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Michael Faust reviews this film in the light of eternity.
Is Groundhog Day one of the great philosophical movies? Viewed on the most trivial level it’s just another Hollywood rom-com, but on closer inspection it furnishes a dazzling treatment of Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, even illuminating Deleuze and Irigaray’s conflicting interpretations of this key Nietzschean idea. It also throws light on postmodern thinking regarding simulacra – representations without originals. Finally, it updates the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, casting its protagonist, played by Bill Murray, in the role of Sisyphus, the absurd hero.
Eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s idea that we have lived the exact life we are living 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 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 (1993), Murray’s character, Phil Connors, finds that no matter what he does, every morning he wakes up at the same time, in the same bed, in the same hotel, in the same small American town, on the same day (February 2nd, ‘Groundhog Day’). In the subsequent twenty-four hours he is free to do anything he likes, but knows he’s condemned to start the whole day again as soon as that day has run its course. Even when he wants to die, he can’t. In a sense he has achieved immortality. But is this immortality a blessing or a malediction?
French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-95) might have offered Connors a crumb of comfort. According to Deleuze’s interpretation of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche was not in fact promoting the return of the identical, but rather, the ‘return’ of the different. Each of these returns 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” (Nietzsche and Philosophy, 1962).
Unfortunately, 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 perfect state, then, taking into account his belief that an infinite amount of time has passed before now, we would have arrived at perfection by now. If Deleuze is right, we should have reached a world of supreme affirmation. Manifestly, we haven’t.
Groundhog Day actually contradicts both Nietzsche and Deleuze. In Connors’ world there’s no Nietzschean return of the identical since he’s able to act differently each day and cause different events to happen, but neither is each repetition more affirmative than the last. Groundhog Day presents a far more human version of eternal recurrence. Connors largely muddles his way through. Sometimes he’s less affirmative, sometimes more. Driven on by love, he does finally reach a state of transmutation, and at that point he escapes from the recurrence.
This gives us a clue that Luce Irigaray (1930-) is perhaps the right philosopher to furnish us with the key for unlocking the mysteries of Groundhog Day. Irigaray agrees with the conventional view of Nietzsche that his eternal recurrence concerns the return of the same, but objects to this view 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?” (Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche, 1991). In other words, recurrence is entirely self-referential, akin to a cloning process. We might think of it as a type of parthenogenesis, or ‘auto-birth’: 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 Phil Connors’ love for Rita, his female colleague (played by Andie MacDowell) that proves decisive. By immersing himself in ‘otherness’ – by learning everything that makes MacDowell’s character tick – he 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 recurrence, thus seemingly endorsing Irigaray’s view.
Sense and Simulacra
At his liberation Connors is certainly no Nietzschean Übermensch, but he’s unquestionably become a more highly-developed individual, with far greater self-understanding. If all of us could undergo such a process, could Groundhog Day’s version of eternal recurrence and eventual escape lead to the best of all possible worlds, as envisaged by Leibniz? And would this world 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?
In Nietzsche’s conception of eternal recurrence, the individual, crucially, has no memory of his previous lives. In Groundhog Day, Connors most certainly does. But he’s the only one. All the others with whom he shares his eternal recurrence are in the Nietzschean position of having no recollection of their past existences. Connors’ plight is in this sense much more horrific than theirs. He’s not dealing with a hypothetical notion of eternal recurrence: he is conscious of it, and living it whether he likes it or not. So whereas in Nietzsche’s scheme every reborn world is an exact replica of the previous, in Groundhog Day each is an imperfect copy, a simulacrum. In postmodernist thought, especially the thought of Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), simulacra eventually cease to resemble what they were originally a copy of: so much so that they become freestanding entities without identifiable originals. In a way, Groundhog Day traces the journey of a simulacrum. In the end, Connors’ day has become so far removed from the original day that it has turned into something else. Connors doesn’t return to ‘normality’, but has reached that mysterious transition point where the simulacrum has achieved independence from its creator. It’s something new, with its own rules.
However, Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence is logically problematic, because if an individual’s life is an exact repeat of previous lives he would appear to have no free choice; yet at the same time Nietzsche seems to want us to alter our attitude to life in the face of the realisation of the stark truth of eternal recurrence. However, if we accept his scenario in its strictest sense, then ultimately our response to the concept of eternal recurrence is nothing over which we can have any control: our reaction, whatever it may be, will be the one we have exhibited an infinite number of times before, and will do so an infinite number of times in the future.
For Connors, this objection is removed. He can change; he has complete free will. It’s up to him to choose his attitude towards his unique existential predicament. At first, understandably, he experiences complete shock, before enjoying a brief sensation of godlikeness. Then suicidal depression kicks in. As he discovers, he’s incapable of dying. There’s no way out. He then has only four choices: to go insane; to be sane, but exist in a state of constant 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, Connors chooses the third route, that of making the most of the world he now inhabits. He educates himself in many new fields, becoming an accomplished doctor, artist, linguist and musician. He also develops as a person and achieves ever-increasing self-awareness, finally, it might be said, reaching self-enlightenment. This is symbolised by the fact that at last he secures the love of the woman he has pursued from the beginning. In Jungian terms, MacDowell’s character represents the elusive Self that we all strive to find during our life’s journey. By winning her, Connors has in effect completed Jung’s arduous process of individuation. This is so momentous that at that point Connors actually escapes recurrence and re-enters the normal flow of time: but as a transformed human being, fully self-actualised. In every way he has found himself. A radically new life beckons.
Round and Round
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 process again. Like Murray’s character, Sisyphus cannot die, even though he might long for death as the only means to escape his personal Hell.
The existentialist writer Albert Camus (1913-60) was fascinated by the myth of Sisyphus, seeing it as a metaphor for the human condition. For most of us, each day is only fractionally different from the previous. 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. We have the same breakfast, go to the same job in the same office, see the same people, 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’re always hopeful of radical change, yet these interludes simply reinforce the realization of the grinding routine of the vast majority of our daily activities. Each day, whether we like it or not, we are presented with the same set of unpalatable facts. Only precise repetition is missing.
Are we really so different from Connors and Sisyphus? Like them, we’re plunged into the visceral fact of our existence and have to decide how to cope. Some of us may escape into the fantasies offered by religion, or we may adopt a philosophical position such as Stoicism. Perhaps we will take drugs and drink to shut out the misery and absurdity of our lives.
Although the task confronting Sisyphus seems soul-destroying, Camus imagines that Sisyphus can transform his situation through acceptance: ‘This is my lot, so 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” (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942).
Like Camus’ Sisyphus, Connors comes to fully accept his fate. Ironically, it is precisely then that he’s liberated from it. Perhaps repetition continues, albeit in attenuated form, even as he starts a new life – but if he’s mentally free then he has achieved everything he needs. Like Sisyphus, he is happy. Indeed, Connors’ position is arguably better than Sisyphus’s. Camus says that there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. But for Connors, rather than scorn, it is love which liberates him.
Although there are similarities between Camus’s treatment of the myth of Sisyphus and Nietzsche’s account of eternal return, there are crucial differences. 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.” However, Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the master of eternal recurrence, isn’t concerned with accepting his fate but with actively willing it. He longs for his self-created life to be repeated endlessly in every 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 forever. The moment of affirmation 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. When this happens a human being has been transformed into an Übermensch, the supreme life-affirmer.
Connors belongs more to the Camus camp than the Nietzschean. By accepting his predicament he is in a sense released from it, but his delight when he is allowed to return to the normal world demonstrates that he’s no Übermensch. An Übermensch, having unconditionally affirmed his repeating existence, would be appalled to be ‘set free’ from it. But 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 absurd element, with Connors claiming Sisyphus’s mantle of absurd hero. The film’s lesson is that we can escape from whatever dilemma we’re in by adopting the correct attitude. As Connors discovers, it’s a tough lesson; but to learn it is to gain the means to transcend the troubles of 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 great philosophical movies.
© Michael Faust 2012
Michael Faust is a PhD scientist who now writes ebooks about Pythagorean ‘Illuminism’, the abstruse theory that existence is 100% mathematical. “All things are numbers” – Pythagoras.