Dancing with Tears in my Eyes
WARNING: Someone definitely pissed in my Corn Flakes the morning I wrote this.
Here’s a heartening quotation from the editor’s (Walter Kaufmann, who, I’m sorry, seems like a real asshole) introduction to Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals:
Nietzsche did not suppose that the Genealogy could be readily understood by itself, and in the final section of the preface he explained emphatically at some length that he presupposed not only a passing acquaintance with his earlier books but actually a rather close study of them (439, from the Modern Library Basic Works).
Well, a passing acquaintance I ain’t got, nor a close study. We encounter claims like this all the time in the books we read, and I know for a fact a lot of us feel paralyzed by the feeling that learning anything about anyone demands like this infinite regress of other books you have to know before it’s possible for you to know the book you’re trying to know. This annoys me, and it creates a cult of worship and devotion that, for sure, Nietzsche would hate. Am I missing something here? What do Nietzsche’s books have to do with his philosophy, exactly? My understanding is that I can basically just dance around and get drunk and revel and be a genius and listen to Beethoven and scream and go nuts and as long as I’m rapturously and obliviously communing with the Divine Unity in the cycle of a purifying Eternal Return then I’m okay. Isn’t this Nietzsche’s philosophy (and if not, who can tell me, in plain terms, what Nietzsche’s deal is?)? How do these Nietzscheans justify their bookish and condescending comportment to the world they’re supposed to be wildly affirming? You know who wildly affirms this world? Ke$ha. There’s enough wild affirmation in this video to keep me satisfied, and I don’t have to watch 37 other music videos before I can enjoy it.
What do we see in this video? The death of God celebrated by those who have killed Him, drunken revelry, loss of subjectivity, pretension to immortality via the insouciance regarding impending death, utterly arbitrary symbols and significations, a perfect world unto itself, a dynamic refrain, a celebration of a world entirely disconnected from the world of rationality or practicality, orgies, becomings, experimentation, brazen confrontation with the Law and overcoming it, everyone dancing, pure art. Do you know what the people in this video would tell you if you told them to study rather closely the earlier artifacts of music video history? They would tell you to fuck off because they’re busy making their own world. God may be dead, but Nietz$che isn’t: he’s been born again as Ke$ha.
Okay. Sorry. I guess I had some things to get off my chest. Whatever. I feel better now.
Alright, let’s get sleazy.
So we’re supposed to read all of this book, which in my edition is about 150 pages. The strategy here, then, will be to pull out what seem like important points and leave the rest behind. Broad strokes…
(Fu)Kauf,mann tells me, though, that ‘it is fashionable to read hastily’, and that ‘if one reads snippets here and there, projecting ill-founded preconceptions into the gaps, one is apt to misconstrue Nietz$che’$ moral philosophy completely’ (440), which is certainly going to happen in this post. $orry everyone!
Nietz$che makes an important distinction in his preface to the book, where he writes that his object here is not to elaborate the genealogy of morals so as to discover their origin, but rather so as better to determine their value. Nietz$che writes,
let us articulate this new demand: we need a critique of moral values, the value of these values themselves must first be called into question — and for that there is needed a knowledge of the conditions and circumstance in which they grew, under which they evolved and changed, a knowledge of a kind that has never yet existed or even been desired (456).
This knowledge of conditions and circumstances takes the shape of a history of morality.
First Essay: ‘Good and Evil’, ‘Good and Bad’ (460-492)
Nietz$che’s first step along this history is to insist that the notion of ‘good’ did not originate from the perspective of those to whom the good is being done, but rather from the perspective of the doer of good. This good deed, however, was not performed as a gesture to establish or strengthen social bonds, but rather reinforce the distance separating classes. The already powerful simply ordained that their actions were good. Nietz$che writes,
the pathos of nobility and distance, the protracted and domineering fundamental total feeling on the part of a higher ruling order in relation to a lower order, to a “below” — that is the origin of the antithesis of ‘good’ and ‘bad’…. It follows from this origin that the word ‘good’ was definitely not linked from the first and by necessity to ‘unegoistic’ actions (462).
