photo from The Sacrifice by Andrey Tarkovsky
“Man is a rope, fastened between animal and superman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous going-across, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and staying-still.” Friedrich Nietzsche
As people, we are apt to describe and structure the world around us: we sort our experiences, understand facts about our situations, and continue to live each day according to some kind of schedule. While we may grasp onto some sense of control over our plans, and we hold onto some kind of understanding of how to navigate the passage of time in relation to our plans, our experience is underscored by a void of openness and emptiness, and deeper and stronger feelings of insecurity, wonder, anxiety, and longing sit restlessly in our core. The unknowing of openness, a kind of nothingness, renders our dreams, inspiration, and the creation of art. This openness is beautiful and also tragic in a universe we predominantly know nothing of, a universe devoid of any kind of clear reason or meaning for existence.
The present moment seems to barely exist, as we constantly bear the weight of recent and far-off memories and are persistently pushed forward into the nothingness. We are subject to the forces of time, yet as a society have come to structure and define time with language, finding ways to calculate and divide it. We see time as moving forward in a line, ultimately toward some kind of finish. This organization of time is familiar to us, yet the actual workings of time separate from human understanding is foreign and daunting. Time’s superiority renders us helpless as we feel to be moving persistently toward decay bereft of any pause or stillness.
I am interested in the dissonance between the formal, linear structure of time in Western society and the ambiguity, nuance, and depth of personal experience. Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of Christian linear time illuminates the burdens felt by a society constantly focused on unchangeable past actions and the anxiety of the future, a future that seems to be persistently eaten up as each moment swiftly occurs and more time is surrendered to the past. Nietzsche’s proposal of Eternal Recurrence appears bizarre at first, but when taken as an attitude alternative to linear time, perhaps it offers a more complete description of the complicated webs of memories and dreams, time’s imperceptible swiftness, and the interweaving of past and future.
A question I would like to raise is if human beings are even able to fully describe our experience in words and divide it into numbers. I am of the opinion that we can function in our world by sorting and organizing, learning about our participation, but we cannot fully explain reality, as we essentially know nothing of our universe. Though the doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, which holds that every moment and event repeats itself, could not be taken as a factually accurate cosmological description of the universe, when taken as an attitude toward time and experience, it may lift the burdens of formal linearality and allow us to embrace a poetic and complete picture of the dance of time. A further question I am interested in for my own artistic process is how these webs of experiences imbedded with nostalgia and plaguing memories, concern, excitement, and anticipation for the future, slipping desires to hold onto something from nothing, may be realized in artistic image.
photo from Stalker by Andrey Tarkovsky
In her book, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Dr. Kathleen Higgins illuminates Nietzsche’s incentive to reject Christian linear time and propose Eternal Recurrence. Christian linear time, or The Doctrine of Sin, encourages perpetual guilt as past sins establish the present moment and determine one’s fate. One has a strong desire to go back and change the past but must swallow an utter impotence in doing so. Lives are lived in punishment, where pain and guilt feel deserved. The past determines our future and the present is yet “a symptom of our guilty past.” We see each day as taking up more of our time until death, when we will face final punishment. Or we will have had some kind of revenge on the past, to “prove something,” to be ultimately redeemed (Higgins, 109). In such a structure of time, we feel as if we are constantly moving forward in a line, focusing on regrets of the past, and worried about final outcomes.
Nietzsche believes that the Doctrine of Sin perpetuates pain and creates an attitude toward time that diminishes a sense of possibility in the openness of present experience. Eternal Recurrence, as a cyclical attitude toward time, is a “present-centered Theory,” which renders the significance of the present in human action and choice. The present moment is unique in that “the past and future collapse into one another.” Higgins states, “The past” and “the future” are only relative designations on Nietzsche’s cyclical model, and ultimately they are not distinguishable from one another.” Thus, the weight of the past is not defined as a burden to carry, yet becomes part of a fluid past/future that allows for the openness and emptiness of human existence, but also the possibility to create and act. Higgins states, “The present moment is the only moment in time that stands from the swirl of recurrence. Moreover, it is a moment of privileged significance because it is the only moment in which we are actively involved in time.” Higgins explains, when taking the attitude of The Doctrine of Sin, we feel impotent in the present moment because it is established by guilt. When taking an attitude of eternal recurrence, “the causal connectedness of past, present, and future is the precondition of the present moment’s potency in the time series” (113). Thus there is a sense of freedom, autonomy, and power in the right now.
photo from Ivan's Childhood by Andrey Tarkovsky
“Perhaps the whole of Zarathustra may be reckoned with Music” Friedrich Nietzsche
Though Eternal Recurrence helps to illuminate complexities and offers an alternative to the burdens of the linear, Nietzsche admits the shortcomings of any kind of doctrine and embraces the indescribable dance of life. Higgins explains that Zarathustra’s engagement with the figure of Life illuminates the shortcomings of a philosopher “to be able to relate to living reality at all,” and that it is important to recognize “that philosophical schemes can be obstructions to the very effort they were formed to enable, relating to life as it actually is.” In their conversation, Life has the last word reminding Zarathustra that “Nobody knows,” and Higgins explains that “any statement falls short of accurate reflection of dynamic reality” (Higgins, 101). Philosophical doctrines may be able to illuminate aspects of reality, as structures of time may be able to divide our existence in understandable measures, but is there any way to fully articulate existence? Zarathustra is encouraged by his animals to take a Dionysian approach to life, to let go of solely seeing life in forms and to understand that reality also dances and sings. Thus the artist creates in an effort to describe the openness and emptiness underscoring the everyday. Poems, dances, and music embody the dynamics that breathe between words and numbers. We long to create an image, sequence, or sound to express the complex subtleties of an experience, emotion, or thought, and it is in this longing that art is born. I am reminded of this passage,
"It is hard to imagine that a concept like artistic image could ever be expressed in a precise thesis, easily formulated and understandable. It is not possible, nor would one wish it to be so. I can only say that the image stretches out to infinity, and leads to the absolute. And even what is known as the 'idea' of the image, many dimensional and with many meanings, cannot, in the very nature of things, be put into words. But it does find expression in art. When thought is expressed in an artistic image, it means that an exact form has been found for it, the form that comes nearest to conveying the author's world, to making incarnate his longing for the ideal." (Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time)