When Nietzsche came down from the mountains of Sils Maria in 1882 and wrote the first four books of the Gay Science, he was filled with a rare, unifying vision that had sprung itself upon him and completely turned around his mood. As any moraliste knows, the mood is a cognitive tool – it is by the mood that one judges certain intangible but real changes in the world. No barometer is complex enough to allow us to judge our historical moment, with its different forms of existence that are set loose in the quotidian and bump against each other as though in a fair; with its obsessions and routines, its shifting matrixes of exchange, its speeds. Thus, Nietzsche wrote his book with this mood like a muse on his shoulder, and revealed, shyly, like a great secret, in the fourth book, his inspiration and great idea. It was of course the doctrine of the eternal return, announced – as though balancing the lightness of the title of the book – as the heaviest weight, das grösste Schwergewicht. The dramaturgy here is along the lines of the great philosophical coups de theatres, from Socrates’ death to Descartes’ dream: thus, it includes a demon.
“What if, one day or night, a demon slinks up to you in your loneliest loneliness and says: your life, as you live it now and have lived it, you will have to live again, and countless times again; and there will be nothing new in it, and instead, every pain and pleasure and ever thought and sigh and all the unspeakably smallnesses and greatnesses of your life must return to you and everything in the same series and succession – and likewise this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and likewise this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again – and you with it, dust speck of specks!” [My translation]
The eternal return of the same enters the literature of the late nineteenth century through many doors. Nietzsche’s is the most famous. In the early twentieth century, it enters with a bit less gravity – in fact, as a slapstick routine, performed by a po faced clown. The clown, here, is not Chaplin but Kafka, the place is in an early letter to Felice Bauer, his future fiancé, but the setting is surely Modern Times, the office version: