A worthy touchstone to arbitrate between worldviews immanent and transcendent is the désir d’éternité, the “desire to gather together the scattered moments of meaning into some kind of whole.” According to Charles Taylor, who adduces this touchstone, only transcendence has a satisfactory response to its longing: personal immortality. What response, if any, remains for immanence? Must it invent comic masks to hide the frown of an indifferent world? Must it surrender everything to the river of a senseless time? Must it be mute before the anguish of the bereaved?
Taylor is right that Epicureanism and its modern materialist progeny cannot help. Epicurus taught that death was nothing, since its victims cannot perceive the loss. But whatever consolation this may offer for la mort de moi, my own death, it is useless against la mort de toi, the death of a beloved. The dead may be insensible, but Epicurean sophisms do nothing to assuage the grief of those who live on in their absence.
Nietzsche rejected scientific materialism not because it failed to console the bereaved but because he saw it as the last stage of the ascetic ideal, a desperate effort to will something, even an inaccessible world of truth, rather than not will at all. He also rejected transcendent spiritualities, the worldviews of “the hinterworldly,” whose weariness with this life and its suffering prompts them to turn from it toward a fantasy world without suffering. Scientific materialism and transcendent spirituality were thus, in Nietzsche’s estimation, two sides of the same ascetic coin; both the scientist and the priest, despite their apparent rivalry, were weary of life. Without assessing Nietzsche’s diagnoses of either, which so many partisans have contested over the last century, we should instead consider what positive response he has to the désir d’éternité. For if his philosophy is to be anything more than a critique, if it is to appear as a spirituality while in contact with Taylor’s worthy touchstone, it must respond to this longing. As it turns out, Nietzsche does have a response, but it is nothing new. The Eternal Return is an ancient doctrine whose first and best proponent is Heraclitus.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the book that treats this obscure doctrine and its spiritual alternative to transcendence in most detail, Nietzsche’s hero summarizes it with a song whose final line is Alle Lust will Ewigkeit: all joy wants eternity. Taylor interprets this line as “not: we’re having such a good time, let’s not stop; but rather: this love by its nature calls for eternity.” Whether or not this is an accurate interpretation of Nietzsche’s text, it is an accurate phenomenology of passionate love. When you love passionately, even when your love turns out to be ephemeral, it does not feel ephemeral so long as it lasts. On the contrary, it feels like a summons to eternity. But is this summons coherent? The love we know in this life, like everything else known here, is woven with finite threads. When they come to an end, when the beloved dies, for example, and the weaving must stop, we hurt, want to weave on, and so dream of infinite—which is to say eternal—threads. La mort de toi more than any other experience makes this longing clear. The bereaved more than anyone else dreams of a hinterworld where reunion with the beloved is guaranteed. But is this dream coherent?
Remove finitude, and the fabric of everything we know comes apart. Try to imagine a baseball game, for example, with an infinite number of innings. Even if the glorious bodies of the eschaton could play without fatigue forever, the deepest problem with this alluring fantasy—at least for baseball enthusiasts—is that there could never be a winner. No matter how wide a gap in score opened up during such a game, the losing team would always have the consolation of other innings in which to close it. With so specious a consolation, however, would disappear all the drama and meaning of the game. This meaning would disappear still more if eternity were not infinite time, as some imagine it, but instead all time gathered into one moment, as others prefer. What drama, what sense, would there be in a baseball game whose ninth and first innings were co-present? None more than a game of infinite successive innings.
Now, if the excitement of sport has never gripped you, try to imagine Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing to a song of infinite length. Their technique would remain as dazzling as the talent of the resurrected Lou Gehrig, and it is just as tempting to fantasize about them dancing forever as it is to imagine him playing his last game one more inning, and then another…but what was most valuable in their art, as in his play, would then be lost. Without a sense of the end, and thus of the shape of their movements, the beauty and drama they achieved in finite time would become the infinite and thus meaningless repetition of technique; or, if eternity be imagined as all moments gathered together, this finite beauty and drama would become the absurdity of every move executed at once, and so on for every activity we know. Life itself, as the activity of activities, requires the finitude imposed on it ultimately by death to preserve its meaning.
Borges captured this painful but inescapable truth in “The Immortal,” his fable of a soldier whose quest for the city where none dies costs him dearly, but never so dearly as his success. For after reaching this city and drinking from its magical stream, he learns that among its immortal citizens “every act (every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning, and the faithful presage of others that will repeat it in the future, ad vertiginem.” In the midst of this eternal repetition, where “there is nothing that is not lost between the indefatigable mirrors,” all exertion appears vain. Why exert yourself now, after all, when there is always tomorrow? To digest this enervating insight, and others like it, meditate for a moment upon some of the peculiar consequences of infinite time.
Were you to live infinitely, for instance, you would have enough time to live not only your own life any number of times, but also the lives of others, all others, likewise infinitely. Perhaps the boredom provoked by eternity would even require you to seek the relief of novelty. If so, Borges’ concludes, in the city of the immortals individuality disappears: “no one is someone; a single immortal man is all men.” But the preservation of individuality—especially after death has robbed us of a unique beloved—is the chief appeal of eternity. Thought through a little further than its initial appeal, in short, eternity appears more frustrating than satisfying. Reversing course, Borges’ hero seeks instead the waters of a stream that will restore his mortality. Only upon finding it after another arduous quest does he find peace: “Incredulous, speechless, and in joy, I contemplated the precious formation of a slow drop of blood.”
Arguably the insight was first Homer’s. His gods need nothing so desperately as the human drama they have created—especially the tragedy of Troy, where their mortal offspring risk their lives—to lend their otherwise repetitious and senseless lives both drama and meaning. Zeus fights with Hera from time to time, but there is no quarrel so serious that it cannot be remedied with another round of ambrosia. Without Sarpedon to mourn, what drama would remain to him? Without Paris to punish, what drama would remain to her? For the gods there is always and necessarily tomorrow; by contrast, writes Borges, “everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrevocable and the contingent.” He captures this tragic wisdom with his eerie fable, but Nietzsche recovered it for modern Europe when he began his career by celebrating the birth of tragedy and philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks; in other words, the wisdom of the Homeric age. According to the argument shared by the two books with these titles, this age ended with the Socratic promise—that is, the promise made by Plato’s Socrates in dialogues such as Phaedo—of rational salvation from the body, from time, and finally from death.
Howsoever we understand Nietzsche’s tragic alternative to the salvific promise of this transcendent spirituality, which had so deep an influence on Christianity, his alternative cannot be the doctrine that the world will forever repeat. After all, such eternal repetition would be as enervating as immortal life in Borges’ miserable city. Although the Stoics misunderstood Heraclitus this way, and some passages of Zarathustra make Nietzsche seem a victim of their misunderstanding, neither he nor Heraclitus could have subverted so carelessly their hard-won recognition of time. There is not space enough here to exonerate Heraclitus, alas, but for Nietzsche’s part, the passages of his writing that suggest an eternal return are either from his unpublished notes, or, in Zarathustra, from speeches spoken to the spiritual hero rather than by him. The former are wisely ignored by scholars; the latter are better read as spiritual exercises whereby Zarathustra learns to love everything, imagining it as one, taking together all past and all future, all pain as well as all joy:
Have you ever said Yes to one joy? Oh my friends, then you also said Yes to all pain as well. All things are enchained, entwined, enamored — if ever you wanted one time two times, if ever you said: ‘I like you happiness! Whoosh! Moment!’ then you wanted everything back.
This is not the metaphysical doctrine of an eternally repetitious universe; it is the paean of someone in love with the world. What distinguishes this lover from most is that he acknowledges everything demanded by his love. If you have ever loved one moment, he claims, your love commits you to love also every moment that preceded it and every moment that will follow it. This is not the denial of time, in eternity, but instead the recognition of time, even its affirmation. This, Nietzsche believes, is the demand of true love.
Is true love thus masochistic? Why, if I love this one moment of joy, must I love all the other moments of pain that come before and after it? A moment is joyful because it is meaningful, extraordinarily meaningful: being the first member of your family to graduate from college, seeing your newborn child for the first time, finishing the work of art that says everything you wished it would say, and more. But these moments of joy are so meaningful because they are moments in a narrative: a story of financial and familial struggle survived, or of illness and dark nights of the soul overcome. As we saw above, in the examples of the baseball game and the dance, meaningful moments must be embedded in finite narratives, narratives of risk and therefore tragedy, circumscribed by death. To love such a moment fully is to love the narrative that constitutes it; and to love such a narrative fully is to love the world in which that narrative unfolds. If Zarathustra be believed, if he be followed as a prophet of immanent spirituality, we must love the whole world, with its pain, illness, betrayal, death. Perhaps this is a world without end, in which case it would seem that infinity has returned in an immanent form, but this cosmic infinity nonetheless maintains the human finitude necessary for our meaning, joy, and creativity.
