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Groundhog Day

by Mark Peres

February 5,2006

Early this February, on a Thursday just after sunrise, Punxsutawny Phil came out of his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob and saw his shadow. Whispering his forecast in groundhogese to the top-hatted president of the Groundhog Club’s Inner Circle, Phil the rodent foretold six more weeks of winter. That night on cable television, one of the greatest philosophical movies ever produced – a movie that has become the favorite of literary, philosophy and religious scholars the world over – a movie that has generated doctorate theses at leading universities and has had a special showing at the Museum of Modern Art – paid homage to Punxsutawny Phil: Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray.

Murray plays Phil Connors, an egotistical weatherman, contemptuous of humanity, assigned to cover Groundhog Day in Western Pennsylvania. Connors cannot wait to return to Pittsburgh, but trapped by a blizzard that he failed to predict, he and his crew must stay another night in Punxsutawny. When he awakes the next morning, Phil discovers to his dismay that it is February 2nd – again. He wakes up to the same day over and over again, and no matter what he does, nothing he does ever matters. Phil goes through the rest of the movie in different states of evolutionary awareness about the problem of being.

Why is Groundhog Day a favorite of philosophers? Here is where it gets interesting. Harold Ramis, the writer and director of the film, based the story on the concept of eternal recurrence. Grounded in an ancient orientation toward time that is circular, cyclical and without a final state (in contrast to the Aristotelian/Judeo-Christian orientation toward time that is linear and progressive), the concept of eternal recurrence found its modern expression in the writings of Frederick Nietzsche.

In The Gay Science and later in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche challenged his readers with a thought experiment akin to a koan: what if you would have to live the life you now live and have lived over and over again innumerable times without end? The same moments in the same sequence without any variation. Waking up to exactly the same experience forever. Would you curse the thought or welcome it?

The twist arises in overcoming the notion that you can change fate. Nietzsche maintained that character is destiny – that even with the benefit of hindsight and the free-will to alter the events of one’s life, the same events will occur regardless. In order then to find happiness, one must love his or her own fate – what he termed amor fati – and will it. You must be able to come to terms with your character – your full range of virtues and vices – and affirm it. The test of your willingness to will it is your willingness to will eternal recurrence. In so doing, you self-create.

This paradox of being and happiness is at the core of Groundhog Day (and also at the core of The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin, a novel by P.D. Ouspensky published in 1915 that Harold Ramis acknowledged served as a cosmic affirmation of the movie). Phil Connors, the true Punxsutawny Phil of the movie, breaks the cycle of endless recurrence he is in when he sees his shadow as it is and creates a new self founded in virtue and love.

Murray has made a career playing tragic-comic roles with deep philosophical undertones, from The Razors Edge to Lost in Translation to Broken Flowers. He is an everyman who hides pain and pathos under an incredibly likable veneer. Murray is accessible – a quality that he shares with Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks – a quality that makes him endearing and poignant. Add to that his deadpan humor, and if there is anyone in the movies that you want to hang out with, it’s Bill Murray.

In making choices in our careers and relationships, we have a straightforward test: would we do it if we were destined to do it forever? Would we do this work? Would we sleep with this person? Would we live in this city? Is the pattern and sequence and existence of our life one we would will and affirm forever? If so, well done. If not, it is within us to wake to a new day.

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