In the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a reporter who, confronted with living the same day over and over again, matures from an arrogant, self-serving professional climber to someone capable of loving and appreciating others and his world. Murray convincingly portrays the transformation from someone whose self-importance is difficult to abide into a person imbued with kindness. It seems that the Nietzschean test of eternal return, insofar as it is played out in Punxsutawney, yields not an overman but a man of decency.
But there is another story line at work in the film, one we can see if we examine Murray’s character not in the early arrogant stage, nor in the post-epiphany stage, where the calendar is once again set in motion, but in the film’s middle, where he is knowingly stuck in the repetition of days. In this part of the narrative, Murray’s character has come to terms with his situation. He alone knows what is going to happen, over and over again. He has no expectations for anything different. In this period, his period of reconciliation, he becomes a model citizen of Punxsutawney. He radiates warmth and kindness, but also a certain distance.
The early and final moments of “Groundhog Day” offer something that is missing during this period of peace: passion. Granted, Phil Connors’s early ambitious passion for advancement is a far less attractive thing than the later passion of his love for Rita (played by Andie MacDowell). But there is passion in both cases. It seems that the eternal return of the same may bring peace and reconciliation, but at least in this case not intensity.
There is, of course, in all romantic love the initial infatuation, which rarely lasts. But if the love is to remain romantic, that infatuation must evolve into a longer-term intensity, even if a quiet one, that nourishes and is nourished by the common engagements and projects undertaken over time.
This might be taken to mean that a limitless future would allow for even more intensity to love than a limited one. Romantic love among immortals would open itself to an intensity that eludes our mortal race. After all, immortality opens an infinite future. And this would seem to be to the benefit of love’s passion. I think, however, that matters are quite the opposite, and that “Groundhog Day” gives us the clue as to why this is. What the film displays, if we follow this interpretive thread past the film’s plot, is not merely the necessity of time itself for love’s intensity but the necessity of a specific kind of time: time for development. The eternal return of “Groundhog Day” offered plenty of time. It promised an eternity of it. But it was the wrong kind of time. There was no time to develop a coexistence. There was instead just more of the same.
The intensity we associate with romantic love requires a future that can allow its elaboration. That intensity is of the moment, to be sure, but is also bound to the unfolding of a trajectory that it sees as its fate. If we were stuck in the same moment, the same day, day after day, the love might still remain, but its animating passion would begin to diminish.
This is why romantic love requires death.
If our time were endless, then sooner or later the future would resemble an endless Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. It is not simply the fact of a future that ensures the intensity of romantic love; it is the future of meaningful coexistence. It is the future of common projects and the passion that unfolds within them. One might indeed remain in love with another for all eternity. But that love would not burn as brightly if the years were to stammer on without number.
Why not, one might ask? The future is open. Unlike the future in “Groundhog Day,” it is not already decided. We do not have our next days framed for us by the day just passed. We can make something different of our relationships. There is always more to do and more to create of ourselves with the ones with whom we are in love.
This is not true, however, and romantic love itself shows us why. Love is between two particular people in their particularity. We cannot love just anyone, even others with much the same qualities. If we did, then when we met someone like the beloved but who possessed a little more of a quality to which we were drawn, we would, in the phrase philosophers of love use, “trade up.” But we don’t trade up, or at least most of us don’t. This is because we love that particular person in his or her specificity. And what we create together, our common projects and shared emotions, are grounded in those specificities. Romantic love is not capable of everything. It is capable only of what the unfolding of a future between two specific people can meaningfully allow.
Sooner or later the paths that can be opened by the specificities of a relationship come to an end. Not every couple can, with a sense of common meaningfulness, take up skiing or karaoke, political discussion or gardening. Eventually we must tread the same roads again, wearing them with our days. This need not kill love, although it might. But it cannot, over the course of eternity, sustain the intensity that makes romantic love, well, romantic.
One might object here that the intensity of love is a filling of the present, not a projection into the future. It is now, in a moment that needs no other moments, that I feel the vitality of romantic love. Why could this not continue, moment after moment?
To this, I can answer only that the human experience does not point this way. This is why so many sages have asked us to distance ourselves from the world in order to be able to cherish it properly. Phil Connors, in his reconciled moments, is something like a Buddhist. But he is not a romantic.
Many readers will probably already have recognized that this lesson about love concerns not only its relationship with death, but also its relationship with life. It doesn’t take eternity for many of our romantic love’s embers to begin to dim. We lose the freshness of our shared projects and our passions, and something of our relationships gets lost along with them. We still love our partner, but we think more about the old days, when love was new and the horizons of the future beckoned us. In those cases, we needn’t look for Groundhog Day, for it will already have found us.