Bah, Humbug and the Eternal Return
Christmas is canceled
Fine by me. I never liked it anyway.
It’s just a rerun. A retread of the same tired tropes, the kind of thing I despise in art and in thinking. How many more years do we have to do the same thing? How many more times am I going to have to listen to Bing Crosby and John Lennon and Wham! against my will?
I can imagine lying wasted and weak in some future hospital bed, listening to a beeping machine grimly counting heartbeats from an ever-shrinking pool and consoling myself in the scowling face of a terminal diagnosis with the knowledge that at least I’ll never have to listen to Do They Know It’s Christmas? ever again. Yes, George. They know it’s Christmas. They just don’t give a shit.
My hatred for Christmas is well established. My wife tentatively puts up a modest tree and hangs a few decorations anyway. Every year it’s different, but every year it’s the same.
That’s the idea, anyway. That by repeating the same empty rituals, by singing the same songs and eating the same foods, we can jam a stick in the spokes of time and stop its mad rush. But all it really does is remind us how unstoppable it all is. Another trip around the sun. Once again, John Lennon’s accusatorily asking me what I’ve done. More than you, John. But still less than I wanted to.
Time and space are infinite, we think
So, then, is the eternal return. Everything goes on forever. Everything infinitely repeats. Your life will happen again just as it is happening now, just as it has happened before. I’ll be writing these words, and you’ll be reading them, wherever you are, millions and millions and billions of times over, forever.
It’s a horrifying thought. But a popular one. The ancient Egyptians saw in the tireless exertions of the dung beetle an image of the sun being rolled daily across the sky, over and over again forever. The Mayan calendar was a dense network of wheels within wheels, endlessly repeating. In Hindu mythology, the day of Brahma the creator god lasts 4.32 billion years.
At the end of each of these days, the world is annihilated, along with all its gods and all its kings and all its shivering stars. And then another identical world arises the following day.
There is nothing new under the sun, wrote the author of Ecclesiastes 2300 years ago. In Virgil’s Aenid, the dead drink from the river Lethe and forget their previous life before returning from the underworld to do it all over again.
The Aenid, it goes without saying, is a tragedy. If we can remember where we screwed up in the past, we can’t expect to do better in the future. Do the same thing, and you will get the same results. Virgil’s dead are doomed.
Virgil was a pagan poet. Dante was the great poet of Christianity. And in his medieval worldview, there is no repetition. Instead, the passage of a Christian soul is a linear one, from the depths of Hell to the vaults of Heaven.
The theology that gave us the mongrel festival of Christmas, bolting its symbols onto some older midwinter feast, has no room for repetition. Time Jesum transuentum et non riverentum. Dread the passage of Jesus, for he will not return. There’s only one Incarnation, and only one path to God, and if you miss that train, it won’t come round again.
Here we are, staring once again into the empty eyesockets of the holidays. The exact same holiday in a year unlike any other. This Christmas won’t be like the rest. The rest weren’t like the rest either. When we hang our decorations and drag a tree inside and pull up YouTube videos on roasting turkeys, what is it that we’re chasing?
The Eternal Return came back
Of course it did. Nietzsche spent years honing the idea that everything repeats itself forever. In The Gay Science and Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he developed the concept from a hypothetical idea to something more like a dogmatic principle. He wasn’t the only one. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has the devil tell Ivan that the earth may have been repeated a billion times. “Most unseemly and insufferably tedious,” indeed.
What if, some day or night, a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ — Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
For Nietzsche, human greatness required amor fati, the love of one’s fate. Not merely the acceptance and endurance of the philosophers, but an enthusiastic embrace of destiny. If your life is being lived properly, Nietzsche suggests, you ought to embrace it happening again and again and again.
If you’ve had that tremendous moment, the devil becomes divine. Life, with all its sufferings and compromises, is worth having again and again to experience the dizzying heights of the enlightened and the damned. Is that what we’re chasing among the Christmas lights and the mistletoe? Some transcendent shattering experience that we would happily live again and again for the rest of infinite time?
Probably not. Those kinds of experiences are rare. Many people, maybe most people, go through their whole lives without having that tremendous moment, that transcendent annihilation. When we play the same songs and perform the same rituals as though our lives haven’t bloomed and wasted and shifted in the intervening years, what we’re chasing is the fiction of the past.
All happy families are alike
Unhappiness is individual. Show me someone who doesn’t like Christmas, and I’ll bet they were an unhappy child. My wife has nothing but good memories of the holidays, full of gifts and food and the kind of wholesome togetherness I always assumed had been made up for the sake of TV advertising. Her attempts to replicate those feelings of midwinter well-being are doomed in the house she shares with me, where I snarl at every decoration and pine for dreary January.
These days, half the people she shared those Christmases with are dead. And now, even as she goes through the timeworn rituals, there’s a new sadness to the season. The same songs fall on different ears. The old recipes have outlived the women she learned them from.
I’ll maintain until my dying day that a happy childhood is the worst possible preparation for life. It’s hard to move forward when you’re always looking over your shoulder. I’d rather be like me, heading toward the Promised Land, than walking away from it.
This often happens
These stories turn out sadder than I mean them. The minor keys start to dominate. To say anything worth hearing means to skate over the thin ice above the darkest part of the water. That’s where the treasures lie.
I’m not interested in having the same holiday over and over again for the rest of my life. Not unless it’s one I invent myself. All Christmas means to me is that the light is coming back, that the sun will start to linger longer each day as we lurch back toward spring. To me, that’s worth celebrating. The rest of it is manipulative nonsense.
What cannot be imitated perfect must die. I’d rather have it that way. The unique is precious because it won’t come again, because we’ll never see its like. Because you can’t put a price on something that never existed before and will never exist again. It’s only the things you can’t put a price on that have value.
But I’ve been wrong before. Maybe we really do reincarnate and reemerge just like this in some future time indistinguishable from this one. Maybe we already have. Maybe we are all on our trillionth replay of the same story, and all of this is preordained and written down in some language only demons speak.
It snowed today
The first snow of the year where I live. I’m watching it drifting and dancing through the wet window as I write this, that damp coastal snow that drips as it settles, forever on the point of melting. I’m listening to a new album, a live album recorded in the middle of this pandemic to an empty concert hall.
The tracklist skips. I hear a new version of an old song, one I remember listening to while staring out of a window to watch another snowfall more than twenty years ago. A different Christmas in a different country, when I didn’t know that some of the people who now mean the most to me existed. One of them wasn’t even born.
But it’s the same chords. That same voice, changed and charged with the decades between but still recognizable to me here on the edge of the world and the edge of middle-age just as it was when I was an unhappy teenager in the dead center of a dying land. It was Christmas then, and it’s Christmas now, and it will be Christmas again in three hundred and sixty-five days.
Maybe it’s a demon. Maybe it’s a god. But whatever it is, it keeps coming around again. It can’t be canceled. It can’t be ignored.
And in the swirling snow, with the same songs playing in a slightly different key, as everything I love takes on new layers of meaning with the passage of infinite time, I am forced against my preferences to confess that I have never heard anything more divine.
© Ryan Frawley 2020.
All proceeds from this article will be donated to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontiers.