Kundera and Cordova on eternal recurrence

Eternal recurrence is a thought-provoking idea. It provoked different reactions in Milan Kundera, a Czech novelist, and Viola Cordova, an Apache trained in Western philosophy. Here are some excerpts from the beginning of Kundera’s book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

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 blacks perished in excruciating torment…

Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing a most 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.

If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross. It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make…

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfilment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become…

Einmal is keinmal, says Tomas to himself. What happens but once, says the German adage, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.

The sensation described is incredible and disconcerting. I know of 3 Holocaust victims on my mom’s side of the family, and this passage reminded me of time spent in my grandmother’s neighborhood in the 1990s. I used to play in the square on the right, and a playground that’s out the frame to the right of the square. I feel nostalgia looking at earlier pictures of the same place.

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Somewhat different issues are raised for Cordova. She doesn’t see much difference between eternal recurrence and the notion of progress:

The idea of progress that is so important in the West could never have developed in Indian America, just as it could not have developed in ancient Greece and Rome. The Greco-Roman world depicted the universe as infinite but cyclical…

Some even postulated that the new cycle would repeat exactly the old cycle. The philosopher Nietzsche dubbed this “eternal recurrence–we were doomed to repeat our entire life and its circumstances through eternal recycles. There is, in this view, a scent of fatalism in that we are preordained to do the things that we do. We can catch a glimpse of this preordination in the Greek dramas; Oedipus, for example, is preordained to kill his father and nothing can forestall this–it is “written in the stars.”

This sense of inevitability is also present in the Euro-Christian view of the universe and time. The Judeo-Christian god is omniscient–he knows all things–past, present, and future…In the secular version of this mythos, there is still a sense of inevitability: the future is there and we are on our way toward it. We can even measure our progress toward it–everything moves from a state of simplicity to one of greater complexity, from a “lower” stage to a “higher” stage.

“Indian time” is of a different sort. Since we are participants in a process of motion and change, we know that we can affect the future. If we chop down all the trees, we will live in a world without trees. If we have too many children, we will live in a state of overpopulation. There is no glorious “future” out “there” waiting for us to arrive. We build the future through our present actions…The universe is a process of which we are but a small part. In such a process the goal is more likely to be stability. Our survival depends on maintaining a certain degree of stability, which we know more familiarly as “balance.” “Stability” in the west is synonymous with stasis, a state in which “nothing happens.” Stability, however, is something that can be achieved only with tremendous effort…Stability, in this sense, requires constant adaptation to changing circumstances.

This sense of inevitability can dehumanize others, in a way that somewhat resembles the role of the karma doctrine in justifying the caste system:

In a recent television program on the life of the “bushmen” of the Kalahari Desert in south-central Africa, the commentary records the former lifestyle (pre-European invasion) and contrasts this to the present circumstances of the “bushmen”: they cannot adapt to the “changing world” that encroaches into the places and acres required to sustain their former lifestyles. There is no call here for the establishment of an area that will be beyond encroachment for the sake of the continued existence of the “bushmen.” There is, instead, a tone of the inevitability of that change, an acceptance of the demise of the “bushmen” as though their demise were as natural as the disappearance of the blooming of a flower. And, as with the recording of the blooming of a flower, the commentator dispassionately ends his discourse with an air of having accomplished something rather grand: the death throes of a people captured on film.

This perspective on the inevitability of the demise of non-Western peoples has particularly harmful effects on those indigenous people now surrounded by Europeans on the North American continent.

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