrote recently to my brother, my research for my Blake/Buddhism book is anything but systematic! I get sidetracked and find I’m reading texts which only have a tenuous link to Blake.

This is okay up to a point but I have to be aware that it may be a procrastinating device!

I thought I’d make use of some of my reading to introduce various ideas about William Blake which may not be widely appreciated. I am writing this blog to sort out my own ideas apart from anything else! I am myself, only scratching the surface of Blake’s world and feel I need a few more years to really internalise him.

I’d like to start by showing that he is both a mystic and ecologist. ‘Mystic’ may be an unfashionable word today and I would supplement the word by saying that Blake is a sort of Gnostic Master who can provide directions and instructions for each of us to follow. (Or in the manner of the Kabbala)

To lead us out of a fragmentary state of consciousness into wholeness.

Also, to many readers who are only familiar with Tyger and The Lamb, I would like to dismiss once and for all the idea that his poems are simple and childish; the opposite is true. His whole ouvre is among the most complex in all of literature and that includes Shakespeare, Dante and Milton. Needless, to say while his shorter poems can be understood from a few readings his prophetic poems cannot; they must be read again and again – with the help of commentaries and background reading.

Although Blake is not a pantheist of the likes of William Wordsworth, he nevertheless venerates nature – but not as something separate from consciousness (which may align him more with Bishop George Berkeley). He famously expresses this view in his reply to someone who asked about looking at the sun:

I assert, for myself, that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. “What !” it will be questioned, “when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea !” Oh ! no, no ! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty !” I question not my corporeal eye any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it.

As I am more or less thinking aloud here I’d like to consider The Book Of Thel which is one of Blake’s early works and not so well known. In this illustrated manuscript Blake devises a dialogue between consciousness and materiality. Thel, who personifies female pubescent innocence, asks plants and animals about existence, particularly about the impermanence of life (very Buddhist!). In turn she asks a lilly, a cloud, a lump of clay and a worm these existential questions. What, I can hear you cry, talking plants and animals; how naively anthropomorphic! Ah, well, appearances can be deceptive and one thing Blake is not, is anthropomorphic. Here is the first section:

(The lines in bold are my commentary. Odd spellings are Blake’s own spellings.)

THEL’S MOTTO
Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?
Or wilt thou go ask the Mole:
Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod?
Or Love in a golden bowl?

I

The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks.

All but the youngest; she in paleness sought the secret air.

To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day:

Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard:

And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.

O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?

Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall. 

Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. and like a parting cloud.

Like a reflection in a glass. like shadows in the water. 

Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face,

Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air; 

Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head,

And gentle sleep the sleep of death. and gentle hear the voice

Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time.

I have underlined the lines which I relate to these words from a Buddhist scripture:

Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world/a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a child’s laugh, a phantasm, a dream.

The lilly answers Thel:

The Lilly of the valley breathing in the humble grass

Answer’d the lovely maid and said: I am a watry weed,

And I am very small, and love to dwell in lowly vales;

So weak, the gilded butterfly scarce perches on my head.

Yet I am visited from heaven and he that smiles on all.

Walks in the valley. and each morn over me spreads his hand

Saying, rejoice thou humble grass, thou new-born lilly flower,

Thou gentle maid of silent valleys. and of modest brooks;

For thou shalt be clothed in light, and fed with morning manna:

Till summers heat melts thee beside the fountains and the springs

To flourish in eternal vales: then why should Thel complain,

Why should the mistress of the vales of Har, utter a sigh.

She ceasd & smild in tears, then sat down in her silver shrine.

And Thel answers:

Thel answered. O thou little virgin of the peaceful valley.

Giving to those that cannot crave, the voiceless, the o’ertired.

Thy breath doth nourish the innocent lamb, he smells thy milky garments,

He crops thy flowers. while thou sittest smiling in his face,

Wiping his mild and meekin mouth from all contagious taints.

Thy wine doth purify the golden honey, thy perfume,

Which thou dost scatter on every little blade of grass that springs,

Revives the milked cow, & tames the fire-breathing steed.

Thel understands that everything in nature is interconnected; she is learning to be a good ecologist for someone so young. However, she can’t see the purpose of her life. She enquires:

But Thel is like a faint cloud kindled at the rising sun:

I vanish from my pearly throne, and who shall find my place?”

Why not ask the cloud?

“Queen of the vales,” the Lily answered, “ask the tender cloud,

And it shall tell thee why it glitters in the morning sky,

And why it scatters its bright beauty thro’ the humid air.

Descend, O little cloud, & hover before the eyes of Thel.”

The Cloud descended, and the Lily bowd her modest head,

And went to mind her numerous charge among the verdant grass.

II

“O little Cloud,” the virgin said, “I charge thee tell to me,

Why thou complainest not when in one hour thou fade away:

Then we shall seek thee but not find; ah, Thel is like to Thee.

I pass away, yet I complain, and no one hears my voice.”

Why do I have to suffer? Why do loved ones have to die? “Our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

The Cloud then shew’d his golden head & his bright form emerg’d,

Hovering and glittering on the air before the face of Thel.

“O virgin, know’st thou not our steeds drink of the golden springs

Where Luvah doth renew his horses? Look’st thou on my youth,

And fearest thou because I vanish and am seen no more,

Nothing remains? O maid, I tell thee, when I pass away,

It is to tenfold life, to love, to peace, and raptures holy:

Unseen descending, weigh my light wings upon balmy flowers,

And court the fair eyed dew, to take me to her shining tent:

The weeping virgin trembling kneels before the risen sun,

Till we arise link’d in a golden band, and never part,

But walk united, bearing food to all our tender flowers.”

Is this a scientific/ecological description of the water-cycle? Everything is in flux and interconnected. Perhaps we can allow things to change, in our minds, if we do not cling to phenomena?

