Nietzsche's Rock

125 years ago today, i.e. on 6 August 1881, Friedrich Nietzsche had, according to his own account, the instant of insight that changed his life and thinking into an absolute “before and after this moment.” He was walking in the Swiss Engadin along Silvaplana lake (here for contemporary views) past a most impressive rock (still visible and much visited today) when the idea of the “eternal return” hit him. Though he doesn’t say if the idea came first & he marked its appearance by linking it to the rock, or if the rock was there first and brought about the appearance of the idea. He documents it briefly, scribbled on a piece of paper with the signature/date “6000 feet beyond mankind and time:”

Ich gieng an jenem Tage am See von Silvaplana durch die Wälder; bei einem mächtigen pyramidal aufgethürmten Block unweit Surlei machte ich Halt. Da kam mir dieser Gedanke. –

Dieser Gedanke is worked out a bit more in the Gay Science:


The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in 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 eternal confirmation and seal? —

Am still wondering about it. The first great anti-Hegelian move? Probably — as long as it doesn’t get weakened into a Vico-ian recurso, cyclical repetition, which would indeed let history appear first as tragedy, and then as something lesser, as Joyce suggests. The most repetitive history we have is war, again and again. But the current war in Lebanon, even seen as the repetition of the 1982 war, can never be seen as farce. The eternal return is not a circle but a spiral: what started as tragedy comes back as tragedy too, just at another time & place, but the suffering and the death of those caught up in it is the same as the first time around, the same and yet absolutely different because it happens to different men, women and children.

And what of that other “incursion” (to use Bernard Noël’s word) on another 6 August, in another year: 1945, Hiroshima? It has remained an incursion for the sixty years of my life now, and I can only hope that it will not return and settle in — though right now the world looks crazy enough from all sides to make one fear the worst.

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