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  • The Thought-Drama of Eternal Recurrence
  • Paul S. Loeb

In Ecce Homo (EH Z1), Nietzsche explains that he conceived eternal recurrence as the Grundconception or Grundgedanke of his best and most important work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nevertheless, as Robert Gooding-Williams notes in Zarathustra's Dionysian Modernism (ZDM), contemporary scholars usually explicate eternal recurrence as a thesis that Nietzsche merely happens to illustrate by means of Z and which can therefore be understood without reference to Z. In his original and decisive break from this interpretive practice, Gooding-Williams asserts the following:

[T]he thought of eternal recurrence is (1) principally Zarathustra's thought and (2) a thought that Zarathustra defines and develops (forms and transforms) with reference, in essence, to circumstances occurring in Zarathustra. As a Grundconception revealed by Zarathustra's thoughts and actions, the thought of eternal recurrence is best interpreted within its dramatic context. . . . Qua Grundconception, the thought of eternal recurrence is inextricably bound up with that drama. It is essentially a dramatic thought, a thought-in-the-mode-of-drama that I shall call the "thought-drama" of eternal recurrence.

(ZDM 185–86; emphasis in original)

Although other scholars have emphasized the dramatic aspects of Z, Gooding-Williams is the first to emphasize the dramatic aspects of the thought of eternal recurrence. His interpretive justification for this reading is sophisticated, erudite, and brilliantly imaginative in its blend of philosophical and literary analysis. For this reason alone (and there are many others), Gooding-Williams's book is the most significant commentary on Z since Laurence Lampert's defining treatment in 1986.

Inspired by Gilles Deleuze's suggestion that Nietzsche dramatizes three repetitions in Z, Gooding-Williams (ZDM 385 n. 94) argues that the thought-drama of eternal recurrence has three separate acts corresponding to three key dramatic situations in Z.1 These three dramatic situations are: (D1) the soothsayer's speech toward the end of part 2, (D2) Zarathustra's dream vision of a gateway at the start of part 3, and (D3) the imminent arrival of Zarathustra's children at the end of part 4. According to Gooding-Williams, Zarathustra performs the three acts of the thought-drama as follows. First he "forms" the thought of eternal recurrence in response to D1, that is, he reasons from D1 to the conclusion that his existence is characterized by a recurrence of the same. Next, he "transforms" this thought two times after this, first in response to D2 [End Page 79] and then once more in response to D3. What this means is that he retains his belief that his existence is characterized by a recurrence of the same, but he twice changes his reason for maintaining this belief. The result, Gooding-Williams argues, is that Zarathustra's development as a character is shaped not by a single univocal thought of eternal recurrence but, rather, by three distinct notions of temporal repetition. These three notions are: (R1) the repetition of the past, that is, the notion that the past will repeat itself in the future; (R2) the repetition of the present, that is, the notion that there is an omnipresent "now," or present moment, that is repeatedly present in all times, places, and things; and (R3) the repetition of the possibility of a future that interrupts the reproduction and repetition of the past (ZDM 296).

A brief point of clarification is in order here. In Z and elsewhere, Nietzsche employs two cognate terms to refer to recurrence: Wiederkehr/wiederkehren and Wiederkunft/wiederkommen. Although he seems to employ these terms interchangeably (e.g., in Z:3 "Convalescent" 2), some scholars have found an important conceptual difference between them or have wondered if they should find such a difference.2 However, Gooding-Williams does not distinguish between Nietzsche's terms, uses the single term recurrence as a translation for both, and does not claim that the different terms somehow correspond to the distinct notions of repetition outlined above. I shall follow his practice in what follows and assume that he means to distinguish among three distinct senses of the single term recurrence.

Having sketched out his reading of eternal recurrence as the Grundconception of Z, Gooding-Williams admits that there...


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