Entrain the Nietzschean Time Machine
by Joseph Suglia
“It’s a love/hate relationship I have with the human race. I am an elitist, and I feel that my responsibility is to drag the human race along with me—that I will never pander to, or speak down to, or play the safe game. Because my immortal soul will be lost.”
“When belief in a god dies, the god dies.”
NIETZSCHEAN RETROACTIVE CONTINUITY
Nietzsche is like a peaceful hurricane—not a hurricane that has been pacified but a hurricane that peacefully sweeps aside villages.
I am convinced that Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885) is work of retrodictive speculative fiction. By “retrodictive speculative fiction,” I mean a work of a fiction, such as a novel, that imagines what the world today would look like if the world of yesterday were different than it was.
The thesis makes perfect sense if we consider the following: The historical Zarathustra was an ancient Iranian prophet (circa 1500 B.C.E.) who founded one of the first monotheisms—some religious historians even say the first monotheism—Zoroastrianism. It is a religion that vastly predated Platonism and Christianity and is one of the first religions to postulate a divine order, a world beyond the world of the senses. It clearly inspired Christianity, which also posits a dichotomy between the world-in-which-we-live and the beyond.
Nietzsche considers every religion to be a hive of intellectual errors. If one were to go back in time and correct one of the first and most influential religions, Zoroastrianism, in what kind of world would we be living today? This, I believe, was Nietzsche’s question as he was writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Nietzsche is asking us: What if this book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, were a book written by the historical Zarathustra? What if Nietzsche’s Zarathustra were the real Zarathustra? If Nietzsche’s Zarathustra were the historical Zarathustra, the book is suggesting, we would be living in a much better, saner, healthier, more robust, more living world. What effects would it have on the history of Christianity, if Nietzsche’s Zarathustra were the historical Zarathustra? Christianity would have been entirely different—indeed, Christianity would never have existed. There would be no Christianity without the historical Zarathustra. We must remember that Nietzsche considered Christianity to be anti-life and anti-human. One can find ballast for my supposition in Nietzsche’s opusculum Ecce Homo: “Zarathustra created this fateful error of morality [the division between benevolence and self-interest]: This means he has to be the first to recognize it.” And to correct it. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra will go back in time and will correct the ancient Zarathustra’s errors—errors that gave birth to Christianity and to Christian-inspired moralisms. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra will reverse the errors that the ancient Iranian prophet Zarathustra made and thus obviate the supervenient Christianity. Nietzsche’s target is clearly Christianity, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a counter-Bible. It is a speculative-fictional retrodiction of the Christian Bible. Its title could have been What Would Nietzsche Do?
The historical Zarathustra never said anything that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra even acknowledges that he is not his Iranian namesake at one stage (in “Von Tausend und einem Ziele”). This is why I maintain that Thus Spoke Zarathustra is an ex-post-facto speculative novel. The novel establishes retroactive continuity, what we might call “Nietzschean retcon.” We, as readers, are enjoined to travel in the Zarathustran Time Machine and to alter the past, which will, of course, alter the future. This is not quite utopian fiction, since it does not present a paradisaical utopia, but it is not far away from utopian fiction, either (along the lines of Bellamy’s chiliastic-utopian Looking Backward). It is a shame that Nietzsche did not live to write a science-fiction novel that would have been about the future—one that would have been written in the future perfect about a perfect future.
The narrative takes place in the hyper-past—not in the Before as it was lived, but in the Before as it might have been lived from the perspective of the After. I am well aware that Thus Spoke Zarathustra makes allusions to nineteenth-century Europe and that the book is a modern book. But its modernity resides in the fact that it bends the past to the will of the future. A citation from T.S. Eliot (in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) is a propos to this context: “Whoever has approved this idea of order [the idea that the order of the English literary canon must be adjusted when a new work is canonized], of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.” (Žižek, in his debate with Jordan Peterson on 19 April 2019, slightly miscited this passage from T.S. Eliot.) One must modulate the T.S. Eliot quotation somewhat: The past should be altered not by the present, in the case of Nietzsche, but by the future.
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is an irreligious prophet who lives alone in a mountain cave with his pet eagle and his pet snake. (The eagle represents pride; the snake symbols cunning.) After living in solitude for ten years, Zarathustra is now forty years old—only one year older than Nietzsche was when he began writing this book, in 1883. Bored with his self-imposed exile, he returns to humanity and showers his wisdom on the people. He is like the sun and wishes to radiate, for a sun needs an object against which to refract its rays in order to show its brilliance—we remember that Zarathustra’s Greek name, Zoroaster, means “Golden Star.”
An overflowing cup, Zarathustra wants nothing more than to teach and so he teaches the lesson of the overhuman, the Übermensch, to the residents of the Motley Cow, the bunte Kuh, a city that is as bovine and as disorderly as its name suggests. He sermonizes the crowd non-messianically, lecturing them on “the sense of the Earth,” der Sinn der Erde, the overhuman (which I will discuss in greater depth below). In doing so, Zarathustra gives what could be best described as an Anti-Sermon on the Mount. Implicit in this sermon is a perversely subversive reinterpretation of Jesus. Zarathustra blesses the meek, as Jesus does—but Zarathustra blesses the meek not because the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs, but because they will soon go under, because they will soon decline. To go under (untergehen) is the necessity prerequisite for going across (übergehen) to overhumanization. Unlike Jesus, Zarathustra is not a prophet who praises meekness, weakness, self-renunciation. Unlike Jesus, Zarathustra is a prophet who praises strength, pride, vitality, creativity, fecundity. Zarathustra favors the noble and the dignified, those who are vornehm, to the weakly meek and the meekly weak. Zarathustra Contra Jesus.
Unlike Jesus, Zarathustra is no populist and would rather be alone than mingle with the mob. Love of the crowd quick-transforms into disgust and contempt for the crowd, into a thick admixture of nausea and contempt, for the crowd is distractible and manifestly unworthy of his love and his lesson. This is likely why Nietzsche subtitles the book A Book for Everyone and No One, Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen—he does not write for the herd, for the ironically anointed “higher humans” of today, or for the “last humans” of tomorrow. He writes for his imaginary friends who will come about the day after tomorrow, the supra-futural free spirits who alone will understand his writings, his message, his lessons (the All), not for the human beings of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries who will constantly misinterpret his messages and lessons (the No One). As all great authors, he writes not for readers of today, but for readers who have not yet been born.
Zarathustra witnesses a display of funambulism in the city square. A tightrope walker, a Seiltänzer, is balanced above the crowd. Suddenly, a buffoon, a Possenreisser, appears and leaps over the funambulist, who topples from the line and plummets to his slow death. Much like the tightrope walker, modern humanity, Zarathustra reminds us, is positioned between the ape and the overhuman. Who could the jester represent other than those nihilists who would overthrow humankind as it exists in modernity in a simple and hasty fashion? The mistake of the buffoon is to believe that humanity could ever be merely “jumped over.” Humankind must go down before it can ever go across, before it transforms into the overhuman, it is true—but it must go across. The Prologue suggests that humanity cannot be “jumped over” in a simple way—great longing and self-disgust precede the lurch into the overhuman. Epigenesis, then, not autogeny or spontaneous birth.
DEVALUATING THE VIRTUES
After the Prologue, very little happens. Zarathustra just gives speeches most of the time. Thus Spoke Zarathustra becomes, formally, a novel of sermons—a microscopic subgenre of literature to which novels of Hölderlin, Gibran, and Hesse also belong. Zarathustra sets to work dispraising and disprizing virtues—exposing them as genetically vicious—and praising and prizing vices. He will do so throughout Part One, Part Two, and Part Three (this is a book in four parts). Until Part Four, wherein Thus Spoke Zarathustra again becomes a narrative, the book will not be especially literary. Part Four did not appear until 1885; forty copies were published privately and gifted to friends.
In a book that is heavy in metaphor, Nietzsche compares his language, his writing, to the snout of a boar which digs up acorns and insects from the dirt. As the boar, as the wild pig, Nietzsche will uncover, reveal, disclose our hidden motives whenever we do something that seems to be moral. So, Nietzsche the boar digs up our hidden motives—and what does he find? He finds that all of our motives are unclean and selfish and rotten. Human beings are grasping and designing creatures.
According to Nietzsche, no one ever does anything without the promise of a reward. Behind every virtue is the desire for an advantage. The virtuous want to be paid, Nietzsche tells us: ‘[S]ie wollen noch—bezahlt sein!’ (“Von den Tugendhaften”). I have coined the adjective virtuous-Machiavellian to describe this disposition. Think of those who perform good acts because they want transcendence: They want compensation, in the beyond. After death, I will receive repayment for all that I have suffered in the name of virtue. I will receive my compensation for being a good person. But this is only a religious framework. Nietzsche is not writing about a religious framework, really; he’s writing about those who are virtuous for the sake of the approbation of an audience.
For Nietzsche, virtues are not inner properties, inner qualities (here, Nietzsche partly agrees with Aristotle). They are not signs of a good character. A virtue is a performance. What is a virtue if you can’t perform it in front of spectators? Virtues exist for one reason—to be displayed. We have virtues in order to show them off, according to Nietzsche. We have virtues in order to assert our moral superiority. Someone who speaks in a very loud voice about his or her moral outrage over some event or over some sequence of syllables—does that person not want to be regarded as morally superior? And isn’t such a megaphonic blast of phony moral outrage a kind of strike or attack against other people to whom one wants to be superior? All virtuousness is sanctimony.
To adduce three examples of sanctimonious virtuousness (from Human, All-Too-Human and Daybreak, slightly paraphrased):
a.) The man who rescues an anile old woman from an immolating building wants everyone around him, including himself, to think that he is heroic. He is performing a counterstrike against his own feeling of powerlessness—as he is suggesting that who do not intervene are powerless.
b.) The soldier who dies on the battlefield wants to be memorialized as a superhero—in opposition to the Most, who, he implies by his self-chosen death, are cowardly and not as strong as he. He really has the vain desire for immortality.
c.) The girl who is faithful to the boy she loves wants her beloved to cheat on her so that she can display her virtuous faithfulness. She can then boast of her virtuous chastity and loyalty.
The point is, to paraphrase Nietzsche, that these self-anointed saints of virtue want to elevate themselves by degrading others. In Daybreak, Nietzsche writes of the nun who wants married women to hate her because she is celibate and piously devoted to God. The nun flaunts her holiness; the nun flaunts her virginity. She degrades all other women in order to elevate herself.
This is why Nietzsche suggests that virtue is vengeance.
We learn that the virtues are actually vices, that Good is actually Evil. After all, all virtues have degenerate, corrupt, filthy, unspeakable origins. At the bottom of our virtues are malice, the desire for revenge, envy, gluttony, hatred, vanity—our darkest impulses lie at the bottom of every virtue. Nietzsche lets no one off the hook and certainly not the meek, the charitable, the volunteers, and the saints.
Chastity is disguised vulgarity, for instance. Chastity is nothing more than lust misspelled. The chaste are vulgarians who would revirginize themselves—but one cannot revirginize oneself. Chastity places extraordinarily unhuman restrictions on our somatic constitutions—but it does not eliminate lust. Chastity intensifies lust. As Nietzsche reminds us, chastity is originally filthiness, and the chaste tend to be filth-obsessed. Chastity, and all of the other conventional virtues, are already rooted in the body—and yet the virtues pretend to be transcendences, idealizations, sublimities. They pretend to be away-from-the-body etherealities. The point is that the virtues are not so virtuous and the vices are not so vicious and we should invent new values that would celebrate and affirm the bodiliness of the body and that would celebrate and affirm the worldliness of the world. The elaboration of new, life-affirming values could only happen once we accept that all of us are selfish and that we can never erase our petty envies and trivial vanities.
Nietzsche’s chapter on the virtuous, the Tugendhaften, is clearly a riposte to Kantian ethics.
Kant criticizes what Nietzsche acknowledges, the impurity of motives, but Kant believes in a higher morality—in a morality that is enacted for the sake of morality, for the sake of pure practical reason.
There are no pure incentives or pure motives, according to Nietzsche. Here is a difference from Kant. Kant believes in the pure, insensate feeling of respect (Achtung) as the affective basis of all moral action.
For Kant, morality is autonomy (reason talking to itself, reason telling itself what to do, the human reason giving the law to itself).
For Nietzsche, all morality is heteronomy (reason is told what to do by external forces—social forces, the sensorium, the emotions).
For Kant, to be moral, we must be rational: We must perform moral acts and make moral choices without expecting anything in return.
For Nietzsche, whenever we perform moral actions and make moral choices, we always expect something in return.
Human beings are not autonomous, despite what the Kantians and the libertarians tell us. Human beings are automatic; they are automata.
Nietzsche’s “On the Despisers of the Body” (“Von den Verächtern des Leibes”) is a rejoinder to Plato’s theory (in the Timaeus) that the soul is immaterial and the body is an obstruction to the intuitions and perceptions of the soul.
In the Prologue, Zarathustra exclaims to the residents of the Motley Cow: “Whoever [-] is the wisest among you, he is nothing but a conflict and a hybrid between plant and ghost,” Wer [-] der Weiseste von euch ist, der ist auch nur rein Zwiespalt und Zwitter von Plfanze und von Gespenst. If we see the vegetative “part” as the body (matter without consciousness) and the ghostly “part” as the mind (consciousness without matter), we are artificially dividing the human being into two antagonistic components. This is a false interpretation of the human animal. This is the OLD way of looking at human beings, not the NEW way that Zarathustra teaches.
As is well-known, Aristotle asserted that the human being is a rational animal—an animal with reason superadded to what is animal, that is to say, the human being is an animal with reason superadded to what is body. Rationality, thinking, the mind, the soul, the spirit, the ectoplasm, the anima, according to this conventional path of thinking, is somehow transcendent to the physical—as if these ideals were immiscible with physical reality.
But it is precisely the other way around: The body is not a function of the soul; the soul is a function of the body. Nietzsche suggests, as well, that the mind is an appendage of the body, thinking is a physiological process, the cognitive supervenes upon the somatic. Sense is a figure of the body, Zarathustra tells us, so ist [der Sinn] ein Gleichnis unsres Leibes (“Von der schenkenden Tugend”). The mind, and the consciousness that is dependent upon the mind, could not exist outside of the body and is subordinate to the body. Every cognitive scientist today knows this already.
And yet Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says more than this. Nietzsche despiritualizes and animalizes / bestializes the human being. The animal “part” is, according to Nietzsche, the whole of the human animal. He places the body above the spirit and then supersedes the distinction between body and spirit altogether. The Cartesian distinction between mind and body is a false distinction.
Since at least the time of Plato, human beings have thought of themselves as divided organisms (as composites of body and mind or as composites of body and soul), whereas, for Nietzsche, they are unified bodies that misinterpret themselves. Contempt for the body is itself a manifestation of the body, of the body that despairs of the body, Der Leib war’s, der am Leibe verzweifelte (“Von den Hinterweltlern”). We learn that the body is a great reason, Der Leib ist eine grosse Vernunft (“Von den Verächtern des Leibes”). We are taught that “soul” is only a word for a Something on the body, Seele ist nur ein Wort für ein Etwas am Leibe (Ibid.). The human reason is corporeal, the “soul” is corporeal, the “I” is corporeal, the mind (or spirit) is corporeal. Everything that is considered “spiritual” is corporealized. Everything is the body; the body is everything.
There is no evidence that the mind does anything apart from the body—quite the contrary. The idea that the mind is separate or separable from the body is an anti-physiological wish—the wish for human self-mastery and human freedom.
The soul is a part of the human anatomy. There is no pneuma outside of soma. The spirit does not come before the flesh. For Nietzsche, the flesh comes before the spirit. What Nietzsche is suggesting is far more radical (than suggesting merely that the mind is a part of the body): He is telling us that the ideal is rooted in the real. The real makes possible the ideal, not the other way around. The overhumans will not think of themselves as half-bodies and as half-souls but as all bodies—and each body of each human being contains a thinking organ.
The world, as the body, is empty of sin. Zarathustra, accordingly, terrestrializes the world: “Stay true to the Earth,” bleibt der Erde treu, Zarathustra says in the Prologue. “To blaspheme the Earth is now the most terrible thing…” An der Erde zu freveln ist jetzt das Furchtbarste… We should no longer believe that the world is infused with sin or that the body is infused with sin.
After deposing the body and the world, Nietzsche deposes pity as a virtue. Nietzsche unmasks pity as the desire to inflict shame (Scham) on the object of pity. Pity is formative of a power-relation: The pitier has dominance, preponderance, superiority over the pitiful. The one who is capable of pity has a greater degree of power than the one who is incapable of pity. The one who pities makes the pitied dependent on the pitier—the pitied forms a “great dependency” ([g]rosse Verbindlichkeit) as a result of being pitied by the one who is capable of pity. This dependency creates within the pitied, in turn, the impulse toward revenge against the pitier (“Von den Mitleidigen”).
Generosity is unmasked as a form of revenge, for Nietzsche: When we are generous, we are trying to show how noble we are—which means that we are suggesting that we are better than most people, especially the benefactors of our generosity. We give with an aggressive freehandedness, which is why the one who refuses our gifts is regarded by us as an insulting person. The overnice are not very nice. The overmellow are not very mellow.
Gratitude is likewise unveiled as the sign that one is overflowing with power—one has the power to be grateful to someone who has done one a favor. Here we must remember: Life itself is the will-to-power. That is to say: Every living thing desires mastery, preponderance, superiority over all other living things. The two forms of will-to-power are obeying and commanding, and even obeisance is the desire for mastery: “Even in the will of the serving I found the will to be master,” noch im Willen des Dienstenden fand ich den Willen, Herr zu sein (“Von der Selbst-Überwindung”). Even in servants, especially in servants, there is the will to become master. Every secretary desires to become the boss; every nurse desires to become the doctor.
Nietzsche-Zarathustra reduces benevolence to vengeance. Reclining under a Bodhi Tree—much like the Buddha did, except the Buddha squatted under a Bodhi Tree—Zarathustra is bitten in the neck by an adder. And what does Zarathustra do in response? He does not forgive the adder, nor does he offer the snake his neck for a second bite. He thanks the serpent for awakening him, for he has a long journey ahead of him.
Zarathustra, then, doesn’t offer his neck to his enemy. To do so would be to dishonor the snake. “Turning the other cheek” is not a morally pure action. There is nothing good about “turning the other cheek”—it is a passive-act of aggressive generosity. As Nietzsche reminds us, not avenging oneself can be a subtle and elegant form of vengeance.
Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek—to exchange an evil with a good. Zarathustra teaches us not to exchange an evil with a good—but to show our enemy that by doing us evil, he has actually done us some good, beweist, dass er euch etwas Gutes angetan hat (“Vom Biss der Natter”). At this point, I cannot resist paraphrasing the greatest of all Nietzschean novelists, D.H. Lawrence, who warned us never to forgive our enemies prematurely, lest we breed murderers in our hearts. In the same way that benevolence is vengeance, vengeance can be a form of benevolence. This is what I would call salutary revenge.
Even the desire for justice, for equality and equitableness, is distilled to the hunger for revenge against the powerful—and decocted to the enviousness of the powerful. The contempt for tyrants is itself the “tyrannical lunacy of impotence” (Tyrannen-Wahnsinn der Ohnmacht) (“Von den Taranteln”), for within every socialist revolutionary pulses the heart of a micro-tyrant or a failed tyrant, a tyrant manqué. The tarantulas (Nietzsche’s name for justice advocates) and the firehounds (his name for revolutionaries) practice the sadism of unearned victimhood. Justice advocates and revolutionaries are driven by emotional-political and political-emotional impulses.
Zarathustra scrapes off the coating of gold from the Golden Rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself!” One might rightly ask oneself these questions: Why should I love my neighbor? What has s/he done to earn my love—and can love ever be earned? Is love a matter of choice? What if I hate myself? How could I then love my neighbor? Love of the neighbor means not loving oneself, eure Nächstenliebe ist eure schlechte Liebe zu euch selber (“Von der Nächstenliebe”). Neighborly love, Nächstenliebe, is really the abrading of self-love, the failure to love oneself properly, or a kind of cowardice, the fear of being hit or otherwise hurt by one’s neighbor. Other-centeredness benefits the neighbor, and yet neighborly love is selfish, paradoxically (I will return to the concept of self-love below).
Nietzsche distills love to envy. By loving someone, one often wants to jump over the envy that one has for the person whom one loves, oft will man mit der Liebe nur den Neid überspringen (“Vom Freunde”). Yes, love is a form of envy. To love someone is to want to become that person. In the eyes of lovers, in their Liebesblicke, there is the desire to become those whom they love—and then to become better than those whom they love. What is attractive to the lover are certain qualities that the lover lacks. Love is a form of cannibalism, and cannibalism is the urge to ingest desired traits of the cannibalized.
