What Is the Eternal Recurrence of the Same?: Part One
NOTE: The original version of this essay was written when I was a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, a much different person than I am today. For this revised and refined edition, I have cut out the superfluity and smoothed out many of its sentences. I have also reorganized many of the paragraphs. The original text was, in places, obscure; I have substantially revised the language so that it will be more legible.
Vraiment, c’était la une journée dont on se souviendrait.
—Pierre Klossowski, Le Souffleur
Pierre Klossowski’s Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, published in 1969, was born out of the legacy of “the thought of May 1968,” and perhaps may be best understood within the context of the student riots and the decentralization of the Parisian university system that occurred at that time. These insurrections and destabilizations confirmed what had already been asserted in theory: that the concept of power, as well as the relationships power customarily assumes, should be expanded. According to this thought, the police are not the only manifestations of institutional control; the regiments of university professors,[i] priests, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, sociologists, doctors, and media figures constitute homologous forms of social domination. Nor are philosophers—and this means, a fortiori, philosophy—exempt from institutional power relations. Whenever the philosophizing drive is subordinated to the function of the philosopher—as a social entity, as a representative of society—philosophy is prompted by institutional or social policy. And when that happens, philosophy might become a medium of manipulation and control. Philosophy might afford one a position from which one can legislate in the name of truth, but this “truth” is formulated, vouchsafed, or homologated by specific institutions. When a degree in Philosophy becomes a license to practice philosophy, philosophy becomes professionalized—and this means that it becomes departmentalized, divorced from the vital experiences of the human being who is called a “philosopher” and organized according to an institutional division of labor. The subjective experiences of a human being are relegated to the service of the society in which s/he functions as a member. The accents placed upon mystical thinking—as opposed to the thinking of a philosophical subject—in Klossowski and Bataille hint at an attempt to deinstitutionalize the philosophizing drive.
It is from this perspective—one that contests the metaphysics of subjectivity in favor of anonymous drives, impulses, inclinations, or, as they are called here, “experiences”—that one may approach Klossowski’s study of Nietzschean repetition. When it registers the inconceivable thought that all things recur eternally, consciousness is struck by a kind of delirious lucidity. In the experience of the eternal recurrence of the same, to move forward into “spiritual clarity” is always simultaneously to lose one’s advance. What Klossowski stresses is the non-narratable character of this experience; it is an experience which may not be preserved, since a forgetting is essential to this experience. The time in which the experience of the eternal recurrence is itself experienced must occur in time and so must be archaized; it is a time which must be relegated to an amnesia no less vital than an anamnesis. As Klossowski remarks, “It is inscribed in the very essence of the circular movement that the movement itself be forgotten from one state to the next.”[ii]
The “he” or “she” to whom eternal recurrence discloses itself is in the impossible position of a spectator of its own eternalization, for the time in which the “he” or “she” will have experienced the “fact” of eternal recurrence is not the time in which the “I” generally lives, subordinated to the everyday system of signs. Personal pronouns are the fossilized signs of ordinary language and crystallize through their repetition. The experience of eternal recurrence casts the stagnant character of the “I” into dispersion and transforms it into a “he” or a “she.” When I experience that all things will have returned, I am reconciled with myself only insofar as I become integrated within an infinite series of permutations of this self. Auto-affection is at this moment a kind of hetero-affection.
Klossowski’s ecstatic self is not a selfsame subject; the self of eternal recurrence is, rather, expropriated from its own identity. All the ecstatic self has in common with itself is reduced to a mere moment of disjunctive instantaneity, wherein the “presence” of its own self-sameness is forgotten, insofar as it is temporalized, disappropriated only to be taken up again, reappropriated not in the lucidity of self-consciousness, but reintegrated as a disjunctive member of an eternal series—what Klossowski calls “the successive realization of all possible identities.”[iii] It is here that one discerns an elision of sameness for the sake of similitude—the self takes on the resemblance of itself, the self takes on the resemblance of instantaneity, of the likeness of being-the-same-with-itself. The self takes form upon a play of surfaces.
