Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins with an examination of the concept of eternal return. Taking his example of the French Revolution, this event seems lightweight and devoid of its terror and bloodshed by virtue of the fact that it occurred only once and did not infinitely repeat itself. If, however, the French had to endure another Robespierre every year then this would indeed be an onerous and frightening weight. Over time, the Revolution has become an object for historical study, and the intervening years mean the abhorrent has lost its immediacy and terror. Everything surrounding the Revolution is now touched by an “aura of nostalgia.” (On the other hand, while we might not have an annual French Revolution happening, we do have equally bloody revolutions around the world occurring in our own time. Perhaps these perpetual revolutions can be used to illustrate the maxim ‘history repeats itself’; it just depends how far and wide you want to stretch the term ‘history.’)
If we subscribe to the idea of eternal return then this colours our perspective of the past. If an event is only going to occur once then we become nostalgic about such an event that, once gone, will never return. And in doing so, we bring no judgement to bear on that event – we cannot condemn.
It is this idea of believing that we cannot “come to a verdict” about the past that I find challenging, but also disturbing. We were not present during the historical era under examination and so do not have access to all the evidence (but then again, living through a historical event doesn’t qualify you as an expert either). But this temporal distance should not make us shy of interrogating, analyzing and, if necessary, condemning.
The concept of eternal return does indeed affect our perspective of our existence in this world. And it is all a matter of perspective. The picture at the top of this post illustrates this better than I can explain. The granite ball is unbearably heavy; no normal human can lift it unaided. Water is light and trickles through our fingers. Yet this lump of rock rolls around gracefully as if suspended in a vacuum and the water here does what no human can do.