This post originally appeared in the August issue of Sanitarium Magazine
I am probably not the biggest Nietzsche fanboy that you are ever going to meet, but I think that a case could be made that I am the biggest Nietzche fanboy currently writing a column for Sanitarium. One of my favorite ideas from Nietzsche is the concept of “Eternal return.”
Nietzsche’s idea was that— as it seemed there was an infinite amount of time in which events could play out but a finite amount of states in which matter could exist— all events that could play out would do so and not just once but an infinite number of times. Though you wouldn’t be conscious of the repetition, since these others would not truly be you, it nevertheless remains that throughout eternity there would be an infinite number of people with your name, and your memories, thinking themselves to be you (and with every justification), reading this article just as you are doing now.
“Everything has returned,” Nietzsche said. “Sirius, and the spider, and thy thoughts at this moment, and this last thought of thine that all things will return.”
Or to quote Heinrich Heine, who may have been the inspiration for Nietzsche’s idea: “Time is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate numbers, and the numbers of the configurations which, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again.”
This idea is paralleled by the idea put forward by some cosmologists that, supposing the universe were infinite and we are not, say, contained in a small bubble of all the matter in an otherwise empty universe, then there is every reason to suppose that there are other places in the universe, unimaginably distant from us, which could not be distinguished from our own world. Purely by chance, these “Hubble volume clones” would share the same night sky and, even more rarely, our exact history.
The response to Eternal Return was Nietzsche’s idea of amor fati or “love of fate.” This was his “formula for human greatness,” that one would want “to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it— all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary— but to love it.”
That is to say, if this endless repetition of events cannot be avoided, if your life with all its wonders and foibles will recur through eternity without end, then it is a mark of weakness to reject this truth and nothing at all to merely accept and be resigned to it. In embracing it, and likewise all unpleasant truths, however— therein is the triumph of humankind.
The Heroine’s Journey
Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters is to my knowledge the best treatment of what she calls the Feminine or Heroine’s Journey. This isn’t just what you call the Hero’s Journey when your protagonist is female; it’s a different kind of narrative altogether in which the protagonist eventually reaches the state of “embodying the willingness to go it alone and face her own symbolic death.”
It is more introspective than the Hero’s Journey, but there are two big differences that are especially relevant for our purposes here.
The first difference is that the hero accumulates Stuff, like a lightsaber, Force powers, some swanky droids, and military rank. On the other hand, to quote Jennifer Troemner, “the Heroine’s tools fail her, or are lost. Her mental and emotional crutches are knocked out from under her. While the Hero is built up through repeated victory, the Heroine is stripped bare by repeated defeat [emphasis added].”
The stages of the Heroine’s Journey have names like Betrayal and Death or, if you look elsewhere, Descent into Death. There’s a stronger emphasis on the katabasis in this kind of narrative. I would almost visualize the whole thing as a ritualistic flaying of the being ala the Aztec deity Xipetotec.
The second difference is that the Heroine’s Journey is more readily cyclic in nature. It keeps happening. It is more common for a protagonist, especially a female one, to experience the Heroine’s Journey multiple times than for a protagonist, especially a male one, to travel the Hero’s Journey more than once. Hence we see the relevance of Eternal Return.
The Heroine’s Journey may be an ultimately upward spiral of death and rebirth but it can just as easily be adapted to the downward, repetitive cycle of an alcoholic, continually tripping on the way to rebirth and falling back into death. Or maybe nothing truly changes at all and your protagonist keeps coming back to the same circumstances through either internal fault of character or unavoidable external conditions.
Realizing xir place in this cycle and xir inability to stop it, your protagonist must then decide how to react. Is xe crushed beneath the weight of this “horrifying and paralyzing” idea? Or, when Nietzsche’s demon says to xem, “This life as you know live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more,” does xe look the demon in the eye and reply, “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine,” as Nietzsche described in The Gay Science?
Either is satisfying. Either choice can make for good horror, depending on whether you wish for its ultimate conclusion to be depressing or heartening. We’ll talk more on Viktor Frankl at some point in the future but I will quote him once before we leave: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Viewed this way, the Heroine’s Journey is the perfect foundation on which to build your horror story, more so than the Campbell’s Monomyth. It goes hand in hand with existentialism, and if you choose to play the game straight and end it with rebirth then that’s alright too.
Horror does not mean nihilism. It does not mean unremitting despair. It does not in all cases mean, despite what the name of this column may imply, the endless night that lies in the future of every star. Because that night will come, and you can write about it if you want to, but there are also nights right now that don’t last forever, and your horror story can be about those too.
But whether the light at the end of the tunnel is the sun or an oncoming train, the Heroine’s Journey is a narrative adaptable enough to handle it all.
Some recommended reading on the Heroine’s Journey
· Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey
· Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters
· Jennifer Troemner’s A different kind of plot, at http://tinyurl.com/troemner
· Flutiebear’s Taking the Heroine’s Journey, at http://tinyurl.com/flutiebear
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