The 2016 film Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve and based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” shares much with the tone of the cerebral and philosophically adventurous science-fiction from twentieth-century speculative-fiction masters like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Rod Serling. Helmed by Villeneuve, Arrival’s simultaneous full command of modern moviemaking practices as well as fidelity to that earlier era’s penchant for respecting the intellect of its audience make it an excellent film.
But as much as Arrival’s modern touches and classic style make for profuse praiseworthy and analytical fare—and have featured in reviews, essays, and explanations aplenty—it’s another relationship that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere that interests me more: the overlap between the premise of Arrival and a philosophical concept known as ‘eternal recurrence’ or ‘eternal return of the same’ that was most famously championed and explored in western philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche. Both ultimately come around to raising the same notion: what would it mean to actively, enthusiastically, and fully will every moment of one’s life?
Friedrich Nietzsche’s Hypothetical of Eternal Recurrence:
Like just about every aspect of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, eternal recurrence has been subject to fairly widespread misunderstandings in the years since he wrote about it. In the case of eternal return, the most common misunderstanding is the idea that Nietzsche was intending the concept every time he mentioned it as an entirely serious, proto-scientific account for the nature of reality.
But there is a large amount of ambiguity among his various presentations of the idea, and Nietzsche’s first explicit formulation of eternal recurrence is as nothing more than a hypothetical question in his book The Gay Science. In order to understand the purpose of the hypothetical, and thus the deep and abiding concern which kept Nietzsche fascinated with the concept, I will now present some of Nietzsche’s statements from section 341 of Walter Kaufmann’s translation of The Gay Science:
The greatest weight.—— What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you in 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—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again—and you with it, speck of dust!”
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!” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you; the question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more, and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Nietzsche 273-4)
Like much of Nietzsche’s mature writing, The Gay Science is written in an aphoristic style—meaning that the work is constructed of short, episodic aphorisms of this sort. For readers accustomed to the analytical style of most twentieth and twenty-first century philosophers—where every idea is spelled out as precisely and unambiguously as possible, and then explored and explained at considerable length—philosophy like this can take some getting used to. I mention all of this only to underscore that I am not leaving any details or arguments out of this particular passage; you have all of the material you need, from Nietzsche’s perspective, to reach or explore your conclusions.
In that passage, one can see relatively plainly (as straightforward as anything in Nietzsche’s writing, at least) that for Friedrich Nietzsche eternal recurrence is first and foremost a philosophical and psychological exercise related to one’s will, and in particular related to one’s orientation toward the willed actions and experiences of one’s life.
Nietzsche distinguishes two categories of existence for the purposes of his hypothetical: (1) existing in such a way that one would not want to experience the same existence repeated even once, and (2) existing according to willed actions and decisions which would not only satisfy but fulfill and excite a person if the sum of existence containing them were repeated again and again for all eternity.
The idea is that, given this strange hypothetical, one would prefer to be in the latter camp; and given that this is so, one may in practice strive to behave, decide, and follow wills in ways that are in accord with this disposition.
This notion is tied closely together with another key term in Nietzsche’s works: amor fati (i.e. love of fate). Amor fati is also classed as a disposition Nietzsche recommends cultivating. Between eternal recurrence and amor fati there is an overlap as well as a tension; the overlap is in the idea of being so disposed as to accept and love existence, whereas the tension lies between that which is in one’s control and that which is not. In order to attain the height of authenticity and power, contends Nietzsche, one would need to simultaneously love—i.e. accept, embrace, and relish—all occurrences of one’s life while they also choose and act—i.e. fulfill their wills—in such a way as that they would be willing to so choose and so act forever.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of Arrival, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film.
Arrival, Nietzsche, Eternal Return, and Will:
Consider now some new, related hypotheticals: Would you behave any differently if you knew the time and circumstances of your own death? Would you treat a friend any differently if you knew the time and circumstances of the dissolution of your friendship? Would you treat a date differently if you knew at what point and for what duration of the evening the two of you would argue?
These are the sorts of questions that may be raised by watching Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. At the center of Arrival is the character of Louise Banks, a linguist excellently portrayed by actress Amy Adams, who is tasked with decrypting the rounded phonemes of a language spoken by a race of cephalopod-like alien visitors whose appearance on earth is the eponymous arrival.
Upon successfully decoding the language at the climax of Arrival, Banks becomes aware that to think in the alien language is to think extra-dimensionally. To be specific, the extra dimension with respect to which the alien language is constructed is time. The film also subscribes (somewhat hyperbolically, perhaps) to a linguistic theory which is broadly labeled linguistic relativity, whereby one’s language circumscribes, influences, and possibly even determines both the thoughts of a person and even a person’s method of thinking. So when Louise Banks conceives of the world through the extra-temporal alien language, she becomes simultaneously aware of her entire life after and before the present moment. She gains access to the heptapod alien’s extra-temporal method of thinking.
As far as is discernible in Arrival, this language is intended as (and acts as, geopolitically) a gift that facilitates peace. Yet it is plain to see that such a gift is also a burden; Banks, after all, sees the cut-short life of her eventual daughter in her first glimpses of her own life-to-come throughout the film.
In both Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence and Arrival’s concept of four-dimensional thought, the consequence of the premise is that one is choosing experiences which have somehow gained permanence. In eternal recurrence’s case, it is through potentially infinite repetition. In Arrival’s case, it is through stabilization; that is, each moment now gains a fourth-dimensional position which is steady and unchanging, which can be visited by fourth-dimensional minds.
The endless, aimless, meaningless procession of existence depicted in Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence shares much in its potential discouragement of a person with the isolated, brief, and terminal life and relationships which Louise Banks comes to recognize as her own. But much like Nietzsche’s maneuver of theorizing the Übermensch, Louise Banks constructs herself anew in light of her new knowledge as an agent who welcomes wholeheartedly the full breadth of her coming experiences—including both their highest, love-filled highs and their lowest, tragic lows.
Banks confronts the death of her daughter and the preceding, related dissolution of her marriage; she is able to incorporate those events into her self-identity. They are not desirous to her in this incorporation, but they are a part of elements of her life (her romance and marriage as well as her relationship with her daughter) which she is affirming to be so worthwhile and central to her future self as to justify accepting the tragedies that they inevitably tend toward.
And after all, in all of our lives every relationship does in fact tend toward an ending—possibly an ending that comes too soon or follows suffering, or possibly an amicable or due ending. The character of Louise Banks differs from reality only insofar as she has access to precise details concerning such events. Her choice to take on parenthood is ultimately symbolic of the choice that we all must make in merely seeking out relationships and positive experiences: to attempt to construct, whether implicitly or explicitly, a possible structure of affirmation and joy within an absurd and, whether repeated, finite existence.
In actuality, all such purported permanence, whether it be from eternal return of the same or from Arrival-esque timeless thought, may of course be illusory. For eternal return of the same, Walter Kaufmann himself (the acclaimed Nietzsche scholar whose translation is quoted above), pointed out that it is perfectly consistent from a logical standpoint that there be finite space, finite particles, and infinite time—without any guarantee of the same combination ever recurring. And as for time travel, in thought or deed, it still involves loops, paradoxes, and physical contradictions which do not find any resolution in our current understanding of physics (certain as-yet-unconfirmed quantum theories notwithstanding).
So what, then, is the value of a narrative like that in Arrival?
Well, as I hope you’ve noticed, the value as intended by Friedrich Nietzsche (and as praised by Walter Kaufmann, and perhaps as intended by Ted Chiang and Amy Adams and Denis Villeneuve) is in the mere possibility of its reality, and in the thought experiment itself. One does not have to be literally assured that one’s actions participate in permanence in order to feel, in Nietzsche’s phrasing, the burdensome weight of it. Such investigations are formulae for evaluating the trajectory, content, and decisions of your life. Perhaps even in the absence of Arrival’s fourth-dimensional perspective or Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘time as a flat circle,’ it may be possible for one to actively, enthusiastically, and fully will every experience that one finds before oneself in existence.
 The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s conception of a figure whose full affirmation of life, existence, and reality as-is—to the exclusion of hollow, other-worldly, and after-life concerns—restructures humanity’s values and makes eternally recurring reality not just bearable but joyous.
 Although I do not explore this notion in this particular article, there is a further complication to Arrival’s treatment of these themes due to their implication of hard determinism (the only contradiction of this in the film is the surprised demeanor of Amy Adams’ character during her meeting with the Chinese general at the climax of the film). I mention it here primarily because, while it may be a distracting aside within the article, it does relate to this article’s topic. Louise Banks, in the end, may not actually have any choice in the matter. Her cognizance of the future does not necessarily imply her ability to choose to do otherwise than the future she sees. This would, after all, produce a classic grandfather paradox. So Banks’ decision, such as it is, may be a decision not of action but of disposition and psychological orientation.
 “Even if there were exceedingly few things in a finite space in an infinite time, they would not have to repeat in the same configurations. Suppose there were three wheels of equal size, rotating on the same axis, one point marked on the circumference of each wheel, and these three points lined up in one straight line. If the second wheel rotated twice as fast as the first, and if the speed of the third wheel was 1/π of the speed of the first, the initial line-up would never recur.” (Kaufmann 327)
Life Willed at every Second: