The Eternal Recurrence in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice
A brief glance at the categories into which my posts on this blog fall will reveal that I have an abiding interest in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and I have once before written a post on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film The Sacrifice. That film opens with a scene in which Nietzsche is discussed prominently, so it should come as no surprise that I have for some time been interested in writing a post about the role of Nietzsche in that film. I have had trouble writing it, however, always getting hung up on one particular point. This morning, while reading Kierkegaard’s essay on crop rotation (in Either/Or, Part I), I found what I needed.
What here interests me is a mistaken understanding of Nietzsche that a character in the film espouses—and then corrects. Gino Moliterno has written an interesting essay on the role of Nietzsche in the film, but he neglects to discuss the fact that Otto the mailman, in expounding Zarathustra’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, first gets the nature of such recurrence wrong. Since that detail is in the film, I assume it is important, and so Moliterno’s discussion, while helpful, is not enough.
After the credits sequence, the background of which is (visually) Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi and (aurally) the “Erbarme Dich” aria from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, we see Alexander (the primary character Tarkovsky follows in the film) planting a barren Japanese tree with the help of his son. As they work, Alexander muses on the importance of rituals. He is interrupted by a shout from off-screen, which turns out to belong to Otto the postman, bringing him a letter and good tidings on his birthday. In the letter (which is full of references to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) is the line, “God grant you joy, health, and peace,” which prompts Otto’s question, “say, how is your relationship to God?” (I do not know whether the strange choice of “to God” rather than “with God” is intentional or an oddity of the translation.) This garners the response, “non-existent.”
Following this, the discussion slowly turns to Nietzsche, as Otto brings up the “peculiar notion” of the dwarf that made Zarathustra faint. Otto professes not to be an expert on Nietzsche, merely someone interested in him, who gets “silly things in my head, things like this ‘eternal recurrence.’” Otto describes it:
We live; we have our ups and downs. We hope. We wait for something. We hope; we lose hope; we move closer to death. Finally, we die… and are born again. But we remember nothing. And everything begins again, from scratch. Not literally the same way, just a wee, wee bit different, but it’s still so hopeless, and we don’t know why. Yes… No, I mean: really, it’s quite the same, literally the same. Just the next performance, so to speak. If I’d made it all, I guess I’d have done things the same way. Funny, eh?
As he speaks, two other interesting things are going on. First, it is thundering, and second, Alexander’s son is playing a prank on Otto, tying his bike to a bush. Alexander scoffs at Otto, but Otto affirms that he does believe in “his” dwarf and “his” recurrence, adding that if he truly believes, it will be so: “Believe that it hath been given, and it shall be given unto you.” Otto then excuses himself: he must go home and think of a gift. He begins to ride off, falls victim to the prank, and, after falling off his bike, turns back, raises his arms in the air, and jumps twice, grinning. Then he rides off. All of this takes place in a single shot.
It is useful at this point to see Nietzsche’s own statement of the eternal recurrence. There are several, but the most compact and explicit I think is that in The Gay Science. While Otto has clearly read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and I suspect has not read The Gay Science, my interest is in exploring how Otto’s mistake relates to what Nietzsche actually believes, so I don’t see a need to limit myself to Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In book four, §341 of The Gay Science, a section entitled “The Heaviest Weight”, Nietzsche writes:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sight and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing: “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the heaviest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?
This is an incredibly rich passage and I will explain my understanding of it shortly. First, however, I want briefly to return to The Sacrifice. The dwarf in Thus Spoke Zarathustra jumps on Zarathustra’s back and fills his mind with leaden thoughts, and Zarathustra must fight to throw him off. Zarathustra does this by finally thinking what he has been reluctant to think, namely, the eternal recurrence.
With this in mind, we can start to see a number of interesting parallels in The Sacrifice. When Otto jumps after falling off the bike, the image he presents is something between a demon and a dwarf. He is not a frightening figure like the demon of The Gay Science, but he has made the demon’s suggestion: “This life as you now live it and have lived it…” And Alexander, likewise, is reluctant to think this thought; his immediate response is to scoff. Moreover, as the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear that Alexander is lonely and cut off from those around him, so it seems he is ripe for such an apparition. The parallels are, of course, not perfect, but then Alexander is not Zarathustra, and what is appropriate for Zarathustra is not what is appropriate for Alexander. Zarathustra has his dwarf; Nietzsche has his demon; Alexander has Otto. A heavy weight lies on Alexander, and only by facing up to the eternal recurrence can he throw it off. Or so, at least, I suggest.
But this leaves three questions unanswered: What is the eternal recurrence? Why does Otto initially get it wrong? And how, if at all, does Alexander face up to the thought in the rest of the film? I shall take these up in turn.
