Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Thus Spoke Zarathustra
September 20, 2010

I’m not sure I have much to say about the fourth and final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as much of it seemed to be a restatement and summary of what came before. It was certainly the funniest of the four parts by far, and there’s a reason for that: as Zarathustra comes to accept the eternal recurrence and inches closer to ultimate enlightenment, he begins to truly live his philosophy of laughing at and making a mockery of the world. He is willing, finally, to laugh at himself.

Indeed, the latter half of Part Four unfolds as a drunken celebration in his cave along with the higher men who all represent steps towards the Overman. Notably, a priest is in the group, and Zarathustra goes so far as to explicitly endorse spiritual ritual and observance for therapeutic and social reasons.

Only about 250 pages left to go in The Portable Nietzsche.

Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Thom Yorke
September 15, 2010

I’ve been slacking off on the Nietzsche blogging—so much so, in fact, that I missed all of Part Three of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Though perhaps that’s for the best, since Part Three lost some of the aphoristic style that has thus far defined Nietzsche’s work and instead added in a narrative arc. This arc begins when Zarathustra realizes that if time and the universe are infinite, then all things will recur infinitely, even the “small man” who he holds in such contempt and hopes would one day be obliterated by the overman. This throws him into deep despair, although by the end of Part Three he has come to terms with this revelation and decided to embrace the infinite and, by extension, all its constituent elements.

I’ve already written all I really have to say on the subject of eternal recurrence, so we might as well move on to Part Four; which begins, for me at least, with a different kind of revelation: I think the boys in Radiohead might be Nietzsche fans.

Consider the evidence: Much of the prologue to Part Four of Thus Spoke Zarathustra consists of Zarathustra elaborating on a metaphor for how he views mankind. In the Walter Kaufmann translation, Zarathustra sees man as “queer fish”—but another way of translating that might be “weird fishes.”

Zarathustra says that he wants to go fishing for these queer fish, baiting his lure with his own laughter and humor and then reeling them in to bring them up to the height of his wisdom.

Now listen to the song “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” embedded above. In typical post-OK Computer Radiohead fashion, the lyrics are pretty cryptic, so there’s a lot of room for interpretation; but one interpretation I’m finding increasingly plausible is that the song is being sung from the perspective of someone who lives “in the deepest ocean” among all the other unenlightened “weird fishes” and knows he would be “crazy not to follow” Zarathustra, yet is too scared.

I don’t know, maybe that’s a little far-fetched. But I wouldn’t put it past those guys.

Nietzsche Blogging: Ressentiment
September 6, 2010

Tarantula (film)
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Oh, S. Pritchard, my unwanted reading partner. His liner notes are becoming even more obtrusive and obtuse—as I wade further into Part Two of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I’m seeing more and more comments like “Yech! Sentimentality,” scrawled in the margins. Admittedly, Nietzsche’s stabs at poetry are more often than not unsuccessful and bathetic, but you don’t need to scribble all over the page to underline that point.

At least Pritchard’s notes on “On the Tarantulas” tell me something I don’t know, although perhaps they don’t send the message their author intended. The titular tarantulas of this passage are “you preachers of equality,” who Nietzsche accuses of preaching the morality of ressentiment (what I believe he would later call “slave morality”). In other words, the preachers of equality deem their oppressors evil and call the good that which harms their oppressors and brings them beneath the heel of the oppressed.

I’m not entirely sure of the historical/political context for these remarks, but it must be significant. There’s no doubt you can find certain ideologies in the modern era that fit the mold—a crude example might be the more hardline elements of Hamas—but to suggest that any doctrine of equality espoused by an oppressed minority is “secretly vengeful” is patently absurd. Is there anything in the actions or philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. to suggest that what he truly sought was white subjugation at the hands of black Americans? Of course not, and to even suggest otherwise is monstrous. When he preached equality, he meant it.

Which brings us to Pritchard’s notes. “On the Tarantulas” seems to be the first passage in the whole collection with which our conservative Christian friend fervently and whole-heartedly agrees. In the margins, he lists who he believes the modern-day tarantulas to be: “nihilist punkers,” “sociobabblers,” “deconstructionists,” “free thinkers,” “civil rights politicos,” “gays,” the black power movement, and radical feminists. If some of these references—“punkers”—sound a little bit dated, it’s because this is an old copy. As far as I can tell, Pritchard wrote these notes some time in the early-to-mid-’80s.

But that’s neither here nor there. The takeaway, I think, is that Pritchard identifies slave morality with virtually every group or ideology which challenges white heterosexual Christian male hegemony in the United States. Which is funny, because in finding an agreeable interpretation of this one passage, he reveals his stunning ignorance of what Nietzsche has been teaching about morality for the rest of the book. The philosopher is just as quick to condemn the morality of the master as of the slave—indeed, his whole moral project is based around obliterating your confidence in the values you were taught, and forcing you to invent your own. Pritchard’s notes are a reminder of how easy it is to take a single passage of Nietzsche’s out of context and use it to reaffirm the very moral principles he condemns elsewhere.

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David Foster Wallace and Nietzschean Nihilism
September 5, 2010

Taken from
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The further I’ve dug into Nietzsche, the more puzzled I’ve become when reading other philosophers discuss “Nietzschean nihilism.” All I’ve read so far suggests that Nietzsche had very strong moral intuitions, although perhaps in pointing this out I’m missing what is meant by the word “nihilist.” We’re used to talking about “nihilists” as people with no moral intuitions (or at least no moral intuitions that don’t conveniently work to their advantage), but perhaps it would be more accurate to call Nietzsche a nihilist who does not view his moral intuitions as corresponding to intrinsic, mind-independent properties of the universe. If that’s nihilism, then there’s nothing inherently amoral about it—just anti-moral realism.

