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Nier Automata's 2B, Nietzsche and Eternal Recurrence



In Nier Automata the gods are dead. Ten thousand years into the future aliens conquer earth and humanity flees to the moon. Aliens defend their newly annexed planet using machines; and humans fight a Reconquista with a sentient android army, YorHa. But as a few machine life forms and androids discover throughout the conflict, their respective creators are long dead. Humanity went extinct millennia ago, and YorHa sends empty crates and distilled water to the moon to sustain the fiction of a living human resistance. Adam and Eve (machines who control the machine network and issue orders) even confess to killing their creators, regarding them as pathetic, plant-like things. That Adam and Eve choose to do such a thing is significant. God is not merely extinct, God is inadequate. "For even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed Him! [...] What lustrations, what sacred games shall we have to invent"[1].

The androids find a reason for being in their militaristic structure of orders, battles, past times, and relationships. The machines flirt with human philosophy and culture, which they have access to via data that has somehow survived somewhere. Our Pod assistant routinely references data on humanity and machines doubtless have a limitless repository somewhere. And so both androids and machines grope in the dark for reasons to sustain their existence, as is summarized in the English version of the "Weight of the World" song, struggling against "meaningless[ness]" and wanting to "save everyone", which plays at the end of the first Ending A. But like Ending A, the lyrics are deceptive. Desire for truth and meaning, Nietzsche writes, "might also [other than the desire not to self-deceive, 'the very ground of morality'] be something much worse, namely a destructive principle, a principle hostile to life ... 'the desire for truth' might well be a concealed desire for death'.[2]


When we consider the actions, words, and events of Nier Automata in light of this hypothesis it makes more sense to conclude that the game is not exploring nihilistic disillusionment in the absence of a creator and the collapse of religion and ideology (although that remains a facet of it, of course) but the all-consuming desire for death, conscious or not. I propose it's similar to the death drive of Hamlet. Hamlet sinks into a deep depression from bereavement, the assassination of his father the King of Denmark, but in his melancholy and morbid soliloquies and enraged outbursts, his father is either absent or highly abstract.


Look here, upon this picture, and on this,

The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.

See, what a grace was seated on this brow;

Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself;

An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;

A station like the herald Mercury

New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;

A combination and a form indeed,

Where every god did seem to set his seal,

To give the world assurance of a man:

This was your husband.


His depiction of his father is - in Nietzsche's use of the term - Apollonian. 'Alas, poor Yorrick' has much more humane warmth and nostalgia. It would be cynical to say his bereavement means nothing to him (some Shakespeare critics have historically said something along these lines -- although all of this is well beyond the scope of this piece). But Hamlet is drawn to ruminating on the 'undiscovered country' for reasons that go beyond his bereavement. Hamlet is not about bereavement and revenge but is best understood around the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, and just so is Nier Automata. 2B and 9S ("Nein Esse", not to be) is a pun that will not have escaped the notice of many players.[3] The only character who carries the weight of disillusionment, and the betrayal of the fiction of YorHa with her, I feel, is A2 (a pun on 'Et tu' as in 'Et tu Brute' from Julius Caesar) who deserts YorHa and lives as a fugitive seething with resentment. Most of the other dramatis personae self-destruct - as I will now try to demonstrate - for the concealed desire for death Nietzsche proposes.


Adam, like Nietzsche, and to the deep chagrin of 9S, identifies that the death drive is extremely important for understanding humanity and becomes obsessed with emulating it. Obsessed to the point that he kidnaps 9S, disconnects from the network (which effectively means becoming mortal, he cannot 'save' his data), and challenges 2B to a fatal duel. Before enumerating other examples in the game it's worth elaborating on Nietzsche's musings on the death drive. In his scathing polemic of Christianity and what he calls the holy lie, he disparages Christianity for exploiting "the tremendous longing for suicide as an instrument of power", it invests martyrdom with the "highest dignity" and forbade all others as mortal sins -- "But martyrdom, and the gradual disembodiment of the ascetic were allowed"[4]. And even more pertinent for our purposes, Nietzsche proposes that every time a war breaks out,


... a desire invariably breaks out at the same time among precisely the noblest people in the nation, though they are naturally loath to disclose it: they enthusiastically throw themselves into this new risk of death because they believe that by sacrificing themselves for their country they have finally obtained the permission which they have long sought -- the permission to abandon their aims; war is for them a detour to suicide, but a detour with a good conscience. (Nietzsche's emphasis)[5]


That most of the characters both have an innate "tremendous longing for suicide", and will devote themselves to a cause or an ideology as a pretext for abandoning their aims, or even abandoning conceiving an aim altogether, can be seen time and time again. After 9S has done some digging in the servers following a factory reset after his capture by Adam, he discovers that YorHa created the Council of Humanity, and the commander of YorHa entrusts him with the truth. When 9S asks why the grand deception, the Commander replies that the androids need a God to die for.