Books can be and have been written about what, exactly, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence means. Kathleen Higgins’ Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is a particularly good one. What I can offer here is only a thoroughly imperfect sketch of some crucial points, and not a full analysis. With that caveat out of the way: The first thing to note about Nietzsche’s doctrine is that absolutely everything recurs with no change whatsoever. Otto’s mistake is not one of mere detail; rather, Otto initially misses the entire heart of the thought—more on this later. The suggestion, I take it, is that every detail of one’s life, however “unutterably small or great,” is essential, i.e. part of one’s essence. An essence is, as generally conceived, a set of necessary and sufficient conditions required for belonging to a category. In this case, every detail of one’s life is a part of one’s essence: the details are disjointly necessary and conjointly sufficient. Hence a change in a single detail of my life would make it no longer my life at all, but rather the life of a completely different person with a different essence. (A very similar person, no doubt, but it is useful here to think of identical twins. For all their similarities, they are nonetheless entirely distinct people.) A recurrence of the slightly different would thus not at all be a genuine recurrence. For my life to recur, it must recur in exactly the same way, “even this spider and this moonlight between the trees.”
This thought is then supposed to lie on our actions as “the heaviest weight.” Action implies choice: the thought of the eternal recurrence is a thought that lies first and foremost on our choices. Whatever we choose, it will recur again and innumerable times again. So of every action we must ask, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” To be able to response to this question with a joyous and deeply thankful, “Yes!” is divine. It is a tremendous moment in which one can give such a response, to be able, in each of one’s choices, to will that that choice and all of its consequences become necessary parts of who one is—as Nietzsche implores: Become who you are!
I stress that this thought at its core involves choice. Keep in mind that nothing in the doctrine of the eternal recurrence says that this is the first “performance”—this is simply one performance in a line extending infinitely backward and forward. Hence any choice I make is a choice I have made innumerable times before. Every time one reruns the tape, I make the same choices. In one sense, I have no other choice but to choose the same way, because it is a recurrence of my life and, as we have seen, every detail of my life is essential. So one might be tempted to say that Nietzsche’s thought is self-defeating: it is supposed to lie on my actions as the heaviest weight, but it seems to make incoherent the very possibility of an action. On one conception of the notion of choice, this is right, but it is a petty reading of Nietzsche. Nietzsche, at various places in his work (e.g. Beyond Good and Evil), contests this very way of conceiving choice. To think Nietzsche’s thought fully requires being able to understand choice as choice of what is necessary. The freedom inherent in choice is an intimate bedfellow of necessity; indeed choice requires necessity.
With this in view it is easier to see the import of Otto’s mistake. Before correcting himself, Otto relays the thought in a way that allows none of its crucial consequences to come into view. I mentioned at the start of this post that I had trouble writing it previously; this is the point that gave me trouble. I could see the consequences of Otto’s mistake, but could not relate them very well to the film. A few weeks ago I had the thought that Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage might provide insight into this, but it wasn’t until this morning, when I read “The Rotation of Crops” (Either/Or, part I), that I saw how to make the connection clear.
The first part of Either/Or is a collection of writings by an unnamed man, called A, who figures as a representative of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage (as contrasted to the ethical and religious stages). One of these writings is the essay in question, in which he advocates crop rotation as a model for keeping boredom at bay. Crucial to the idea of crop rotation is the dialectic between recollecting and forgetting. Specifically, one must be able to forget poetically—which does not mean to be forgetful. Rather, it implies a sort of ability to forget at will, in such a way that one does not recollect unpleasantness. Life is a fight against boredom; crop rotation is the most effective strategy in this fight. As with Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence, the essay is marvelously rich, and unfortunately it would take me too far afield to delve into them fully. I do want to isolate one sentence from the essay, however:
Everything will surely come again but in a different way; what has once been taken into the rotation process remains there but is varied by the method of cultivation.
Here, in Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage, we find an example of recurrence of the slightly different. For those whose lives are fights against boredom, there is such a recurrence. Part of this recurrence is a matter of recollecting and forgetting: these processes are “poetic”: they are selective and partial. Recollecting an event requires in a deep sense forgetting it, requires recollecting it other than as it was. In short, the aesthete’s poetic recollecting and forgetting turns on losing sight of the details—hence the recurrence of events is only “in a different way.” If Nietzsche is right, this sort of recurrence should make impossible any sort of stable identity, since every detail is essential. And this is just what we find. The diapsalmata that open A’s papers show an individual who constantly vacillates and contradicts himself. Nelson Goodman once argued that, since we must accept contradictions, there must be many worlds or none. An analogous argument applies here: A must contradict himself, so he must have many identities or none. This is captured by the fact that Kierkegaard gives him no name—on the other hand the man in the ethical stage (whose papers are part II of Either/Or) is given a name.
