Friendship and Our Individual Natures (5/3/13)

Earlier, I read an account by Franz Overbeck where it was noted that virtually all of Nietzsche’s friendships were lop-sided—where he projected far more significance and assumed that there was far more intimacy than the other parties did. Overbeck proposes Nietzsche’s pungent and irrefragable differentness from all other human beings as the likely source of this disparity of friendly love and affection. As ‘hunger is the best sauce,’ Nietzsche’s loneliness must certainly have been a great flavor enhancer—functioning like a walloping dose of MSG in his links with some comparatively insipid souls, judging from their letters and accounts. The recollection by Overbeck triggered personal feelings of estrangement (from others)—feelings that are never far from the surface in me. The more I grow into myself—the admittedly strange (and strangely driven, strangely oriented) human being that I appear to be, the more differentiated from those around me I progressively become. It is perhaps true that I could make greater efforts to accommodate myself to others, to look for things in common, and perhaps such efforts would be rewarded with a greater degree of solidarity and kinship with others. But, aaagh!! To speak truthfully: something has been holding me back from such efforts—and, for the moment, at least—I trust whatever it is that’s holding me back. (I am reminded of Socrates’ daimon here: it never told him to do this or that—only what not to do.)

And perhaps there is no need to invoke ‘daimonic’ influences here—although I would not rule them out. Perhaps it is enough to chalk this reticence up to ‘dog smarts’ in my case. Lord knows I have devoted an enormous amount of energy and attention, care and concern, to my numerous friendships throughout the past—but, alas, with slender dividends to show for all that I have invested.  Do I want too much from persons who, for one reason or another, cannot or will not deliver? Is my pride too swollen for me to condescend any further in order to prop up relationships with persons who can scarcely hold up their end? Have I merely had the misfortune of being thrown together with singularly unsuitable candidates for true friendship with me? I don’t think so. I am fairly sure that a proper candidate for the sort of friendship I have always hungered for is going to be as hard to come by as I am. Pride and arrogance have nothing to do with what I just wrote. Rather, it has everything to do with consciousness of difference—of what is ineradicably and irrepressibly individual about me. When something just is, there is little room for compromise or for concessions. Compromises and concessions apply to things and conditions that are negotiable, mutable, relative, and not yet essential, as the dark depths of my individuality seems to be. We are fortunate if we come to know and to express our individual, inimitable nature—but we are also stuck with what we uncover, are we not?

Teleology, Nietzsche, and Creativity (Straits of Malacca, 4/10/2002)

It may one day be incontrovertibly ascertained that ‘cosmic design,’ a ‘higher purpose’ to existence, as such, and ‘meaningful evolution towards higher forms’ are nothing more than hollow fictions that we puny and clueless humans still desperately cling to in the hope that they can somehow protect us against the other possibility—namely, that mere chance and random accidents decisively prevail over design and purpose in this vast, uncaring universe. Our lives are, for the most part, animated and oriented by aims and purposes that are received pre-packaged from our culture and upbringing—awaiting our own efforts to develop and ‘realize’ them to any extent. The notion that a human life ultimately comes down to little more than a pointless string of moments, hours, days, and years—the unsponsored journey of a biological creature, its noggin stuffed with fanciful dreams—a journey that began with two copulating parents greedily gratifying instinctual urges and ends with unanswered questions and the eerie, irreversible dimming of the animal vigor and the once envied intellectual faculties that brazenly broached and wrestled with big, sweaty, hairy questions: this all seems to be excruciatingly inconvenient for many of us to consider, let alone, to embrace. We hunger for a credible ‘meta-narrative’ descended from a sterling ancestral pedigree, one that might inject beauty and value and meaning into our arid and threadbare souls—and not some patchy, abstract fabrication that we concoct alone in the dark, in our fretful isolation, proudly but impotently defiant of our derailed and bankrupt culture. We long for a compelling and dignifying story that serves as a kind of portal or ‘insertion point’ into the very fabric of existence, a universe that is a rich and multilayered continuum composed of numerous material and immaterial planes. We’ve had it up to our neck with bleak and humorless scientific accounts of a dumb and unfeeling expanse of matter and oodles of void—accounts that are unnervingly communicated by a bespectacled little waste of a man in a wheelchair with his artificial voice and his unmoving lips—just staring at you, rather like the void he is so curiously intent upon describing!

The three major religions (four, if their fountainhead, Zoroastrianism, is included) which emerged in the West are moral down to their marrow, for the ‘narrative structure’ of human life they present is that of an ethical struggle of good against evil, of the righteous over the sinful, of the ‘chosen’ over the heathen infidels or the uncircumcised—a struggle and a trajectory that were set in motion and defined by God through His ‘meat puppets’…er, I meant to say ‘mighty prophets.’ By way of contrast, Buddhism and Hinduism are cyclical (in their understanding of creation) and rather more ‘psychological’ in character (as opposed to being essentially moral and apocalyptic—proceeding to a final day of judgment in the temporal and spatial realms of concrete history). In their depiction of the human situation and its destiny, these more ‘inner-directed’ religions prescribe a purposeful, disciplined struggle against spiritual and psychological ignorance (avidya). Only when this ignorance (which is rooted in wrong or excessive attachment) is overcome does the world-renouncer attain liberation (moksha), the principle aim of the sādhanās, or yogic practice. If this is a crude and unforgivably sketchy depiction of the fundamental differences between the religious standpoints of the East and those of the West, I wish only to establish an important point: notwithstanding these basic differences in perspective—along with the divergent values that spring from those differences—the sense of individual and/or collective purpose is present on both sides.

If Nietzsche is willing to admit that, as a rule, we require purpose and design, order and a sense of direction, if our lives are to have a measure of coherence, dignity, or meaning, he seems, repeatedly, to shoot down the idea that nature and the universe are behind us, sponsoring and underwriting our human-all-too-human plans and goals. As far as Nietzsche appears to be concerned, only spiritual cowards need to believe in such metaphysical claptrap. To assume that our goals and our purposes are established and maintained by an invisible ‘cosmic order’ is to presume that we enjoy a privileged (as opposed to an accidental and therefore utterly unreliable) relationship with nature. Nature, as Nietzsche sees it (Chap. I, sect. 9, Beyond Good and Evil), is coldly indifferent to our schemes, goals, wishes, aspirations, and intentions—even if few of us are able or willing to rest content with such a stern truth staring us in the face each day. But, after the ‘death of God’ (that misfortune of monumental proportions largely precipitated by the rise of modern empirical science, with its skeptical and critical bent), physical nature rapidly became the lone matrix, and its ‘laws’ the dominant standard in disputes concerning purpose and design. Teleology, as we know, is not a conspicuous feature of the scientific method and the sensibility to which it has given birth is even less tolerant of metaphysics—especially metaphysics with a moral agenda sneakily smuggled into them.

In Nietzsche’s own thought, the courageous uprooting and renunciation of this metaphysical need for supernatural sponsorship does not entail dispensing altogether with the stubborn human need for ‘higher’ goals and purposes. Far from it. In (VI, 211, BGE), philosophers are described as ‘commanders and legislators,’ with the understanding that these higher men are our best guides in this lofty enterprise. It is they who have authorized themselves with the right to lay down the tracks that we must then attempt to follow. According to Nietzsche, they have the right to give direction and purpose to humanity because they are the most comprehensive human beings—their more far-reaching and more deeply penetrating awareness of man and his needs, his possibilities and his limitations, equips them with the vision to chart a course for humanity’s future. It is only because they are in a position to look down upon humanity that they are able to see beyond the ‘thousand and one goals’ hitherto followed by man. In (III, 61, BGE), we are told that these philosophers will make use of religion whenever it proves necessary or convenient as a means for accomplishing the task of giving form and purpose to this ‘undetermined creature,’ man. If man must, perforce, inhabit a protective, life-sustaining bubble (the insulating walls and familiar horizons of which shield him from will-crushing truths concerning his actual condition) then it is the privileged responsibility of the genuine philosopher to create (and poetically adorn the walls of) this bubble—this inhabitable space—this culture, wherein a meaningful and credible future may be envisioned and lived for.

 Better, perhaps, than any other comprehensive thinker, Nietzsche understood the corrosive forces of nihilism and pessimism that have infected the souls of modern men and women—and rather than resigning sadly and defeatedly to these contagious symptoms of decadence, he sought with unrelenting bravery and single-mindedness to face them with dauntless courage and imagination—and to find a way to combat the disease. Those who merely see him as part of the disease (which he diagnoses), and not as a heroic spirit struggling to rescue a disintegrating, de-composing species from despair, anarchic instincts, and impotent resignation, quite simply do not appreciate what he is attempting in his writings. Nonetheless, he certainly expected to be misunderstood by all but the very few.

No doubt, Nietzsche’s loneliness as a human being must be approached and understood in connection with his having broken out of his own, inherited ‘bubble,’ a feat requiring as much daring and strength of will as intellectual penetration and depth of understanding. One is virtually unattended and bereft of allies as soon as he or she moves outside of the meaning-bestowing context of his/her culture, and is thrust into the position, as it were, of the ‘original man’—or, in the phrase of King Lear, ‘unaccommodated man.’ This naked and exposed creature (psychologically speaking) must fall back upon his own poetic-creative powers in order to project a ‘world’ where there seems to be only an indifferent, chartless void awaiting his Adamic name- and meaning-bestowing fiat. This sort of experience is accessible only to a tiny number, while the rest of us must be content to follow well-beaten paths. For the most part, this pertains to ‘leaders’ within the bubble, as well, of course—since they command and lead only from positions acknowledged and recognized by those of us who follow them.

To the extent that we are able to securely inhabit our inherited myths and assigned roles without being vexed and obstructed by the accidents of fortune or the occasional earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions produced by indifferent, ‘cruel’ nature, we often are inclined to believe that what does not work against us is actually working with us, for us, and behind us. This enticing presumption of cosmic support is made a good deal more credible simply by virtue of the fact that the goals of most human beings are so modest and humble in scope—rarely demanding more from life than can be readily supplied by the means at hand or, if somewhat more challenging, attainable with persistent effort and a bit of patience. When conditions are favorable and one’s demands are not outrageously extravagant, as long as one’s faith in his scripted quest is firm and unwavering, felt satisfaction is often within reach. This is the most that many of us can hope for, and it seems to be enough for the majority of human beings. The profoundest existential problems, however, become acutely conscious and urgent only for those whose needs and demands greatly exceed the means ready at hand. The needs of these spiritually troubled persons simply are not adequately palliated or put forever to sleep by those pleasures, entertainments, and conventional remedies with which the generality is distracted and pacified. May we claim that such restless spirits are burdened (or cursed) with immoderate cravings and oversized longings—whether it be in the realms of knowledge (Socrates, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Nietzsche), power (Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin), wealth (Crassus, Croesus), or love (Jesus, as Nietzsche understood—or misunderstood—him)? If such demanding figures are not to despair of life in fits of frustration, they are obliged, it would seem, to create their own means of satisfaction, however precarious these are (perhaps because self-authored). All else is felt to be a flimsy and momentary diversion, never sufficiently binding to arrest one’s restlessness for very long.

Such ‘insatiable’ persons often pass through a more or less protracted period of critical disengagement from their culture, their friends, wives, and families, and all the ultimately un-compelling claims upon their allegiance. Their dissatisfaction with life’s readily available offerings and easily attainable goals can so thoroughly sour them with discouragement that they succumb to bitterness and a miserable, disconsolate resignation—and, as Nietzsche observed, these failures are far more numerous than the ‘lucky hits’ who proceed alone into new territory, opening up new possibilities for themselves (and, consequently—if they leave a record—for the rest of us).

 

Text and Interpretation (1/31/15)

Nietzsche often referred to the ‘text’ of nature—and how very different that ‘text’ was from the interpretations we foisted (or forced) upon it. For him, ‘morality’—regardless of its provenance—was always, at bottom, just another interpretive scheme that was being projected onto the ‘text’ of natural human drives and affects. Thus, the text is more or less decisively obscured by the interpretation, while these two—text and (moral) interpretation—are fused in the mind of the (unwitting) projector. They become indistinguishable.

Once the validity and the binding authority of an interpretive scheme are implicitly believed in, a number of interesting results typically follow. The interpretation automatically acquires greater importance and a greater sense of reality than the text in the mind of the believer, if that text was ever known by the believer in the first place, which is unlikely. Moreover, this is not due to a conscious choice or judgment on the part of the believer. It is simply due to the fact that he can see no text, only interpretation. If the believer could truly see the text, he would at the same time see the startling difference between this stark, opaque text and his interpretation—or any interpretations, for that matter. Such a shocking, sudden revelation of the raw, uncontaminated text exposes the elements of arbitrariness and relativity in all interpretations—including one’s own, of course. In such revelatory moments it is understood that all interpretations have some kind of hidden agenda, or motivating purpose, woven into them. Perhaps the most common and obvious of these motivating purposes embedded in our interpretations pertain to power and meaning, which are often closely inter-related.

When we feel that we have ‘grasped’ the inner meaning of some bit of ‘text,’ we simultaneously feel empowered with respect to that text. We feel that we have uncovered its secret and, in doing so, tempered its power over us. As long as it remains stumpingly opaque or mysterious, the text exerts a magical sort of power over our minds. It is vaguely—or, as the case may be, intensely—threatening. Unless and until we can ‘make sense’ of the disturbing bit of text (say, disquieting suspicions, eruptions of hatred for a family member or spouse, fear and general anxiety about another ethnic group, etc.) we may experience profound psychological discomfort and uneasiness. A satisfying interpretation—particularly one that is shared by millions of other fearful and insecure persons—comes to our assistance. It provides the consoling illusion that we have gained the upper hand over the disturbing (and formerly mysterious) text.

What we don’t realize—what we don’t want to realize—is that, far from gaining the upper hand over the menacing and mysterious text, we have only placed some distance between the text and our minds by means of a buffering lie. Instead of genuinely engaging with—or authentically wrestling with—the text that is given to us, we have merely substituted our ‘meaningful interpretation’ for the text itself. In incremental moves, we retreat, as it were, from actual engagement with the given text of life experience and wall ourselves into the artificial enclosure of our interpretive scheme. Thus, we become removed from inner and outer mysteries as we huddle under the canopies provided by our personal and collective myths—shielded from the very (raw) elements that we proudly but preposterously purport to have brought under our control!

What none of us wants to admit, of course, is that projecting or foisting a ready-made interpretation upon the given text of life is precisely the opposite of extracting or drawing genuine insight from our encounters with that mysterious, elusive text. And of course there can be no such encounters so long as our minds are already made up. Virtually all of us live out our lives on the map and not in the territory (for which our colorful, but simplistic and reductive maps are no substitute). Our culture (which is scarcely more than an enormous, unkempt map room!) is lorded over by puffed up map-owners whose charts contain the most detailed information about the mere surface of the mysterious territory they have no serious intention of confronting on its own terms. That would instantly perforate such puffed up pretenders—and show everyone just how empty and superficial their ‘knowledge’ is. There would seem to be little dignity—little to celebrate—in a species of restless, chattering map-addicts who refuse to acknowledge the fact that this paper-thin palace of poppycock provides no real protection against the encroaching ‘wilderness’ of the very real text that scornfully defies our often puny and pitiful ‘interpretations.’

And, of course, the same criteria apply to this interpretation of a troublesome bit of ‘text’—the interpretation I’ve just served up here. What, if anything, makes it any more credible or valuable than a discarded gum wrapper from 1959 or a political leaflet that circulated around Boston in the fall of 1784? All have been chewed and spewed and then are over and done with—as we, too, soon shall be. And you don’t need a map to figure this out.

Metaphysical Materialists and Storytellers (2/8/11)

Freud proposed the idea of a ‘death instinct’ (thanatos) which arises alongside the libidinal instinct (eros) for which he is more widely known. In Civilization and its Discontents, where he mentions but does not develop this idea beyond a very limited extent, it serves as perhaps the strongest single force opposing and undermining civilization as a creative process.

May we not recognize a not-so-distant cousin of this death-instinct in the habit of abstracting our attention from objects? This introverting tendency consists, at bottom, in the withdrawal of psychic energy (libido) from outer objects. This robs them of the power and vitality they would otherwise acquire from our steady payments of animating, reality-conferring attention. (These payments may be consciously made, or they can be ‘automatic bank-draft payments’ that we do not have to consciously attend to.)

In keeping with the generally biological and extraverted biases of his theoretical standpoint, Freud characterizes this death instinct in terms of aggressivity, brutal destructiveness, cruelty, sadism, and masochism (when intermingled with eros)—and even with evil and ‘Satan.’ From a less literalistic, less behavioral, and more purely psychological perspective, the whole problem can be shifted onto a subtler plane, however. In this way Genghis Khan and Tamerlane are replaced by blissfully detached Indian yogis and serenely indifferent Taoist sages. Brutish outer destructiveness and barbaric cruelty are ‘sublimated’ or ‘spiritualized’ into a state of inner detachment that allows for a measure of conscious control over the direction and use of one’s instinctual energy. From ‘discharge’ to ‘take charge!’ From ‘acting out’ to ‘acting in.’

What Freud conceives as the struggle between these ‘opposed’ instincts—eros and thanatos—may just as legitimately be viewed as the continual array of transformations occasioned by the interplay of, say, ‘yin’ and ‘yang,’ or the positive and negative poles necessary for the generation of an energy field. By conceiving the interplay between the two as a war between a life-affirming and a pessimistic, life-denying morality (in Nietzsche’s philosophy, roughly speaking, this is ‘master morality’ and ‘slave morality,’ respectively), Freud runs into difficulties that I believe are subtly sidestepped (or perhaps leapt over) by Jung, the Taoists, and much of Indian philosophy. Metaphysical materialism seems to be implicit in Nietzsche’s as well as Freud’s ground assumptions, whereas Jung and the others maintain a discreet silence about matters that are deemed beyond the reach of human reason. Accordingly, this philosophical modesty on Jung’s part (or his dearth of philosophical arrogance and hypostatizing presumption) ultimately consigns his speculations about ‘final things’ to the realm of myth rather than to that of rational philosophy, but this very open-endedness sharply distinguishes his psychology from the deterministic (and generally mechanistic-reductive) psychologies in which the materialists (Nietzsche and Freud) risk becoming entangled by virtue of their own need to nail things down, or to reduce them to some ultimate set of axiomatic principles (infantile sexuality, the pleasure principle, the reality principle, the Oedipus complex, will-to-power, eternal recurrence of the same, etc.)

These principles function like ultimate explanatory principles for Nietzsche and Freud, despite their unconvincing attempts to suggest otherwise. Jung’s key concepts and paradigms are heuristic—sophisticated but provisional rules of thumb—and not ultimate explanatory principles into which all can be analyzed and resolved. Jung is, therefore, more of a storyteller and myth-maker than a scientist or philosopher in the traditional or strict sense. He is more of an artist, visionary, and (non-dogmatic) religious thinker, to my mind, than a resolver of human problems into irreducible terms or elements, as Freud and Nietzsche attempt to be—but fail to pull off in a convincing manner.

Life is change—and change necessarily involves the ceaseless death and transcendence of the status quo. Living conditions (and the contexts within which the events of life make any coherent sense) are continually undergoing subtle and sometimes momentous transformations—both inside and out. So far as we can tell, no dogmatic theology and no rational explanatory scheme can ever fully account for, or adequately represent, that protean mystery we call ‘life.’ Life can be experienced—if only through a glass darkly, and in non-lethal doses—but it can never be firmly grasped or explained by our feeble philosophies and by the imperfect lights of our minds. Our most eloquent and grave statements about life are no more than stabs by pocket knives into the thick folds of ever-metamorphosing flesh which enclose this elusive motherfather that has spawned our mind-body complexes. Such grandiose statements are impressive only to the foolish and virginal minds of persons who believe that these petty little pin-pricks penetrate the thick layers of opacity, reaching down to the bones and to the heart of life itself. I have certainly counted myself among such fools, but having persisted in my folly, I have gradually begun more frankly to perceive my folly for what it is. And how can I not here speak ‘in praise of folly’ when I know that wisdom which believes in itself with conviction immediately pulls the ‘wise man’ back to the start of the line, where he is forced to re-begin his steep ascents (and deep descents) behind more knowing ‘fools.’ But then, to know is to know that one knows not. Truly spoken words sound paradoxical. Flat statements fall flat on their asses.

Earthquakes, Gods, and Sea Monsters (3/14/11)

There is an arrogant form of over-confidence encountered in youth—occasionally somewhat charming, more frequently ridiculous and trying—that stems from general ignorance and lack of experience in the world. The young whippersnapper actually has quite limited knowledge of another person, an object, or situation, but he mistakenly believes it to be adequate and complete. Because he does not yet have sufficient experience, he has little counterevidence to undermine his inflated confidence that he knows all he needs to know. As long, then, as his experience remains limited—and thereby shielded from unforgiving reality and from the corrective truths of broad experience—his confidence is likely to remain strong and defiantly intact. Such exuberant confidence can be marshaled or conscripted into the service of momentous deeds—both admirable and abominable—either by the youth himself of by those in his community who wish to exploit this untapped energy to serve their own purposes.

In the course of time, the sobering acquisition of greater experience and knowledge of the world and of himself brings expected changes to his understanding of reality. To the extent that he is willing to dispense with the narrow and crude assumptions of youth, he will forfeit the protections these have lent to his ignorance—and to the unearned confidence that was erected upon that steaming pile of ignorance. There is always a danger, at this stage, of succumbing to bitter disillusionment and despair. One has the powerful sense that, as in an earthquake, the very ground is shifting unstably beneath one’s feet. One’s former bearings and the articles of faith which supported one’s sense of security—and even one’s sense of identity—have been greatly diminished (or demolished) by the earthquake within. Our victim may look inside himself and see rubble and devastation. The confidence needed to calmly assess the dire situation and to begin the long, burdensome work of reconstruction is simply not there. The job seems too overwhelming. And the most crippling and paralyzing thought of all continues to burrow deeper and deeper into his rattled brain: ‘What’s the point of investing in this work of recovery, of rebuilding—when it is just a matter of time before the ground shifts and the whole thing comes tumbling down once again?’ Such a person might very well feel betrayed by life. His or her innocence may be lost forever.

What is capable of inspiring or enabling a disillusioned, spiritually wounded individual or society to rise up from the ashes and slowly press forward? The painful losses that have attended the ‘quake’ have thoroughly discredited the former goals and ideals—and dried up the springs of motivation. New aims and new sources of motivation must emerge from the new bearings and the new understanding of things—a ‘post-traumatic’ or ‘post-apocalyptic’ understanding, if you like.

It is difficult to remain silent about an association that is struggling (like an insistent little animal at the back door) to be let in here at this juncture in my unfolding image of a growth and development cycle—or arc. The link is with Nietzsche’s much-discussed notion of ‘the eternal recurrence (of the same)’ from The Gay Science, section 341. Nietzsche’s image of an eternally repeating cycle (wherein one’s lived experience—just as it occurs in every particular detail—unswervingly repeats itself, again and again, without cease and without the slightest alteration throughout eternity) is called ‘the heaviest weight’—and not without good reason.

The fact that nothing purposefully changes or ‘evolves’ in Nietzsche’s unsettling and powerful image of a diabolical cosmos—one that more closely resembles a never-ending tape loop of bad 80s pop music or of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—is what makes it so heavy to bear in the imagination. Essentially, it is a variant of the Myth of Sisyphus, which Camus would later invoke as a depiction of our modern existential predicament—in postwar (post-traumatic?) Europe, when most reflective and historically conscious persons shared the numbing sense of general despair for a morally benighted but technologically clever species that had yet again come close to exterminating itself.

Of course, what makes both Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus motifs so difficult to swallow is the elimination of any and all hope of transcendence—a qualitative quantum leap beyond these endless exercises in futility. Where there is no hope, the people perish. It would seem that, given the sort of creatures we are, we absolutely require some hope of liberating ourselves—without shame or self-deception—from the existential predicament depicted by Nietzsche and Camus. These thinkers, along with a few others in the camp of the existentialists, appear to suggest that extraordinary spiritual strength is required if one is to face this hopeless (divinely unsponsored and cosmically meaningless) predicament and continue to live as if there is good reason to do so. Since such spiritual resources seem to be rather sparsely and unequally distributed among us, these existentialist thinkers (and—though not precisely speaking ‘existentialists’—Nietzsche, Jung, and Hillman are included here) never supposed that, even under the most favorable of cultural conditions, more than a handful of persons, relatively speaking, would survive the full-on encounter with this poisonous sea snake whose bite packs such a toxic wallop.

Fortunately, there is not enough of that crucial daimonic curiosity and the dangerous spirit of psychological adventure to bring most of us within a hundred miles of this sea serpent’s submerged lair. Those who have no lengthy history of diving experience have little to fear from fangs they will never behold—let alone, feel. It is not possible to register the old news that ‘God is dead’ when you are asleep—or when your ears hear only what they want to hear.

Am I entitled to suspect that only something inhuman within me is genuinely capable of receiving this bite and transmuting its venom from something lethal into something tonic and life-enhancing? From a deadly poison to a vitalizing remedy? I mention this suspicion only because I cannot help noticing that everything that counts as ‘normal’ human feelings—e.g., ordinary human hopes, longings, and needs—are continually being sacrificed and burnt away as I continue to dive deeper and deeper into the well of the psyche, day after day. On ‘bad’ days, the pain of loneliness and of estrangement from others seems almost intolerable. On ‘good’ days, I feel like I am coming up for air and sunlight—pen in hand, documenting every little change in pressure as I ‘decompress’—and that my temporary confinement to the cold black bottom realm has been worth the pains. If one wants these particular pearls, this is where one must go to gather them.

But is ‘God’ (the supreme value) really dead—for me? Buried, perhaps, but not quite dead. Buried where? In these cold dark depths? In the poison that only my suffering can transmute into the raw material from which wisdom can gradually be distilled? It makes a curious sort of sense to me that God should prudently refrain from frequent appearances before his creatures, subjects, and servants—like any clever ruler or king instinctively understands—in order to prevent the excessive familiarity that soon cheapens majesty and dilutes awe. Such a God as I imagine would spend for more time hiding (often in plain sight) than in advertizing his nature and blabbing his home address. By hiding—say, in remote, uncharted depths and in the secretions of sea serpents—such a God’s stock would appreciate considerably in value, like a good wine from a small, remote vineyard. Such a God would be known only to the most patient and determined seekers after vague hints and coded signs of his elusive presence. And who knows? Perhaps by the time that these reports—few and far between—from the ‘glimpsers’ make their way slowly back to the confused and half-conscious crowds huddled on the plains, he will already long since have moved on to his next hiding place.

 

Your Own Personal Nietzsche (1/25/12)

In the ancient Chinese Book of Balance and Harmony, we read:

Thus the scriptures and alchemical writings use various different terms to lead students from the crude to the subtle, so that they may gradually enter a state of beatitude and then see essence and realize openness. The actuality is not on paper; writings are like a boat to ferry people across a river—once the people are on the other shore, the boat has no more use (p. 60-61)

Nietzsche, as anyone who has a long acquaintance with his marvelous writings will attest, approaches philosophical and psychological questions of the first order—but often from a pungently personal standpoint. He was well aware of Emerson’s laudatory remark about Montaigne: Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. Nietzsche would have described his own words in such vascular terms, with the suggestion that they were consubstantial with his very being.

How profound is the difference between these two attitudes towards writings and words as aids to spiritual enlightenment. The Taoist attitude is pointedly impersonal and the Taoist writings encourage the reader’s mental liberation from the narrow horizons of the ‘personal’—to break him or her out of the cramped confines of the personal standpoint. With Nietzsche, on the other hand, his own knowledge and insights are always incontrovertibly personal, always pulsing (and occasionally hemorrhaging) with intense personal feelings, pyrotechnical passions, barely disguised suffering, exultation, rapture, and struggle. Who will dispute the fact that Nietzsche’s works possess a ‘heroic’ quality that is very attractive to his readers (especially younger ones) precisely because of this display of personal struggle and individual ‘truths’ stolen from the jaws of monsters of the deep?

But behind these ostensibly ‘spiritual’ heroics one suspects an immodest claim to personal proprietorship over ‘truths’ that are, at bottom, transpersonal. In the very process of attempting to claim personal ownership of such truths, Nietzsche rather heedlessly deforms, violates, and cheapens them, both in subtle and in conspicuous ways. Rather than to bravely and trustingly allow these larger, transpersonal truths to ‘break’ the stubborn personal standpoint open, after the Taoist example—and juxtapose his limited consciousness with the larger sphere of the transpersonal—Nietzsche insists, again and again, upon forcing the impersonal into the more cramped ‘space’ of his ego-consciousness, infusing everything he can hunt down with his own ‘blood,’ his own distinctive scent, his personal imprimatur. Nietzsche is Hercules in Hades…or Othello and Iago locked into one body and brain, continually at odds with itself. Again, I’m not disputing the stupendousness of his personal heroism in attempting to single-handedly hunt down (and slay and eventually stuff into an aphorism or an essay) enormous specimens of ‘wild game’ with his deadly bow and arrow. But I must question the wisdom of following his ill-fated example.

Like Prometheus—no matter how prejudiced one might be in his favor—Nietzsche perilously steals fire from divine sources without quite paying due respect to the established order of things. He seems to have violated an ‘order of rank’—a scheme within which even the most exemplary human beings occupy only a modest status and not the titanic stature that Nietzsche’s idealized Übermensch is inflated with. It is one thing to argue that Nietzsche overstepped the limits within which humans, as such, seem naturally fit to inhabit. But he did this, in large part, by categorically denying that any such hierarchy or ‘chain of being’ exists at all, and that humans—or at least humans of his stature—are perched at the very summit of what is essentially a material universe animated, through and through, by the will to power. Nietzsche begins with the assumption that there are no inherently fixed, eternal, and divinely authorized levels of being either within or beyond the human level, as all the major spiritual and esoteric traditions of the world have taught for millennia. Unhinged ‘creativity’ and boundless, self-authorized inventiveness replace the former methods of graded, initiatory spiritual development.

In the past (and still in those remote places which have managed somehow to elude the far-reaching tentacles of Western nihilism/relativism/anthropocentrism) these methods were founded upon the understanding that there are higher laws and levels of being than mere human inventiveness backed up by the will to power, and that the initiate’s task was to try and make these laws and levels conscious so that he/she could live in accordance with them. This sacrifice of the personal (human, all too human) will and vision to the deeper, subtler, and thoroughly impersonal ‘Tao’ or ‘Brahman’ or ‘inner Christ’ constituted a radical transformation of consciousness. In each of these spiritual traditions this transfiguration (symbolized in Christianity by the Crucifixion and Resurrection) entailed the death of the personal ego and the subsequent realization of the (deep, transcendent) Self as the true center and source of consciousness.

Nietzsche has little or nothing of substance to say to us about any of this because he seems to have lacked a natural feel or appreciation for these matters. Like so many of the leading figures (of the 19th century) who internalized the ubiquitous materialist, physiological, and historicist assumptions, Nietzsche appears to have suffered from a kind of spiritual blindness—an evident incapacity to respectfully acknowledge a spiritual (or metaphysical) dimension that transcended the material-physiological-sociological standpoint. When this transcendent standpoint (as a crucial component or reference point within one’s philosophizing) is categorically denied, a thinker inevitably falls prey to some form of reductionism or another—at least if he or she aims at some kind of internal cogency or consistency. But for Nietzsche to speak—as he often does—about ‘spirit’ is like a (color blind) person talking about ‘red’ or ‘violet.’ He sees something but it is not at all the same thing as the ‘spirit’ known directly by someone who has a developed capacity for such experience. ‘Spirit,’ or esprit, for Nietzsche is often equivalent to animal or intellectual liveliness—or a subtle form of what the ancient Greeks called thumos and what Vedanta philosophy calls rajas. It is always closely allied to passion for him—if not synonymous with it. At any event, it should be quite obvious to anyone who is acquainted with the notion (or the actual experience) of spirit, as it is treated within esoteric or ‘quietist’ traditions, Nietzsche, in using the word ‘spirit,’ is dealing with a very different kettle of fish.

Are We Moderns Decadent? (8/12/14)

Ortega y Gasset’s Chapter 4 (in The Revolt of the Masses), entitled ‘The Increase of Life,’ succeeds, I believe, in demolishing Nietzsche’s (and others’) claims that our modern era suffers from decadence. Ortega y Gasset takes the measure of the times and finds that they are teeming with vitality, which is uncharacteristic of truly decadent periods. Genuinely decadent periods, he argues, are characterized by a sharp decrease in general vitality—so that decadents collectively feel inferior, energy-wise, to earlier, livelier periods.

Ortega y Gasset attributes this vitality spurt to the socio-political and economic ascendency of the masses. This entailed the release of the pent-up energies that had long been suppressed—by religious authority, political oppression, economic constraints, primitive technology, etc. Modern industrial and technological developments have greatly accelerated the tempo of modern urban life—and modern modes of mass communication and mass education have, in a sense, triumphed over space and time. The cinema—and, later, television and the Internet—have brought faraway events and exotic peoples to us, if only ‘virtually.’ Our knowledge of history brings the past to life for us as never before. True, it is a barbaric sort of vitality—this modern dynamo—but it certainly isn’t the weak condition of lethargy, torpor, and diffidence that are associated with decadence.

Nietzsche’s vexation over Christian pessimism and decadence seem exaggerated, if not altogether groundless, in view of Ortega y Gasset’s compelling observations and his insightful arguments. Europeans and Americans have—on the whole, but with some notable exceptions, here and there—been quite conspicuously anti-Christian (in their frenetic worldliness, acquisitiveness, and fidgety restlessness) since the Renaissance, so we have to wonder, “Who are these ‘after-worldly’ Christians that Nietzsche spends more than a little time deriding in Genealogy of Morals, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Antichrist?” How many moderns, relatively speaking, have authentically embraced the ascetic ideal? Perhaps Nietzsche was simply distancing himself from a rejected part of his own complicated and titanic/volcanic psyche.