Tuesday, 2 September 2008

The Three Horsemen of Recurrence: Baudelaire, Blanqui, and Nietzsche

Nietzsche says the idea of eternal recurrence is “[nihilism] thought in its most terrible form” (WP §55). For him, it represents the culmination of thought, the “thought of thoughts”. The most direct engagement with this concept occurs in Benjamin's writings and research for the Baudelaire book. Here, Benjamin attempts to negotiate his way around differing theories of recurrence:

… The idea of eternal recurrence emerged at about the same time in the worlds of Baudelaire, Blanqui, and Nietzsche. In Baudelaire, the accent is on the new, which is wrested with heroic effort from the “ever-selfsame”; in Nietzsche, it is on the “ever-selfsame” which the human being faces with heroic composure. Blanqui is far closer to Nietzsche than to Baudelaire; but in his work, resignation predominates. In Nietzsche, this experience is projected onto a cosmological plane, in his thesis that nothing new will occur. (SW 4:175)

However, what Benjamin separates as three conflicting theories of eternal recurrence actually reflect the three different attitudes, different responses to “the thought of thoughts”, all of which can be subsumed within Nietzsche's theory of recurrence. The principle antagonism for Benjamin is between Nietzsche and Baudelaire as regards their stance towards the “ever self-same.”

It is true that Nietzsche does advocate a sort of heroic stance in the face of recurrence. In The Gay Science, he gives two choices. On the one hand, we can “throw [ourselves] down and gnash [our] teeth and curse” the thought of recurrence (GS §341). The option which Nietzsche pushes for, however, is to adjust our outlook in such a way as “to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal” (GS §341). Blanqui, in his writings on recurrence, sets up a series of possible worlds in which all the different potentialities are played out across the heavens. Offering no comfort to himself, Blanqui states that he sees himself trapped at his desk through infinity; Benjamin cites: “throughout the entire universe, he is the same confined man he is on this earth.” What is a source of resignation for Blanqui serves as a cause for relish in Nietzsche. “I seek an eternity for everything,” he writes in his notes on eternal recurrence (WP §1065). It is this seeking to which Benjamin refers when he speaks of the heroic. This heroism culminates in the affirmation of recurrence. In “Of the Vision and the Riddle”, Zarathustra instructs on affirmation as “courage that attacks” by saying, “'Well then! Once more!'” to everything (Z, 178). It is through affirmation that the hero stands in the face of the most terrible thought and embraces it; even the terror of sameness is overcome. But how is one to reconcile the self-same with the new?

Benjamin differentiates Baudelaire's heroism from Nietzsche's by its orientation towards the new. The tension arises from the fact that Nietzsche's world conception means that “the world ... lacks the capacity for eternal novelty” (WP §1062). The entire system is based around the fact that the infinite interaction of finite forces can produce only a finite number of distinct reactions. Recurrence occurs when the all these reactions have taken place. There is no final state for Nietzsche, therefore the interactions must continue. Since each reaction conditions subsequent ones, the entire cycle must be repeated. “The world as a circular movement of absolutely identical series that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum” is the operational model Nietzsche puts forth of his theory (WP §1066). On one hand, this can be taken as an ironclad pronouncement, sentencing us to an eternity of sameness. There is indeed no escaping the cycle, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Benjamin suggests this negative connotation, this sense of being damned to recurrence, is result of a contamination of the thought of recurrence by religious ideas, which leads to “substituting an eternity of torments for the eternity of a cycle” (AP [D10a,4]). Against the tyranny of the cycle, Benjamin places Baudelaire, in whose work “the new in the ever-selfsame, and the ever-selfsame in the new”, is revealed (SW 4:175).

The arena for this revelation is modernity. Baudelaire invokes the idea of modernity as a way of wresting the new from the ever-same. “Modernity stands opposed to antiquity”, says Benjamin, “the new, to what is always the same” (SW 4:183). The emergence of the new is what marks modernity: “… the productive misunderstanding by which the ‘new’ became the ‘modern’ … originates in Baudelaire” (SW 4:183). At the same time it all relates back to eternity. Even the transitory nature which characterizes modern life is itself eternally transient. Benjamin characterizes “fashion [as] the eternal return of the new” (SW 4:179). (Insert commentary on Painter of Modern Life and how it plays into the importance of the eternal essence of the new.) The dandy becomes an example of self creation. At the same time, all these forms of relate back to the eternal. The new is a product of recurrence: “Here, the idea of eternal return is the ‘new’, which breaks the cycle of eternal return by confirming it” (SW 4:179).

While Nietzsche does expressly exclude perpetual novelty from his system, he is by no means opposed to the new. What is required, though, is a new conception of the new, a conception like not unlike Baudelaire’s. According to Benjamin, "The idea of eternal recurrence derived its luster from the fact that it was no longer possible, in all circumstances, to expect a recurrence of conditions shorter than that provided by eternity" (AP [J62a,2]). Novelty and recurrence are no longer opposites. The reconciliation of Benjamin and Nietzsche takes place thusly: there is no systemic novelty; there is serial novelty. The series play out the same way over and over. But at the same time, the nature of the system is such that within each series, we are guaranteed that nothing will be the same until we get to the end. There is no escaping recurrence, but that inescapability opens up a whole new realm of possibility for Nietzsche.

The difference between an eternity of the self-same or an eternity of the new comes down to a choice. If the idea eternal recurrence is only seen as an endless cycle of meaningless repetition, then, as Heidegger states in his lectures on Nietzsche, “we are not grasping it in its character as a decision.” From its first emergence, Nietzsche poses eternal return as a choice: heroic resolve or cowardly submission, embracing the demon instead of cowering at his feet. But mere heroic resolve does not fully acknowledge the decisional nature, as it amounts to little more than fatalism. Against this, Nietzsche proposes the doctrine of “amor fati” as “the highest state a philosopher can attain” (WP §1041). In the same way it destroys death , affirmation turns fate into an operation of the will. Once recurrence is affirmed, the question changes slightly. Now, Nietzsche “asks us whether we merely want to drift with the tide of things or whether we would be creators.” In other words, to affirm is to create. “Amor fati signifies wanting chance, signifies differing from what was” ; affirming fate turns the outcome of chance into a creation of the new. The outcome of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche states, is “no longer ‘cause and effect’ but the continually creative” (WP §1059).

This creation of the new is not boundless. It is still held in check and limited to an intra-cyclic level; creation takes place within cycles, not between them. “We create something new only on the condition that we repeat”, Deleuze says of eternal recurrence in Difference and Repetition. The nature of creation is such that it necessitates recurrence. In Benjamin’s Baudelaire, the ever-selfsame is not negated. Rather, it is transformed in such a way that the new can be extracted out of it. As we have seen, the same operation occurs in Nietzsche. The point of this is that engine of eternal recurrence and production in Benjamin is actually nihilistic in nature, in as much as eternal recurrence is “the most extreme form of nihilism” (WP §55).

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