[Home] [Weblog] [The Bibliothecary] [Driving the Quill] [Library][Bookmarks]

Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Eighteen, in which We contemplate a mysterious Idea

Nietzsche's mysterious idea of eternal recurrance did not become known to Your Bibliothecary until some time in the early 1990s when we read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. The book grows on one. The idea, though never fully developed by Nietzsche, is stunning: in an infinite universe everything will eventually recur exactly as we once experienced it. For those who believe death is the end of a life, the prospect of living once again some time in the future can be a great relief. The details of the idea, though, are problematic, and that is perhaps why Nietzsche never fleshed it out. The idea intrigued us enough that at times we have believed in it, dreamed of it, hoped for it, and researched it.

For the anniversary of our birth we received in the mail P.D. Ouspensky's novel Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. Ouspensky was a Russian philosopher who wrote this book in 1905 as a “cinema-drama,” and first published it as Kinemadrama (St. Petersburg, 1915). It was translated to English in 1947, and reprinted in 2004 by Lindisfarne. The story concerns Ivan Osokin's attempt to correct his past mistakes when given the chance to relive his life, based loosely on Nietzsche's idea.

We were eager to read this, evidenced by it's immediate promotion to the top of the TBR pile. Unfortunately, the idea is better than the book. Osokin is given the opportunity to relive his life by a magician. He returns to his school days, and we learn in boring detail how he repeatedly makes the same bad decisions, even though he knows what the outcome will be. About halfway through the novel the pace picks up, and time passes with the understanding that Osokin continues in his erroneous ways. In the end, when he encounters the magician once more, he learns the only way to escape the wheel of time is not to relive one's life and try to change things--that is impossible--but to live one's life.

Scenes open in a dramatic style, giving a description of the setting in phrases. Though this was written that way by design, to appropriate some of the interest in the new cinema, it is a dry and dissatisfying way to write a novel. We are almost completely in Osokin's head, and through much of the novel he is busy thinking to himself. This new edition is also poorly edited, with missing words and punctuation, and perhaps what appeared to us to be misnamed chapters. We also would have enjoyed an introduction or commentary.

The issue that plagues us now is how one man can relive his life. If his life recurs in exactly the same way, then don't all the lives that touch his recur as well? More specifically, if the magician sends him back in time, does he also send everyone else back in time? And if so, where is the magician left? If Osokin goes back in time leaving Zinaida behind (or in front), then are there parallel Zinaidas, one living in the present Osokin just left, and one living in the past Osokin just returned to? And if there are two parallel Zinaidas, why are there not two parallel Osokins? Can someone please explain to me how time travel can possibly work on an individual level?


  1. There are various theories of individual time travel and whether it can or can't work. Nietzsche's idea is problematic and I can't see how it could work either unless you take the view that we are all automatons without free will. The Buddhist and Hinu ideas of reincarnation work much better.

    If you want a different take on reliving your life, try Ken Grimwood's Replay.

  2. Too bad that book wasn't good -- I agree that the idea sounded fascinating. Reminds me of one by Edward Bellamy called _Looking Backward_ that seemed based on an interesting idea (time-travel into the utopian future) but that failed in execution.

    Enjoying the blog.

  3. Ha ha, Casey, I've read that book. You're right: nice idea, almost unreadably bad book.

    Quillhill, have you read HG Welles' "The Time Machine"? His theory was that you're fated to have the same life no matter what you know about the future. This book sounds like something he would've written, but I bet he would have made it more fun.

  4. Casey, thanks for the warning on the Bellamy. Stefanie, I might look for that Grimwood. Ella, if ever I read The Time Machine, it was in the flower of my youth, and to appreciate it I would have to reread it. Wells has been on my "Want To Read" list for a while, along with Verne. Some classic sci-fi might not be a bad choice for some future mining.

  5. I was thinking Wells would be a fun Slave read sometime too, though I was thinking Island of Dr Moreau. But if the spark experiemtn works it might be fun to try to the same thing with Wells.

  6. Isn't this a movie? Groundhog Day?


  7. There is a blurb on the back cover from Harold Ramis that says Groundhog Day was not based on the book, but they were conscious of it when making the film.