Mostly I’ve been thinking about this concept of Nietzschean nihilism in direct relation to Nietzsche himself, but of course its influence extends far beyond his own work alone. For example, last week, philosopher Sean Kelly wrote of David Foster Wallace’s philosophical project that “the saving possibility for the culture that Wallace proposes is ultimately predicated on a kind of unlivable Nietzschean nihilism.”

Wallace (pictured) is, as regular readers of the blog know, among the most significant influences on my own philosophical project; so my immediate response to Kelly’s post was knee-jerk dismissal. But once I started thinking about nihilism in this light, and what it might mean to be not just a nihilist but a Nietzschean nihilist, I started to understand what his argument for that position might be (or at least, how I would put the argument; I’m going to have to wait to read Kelly’s book to find out if we’re truly talking about the same thing).

One clue to why Wallace might be called a Nietzschean nihilist lies in another post from last week, this one by Matt Feeney at The American Scene. A chunk of the post is dedicated to discussing this DFW quote:

If you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it’s probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we’re here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious.

(Aside: The quote comes to us from David Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace, published as Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I reviewed for Wunderkammer.)

Feeney says that the above passage “sounds like the sort of apotheosis of the self as a therapeutic object that is widely and mostly well-derided around these parts,” and goes on to exonerate Wallace on the grounds that he was clinically depressed. But I think he fundamentally misunderstands what Wallace—who was, after all, as sharp a critic of self-involved pop-psychology and shallow self-validation as anyone. The kind of self-love he advocates here doesn’t necessarily require self-indulgence. After all, one tries not to be overly indulgent to a small child one loves, because it isn’t healthy for him. Instead, we try to instill the child with a sense of how to remain healthy and well-adjusted throughout his whole life—and we consider the teaching of strong moral principles to be an essential part of that instruction.

If this love of the self as a path to the good is nihilism, then I think Kelly is accurate in describing it as Nietzschean nihilism. It is, in other words, glorification of the will to create, and to create one’s own kind of virtue, but in a way that, if done properly, leads to familiar moral intuitions about how to treat others. As Nietzsche himself writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra’s Part Two (which I started earlier today): “Learning better to feel joy, we learn best not to hurt others or to plan hurts for them.”

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Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part One
September 4, 2010

Cover to the first edition of the first part.
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I’m almost done with Part One of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the first cohesive long form work in The Portable Nietzsche. That’s not to say it’s as cohesive as I was expecting—there doesn’t seem to be much of a narrative arc, and if there’s a thematic arc, then it hasn’t fully revealed itself yet. Once the pariah-prophet Zarathustra descends from his mountain to deliver his message to the people, the book turns into a series of his speeches.

Pretty much any of them can be taken individually, but taken as a whole I think they’re starting to offer a pretty good summary of the overarching themes in Nietzsche’s philosophy. They might also offer some insight into the psychology of the man who would develop this philosophy, though psychoanalyzing philosophers is a dangerous—and often unnecessary—game.

I’m going to try and keep my distance from that angle unless it becomes unavoidable. After all, this isn’t The Republic—whereas you can argue (as Kaufmann indeed does in the introduction to The Portable Nietzsche) that we can never know for sure what Plato actually thought of the arguments he presented, Zarathustra seems a pretty obvious surrogate for his creator here. True, this means you could use the book as a way of investigating how Nietzsche viewed himself, but I find that a whole lot less interesting than just critically assessing the philosophy Zarathustra preaches.

So far it seems to be based on two central pillars, which I’m increasingly considering central to Nietzsche’s philosophy:

1.) Society needs threat and conflict.

Nietzsche and Zarathustra are both bomb-throwers, and they both spend a considerable amount of time glorifying other bomb-throwers. In the long run, the people who are “evil” according to the traditions of their place and time are the ones who will advance—or “inoculate“—human civilization.

2.) The fully realized self is that which rejects society’s values and imposes its will upon the world.

The first of Zarathustra’s speeches is on what he calls “the three metamorphoses of the spirit, those being:

1.) The camel, which accepts tremendous burdens (those burdens being moral obligations, both to others and to capital-T Truth) and carries them into the desert.

2.) “A lion who would conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert.” Nietzsche describes the lion as engaged in mortal combat with a dragon named “Thou shalt.” The dragon is, in other words, the traditions, values and social mores of the age.

3.) A child: “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning […] the spirit now wills his own will.”

As far as I can tell, the creation of this child is essentially the birth of the übermensch—“overman” in this translation, but “superman” elsewhere—that is first introduced as a key concept in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and championed as humanity’s ultimate goal.

Because there’s an implicit rejection of all moral law encoded into this philosophy, it’s tempting to call it “nihilism,” but I’m not convinced that’s accurate. The overman is still very much a normative imperative, one which can only be reached by exercising a number of different virtues. The thing I’m still not clear on—and which Nietzsche himself might not be clear on, at least at this point—is what sort of values come after the overman.

September 3, 2010

Some quick news and updates:

1.) Later this month, I’ll be moving to Washington DC to become a researcher at Media Matters For America. Obviously everything at this blog will continue to solely reflect my own views, and not those of my employer.

Incidentally, this means I need to find an apartment in DC or Northern VA in the next couple of weeks or so. So if anyone has any advice/leads, that would be much appreciated.

2.) Nietzsche blogging is not dead! I know I’ve been slacking off on the blogging part, but in the meantime I’ve been plowing my way through Part 1 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and I’ll have some thoughts on what I’ve gotten out of it so far up pretty soon.

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