Zarathustra thus declares that “the best parables should speak about time and becoming: they should be praise and justification of all that is not everlasting,” and presumably Nietzsche sought in Zarathustra to craft just such a parable. If he praises suffering and death, it is not to fetishize them, nor to see death in particular as “a privileged site from which the meaning of life can be grasped,” as Taylor worries. Rather, Nietzsche respects death because it makes possible the prospect of “creating—that is the great redemption from suffering, and life’s becoming light.” Herein, therefore, lies the positive contribution of Nietzsche’s immanent spirituality: creativity. Against the ascetic dreams of the scientist and the priest—which either deny facets of life or promise a joyous reunion with the beloved that could only be mirthless because of senseless repetition—Nietzsche offers the joyous spirituality of becoming and creation. Tinged as it is with the bittersweet recognition that creation requires time, death, and thus suffering, it is a tragic spirituality. But it recognizes that, without these painful prerequisites, innovation and creation would be impossible.
This recognition is difficult to maintain alongside the désir d’éternité, to be sure, but it is no less true for that: death, it turns out, is the prerequisite of meaning. The contrast with the “ethical insight” Taylor mistakenly infers from Nietzsche’s refrain could not be starker; according to him, “death undermines meaning.” Nor could this contrast be more important to our everyday existence. Transcendence, on the one hand, promises to redeem both lover and beloved alike from the finitude imposed on time by death. The practitioner of transcendent spirituality thus tries to cultivate a perspective—by prayer, liturgy, and works of mercy—from which love appears bathed in the light of eternity. Immanence, on the other hand, sees promises of redemption as seductive tricks, not so much because there is no redeemer but because there cannot be one. Or, to put the point too bluntly: if there were a redeemer, it could only be Satan. To redeem us from death, were it even possible, would rob us of the meaning and drama that make us the envy of the gods. Borges saw this wisdom even in the transcendent religions themselves. “Jews, Christians, and Muslims all profess belief in immortality,” he wrote, “but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.”
The practitioner of immanent spirituality, by contrast, venerates that first century purely, without surrendering to the illusion of redemption. She tries to cultivate a contrary perspective from that of transcendence, one from which its seductive tricks appear as such, and from which love appears always in the shadow of death. The goal is not pessimism, any more than the goal of transcendent spirituality is optimism. Rather, the goal is meaning. The problem typically laid before those who forego transcendence—the problem of meaninglessness—belongs properly at the feet of those who advocate it. The special problem for immanent spirituality is instead how to respond to the désir d’éternité to which transcendent spirituality has such a ready answer. How, in short, to cultivate the perspective from which life has most meaning? What are the immanent correlatives of prayer, liturgy, and works of mercy?
Since the longing for eternity seems truly inexorable it cannot be simply denied, the way so many anti-clerical and utopian fantasies of modernity have tried to do. These denials have produced, as we all know, no paradise but instead hell on earth, “a victory for darkness,” where the longing for eternity found perverse expression in guillotines, concentration camps, and gulags. What is needed from an immanent spirituality, then, is a way not of denying this desire but of working through it. Others have proposed immanent spiritualities for modernity—on this very blog, Lars Tønder calls attention to Spinoza and seconds Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s invocation of Deleuze, while William Connolly mentions these philosophers and others besides as proponents of “radical immanence”—but none of these alternatives appears to make this working-through so concrete and practical as does psychoanalysis. Indeed, it is not even clear what these alternatives require as practices, rather than as mere theories. “It is needful,” Connolly writes, “to work on ourselves by multiple means to overcome resentment of the world for not possessing providence or ready susceptibility to human mastery.” Yes, but how?
As I argued in my first post on this blog, psychoanalysis offers the richest modern practice—developed over a century in the laboratory of the clinical office and the voluminous literature of the trade—for performing this work on ourselves, but it cannot flourish as a moral and spiritual source for modernity until its obscure method of working-through (Freud’s durcharbeiten) has been better explained. There is not space here to provide such an explanation, but I have begun to attempt one here. Whether or not I succeed, when it comes to working through the longing for eternity, psychoanalysts must begin by reconceiving all those longings they investigate, elicit, and ultimately purify: the emotions. Only then can psychoanalysis make sense of itself as a therapy for existential resentment, not just a “cure by love,” as Freud wrote, but a cure to love. A cure to love, in the end, the world.