Otto’s mistake is thus that he initially describes a form of recurrence appropriate to Kierkegaard’s aesthetic stage, but Nietzsche was no advocate of the sort of existence propounded in part I of Either/Or. What importance does this have for the film? I think there are prominent aspects of the aesthetic in Alexander as we see him at the start of the film. Before I go into these, let me preface myself by making it clear that I am not claiming that Kierkegaard influenced Tarkovsky—I genuinely do not know, but in any case there is no definitive evidence in the film that there is any such direct connection. What I am saying is that Kierkegaard’s philosophy provides a good model in light of which the film makes a certain sense.
Alexander’s relations to others are strained. Though he interacts with them well enough, when we see him alone he always seems profoundly dissatisfied and his interpersonal interactions come to seem incidental—his thought always lies elsewhere. I would even suggest that Alexander is bored, or constantly fighting to keep boredom at bay. Even though he is not engaging in crop rotation, he seems the sort of person to whom A might recommend such a course of action. He is ripe for a recurrence of the slightly different. Or, to put it another way, he has a dwarf on his back that he cannot throw off, and it is weighing him down. Throughout A’s papers there are Christian allusions and references to “the Good Lord”, but it is near-impossible to read these without at least a trace of sarcasm—A’s relationship to God is clearly non-existent, just like Alexander’s, despite the outward appearance of being religious.
But Alexander is not a pure aesthete; indeed he could not be. Otto, at one point later in the film, remarks that every gift involves a sacrifice, and the film is ultimately the story of Alexander’s sacrifice. A pure aesthete, however, has nothing to sacrifice, because a pure aesthete avoids commitment to anything. The act of recollecting and forgetting, for the aesthete, is an embodiment of this: to forget something is only possible if one is not committed to it. Hence if Alexander is to make a sacrifice, he must not be purely in the aesthetic stage.
And indeed this is so. In the crop rotation essay, A has a firm stricture against marriage and against holding public office. Both of these involve commitment, and in just this way they involve not aesthetic but ethical categories. To be married and to hold public office both involve duties to other people. Now, Alexander is married, and though his marriage is an unhappy one, he has not divorced his wife, so I suppose this testifies to something ethical in Alexander. But what really matters for the film is Alexander’s relationship to his son. It is there that Alexander’s ethical commitments are really seen fully. That is why, when Alexander offers to give up his son if only God will prevent a nuclear holocaust, and then goes through with it, it constitutes a genuine sacrifice. Alexander’s sacrificing his relationship with his son is, in Kierkegaard’s terminology, a teleological suspension of the ethical. (Note that Kierkegaard’s primary example of a teleological suspension of the ethical is the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, upon which the film is surely modeled.)
How this sacrifice comes about is interesting, and leads to consideration of my third and final question above. In one of the more opaque scenes in the film, Otto comes to Alexander and tells him he must travel across the island to sleep with his housemaid, Maria. The Moliterno essay I linked above discusses some common problems found with this scene that are worth considering. Johnson and Petrie are confused by what seems to be a double sacrifice: Alexander both sleeps with Maria and burns his house down—why both? Why not just the one? And Strick complains that it seems arrogant to think that God would avert nuclear disaster simply because of “one man’s silence and self-deprivation.” (References for both criticisms can be found in the Moliterno essay.) Seeing why both critiques are misguided will help elucidate the role of the eternal recurrence in the film.
I think it is unquestionable that Strick’s complaint is eminently sensible and reasonable—and this is just why it misses the point. One aspect of Kierkegaard’s discussion of a teleological suspension of the ethical is that, when faced with a person who acts on such a suspension, the rest of society cannot but judge him ethically. Strick’s condemnation is just such an ethical critique, and as an ethical critique it makes perfect sense. From an ethical standpoint, there can be no teleological suspension of the ethical, and so from an ethical standpoint Alexander’s action is indeed arrogant and presumptuous. But an ethical standpoint is not an appropriate one for assessing Alexander’s actions: he is in the religious stage at this point.
Johnson and Petrie’s criticism cuts deeper. I think I can answer the charge on Tarkovsky’s behalf if I can show how the film subsumes Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal recurrence to the Christian concept of sacrifice that the film clearly exemplifies. In this regard it is worth noting that Tarkovsky considered calling the film The Eternal Return (see the Moliterno essay). That suggests that there is a deep relationship, for Tarkovsky, between the Christian idea of sacrifice and the Nietzschean idea of eternal recurrence. Consideration of the “double sacrifice” in this light I think clarifies the role that it plays.
Tarkovsky’s films are always shifting between “solid” reality and the more ethereal world of dreams, and frequently scenes are ambiguous or suspended between these two states. The Mirror provides a great many examples of such ambiguous scenes, and The Sacrifice does not break the pattern of Tarkovsky’s earlier films. Early in the film, Alexander begins having apocalyptic visions, which then seem to become a reality. Planes start flying thunderously overhead, and the radio announces that threat of nuclear war.
In the face of this, Alexander retreats to his room and offers a desperate prayer to God, in which he offers his son (and more) as a sacrifice, if only God will make things as they were before the threat was ever announced. Shortly after this, Otto comes up to Alexander’s room and gives a set of bizarre instructions: he must go sleep with Maria. Alexander keeps demanding an answer as to why, but Otto cannot give one, beyond saying that Maria is a witch of the “best kind.” So, eventually, Alexander goes; he sleeps with Maria, and then—he wakes up, and everything is as if there never was any threat.
Two questions can be asked here. One might ask for a clear delineation of what “really” happened and what was “just” a vision. Did the threat of nuclear war really occur, only to be effaced by God, or was it merely a figment of Alexander’s imagination? Did Alexander really sleep with Maria, or did he only imagine sleeping with her? These are metaphysical questions, and the film doesn’t answer them. Attempting to force an answer on the film is as fruitless as attempting to determine whether Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence is metaphysically “correct.” Nietzsche offers no evidence for the doctrine because it doesn’t matter: the question is just not a metaphysical question. Nietzsche does not say that a demon steals after you in a vision, or that a really real demon steals after you; he says: “What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness?” The metaphysical question is immaterial. The experience happens, and changes you “as you are.”
So I propose that instead we ask only the second question: why must Alexander sleep with Maria? There isn’t an easy answer, and I don’t know if what I will say can satisfy Johnson and Petrie fully. Nevertheless, here is what I suggest. I have already suggested that Otto is portrayed as to an extent demonic, and of course he has already espoused the doctrine of the eternal recurrence to Alexander. Here, I suggest, is a repetition of that scene, in a way. The demonic Otto steals after Alexander in Alexander’s loneliest loneliness, when he is despairing and forsaken, and says: sleep with Maria. And now Alexander must choose who he is to be. Will he affirm everything up to this moment, including his promise to God, and everything that follows from this choice, he knows not what, by going and sleeping with Maria? Or will he be crushed by the weight of the choice? Will he be changed as he is?
Alexander’s going to sleep with Maria, then, is the decisive moment in the film. It is the tremendous moment when he can say to Otto, “you are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” His actions upon waking to find everything as it was are a natural continuation of this decisive moment, and not a double sacrifice at all. Further, in seeing that the film involves a teleological suspension of the ethical, it is crucial to recognize that sleeping with Maria is just such a suspension: Alexander must step outside the ethical bounds set by his marriage.
I once read somewhere, I forget where, that one aspect of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is that it involves stamping eternity on each individual moment. By recurring eternally, each moment is abstracted from time altogether and is in that sense eternal, is outside time. This seems right, and is exemplified by the film. When Alexander sleeps with Maria, Tarkovsky does not show them having sex. Instead, the shot is of Alexander and Maria intertwined, motionless, levitating above the bed. The camera rotates around them, giving us a view of from all angles. The shot itself, of course, is extended in time, but what it shows is a moment altogether abstracted from time, a moment expanded to eternity, in short, a Nietzschean moment.
Hence I think, for Tarkovsky, that Alexander’s sacrifice and his Nietzschean affirmation of Otto’s demonic visit are not a double sacrifice; rather, they come to the same thing. Otto’s initial discussion with Alexander sets the stage for this two-sided coin. On the one hand, his mistake illustrates Alexander as he currently is, weighed down by what Otto calls ‘gloom’ (Nietzsche would, I think, call it a spirit of gravity). On the other hand, his correction foreshadows the thoroughly Nietzschean elements of his sacrifice. One element of Tarkovsky’s film is showing how thoroughly religious Nietzsche’s idea really is.
There is so much in this topic that I wish I could explore, but this post is too long as it is. So I will simply mention two issues that are raised by the film that I would have liked to discuss in more detail, but could not. The most obvious question is this: given Nietzsche’s fierce condemnations of Christianity (most fervent in his late work, The Anti-Christ), does the synthesis of Nietzschean recurrence and Christian sacrifice even make sense in the first place? I confess that one reason I have not even tried to address this question is that I simply don’t know how to answer it. Another topic worthy of some reflection is the fact that every time Alexander asks Otto for a clear reason why he should sleep with Maria, Otto demurs or otherwise circumvents the question. Why is this? And why, in the face of this, does Alexander nonetheless do what Otto says?