The epiphanic moment at which I become aware that I shall come back, that I shall return eternally, constitutes a kind of formative blow. Klossowski describes the self as an undulating figure which loses its identity only to come back to this identity—but upon its return, this second identity is different than the first. The same is never the same or only provisionally the same. It is not difficult to discern that this passage from identity to difference is paralleled by that from lucidity to delirium—that passage which Klossowski determines as the course of thinking itself. Just as lucidity is overthrown by the delirium around which it revolves as though delirium were lucidity’s center, through recurrence, every given identity is carried into its dispersion. Every singularity multiplies, but this experience of fragmentation leads to an eventual recuperation, safeguarded by forgetting.
The moment at which I become aware that all things recur endlessly is one in which the fact of forgetting is raised to consciousness, for though I must forget the prolific sequence of selves I once was, I never, at the moment the truth of recurrence is revealed to me, forget the sheer fact that I have forgotten and I will have forgotten. Remembering that I am my own incessant repetition, I am surrendered to a movement of becoming-other (Anderswerden, to use Hegel’s term). The estrangement of the self will have been contradicted: The residue of my past selves must be sentenced to oblivion in order for me to constitute a self which I can call my own. When the meaning of the eternal recurrence is disclosed to me, my self is obliterated in the face of something objectively necessary and absolute—its own othering. The experience of the eternal recurrence is the experience of a non-experience, for it implies the dissolution of the very self that would experience it.
What Klossowski understands by “the eternal recurrence of the same,” then, it is not the reconstitution of a static identity, for the self that experiences the eternal recurrence must reactualize all possible selves, revealing itself as nothing more than one of a series of masks. The self is revealed, in Klossowski’s language, as a “fortuitous moment the very fortuity of which entails the necessary and integral return of the whole series.”[iv] The subject that experiences recurrence is not an individuated, intending consciousness, but every self in history in succession, is the communication of one self with another, is nothing more than this pure communication. Each self which communicates with the other is disjoined from the other and yet connected to the other selves within a reiterative series, for each self within this series has forgotten the other until the epiphanic moment comes which will have revealed that the self is othered and so undone within an integrative sequence. The meaning of the self is accrued only with respect of its intensity. Klossowski’s choice of this term is not accidental: “Intensity” is etymologically derivable from the Latin verb intendere, which means “to draw out” or “to stretch across.” Intensity is that series of instants which stretches across time within which each moment of identity differs from all other moments, for intensity is this difference between identities. In the intensification of time, both extremes, the past and the future, communicate with each other.
The instant accrues its significance only through this intensification. Incessant repetition drains the individual moment of all significance it would have if it were set aside from all other moments within the series. Infinite repetition divests every “unique” instant of its meaning, but this withdrawal of meaning is the constitution of sense; it is the sheer possibility of signifying. For signification is nothing other than the “rise and fall” of this intensity. As Klossowski phrases it, “Either all returns because nothing has ever made any sense whatever, or else things never make any sense except by the return of all things, without beginning or end.”[v]
The moment when the eternal recurrence is experienced is one when the disjointed self says, “Yes” to that intense and infinitely repetitive series which is temporality itself. Yes, this present instant is occurring, but it has occurred before countless times, and it will have occurred countless times again. The pronouncement of this affirmation discloses that the present moment is devoid of singularity—it will recur and recur endlessly. Conjoined with the impassioned lucidity of this affirmation is a countermovement. The moment of revelation—affording the greatest clarity—is also the moment of madness. The mind grows giddy, is seized with vertigo at the advent of such a thought.
Despite the power of such an analysis (a power that is surpassed only by that of Heidegger, Deleuze, and Karl Löwith), we cannot follow Klossowski along his path of reflection. We cannot follow him, for nothing survives his treatment except the experience the subject of recurrence has of its own undoing. Klossowski’s analysis dovetails into a desubjectifying, polysubjectifying subjectification of the return. A fractured self is still a self. Similarly, Fichte’s “I-am-not-I” is a closed system, for the self always returns to itself, despite its unremitting self-laceration. Nothing else emerges from Klossowski’s account of the eternal recurrence than the unraveling of the subject who experiences it as it confronts the multiplication of itself into duplicable selves or non-selves. Klossowski, in effect, reduces the eternal recurrence to the marks, the notches that impress themselves upon the human subject that is the spectator of its circularity and is this circularity. The subject is disconnected, as it were, from all existing, worldly actuality, is destroyed in its particularity and opens to nothing other than the absolutization of itself, the eternalization of itself in all of its multiple and proliferating forms. To quote once more Klossowski: “I am not even this fortuitous moment once and for all if, indeed, I must re-will this very moment one more time! For nothing? For myself?”[vi] This statement and its follow-up questions might indicate the extent to which Klossowski’s post-subjectivism is also, unwittingly, a subjectivism.
