Blesok no. 23, October-November, 2001

Peter Greenaway and Nietzsche's Eternal Return

Stephanie Semler

   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 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 confirmation and seal?

         Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

   The Greatest Weight is, for Nietzsche, the Eternal Recurrence. Here is the possibility that one's life will be lived again and again through the infinite corridors of time, and the prospect of the sentient being knowing that is the case. Nietzsche gives us this concept not as a metaphysical belief, but as a choice. The choice is to consider the prospect. If one chooses to do so, the weight rests with the future relivings. If all this is to happen again without the finest detail missing, would we not want it to be as profound as possible, would we not want every moment in our piece of the continuum to be as interesting And lived' as could be? We are taking into consideration, with this acceptance, all our other selves' that will be charged with the experience that we are now having. Indeed, it would seem to be the Greatest Weight, and what of the times that we experience pain, ill fortune, or are faced with difficult decisions? Does this charge not enhance the stakes? What of the times when circumstances are beyond our control? What of the times when we honestly feel as though we cannot go on, or are forced into painful scenarios by forces stronger than ourselves?
   Nietzsche takes this into due consideration when he asks, “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?” The initial reaction to such a prospect is sheer horror. While this may seem to be a negative commentary on the human condition, Nietzsche goes on to give the possibility of a rejoicing in the idea, showing that he does not, in fact, harbor the nihilism that he has been incorrectly accused of. Walter Kaufmann, who is perhaps Nietzsche's most outspoken translator, gives an excellent guide for interpreting the intentions of the Eternal Recurrence in his “Translator's Introduction” to The Gay Science: “Nietzsche's associations with this doctrine are complex, but they cannot be understood unless one realizes that (1) his primary reaction is that no idea could be more gruesome. Nevertheless, (2) he takes it for the most scientific of all possible hypotheses'
[1] and feels that any refusal to accept it because it is such a terrifying notion would be a sign of weakness. Then (3) he discovers that there are moments and even ways of life that make this idea not only bearable but beautiful, and (4) he asks whether it might not serve a positive function.”[2] The very thought that the Eternal Recurrence is beautiful requires a positive view of life, and, trials notwithstanding, one's own life. Nietzsche asks us to love our hardships, embrace the chaos, and relive our own folly. Not only should we do this, but with an ecstacy that comes with knowing that it will all befall us again, innumerable times more. The Eternal Recurrence demands that we make every moment of our lives as interesting and as full as possible. It demands that we make our pain exquisite and useful, formative. How shall we make our decisions with this knowledge on our souls? Here lies the use value in the doctrine; in accepting that we shall endure this life infinitely many times, there is reason to enrich every moment, waking and sleeping, speaking and in silence, with others and alone. How is this done? By the ecstatic embracing of all the facets of one's existence, perhaps, but, I think it is also a reveling in the horror of existence as well. How can we make the horrible beautiful, interesting? It is this we must do, since the horrible is inevitable. Sheer evasion of the horrible, although it would be perceived by Nietzsche to be a maneuver of weakness, is also a lack of the total embracing of life and therefore a way of life that will ensure regret, and regret shall be the Eternal Plague of the one who evades.
   Nietzsche never formulated this doctrine, rather he devoted his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra[3] to it. Zarathustra reads like a script with the bulk of it in monologues, some by Zarathustra the character, and others by Nietzsche the author. There is no trace of a treatise or dialectic. It seems as though Nietzsche had no other way to explain the Eternal Recurrence than to show' it. The book is loaded with s y m b o l ism, some cultural and some from Nietzsche's personal mythology.[4] There is horror in the book that is necessary, and the actions of Zarathustra are questionable; is he a prophet or a madman? The most important message in the book is a life-affirmation, the kind that is lauded by the one who rejoices in the Eternal Recurrence. The book seems to say, “If you have had a moment that caused you to call your demon a god, make every moment like that moment, even the horrid ones.”
   The simultaneous horror/ecstacy brought with the acceptance of the Eternal Recurrence is a feature of Nietzsche's Dionysian, formulated in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy.[5] Nietzsche points this out to us in Ecce Homo,[6] “But that is the concept of Dionysus himself.” Another consideration leads to the very same result. “The psychological problem in the type of Zarathustra is how he says that No and does No to an unheard-of degree, to everything to which one has so far said Yes, can nevertheless be the opposite of a No-saying spirit; how the spirit who bears the heaviest fate, a fatality of a task, can nevertheless be the lightest and most transcendent Zarathustra is a dancer how he that has the hardest, most terrible insight into reality, that has thought the most abysmal idea', nevertheless does not consider it an objection to existence, not even to its eternal recurrence but rather one reason more for being himself the eternal Yes to all things, the tremendous, unbounded saying Yes and Amen'[7] Into all abysses I still carry the blessings of my saying Yes.' But this is the concept of Dionysus once again.” It is, for Nietzsche, the Dionysian that was neglected since the time of Socrates,[8] and it is what needs to be reclaimed to make life whole. The Eternal Recurrence is a participation in the fate of the whole of the universe, and a sympathy to it. Horror cannot be left out, lest we lose our moments that make our demon into a god.
