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Lawrence J. Hatab, Nietzsche’s Life Sentence: Coming to Terms with Eternal Recurrence

New York: Routledge, 2005. xix + 208 pp. ISBN 0415967597. Paper, $22.95.

Reviewed by John Mandalios

An appealing feature of this book is immediately striking: the combination of close, informed discussion with a lucid style in the presentation of arguments— an admirable virtue for casting a thesis concerning the concept of eternal recurrence as fundamentally about life affirmation. Hatab’s voice is neither excessively personal nor abstract as he takes the reader through a set of insights regarding eternal recurrence and Nietzsche’s struggles with life and affirmative joy.  Unlike more materialistic-naturalistic treatments, Hatab succeeds in drawing out the peculiarly Greek and hermeneutical-interpretative strands of Nietzsche’s oeuvre, deploying Thus Spoke Zarathustra to this end (even if to a lesser extent than recent works on the subject, i.e. Small (2010) and Loeb (2010)).[1]  He also broadly succeeds in demonstrating the importance of that which lies beyond a strictly cosmological interpretation of eternal recurrence. On the other hand, Hatab cannot properly be said to embrace a purely "existential" interpretation.  Instead, his thesis explicitly eschews each of these interpretations as inadequate for grasping Nietzsche’s "poetry-philosophy" apropos his "tragic-mythic-poetic concept" of eternal recurrence (98). For those interested in an intelligent reading that is not naturalistically reductive but nuanced by interpretative stratagems, this book deserves serious consideration.

Another feature that distinguishes Hatab’s approach from more scientific renditions of eternal recurrence is his apprehension of the religious influences and motifs underlying Nietzsche’s preoccupation with overcoming. Nietzsche, it is argued, "connects eternal recurrence with Greek mystery religion" (104); and the "literal force" of eternal recurrence is found in the kind of "religious effect" that "Nietzsche’s myth" has on others. According to Hatab, the force of this literal interpretation of the myth is not consonant with a factual account.  But he also denies that the ‘what if’ stance can be sustained for existential purposes.  His approach therefore has the performative advantage of rendering the myth a Dionysian potency—thereby implying that science alone cannot capture the full force of Nietzsche’s life imperative. (The author candidly defers analysis of the scientific dimension of eternal recurrence to more qualified specialists).

For seasoned and unseasoned observers alike, this deployment of what Hatab calls "mimetic literality" obviates any old fashioned errors and sets the stage for analysis beyond any simple existential or ethical reading of Nietzsche. Hatab’s aim is to grasp the fundamental ‘selective principle’ associated with the existential force of the "thought of eternal recurrence"—those who can, versus those who cannot, love life on its own tragic terms. This point is reasonably argued and demonstrated but comes at the cost of a worked-out theory of time implied by the thought of eternal recurrence. An alternative factual account of eternal recurrence and time—consonant with Hatab’s literality criterion—would not circumvent the existential imperative of the "selective principle." The moments of becoming—since Kant’s dynamical theory at least—warrant in-depth investigation (as Hatab on occasion acknowledges). Subsequent works may be consulted by readers for this purpose, yet much will also be gained by reading Hatab’s intelligent book.  His confident judgment that a cosmological version of recurrence cannot prove decisive in the final analysis is certainly worthy of examination—if not interrogation.

Griffith University, Australia

[1] Robin Small, Time and Becoming in Nietzsche’s Thought (London: Continuum, 2010); Paul S. Loeb, The Death of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).