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! What does this mad myth signify?Beautiful.
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful or sublime, its horror, sublimity and beauty mean nothing. 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 people perished in excruciating torment.
Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return?
It will: It will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.
If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.
Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear withoutthe mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.
Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing an incredible sensation. Leafing through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler's concentration camps;but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period in my life, a period that would never return?
This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.
To happy people, all choices & all events later look as if they were for the best. After all, now is good -- and all those things got us where we are today!
Todd Solondz references this idea in his latest film, Storytelling (which I adore, but which you may not!). As Ebert describes the scene, "[a character] observes that since [the Holocaust] forced an ancestor to escape to America, 'if it wasn't for Hitler, none of us would ever have been born.' This gets him immediately banished from the table..."