“The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!”
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984
In the next sentence of Kundera’s novel his narrator asks: “What does this mad myth signify?” A unique occurrence is insubstantial; whatever returns is heavy. Each repetition of an original event carries within itself all its own prior incarnations; each repetition adds the indiscernible but real increment of its own small weight to the gradually accumulating mass. After awhile that which returns again and again becomes as heavy as eternity.
Third sentence: “Putting it negatively, the myth of the eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.” On the first page of his book The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade asserts that “neither the objects of the external world nor human acts, properly speaking, have any autonomous intrinsic value. Objects or acts acquire a value, and in so doing become real, because they participate, after one fashion or another, in a reality that transcends them.” Only the rare unique event becomes commemorated, ritualized, endlessly repeated until it becomes legendary. It is the accrual of legendary status through the weight of repetition that bestows meaning on the primordial event. Ever afterward, only actions that commemorate the legend have meaning, acquiring their reality by participating in the eternal return. All other actions are unprecedented, unique, meaningless – unbearably light.
Fourth sentence: “We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.” Now, six centuries later, as this long-forgotten war is brought before our imaginations, does its return give it a just little bit more weight? Fifth sentence: “Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return?” This war, repeated in the text, is repeated in our minds – perhaps we remember the war after all? A hundred thousand of us, after reading sentences four and five, advance like a mighty army to the sixth sentence: “It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.”
Citation is a procedure for adding just a little bit more weight to a name, an idea, an event, pulling it a little bit closer to eternity. When we cite we too participate in the heaviness bestowed by repetition, we get a little closer to participating in the larger reality that consists entirely of endlessly repeated mutual recognition.
When God created the heavens and the earth it meant nothing because it had happened only once. After the event had been recreated again and again in its retelling and in the eternal return of the workweek-Sabbath cycle – only then did the Creation become legendary, eternal, meaningful, substantial, real.
Note: You might recognize that the title of this post is identical to the title of a recent novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer was citing Kundera: “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”