“Dost thou O little Cloud? I fear that I am not like thee;

For I walk through the vales of Har and smell the sweetest flowers,

But I feed not the little flowers; I hear the warbling birds,

But I feed not the warbling birds; they fly and seek their food;

But Thel delights in these no more, because I fade away,

And all shall say, ‘Without a use this shining woman liv’d,

Or did she only live to be at death the food of worms?'”

The cloud is about to give some unsavoury philosophical explanation – you have a purpose ; you are food for the worm!

The Cloud reclind upon his airy throne and answer’d thus:

“Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies,

How great thy use, how great thy blessing! Every thing that lives

Lives not alone, nor for itself; fear not, and I will call

The weak worm from its lowly bed, and thou shalt hear its voice.

Come forth, worm of the silent valley, to thy pensive queen.”

Nothing is separate, including human beings. Birth, growth and death are sacraments – as Swinburne says: “eternal generation in which one life is given for another.” It is our “human all too human” (Nietzsche) view – our anthropocentric standpoint which obscures this eagle-eyed view. The aphorism at the head of the poem shows the two ways of looking at life; looking at particulars from the mole’s viewpoint and the sweeping wider-distance view of the eagle.

The helpless worm arose, and sat upon the Lily’s leaf,

And the bright Cloud saild on, to find his partner in the vale.

III

Then Thel astonish’d view’d the Worm upon its dewy bed.

“Art thou a Worm? Image of weakness, art thou but a Worm?

I see thee like an infant wrapped in the Lily’s leaf;

Ah, weep not, little voice, thou can’st not speak, but thou can’st weep.

Is this a Worm? I see thee lay helpless & naked, weeping,

And none to answer, none to cherish thee with mother’s smiles.”

The Clod of Clay heard the Worm’s voice, & raisd her pitying head;

She bow’d over the weeping infant, and her life exhal’d

In milky fondness; then on Thel she fix’d her humble eyes.

“O beauty of the vales of Har! we live not for ourselves;

Thou seest me the meanest thing, and so I am indeed;

My bosom of itself is cold, and of itself is dark,

But he that loves the lowly, pours his oil upon my head,

And kisses me, and binds his nuptial bands around my breast,

And says: ‘Thou mother of my children, I have loved thee

And I have given thee a crown that none can take away.’

But how this is, sweet maid, I know not, and I cannot know;

I ponder, and I cannot ponder; yet I live and love.”

Thel had never thought that a worm could be valued; Darwin said that life would disappear if it were not for the humble worm! What about coral reefs dying and climate change today. Is this a direct result of the Enlightenment valorization of Reason; a result of Cartsian dualism? Dualism sees a separation between mind and matter, subject and object. This ‘meme’ has led to us seeing a world of insentient matter, there for endless exploitation. Perhaps Gaia is having her revenge now with climate change. Thel may not have heard of Rene Descarte or dualism, but she is a natural philosopher.

The daughter of beauty wip’d her pitying tears with her white veil,

And said: “Alas! I knew not this, and therefore did I weep.

That God would love a Worm, I knew, and punish the evil foot

That, wilful, bruis’d its helpless form; but that he cherish’d it

With milk and oil I never knew; and therefore did I weep,

And I complaind in the mild air, because I fade away,

And lay me down in thy cold bed, and leave my shining lot.”

“Queen of the vales,” the matron Clay answered, “I heard thy sighs,

And all thy moans flew o’er my roof, but I have call’d them down.

Wilt thou, O Queen, enter my house? ’tis given thee to enter

And to return: fear nothing, enter with thy virgin feet.”

IV

The eternal gates’ terrific porter lifted the northern bar:

Thel enter’d in & saw the secrets of the land unknown.

She saw the couches of the dead, & where the fibrous roots

Of every heart on earth infixes deep its restless twists:

A land of sorrows & of tears where never smile was seen.

She wanderd in the land of clouds thro’ valleys dark, listning

Dolours & lamentations; waiting oft beside a dewy grave,

She stood in silence, listning to the voices of the ground,

Till to her own grave plot she came, & there she sat down,

And heard this voice of sorrow breathed from the hollow pit:

“Why cannot the Ear be closed to its own destruction?

Or the glistning Eye to the poison of a smile?

Why are Eyelids stord with arrows ready drawn,

Where a thousand fighting men in ambush lie?

Or an Eye of gifts & graces, show’ring fruits and coined gold?

Why a Tongue impress’d with honey from every wind?

Why an Ear, a whirlpool fierce to draw creations in?

Why a Nostril wide inhaling terror, trembling, and affright?

Why a tender curb upon the youthful burning boy?

Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?”

This penultimate verse illustrates the limited, shrunken life if it is merely based on sense-experience. A crucial word in Blake’s scheme is ‘corporeal’ and by the use of such personifications as Urizen and the Spectre he warned us of the dangers of cutting ourselves off from both nature and the numinous. He said:

Ancient poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses (his word for the indwelling spirit or Buddha Nature if you are a Buddhist) But once Reason was crowned kingmen forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.’ Put rather simplistically he sees wholeness where we have division and separateness. His ‘fourfold vision’ was the high point of a consciousness where the ‘doors of perception were cleansed’ and ‘everything appeared infinite.’

Some commentators find the last couplet unexpected but is it? Thel returns to Har, symbol of self-centredness. Why does she do this? Perhaps she is not yet strong enough to stand on her own feet and realise she is both a particular being and one with all existence? She has an excellent excuse of being young. There is plenty time for her to let Experience work on her inner self; plenty of time for her to make mistakes and learn from them.

The Virgin started from her seat, & with a shriek

Fled back unhinderd till she came into the vales of Har.