The indiscriminate love of humanity makes no sense, either, for Zarathustra/Nietzsche (there is no essential difference, is there?). Nietzsche has a name for average human beings. He calls them flies. And Nietzsche’s flies are venomous—though, as far I know, there are no venomous flies in nature, though biting flies, such as the female Horse Fly or the Yellow Fly, do exist.
Why flies, precisely? In the eighth chapter of Exodus of the Hebraic Bible, God sends swarms of flies to attack the Pharaoh of Egypt and his retinue. Nietzsche’s imaginary friends, the suprahuman readers of tomorrow, are pharaonic disbelievers, of course; accordingly, his Zarathustra advises us to flee into our solitude—away from the divinely propelled flies, away from the rabble, away from the mob, away from the crowd, away from the commonal.
Here, Nietzsche is passing close to the teachings of stoicism, the philosophy of the corridor. Stoicism teaches us that we can control the way that we feel (I actually don’t believe this) but that we cannot control what we cannot control: the uncontrollable, ananke. Do your best in everything, and don’t worry about what you cannot change! Such is the watchword of stoicism. One of the things that is within our control is the number of friends we permit through the narrow aperture of our lives. Zarathustra has no time for the venomous flies. As Darius Foroux writes, “[Y]ou don’t control others. That’s why who you spend your time with is a matter of life and death.” Epexegesis: You cannot control other human beings, but you can control who you spend time with.
What I gather from this lesson in Nietzschean stoicism: The crowd is not the enemy of the free spirit; average people are flies, not enemies. Flies are not enemies, for the concept of enmity implies parity. An enemy is your equal; to call someone an “enemy” is to imply that such a creature is your equal. To avenge oneself on a fly is to grant that subhuman organism a dignity that is not its own. Do not swat them! Dismiss them from your life, that is all. A fly is unworthy of becoming the object of your vengeance. One does not avenge oneself on flies. One does not swat flies. As Nietzsche writes, it is not Zarathustra’s lot to be a flyswatter, a Fliegenwendel (“Von den Fliegen des Marktes”).
Zarathustra drags everything ideal down to the Earth. He pollutes every form of purity. There is no such thing as pure perception, as immaculate perception (die unbefleckte Wahrnehmung), we are told. Here he is in total concordance with his unofficial Philosophy teacher Schopenhauer, with one important distinction—Nietzsche believes that perception is contamination, which is something that Schopenhauer nowhere suggests. We never perceive anything like an objective world—our perceptions are sullied with our desires, with our anthropomorphisms, with prejudices that we impose on the world. We screen the world through our own speculum. I do not perceive the moon as it actually is; I perceive an image on my retina. My mind is a hegemonikon, a sun that illuminates all of the things that surround me and gives them meaning. My hand does not touch the branch of the tree; my hand touches itself, my hand only touches its own touching. I do not see the waves as they rush to the shore; I only see my own seeing. As Schopenhauer argues, the hand can let go of anything other than itself; Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are concordant on this point. The world has to reach to my height, zur meiner Höhe (“Von der unbefleckten Wahrnehmung”). An honest perception is one that embraces the veil—and this embracement-of-the-veil is art. An honest percipient is one who perceives that we only perceive our own perceptions, that any possibility of “purity” is contaminated by our valuations, our prejudices, our background, our desires, our feelings—and the highest form of perception is formative, aesthetic perception. Art expresses the desire for a perception to become more than mere perception while acknowledging that all perception is mere perception. How does art do this? By creating the image of a perception. Art is the image of an image.
In contradistinction to the teachings of the Iranian Zarathustra and to the lessons of Jesus, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra tells us that there is no otherworldliness, that there is no mind apart from the body, that soma is spirit. There is no reason, we learn, for tormenting the body for its necessary cravings and impulsions; there is no reason for tormenting ourselves for feelings that are inborn within us, feelings that are innate, our congenital affections and desires.
Nietzsche’s Zarathustra anticipates, welcomes, promises, celebrates a self-affirmative, spontaneous, productive, fruitful humanity that will not condemn itself for what it is and for what it cannot but be.
It is as if Nietzsche were presenting to us a Zarathustra, one of the first religious prophets we know of, who is anti-metaphysical, who believes in sanctifying the Earth, who celebrates the body and who does not see the mind as separate from, or superior to, the body, and who even tells us that benevolence is selfishness, that there is no giving without selfishness. A healthier, more vigorous, more lifeful overhumanity will accept these things.
The overhuman is a new species of humanity that will be disencumbered from the intellectual lies of religion, metaphysics, and morality. The overhuman is the one who will exceed, surpass, transcend the religions, the moralities, the metaphysics that have hitherto encumbered humankind. It will be the end of the Anthropocene and the beginning of the Meta-Anthropocene.
But what are the virtues of the overhuman? We know the Official Theories that are subjected to critique by Zarathustra: pity, generosity, gratitude, benevolence, the sense for justice, romantic love, love of the neighbor, the love of humanity or philanthropy, immaculate perception, etc. Zarathustra de-ballasts the traditional concepts of morality, as well as those of metaphysics and of religion. But what does Zarathustra stand for? Zarathustra heralds the overhuman. What does the overhuman stand for? What are the virtues of the overhuman? What are the overhumanities?
It is too early to say with precision—the overhuman has yet to be born, the overhuman will come after the last human—but there are three overhumanities that we know of, and they are presented in the chapter entitled “On the Three Evils.” We learn a great deal about what the overhuman will not be. What the overhuman is, what the overhuman believes and thinks, in a positive sense, will be explained in “On the Three Evils.” What, then, are Zarathustra’s values? The answer is: Zarathustra’s values are what have hitherto been called “vices.” Nietzsche soberly and dispassionately evaluates three so-called “vices” or “evils”: voluptuous carnal pleasure, the desire to rule, and selfishness, Wollust, Herrschsucht, and Selbstsucht (“Von den drei Bösen”).
“Selfishness” is healthy self-love, not the sickly “own-love” (Eigenliebe) of pathological narcissism, the self-obsession of sadistically abusive, exploitive narcissists who do not genuinely love themselves and who are forever unhappy—and forever heavy. Self-loving is a kind of delicious selfishness. Self-love cannot be the basis of a moral action, according to Kant. Against Kant, Nietzsche is urging us to love ourselves. Nietzsche teaches us to love ourselves, against Christianity, as well, which teaches that self-love is the deadliest of all sins.
Voluptuous carnal pleasure, the desire to rule, and selfishness are all life-affirming and signs of human strength. Are they really so bad? Virtuousness, which hides the demand for moral superiority, and which praises weakness and meekness, is far worse. Virtuousness is a life-hating position; vice is enhancing of life.
Nietzsche, then, elevates “Evil” and “vices” and derogates “Good” and “virtue.” Again, what is traditionally called “good” isn’t very good, and what is traditionally called “evil” isn’t so bad.
The first stage, then, is the dispraise of conventional virtues.
The second stage is the praise of conventional vices. Nietzsche/Zarathustra prizes, in particular, voluptuous pleasure, the lust for power, and selfishness. None of these deserves to be goblinized; none of these deserves to be monsterized. Here it is imperative to clarify: Thus Spoke Zarathustra is not some Satanic Anti-Bible; this is not inverted Christianity. Nietzsche wears the devil’s horns, prankish Nietzsche, but it is only a mask. Marilyn Manson, who is conscious of Nietzsche, similarly plays the role of the bogeyman. Nietzsche is not an endorser of Evil; he is not Mephistopheles who pops up from the abysses of Hell and proclaims, “Let Evil be my Good!” He wants to rethink the dichotomy between Good and Evil altogether, which leads us to the third stage.
The third stage is the displacement, the overcoming of the distinction between “virtue” and “vice” altogether and the making-way for a set of new values. The final stage is the abrogation of common Good and common Evil. There is no reason to have virtues or vices in an overhuman world in which the Earth and the body are valued. Invent new values! Invent your own values! Actively forget the virtues and the vices! Values, yes. Virtues and vices, no.
So: In the first stage, the virtues are diabolized, and in the second stage, the vices are angelized. In the third stage, there are neither devils, nor are there angels. Derrida does not appear terribly original anymore when we see the supersession of dichotomies in Nietzsche.
After praising vices and dispraising so-called “virtues,” we accede to a new order in which there will be no vices and there will be no virtues. A world in which nothing will be considered “moral” or “immoral,” a world in which nothing will be considered “good” or “evil.” Create your own morality, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra is suggesting to us. And to create, Zarathustra reminds us, one must be a lover—and one, perhaps paradoxically, must be solitary. “With your love go into your solitude and with your creating, my brother,” Mit deiner Liebe gehe in deine Vereinsamung und mit deinem Schaffen, mein Bruder… (“Vom Weg des Schaffenden”). Then comes the euphoria of aesthetic productivity. Overhuman values will be generated. And this is what Nietzsche means by “self-overcoming” (Selbst-Überwindung): the devaluation and destruction of conventional values and the creation of overhumanly affirmative values.
Here Nietzsche is not far from the anti-ethical philosophy of Max Stirner, whose work Nietzsche certainly read and admired. Stirner thinks that the Good is whatever is good for me and that the Evil is whatever is evil for me. Such are the contours of the Stirnerian ego-system. However, Nietzsche goes beyond the egosphere, beyond the egoic. Nietzsche, by contrast, asks: What is good for humanity? And what is good for humanity will be a banquet of delights for overhumanity.
The point is not to humanize humanity, but to overhumanize humanity. Nietzsche welcomes not the superhuman, but the suprahuman. Zarathustra is not the overhuman but the one who heralds the overhuman. Accordingly, Zarathustra’s new animal friends will be a lion and a flight of doves that encircles the beast—the sign of the overhuman (“Das Zeichen”).
* * * * *
If the world seemed like a desert to Nietzsche, the Europe of the nineteenth century, the modern world, it was because there were so many camels about, so many human beings who loaded themselves up with toxic, noxious inherited concepts, concepts that were extrinsic to humanity—and that stultified humanity. Good and Evil, the concept of original sin, led to the desertification of the world and the becoming-camel of cameline humanity. Of camelinity.
Nietzsche sees humanity as weighed down by the so-called virtues and vices, as weighed down by fictitious Good and fictitious Evil, a humanity burdened by the self-hatred that comes with guilt and the presumption of selflessness, which does not exist. Nietzsche’s diagnosis is that modern humanity is still freighted by the “Spirit of Gravity,” der Geist der Schwere—but this spirit is losing its gravitas. Nineteenth-century Europe is drifting toward nihilism.
The Spirit of Gravity is the misbegotten idea that the world is aggravated by some inherent meaning. The Spirit of Gravity freights the world with theological lies such as Good and Evil, as if human beings were simple and undifferentiated and pourable and fillable into Tupperware containers marked ‘Good’ and ‘Evil.’ Specifically, Nietzsche is concerned with original sin. The concept of original sin blocks self-love—after all, if we are born evil, if sinfulness is inborn within us, what is lovable about you or me?
Nietzsche’s goal is to liberate humanity from the concept that existence is sinfulness (as promulgated by Christianity and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche’s former ex officio mentor).
For Schopenhauer, existence is hatable for three essential reasons: 1.) When the human will can’t get what it wants, it suffers. 2.) When the human will seizes upon what it wants, it doesn’t want that object anymore. 3.) The fundamental character of the will is striving. There will thus inevitably be a conflict of wills. Two people want the same piece of land—because the other person wants the same piece of land. Two men desire the same woman—because the other man desires the same woman. Two women desire the same man—because the other woman desires the same man (one does not need to limit oneself to heterosexual desires; here, Schopenhauer is close to Hobbes).
Nietzsche has a different, more interesting characterization. Life appears terrible because the past is irrecoverable, irreversible, immutable. We grow bitter, resentful, because we wish that the past were otherwise than what it was. The past seems immovable, like a stone. We hate existence because we hate who we were in the past. The Spirit of Revenge (der Geist der Rache) avenges itself on existence by regarding existence as punishment, as sinfulness. Christianity holds that human beings are essentially mired in sinfulness—which means, of course, that they are sinful even before they are born.
Zarathustra would liberate—redeem—human existence from the imputation of sinfulness. He would emancipate humanity from its self-inculpation. How? By regarding the irretrievable, irrecoverable, undeletable, unerasable, hatable past into something that is fervently desired—the “It was” becomes the “So I want it,” the Es war becomes the So wollte ich es (“Von der Erlösung”).
Against Schopenhauer, against Christianity, Nietzsche reverses resentment toward the “It was.” Both the Christian and Schopenhauerian positions are concordant: “I can’t do anything about the ‘It was,’” they both suggest. Yes, you can do something about the “It was”—you can impassionedly affirm it. You can desire the “It was.”
Regarding existence as sinful or as a punishment (Schopenhauer agrees with Christian theology that existence is fallenness and a punishment) stops being meaningful as soon as you desire the “It was.” More than that: You desire that the “It was” will repeat itself infinitely.
Not only is the past vigorously affirmed—the infinite repetition of the past is vigorously affirmed. The thought experiment is as follows: Act as though everything that you do will have been repeated infinitely. This suspends the category of the past; the “It was” becomes the “It will always be” and “It will always have been.” Living one’s life for the sake of its own infinite repetition—the past is now subject to its own infinite repetition—means that the category of the past is suspended. It also means that the category of the present is abolished, as I will argue when I finally get to Nietzsche’s posthumous papers.
(Briefly: There is no present moment, since the present moment will repeat itself infinitely. The infinite repetition of the same suspends the category of the present. There is no such thing as the present, only the future perfect. Nothing happens now—things only will have happened. The future has already occurred; the future will have already occurred.)
The embracement of the eternal recurrence of the same, the affirmation of infinite repetition, eliminates all human regret and all human guilt.
In “Vom Gesicht und Rätsel,” Zarathustra experiences a vision of the eternal recurrence of the same. Two roads lead from and to a gate upon which is emblazoned a sign that reads “MOMENT.” One eternity leads to the past, the other to the future (assuming that the word “MOMENT” actually means that the intersection of the two eternities is the “MOMENT”).
Zarathustra envisions a spider in the moonlight and a talpine dwarf. (Talpine = “mole-like.”) Zarathustra hears the baying of a dog. The spider in the moonlight, the baying dog, the dwarf-mole—all of these creatures will recur again and again, forever. They will play their parts in an infinitely restaged spectacle.
Zarathustra dreams of a shepherd who is lying supine on the ground in the moonlight with a snake down his throat, choking on the snake that is tunneling down his throat. Why is he a “shepherd”? How is he a “shepherd”? Isn’t a shepherd someone who tends sheep? But this “shepherd” doesn’t tend sheep—he is writhing on the ground with a snake in his mouth. Perhaps the shepherd represents Zarathustra himself—the shepherd without sheep, the leader without followers (I will return to this matter below).
Nietzsche is also slyly suggesting to us that the one who gazes at his or her life with an eternal eye will be free from every role, will not be reducible to any social role or to any social function. S/he will be liberated, fully transformed, fully human for the first time.
Why “choking”? In the same way that God chokes on His pity for humankind, the shepherd is choking on his pity for humankind, on a thick admixture of disgust, contempt, and pity.
Biting the snake, the shepherd who tends no sheep transcends his nausea. It is nauseating, at first, to think of all of time repeating itself eternally. A future humanity will embrace and affirm the eternal repetition of all things without nausea.
The point is to think eternally, in the way that Zarathustra does, and to surmount one’s nausea in the face of life’s abyssal eternal self-repetition. Nietzsche is not suggesting that our lives will actually repeat themselves endlessly; Nietzsche does not believe in reincarnation, in samsāra, in the perpetual recycling of rebirth and redeath. The eternal recurrence of the same is a thought experiment. It is a Nietzschean imperative. The Nietzschean imperative is: Act as if your life will repeat itself eternally. Once you act as if your life will endlessly reinitiate itself, concepts such as Good and Evil seem as if they were only wispy clouds, drifting ephemerae against the backdrop of the infinite blue sky (“Vor Sonnen-Aufgang”).
The theory of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same lightens the world. It alleviates the world of its anti-human cargo. The lightness that suffuses one is not unbearable at all, especially since Nietzsche stresses that the levity of self-love exists “so that one [can] bear oneself,” dass man es bei sich selber aushalte (“Vom Geist der Schwere”). The consequence of believing in the Eternal Recurrence of the Same is not the unbearable lightness of being, but the floaty legerity of existence.
THE ETERNAL RECURRENCE OF A JOKE
In order to properly understand the chapter entitled “On the Poets” (“Von den Dichtern”), the reader must know something about Goethe.
Goethe writes at the end of Faust: Part Two (1832): “All that is perishable is just a parable,” Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis. He meant that the idea that anything is decaying, decomposing, dying, temporary, ephemeral, evanescent, vanishing is an illusion.
Zarathustra says to his disciples: “‘Imperishable’—that is just a parable,” ‘Unvergängliche’—das ist auch nur ein Gleichnis (“Von den Dichtern”). In other words, the idea that anything is immortal, permanent, eternal, everlasting is an illusion. Zarathustra’s disciples are rather upset by this announcement, but they are even more upset when their leader tells his followers not to believe anything that he says. The leader disfollows his followers; he tells his own followers not to follow him.
Zarathustra says more than this. He even calls his own erstwhile beloved overhuman one of the “colorful brats” (bunte[-] Bälge) that we place into the heavens—in other words, the overhuman is nothing more than a bombastic fiction, nothing more than an ethereality, nothing more than a fabrication, nothing more than a mystification, nothing more than an abstraction, nothing more than one form of unreality among other forms of unreality.
One should draw a contrast between the Goethe of Faust II and the Goethe of the second edition of The Sorrows of Young Werther (1775). In the second version of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe revised the poem at the beginning of the book to end thusly: “Be a man, and do not follow me,” Sei ein Mann, und folge mir nicht nach [in italics]. It is as if Goethe were admonishing young men not to follow Werther’s example. It is as if Goethe were admonishing young men not to kill themselves, as Werther did, and not to imitate Werther’s atrocious fashion choices. Goethe didn’t want his young male readers to kill themselves; he probably didn’t want them to dress the way that his Werther did, either.
Nietzsche is turning toward the Goethe of 1775 and turning away from the Goethe of 1832. It is as if Zarathustra were saying to his followers, and Nietzsche were saying to his readers, “Do not believe in me! Believe in yourselves! Do not follow me! Follow yourselves!”
In The Gospel according to Luke, Jesus commands his disciples to follow him blindly: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and his sisters—yes, even his own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” [14:26]. Unlike Jesus, who demanded obeisance from his disciples, Zarathustra wants traitors, not followers. By being faithful to Zarathustra, his disciples are betraying themselves. Zarathustra thus implores his disciples to follow him with a kind of treacherous piety and to believe in themselves, not in him: “Now I summon you to lose me and to find yourselves; for only after you have all denied me will I turn back to you.” Nun heisse euch, mich verlieren und euch finden; und erst, wenn ihr mich alle verleugnet habt, will ich euch wiederkehren (“Von der schenkenden Tugend”). In other words: Think for yourselves! And thinking for yourselves means to contradict yourselves, to overthrow your own convictions and credulities, again and again and again. Jesus never says, “Betray me!” or “Deny me!” He says (to Peter), “You will deny me three times” (Matthew 26:34).
The Jesus of the Johannine Gospel says, “Whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (11:26). Zarathustra, by contrast, affirms the “consummative death,” [der] vollbringende[-] Tod (“Vom freien Tode”)—the death that is undergone by the complete free spirit who chooses his or her own death, who chooses to die at the right time, at the time of his or her fullness and ripeness, who completes his or her life in the active passivity of dying. And life can only complete itself through the voluntary assumption of mortality. More relevant to this section of my essay: Zarathustra is saying, in essence: Whoever lives by believing in me is deceiving oneself. This is not a didactic or pedantic book.
Nietzsche is telling us, in effect, that everything that we have been reading is a lie! Zarathustra brooks no fans, no fanatics, no followers. He wants to missionarize no one. Zarathustra is a sermonizer who urges his disciples to betray him and to contradict his lessons. A prophet who renounces his or her own followers renounces himself, renounces herself. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a book that cancels itself out; it takes on the strange appearance of a book that annihilates itself and leaves the reader alone to think for himself, for herself.
DETHRONING THE HIGHER HUMANS
In Part Four, Zarathustra encounters the ironically typed “higher humans.” Each one of them lets out a cry of distress (Notschrei) in the forest, and Zarathustra, out of pity, rushes to soothe their lachrymose lachrymations. A cry of distress leads Zarathustra from one higher human to the next, from one station to the next.
