Beyond ‘Will to Power’ (9/13)

If Nietzsche had been more penetrating in his thinking, more varied in his archetypal perspectives, and only half as crafty as a rhetorician, his thought would continue to command by full respect. But once we catch wind of his monism (‘life is will to power and nothing besides’) along with the reductivism that unfailingly accompanies monism, we henceforth know that we are eating tofu with every meal he serves up. Sure, the tofu is baked, boiled, sautéed, barbecued, stir-fried and seasoned with every exotic spice available to him—but it’s still boring old tofu when you get right down to it, no matter how elaborately it is prepared. Erich Heller turns out to have been right about Nietzsche being a ‘hedgehog’ at bottom, when on the surface he commands the ‘most multifarious art of style’ in the foxiest possible manner. But manner and matter are different things no matter how far a thinker goes out of his way to conceal the limitations of one behind the veils of the other. I cannot help but think of Nietzsche’s eventual madness as the buckling and collapsing of this overstressed monism—Nietzsche’s willful inner resistance to anything he felt to be fundamentally uncongenial or incompatible with his—dare I say it?—dogmatic stance as the slayer of Platonic-Christian metaphysics. Jung says that we ultimately become the thing we fight the hardest. So does Nietzsche, as a matter of fact—in his own way.

Perhaps—as with dogma—polemics should be employed (by philosophers), if at all, merely as a launching pad (as I am doing here?). Our polemical stance is something to lift off from, enabling us to climb (or descend) into a region of questioning where the gravitational pull of some inviolable platform or another is not so powerful that we remain completely grounded in or by it. For all his talk about altitude and freedom and the ‘pathos of distance’ from everything merely human, all too human, Nietzsche rarely seems disburdened of some warlike stance vis-à-vis the human. If the will to power is traceable back to an archetypal perspective—as I strongly suspect it is—then Nietzsche was an avatar for this particular deity. He is a priest whose vows were pledged to the God-image that masks the will to power. From monism to monotheism. And as a priest in the service of the God of will, Nietzsche—like a good Dominican or Jesuit from yesteryear—leaves no trick untried in his effort to win converts—except here, of course, it is converts contra Christianity. From Paul back into Saul, Nietzsche becomes, as it were, un-damascatated. One can read his famous psychological ‘diagnosis’ of St. Paul as one of the most candid, unconscious self-revelations ever penned. What a thin line stands between St. Paul, ‘this most ambitious and importunate soul, [with] a mind as superstitious as it was cunning’ and Nietzsche! He refers to Paul as the ‘Jewish Pascal.’ And Pascal’s greatest sin, according to Nietzsche, was his sacrificium intellectus. I would argue—I have argued—that it was Nietzsche’s foolish elevation of the intellect to the lofty position of judge and arbiter (as distinct from serviceable discriminator, purifier, and clarifier) in matters of the spirit that led to his eventual spiritual-psychological blindness. Like many a Jesuit before him, he wound up becoming a servant to his (anti-) theology—or a captive, cunning slave to articles of faith—and not to the Mysterium that undermines and makes trivial the most nuanced reasoning and the subtlest rhetoric.

Alas, Nietzsche’s temperament—that of a conquering hero and slayer of dragons—seems to have worked against him as a philosopher and even more so as a psychologist. Conquerors almost always wind up destroying more than they had on their ‘kill list’—and Nietzsche is no exception here. Stepping back a little bit from any page of Nietzsche allows us to see just how rare it is for him to simply let things be. Rather, he is forever taking a stand for or against something or someone. He is continually being overpowered by his own compulsion to overpower, so that he is always squaring off, ‘sizing up,’ cutting down, stretching, inverting, flaying, vivisecting, mocking (or conversely—promoting, adorning, reviving, etc.) whatever he treats. These postures—of attack, of unmasking, of devaluation, of celebration, of admiration, etc.—immerse us unflaggingly in Nietzsche’s personal value judgments and his tastes. Is it just me, or doesn’t this become tiresome and cloying after a few years of Nietzsche, Nietzsche, Nietzsche? He’s always there—up close and personal—in your face—under your skin. God, he must have been lonely! Or, am I just describing myself, since ‘it takes one to know one’? Ha.

In such moments, I get a glimpse of just how infected I am by his boring—and here I mean it in the sense of ‘boring through two-inch steel’—thoughts and suspicions. His writings frequently work upon us like a poison or an intoxicant—weakening us and upsetting our sense of balance. Where they act as a tonic or stimulant, it is almost invariably upon our warlike instincts. He doesn’t merely document or diagnose the symptoms of decay and nihilism. Rather, in casting so much corrosive suspicion upon most of the prevalent norms and ordinary assumptions of the contemporary Western worldview—digging like a chigger on steroids through the unprotected, childlike beliefs that so many of us still cling to—so that we are henceforth left to itch and bleed in torment without remedy, Nietzsche perhaps unintentionally adds much suffering and confusion to an already crippled and tottering culture. At times he sounds as if this destruction is thoroughly intentional—as when he suggests that whatever is weak and decadent in this culture can and should be amputated like a gangrenous limb A.S.A.P. But what if, in fact, humanity is today confronted by problems and challenges that Nietzsche had very little ‘feel’ for—despite his brilliant and historically informed mind? What if his methods and his aims—as subtle and startlingly effective as they are within the former scheme of Western thought—are actually somewhat ham-fisted, misguided, and irrelevant with respect to the paths of quietism and spiritual liberation, where very different redemptive possibilities are to be found?


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