Before re-watching Groundhog Day I had struggled to understand why Nietzsche set so much store by what he called ‘the eternal return’. This simple idea, which is found all over the world and dates back to antiquity, is that, if the universe is truly infinite, then it follows that there will be other worlds exactly like this one and people exactly like you living exactly the same lives. Nietzsche found this thought at the same time frightening and empowering:
‘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.' [Nietzsche: The Gay Science, 341]
In the film Groundhog Day eternal return is the fate suffered by the main character. Phil, a TV weatherman played by Bill Murray, finds himself trapped in a time-loop re-living exactly the same day. Whatever he does during the day he finds that he wakes up at exactly the same time in the same bed with the same song playing on the radio. At first he reacts with anger and confusion, then he uses his knowledge of what happens in that day to fulfil dreams of wealth and sexual conquest. When this does not satisfy he turns to self-pity, drink and suicidal self-destruction. Eventually, after trying out many different attitudes, he begins a journey of self discovery and self-development. He finds that there are things he values, especially, this being a Hollywood romantic comedy, his open-hearted TV producer, Rita, played by Ally MacBeal. Trying to impress her just alienates her. It is only when he gives up pretences, stops struggling to win her and accepts his situation that she falls for him. His time-loop is broken when he finally wakes up in bed with Rita and realises that, as he puts it: ‘today is tomorrow’.
This is Phil’s situation. He begins the movie despising his job and the people around him. He makes it clear that he wants to be somewhere else. Every year he has to go to the little country town of Punxsutawney to report on the groundhog festival. The groundhog comes out of his burrow and, if he sees his own shadow that means 6 more weeks of winter and if he not then he predicts an early spring. Phil sneers at the stupidity of this country ritual, the ignorance of the townspeople and also of his own role as a professional fake, pretending to care. Played by Bill Murray, Phil is superior and contemptuous in a very amusing way, but it is also clear that he is unhappy.
By the end of the movie we see that he has learnt to love Punxsutawney. As he steps out of a modest suburban hotel he turns to Rita and says ‘we must live here’. In Nietzsche’s language he has been cured of his resentment. But he has only come to accept himself and his situation because he had lived through a near eternity. He can accept himself now as he is only because he had already tried out every other possible way of being Phil.
The idea of the eternal return is important to Nietzsche because in affirming any one moment as good he thinks that we also have to affirm the whole thing as good, that includes all the struggles that got to the moment and all the struggles that are to come as we each individually descend into physical decay and death. Accepting just one moment as good does not work because all possible moments are entangled together. The secret to the meaning of life for Nietzsche is to realise that there is no separate self. We find ourselves flowing together with everyone and everything in a perpetual dance of becoming. To cure ourselves of unhappiness we must learn to love the whole thing, all of time, the eternal return of the same, including the annual return to Punxsutawney for the Groundhog day celebration.
One aspect of the movie Groundhog Day could be described as an exploration of the true meaning of education. At first, when Phil realises that he has an infinite amount of time to play with, he teaches himself things for superficial ends; how to get rich, how to impress women, how to play games with people. Eventually, after a few suicide attempts, he turns to a deeper kind of learning. He explores what gives him a sense of meaning and becomes more engaged with the life of Punxsutawney, useful, valued, loving others and loved in return. In a sense he stops living for selfish goals and starts living through participation in the life all around him.
Nietzsche has something to say about education for wisdom:
‘what does it mean to us today to live philosophically, to be wise? Is it not almost a way of extricating oneself cleverly from an ugly game? A kind of flight? And someone who lives in that remote and simple way: is it likely that this has let him show his understanding the best way forward? Ought he not to have tried out life personally in a hundred ways, so as to have something to say about its value? In short: we believe that a man must have lived absolutely 'unphilosophically' according to the received ideas, above all not to have lived in timid virtuousness, in order to reach judgements on the great problems from his own experience. The man with the widest experience, compressing it into general conclusions: ought he not to be the most powerful? - The wise man has too long been confused with the scholar, and even longer with the religious enthusiast’. [Nietzsche: Writings from the late notebooks. 35(24)]
This view on education for wisdom follows from Nietzsche’s more general view on the value of seeing from multiple perspectives at once, not only cognitive perspectives but different ways of feeling and of being:
There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about a matter, the more eyes, different eyes, we know how to bring to bear on one and the same matter, that much more complete will our “concept” of this matter, our “objectivity”, be. (Nietzsche: Genealogy of Morals III, 12)
So how might educationalists apply the wisdom of Groundhog Day? Nietzsche’s idea of trying a hundred different lives might sound both too dangerous and a bit too time consuming for the average curriculum. But Nietzsche himself, something of a recluse, seemed to become wise through reading and imagination. I think that my son learnt a lot through watching Groundhog Day. I learnt a lot too and we perhaps learnt most through discussing its meaning together. The arts are important in the curriculum not only for economic creativity, so students can learn to be the next Steve Jobs, but also for wisdom. Books, music, films, drama, video games, immersive virtual reality etc enable us to participate in the lives of everyone else and of everything else so that we realise that we are not alone, not separate, not lacking in anything here and now precisely because we are already participating everywhere and forever – able to say yes to the whole of life with all its ups and downs and even to contemplate living in Punxsutawney because, after all, as Phil says to Rita at the end of the movie
‘it is so beautiful here’.