The higher humans are invited to a feast at Zarathustra’s cave. They are the following: the Soothsayer, the Two Kings, the Conscientious of Spirit, the Wizard, the Last Pope, the Ugliest Man, the Wanderer, and the Voluntary Beggar. Each personage misinterprets Zarathustra’s lesson (I will return to this matter below).
1.) The Soothsayer (der Wahrsager) predicts the coming emptying-out of all values—the epoch of nihilism, the historical moment at which human beings will no longer have the desire to value anything at all. This will be the time of the last humans, those who blankly blink, those who are passionless, those who are self-complacent, those who don’t even understand the concept of striving. The absence of all values will be the moment when values will devaluate themselves, which is the final stage before the coming of the overhuman (see Deleuze’s remarks on the Soothsayer in Pure Immanence). The Soothsayer holds that all life is suffering; he, perhaps, reflects Schopenhauer.
2.) The Two Kings might be best described as “anthropotheists”: those humanists who worship the Human as if it were a god. They allegorize those who seek the higher humans; they are also, paradoxically, called “higher humans” themselves. The Two Kings replace the dead gods with the living human being. It is they who bring the donkey. They misinterpret what Zarathustra aphorizes: that a “good war hallows any cause” and that a “short peace is better than a long one,” der gute Krieg ist es, der jede Sache heiligt and [Ihr sollt] den kurzen Frieden [lieben] mehr als den langen. (“Vom Krieg und Kriegsvolke”). Nietzsche knew that some of his hastier and lazier readers who misinterpret him as an endorser of bellicosity. Zarathustra (and Nietzsche) does not endorse war in the literal sense—he endorses an intellectual war against the complacencies of faith. The Two Kings literalize Zarathustra as a militarist.
3.) The Conscientious of Spirit (Gewissenhafte des Geistes) allegorizes scholarship and scholarliness. He is the Man of Knowledge; he is the one who holds knowledge above all else. He fetishizes knowledge in lieu of thinking. Thinking is superior to knowledge—and those who privilege knowledge over thinking are paving the way for religiosity, for political ideology, for morality, for all forms of dogmatism. He misinterprets Zarathustra’s language: When he said that “spirit is that life which cuts into life,” Geist ist das Leben, das selber ins Leben schneidet, Zarathustra never meant that life should turn against life (“Von den berühmten Weisen”). The Conscientious One wants security (Sicherheit) and comes to Zarathustra for security. But Zarathustra is a great destabilizer and destabilizes all certainties, all complacencies, all assurances. The Conscientious of Spirit is parasitized by a leech, the leech of knowledge.
4.) The Wizard is a comic figure, a self-deceptive figure, who deceives himself into mourning the death of the gods. The best contemporary instantiation of the Wizard is Professor Jordan Peterson (I will return to this matter below).
5.) The Last Pope claims that the gods died for their pity of humankind (in “Ausser Dienst”). Having lost the dead gods, the sad hierophant now worships the godless one, Zarathustra. Nietzsche appears to be proleptically making fun of the vulgar Nietzscheanists who will distort him into resembling a religious thinker.
6.) The Ugliest Man has assassinated the gods. Why did he assassinate the gods? He assassinated the gods because the gods witnessed the Ugly Man’s ugliness and the Ugly Man could not stand the idea of the all-seeing gods witnessing his ugliness. He kills the gods so that the gods can no longer see the Ugliest Man’s ugly hideousness and hideous ugliness. When he writes of the Ugliest Man’s “ugliness,” Nietzsche means the Ugliest Man’s perception of sinfulness, his sinful self-perception, the perception of his mortality, his thanatoception. But what madness is this? Omnificent gods create sinful human creatures, and then the gods punish human creatures for their sinfulness. This means that the gods punish their own creatures for what the gods have put into their creatures—the gods create human beings and then punish their own creations for being imperfect. The gods punish themselves. The Ugliest Man is ashamed of his sinfulness, and this leads to self-contempt, Verachtung. The cure of self-contempt is self-love—something that the Ugliest Man certainly does not have.
7.) The Wanderer is entranced by dancing girls from the East, by their shapely choreomania. Nietzsche is probably metaphorizing those who are allured by Eastern mysticism. There is also mention of the Shadow, but the Shadow is tenebrous to me.
8.) The Voluntary Beggar (der freiwillige Bettler) gives up all of his wealth so that he might live among sheep, among the ovinely faithful. He figures the ascetic, the self-denying religionist. He misinterprets Zarathustra’s great disgust, grosser Ekel, as disgust over one’s own affluence, as nausea over riches and self-accumulation, which is something that Zarathustra has never actually expressed (“Der freiwillige Bettler”).
* * * * *
Zarathustra returns to the cave where the higher men were feasting, a cave that was until now full of joy and laughter. No one is laughing anymore.
And what are the higher men doing, these visitors, these guests?
Zarathustra is shocked to see the higher men in the cave worshipping the donkey as if the beast were a god. They are godifying the donkey, the donkey is to them a god, an asinine divinity or a divine asininity. It is like a Satanic mass, but the problem, for Nietzsche, is not its unholiness, but its holiness! Zarathustra, and Nietzsche, are alarmed by the pointlessness of it all, the pointlessness of muttering prayers to oneself that no one else can hear. After all, it makes as much sense to worship a donkey as it does to worship a wafer, a cracker, a goblet of wine, or a piece of wood.
Why a donkey? Why does Nietzsche use this metaphor, and what is being metaphorized?
The donkey metaphorizes the gods—all deities, all idols. The donkey is the Ass God. The nimbus of mystery that shrouds the gods has been dispelled. The god is revealed as an animal. An enigma that is revealed is an enigma no longer; a mystery that is revealed is no longer a mystery. What we are left with is not the mysticism of mystery, but the animalism of an animal.
The donkey has long ears—it is incapable of subtle, critical listening, incapable of listening with discernment, incapable of distinguishing lovely sounds from harsh sounds. It likes everything and everyone, without discrimination. The donkey’s long ears are figurative of the indiscriminate listening of the inscrutable gods.
Donkeys never answer questions; the gods never answer questions. The donkey spews inhuman, unintelligible gibberish. Hence, its mindless cry: “I-A.” Pronounced: “Eeeh-Ahh!” Donkeys laugh inanely at everything and at nothing. Much as the deity who is forever silent or, what amounts to the same, utters indecipherable mishmash, the donkey never discloses itself; no one knows what its message is. No matter what the gods say, the believers will find something meaningful in it. No matter what happens, it is always the will of the gods. When a child dies, “the gods work in mysterious ways,” we are told; if a child’s life is saved, that, too, is the work of the gods. This is a game that is rigged in advance, a game that is impossible to lose, an infinitely inflatable air bag. No matter what one says about the will of the gods, it will be correct—because the gods do not disclose themselves. No matter what the donkey says, it is regarded as meaningful—even though it is braying senselessly.
The donkey accepts everything and nothing with a kind of blank stupidity, with an empty stupidity. The donkey emptily affirms everything. It bawls its affirmation, its I-A, to everything and nothing. The yee-hawing of the donkey, its empty affirmation of everything and nothing with equal vacuity and acuity, is not the affirmation, the Yes-saying, of Zarathustra.
Zarathustra denounces the higher humans and their false idol—for all idols are false, according to Nietzsche. Zarathustra denounces the higher humans with the same rage, with the same asperity, with which Jesus denounced the money changers and the animal hawkers in the temple. It is thrilling to read Zarathustra’s denunciation of the ass-drunk hypocrites.
The higher humans are not high enough. The higher humans are still deists; they are still godly men. They are still god-obsessed, god-addicted, god-infected, god-infested, god-injected lunatics.
The entire point is that the humanists are religionists and humanism is a form of religiosity. The higher humans are not yet overhuman; humanity has not yet superseded itself and acceded to the overhuman.
The humanists talk about the “transcendent,” as Jordan Peterson does. They talk of the religiosity of art, how “art and poetry are not possible without religion,” as Peterson said. They are hucksters, quacksters, fraudsters. They are the resurrectors of the gods.
The higher humans are not irreligious enough for Nietzsche. They pretend to be irreligious, but they are all covert god-believers—they are all infected, infested, injected with religiosity.
Humanism fills the abyss left by the absence of the gods.
After the gods die, humanism takes over.
Why did the gods die? The gods died because they pitied humankind. The Christian God “died” when He became Christ—even Karl Barth acknowledged that the finitization of God-as-Christ is the mortalization of God. God “died,” even before Christ was mounted on the cross.
Such is Nietzsche’s diagnosis of modernity: Modernity is the slow convalescing from a sickness—belief in the gods is a sickness, and since the gods died, we have been convalescing from this sickness.
On guidance counselors’ office doors throughout the United States of America is emblazoned the overcited declaration: “Whoever would give birth to a dancing star must have chaos within,” man muss noch Chaos in sich haben, um einen tanzenden Stern gebären zu können (Prologue). Nietzsche means that the higher men will give birth to the overhuman, once the agonies of self-contempt and nausea have subsided.
Nietzsche’s genealogy of the future runs like this: First comes self-contempt on the part of humanity. Humanity will become contemptuous of itself. Then comes the death of the gods. Then, nihilism, or the self-evacuation of all values. Then, the last human, who cares about nothing, who has no longing, no yearning, no striving. Then, self-overcoming or the invention of new, life-affirmative and world-affirmative values, which leads to the overhuman—a humanity that finally keeps pace with its fullest promise.
Part Four is especially brilliant in the way that it folds back on Parts One, Two, and Three. Part Four contains ways in which the first three parts of the book will have been misinterpreted by Nietzsche’s careless readership long after he will have been gone. To give one example of this: The Ugliest Man quotes Zarathustra: “One kills not by wrath, but by laughter,” Nicht durch Zorn, sondern durch Lachen tötet man. (These words were originally written in “Vom Lesen und Schreiben” and are now quoted in “Das Eselsfest.”) However, the Ugliest Man misinterprets these words to mean: “It doesn’t matter whether or not one excises God from one’s life.” He mistakes Zarathustra’s laughter as silliness, as giggling nonchalance.
Part Four is a meta-literary device—it affords a meta-perspective that anticipates the book’s future reception. Nietzsche installed in his book its inevitable misinterpretation in the hands of a lazy, glazy, dazy, hasty readership. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a fissile book—it opens to the future.) Indeed, this is exactly what happened: Nietzsche has been misinterpreted as a proto-Nazi and as a crypto-Christian, among other things that he was not.
No one has misinterpreted Nietzsche more perniciously and more fatefully than Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Dr. Jordan Peterson.
NIETZSCHE CONTRA PETERSON: JORDAN PETERSON DOES NOT UNDERSTAND NIETZSCHE
The most visible and effective public intellectual on the Planet Earth, at the time that I am composing this essay, is almost certainly Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson. He is far more effective and visible than competing public intellectuals Dr. Slavoj Žižek and Twitter philosopher Dr. Sam Harris, both of whom he has debated publicly. The fact that Dr. Peterson is so visible and so effective says more about the current state of the Planet Earth than it does about Dr. Peterson.
Dr. Jordan Peterson—who is a homarine brophilosopher (or, as my friend Andy Ball puts it, a “brosopher”)—makes sense 88.8% of the time. Unlike other critics of Dr. Peterson, I actually believe that some of his prescriptions, such as “Stand up straight!” and “Clean your room!” are only apparently simple, are indeed profound, and have great utility, both as literal and as metaphorical prescriptions for the young and for the old (here is not the place to pursue this argument). And then he says things such as “There can be no art or poetry without religion” to a cackling audience of atheists (see his debate with Matt Dillahunty; April 2018). Even worse are his remarks on Nietzsche. His pseudo-reading of Nietzsche is that of a Christian existentialist (a contradictio in terminus, if there ever was one).
On the 18 April 2019 episode of his podcast, Dr. Peterson had this to say about the Nietzschean Death of God: “When Nietzsche announced the Death of God—which, by the way, as you may know from listening to my lectures [!!!]—was not precisely a triumphal… wasn’t an announcement of triumph. It was a warning and the tolling of bells of sorrow. That’s a good way of thinking about it. Even though Nietzsche styled himself as a vicious [!]… an intellectually vicious critic of institutionalized Christianity, which he certainly was, he was also a strange friend to the faith. I think, in the most fundamental sense, that’s the truth… So, when Nietzsche announced the Death of God, he did it sorrowfully…”
These are not adventitious remarks. These remarks are at the core of Dr. Peterson’s thinking. Whenever he lectures or interviews, Dr. Peterson refers to Nietzsche, almost without exception, and whenever he speaks of Nietzsche, he invariably speaks of the Death of God.
On the 8 June 2018 episode of a video series entitled, fittingly, The Big Conversation, Dr. Peterson had this to say:
“You know, Nietzsche announced, of course, in the 1880s, in the late 1880s [sic!!!], that God was dead. Typical rationalist atheists regard that as a triumphal, a triumphalist proclamation. But that wasn’t that for Nietzsche. Nietzsche knew perfectly well and said immediately afterward that the consequences of that was going to be a bloody catastrophe because everything was going to fall… Nietzsche knew perfectly well that when you remove the cornerstone from underneath the building that even though it may stay aloft in mid-air like a cartoon character that’s wandered off a cliff, that it will inevitably come to crumble.”
Dr. Peterson makes the claim that Nietzsche was really very sad about the Death of God almost everywhere he goes. On 16 May 2018, Dr. Peterson participated in a structured Question-and-Answer session at the Oxford Union. When an exceedingly bright student asked him if meaning is artificially imposed on the world by human beings, Dr. Peterson uttered this non-response in response:
“When Nietzsche announced the Death of God, which is something that he announced in sorrow and trembling [!!!!!!], I would say, rather than triumphantly, which is often how that’s read because people don’t actually read Nietzsche; they just read one half of a quote from Nietzsche.”
But have you truly read Nietzsche, Dr. Peterson? If anything, Dr. Peterson is the illiteratus and his followers, the illiterati. “Nietzsche was sad about the Death of God” is a false axiom. To refute Dr. Peterson’s erroneous claim that Nietzsche mourned the Death of God, one only has to consult the following passage from “On the Apostates”:
“It has been over for the gods for a long time now: —and indeed they had a fine, joyful gods’ end! / They did not ‘twilight’ themselves to death—that is a real lie! Rather: They laughed themselves—to death!”
Mit den alten Göttern ging es ja lange schon zu Ende: —und wahrlich, ein gutes fröhliches Götter-Ende hatten sie! / Sie “dämmerten” sich nicht zu Tode—das lügt man wohl! Vielmehr: sie haben sich selber einmal zu Tode—gelacht! (“Von den Abtrünnigen”).
Dr. Peterson believes that Nietzsche is one of those who think they want the destruction of God but who “creep at midnight around God’s tomb,” mitternachts um das Grab seines Gottes schleicht (“Von den Hinterweltlern”). And Jordan Peterson is the mournful mourner, not Nietzsche, who never mourns the death of the Old Gods.
Nietzsche did suggest that belief in the gods, which constitutes the absolute virtue, is an obstruction to aesthetic creativity.
Nietzsche/Zarathustra proclaims: “[I]f there were no gods, how could I stand not being a god! Therefore, there are no gods.” [W]enn es Götter gäbe, wie hielte ich’s aus, kein Gott zu sein! Also gibt es keine Götter (“Auf den glückseligen Inseln”).
This is both a false inference and an argument from pleasure, an argumentum ad consequentiam. Nietzsche actually appears to be suggesting: “Because I can’t stand the idea of not being a god, there are no gods!” As if the existence of gods were dependent on my emotional needs! Right after the fake syllogism that I cited above, there is the sly suggestion that Nietzsche is being ironic, that he knows that he is being illogical.
All healthy virtues will be rooted in the body and in the world—and the unhealthiest of all virtues, according to Nietzsche, is faith in the Old Gods, which leads Nietzsche into a logical contradiction.
In contradistinction to Jordan B. Peterson, who believes that there can be no art or poetry without religion, and who said as much to an amphitheater of giggling atheists, Nietzsche writes the exact opposite: There can be no art or poetry with religion!
There would be no reason for art if gods existed. “What would there be to create if gods—were there!” [W]as wäre denn zu schaffen, wenn Götter—da wären! (“Auf den glückseligen Inseln”). Art is a fundamentally human activity—it only makes sense in the absence of gods. I create because no gods exist, for the gods and goddesses would be the superior craftsmen and craftswomen. To believe in a god that you have not created is to negate yourself. Nietzsche is suggesting: Don’t believe in any god that you haven’t invented yourself. The absence of gods makes possible artistic creativity.
Nietzsche affirms the gaiety of creation in the absence of deities. The only person who is mournful about the absence of the deities is—Dr. Jordan Peterson, who is no Zarathustra!
The one who feels as if one were a human god has no need of gods. I acknowledge that this is a dangerous position, but it is Nietzsche’s position, regardless of whether one agrees with it. Nietzsche wants all of us—each free spirit who reads his words—to feel as gods ourselves.
Above all, Nietzsche wants to inspirit the broken-spirited.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
 “Wahrheit reden und gut mit Bogen und Pfeil verkehren”—so dünkte es jenem Volke zugleich lieb und schwer, aus dem mein Name kommt—der Name, welcher mir zugleich lieb und schwer ist.”
 A book that is heavy in metaphor will not be understood by professional philosophers who do not know how to retranslate its metaphors into concepts, who will be puzzled by, for instance, Zarathustra’s claim that he speaks too crassly and openly for Angora rabbits (Seidenhasen).
 Metaphor conceals the harsh nascency of the concept.
 Style is a means of concealing one’s motives. Having style—finesse, trickery, chicanery—means not showing everything. Style is the corrective of nature.
 We know that Nietzsche read Stirner with admiration (see Conversations with Nietzsche, edited by Sander L. Gilman, pages 113-114).
 The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is the forever-supervenient and the non-obviatable.
 Compare the following passages: In “On the Spirit of Gravity,” Zarathustra tells us, “The way precisely—that does not exist!” Den Weg nämlich—den gibt es nicht! (“Vom Geist der Schwere”). In “On the Old and New Tablets,” Zarathustra claims that he is a “prelude to better players,” Ein Vorspiel bin ich besserer Spieler (“Von alten und neuen Tafeln”).
 “Wohl zog ich den Schluss; nun aber zieht er mich” (Ibid.).
 Much like Archimedes, Zarathustra demands that the stars orient themselves around him: Kannst du auch Sterne zwingen, dass sie um dich drehen? (“Vom Wege des Schaffenden”).
An Analysis of All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525
My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature. His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the problematical plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost, are his masterworks. All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematical plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.
One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda. They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society. In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are expected to have been begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.
But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage. In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.
Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.
The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her. As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate. A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer. She pursues Bertram relentlessly. As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her. Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play. Quite the opposite, as I shall contend. Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i]. And yet, does obsession ever end?
When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i]. She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.]. Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father… I have forgot him. My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.]. All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects the socks of her lover which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.
Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i]. Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status? I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated. I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.
When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii]. Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii]. No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv] that she pretends to be. Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii]. Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram? Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram. Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him? Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.
The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram. As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play. The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.
And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive. And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.
Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram. Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage. She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].
Why not take Helena at her word? On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her. She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart. On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own. She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law. All’s well that ends well. She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body. Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]? She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband. She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.
It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana. He is revolted by Helena. The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea. Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her. In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii]. He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].
Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century. Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign. However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor. Again, he finds her physically repellent.
Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent. Is this not rape? According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.
And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology? There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother. But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother? They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.
The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v]. Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.
Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv]. Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate. When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.
Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences. Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality. Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors. The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]). The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii]. A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status. One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena. Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.
Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i]. She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays. Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated. His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time. This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii]. The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think. Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL. Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.
For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v]. (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena. Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.) (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena. He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].) Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around. (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.) Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.
Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France. When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more. The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.
When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition. It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.]. It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.
The King is revived from the dead. Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena. Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram. In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena. I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.” The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision. Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority. Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne. This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.
Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction. Desire cannot be systematized. We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.
Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not. Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection. Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her. Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii]. When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired. It is not a statement of resignation. Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal. Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.
It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her. However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy. Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.” Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother. To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement. She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.
Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him. The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective. The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern. Treachery is circular; treason is circular. This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:
We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors. And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].
I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves. We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal. As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.” According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603. All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605. If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.
All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves. We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.
Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.
Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse. Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage. She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society. In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong. Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win? Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality? A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else. No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.
Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself. He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.
From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case. In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin. All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner. It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii]. And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v]. “Fine” here means “ending.” The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it. The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning. The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.
No one is innocent, and no one is guilty. Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii]. The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.
One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite. Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii]. Language kills. That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean. When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication. When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.
Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect. For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii]. He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.]. He often cannot finish his sentences. Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis). And yet there is some sense in his nonsense. When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar? When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i]. And yet are they gabbling? Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest. Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble. Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless. There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning. Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.