The experience of eternal recurrence, according to this interpretation, bears similar features in common with the experience of mysticism. Indeed, Klossowski’s description of this experience is nothing besides the description of an ecstatic, mystical experience—this is also the limitation of Bataille’s analysis and marks out clearly enough that for which Bataille’s study fails to account.[vii] Klossowski places a strong accent upon an experience through which the self is dissolved into a frantic and proliferative sea of copies of itself or “simulacra” and is surrendered to the necessity of the “divine” absolute. But if this experience constitutes anything like an epiphanic moment, it discloses only that there could be no epiphany, there is no moment independent of recurrence; the transcendence afforded by this revelation is a negative transcendence. Nietzsche emerges from this treatment as a mystic without a god, with no divinity other than of the divine vicious circle. But despite the disclosure of the circular character of temporality, there could be no Second Coming—there are only a multitude of resurrections. The chiliastic or messianic aspects of religious dogma are rendered absurd by such a thought, since the repetitions of historical instants are swept into their redundancy and so are made ridiculous.
Somewhat dubious is Klossowski’s description of Nietzsche’s thinking of the eternal recurrence as possessing a “doctrinal” character: “[T]he idea itself emerges as a specific doctrine…”[viii] From the evidence found in the all the scattered notebooks of Nietzsche’s literary estate, one might argue that perspectivism or the will-to-power are subsumable under an ideology or a dogma, perhaps, but the eternal recurrence? One wonders how Klossowski could remark upon a “doctrine” of eternal recurrence at all, since, according to his own claims, the experience of eternal recurrence is an experience to which forgetting is essential and that could never be doctrinal, since it dissolves the very subject who would experience the miraculous “fact” that all things recur endlessly. In the absence of a subject who would promulgate it, what possible doctrine could emerge?
This account abstracts from the time in which and through which all of the world would repeat itself; the temporality of world-time is ignored by Klossowski. For he is less interested in how the universe and humankind are regulated by eternal recurrence than in the effects this thought upon Nietzsche’s lucidity and in the conditions of passivity and receptivity one must assume in order to become a sacrificial altar upon which the meaning of this experience would be made manifest. Klossowski’s interpretation, furthermore, underplays the complex temporal paradoxes of eternal recurrence.
There is a series of questions that Klossowski does not pose that seems to be essential to this topic. For example: Why must the same eternally come back to itself? Why must the same return? And if the same is not equatable to the identical, by what possible criterion could one make that distinction? Does the same maintain its constancy even when subjected to postponement? What befalls the same through its repetition? Does recurrence exclude the same, given as something unified, given as a totality? Is the same the same if it recurs? Would the same be the same if it did not recur? Or is it the case that the same is nothing other than its own recurrence?[ix]
If the eternal recurrence of the same is pure repetition, nothing would recur, strictly writing, for there would be no present instant that would be subject to recurrence. If the eternal recurrence of the same were to be taken seriously as a philosophical concept, one would have to exclude from it from the category of presence altogether. I will try to demonstrate this in the following argument.
I understand the concept of the eternal recurrence of the same to mean that all worldly acts and events will have repeated themselves ceaselessly. If one were to accept this definition, then it follows that the past and the future are, in a certain sense, conjoined. That is to say, the future would have been anticipated by each moment in the past, while the past would have projected itself into the future. The time of recurrence is a time that throws itself backward, but only in order to cast itself forward. To phrase it concisely: The past is recoverable in its futurity. If this is the case, the “present instant” does not recede into a “present instant” that is no longer. Each moment would not only occur once and never again; each moment would rather occur “this” time and yet again, and so on eternally. If this is the case, no instant could be said to be singular, for each instant would be the reiteration of an infinite series of moments. Of course, the notion of the instant—understood as a discrete temporal unit the integrality of which cannot be reduced—is here problematized.
Each instant moves forward into the future; the past is projective, insofar as each instant anticipates its own futurity. Yet the future, according to this conception, is retrocessive because the future is determined in advance. The future has already occurred, for each instant in the past determines a futural series of instants. By the same token, the past is determined after the fact, inasmuch as the past only has meaning in its futural recuperation. In other words, the time of the eternal recurrence is of a progressive-regressive temporality. Progression and regression are one and the same.
What, then, of “presence,” of the present instant? The instantaneity of the moment is already a futurity because the present is already subject to a necessary repetition. The “now” is always what will have occurred and will have recurred ad infinitum. What is occurring only occurs because it will have occurred. The future perfect tense is here appropriate, since each instant is predetermined as proleptic. But if what we call the “present moment” is already determined as the repetition of a prior series of moments, then presence has already been outlawed before it could begin. There is nothing new under the sun: As Nietzsche writes in his posthumously published notebooks, “The world lacks the capacity for eternal novelty,” Es fehlt der Welt… das Vermögen zur ewigen Neuheit.[x] What would be the present moment is already marked as the futurity of the past. As Nietzsche writes in The Will to Power Fragment 684, recurrence is a regressus in infinitum or “a temporal infinitude of the world going backward,” eine Zeitunendlichkeit der Welt nach hinten.[xi]
The time of the eternal recurrence is a time without the “now” because no instant ever occurs once. Everything in the present has already happened and has happened eternally and will have happened eternally. Nor is this time a matter of hopefulness, even though the future is perfect. It is a time of reversible futurity, but this does not mean that future moments may be prophesized. No moment is forecast; every moment will have occurred and will have recurred.
Let me return to one of my earlier questions: Is the same ever itself, if it recurs? Thrown into the disjunctive repetitions of recurrence, being is never being. Nothing in time is ever absolutely itself, for what is in time is never absolutely present. What occurs is the necessary possibility of its being-repeated. The illusion of transcendence—understood here as abstraction from temporality—founders in endless repetition. The present is nothing more than a mode of possibility.
- Only time is determinative of time.
- The past is not the past. The past and the future are one. The past is the to-come, the comeback. It is the Wiederholung, the re-draw, the re-tow, the re-pull, the re-haul, the re-traction.
- Being is subordinate to its temporalization.
- The beginning and the ending are reduced to the interregnum.
- Recurrence is not the permanentization of finitude, but the permanentization of intermittence.
- Intermittence is the Law of Recurrence.
- Without presence, time is nothing but becoming. Time is Law. What is, is in time or not at all.
- Time is nonlateralization.
- Whatever returns, is not or is not simply. The “is” is already the “was” and the “will be.” What will be, is. The “isness” of the “is” is the “will have been.”
- The eternal recurrence of the same means the impossibility of periodization.
- Whenever an event occurs, it does not occur. At the same time.
- What of the “I” that occurs in time? “I was” and “I will be”: These are the two modes of being-a-self. I am only a moment of disjunctive instantaneity.
- The law of temporality is the law of recurrence.
- I am pure circularity. I am nothing besides this circularity. Whenever I turn back to myself, I am a likeness, a similitude of what I once was.
- When I perceive the circle of recurrence, when I become aware that time reiterates itself, I am conscious of the fact that I am not. I am conscious of the fact that I am in the world as a disjunctive member of an intensified series. But then this knowledge will be forgotten. So, forgetting is essential to the experience of the eternal recurrence of the same. It is an experience that will perish, but the perishability of this experience gives to it a strange beauty.
[i] Even though Foucault never wrote a genealogy of the university as an institution that appoints dispositions of power.
[ii] Pierre Klossowski, “Nietzsche’s Experience of the Eternal Return,” The New Nietzsche: Contemporary Styles of Interpretation. Ed. David B. Allison. Trans. Allen Weiss. Cambridge: p. 110. I draw from Pierre Klossowski, Nietzsche et le cercle vicieux. Paris: Mercure de France, 1969.
[iv] Ibid. p. 109.
[v] Ibid. p. 113.
[vii] Cf. Georges Bataille, On Nietzsche. Trans. Bruce Boone. New York: Paragon House, 1992, pp. 139-140.
[viii] Klossowski, “Nietzsche’s Experience of the Eternal Return,” p. 108.
[ix] Maurice Blanchot attempts to answer similar questions in his The Infinite Conversation. Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 82. Trans. Susan Hanson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993.
[x] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Wille zur Macht: Eine Auslegung alles Geschehens. Ed. Max Brahn. Stuttgart: Alfred Kroener, 1921, p. 372.
[xi] Nietzsche, p. 370.