   The very nature of cinema would implicate it as the medium of choice for the Eternal Recurrence. It is a medium where pictures take on the nature of music, in the sense that the film can be played over and over again, but also a sequence of images that can be representative of pieces of life'. Nietzsche says in Ecce Homo, “Perhaps the whole of Zarathustra may be reckoned as music; certainly a rebirth of the art of hearing was among its preconditions.”[9] What would Nietzsche make of cinema?
   Certainly there is the idea that film is the most naturalistic metaphor we have for life. This case considered, what would be the role of the Greatest Weight, The Eternal Recurrence? The filmmaker is faced with a less metaphysical version of the Eternal Recurrence. The filmmaker has to face the fact that the film will be relived' innumerable times. Every decision made will remain the same upon completion, every last detail will happen again and again. Film, unlike the other performing arts, holds true to this. There is no more room for interpretation or a change of venue or actors. The instant the film is complete, it is crystallized in its eternal fate. Even music does not share this quality, only in the sense that it is recorded, but even then, the piece played remains the work of the composer, which is ultimately open to the interpretation of the performer. Film's performer is a machine, and its only interpretation' (or deviance from
the maker's intention) would be a technical malfunction.
   How can, or should, the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence be applied to film? Is it important to the audience that it accepts this idea? Perhaps not, perhaps that would depend on the purposes of the filmmaker, and of the film itself. Film can be a mere storyteller, but how interesting is the story if the delivery is not interesting?
   In his films, the English filmmaker Peter Greenaway displays the kind of decision making that Nietzsche calls for with the Eternal Recurrence. There is not a single moment in his films that is not made as interesting as possible. Every frame is a painting, a moment that is made to be lived to the fullest. Greenaway's early films like Vertical Features Remake and A Walk Through H show that even a seemingly uninteresting story can be made to be interesting. A Walk Through H was a highly personal narrative about a traveler we never see who is seeking a person we don't know. It is a series of maps/paintings filmed and narrated in such a way that the lack of personal knowledge on the part of the viewer was unimportant, the film became immensely interesting because each map is so beautiful that we cannot wait to get to the next. The filmmaker's Greatest Weight are the decisions that must be made for every second of footage. It is a common conception that Greenaway's films are merely beautiful, that the visuals are so exceptional they carry a poorer story. There is no denying the quality of Greenaway's visual sense, but there is also a dramatic sense in which every moment is interesting and every moment in necessary. Every single event in the film Drowning by Numbers is crucial to the entire story told by the film, especially the small underscored events like the spilling of paint, the path of an insect, the action of a figure in the background. In this sense, the music in the scores of the films is also crucial to the story, it tells us how the film feels and gives the visual component a kind of meaning that is impossible without it. This may be the closest thing we have to the intensity that the chorus gave to Attic tragedy.
   Greenaway is also not one to evade horror. It is a major component of his films. It is only through the gruesome scenes that the joyful ones can be fully understood. There is an exquisite beauty to the horror in these films. A fork protruding from a woman's face, with a terrified eye and the tiniest trickle of bright red blood on white skin in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is one such example. There is a convulsive quality in the scene, and it is there that the whole of the violence in the character of Albert is condensed. With his embracing of the horrific, Greenaway gives us Yes-saying films. These are films that say Yes to all things, and are, like Zarathustra, thinkers of the most abysmal idea and simultaneously the lightest and most transcendent. There is a profound difference between this and a film aimed only at the horrific. For Greenaway it is a part of the whole story, there is no way to tell the whole story without it, and if it were told without it, would it be a worthwhile story to tell?
   If these paragraphs are interpreted as a plea to Peter Greenaway to continue or take up the Eternal Recurrence, then I have succeeded; but not completely. There is an ulterior motive in them as well. If we can call Greenaway the artistic heir' to Nietzsche's doctrine, his granting Thus Spoke Zarathustra embodiment through its rightful medium, cinema, should be the apotheosis of what is meant by Nietzsche when he says, “so rich is joy that it thirsts for woe, for Hell, for hatred, for shame, for the lame, for the world for it knows, oh it knows this world!”[10]


1. Kaufmann's note here: The Will To Power, note 55.
2. The Gay Science, Trans. W.Kaufmann, 1974, Random House Inc., New York.
3. Finished in 1885. This translation by R.J. Hollingdale, Random House, 1969.
4. To the reader of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: Hollingdale gives an excellent discussion of Nietzsche's symbolism in the last section of his “Translator's Introduction.”
5. Published in 1872.
6. Ecce Homo, Trans. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, Random House, 1967; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, sec. 6.
7. Nietzsche's note: Cf. Zarathustra III, the last chapter, which is entitled “The Seven Seals (Or: The Yes and Amen Song).”
8. Insofar as Aesthetic Socratism demanded that art appeal to reason.
9. Ecce Homo, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, sec.1.
10. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Random House, 1969, “The Intoxicated Song,” sec. II.

created by