So it Goes
In Denis Villeneuve’s formidable science fiction film, Arrival, Dr. Louise Banks gains the ability to perceive time in all of its totality much like Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians. Dr. Banks’s total perception of time is a heavy burden. She is exposed not only to all the sadness of her past but also to the inevitable misery of her future. The film makes an explicit point of this, focusing throughout on the pain she experiences over the loss of her daughter to childhood cancer and on her eventual divorce. Nearly all Louise’s memories — both past and future — seem to confirm Schopenhauer’s observation that misfortune and suffering is the general rule of life. Yet, she embraces the misery. She embraces her life. She adopts the point of view of Giacomo Leopardi, that exquisite Italian pessimist, who argued that not only should we accept the suffering of life, we should also enjoy it. “Live,” Leopardi wrote, “and be great and unhappy.”
Is this not the same practice of many of the Muscovites in today’s chapter?
“After the battle of Borodino,” Tolstoy writes, “the abandonment and burning of Moscow was as inevitable as the retreat of the army beyond Moscow without fighting.” The wealthy flee the city while the poor remain to burn or destroy whatever the wealthy have left behind. “The consciousness that this would be so and would always be so,” Tolstoy continues, “was present in Moscow society in 1812.”
The Muscovites and Dr. Banks’s decision is Nietzsche’s Dionysian pessimism writ large: the desire to become a Yes-sayer even — especially — in the face of great suffering. This is the idea that when we’re presented with an eternal recurrence of human suffering we must welcome it. We must accept the pain of loss and the perishability of life. We must abandon the concept that happiness is the ultimate goal and move forward creating meaning for ourselves out of the miserable nothingness of existence. For Nietzsche, to willfully embrace the eternal recurrence (a variation of which is Dr. Banks’s new understanding of time) is “Dionysian wisdom. Joy in the destruction of the most noble and at the sight of its progressive ruin: in reality joy in what is coming and lies in the future, which triumphs over existing things, however good.”
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it — all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary — but love it.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo