Individualism is Not Individuation (7/13/11)

As a world-historical negator and underminer of established values and traditional beliefs, Nietzsche may have been without peer—and any apologist who dares to claim that Nietzsche did not contribute enormously, if unintentionally, to present-day nihilism deserves to be laughed and hooted off the stage. Nietzsche was a destroyer par excellence and that’s that. From time to time destroyers are called for. The ancient Hindus would not have elevated Shiva to a place beside Vishnu, had things been otherwise. Nietzsche does a lot of talking about creating new values (to replace the ones he mocks, discredits, and de-values with his bloodhound’s nose for decay and weakness) but aside from his somewhat unconvincing and repetitive attempts to resurrect antique forms of proud and austere nobility, it’s mostly just talk. A bit like Iago—but perhaps slightly less ‘honest’ with himself—Nietzsche was ‘nothing, if not critical.’ Like Goethe’s Mephistopheles, he was ‘the spirit of negation,’ but not as subtly edifying as Faust’s fictional foil. For me, Nietzsche has always been the acid bath that I feel obliged to plunge into, periodically, in order to burn away dead skin—and dead organs. He has served as my ideal foil—my strongest and most respected adversary. His acid removes my rust, making me a cleaner and shinier blade—but I fear I am in a minority, precisely here.

Unless we know in our bones—bones which, unlike the skin and the viscera, are comparatively resistant to acid—that Nietzsche is cursed with possessing only half the picture, we place ourselves in greater danger in Nietzsche’s company than would be the case if we would make friends with someone else. Nietzsche, who was lonely in the worst way, speaks chiefly to others who are lonely in the same way. It is the ‘proud, noble’ loneliness without a vision of transcendence. He reminds us of Capaneus or of Farinata in Dante’s Inferno: ‘great-souled’ figures who are damned because of their violence or haughtiness against God or the Gods. To be an inescapably and incurably immanent creature with no hope of transcending our human, all too human orbit, while apparently not a problem for the majority of tame and tepid earthlings, is—for more spirited specimens of humanity—an intolerably Sisyphean situation against which every cell in the body rebels. It is the myopic loneliness of the unredeemable no-sayer—of the ‘Promethean’ ego that cannot bend or submit to anyone or anything higher, larger, or more whole—because it recognizes no one and no vision beyond itself. Nietzsche is the one to keep ever in mind as an example of where not to stray—unless, of course, you want to become lost in a labyrinth and consumed by a Minotaur. I am being severe with him—but doesn’t he invite it, this hard, cruel treatment? My heart has broken into pitiful, wrenching sobs for him on more than a few occasions—although I may have been crying for both of us, my proud, morbid cousin and me. I’m not as clever as he was—but I’m not as stupid, either. There are so few like him out there—in fact there is no one quite like him. After spending so much time with him listening to his incomparable thoughts—listening to him think them, unearth them—it is difficult to find others who can elicit a similar degree of admiration and fascination from me. Sometimes health and balance just seem boring when placed beside Nietzsche’s brilliantly tortured and supersubtle pathologies. In becoming so completely individual, he gradually became humanly unapproachable. How did this happen? By insisting that everything common about himself be reduced to his individual power and consciousness, did it become increasingly impossible for him to share with others? Paradoxically, this most selfish of megalomaniacs could give but he could not receive. The unlooked-for culmination of radical individualism? Did he painstakingly and fastidiously paint himself into a rich and strange corner called ‘Nietzsche?’

Could this instructive casualty have been avoided? Possibly. But Nietzsche would have had to learn how to defer to those ‘Gods’ within—to serve them with greater reverence and humility—rather than ceaselessly struggle to reduce and subjugate them to his ego’s vaunting will to power. Those whom the gods would destroy they make mad—and Nietzsche’s final and engulfing madness was provoked by his ‘overreaching.’

Individuation consists, at bottom, in the ongoing, dialectically conducted reconciliation between the ego and the unconscious, where the Gods have temporarily taken refuge. The ego must be strong enough to bear the tension of such a charged relationship, a relationship which always threatens to produce a dangerous inflation, against which the ego must carefully guard by maintaining a clear distinction between itself (and its limited sphere of power) and the numinous contents of the unconscious. Nietzsche succumbed to an identification with these contents—a very different psychological situation, indeed, from a dialectical relationship—a relationship, moreover, that eventually culminates in a crucifixion ordeal for the ego.


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