This could easily be dismissed as irrelevant and selective in proving that there is a powerful and ubiquitous death wish in the world of Nier Automata but it must be emphasised that repeatedly - and finally - the androids will choose death and oblivion over any other alternative. The alien machines too. In the third act (route C) when the machines allegedly release a logic virus, corrupting YorHa's save data. 2B, 9S, and the commander survive this contagion. YorHa could be rebuilt (at the end of Ending E, the Pods do just this). Instead of fleeing to Earth with 2B and 9S, the commander chooses to go down with the ship. Granted, she's already infected with the logic virus but it's dubious that the machines are responsible for its creation at all. As Pascal notes, the machines stopped receiving orders long ago, even before they disconnected from the network. Adam and Eve spend their days consuming literature, machines have their internal conflicts, roleplay de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre for reasons, and so on. The machines have for perhaps millennia been fighting defensively ("Android... why fight..." is Adam's first words when we meet him in Act 1). The logic virus is, therefore, perhaps a mass cult suicide.


The Forest Kingdom, another society of machines that have disconnected from the machine network like those of Pascal and his commune, decide to form a kingdom and watch over a baby-like machine that will one day rule them. Naturally, this does not work, and when 2B and 9S arrive with, initially, no violent intent whatsoever, they are attacked. A drill sergeant tells his army to charge "You have lived your whole life for this singular moment". Rather than confront their failure and reorganize around something other than a protectorship for an infant king that can never grow up, the machines choose death when an opportunity presents itself. As do the cultists at the end of Act 1 and Act 2. Some machines are afraid of death, but the overriding will tends towards it.


Our main characters are most important in examining this thesis, of course. 9S, like Nietzsche predicts, pursues the truth to the end, and then his own demise. A2 kills 2B, according to the latter's wishes, to save her from being overtaken by the logic virus. 9S is capable of understanding this mercy but chooses not to. "You killed 2B, that is more than enough reason for us to kill each other" he spits at A2 at the end of the final act. When his Pod assistant warns him against it and implores him to cease hostilities, 9S orders the Pod to suspend all logical thought until either he or A2 are dead. 2B on the other hand chooses 'to be', and she perhaps has a much heavier cross to bear than 9S or anyone else. 9S is only aware of the fiction of YorHa. 2B was already aware of this, her actual designation is 2E, and her orders are to assassinate her assigned 9S unit when it gets close to discovering the truth. More than this, I believe, 2B is aware that she's a character in a video game, doomed to repeat events ad infinitum -- and still chooses life.


From Book IV of Nietzsche's The Gay Science, under the heading "The Greatest Weight":


What if one day or night a demon came to you in your most solitary solitude and

said to you: 'This life, as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live again, and innumerable times again, and there will be nothing new in it; but rather every pain and joy, every thought and sigh, and all the unutterably trivial or great things in your life will have to happen to you again, with everything in the same series and sequence [...] Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke to you thus? Or was there one time when you experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: 'You are a god, and I have never heard anything so divine!' If that thought took hold of you as you are, it would transform you and perhaps crush you; the question with regard to each and everything 'Do you want this again, innumerable times again?' would weigh upon your actions with the greatest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life, that you might long for nothing more than this final eternal confirmation and seal? (Nietzsche's emphasis)


Whether Yoko Taro was aware of "The Greatest Weight" essay, I think the 'weight' it refers to, alongside the title of the song "Weight of the World", is striking because this is precisely the burden 2B carries. Nietzsche expounds this theory, Eternal Recurrence (the notion that you will live your life repeatedly exactly as you have lived it, retaining only the faintest deja vu), also in Thus Spake Zarathustra numerous times. We do not need to quote each of these instances in detail to understand it further - at least for our purposes in discussing Nier Automata - but there is an episode from Part Three of TSZ that is particularly relevant. Zarathustra has a vision that recalls Nietzsche discovering his father's death, "But there was a man lying! And there! The dog, leaping, bristling, whining; then it saw me coming - then it howled again, then it cried out -- had I ever heard a dog cry so for help?" He then calls out to his disciples "You bold men around me! You venturers, adventurers, and those of you who have embarked with cunning sails upon undiscovered seas! You who take pleasure in riddles! Solve for me the riddle that I saw, interpret to me the vision of the most solitary man!". Attentive players of Nier Automata will have perhaps anticipated why I am interested in Nietzsche talking about the riddle of the eternal recurrence:


Everything that lives is designed to end. We are perpetually trapped between life and death. Is this a curse, or some kind of punishment? I often think about the God that gifted us with this cryptic puzzle and wonder if I'll ever have the chance to kill him.


These words are spoken by 2B and are particularly striking when the player retains their save data and loads in a New Game Plus. 2B is aware of the eternal recurrence, aware of the God (perhaps the player) who forces her to repeat the events of the game over and over for reasons that are impossible to her to fathom. And in those New Game Plus cycles, she may encounter an enemy that gives her pause and wonder that she has not seen it before in a previous cycle at a different point in time, like Zarathustra with the sudden vision of the dead man and the dog.

We can understand why looping through the same traumatic events, all the while retaining an awareness of them "would weigh upon your actions with the greatest weight" but why then, does not 2B despair like 9S? And why does Nietzsche propose that you only have to become well disposed to yourself and to life to realize that the eternal recurrence is 'divine' and not to be lamented?


From R.J. Hollingdale's introduction to Thus Spake Zarathustra:


When the same thing happens in an individual, when he imposes commands upon

himself and obeys them, so that he too as it were changes from a rabble into a nation, the result is 'the Superman' [Hollingdale calls it the Superman, readers may also have encountered this concept as Ubermensch untranslated from German] the man who is master of himself. But to master oneself is the hardest of all tasks, that which requires the greatest amount of power: he who can do it has experienced the greatest amount of power [...] Through continual increase of power to transmute the chaos of life into a continual self-overcoming of life and thus to experience in an ever greater degree the joy which is synonymous with this self-overcoming [...] To be sure, only the superman could be so well disposed towards life as to want it again and again forever [...] The joy of the Superman in being as he is, now and ever, is the ultimate sublimation of the will to power and the final overcoming of an otherwise inexorable and inevitable nihilism. [7]


I reference the Ubermensch for contrast, not comparison. 2B is not Ubermensch, nor does she aspire to be anything resembling it. She falls far short of achieving the power to turn nihilism into exponential joy and gratification of conquering the repeated cycles emotionally unscathed. She is deeply pained by the endless cycles (she wants to kill whoever is responsible) and is particularly resentful over the destruction of 9S's memories when she has to inevitably fulfill her purpose as a 2E assassin droid again and again. She is however interested in another kind of self-mastery, and it is her last wish, as A2 informs 9S in their final confrontation, that 9S attains this. 9S doesn't need to discover the truth about YorHa or destroy everyone in revenge or speculate about what could have been if he and 2B were human (2B has to continually redirect his high school anime slice of life fantasies, about what things would be like if 2B and 9S were human and living normal lives, to the present moment, not out of spite, but to avoid unnecessary grief). The ruined world has value rooted in the people in it and the relationships between them, in empathy and altruism, and bushido like self-discipline. Just so does the game has meaning for the player in his bond with another real player who sacrifices his save data to aid him in blasting away the credits and reaching the final True Ending. It's telling her katana are called Virtuous Treaty and Virtuous Contract -- she forms a private pact with reality based on these values and does not despair.


Sou bokura wa ima

A mukachi demo sakebu

Ano kowareta sekai no uta

Sou bokura wa ima

Aa muimi demo negau

Tada kimi to no mirai wo


Ano hi no egao wa itoshii mama Kiete

And so, we right now

Ah, even though it's worthless I cry out

A song for this ruined world

And so we right now

Ah even though it's meaningless I pray

For a future together with you

Your smiling face vanishes while it is still beautiful [8]


As I stated at the beginning, the English version of the song is not a failure but a false Disney ending and intentionally so. The metaphors of the Japanese version are replete with allusions to things that are said and take place in the game, 2B's "curse" (Kore ga boku no noroi) and how she murders her promises (Yakusoku korosu itami ga) and tell us far more about 2B than the English version did. There's a future with her comrades, even with tentative alliances with the machines, and these things do not require a God or a cause to enjoy them. It's those very structures, ideological and institutional, from which machines and android purportedly derive purpose that is the obstacle, and the above-quoted line where she voices her pain and continually having to kill 9S is particularly poignant (and absent from the English and Chaos language versions). She and 9S inhabit a post-post-apocalyptic wasteland but, for her at least, and not for the majority of the present denizens of earth, that doesn't merit despair.


Bibliography

1. Nietzsche, F. (2020), God Is Dead: God Remains Dead And We Have Killed Him (Penguin Great Ideas) "The Madman" Penguin p. 57

2. Ibid. p. 110

3. <https://nier.fandom.com/wiki/YoRHa_No.9_Type_S>

4. Ibid, p. 63-64

5. Ibid. p. 104

6. Nietzsche, F. (2018), The Joyous Science Penguin p. 229-230

7. Nietzsche, F. (1974), Thus Spake Zarathustra (ed. R.J. Hollingdale), Introduction, pp. 26-27

8. English translation of Japanese "Weight of the World" <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOSGn8qfEAc>

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