Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Eternal recurrance . . .again

There is an idea called eternal recurrance, or more commonly eternal return, which posits that all of existence is destined to repeat itself. I had first run into the idea when I was reading Nietzsche in college, and later in P.D. Ouspensky. It is usually based on a simple analysis of reality: there is a finite amount of matter, but an infinite amount of time, so it is inevitable that the same state of matter should eventually repeat itself.

Anyone with the faintest degree of numercy could find the holes in such an argument. The number pi comes to mind: it is a simple concept (the ratio of a circle's diameter to its circumference) and yet the digits of pi never repeat, as far out as you go.

Why, then, does the idea have so much appeal? Or, at least, so much appeal that it (ahem) recurs in so many different contexts of mythology, religion, philosophy, and popular culture? I think it contains a couple insights:
  1. The eternal validation of the present moment. Spiritual teachings often stress the importance of the present moment -- that what's happening right here, right now, is a special significance and importance. We can't really have meaning unless what we're doing matters in some ultimate sense . . . and it's usually hard to believe that mowing the lawn or changing a diaper is significant at all, much less ultimately so. But eternal recurrance says that this is important, because it is destined to repeat, and so, in a certain way, eternally significant. What you do will have repercussions for . . . well, forever. Not because of its effects, necessarily, but just because it always will be. This is what captured Nietzsche's imagination -- you had to be completely committed to living every moment of life to its fullest to be able to be comfortable with the notion of recurrance.
  2. The absolute necessity of being. Everyone wants to believe that things happen for a reason. We don't want events to be arbitrary. Most religions explain things teleologically -- everything that happens is in God's plan. But eternal recurrance is a conveniently godless way to communicate the same sense of absolute necessity: everything happens because it must happen this way. It's not as comforting as "the whole world's in his hands," but it does have a certain Camus-like "brotherly indifference of the Universe" appeal.

I think that eternal recurrance is just the rational mind's misguided attempts to make sense of eternity. Eternity is not merely an infinite progression of time; it is the timeless Reality that is outside of and contains Time. From the timeless perspective, every moment in time always is -- past, present or future makes no difference. But the human mind believes that the past is forever gone, and only a continuation or repetition of the present could possibly validate its existence. (I think this is exactly the same tendency in human thinking that leads people to believe in an "afterlife"; since Eternity doesn't make sense to us, we imagine that our existence beyond death is merely a continuation of our life in time, rather than a Reality outside of time.)

Why does any of this matter? Why am I thinking about this now? It bugs me, because I feel, like Nietzsche, that I ought to be able to live as though eternal recurrance is true. I want to believe that I am living in such a way that I would have it no other way. I want to believe that everything is unfolding as it must. I am longing for a life without regrets. But right now, I don't have either the experience or the theology to do that.


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