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Nietzsche Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day and Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence

(06 October 2007)

Is Groundhog Day one of the truly great philosophical movies? Viewed on the most trivial level, it’s just a Hollywood rom-com, but on closer inspection, it furnishes a dazzling treatment of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, even to the extent of illuminating Deleuze and Irigaray’s conflicting interpretations of this key Nietzschean thought. It also throws light on postmodern thinking regarding simulacra: representations without originals. Finally, it updates the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus and casts its protagonist, played by Bill Murray, in the role of Sisyphus, the absurd hero.

Eternal recurrence is the idea that we have lived the exact life we are leading now an infinite number of times in the past and will do so an infinite number of times in the future. If we’ve enjoyed a particularly eventful and pleasurable life, this might sound like the greatest of good tidings. If not, eternal recurrence may strike us as a curse. Our misery, far from being over when we die, is destined to echo through eternity. This is a chilling recasting of hell, as horrific as anything Dante conceived.

In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray finds that every day, no matter what he does, he wakes up at the same time in the same bed in the same hotel in the same small American town. In the next twenty-four hours he is free to do anything he likes, but he knows he’s condemned to start the whole process again as soon as the day has run its course. In a sense he has achieved immortality. Even if he wants to, he can’t die. But is this a blessing or a malediction?

Deleuze might offer Murray a crumb of comfort. According to his interpretation of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche was not in fact promoting the idea of the return of the identical but rather the ‘return’ of the different. Each return selects the life-enhancing while rejecting the life-denying, leading to each iteration being more affirmative than the last. As Deleuze says, ‘We can thus see how the eternal return is linked, not to a repetition of the same, but on the contrary, to a transmutation. It is the moment or the eternity of becoming which eliminates all that resists it. It releases, indeed it creates, the purely active and pure affirmation.’

Deleuze’s version of eternal recurrence doesn’t seem well supported by what Nietzsche actually wrote. Indeed, it seems a somewhat perverse reading since it implies that the world should be ‘improving’ with each iteration. But, as Nietzsche pointed out, if the world were moving towards any final state then, taking into account his belief that an infinite amount of time has passed before now, we would unquestionably have arrived at that state by now. Therefore if Deleuze is right, we should have reached a world of supreme affirmation. Manifestly, we haven’t.

Groundhog Day contradicts both Nietzsche and Deleuze. In Bill Murray’s world, there’s no Nietzschean return of the identical since he’s able to act differently each time and cause different events to happen. Nor is each repetition more affirmative than the last. In fact, Groundhog Day presents a far more human version of eternal recurrence. Murray largely muddles his way through his dilemma. Sometimes he’s less affirmative, sometimes more. Driven on by love, he does finally reach a state of transmutation and at that point he actually escapes from eternal recurrence.

This gives us a clue that Luce Irigaray is perhaps the right philosopher for furnishing us with the key for unlocking the mysteries of Groundhog Day. Irigaray agrees with the conventional view that eternal recurrence concerns the return of the same. She objects to it on the grounds that it’s a sterile thought that excludes any notion of ‘the other’. She writes, ‘The eternal recurrence – what is that but the will to recapitulate all projects within yourself?’ In other words, it is self-referential, tied to a cloning process. We might think of it as a type of parthenogenesis, or ‘auto-birth’ as some feminist commentators have labelled it. It provides men with the ability to give birth to themselves over and over again, thus denying the role of the female as lover and mother.

Irigaray wishes, above all else, to promote the value of the other, which she largely conceives in female terms, in opposition to the traditional philosophical subject that she considers rigidly male and masculine. She says, ‘For, in the other, you are changed. Become other, and without recurrence.’

In Groundhog Day, it’s Bill Murray’s love for his female colleague (played by Andie MacDowell) that proves decisive. By immersing himself in ‘otherness’, by learning everything that makes McDowell tick, he himself is transformed. He sheds his old, sexist, masculine carapace and emerges as a far more rounded human being, in touch with his feminine side (his ‘inner other’). As soon as he has fully achieved this, he’s released from eternal recurrence, thus seemingly endorsing Irigaray’s view.

Murray, at his point of liberation, is certainly no Nietzschean Übermensch, but he’s unquestionably a more highly developed individual, with far greater self-understanding. Could Groundhog Day’s version of eternal recurrence and eventual escape lead, if all of us could undergo such a process, to the best of all possible worlds envisaged by Leibniz? Would it equate with Deleuze’s world of supreme Nietzschean affirmation where all that deserves to be affirmed has survived and prospered, and all that is weak has withered and perished?

Whereas in Nietzsche’s scheme of eternal recurrence, every reborn world is an exact replica of the previous, in Groundhog Day each is an imperfect copy, a simulacrum. Simulacra, in postmodernist thought, have the quality that they can eventually cease to resemble what they were originally a copy of: they become freestanding copies without identifiable originals. In one way, Groundhog Day traces the journey of a simulacrum. In the end, Murray’s micro-world has become so far removed from its original that it has turned into something else. In this reading of Groundhog Day, Murray doesn’t in fact return to ‘normality’ but has reached that mysterious transition point where a simulacrum has achieved independence from its ‘creator’. It is something new, with its own rules. Murray has entered a Baudrillardian hyperreality, more real than real, which offers the illusion of perfection.

In Nietzsche’s conception of eternal recurrence, the individual, crucially, has no memory of his previous lives. In Groundhog Day, Murray most certainly does. But he’s the only one. All the others with whom he shares his eternal recurrence are in the classic Nietzschean position of having no recollection of their past existences. (However, if they specifically interact with Murray then their fate each time is no longer fixed, although they have no memory of the different fates Murray engineers for them.) Murray’s plight is in this sense much more horrific than theirs. He’s not dealing with a hypothetical notion of eternal recurrence; he’s conscious of it and living it whether he likes it or not.

Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is logically problematic because if an individual’s life is a repeat of previous lives then he would appear to have no free choice, yet Nietzsche seems to want us to alter our attitude to life in the face of the realisation of the stark truth of eternal recurrence. If we accept his scenario in its strictest sense then our response to the concept of eternal recurrence is nothing over which we can have any control: our reaction, whatever it may be, is one we have exhibited an infinite number of times before and will do so an infinite number of times in the future. For Murray, this objection is removed. Hecan change; he has complete free choice. It’s up to him to choose his attitude towards his existential predicament. At first, understandably, he experiences complete shock, before enjoying a brief sensation of godlikeness. Then suicidal depression kicks in. Of course, he’s incapable of dying, so there’s no way out. He then has only four choices: to go insane, to be sane but exist in a state of constant anxiety and distress, to accept his fate and make the best of it, or to actively affirm his strange new life and wish for it never to end.

Arguably, Murray chooses the third route, that of making the most of the world he now inhabits. He educates himself in many new fields and becomes an accomplished scholar, artist, linguist and musician, amongst other things. He also develops as a person and achieves ever-increasing self-awareness. Finally, he might be said to reach self-enlightenment. This is symbolised by the fact that he at last secures the love of the woman he has pursued from the beginning. In Jungian terms, Andie MacDowell represents the elusive Self that we all strive to find during our life’s journey. By winning her, Murray has, in effect, completed Jung’s arduous process of individuation. This is so momentous that Murray actually escapes from eternal recurrence and re-enters normality, but now he is a transformed human being, fully self-actualised. In every way, he has found himself. A radically new and improved life beckons.

Groundhog Day also brings to mind the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus in which the eponymous anti-hero defies the gods and is punished by being sentenced to push a huge rock up a steep hill, in the certain knowledge that as soon as he has succeeded, the rock will roll back down and he must start the whole process again. Like Murray’s character, Sisyphus cannot die, even though he might long for it as the only means to escape his personal hell.

The existentialist writer Albert Camus was fascinated by the myth of Sisyphus, seeing it as a model, albeit exaggerated, for the basic human condition. For most of us, each day is only fractionally different from the previous one. As we roll out of bed each morning, we set in motion a disturbingly familiar chain of events, often so automatic that we can’t even remember having performed some of the steps, like a drunk finding his way home. We have the same breakfast, see the same people, go to the same job in the same office, and commute backwards and forwards along the same route, staring into space like zombies.

Sure, we can break the routine from time to time by going on holiday or whatever, and we are always hopeful of radical change, yet these simply reinforce the realization of the grinding routine of the vast majority of our daily activities. Only the precise repetition is missing. Each day, whether we like it or not, we are presented with the same set of unpalatable facts. Staring us in the face, if we choose to look closely enough, is the supreme indifference of the universe.

So, are we really so different from Murray and Sisyphus? Like them, we’re plunged into the visceral fact of our existence and we have to decide how to cope. Some of us may escape into the fantasy world offered by religion, or we may adopt a philosophical position of stoicism. Perhaps we will take drugs and drink to shut out the misery of our lives.

Although the task confronting Sisyphus seems hopeless and soul-destroying, Camus imagines that Sisyphus can transform his situation through recognition and acceptance. This is our lot: so now let’s get on with it. Even enjoyment becomes possible. Camus says of Sisyphus, ‘The universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile […] The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’

Murray, like Camus’s Sisyphus, comes to fully accept his fate and, paradoxically, it is precisely then that he’s liberated from it. We might think that his escape is merely illusory. Perhaps the old repetition goes on as before (and indeed it must, albeit in attenuated form, even if he starts a new life), but if he’s mentally free then he has achieved everything. Like Sisyphus, he is happy. Indeed Murray’s position is arguably better than Sisyphus’s. Camus says that there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. For Murray, love rather than scorn liberates him.

Although there are similarities between Camus’s treatment of the myth of Sisyphus and Nietzsche’s account of eternal recurrence, there are crucial differences too. Camus says, ‘ Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition; it is what he thinks of during his descent […] But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.’

Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the master of eternal recurrence, isn’t concerned with accepting his fate but with actively willing it. He longs for his life to be repeated endlessly in every minute detail. The idea of his condition being in any way ‘wretched’ would be instantly scorned. No greater affirmation of life is possible than to wish every part of it to return to you forever. It is the sublime moment when a person can look at his life, no matter what it consists of – good, bad, or indifferent – and find within himself the desire never to be freed from any aspect of it that allows a human being to be transformed into an Übermensch, the supreme life affirmer.

Murray in Groundhog Day belongs more to the Camus camp than the Nietzschean one. By accepting his predicament, he is in a sense released from it, but his delight at the end when he is allowed to return to the normal world demonstrates that he is no Übermensch. An Übermensch, having unconditionally affirmed his endlessly repeating existence, would be appalled to be ‘set free’ from it. But that’s why Nietzsche is not the most Hollywood-friendly philosopher: he doesn’t do trite happy endings!

Groundhog Day is a masterpiece of existentialism, particularly in respect of the element of the absurd, with Murray claiming Sisyphus’s mantle of absurd hero. The film’s lesson is that we can all escape from whatever dilemma we’re in by adopting the correct attitude. As Murray discovered, it’s a tough lesson, but to learn it is to gain the means to transcend ordinary life.

Very few movies are so powerful that they can offer you a valuable treatise on how to lead your life.Groundhog Day manages to do just that and therefore rightly takes its place in the pantheon of greatest philosophical movies.