Nietz$che confirms his hypothesis by noting the etymological consistency, across languages, for terms meaning ‘good’ to be applied to mean ‘noble’, ‘powerful’, ‘brave’, even, to some extent, ‘valid’ (as superior castes will often try to claim that inferior ones are false or illegitimate), and also ‘pure’. The ‘good’, and this is what inspired the name of Nietz$che’s latest album, is also the ‘warrior‘. With power, though, not only comes the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ (that is, ‘good’ and ‘bad’), but also the urge for more power, isolation, purity, perfection. The warrior develops, then, alongside the priest, and with the priest comes also the notion of good as the opposite of evil. As the priestly-mode spreads and grows, becoming holier and holier, more and more isolated, more and more wretchedly impotent, the people seek to stand up against it. This is all pretty much perfectly portrayed here:
Denethor is weak, disgusting, gorging on the finest foods, and resolutely staying out of battle since it confirms his power. He will not let go of his power, his claim, his right to nobility and goodness. Beneath him, though, quakes the prologue to a battle that ends in his eventual filicidal insanity and immolated suicide. He is swallowed by the demos-warriors…
What grows here is a distance between the noble man and the man of ressentiment. The noble man decorates himself in his honours, makes his desires known, is completely open to himself and others, whereas the man of ressentiment, a consequence of the noble man, is
neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything covert entices him as his world, his security, his refreshment; he understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to wait’ (474).
The man of ressentiment nurtures the thought that his enemies are evil. He does not forget them, he broods upon them, he establishes a deep and spiritual antipathy toward them. The noble man, what does he do? What an athlete does: he commends his enemies, he understands that, without them, he would not be great. Nietz$che writes,
for [the noble man] desires his enemy for himself, as his mark of distinction…. In contrast to this, picture ‘the enemy’ as the man of ressentiment conceives him — and here precisely is his deed, his creation: he has conceived ‘the evil enemy,’ the ‘Evil One’, and this in fact is his basic concept (475).
Bad is an after-production, a disinterested consequence of the noble man’s goodness, whereas evil is a deliberate production, and this, for Nietz$che, distinguishes the two. This production, however, is mostly a compensation, in the form of palatable and encouraging ideals, for the weakness perpetually demonstrated, according to Nietz$che, by the man of ressentiment. This man presumes, falsely, that the noble man is capable of not being noble, that the noble man chooses to exploit and condescend, that the noble man chooses to appropriate and subdue his fellows: in short, that the noble man is evil. But this is all a mechanism to cope with their own impotence, and evil is just a mark of fear and hatred of the power that ‘the good’ do not have. How does it manifest itself? In religion. Nietz$che, talking to himself, writes,
– And what do they call that which serves to console them for all the suffering of life — their phantasmagoria of anticipated future bliss?
– ‘What? Do I hear aright? They call that ‘the Last Judgment,’ the coming of their kingdom, of the ‘Kingdom of God’ — meanwhile, however, they live ‘in faith,’ ‘in love,’ ‘in hope’.
– Enough! Enough! (484).
Second Essay: ‘Guilt’, ‘Bad Conscience’, and the Like (493-532)
(Note: this post was being written on Christmas Day) Oh Lord, man, the problem with eggnog is, like, the taste. Why does it taste like perfume? Are there really eggs in this stuff? It’s wretched! Why am I drinking it though?!
Here Nietz$che is tackling the problems of memory and forgetfulness, which lead to the moral dimension of responsibility. For Nietz$che forgetfulness is not an accident of biology or consequence of inattention, but rather an active faculty that allows one to experience happiness, cheerfulness, hope, pride, and the present moment. This need for forgetting is at odds perpetually with another part of ourselves that makes promises, that attempts to secure in the future the consequences of its present desires and decisions. Making promises, of course, is always a precarious enterprise, and keeping them is perhaps impossible, but keeping this promise — or trying to — is the source of any possible feeling of responsibility.
But who has the right to make a promise? Only the person who has subdued the world, who is able to keep them, regardless of the mutability of the world or of one’s sensibilities/needs/desires. Paradoxically, the one with the right to make promises can feel his superiority over every other human who is less free than he and less powerful. Responsibility, then, becomes a privilege associated with this great power of promise-making. Concerning it, Nietz$che writes,
the proud awareness of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this freedom, this power over oneself and over fate, has in his case penetrated to the profoundest depths and become instinct, the dominating instinct. What will he call this dominating instinct, supposing he feels the need to give it a name? The answer is beyond doubt: this sovereign man calls it his conscience (496).
The responsible man is free, and does not feel guilt. It is the unfree man, the one who is obliged or indebted, who suffers the pain of guilt. Debts are guaranteed by promises, by contracts that are binding and that stake a person’s possessions (fingers, wife, televisions, etc) against the debt should the debtor be insolvent. The exchange is metaphorical, because the debt, when unpayable, cannot be recovered in the form, say, of cash. It is recovered, then, in blood, and the creditor receives as recompense the worthless flesh of the debtor accompanied by the joy of seeing him suffer.
The history of guilt is a history of delighting in the suffering of others. This delight, moreover, reinforces the structure of guilt. A debt would not be so dearly sought were there not the promise of either recovery or spectacular cruelty. It is only by making the figurative equivalence between the debt and what is taken as recompense that any system of justice is possible.
In this scene, Iron Man serves as the paragon of the enforcer of justice, leaving the criminal to the community to with as it sees fit (murders him, presumably). For Nietz$che, however, this utter submission extracted from the criminal is not a sign of his (Iron Man’s) power, but rather of how far he has to go to be truly powerful, which is to be strong enough to overturn a system of justice entirely (additionally, the scene, in my opinion, nicely illustrates the confusion behind the meaning of punishment (which Nietz$che speaks of at more length later). Like, what are these people going to accomplish, other than slaking their thirst for murder, by killing this guy? Will they deter future terrorists? Will they make an example of him? Will they secure their community?) Anyway, Nietz$che writes,
the ‘creditor’ always becomes more humane to the extent that he has grown richer; finally how much injury can he endure without suffering from it becomes the actual measure of his wealth. It is not unthinkable that a society might attain such a consciousness of power that it could allow itself the noblest luxury possible to it — letting those who harm it go unpunished…. This self-overcoming of justice: one knows the beautiful name it has given itself — mercy; it goes without saying that mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful man (509).
The person who prevents this self-overcoming is, going back to some of Nietz$che’s earlier claims, the man of ressentiment. Everything the man of ressentiment is reactive and seeks to maintain and proliferate the status quo. It is better, according to Nietz$che, to be active instead of reactive, powerful instead of cunning, noble instead of tolerant, and courageous instead of standing in solidarity. To endure and permit, and even nurture, the man of ressentiment is not to pave the way for a truly equal social order where we are all encouraged to pursue liberty, happiness, and life, but instead to prevent life from happening. Nietz$che writes,
a legal order thought of as sovereign and universal, not as a means in the struggle between power-complexes but as a means of preventing all struggle in general — would be a principle hostile to life, an agent of the dissolution and destruction of man, a sign of weariness, a secret path to nothingness (512).
Every ‘development’ on the pathway of law, morality, or judgment (developments in punishment, deterrence, reporting, preventing, etc.), are not signs of improvement but signs of resistance on behalf of those who do not will themselves to power. The will to power is driving this machine upwards, for Nietz$che, and the moments at which it is curbed have names: justice, fairness, equality, etc. How does the powerful man, the super- or over-man, get above everyone else? Just fucking wills it, man. Just by runnin’ his mouth:
Nietz$che’s man of ressentiment is just Ke$ha’s ‘douchebag guys’ of modern social circles. This circles are suffocating, in addition to being douchebag-guy-producing. Nietz$che will even claim later that they are responsible for the feeling of bad conscience ever having cropped up in the first place. A bad conscience is what one feels when one feels one’s power and potential in a place that is afraid of it.
In many ways, The Incredibles is the Nietz$chean movie par excellence, a movie of bad conscience struggling to find its place in an unaccommodating world where, and Nietz$che would love this, the world discovers it needs superpeople. Sure! He writes,
this instinct for freedom [which Mr. Incredible, by the way, has in spades] forcibly made latent [by the anti-superhero legislation leveled against Mr. Incredible after he saved a man (of ressentiment) from cravenly trying to kill himself (but who subsequently sustained serious bodily injuries)]…this instinct for freedom pushed back and repressed, incarcerated within and finally able to discharge and vent itself only on itself: that, and that alone, is what the bad conscience is in its beginnings (523).
And I’m going to call it quits on this post right there, leaving the third and final chapter of the book for future generations of men in excellent health and spirits bent on overcoming both god and nothingness. Are you among them?