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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Reiteration of the Eternal Return

The eternal return is the prototypical example of the descent to chaos to create more order. Van Eenwyk (1997) notes that symbols, as the mechanism through which psychological growth takes place:

move us from the security of the known to the limitless potential for being. They offer us the opportunity, ever again to participate in the eternal return. The ease with which we are able to entertain the chaotic experience of symbols determines the ease with which new order can enter our lives” (p. 171).

As previously discussed, rituals of death and rebirth were very prevalent at transitional stages in the lives of people, marking not only different stages of their individual lives, but also in seasonal changes. van Gennep (1908/1960) found that the idea of a renewal, a periodic death and rebirth, is present in these different ceremonies. He noted that these cultures realized that in biological and social activities “energies become exhausted, and they have to be regenerated at more or less close intervals. The rites of passage ultimately correspond to his fundamental necessity, sometimes so closely that they take the form of death and rebirth” (p. 182). Giving up an old life and “turning over a new leaf is also an example of this same dynamic" (p. 183). "Death gives way to a new order. Configurations and patterns that replace—and sometimes improve upon the old ones" (p. 159). Ancient peoples realized the necessity of periodically renewing themselves and the world around them by entering the often chaotic realm of liminality where social rules and roles are relaxed, in flux, in order to be able to reconstitute in a new and different way. There are parallels between the in-between, liminal threshold nature in the transition stages of these rites and the fractal nature and dimensions of chaos.

Van Eenwyk (1997), in speaking of fractals, mentions that with regard to iteration, if “ ‘the backbone of fractals’ is ‘feedback and the iterator,’ this may be at the heart of what Mircea Eliade called ‘the myth of the eternal return’ Could iteration and the eternal return be referring to the same thing?” (p. 113). “Inquiring minds want to know,” and luckily Van Eenwyk answers this question for us:

The eternal return begins in tensions of opposites (present and future, actual and potential, sacred and profane), manifests itself in fractal imagery (transcending categories and demonstrating self-similarity across scale through recapitulations of the original act of creation), is sensitive to initial conditions (demonstrated by the wide varieties of myths and rituals in different cultures), and iterates (the eternal return). The oscillatory dynamics (tension of opposites) that generate myths and rituals enliven them as well, by bringing up new possibilities. Thus creation occurs over and over again. So the eternal return is an iterative dynamic: it allows the present to be fed back it the original equation. (pp. 113-114)

Most importantly, Van Eenwyk (1997) goes on to declare that “while all archetypal processes generate feedback dynamics, the eternal return is the epitome of all such aspects of archetypal processes. It is the archetype of archetypal dynamics, so to speak” (p. 114 emphasis added)! Van Eenwyk also reveals that not only does the myth of the eternal return symbolize “creation and rejuvenation,” but “creation and rejuvenation are themselves symbolic of a basic characteristic of dynamic systems. In the new mythology of chaos theory, this is imagined as recurring cycles of chaos and order” (p.114).

Jung (1988) in discussing Nietzsche’s Zarathustra said “the eternal return belongs with the symbol of the ring, the ring of rings, the ring of eternal Recurrence . . . now this ring is the idea of totality and it is the idea of indivduation naturally, an individuation symbol” (p. 1044). Van Eenwyk (1997) notes that individuation is a repetitive process that “constantly destabilizes us so that we can take advantages of potentials for growth that we might not otherwise see. No wonder it feels so chaotic” (p. 36). Van Eenwyk also explains that underlying all rebirth symbolism is the transcendent function, and quoting Jung, Van Eenwyk remarks that the transcendent function refers to transitions from one attitude to another, and is not used in the metaphysical sense (p. 38).

Lastly, let us look at how all of this actually plays out in a playful, yet painful example before we finish, ironically with the symbol of the eternal return itself.

Here is my own personal example of chaos theory at work in the life of a far from equilibrium person, me! I personally blame Van Eenwyk’s (1997) book Archetype and Strange Attractors, about which we have just been speaking, for where we are at the moment. In 2002, the seemingly innocuous sentence that I have just previously quoted: “the eternal return is the epitome of all such aspects of archetypal processes. It is the archetype of archetypal dynamics” (p. 114), caught my attention and stood out like a beacon. I did not really understand much of what I was reading at the time, because Van Eenwyk's book actually produced a chaotic experience in me. Howver, that sentence stayed with me, and it is the reason why I added “Eternal Return Edition” to the middle of the board on my game Monomythopoly TM, a year later, in the spring of 2003, which we will finally get around to discussing in the next section.

How was I to know that the eternal return would wind up being central to Cosmic Play? That the death-rebirth process is how the gods play? And it all did start out with the dice game—no wonder Einstein refused to believe that God would play dice. Look where it takes you—to the twilight zone of strange attractors. Einstein was a genius, perhaps I should have listened to him. Who knew that once you opened the can of worms called eternal return, that there was paradoxically no return, and “nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide” as Martha Reeves and the Vandellas sang in 1965.

The eternal return, like a bad penny, would keep eternally returning. I wouldn't be surprised if it is what drove Nietzsche mad. Like Haley Joel Osmet in Sixth Sense (Shyamalan, 1999), who saw dead people everywhere, “I see the eternal return everywhere.” It is my very own strange attractor. Strangely enough, I also seem to be hearing dead people at this point, like Einstein’s ghost softly singing “Accentuate the Positive:”

You’ve got to accentuate the positive/eliminate the negative/ latch on to the alternative/ and don’t mess with Mr. In-between. /You've got to spread joy up to the maximum/Bring gloom down to the minimum/Have faith or pandemonium's/Liable to walk upon the scene. (Mercer and Arlen, 2005, online)

Okay, Einstein, no need to rub it in. This cryptic warning from beyond, reiterating the message to steer clear of chaos, is a little late. Perhaps if I would have listened to Einstein in the beginning, we would not be where we are now. But did I listen, nooooo, because as they say “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” which brings us back to where we are now, going around in circles, at the crossroads of psyche and chaos—archetypes and strange attractors, to the fractal nature of life and this dissertation, which itself keeps iterating and reiterating around the eternal return.

"But wait, there’s more. . . ." After I finished my first iteration of editing this section, while the printer was printing, I too, took a coffee break and went to Starbucks. It does seem that chaos and coffee go together, by the way, are you getting butterflies? Well, the song that was playing at Starbucks while I got my latte was Joni Mitchell’s (1990, CD) “Circle Game”:

Yesterday a child came out to wonder/ Caught a dragonfly inside a jar/Fearful when the sky was full of thunder/And tearful at the falling of a star. . . . And the seasons they go round and round/And the painted ponies go up and down/We’re captive on the carousel of time/We can’t return, we can only look behind/From where we came/And go round and round and round/In the circle game.

Enough already! I don't know about you, but all of this synchronic circling is making me getting dizzy. Luckily, as Van Eenwyk notes, the psyche has diachronic dynamics as well. Over time, and through the synchronic dynamics we may actually get somewhere, so with this in mind let us move on to the next section.


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