The greatest weight. — 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 — 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.
Even the discourse around climate change and sustainability plays into this. It’s been interesting to see it shift in subtle ways. At one point not so long ago, the rhetoric was about changing our habits so as to change the planet—little changes resulting in big changes. Now it seems that it’s too late. We’ve pretty much fucked things up, and watched ourselves do it. So the rhetoric has changed from “saving the planet” (a ridiculous and naive proposition—that the planet needs to be saved by us is the height of human presumptuousness), and more towards a new rhetoric of minimizing the negative effects, doing the least amount of damage, living in the “least worst” of all possible worlds. A strange, compromised pessimism. Arguably we’re even moving into a further stage of the discourse, where it’s not just that we’ve destroyed the planet (for ourselves), and not just that we try, in our neo-hippie artisanal ways, to do the least amount of damage, but a real confrontation with the possibility that it just doesn’t matter.
Sebald suggests the possibility that Hebel may, in this way, have foreseen something of the disasters to come, that he may have “already had a sense, in 1812/13, that the fall of Napoleon and the rise of the German peoples signaled the beginning of a downward path which, once embarked upon, would not be easy to halt, and that history, from that point on, would amount to nothing other than the martyrology of mankind.”
I believe you too accustomed to reflection, gentlemen, not to have thought often about the executioner. So who is this inexplicable being who, when there are so many pleasant, lucrative, honest and even honourable professions in which he could exercise his strength or dexterity to choose among, has chosen that of torturing and putting to death his own kind? Are this head and this heart made like our own? Do they contain anything that is peculiar and alien to our nature? For myself, I have no doubt about this. In outward appearance he is made like us; he is born like us. But he is an extraordinary being, and for him to be brought into existence as a member of the human family a particular decree was required, a FIAT of creative power. He is created as a law unto himself.
…Is this a man? Yes. God receives him in his shrines and allows him to pray. He is not a criminal and yet no tongue would content to say, for example, that he is virtuous, that he is an honest man, that he is admirable etc. No moral praise seems appropriate for him, since this supposes relationships with human beings and he has none.
And yet all greatness, all power, all subordination rests on the executioner; he is both the horror and the bond of human association.
Life is that which should not be — an evil; and the passage into Nothingness is the only good in life…