At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii]. In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.” He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion. Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father. The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test. It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law. Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.
Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage? Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition. But was Kant incorrect? All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing. It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s most problematical comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.
When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii]. This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.
“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine]. There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending. Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy. All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well. All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well. All’s ill that ends well.
MY FAVORITE BOOKS, MY FAVORITE FILMS, MY FAVORITE MUSIC: Joseph Suglia
My favorite music is German, Zambian, and English Progressive Rock from 1969 until 1987.
My favorite film is First Reformed (2018), directed by Paul Schrader.
My favorite writings include those of Gayl Jones, Roland Topor, D.H. Lawrence, J.G. Ballard, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Shakespeare, Richard Matheson, and [NAME REDACTED].
HUMAN, ALL-TOO-HUMAN / MENSCHLICHES, ALLZUMENSCHLICHES (Friedrich Nietzsche)
A commentary by Joseph Suglia
MAM = Menschliches, Allzumenschliches. Ein Buch für freie Geister (1878); second edition: 1886
VMS = Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche (1879)
WS = Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (1880)
The following will not have been an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Human, All-Too-Human. It will have been a commentary: Comment taire? as the French say. “How to silence?” In other words: How should the commentator silence his or her own voice and invisibilize his or her own presence in order to amplify the sound of the text and magnify the text’s image?
An interpretation replaces one meaning with another, or, as Heidegger would say, regards one thing as another. A commentary adds almost nothing to the text under consideration.
Nietzsche’s Psychological Reductionism and Perspectivalism
Human, All-Too-Human is almost unremittingly destructive. For the most part, it only has a negative purpose: to demolish structures and systems of thought. However, there is also a positive doctrine within these pages, and that is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity (to which I will return below) and the promise of a future humanity that will be unencumbered by religion, morality, and metaphysics.
In the preface of the second edition (1886), Nietzsche makes this thrust and tenor of his book clear with the following words: The purpose of the book is “the inversion of customary valuations and valued customs” (die Umkehrung gewohnter Wertschätzungen und geschätzter Gewohnheiten). The highest ideals are reduced to the basest human-all-too-humanness of human beings. This is a form of psychological reductionism: Once-good values (love, fidelity, patriotism, motherliness) are deposed. The man who mourns his dead child is an actor on an imaginary stage who performs the act of mourning in order to stir up the emotions of his spectators—he is vain, not selflessly moral. The faithful girl wants to be cheated upon in order to prove her fidelity—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral. The soldier wants to die on the battlefield in order to prove his patriotism—he is egoistic, not selflessly moral. The mother gives up sleep to prove her virtuous motherliness—she is egoistic, not selflessly moral [MAM: 57].
The inversion of valuations leads to an advocacy of the worst values: vanity and egoism (but never the vaingloriousness of arrogance, against which Nietzsche warns us for purely tactical reasons). As well as lying. Nietzsche praises lying at the expense of the truth to the point at which lying becomes the truth, and the truth becomes a lie that pretends that it is true. This, of course, is a paradox, for anyone who says, “There is no truth, only interpretations of truth” is assuming that one’s own statement is true.
Again and again, Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world. Appearance (Schein) becomes being (Sein): The hypocrite is seduced by his own voice into believing the things that he says. The priest who begins his priesthood as a hypocrite, more or less, will eventually turn into a pious man, without any affectation [MAM: 52]. The thing in itself is a phenomenon. Everything is appearance. There is no beyond-the-world; there is nothing outside of the world, no beyond on the other side of the world, no επέκεινα.
As far as egoism is concerned: Nietzsche tells us again and again: All human beings are self-directed. I could have just as easily written, All human beings are selfish, but one must be careful. Nietzsche does not believe in a hypostatized self. Every individual, Nietzsche instructs us, is a dividual (divided against himself or herself), and the Nietzsche of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885) utterly repudiates the idea of a substantialized self. To put it another way: No one acts purely for the benefit of another human being, for how could the first human being do anything without reference to himself or herself?: Nie hat ein Mensch Etwas gethan, das allein für Andere und ohne jeden persönlichen Begweggrund gethan wäre; ja wie sollte er Etwas thun können, das ohne Bezug zu ihm wäre…? [MAM: 133]. Only a god would be purely other-directed. Lichtenberg and La Rochefoucauld are Nietzsche’s constant points of reference in this regard. Nietzsche never quotes this Rochefoucauldian apothegm, but he might as well have:
“True love is like a ghost which many have talked about, but few have seen.”
“Jealousy contains much more self-love than love.”
Whatever is considered “good” is relativized. We are taught that the Good is continuous with the Evil, that both Good and Evil belong to the same continuum. Indeed, there are no opposites, only degrees, gradations, shades, differentiations. Opposites exist only in metaphysics, not in life, which means that every opposition is a false opposition. When the free spirit recognizes the artificiality of all oppositions, s/he undergoes the “great liberation” (grosse Loslösung)—a tearing-away from all that is traditionally revered—and “perhaps turns [his or her] favor toward what previously had a bad reputation” (vielleicht nun seine Gunst dem zugewendet, was bisher in schlechtem Rufe stand) [Preface to the second edition]. The awareness that life cannot be divided into oppositions leads to an unhappy aloneness and a lone unhappiness, which can only be alleviated by the invention of other free spirits.
What is a “free spirit”? A free spirit is someone who does not think in the categories of Either/Or, someone who does not think in the categories of Pro and Contra, but sees more than one side to every argument. A free spirit does not merely see two sides to an argument, but rather as many sides as possible, an ever-multiplying multiplicity of sides. As a result, free spirits no longer languish in the manacles of love and hatred; they live without Yes, without No. They no longer trouble themselves over things that have nothing to do with them; they have to do with things that no longer trouble them. They are mistresses and masters of every Pro and every Contra, every For and every Against.
All over the internet, you will find opposing camps: feminists and anti-feminists, those who defend religious faith and those who revile religious faith, liberals and conservatives. Nietzsche would claim that each one of these camps is founded upon the presupposition of an error. And here Nietzsche is unexpectedly close to Hegel: I am thinking of Nietzsche’s perspectivalism, which is, surprisingly, closer to the Hegelian dialectic than most Nietzscheans and Hegelians would admit, since they themselves tend to be one-sided. In all disputes, the free spirit sees each perspective as unjust because one-sided. Instead of choosing a single hand, the free spirit considers both what is on the one hand and what is on the other (einerseits—andererseits) [MAM: 292]. The free spirit hovers over all perspectives, valuations, evaluations, morals, customs, and laws: ihm muss als der wünschenswertheste Zustand jenes freie, furchtlose Schweben über Menschen, Sitten, Gesetzen und den herkömmlichen Schätzungen der Dinge genügen [MAM: 34]. It is invidiously simplistic and simplistically invidious to freeze any particular perspective. Worse, it is anti-life, for life is conditioned by perspective and its injustices: das Leben selbst [ist] bedingt durch das Perspektivische und seine Ungerechtigkeit [Preface to the second edition]. A free spirit never takes one side or another, for that would reduce the problem in question to the simplicity of a fixed opposition, but instead does justice to the many-sidedness of every problem and thus does honor to the multifariousness of life.
There Is No Free Will. Sam Harris’s Unspoken Indebtedness to Nietzsche.
Let me pause over three revolutions in the history of Western thought.
The cosmological revolution known as the “Copernican Revolution” marked a shift from the conception of a cosmos in which the Earth is the center to the conception of a system in which the Sun is the center. A movement from geocentrism (and anthropocentrism) to heliocentrism.
The biological revolution took the shape of the theory of evolution (“It’s only a theory!” exclaim the unintelligent designers), which describes the adaptation of organisms to their environments through the process of non-random natural selection.
There is a third revolution, and it occurred in psychology. I am not alluding to psychoanalysis, but rather to the revolution that predated psychoanalysis and made it possible (Freud was an admirer of Nietzsche). Without the Nietzschean revolution, psychoanalysis would be unthinkable, and Twitter philosopher Sam Harris’s Free Will (2012) would never have existed.
I am alluding to the revolution that Nietzsche effected in 1878. It was a silent revolution. Almost no one seems aware that this revolution ever took place.
It is a revolution that describes the turning-away from voluntarism (the theory of free will) and the turning-toward determinism, and Nietzsche’s determinism will condition his critique of morality. Nietzschean determinism is the doctrine of total irresponsibility and necessity.
[Let it be clear that I know that Spinoza, Hume, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, et al., wrote against the concept of the free will before Nietzsche.]
The free will is the idea that we have control over our own thoughts, moods, feelings, and actions. It conceives of the mind as transparent to itself: We are aware in advance of why we do-say-write-think the things that we do-say-write-think. This idea is false: You no more know what your next thought will be than you know what the next sentence of this commentary will be (if this is your first time reading this text). It is only after the fact that we assign free will to the sources of actions, words, and thoughts. Our thoughts, moods, and feelings—e.g. anger, desire, affection, envy—appear to us as isolated mental states, without reference to previous or subsequent thoughts, moods, and feelings: This is the origin of the misinterpretation of the human mind known as “the free will” (the definite article the even suggests that there is only one). The free will is an illusion of which we would do well to disabuse ourselves.
We do not think our thoughts. Our thoughts appear to us. They come to the surfaces of our consciousness from the abysms of the unconscious mind. Close your eyes, and focus on the surfacings and submersions of your own thoughts, and you will see what I mean.
This simple exercise of self-observation suffices to disprove the illusion of voluntarism. If your mind is babbling, this very fact of consciousness refutes the idea of free will. Mental babble invalidates the voluntarist hypothesis. Does anyone truly believe that s/he wills babble into existence? Does anyone deliberately choose the wrong word to say or the wrong action to perform? If free will existed, infelicity would not exist at all or would exist less. After all, what would free will be if not the thinking that maps out what one will have thought-done-said-written—before actually having thought one’s thought / done one’s deed / said one’s words / written one’s words?
Belief in free will provokes hatred, malice, guilt, regret, and the desire for vengeance. After all, if someone chooses to behave in a hateful way, that person deserves to be hated. Anyone who dispenses with the theory of the free will hates less and loves less. No more desire for revenge, no more enmity. No more guilt, no more regret. No more rewards for impressive people who perform impressive acts, for rewarding implies that the rewarded could have acted differently than s/he did. In a culture that accepted the doctrine of total irresponsibility, there would be neither heroes nor villains. There would be no reason to heroize taxi drivers who return forgotten wallets and purses to their clients, nor would there be any reason to heroize oneself, since what a person does is not his choice / is not her choice. No one would be praised, nor would anyone praise oneself. No one would condemn others, nor would anyone condemn oneself. Researchers would investigate the origins of human behavior, but would not punish, for the sources of all human thought and therefore the sources of all human behavior are beyond one’s conscious control / beyond the reach of consciousness. It makes no sense to say / write that someone is “good” or “evil,” if goodness and evilness are not the products of a free will. There is no absolute goodness or absolute evilness; nothing is good as such or evil as such. There is neither voluntary goodness nor voluntary evilness.
If there is no free will, there is no human responsibility, either. The second presupposes the first. Do you call a monster “evil”? A monster cannot be evil if it is not responsible for what it does. Do we call earthquakes “evil”? Do we call global warming “evil”? Natural phenomena are exempt from morality, as are non-human animals. We do not call natural phenomena “immoral”; we consider human beings “immoral” because we falsely assume the existence of a free will. We feel guilt / regret for our “immoral” actions / thoughts, not because we are free, but because we falsely believe ourselves to be free: [W]eil sich der Mensch für frei halt, nicht aber weil er frei ist, empfindet er Reue und Gewissensbisse [MAM 39]. No one chooses to have Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder. Why, then, should someone who is afflicted with Asperger syndrome or Borderline Personality Disorder be termed “evil”? No one chooses one’s genetic constitution. You are no more responsible for the emergence of your thoughts and your actions than you are responsible for your circulatory system or for the sensation of hunger.
Those who would like to adumbrate Nietzsche’s “mature” thought should begin with Human, All-Too-Human (1878), not with Daybreak (1801). Nietzsche’s critique of morality makes no sense whatsoever without an understanding of his deeper critique of voluntarism (the doctrine of free will): Again, the ideas of Good and Evil only make sense on the assumption of the existence of free will.
Anyone who dispenses with the idea of free will endorses a shift from a system of punishment to a system of deterrence (Abschreckung). A system of deterrence would restrain and contain criminals so that someone would not behave badly, not because someone has behaved badly. As Nietzsche reminds us, every human act is a concrescence of forces from the past: one’s parents, one’s teachers, one’s environment, one’s genetic constitution. It makes no sense, then, to believe that any individual is responsible for what he or she does. All human activity is motivated by physiology and the unconscious mind, not by Good or Evil. Everything is necessary, and it might even be possible to precalculate all human activity, through the mechanics of artificial intelligence, to steal a march on every advance: Alles ist notwendig, jede Bewegung mathematisch auszurechnen… Die Täuschung des Handelnden über sich, die Annahme des freien Willens, gehört mit hinein in diesen auszurechnenden Mechanismus [MAM: 106].
If you accept the cruelty of necessity (and is life not cruel, if we have no say in what we think and what we do?), the nobility of humanity falls away (the letter of nobility, the Adelsbrief) [MAM: 107]. All human distinction is devalued, since it is predetermined—since it is necessary. Human beings would finally recognize themselves within nature, not outside of nature, as animals among other animals. I must cite this passage in English translation, one which is not irrelevant to this context and one which belongs to the most powerful writing I have ever read, alongside Macbeth’s soliloquy upon learning of his wife’s death: “The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest as we do, when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the Earth: Indeed, we are still modest if we stop there and do not arrange a general twilight of the world and of the gods (eine allgemeine Welt- and Götterdämmerung) for the funeral rites of the final human (zur Leichenfeier des letzten Menschen). The most dispassionate astronomer can oneself scarcely feel the lifeless Earth in any other way than as the gleaming and floating gravesite of humanity” [WS: 14].
The demystification of the theory of free will has been re-presented by Sam Harris, who might seem like the Prophet of the Doctrine of Necessity. Those who have never read Nietzsche might believe that Dr. Harris is the first person to say these things, since Dr. Harris never credits Nietzsche’s theory of total human irresponsibility. If you visit Dr. Harris’s Web site, you will discover a few English translations of Nietzsche on his Recommended Reading List. We know that Dr. Harris’s first book (unpublished) was a novel in which Nietzsche is a character. We also know that Dr. Harris was a student of Philosophy at Stanford University. He would therefore not have been unaware of the Nietzschean resonances in his own text Free Will. Why, then, has Dr. Harris never publically acknowledged his indebtedness to Nietzschean determinism?
Nietzsche Is / Is Not (Always) a Misogynist.
In 1882, Nietzsche was sexually rejected by Lou Andreas-Salome, a Russian intellectual, writer, and eventual psychoanalyst who was found spellbinding by seemingly every cerebral man she met, including Rilke and Paul Ree. Since the first edition of Human, All-Too-Human was published four years before, Salome’s rejection of Nietzsche cannot be said to have had an impact on his reflections on women at that stage in the evolution of his thinking.
Nietzsche is sometimes a misogynist. But I must emphasize: He is not always a misogynist.
At times, Nietzsche praises women / is a philogynist. To give evidence of Nietzsche’s philogyny, all one needs to do is cite Paragraph 377 of the first volume: “The perfect woman is a higher type of human being than the perfect man” (Das volkommene Weib ist ein höherer Typus des Menschen, als der volkommene Mann). Elsewhere, Nietzsche extols the intelligence of women: Women have the faculty of understanding (Verstand), he writes, whereas men have mind (Gemüth) and passion (Leidenschaft) [MAM: 411]. The loftier term Verstand points to the superiority of women over men. Here, Nietzsche is far from misogynistic—indeed, he almost seems gynocratic.
Nor is Nietzsche a misogynist, despite appearances, in the following passage—one in which he claims that women tolerate thought-directions that are logically in contradiction with one another: Widersprüche in weiblichen Köpfen.—Weil die Weiber so viel mehr persönlich als sachlich sind, vertragen sich in ihrem Gedankenkreise Richtungen, die logisch mit einander in Widerspruch sind: sie pflegen sich eben für die Vertreter dieser Richtungen der Reihe nach zu begeistern und nehmen deren Systeme in Bausch und Bogen an; doch so, dass überall dort eine todte Stelle entsteht, wo eine neue Persönlichkeit später das Übergewicht bekommt [MAM: 419].
To paraphrase: Nietzsche is saying that the minds of women are fluxuous and not in any pejorative sense. He means that multiple positions coexist simultaneously in the consciousnesses of women. Personalities are formed and then evacuate themselves, leaving dead spots (todte Stellen), where new personalities are activated. This does not mean that the minds of women contain “dead spots”—it means that they are able to form and reform new personalities, which is a strength, not a weakness. And yet does he not say the same thing about his invisible friends, the free spirits? Free spirits are also in a state of constant flux, and their fluxuousness, while necessarily unjust to their own opinions, allows them to move from opinion to opinion with alacrity and to hold in their heads multiple opinions at the same time. Free spirits have opinions and arguments, but no convictions, for convictions are petrific. Free spirits are guiltless betrayers of their own opinions [MAM: 637] and goalless wanderers from opinion to opinion [MAM: 638].
Why would the substitution-of-one-position-for-another, intellectual inconstancy, be considered as something negative? Is it not a trait of the free spirit the ability to substitute a new position for an older one with alacrity? And is the free spirit not Nietzsche’s ideal human being—at least before the overhuman takes the stage? Such is my main argument: Free-spiritedness is womanliness, and free spirits are womanly, if we accept Nietzsche’s definitions of “free-spiritedness” and of “womanliness.”
This is not to deny the strain of misogyny that runs throughout Nietzsche’s collected writings. Yes, Nietzsche does write unkind and unjustifiable things about women—some of his statements about women are downright horrible and indefensible. My objective here is to highlight the polysemy and polyvocality of his writing, its ambiguity. For a further discussion of Nietzsche’s ambiguous representations of the feminine, consult Derrida’s Spurs, wherein he analyzes the figure of the veil in Beyond Good and Evil.
To say or write that Nietzsche is always a misogynist would be to disambiguate his work—if by “Nietzsche” one is referring to the paper Nietzsche. (For a series of accounts of Nietzsche as a human being, see Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries, published by Oxford University Press.) Nonetheless, let us pause over the historical, living human being Friedrich Nietzsche, who was male, and his relation to one historical, living human being, who was female: Marie Baumgartner, the mother of one of Nietzsche’s students and his sometime French translator. In the original manuscript of Mixed Opinions and Maxims, the first appendix to Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche wrote: “Whether we have a serpent’s tooth or not is something that we do not know until someone has put his heel upon us. Our character is determined even more by the lack of certain experiences than by what we have experienced” [VMS: 36]. In a letter to Nietzsche dated 13 November 1878, Marie Baumgartner wrote: “I would gladly have added to your very striking maxim: ‘a woman or mother would say, until someone puts his heel upon her darling or her child.’ For a woman will not silently allow something to happen to them that in most cases she patiently accepts for herself.” Nietzsche was so affected by Baumgartner’s rather delicately worded suggestion that he modulated the text to reflect her proposal. If Nietzsche regarded women as inferior (and he never did), why would he take seriously something that a female reader wrote about his manuscript—so seriously that he modified his manuscript to incorporate her words? The fact that Nietzsche reflected Marie Baumgartner’s suggestion in the revision of his manuscript is evidence enough that he respected the intelligence of this particular woman—the grain of his own writing confirms that he respected the intelligence of women in general and even considered women in general to be more intelligent than men in general.
Nietzsche Was Not an Atheist, if by “Atheist” One Means “Someone Who Does Not Believe in God.”
Nietzsche tells us, in Paragraph Nine of the first volume, “Even if a metaphysical world did exist, it would be nothing other than an otherness [Anderssein] that would be unavailable and incomprehensible to us; it would be a thing with [purely] negative characteristics.”
My question (which has been inspired by Nietzsche) is the following: Why do we even care about the beyond? Should questions such as “Is there life after death?” not be greeted with apathy? Why are we engaged with such questions to begin with? Do not such questions merit indifference rather than seriousness?
Questions such as “Does God exist?” and “Is there life after death?” cannot be answered scientifically or logically. We do not require their answers in order to live. All of us live out our lives without knowing the answers to such questions. Not merely that: It is entirely possible to live out our lives without ever ASKING or PURSUING such questions—and would we not be better off for not having done so?
Let me put it another way: Do the questions “Why does the world exist?” and “Why is there being rather than nothing?” not presuppose a reason for existing and a reason for being? I am looking at you, Heidegger.
The Nietzsche of 1878 is not an atheist, if by “atheist” one means “someone who does not believe in God.” Those who contest the existence of a deity or deities are practicing a form of skiamachy. Nietzsche, on the other hand, is someone who considers questions about the existence of God, or of any extra-worldly transcendence, to be superfluous. Otherworldliness is not something that can be discussed, since it is purely negative.
Moreover, the Nietzsche of Human, All-Too-Human is not merely not an atheist. He is also not a philosopher, if by “philosopher,” we mean someone who speculates about imaginary worlds / is an imaginary world-builder. Nietzsche will not become a philosopher, speculative or otherwise, until the very end of his period of lucidity, with the doctrines of the Eternal Recurrence of the Always-Same and the Will to Power.
Nietzsche Contradicts Himself. Often. But This Is Not a Flaw in His Thinking.
Nietzsche contradicts himself—often—but this is not a flaw in this thinking. He tells us to stop using the word “optimism” [MAM: 28] and then uses the word himself, without any perceptible irony, in other sections of the book. After scolding us for believing in heroes, he warmly sponsors the “refined heroism” (verfeinerten Heroismus) of the free spirit who works in a small office and passes quietly into and out of life [MAM: 291]. In Paragraph 148 of the first volume, Nietzsche claims that the poet alleviates (erleichtert) life—this seems to contradict his claim, five paragraphs later, that “art aggravates the heart of the poet” (Die Kunst macht dem Denker das Herz schwer), that listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony infuses the listener with the heavy feeling of immortality, with religious and metaphysical conceptions. If Nietzsche contradicts himself, and he does, this is because free-spiritedness is multitudinous, multi-perspectival, self-contradictory thinking. Free-spiritedness is multi-spiritedness.
Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche
On Religion and Politics
What is religious is political, and what is political is religious.
Morality depends on opportunity.
A word means something different to you than it does to me, which means that communication is impossible: Nothing is communicable save the power to communicate the impossibility of communication. (Nietzsche suggests that the worst alienation is when two people fail to understand each other’s irony.) Consciousness of this fact would liberate us from the bitterness and intensity of every sensation.
The mind is geared not toward what has been interpreted, but toward that which has not been interpreted and might not even be interpretable. Nietzsche: “We take something that is unexplained and obscure to be more important than something that has been explained and made clear” [MAM: 532].
On the Voice
We often disagree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice. We often agree with someone because of the sound of his or her voice.
In a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, Heidegger claimed: “Only a god can save us.” This statement must be revised: Not even a god could save us now.
On Censorial America
In contemporary America, you may be prosecuted and persecuted for what you think, insofar as what you think is available in language.
Keats and the Power of the Negative: Part One
An analysis of “La Belle Dame sans Merci”
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Dedicated to C.S.
Composed on April 21, 1819, in a single afternoon or early evening, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” has haunted the minds of readers for almost two centuries now. In twelve stanzas, Keats says more than whole worships of writers say in their entire existence. The poem is so sleekly, treacily, and elegantly composed, without a single false word, that it is imperishable. Indeed, it is one of the few perfect English poems.
I will analyze the ballad stanza by stanza.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The question is the narrator’s—whoever the narrator might be—to the honey-starved zombie knight. For the published edition, Keats foolishly substituted the words “wretched wight” for “knight-at-arms.” “Wight” recalls the Isle of Wight, where Keats would indite lust letters to Fanny Brawne, the lust of his brief consumptive life, which makes the published text of the poem faintly ludicrous. “Knight-at-arms” is a much better choice of words, since it invokes strength, which contrasts nicely with the knight’s ailment, which is clearly love-psychosis. It also sounds and reads better, infinitely better, than “wretched wight.”
The narrator is asking an epidemiological question (when one compares the first stanza with the twelfth): What is the source of your illness? Even though the autumnal landscape is withered and songless, the knight is loitering around as if he were a beggar. The flora are desiccated, much like the knight; there are no fauna, it seems, in the loveless expanse. Nature has dried and shriveled up. The birds that are not there are perhaps nightingales. Readers of Keats will know that the nightingale is emblematic of the supernatural. If this is the case, then the supernatural has withdrawn from the deathscape.
A nice instance of parechesis appears in the first stanza—a repetition of the grapheme LON in the words “alone” and “loitering.”
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
The granaries and the harvest have yielded a superabundance of food–food that is suitable for human consumption–but our love-zombie will never eat it. He will never eat the food because he cannot eat the food. The knight is famished, starving for food that no human mouth can eat: It is the food that only his beloved faery princess can feed him.
I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
The syntax here is confusing: The lily that is embroidered on the knight’s brow is moist with anguish and moist with fever-dew. The anguish-moist lily and the fading rose embroidered on the knight’s face-flesh: These are symptoms of his love-starvation.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
This is where the knight’s answer begins—an answer to the question, “What ails thee?” Already, the reader is getting subliminal cues from the poem that the knight should run like hell away from the faery princess. For one, she is the daughter of a faery and therefore any romance between the knight and the princess would be an interspecies romance. Secondly, the wildness of her eyes might very well be the wildness of craziness.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
The number three is important in the poem: The faery princess’s physical attributes come in threes (her long hair, her light foot, her wild eyes), the food that she feeds to the knight comes in threes (relish root, wild honey, manna-dew), and here we have a triumvirate of decorations for the Beautiful Lady to wear (garland, bracelets, perfumed belt). We might know three of her physical attributes and three things that she is wearing, but who is she, really, on the inside?
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
What kind of a knight is he, to let a woman he does not know ride his pacing steed? And how can someone set someone else on a steed that is pacing? Her sidelong look–her askance glance–lets us know that she is unconcerned with him and that his love will be unreturned; sharp readers should question the integrity of her intentions. That he can see nothing else besides her radiance suggests that the knight has already plunged into total lunacy.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.
How, precisely, does the knight know that the faery princess has declared her love for him? The answer is: He does not. Her words are inaudible to him. She speaks in a language that he cannot understand, and the suggestion is that the knight has projected his desire-to-be-loved upon her incomprehensible dark words.
The fact that communication between the knight and the faery princess is impossible intimates that contact between the knight and the faery princess is impossible.
“Honey” is sensuous, but the manna-dew is ethereal, heavenly: bread that rains from heaven. “Manna” is customarily a noun, but here, it is used as an adjective and evokes, of course, The Book of Exodus.
“Manna-dew” was not in Keats’ original draft. The lines read, in the original version: “She found me roots of relish sweet / And honey wild and honey dew.” Keats was very wise to modify the wording. The manna-dew that she feeds the knight reminds us that the faery princess is not a child of nature, but rather an otherworldly entity, one who comes from a transcendental province, much like the Grecian urn and the nightingale. She exists outside of time and is not bound by the laws of nature.
The food that she feeds the knight is supernatural nutriment, and he will never be able to eat anything else. All other food has become inesculent to him, even though the granaries are full and the harvest is done.
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
She dwells in an elfin grotto, then. If there is still any question on the subject, at this point, the argument over whether she is human has been settled: She is a chthonic being. The fact that she dwells in an elfin grotto might imply that she is the Queen of Elphame, the elf queen who transported Thomas the Rhymer into the otherworld.
Why is the elf-girl weeping and sighing? Is it because she knows that contact between her and her human lover is impossible? If she is weeping and sighing over the impossibility of interspecies romance, does this not militate against the interpretation that she is wicked?
“Wild wild”: the use of anaphora (repetition) underlines her chaos, her untrammeled nature. In Stanza Four, her eyes were described as “wild.” Her eyes appear even wilder now.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
The faery princess anaesthetizes the knight, drugging him with Ketamine. “The latest dream I ever dreamt”: The knight will never dream again. Will he ever sleep again?
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’
Listen to the chorus of love-hungry kings, love-hospitalized princes, and love-hurt warriors. They tell you who they think the girl really is: The Beautiful Lady without Pity! They are the ones who call her “The Beautiful Lady without Pity.” She never identifies herself, nor does the narrator, nor does the love-slaughtered knight at arms. We don’t know her perspective at all. Why should you believe the chorus of pallid loverboys?
The word “thrall” connotes enslavement. To be in thralldom is to be in bondage to a master or a mistress. In this case, the chorus of once-powerful men, of which the knight is now a member, is enslaved, enthralled, to the Beautiful Lady without Pity.
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
After the love-drug wears off, the knight awakens and finds himself in desolation and a place of natural destitution. The only things in the dream-men’s mouths are warnings. Much like the knight, only the food of the faery girl can nourish them; no other food can sate them.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
The faery-intoxicated knight is doomed to walk along the withered shore of the lake in a perpetual autumn, sapped of his vitality and potency. He has been enervated by the psychosis-inflicting Beautiful Lady without Pity. The poem suggests that she is a witch, but she might as well be a lamia or a succubus. The women in the Keatsean poetic universe are all Belles Dames sans Merci. “Misogyny” is a label too easily applied these days, but how can we avoid calling this a misogynistic poem?
Dr. Joseph Suglia
There is an alternative interpretation that is possible: The figure of the woman would be the vessel into which the misogynistic delusions of the knight are projected, into the vacuum which stands for that which cannot be symbolized. This evacuates the pallid, forlorn night. The figure of the female has now become an agglomeration of split-off parts that represents him. The figure is then a void to which the knight is inexorably drawn and from which he is driven in horror. Keats’s pallid, forlorn knight has an experience of horror vacui.
The knight-at-arms would then have projected all of his disjecta membra into the figure of the female, thus rendering himself as servile and exhausted.
In other words, the Beautiful Lady without Pity is a construction. What we are left with is only the imaginary. This is, sadly, psychosis. It is all too common. The poem might then be a descriptive instantiation of delusional misogyny.
My only reservation with this alternative interpretation is that it is ahistorical.
An analysis of AS YOU LIKE IT (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“Aimer grandement quelqu’un c’est le render inépuisable.”
—Paul Valéry, Cahiers (1944. Sans titre, XXVIII, 524)
In the wrestling match between Nature and Fortune, it is Fortune that chokeholds her opponent and flattens her on the mat. “Nature” refers to the qualities with which one is born; “Fortune” signifies all that comes post-natal. “Nature” is another word for “necessity”; Fortune is accident, preference, education, style. In Elizabethan England: That which God makes is Nature; that which you like belongs to Fortune. What you are born with is overthrown by what you like in Shakespeare’s most audience-accommodating comedy, As You Like It (circa 1599).
We see the clash between Nature and Fortune in the very first scene, one in which Orlando grieves that he, a natural gentleman, is reduced by Fortune to the status of a stalled ox. This, the work of his brother Oliver, who mars what God made. Orlando moans: “My father charged you [Oliver] in his will to give me good education. You have trained me like a peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities” [I:i]. Fortune will ever have her revenge.
Orlando is pursued by his fratricide-minded brother and banished by the skinless Duke Frederick. After the first act, we are no longer in the duchy of Frederick, with the exception of the space-flash of Act Three: Scene One. We are fleeting time with the exiled Duke Ferdinand and his fellows in the Forest of Arden.
The Forest of Arden is described as a “desert,” as a deserted, unpopulated place. The Duke Senior calls the forest “this desert city” [II:i]. Rosalind calls the forest “this desert place” [II:iv]. Orlando says to Adam: “[T]hou shalt not die for lack of a dinner, if there live anything in this desert” [II:vi]. Later, Orlando: “this desert inaccessible” [II:vii].
Here we discover the first of the many paradoxes that will come to meet us in the Forest of Arden. How could the forest be a “desert” if it is populated by more people than there were in the duchy of Frederick?
Disguise abounds in the Forest of Arden, as well. Duke Ferdinand expresses the desire to hunt “venison” [II:i]. Who hunts venison? Instead of using the words “deer flesh,” which would be Anglo-Saxon German, the Duke uses the French-Latin term (“venison”). Nothing is more common than the use of linguistic camouflage to disguise the reality of the animals that we ingurgitate. Instead of saying, “swine flesh” (Anglo-Saxon German), we say, “pork” (French Latin). Instead of saying, “cow flesh” (Anglo-Saxon German), we say “beef” (French Latin). And yet people seem to have no problem saying that they want to eat chicken, doubtless because they can imagine, without disgust, swallowing our squawking and bawking relatives. Chickens (and fish) are seen as being remoter from human beings than deer, pigs, and cows. Many would be afraid of nominating a Pulled Pork Sandwich a “Pulled Swine-Flesh Sandwich” for the visceral reason that pigs are perceived as being genetically close to human beings (which they certainly are). Food-applied French Latin is the articulation of anthrophagophobia, which is a word that I have invented that means “the fear of cannibalism.”
Another paradox emerges when Duke Ferdinand praises the forest as a place where everyone is oneself. Extolling the virtues of sylvatic life (as opposed to courtly life), Duke Ferdinand claims that the feeling of seasonal difference feelingly persuades him of what he is:
“The seasons’ difference—as the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind, / Which even when it bites and blows upon my body / Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say: ‘This is no flattery. These are counsellors / That feelingly persuade me what I am’” [II:i].
Far from being unlike “the envious court” [Ibid.], the Forest of Arden is the Forest of Envy. How can everyone be himself or herself in the Forest of Envy? Rosalind is herself AND himself. She envies, and identifies with, the male figure of Ganymede. The Forest of Envy is a forest in which Jacques the Melancholy envies Touchstone the clown: “O that I were a fool. / I am ambitious for a motley coat” [II:vii]. It is a forest in which one is one-who-is-other-than-what-one-is. Oliver transforms into a New Self. Celia alienates herself from herself when she becomes Aliena; she is other-than-what-she-appears-to-be (“Aliena” means “stranger”). Everyone is a stranger to oneself in the Forest of Envy.
Much like the internet, the Forest of Arden is a transformative, metamorphic space in which anyone can become anything that one wishes to become. It is an indifferent space that comes before masculinity and femininity. It is an indifferent space that comes before gender. In the forest, men behave in the way that women are expected to behave and women behave in the way that men are expected to behave. Jacques the Melancholy weeps when he considers a fallen deer–surely, this is an instance of a man acting in a way that would be considered feminine. When the lioness tore flesh away from his body, Oliver reports to Rosalind-as-Ganymede and Celia-as-Aliena, Orlando fainted: “The lioness had torn some flesh away, / Which all this while had bled; and now he fainted / And cried, in fainting, upon Rosalind” [III:iv]. Surely, fainting is generally, and falsely, regarded as a symptom of female psychology. And yet in the very same scene, exactly fifteen lines later, Oliver taxes Rosalind-as-Ganymede for swooning: “Be of good cheer, youth; you a man! you lack a man’s heart.”
At another moment, Rosalind does indeed act in the way that a man is expected to act. The unwept tears of Rosalind tell us everything that we need to know about Rosalind’s “performance” as a man. It is a performance that ceases to be a performance, that erases itself as a performance, and becomes the reality of what is being performed. Rosalind:
“I could find in my heart to disgrace any man’s apparel and to cry like a woman, but I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat. Therefore courage, good Aliena” [II:iv].
Let us remember that these words are spoken to an audience that is conscious of the comedic irony that is being enacted: Touchstone, Celia, and everyone in the Globe Theatre. We are not unaware of Rosalind’s biological sex.
Other Shakespearean comedies contain female characters who dress as men (cf. The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice, the latter which contains no fewer than two female characters who dissimulate themselves as men). Not to psychologize matters, this transformation of women into men almost certainly says something about Shakespeare’s paraphilia.
Note the attraction that Orlando has for Rosalind-as-Ganymede. It might not be invidious to suggest that Orlando finds Rosalind more attractive as Ganymede than he finds Rosalind attractive as Rosalind. David Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly (1993), anyone? If I am incorrect about this (and I am not), why would Orlando agree to court Ganymede in his hovel? And why would he agree to marry Ganymede—even if we allow that the marriage is presented as fictitious? Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, which means, as I have written elsewhere, that all of the principals marry in the fifth act, whether they want to or not. A comedy in the Shakespearean sense is one that ends in forced marriage, forced dancing, and forced mirth-making. Jacques the Melancholy is among the few who escape the coerced marriage, the coerced dancing, and the coerced merriment: “I am for other than for dancing measures” [V:iv], he wisely intones as he wisely steals from the stage.
The resonances produced by the name “Ganymede” would not have escaped Shakespeare’s audience. “Ganymede” connoted homoeroticism in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, as Ganymede, famously, is the young boy who was given a first-class flight to the Olympian Lounge, where he worked part-time as a bartender to the gods and where he was romanced by Jove. It is probable that the attraction that Orlando has for Ganymede is not homoerotic in the usual sense, but an instance of andromimetophilia. The late Dr. John Money and Dr. Malgorzata Lamacz coined the term “andromimetophilia” to denote the sexual attraction to women who dress as men.
Each line in Shakespeare has become a cliché, which means, as Harold Bloom suggests, that everyone has read Shakespeare even without having read Shakespeare. Who has not heard the verbal fossil that crawls from the downturned mouth of Jacques the Melancholy?: “All the world’s a stage.” And yet most people stop quoting there. The soliloquy continues: “And all the men and women merely players. / They have their exits and their entrances” [II:vii]. If nothing else, these lines mean that life is itself performance, that the dramatizations of Fortune supersede the nature of Nature. This is surely why Shakespeare reminds his spectatorship that the play that he is writing is nothing more than a play, both in the Epilogue in which Rosalind expresses the desire to kiss every man in the audience, and in the words of Jacques the Melancholy, who calls attention to text’s shift from lyricism to blank verse: “Nay, then, God be wi’ you, an you talk in blank verse” [IV:i]. The reference to blank verse reminds us that the play that we are reading / watching is nothing more than a play in the literal sense. Life is a play in the metaphorical sense.
All of the players in the Globe Theatre were male, which means the following: On the stage, there is a man (the male actor) who dramatizes a woman (Rosalind) who dramatizes a man (Ganymede) who dramatizes a woman (Rosalind again, the Second Rosalind). The gender metamorphoses in Shakespearean comedy suggest that gender is not a natural category. Calling it a “choice” might imply that gender is a matter of free will, for Shakespeare, and this concept is something that might be disputed. Nonetheless, if you follow the metaphors of the play, the theorems are implied: If you decide to become more feminine, you might become more feminine. If you decide to become more masculine, you might become more masculine. But this has absolutely nothing to do with maleness or femaleness. Gender does not exist below or beyond the expressions of gender. Sex is Nature. Gender is Fortune. “Sex” signifies the secondary physiological characteristics with which one is born. Gender is as you like it.
An Analysis of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
I normally avoid discussing the plots of works of literature. I prefer to dwell upon the words as they are written on the page, to interrogate and interpret the language of the text. If I have hesitated to talk and write about plot, it is because conversations about plot generally ignore the language in which the text is written. The plot seems to exist somewhere outside of the language of the text. After all, a plot could have been invented before the actual text was composed, and when literary critics discuss plot, they must be abstract. It is rare to cite the text when describing a plot, for the obvious reason that plot is structure, not literary language.
Since the world is essentially plotless, why should a literary work have a plot at all? From the late nineteenth century onward, much of Western literature has discarded the mandate of the plot (Lautreamont, Flaubert, Nerval, and Proust were vanguards in this respect). Even earlier, to refer to a single example: Shakespeare’s The Tempest does not have much of a plot. This is not to suggest that plots vanished since the late nineteenth century; millions of books have been written and published since that time that do, in fact, have plots. They are summoned into existence by writers and readers who come to books to experience the imposition of order upon a world that is bewilderingly and overwhelmingly chaotic. There is nothing wrong with the desire to experience a closed, self-contained representation. But closed, self-contained representations belong to the province of art before the late nineteenth century and to the province of entertainment. Modern art poses questions that it does not itself answer (this is the job of the interpreter); works of modern art have open-ended structures.
Despite my reservations about plot, I would like to adumbrate the design of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the first edition of which was published in 1600). By doing so, I think that we can learn something about the configuration of this massively complex play and, perhaps, about how plot in general works and perhaps even why so many people have the desire for a plot. I will fix my gaze upon the structure of the play. Again, this will have the necessary but unfortunate consequence that I will have to disregard much of the play’s filigreed, aureate verse.
The initiating conflict takes place in the first scene of the play: Egeus sentences his daughter to death or a loveless marriage. He forbids his daughter Hermia from marrying Lysander, the man she loves. She must choose between death and marriage to Demetrius, a man whom she definitely does not love. The Athenian duke Theseus alleviates Hermia’s dilemma somewhat by allowing her to choose between a marriage to Demetrius and a life of celibacy, but still reinforces the father’s judgment with all the power of Athenian law. It is the sentencing of the father, and the legitimation of the sentence by the law, that drives both lovers, Hermia and Lysander, into the moon-bathed forest. The law impels the lovers into the forest, and the law will bring them out of the forest. Theseus revokes his judgment when Demetrius has a change of heart, but let us not ignore the fact that the play begins with the law and ends with the law. The man who sets into motion the inaugural conflict of the play, Theseus, will also resolve all the conflicts at the close of the play. He promulgates that Hermia must make her decision by the day of Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding, and, indeed, all the conflicts will be reconciled in a triple marriage: the marriage of Lysander and Hermia, the marriage of Demetrius and Helena, and the hierogamy of Theseus and Hippolyta. (A hierogamy is the sacred marriage between a god and a goddess.)
The conflict between Father and Daughter will be enlarged and mapped onto a second conflict between Oberon and Titiana, the Fairy King and the Fairy Queen. Just as Theseus represents the Law of Athens, Oberon will represent the Law of the Fairy World. Oberon’s most serious task is to suppress the insurrection of his fairy queen.
There is a further conflict between the world of the fairies and the world of the human beings. Puck (also known as “Robin Goodfellow”) is the Interferer. He is the agent of the supernatural that will intervene in the affairs of the morals (as will his lord Oberon). The intrusion of the supernatural into human affairs will be one of the motors that pushes the plot forward; this conflict, in turn, will be applied to conflicts between Lysander and Hermia and Demetrius and Helena, which tangle the plot further. The eavesdropping Oberon intervenes in the relationship between Helena and Demetrius. Oberon delegates to his jester the responsibility of intoxicating a man wearing Athenian garb with an aphrodisiac in the shape of a purple flower. The romance between Lysander and Hermia is interrupted and complicated by a mistake: Puck drugs Lysander instead of Demetrius with the juice of the purple love-narcotic.
We, then, have three pairs of lovers who are in conflictual relations with one another: Oberon and Titiana, Helena and Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia. Theseus and Hippolyta are now in a harmonious relationship, but were once at variance with each other.
As I wrote above, the judgment of the father leads to the elopement of Hermia and Lysander. When both lovers rush into the moon-bathed forest, they turn their backs on the Law of the Father; they enter a metamorphic, transformational space (compare with the Forest of Arden in As You Like It): Within the wood, the craftsman Bottom will be translated into an assheaded man. Within the wood, Lysander will cease to love Hermia.
The forest is also a place of erogenous desire; the erotomania with which the characters are seized is mostly synthetic. Only Hermia’s desire for Lysander and Helena’s desire for Demetrius are natural, but, it should be remembered, their desire predates the exodus from the Father and entry into the forest. While in the forest, almost everyone else’s desire is artificially induced: Demetrius and Lysander only fall in lust with Helena because their eyes have been infected with flower juice. Titiana lusts after Ass Head because she has likewise been intoxicated. Under the influence of the flower, Helena and Ass Head become objects of lust.
The perversity does not end there: First, Titiana is obsessed with a child and then, she is obsessed with Ass Head. After having her eyelids squirted with flower juice, Titiana’s unholy obsession with Ass Head replaces her obsession with the stolen Indian boy. Both of these obsessions are perverse: Titiana’s strange, quasi-maternal obsession with the stolen Indian child causes a scission between her and Oberon and his bride, and Titiana’s obsession with Ass Head is both drug-induced and interspecies.
Titiana’s obsession with the stolen Indian boy parallels Helena’s obsession with Demetrius. Shakespeare’s play suggests that all the love in the forest is unnatural love (with the exception of Hermia’s constant love for Lysander). Again, Lysander’s obsession with Helena, as well as Demetrius’s obsession with Helena, are both brought on by the Ketamine-like purple flower love-toxin.
The forest is a place of disunification. Within the wood, the human characters are separated from the agents of the supernatural: While in the forest, the fairies are hidden from the craftsmen and from the lovers. The fairies are concealed from the lovers, but the lovers are not concealed from the fairies. Furthermore, the craftsmen are not aware of the existence of the fairies or the existence of the lovers in the forest. This concealment allows the fairies–in particular, Puck–to complicate the plot further by drugging Lysander and, later, Demetrius. (Again, Puck confuses Lysander for Demetrius, and this mistake creates pandemonium in the forest: Hermia is abandoned, and now Helena becomes the object of lust of the two male lovers.) And yet the audience will find this amusing, since we know that their lust is not genuine. This is what I would call “comedic irony”–the counterpart of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony surfaces when the audience knows an uncomfortable truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: Romeo thinks that Julia is dead, but the spectators know better. Comedic irony is when the audience does know an amusing truth that a character on the stage or screen does not know: that Lysander and Demetrius only “love” Helena because they have been infected by the juice of the purple flower, Love-in-idleness. Laughter comes about through the contradiction with human reason, as Kant wrote in the Third Critique: “Es muss in allem, was ein lebhaftes, erschütterndes Lachen erregen soll, etwas Widersinniges sein (woran also der Verstand an sich kein Wohlgefallen finden kann).”
The characters, then, are balkanized into three mutually exclusive communities: the lovers, the fairies, and the craftsmen. The exception to this is Bottom, who, when transformed into Ass Head, belongs both to the human and the fairy communities.
The forest is also the place of another form of sexuality that would have been considered perverse in the Age of Elizabeth. The play is adorned with two female characters–one earthly, one ethereal–who are enormously aggressive: Titiana and Helena.
Both Helena and Titiana hunt the men they desire. Much like her namesake in All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena is a woman who has unreciprocated love for a man and who refuses to take “Yes” or “No” for an answer. Helena herself acknowledges that this is an inversion in gender roles. Helena to Demetrius:
“Your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex. / We cannot fight for love, as men may do; / We should be woo’d, and were not made to woo” [II:ii].
Titiana is even more sexually aggressive than Helena. She imprisons Ass Head in the forest:
“Out of this wood do not desire to go: / Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” [III:i].
I would like to emphasize how remarkable this is: A female character is restraining a male character against his consent. This doubtless would have provoked laughter in the Elizabethan audiences for which it was performed because it would have been considered absurd, uncanny, and unnatural. Consider, further, that the entire plot is set in motion by Helena’s furious jealousy and talionic rage. I don’t think that this is a matter of comedy, however. Without Helena being thrown into a rage, Demetrius would never have pursued Hermia into the forest, nor would Helena’s father and the Duke of Athens and his minions chased them. Were Helena not in the forest, she would not have been eavesdropped upon by Oberon, and Oberon would not have delegated Puck to drug the killjoy Demetrius with the flower-shaped aphrodisiac. When Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, this creates chaos in the forest.
All of this, the totality of the plot, was propelled by Helena’s Borderline Personality Disorder. Am I the first literary critic to notice that Helena is a borderliner? Those with Borderline Personality Disorder shift from absolute love to absolute hatred with the velocity of a single beat of a hummingbird’s wing. They angelize the object of their desires prematurely and rapidly and then diabolize the object of their desires with equal prematurity and with equal rapidity. A borderliner dismisses all flaws in the beloved in the ‘love’ phase and dismisses all positive traits in the beloved in the ‘hatred’ phrase. This movement from absolute love to absolute hatred is often typed “splitting,” which is an unfortunate term. It is more of a switching than it is a splitting. Though we do not witness her diabolization of Demetrius, Helena pursues Demetrius with such voracity that she does resemble a borderline-disordered person.
The play’s raison d’etre is to amuse the spectatorship with a spectacle of deformations and denaturations and then reassure that same spectatorship that the Great Chain of Being is still intact or has been restored. The crises of the play are, in sum, as follows: The Fairy Queen, Lysander, and Demetrius are intoxicated with love-sap. Within the forest, the characters belong to mutually exclusive societies. The play-within-the-play is interrupted. Titiana and Helena go against their traditional feminine roles and pursue male characters. The Fairy Queen and the Fairy King hate each other. There is the animalization of the human (the becoming-ass of Bottom). Characters are mistaken for one another (to repeat, Lysander is confused with Demetrius). The four lovers are single, as are the Duke and the Duchess-to-be.
In the final act, the power of the floral aphrodisiac has (in most cases) dissolved, the character-tribes that were once separated from one another are now integrated and interleaved (the craftsmen, the duke and duchess, the fairies, the lovers), the harlequinade is performed, Titiana and Helena are no longer playing the role of the huntress, the Fairy Queen and the Fairy King are no longer at variance with each other, Bottom has returned to his human shape, everyone knows who everyone else is, and six of the principal characters are getting married. I would like to highlight what the culmination of the plot means:
- No more drugs.
- No more separateness.
- No more interruption.
- No more perverse sexuality.
- No more conflict.
- No more bestialization.
- No more confusion of identity.
- No more bachelorhood.
Love does not triumph over marriage in the play; marriage triumphs over love. At the beginning of the play, to state it again, Theseus mandates marriage between Hermia and Demetrius; the only thing that changes is that now, there is a mandatory marriage between Hermia and Lysander. The play begins with the compulsion of marriage, and it ends with three compulsory marriages. It is not the case that Hermia frees herself from a marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state; she subjects herself to a different marriage that is decreed by the Athenian state.
Marriage is the Imprint of the Father and the Imprint of the Law. As Theseus says to Hermia:
“Be advis’d, fair maid. / To you your father should be as a god: / One that compos’d your beauties, yea, and one / To whom you are but as a form in wax / By him imprinted, and within his power / To leave the figure, or disfigure it” [I:i].
Let us not forget that marriage is the effect of the Law of the Father and the Law of the State. As he explains himself to the Duke of Athens, Lysander’s speech is broken off by what rhetoricians call aposiopesis, and Egeus summons the law:
“Enough, enough, my lord; you have enough! / I beg the law, the law upon his head!” [IV:i].
Another ambiguity in the plot that has never been sufficiently clarified: Does Demetrius genuinely desire Helena at the close of the play, and has the spell of the flower worn off? His desire for her was a fabricated desire, brought about by the magical flower. Is his desire for Helena now authentic? On what basis could we say that it is? In Shakespearean comedy, as I have written many times before, all of the principals shall be married, whether they want to be or not. Demetrius’s marriage to Helena might very well be a mandatory marriage, a marriage that is contrary to love, impelled by the unreciprocated love of a woman, the dictates of the Athenian state, and the constraints of the plot. Again, this same pattern will become integral to All’s Well That Ends Well: Even the name of the pursuing female character (Helena) will be the same. Demetrius:
“I wot not by what power—/ But by some power it is—my love to Hermia, / Melted as the snow, seems to me now / As the remembrance of an idle gaud / Which in my childhood I did dote upon; / And all the faith, the virtue of my heart, / The object and the pleasure of mine eye, / Is only Helena” [IV:i].
He knows not by what power he has fallen out of love with Hermia and fallen into love with Helena. Notice that Demetrius separates the source of his new love for Helena from his own mind and his own body. The power that compels him to desire Helena, then, is something exterior to his self. Could the power of which he speaks come from the lingering effects of the flower-drug?
There are two instances of prodiorthosis in the play, or what are called today “TRIGGER WARNINGS.” Prodiorthosis = a warning to the audience that something offensive or shocking is about to be said or displayed. The second is a TRIGGER WARNING after the fact (if such a thing be possible):
Quince: “If we offend, it is with our good will. / That you should think, we come not to be offend, / But with good will” [V:i].
Puck: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber’d here / While these visions did appear” [V:i].
The “shadows” are the characters themselves, since the work of art is itself a dream, and Puck reminds us that the adventure in the oneiric forest is a dream within the dream. As I have written elsewhere, Shakespearean comedy is conjugal propaganda, and the contours of the plot are shaped by a wedding. A Midsummer Night’s Dream itself was most likely written on the occasion of a wedding and first staged at a wedding. This is worth remarking upon because conjugality is the transcendent value of the play. The sexual tension that is stimulated and aggravated throughout the play ends in the moderation of marriage, the institutionalization of sexuality. The perversity and the savagery of the huntresses in the play (Titiana, Helena) are tamed by marriage. As the second prodiorthosis reminds us, the entire plot might have been a dream, an erogenous dream that is cancelled out by a mass-wedding. The wildness of an erotic dream fizzles out into the crushing boredom of marriage.
From all of the above I draw the principle: Plot is a literary artifice that creates the illusion that the world is organized. But there is no prestabilized harmony that holds together the world.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
An analysis of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (William Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia
“Happy Birthday, Mr. President! / Happy Birthday to you!”
–Marilyn Monroe, 19 May 1962
With all of the graciousness of a Wall Street businessman offering a homeless man a wine bottle bubbling with urine, a noble lord orchestrates a play for the amusement of drunkard and wastrel Christopher Sly, who is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord himself. This meta-narrative, called the “Induction,” does not exactly frame the play that we are watching or reading, since the meta-narrative only reappears briefly in the first scene of the first act and does not resurface after the play is over. (It should be remarked parenthetically that Christopher Sly is pushed above his social station, in the same way the servant Traino will be pushed above his social station when he impersonates his master Lucentio.)
The play in question is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (1590-1592), if Shakespeare did indeed compose the text (I have my doubts), and critics have wondered about the relation (or non-relation) between the Induction and the play itself. The word induction comes from the Latin inducere, which means “to lead into,” and indeed the Induction does feed through the play. A close reading would bear this out.
Petruchio, Veronese drifter, travels to Padua to find a dowry and a wife (in that order). A disgustingly selfish person, he courts acid-tongued bachelorette Katherine Minola when he learns how much money he can get from her father, the wealthy Baptista. Much in the same way that Christopher Sly is deceived into believing that he is a noble lord, Petruchio will be deceived into believing that he is a master and shrew-tamer. As Christopher Sly, Petruchio is trapped in his own illusions.
Like a triad of lascivious lizards, the suitors Lucentio, Gremio, and Hortensio encircle Katherine’s younger sister, the vacuous narcissist Bianca. The courters seem genuinely attracted to Bianca and genuinely repelled by Katherine. No man will have access to Bianca until or unless Katherine is sold to a suitor. This, however, cannot be said to be the challenge of the play, since Baptista easily gives his eldest daughter to Petruchio. The courtship of Katherine, such as it is, is insultingly brief. Katherine feels the insult deeply, and we know this when she says that she was “woo’d in haste” [III:ii]. The challenge of the play is rather: How will Petruchio tame the shrewish Katherine? How will Petruchio subdue her tongue and force her to submit to his husbandly will?
Let there be no mistake: Katherine is a shrewd shrew. She is abrasive and hurtful. In a clear sense, she is the precursor of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, who also uses verbal aggressiveness to camouflage her erotic desires. Verbal aggressiveness, for both women, is a defensive mechanism. Both the divine Beatrice and her predecessor Katherine reserve their sharpest rebukes and barbs for the men they love. It is not fortuitous that Katherine’s opening salvo terminates with the provocative reference to a taboo sex act [see Act Two: Scene One]. Katherine is hardly indifferent to Petruchio. Her verbal violence is a symptom of her desire for the man.
Whereas Katherine’s desire for Petruchio is passionately real, Petruchio appears to have, at least initially, a purely financial interest in the shrew. As the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Petruchio seems to have a purely financial interest in women in general. Petruchio makes his intentions plain when he asks Hortensio if he knows of an eligible bachelorette with a rich dowry:
[I]f thou know / One rich enough to be Petruchio’s wife, / As wealth is burden of my wooing dance… / I come to wive it wealthily in Padua; / If wealthily, then happily in Padua [I:ii].
It is all about the dowry for Petruchio. Not about love, not even about sex. Katherine, understandably, sees herself as more than merchandise and resents Petruchio’s attempts to erase her human spontaneity and transform her into a thing of ownership among other things of ownership.
There are differences between the iterations of the Hebraic tablets known as “The Ten Commandments” in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but in all versions, the Tenth Commandment is the same. In the tenth of the divinely chiseled commandments, women are leveled to the status of real estate, of servants, of livestock: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” The Tenth Commandment resonates through Petruchio’s description of Katherine:
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house,
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing [III:ii].
Even the language is the same as the language in Exodus and Deuteronomy: the “house,” the “ox,” the “ass,” the “any thing.”
And how does Petruchio get poor Katherine to bow to his will? The disgusting brute jilts her on their wedding day, famishes her, and disturbs her sleep. Emotional abuse, starvation, sleep deprivation: The brute denies his wife her basic emotional and psychological needs. Instead of indulging in uxorious excesses, Petruchio treats his bride disgracefully. Even a threat of physical violence against Katherine emerges from the mouth of his servant Gremio: “Will [Petruchio] woo her? Ay, or I’ll hang her” [I:ii].
Whereas Petruchio uses force to get his way, Katherine is a mistress of seduction and subtle manipulation. Katherine’s revenge is to carnify Petruchio’s power-mirages. She will become everything that Petruchio wants her to be: pliable, docile, servile. Katherine remains the shrew—such is her essence—while assuming the disguise of the docile housewife. She is separable from the disguises that she assumes and ironically dramatizes the role of the submissive bride. Shakespearean philosophy—that life is dramaturgy, that the world is a stage and we are all performers—would corroborate this suspicion. From the beginning of the play until its end, Katherine remains the malevolent termagant. In a play in which characters impersonate one another (Traino impersonates Lucentio, Lucentio impersonates the Reading Tutor Cambio, Hortensio impersonates the Music Tutor Licio), Katherine plays the part of a repentant shrew and plays her part well. Let us overhear the strength and the irony in her closing address to the big-minded female guests at Lucentio’s dinner party:
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks and true obedience [V:ii].
In these words, Katherine subtly rejects the role that Petruchio tries to impose and superimpose upon her. If I am mistaken about this (and I am not), how does one explain the fact that we have never seen Petruchio do anything that Katherine says that husbands do? She is the perfect parody of servility and docility. Her becoming-parody is absolutely evident in the following conversation:
Come on, i’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!
The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.
I say it is the moon that shines so bright.
I know it is the sun that shines so bright.
Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!
Say as he says, or we shall never go.
Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.
I say it is the moon.
I know it is the moon.
Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.
Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katherina [IV:v].
In other words: If I [Petruchio] say that the Moon is the Sun, then the Moon is the Sun. If I say that the Sun is the Moon, then the Sun is the Moon. If I say that two plus two equals five, then two plus two equals five. The fact that Katherine assents to Petruchio’s capriciousness and silliness only highlights the absurdity of what he is saying. By simulating Petruchio’s fantasy of mastery, she plays out the undoing of his presumptions of mastery.
Who IS Katherine, precisely? Is she a reluctant conformist? Is she an inconsiderate conformist? Is she a vigorous conformist? To Petruchio, she is the replica of his desires for supremacy, but this is not Katherine’s essence: She presents a ceaselessly multiplying play of masks. Her self-multiplications enlarge infinitely. Purely mutative, purely transformative—who is she, really, in herself? The shrew has multiple names, and this means that she wears multiple guises. The plurality of her personae is absolutely evident in this passage:
They call me Katherine that do talk of me.
You lie, in faith, for you are call’d plain Kate, / And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; / Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom, / Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate, / For dainties are all Kates… [II:i].
The plurality of personae is what provokes Petruchio’s desire; the impossibility of ever mastering her totality is what makes Katherine so bewitchingly shrewish. If she were vapidly selfsame, as Bianca is, Petruchio would likely not want her. No matter how old she becomes, even when her luminosity dims, it is probable that she will be desirable to Petruchio. Because she is never reducible to One Thing. Which leaves us with these questions: Is it truly the case that Kate has been domesticated? Has Petruchio not been Kated? Has the shrew indeed been tamed, or has not Petruchio been beshrewed?
An Analysis of STEPS (Jerzy Kosinksi)
by Joseph Suglia
Jerzy Kosinski did not write his books alone. His authorship has long since been discredited as fraudulent; all of the writings to which he gave his signature have been dismissed as the trickery of a confidence trickster. Indeed, this very signature preempts any of “Kosinski’s books” from being taken seriously. What Kosinski once fobbed off as his own creation is now surrounded by an embarrassed silence. One smirks bemusedly at these works as the artifacts of an interesting life.
What is one to make of the fact, then, that Steps, a novel that bears Kosinski’s name and yet was not composed in his language, is one of the most intensely powerful novels of the twentieth century?
The subject of Steps undergoes a continual metamorphosis throughout its pages. At the beginning of each of the forty-six episodes into which this fissiparous book is sharded, an “older” self is negated (not cancelled out entirely, but absorbed and preserved in the memory of the work) and a “new” one forms and takes its place. Each self belongs to a “present” instant that is disconnected from the series of instants that precede it, each of which is itself displaced from history. If a unified authorial consciousness embraces each transformation, holding together the death and reformation of the subject in each instance, this can only be discerned in the articulation of the individual episodes. And if a continuous link binds the episodes together (the “steps” of the title), it is the guiding thread of submission and domination, the only two forms of relationship of which the subject is capable. The putative author, Jerzy Kosinski, was surely mistaken (or was otherwise disingenuous and willfully misleading) when he claimed in an interview that the book progresses from “the formed mind of the protagonist (in the beginning of the novel) when he sees himself as a unique manipulator of others, to the stage (at the novel’s end) when he realizes that he is nothing but a composite of various steps of culture.” To speak of a “progression” in any strict sense would be inaccurate. It is the case that the narrator manipulates a young girl who is dazzled by the narrator’s credit cards at the very beginning, but there are no traces of a gradual progression from the mind of a sovereign subject who deploys a dominant culture for his own purposes to one who recognizes his subjection to that culture. On many occasions throughout the work, long before its denouement, he is a plaything given over to powers that infinitely surpass his own, exposed to the vagaries of the uncontrollable, without a barrier to shield him from the forces that invade him.
The seductiveness of Steps resides in its power to lead the reader astray, away from the world to which s/he has grown accustomed and into a fictional space from which there is no easy escape. However oppressive its horror becomes, it is difficult to tear one’s eyes from this book. Literary analysis might engage with the book’s meaning, but will necessarily fail to adequate the spell that it casts over the reader. Each “step” is macabre and unsettling in its violence. In one episode, the subject is a farm hand at the mercy of peasants who spit on him for their amusement [II, 2]. He seeks revenge by inserting discarded fishhooks into morsels of bread, which he feeds to the children of those who torture him. The only way to invert the existing hierarchy, he seems to feel, is to become an oppressor oneself: oppression generates oppression in the way that fire generates fire. A group of peasants, in another “step,” gapes at a performance in which a young girl is violated by an animal [I, 4]. It is uncertain, the narrator tells us dryly, whether her screams indicate that she is actually suffering or whether she is merely playing to the audience. The extent to which the girl is a victim or a manipulator remains undetermined. In another episode, a nurse endures the amorous advances of the narrator, now a photographer, who longs for sexual contact with her in order to distinguish himself as much as possible from the seemingly non-human inmates of a senior citizen’s home whom he has been photographing [III, 1]. When the narrator enters uninvited into the nurse’s apartment, he finds her coupling with a simian creature who, ambiguously, is later described as “human.” The narrator, in another episode, is an office worker whose lover is unaware that she is his lover [V, 5]. The narrator plots with a friend to take possession of her. The woman submits entirely to the friend’s will and agrees to allow herself to be possessed by a stranger while blindfolded. Now the narrator can dispose of her sightless body as he wishes: a relationship that is emblematic of all of the relationships portrayed in Steps. Despite her complete availability, his desire remains frustrated. Nothing about her is concealed, but her nudity is itself a form of concealment. At another moment, narrator is on a jury [V 3]. The defendant explains his deed in the most ordinary terms without ever attempting to justify his behavior. A fictive identification is afforded between the members of the jury and the “executioner”: They visualize themselves in the act of killing, but cannot project themselves into the mind of the victim who is in the act of being killed. The agony of the victim is lost to vision altogether. The narrator, in another episode, becomes the powerless spectator of his girlfriend’s rape [III, 3]. Afterward, their relationship changes. He can now only represent her to himself as one who has been violated and who is worthy of violation: (In his eyes,) her rape comes to define her. He visualizes her as a kind of crustacean or mollusk emerging from her shell. The conclusion of the episode follows an implacable logic: Under false pretenses, the narrator offers his girlfriend to the rowdy guests at a party, who proceed to have their way with her. Her pearl necklace, a gift from the narrator, scatters to the floor like so many iridescent seeds (a somberly beautiful passage that gives the lie to Kosinski’s own self-interpretive remark that Steps eschews figurative language). The architect of an orchestrated violation, the narrator departs without witnessing the inescapable result of his designs. Such a summary can only imperfectly approximate the grotesque horror of this book.
One might wonder whether there is a point to such an uninterrupted current of phantasmagoric images. The reader might be invited to take delight in the extremity of its descriptions: Such would nurture one’s suspicion that Steps is a purely nihilistic work. What we find in each instance is a relationship between one who terrorizes and oppresses or who sympathizes with terror and oppression (this is often, but not always, the narrator) and one who surrenders, voluntarily or otherwise, to the will of the oppressor. By describing such scenes of exploitation and persecution in a neutral manner, the book seems to offer no ethical transcendence. Such an interpretation, however, would ignore the book’s ethical center.
The book’s ethical dimension first becomes apparent in an italicized transitional episode in which the protagonist tells his lover of an architect who designed plans for a concentration camp, the main purpose of which, the narrator explains, was “hygiene” [IV, 1]. Genocide was, for those responsible, indistinguishable from the extermination of vermin: “Rats have to be removed. We exterminate them, but this has nothing to do with our attitudes toward cats, dogs, or any other animal. Rats aren’t murdered–we get rid of them; or, to use a better word, they are eliminated; this act of elimination is empty of all meaning.” This passage in particular casts light on the motif of dehumanization that runs pervasively throughout the book. In Steps, the other person is reduced to the status of a thing. To make of the other human being a thing: Such is sadism. Only by representing those to be murdered as vermin (as things to be exterminated) is mass murder possible. It is no accident, from this perspective, that the narrator imagines himself felling trees when he obeys an order to slit his victim’s throat toward the end of the book: It is the only way that he can suppress the nausea that wells up within him [VIII, 3]. Each human being is irreplaceable, and the death of a person is, therefore, an irrecoverable loss. By forgetting this, by turning the other human being into a mere object, one is able to dutifully “obey orders” to kill without the intrusion of moral consciousness. Steps aims at disgusting the reader by showing him/her the obscene consequences of dehumanization. From this perspective, Steps is a profoundly ethical book.
The center of Steps might serve as a counter-balance to the parade of scenes of horror and degradation that constitute it. However, this center does not govern the totality of its operations. A tonality of evil informs these poisonous pages; in terms of its sheer cruelty, the work could only be compared to the writings of Lautréamont and Sade. Although one can point to its ethical character from the passages cited above, the book could also be determined as a willfully perverse affirmation of simulation, falsehood, and metamorphosis that suspends the dimension of the ethical altogether. The subject ceaselessly yearns to exteriorize himself, to become part of an exterior space in which he would become entirely other-than-himself. It is a space in which he would be unencumbered by all forms of ethical responsibility: “If I could become one of them, if I could only part with my language, my manner, my belongings” [VII, 1].
Dr. Joseph Suglia
Fifty Shades of Error: chuckpalahniuk’s BEAUTIFUL YOU
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
1.) “Even as Penny was attacked, the judge merely stared” . Never begin a novel with a sentence written in the passive voice. This sentence, in particular, sounds as if it were transliterated from Estonian or spoken by Grimace. It contains a clumsy adverb (“merely”). It is fatiguing to read.
2.) “The court reporter continued to dutifully keyboard, transcribing Penny’s words” . Careful novelists avoid verbs such as “to continue,” “to start,” “to try,” “to remain,” and “to begin.” Such verbs weaken sentences.
3.) “It would’ve been different if there had been other women in the courtroom, but there were none” . “None” is a singular indefinite pronoun; therefore, the second independent clause should read: “there was none.”
4.) “The public sphere was devoid of women” . If I wrote this sentence, I would die inside.
5.) “Otherwise, only Penny moved” . Otherwise, what? chuckpalahniuk means: “Only Penny moved.”
6.) “Their professional faces slipped for a moment and became delighted smiles” . To which profession do the faces belong? How could a face “become” a “delighted smile”?
7.) “The first one pointed a finger at Penny, bound and helpless, watched by every masculine eye” . What makes an eye “masculine,” precisely? chuckpalahniuk confuses gender with sex.
8.) “The pair of men lifted the gurney to waist height” . The word “height” is superfluous.
9.) “Her world had been perfect, more or less” . “Perfection” is an absolute concept. There are no degrees of perfection. Something is either perfect, or it is not.
10.) “With apologies to Simone de Beauvoir, Penny didn’t want to be a third-wave anything” . Simone de Beauvoir did not live to read or hear the term “third-wave feminism,” nor did she invent the terms “first-wave” or “second-wave feminism,” nor did she even identify herself as a “first-wave” or “second-wave feminist.”
11.) “Open bottles of Evian had been left behind so quickly that they still fizzed” . Evian is mineral water, not effervescent, aerated, “sparkling” water. Therefore, Evian water does not “fizz.”
12.) “Dire as this situation seemed, Penny remained a lucky girl” . It is never a good idea to use the verb “to remain” in a novel (cf. Number Two). Avoid words that are too often coupled, such as “dire” and “situation,” “copious” and “notes,” “heated” and “debate,” “stark” and “contrast,” “devastating” and “loss,” “firm” and “believer,” “pregnant” and “pause,” etc. A few days after this book was published, I went to Google and typed “dire situation” in the search window, and 1,700,000 results virtualized.
13.) “She knew she sounded pathetic” . “Pathetic” is derived from the Greek pathos, which means “suffering.” Here, it is used in the stale colloquial sense: “She knew she sounded like a loser.” Generally speaking, novelists should write familiar things in an unfamiliar way, not familiar things in a familiar way.
14.) “Even to her own ears she sounded crazy ambitious” . That ought to read “crazily,” of course, but who cares? No one cares about writing these days. Writing has nothing to do with writing.
15.) “The night air was warm, but Penny felt a chill down her spine, exposed by the plunging back of her Vera Wang gown” . “To feel a chill down one’s spine” is, of course, a fossilized expression. In 2014, if you typed “chill down spine” into Google, 3,830,000 results appeared. The chuckies will claim, in advance, that every platitude is intentionally platitudinous. But an intentional platitude is still a platitude.
16.) “The crowd was visibly disappointed as the film star turned away” . “Visibly disappointed” is yet another dreary cliché. In 2014, it registered 2,020,000 results on Google.
17.) “Like a doctor or a scientist, his fingertips gripped her as if he was testing her blood pressure” . What kind of scientist would test a woman’s blood pressure? Why are there two similes that mean exactly the same thing in one sentence? And that should read: “as if he were.”
18.) “He poured in a smidgen more champagne and set the bottle aside” . The word “smidgen” is properly used to describe solid objects, not liquid. Have you ever heard someone ask for a smidgen of milk?
19.) “Under his gaze, Penny felt less like a woman than like a science experiment. A guinea pig or a laboratory rat” . I’ve never heard that one before.
20.) “Penny giggled, limp as a rag doll” . Strong writers rescramble and defamiliarize clichés. Weak writers, such as chuckpalahniuk, repeat them brainlessly.
21.) “A torrent of animal gibberish and profanities threatened to boil out of her mouth, and the digital recorder was running” . “Profanity” is a non-count noun, if one is above the age of five.
22.) “The packaging would be pink, but not obnoxiously” . That ought to read: “not obnoxiously pink,” “not obnoxious,” or “not obnoxiously so.” And “obnoxious,” etymologically, means “exposing to danger,” not “irritating” or “annoying.”
23.) “She slept like a baby” . A cliché is dead language, and this sentence is lifeless.
24.) “Savoring her reaction, the gloating genius waved to flag a waiter” . “Savoring her reaction” is a cliché, “gloating genius” is a clunker, and “waved to flag” is a tautology.
25.) “It didn’t help that people expected her to be ecstatic. No one wanted to hear the problems of a disappointed Cinderella; she was supposed to live happily ever after” . “Ecstatic” does not mean “happy”; it means “outside-of-oneself.”
26.) “He only wanted to test his tantric thingamajigs on her” . When words fail chuckpalahniuk, and they always do, he spews garbled baby talk. On the next page, chuckpalahniuk uses the clever term “doohickey.”
27.) “Penny wanted to believe that making love was more than just fiddling with nerve endings until harum-scarum chemicals squirted around limbic systems” . chuckpalahniuk really shows his age here: “harum-scarum.” Even his slang is out of date. If he keeps using superannuated slang, mentally defective fourteen-year-old boys will no longer read him (or his books).
28.) “Penny tried to steer the conversation” . In 2014, “steer the conversation” resulted in 8,080,000 hits on Google. Into what or toward what did Penny try to steer the conversation? Does chuckpalahniuk even care?
29.) “A voice near the back of the crowd called out, ‘Will it work on eggplants?'” . “Near the back of the crowd” is hideously awkward, and experienced speakers and writers of English know that “eggplant” is a non-count noun.
30.) “To cut her from the pack of other mothers, he complimented her appearance” . “Complimented her appearance” is a clanging bromide. To conjoin “cut” and “pack” is the to mix metaphors. And isn’t this a bit too much telling and not enough showing?
31.) “Despite his icy demeanor she sensed Max’s little-boy heart was breaking” . How many times in one’s life must one hear and read the phrase “icy demeanor”? There was a time when writers were admired by readers for writing sentences that readers could not write themselves. The chuckies admire the Ignoble Barnyard Yokel of Barnes and Noble for writing sentences that they COULD write themselves. Any talentless, increative imbecile could write a sentence such as the one that I cited above.
32.) “Penny followed his gaze to a girl cooling her heels on the sidewalk, her arms folded across her chest” . In the year in which this book was published, “to cool one’s heels” appeared 4,730,000 times on Google.
33.) “The majority of her coworkers listened, spellbound” . “The majority of” enfeebles the sentence. And “spellbound”! A few pages earlier, someone is described as “dumbfounded.” One comes to a work of literature to escape from verbal garbage, not to submerge oneself in it.
34.) “Weighing her words carefully, the Nebraska housewife said, ‘I bought you some of those Beautiful You doohickeys'” . And if chuckpalahniuk had weighed his words carefully, he would have known that “to weigh one’s words carefully” is a brain-deadening cliché.
35.) “The stench was appalling” . A talented writer knows how to conjure the stench of something, of anything, without flatly describing that stench as “appalling.”
36.) “The foolish lecher was already discarding his overcoat, his shirt, his pants” . Genuine literary artists eschew evaluative remarks (“foolish lecher”) and let the reader do the interpreting.
37.) “Voices shouted in the hallway outside” . Not inside, then?
38.) “In the stance of a sumo wrestler, she lackadaisically stroked herself with a short, knurled length of what looked like damp wood” . “Lackadaisically” kills the sentence. And that should read: “the short, knurled length,” if one insists on putting the words “short,” “knurled,” and “length” together.
39.) “Leaving the fireside, she waddled across the cave’s littered floor in search of something” [217-218]. “Littered” with what? As a stand-alone adjective, “littered” is fatuous.
40.) “Making quick work, she prompted the nanobots in her brain and bloodstream to create the overwhelming pleasure of Tom Berenger and Richard Thomas kissing her wetly on the lips and breasts” . “Making quick work” of what? To write, “making quick work” without specifying an object is idiotic. The novel takes place a few years in the future (circa 2018), and the “she” was born sometime in the 1990s. Why would a twenty-something American woman lust after superannuated actors such as Tom Berenger and Richard Thomas?
41.) Or Ron Howard?
42.) We are living in a culture in which there are more writers than there are readers.
43.) We are living in a culture in which even the slightest sign of intelligence is enough to throw a crowd into a rage, is enough to mobilize a mob. In such a culture, bacteria grow.
44.) Beautiful You resembles an ill-drawn cartoon.
45.) chuckpalahniuk and his drooling, foolish followers have murdered literature.
46.) Literature is dead.
47.) chuckpalahniuk is the least intelligent writer in America.
48.) He is a writer who does not know how to write who writes books for readers who do not know how to read.
49.) He is a contemptible, vile, low writer who pollutes bookstores, libraries, and bookshelves with his nauseating idiocy.
50.) Beautiful You is the twittering of a dimwitted twit.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATISM: An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS (William Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Poverty and underdevelopment are not God-given but are man-made, and can be unmade by man.”
—“The Move Forward,” Christopher Hitchens, 21 June 1971
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATIVISM
If you would like to know where your friends stand politically, you could do no better than give them The Tragedy of Coriolanus (circa 1605-1608) to read, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy but also his most politically reactionary play. If your friends side with Caius Martius Coriolanus, they are likely more conservative. If your friends side with the Roman crowd, they are likely more liberal.
The play is perhaps the prototypical poem of conservativism and even more politically conservative than The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which explains why the work is T.S. Eliot’s favorite play, why Hazlitt dislikes it so much, and why Brecht, the radical Marxist dramatist, turned Coriolanus into a fascist dictator in his 1951 reinterpretation of the tragedy. It does not explain, however, why Beethoven (a republican in the old sense of the word, someone who we would today call a liberal) wrote an overture in the general’s honor.
The most intelligent architects of modern political conservativism (including Hegel) are Machiavelli and Hobbes. One of the premises of modern political conservatism is an intuition that can be found in the writings of both Machiavelli and Hobbes: Do not trust the crowd, for the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious. If you trust in the crowd, you are likely a liberal. If you think that the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious, you are likely a conservative.
The rightist politics of The Tragedy of Coriolanus are evident from the very first scene on. It is a politics that is contemptuous of democracy.
STARVING THE POOR
When we first see him, Coriolanus is astride a horse, condemning the poor of Rome for demanding food to eat. He chastises the famishing wretches for having the temerity to beg for corn, for the criminal impertinence of demanding corn from the aristocracy. The crowd claims that the Roman nobility has more food than it could ever eat (“If they [the patricians] would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us [the poor] humanely” [I:i]); when he became consul, the real-world Coriolanus pledged to withhold food from the poor unless the rights of the poor were revoked. The most salient of these rights was the right to appeal to the tribunes, the representatives of the people—a right that was given to appease the people after the plebeian secession. The real-world Coriolanus loathed, more than anything, the system of tribunes, of the vocalizers (and influencers) of the popular will. Not only did the real-life Coriolanus deny the poor corn after he became consul, demanding the rescission of the rights of the poor—he demanded that their spokesmen be divested of power, as well.
The Tragedy of Coriolanus was composed at a time of grain shortage, when hunger in England reached near-famine levels. The insurrection of the Roman people does not recall Ancient Roman history at all; it recalls the Midlands Revolt of 1607, as well as the insurgencies and rebellions in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire, which were fomented in response to insufficient harvests and the food-hoarding of the English aristocracy. There is even the appearance of English mills in the grain of the text (“’Tis south the city mills” [I:x])—as the 1878 Clarendon edition glosses, this refers to the mills of London, not those of Rome. As is always the case in Shakespeare, though the subject matter is historical, the play is presentist, not antiquarian: It is a work that concerns not Roman antiquity, properly, but the Elizabethan present in which Shakespeare is writing.
We are supposed to believe that the macerating poor have no right to ask for food, that they should starve to death rather than importune Coriolanus, who alone has the right to the things of necessity (food, shelter, clothing), to comfort, and to pleasure. He even makes fun of the words that they use (“an-hungry” is the demotic style, a low-class colloquialism): “[The poor] said they were an-hungry” [I:i]. The poor “sighed forth proverbs— / That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat, / That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only” [I:i]. These all might be platitudes, as Coriolanus points out (some of which were emblazoned on placards held aloft by the unruly crowd in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 cinematic interpretation), but who has the right to tell the hungry that they are not hungry? And what arrogance it is to mock the hungry for articulating their hunger and for clamoring to satisfy their hunger! Coriolanus repudiates the poor for the need to put food in their stomachs. The brutality and factuality of hunger are undeniable. Coriolanus is saying, in essence, “I don’t want to hear about your hunger” with the same incensed dismissiveness and lofty indifference with which Chris Christie said that he doesn’t want to hear the New Jersey poor talk about raising the minimum wage (it has been raised twenty-five cents to a grudging $8.85 in the year in which I am revising this essay, 2019).
How dare the poor beg for bread! How dare they insist that their stomachs be filled! For their irreducibly human need to eat, the poor are called “dissentious rogues” [I:i]—rascally wretches and wretched beggars. The a priori assumption is as follows: The more the poor have, the less the nobility has. The less the poor have, the more the nobility has. The hungrier the poor are, the more prosperous the nobility. The humiliation and immiseration of the poor lead to the dignity and luxury of the rich: “The leanness that afflicts us [the poor, the miserable], the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them” [I:i]. The starvation of the poor equals the elevation of the nobility, and the fetid, contaminating sewer water of the poor should never flow into a conflux with the pure waters of the nobility. Thus, Martius espouses an Ancient-Roman precursor of trickle-down economics: Feed the rich, and perhaps, someday, scraps shall fall from their table, scraps on which the poor may snack.
Martius has a granular understanding of the poor. He sees the poor as if they were so many grains of corn, so many motes, so many “fragments” [I:i]; he sees them not as individual totalities, but as disjointed pieces broken from the whole of the Roman commonality. He even welcomes crushing them in the war against the Volscians: “Then we shall ha’ means to vent / Our musty superfluity” [I:i]. They are either grains of corn or vermin verminizing England. For the crime of hunger, Martius expresses the wish that the poor be mass-exterminated in the Roman-Volscian war, as if they were rats: “The Volsces have much corn. Take these rats thither / To gnaw their garners” [I:i]. (Garners = granaries.) Send them to the wars! Coriolanus echoes exactly what the Roman poor say about the patricians—to the wealthy, the poor are either fodder for the war or starvelings: “If the wars eat us not up, they will” [I:i].
The play itself is on the side of Coriolanus, not on the side of the poor. Already, in the first scene, this is evident. To be clear to the point of bluntness: The play’s glorification of Coriolanus makes the tragedy a reactionary, rightist, ultraconservative work of dramatic literature. If I am wrong about this (and I am not), why are the poor not presented in a poetical manner? Only Coriolanus is enshrined with poetical loftiness and lyrical magnificence. The poor are not given a poetical voice. Only Coriolanus is given a poetical voice. The reason for this might be, as Hazlitt writes, that the principle of poetry is “everything by excess” and is therefore married with the language of power. Poetry is not about equality; it is about the contrast (the dissymmetry) between the low and the high. Poverty is not an easy subject for poetry, which is nothing without elevated moods and elevated language. It is, of course, possible to write a poem about food stamps, but it is not possible to write a good poem about food stamps without some poetical sublimation or fantastication. Hazlitt’s idea is that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is fascistic (though he does not use this word, writing, as he did, in 1816) because poetry is fascistic by its very essence. This would be to view the politics of the play through the speculum of poetry rather than to explain the poetry of the play through the speculum of politics.
THE INFANTICIDAL MOTHER
Coriolanus’s war-loving and war-mongering mother is living vicariously through her soldier-son. Volumnia, the bellicose mater, only becomes peace-loving when her son wages a war against her country, Rome [I will return to this point below].
The real mother of Coriolanus was named Veturia, and the real-world wife was named Volumnia. It is extraordinary to notice that Shakespeare gives the fictional mother the name of Coriolanus’s real-world wife.
Indeed, there is a disturbing sexuality between mother and son in the play. The mother says to Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife, in prose, “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed, where he would show most love” [I:iii]. The mother is projecting herself, through the medium of the imagination, into the mind of Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife. But this is trifling chitchat when set against the epiphany: The mother is imagining what it would be like to have sex with her own son. Even more arrestingly shocking and shockingly arresting is the recognition: The mother would rather her son die in war than have sex with anyone (else?), as her succeeding remark makes clear. Asked the sensible question of what she would think if her son died in combat, the mother responds that “his good report” (the report of his war death) should have been her son: “I therein would have found issue” [I:iii]. “Issue” here is meant in the original sense of “offspring,” and the flabbergasting implication is that her son will only fulfill his human promise when pierced by the sharp end of the enemy’s sword. She continues: “Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” [I:iii]. Not only is the mother introjecting herself, imaginarily, into the role of her son’s wife; she is declaring to this same wife that the mother would rather her son put his life at stake on the slaughterfield than enjoy the pleasures of the bed (“voluptuously surfeit out of action”). This implies, again, that she has imagined having sexual intercourse with her own son and that she is gleefully anticipating her son’s lethal besmearing. She would have him become a “thing of blood” [II:ii].
The mother’s dark romance with her son takes the form of violence and death. Volumnia salivatingly counts the scars that had been inflicted and inscribed on her son’s body at the expulsion of the Tarquins, cataloguing his wounds with malicious lust (“malicious,” “maliciously,” or “malice,” used eleven times in the text, is one of the most signifying words in the play): “There will be large cicatrices to show the people when he shall stand for his place. He received in the repulse of Tarquin seven hurts i’th’ body” [II:i]. She proudly numbers the sum of her son’s wounds at twenty-five—“He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him” [II:i]—and is gushingly elated to learn that the number has increased to twenty-seven. Menenius, the substitute father, is overjoyed to learn that his substitute son Coriolanus has been wounded in the Battle of Corioli. He is delighted to report that the surrogate son has been wounded “[i]’th’ shoulder and i’th’ left arm” [II:i].
Lawrence Olivier would giggle uncontrollably as he read the line in which Volumnia declares her willingness to perform six of Hercules’ labors (“If you had been the wife of Hercules, / Six of his labours you’d have done and saved / Your husband so much sweat” [IV:i]), but is it so difficult to conceive the woman hacking away with a sword at the Hydra? She is a militaristic machine, and, as I have argued, one who would rather see her only son killed on the slaughterfield than catch him in bed with a woman. War, or the vicarious experience of war, is motherly pleasure for Volumnia.
Ralph Fiennes was very wise to put Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) in a military uniform that vaguely resembles a uniform of the Yorkshire Regiment of the British Army in his film interpretation of the play. Her role as military commandant (for what else is she?) supersedes her role as a mother. She cares more about Martius’s military victories than about his well-being. No, worse than that: She is seized with a kind of bloodlust, and this is absolutely evident in the following lines: “[Blood] more becomes a man / Than gilt his trophy / The breasts of Hecuba / When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier / Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword contemning” [I:iii].
Martius fights for the mother, in the name of the mother. No wonder he is psychologically stultified—never developing into an adult with the consciousness of an adult, never loosening or severing dependency on the mother. No wonder he doesn’t know how to talk to the common people, no wonder he cares only for himself and for his mother (for the mother is the origin of his selfhood), no wonder he hoards the grain for himself and for his peers. His loyalty to his motherland is loyalty to his mother Volumnia.
Consider that Coriolanus is a mother-obsessed fascist, and this consideration gives one insight into the psychology of fascist consciousness: Overmothered mammothrepts become fascists (Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), anyone?). Martius was a fascist long before the word existed. For the word fascism comes from the Latin fascis, which means “bundle,” and under fascism, an entire society is bundled around a single authoritarian leader. Martius is bundled by the mother.
War is an industry. Beyond the psychodynamic dimensions of her relation to her son, does Volumnia not also have a financial interest in her son’s military victories? When Martius defeats the Volscians, the defeat of the Volscians benefits Rome. If Martius, now “Coriolanus,” as the Volscian general, were to defeat Rome, this would obviously erode the mother’s position of authority. We see, in the play, that familial relationships are also financial relationships. Volumnia has a relation to her son that reminds one of the financial and erotic interest that Donald Trump takes in his daughter Ivanka Trump. What benefits Rome benefits Volumnia. His victories against Volsci are her political and financial victories. Though she says that she would rather have the entire city perish than lose her son, could this be because Volumnia believes that the city will perish without her son?
KILLING MACHINE (NEARLY) BECOMES CONSUL
To say that Martius is a great soldier would be a gross understatement. He is an army-annihilating zombie, an anthropomorphic mega-drone, a super-tank in human form. He hospitalizes the best fighters and slaughters everyone else. His worthiest enemy, Aufidius, flees for his life, is driven away breathless by Martius five times [I:x]. Martius is pure lethality and neither Volsci nor Rome can win a war without him when he is on the other side.
Martius surges into Volsci and besieges the city of Corioli. The Roman senate and the Roman people are so impressed with the besiegement and with his military performance that they nominate Martius consul and rename him with the cognomen “Coriolanus,” named after the toponym “Corioli.” Thus begins the becoming-Volscian of Martius. The mother seems dismayed by the renaming of her Caius Martius: “‘Coriolanus’ must I call thee?” [II:i]. The re-nomination of Martius as “Coriolanus” marks the beginning of the veering-away from the mother, which will be short-lived.
The soldier soon proves to be an inept statesman—he shows such contempt for the plebeians that they reject him as consul, as his appointment is not confirmed, and expel him from the city of Rome.
The brutishness and arrogance of Coriolanus are fitting for a soldier, but less than fitting for a statesman. As I suggested above, he does not know how to speak to the commoners; he has no feeling for the commonal. He is the skillful military general who cannot function as a politician. He is reluctant to speak to the people after being nominated consul [II:ii], as he is reluctant to canvass them for votes [II:iii]; when he does address the people directly, it is almost always with disgust. Coriolanus’s language defeats him.
When Coriolanus declares, “I banish you” [III:iii] to the mob, it is as if he were a disgruntled ex-employee who, seconds after being fired, shouts at his employer: “You can’t fire me; I fire you!” A woman breaks up with her boyfriend. The erstwhile boyfriend shoots back: “You want to break up with me? I am breaking up with you!” Coriolanus is every bit as childish as the ex-employee and the rejectee—he is a child-adult or an adult-infant.
The Romans estrange Coriolanus, literally: They turn him into a stranger, a transformation which was presaged by his name change. When he is re-nominated “Coriolanus,” it is not long thereafter until the people of Rome see him as a foreigner, as though he were a resident of Corioli. The Romans see Coriolanus now as a foreigner, but are the Romans not foreigners to Coriolanus? Along the same lines: The Romans see the Volscians as foreigners, but are the Volscians not foreigners to the Romans? The Volscians have vanished into the abysses of history, but they were a formicine tribe that gathered south of Rome—“formicine” (ant-like) only because they dwelled upon the hills of what is now Southern Italy. When Coriolanus is repatriated to Volsci, why do we see this as a betrayal? Why are so many of us pious toward the country in which we were born? Why is Rome the home-space—especially considering that Coriolanus was a stranger in “his” own motherland? Why are the marshland people of Volsci the strangers? Why do the swamps and hills of Volsci form a shadowzone?
THE PRIVATE AND THE PUBLIC
Coriolanus is incapable of separating his public and private selves. (For a discussion of the separation of public and private selves in bourgeois society, see Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche.) As far as I can tell, he only gives one soliloquy, in the fourth scene of the first act (“You souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men…”)—this is the only time in the play when he is alone. Otherwise, he is forever enrounded by other people.
If Coriolanus does not understand the difference between the public and the private, this is likely because his mother never taught him the difference between the public and the private. Indeed, his mother nurtured him to become a soldier, thus confusing his familial and public roles. We see this confusion of roles clearly in the moving scene of reconciliation between mother and son. Martius’s tearful discourse with his own mother would have been more appropriate in private, not held before an audience of Volscian thugs. His exhibition gives Aufidius free hand to taunt him for being a mamma’s boy.
Coriolanus has the tendency to say whatever comes to his mind without filter. A particularly illustrative example of Coriolanus’s tendency to blurt things that should not be said in public: He asks the Roman senate to forgo the custom of requiring the nominee to the consulship to speak to the people. This is a custom, he says, that “might well / Be taken from the people” [II:ii]. Now, as the editors of the Arden edition point out, the outrageousness and inflammatoriness of this remark could be soothed somewhat if we imagine that he is addressing his remarks to Menenius. In Ralph Fiennes’ contemporization, a live microphone picks up Coriolanus’s careless remark—which should not have been heard by the people and certainly not by the tribunes. In the film, at least, he didn’t intend for anyone but Menenius to hear what he said.
The one exception to his ignorance of the distinction between the private and public spheres is when Coriolanus tells a citizen, from whom he would solicit votes, that he has “wounds to show [the citizen] which shall be [his] in private” [II:iii]. The crowd unjustly resents him for not displaying his stigmata in the agora (yes, I know this is a Greek and not a Latin term).
His public and private languages are mixed together, as Menenius acknowledges: Coriolanus is “ill-schooled / In bolted language. Meal and bran together / He knows without distinction” [III:i]. Coriolanus cannot disengage crass language (bran) from diplomatic language (meal); he cannot distinguish the crude from the pure. He speaks insultingly when the language of diplomacy would be more appropriate.
HIS LEAST FAVORITE WORDS
There are four words that “trigger” Coriolanus, and they are kindly, shall, traitor, and boy. When these words are said to him, in certain contexts, he loses his mind.
Lucius Sicinius Vellutus dispenses with personal pronouns when he gives Coriolanus a command: “It is a mind that shall remain a poison / Where it is, not poison any further” [III:i; emphasis mine].
Coriolanus’s response: “Mark you his absolute ‘shall’?” [III:i]. The shall is described by Coriolanus as coming from the “horn and noise o’th’ monster’s” [III:i], one of the vocalizers / influencers of the will-to-power of the people.
What incenses Coriolanus is the absolute, peremptory command of the people—the relativization of the desired absoluteness of his will-to-power. The nobility no longer has absolute authority if it shall submit to the will-to-power of the people. The shall announces the conflux of the plebeians and the patricians, or indeed the subordination of the patricians to the plebeians, which is exemplified by Coriolanus’s metaphor of the crows pecking the eagles: “Thus we debase / The nature of our seats… and bring in / The crows to peck the eagles” [III:i]. The crows raiding the eagles’ aeries are the poor and their tribunes; the eagles are the patricians.
When Sicinius calls Coriolanus a “traitor,” this incites from Coriolanus a torrent of insults, a full-throated denunciation of the people: “The fires i’th’ lowest hell fold in the people!” [III:iii]. One Word instigates the total denunciation of the people—and this means that One Word is what drives Coriolanus into / brings on the sentence of banishment, causes his expulsion from the city of Rome.
The third word, boy, spoken as a taunt by Aufidius, prompts a recognition of what Coriolanus is: an adult-infant. Insults only hurt us when we recognize them as truthful. Is it not thinkable, then, that Coriolanus is a boy?
HE LEAVES ROME
Coriolanus sallies forth from Rome and resituates himself in Antium, the capital of Volsci and home to Aufidius, leader of the Volscians. (Antium is present-day Anzio, a coastal city in the South of Italy.) He then does what anyone in his state would do: He joins the opposite side and fights against the civilization that nurtured him. Of course, this is a non sequitur: It doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to defection. It certainly doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to war against the country that banishes you.
I imagine that others might say that Coriolanus, chewing off the umbilicus, is developing into a full-blown individual. This, however, is doubtful, given that he becomes no one at all [I shall return to this point below].
Coriolanus seeks a “world elsewhere” [III:iii]: the other-world of Volsci, the very city against which he sallied as a general. In the introduction to the Arden edition of the play, Peter Holland makes the brilliant point that liminal spaces (such as the sea) are not enough for Coriolanus. The warrior must either have his way or defect to the other side—there is no medium, no middle ground for him. He wages a war against Rome after he doesn’t get what he wants, leading the Volscian army against Rome and its territories in a strike of vengeance. The Muttersohn becomes dragon: Initially, he goes alone to Antium, “[l]ike to a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes feared and talked of more than seen” [IV:i]. He approaches the dragon (Aufidius) and then becomes the dragon of the Volscians, “fight[ing] dragon-like” [IV:vii] against the land of his birth. Notice the draconic metaphor used by Menenius: “This Marcius is grown / from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a / creeping thing” [V:iv].
THE RECONCILIATION WITH MOTHER ROME
Incubated by the mother, Caius Martius crawls out of the womb a super-soldier who single-handedly massacres entire populations, armies and civilians alike. Now, the mother-obsessed soldier turns against the motherland. This leads one to wonder: Is Coriolanus’s hatred for Rome not powered by an unconscious hatred for his mother? Is Coriolanus’s draconic attack on Rome not also a tacit attack on his mother? When disclaims Rome, is he not also disclaiming his mother?
Menenius, the substitute father, appeals to Coriolanus in vain. Only Coriolanus’s mother moves her son to give up his campaign of vengeance against Rome; he gives up his antipathy for Rome after the mother arrives and pleads with her son to stop fighting against the Roman people. She smothers the blaze of his hatred with her tears. Martius only knows two extremes, two antipodes: He is either mother’s infant, or he is a repatriated zombie who fights against his motherland.
Turning against the mother, Coriolanus was reduced to a “kind of nothing” [V:i], as Cominius identified him. When his mother (accompanied by his wife and his son) creeps into the enemy camp, there is an emotional spectacle in front of the dead-hearted army thugs; only then does he show human feeling. I consider this to be the most emotionally powerful scene in the whole of Shakespeare—someone who is a cipher, a zero, becomes human, even though he never becomes completely human. It is as if the mother is giving birth to him a second time—it is a palingenesis rather than a genesis.
In the real world, the mother’s intercession was an act for which the statue of Fortuna was established; the act was blessed by the memorial. The mother and the wife are memorialized for ending the siege on Rome: “The ladies have prevailed” [V:iv]; “Behold your patroness, the life of Rome!” [V:v]. And yet the reconciliation between Rome and Volsci was merely a surface reconciliation: The Volscians did later launch unsuccessful sallies against the Romans, all of which were squelched.
I hold that The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens are among Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishments as a playwright. While these plays are by no means unknown, they are certainly much less known and celebrated than the overrated The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Particularly, I second T.S. Eliot’s opinion that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is immeasurably superior to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Of course, Hamlet will kill Claudius, usurper and parricide; there is no surprise in that. His vacillations are a mere plot contrivance to temporize until the inescapable killing of the stepfather; as I will argue in my essay on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the play is about the problem of free will, but this is not the right place to pursue this argument. Whereas the conflict in Hamlet is simple, the conflict within Coriolanus is much more complex. Coriolanus’s decisions to finesse a conciliation of the Volscians and a reconciliation of Volsci and Rome must be understood in psychodynamic terms as reconciliation with the mother and as the return to the uterus.
All seems well until Aufidius defames Coriolanus to the Volscians and takes away his “stolen name” [V:vi], stripping him of his cognomen. He instead refers to him by his birth name—Martius—thus symbolically reverting his opponent to his infant status. Martius is then hacked to death by Aufidius’s conspirators, a move which is itself a form of infantile regression.
The terrifying mob assault at the end of the play recalls the dismemberment of Pentheus beneath the talons of the crazed Maenads at the end of Euripedes’ Bacchae. Coriolanus is torn to pieces, ripped to shreds, by the blades of Aufidius’s assassins, while they chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” [V:vi]. The mob cheers them on; the mob has not forgotten that Coriolanus has widowed and orphaned so many of them.
The climax is suggesting: If you try to eat the mob, then the mob will eat you. The mob wants to eat Coriolanus. And Coriolanus wants to eat the mob. That is to say: The rich are eating up the poor at the beginning of the play: “If the wars eat us [the poor] not up, they [the rich] will” [I:i]. Coriolanus is feasting upon the poor, consuming the poor, ingurgitating the poor, who will then be ejected from Coriolanus’s anus.
Two figures run throughout the play: the figure of eating-the-poor and the figure of being-eaten-by-the-poor. The second appears at the close of the play, wherein Martius is devoured by the mob. At the climax, it is indeed the poor who are devouring the rich. Both figures nourish my suspicion that politics is largely about food. Those who are more conservative want to hoard all the food for themselves; those who are more liberal want to distribute the food evenly. Coriolanus is keeping pace with his promise. Knifed as the mob shouts for his blood, Coriolanus is realizing the supreme desires of his mother which have always been his own.
On Nietzsche’s THE GAY SCIENCE
by Joseph Suglia
“At the beach and in the sand, small mussels are splashed about, into them we wriggle and see only wrigglers but never the waves and upsurge of beings!”
—Martin Heidegger, Black Notebooks, October 1931
FROM THE EARLY PERIOD TO THE MIDDLE PERIOD
The middle period of Nietzschean thought begins with The Gay Science (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) (1882; 1887). Its invigorated and invigorating philosophy was made possible by the largely destructive Human, All-Too-Human (1878; 1886) and Daybreak (1881; 1887), the two books that immediately preceded The Gay Science. In Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche explodes the concept of the free will and reveals the obscene selfishness, the crass self-interestedness, that underlies all human conduct. In Daybreak, Nietzsche argues that all morality is false—indeed, impossible—if we conceive of moral behavior as being voluntary or other-directed.
The foundation of Nietzschean thought could be represented by one word: anankē (the Greek word for necessity).
We do not control what we think; we do not control what we do. The sources of thought and action never exist within the horizons of consciousness. All human thought and activity are uncontrollable / involuntary—that is to say, necessary—and therefore there is no reason to celebrate anyone for his or her “heroism” or condemn anyone for his or her “immoral” behavior. It makes no sense, therefore, to regret what one has said or done, as it makes no sense to regret what one has not said or not done. We are free to choose only what necessity has chosen for us. Persephone rolls the dice of fate in Hades; we are free to play along.
The Gay Science—and the gay science—is the passionate assumption of necessity, amor fati (“the love of fate”). The gay science is gaiety at the meaningless mechanism which is the world. Everything is necessary yet purposeless.
DIVORCING SCHOPENHAUER: WHAT IS THE “WILL-TO-POWER”?
The Gay Science marks a swerving-away from Nietzsche’s unofficial teacher Schopenhauer. There were already indications of Nietzsche’s growing dissatisfaction with Schopenhauer in Human, All-Too-Human [cf. especially Paragraph Thirty-Nine], in which Nietzsche ridicules his master for believing that some “metaphysical need” is innate to human beings. The “metaphysical need” comes after religion; religion is not responsive to a preexisting “metaphysical need.” Nor, Nietzsche argues, does the human conscience imply human moral responsibility—this is a false inference on Schopenhauer’s part. The human conscience is a hive of error.
The total break with Schopenhauer, again, is announced in the pages of The Gay Science. I would direct the reader to Paragraph Ninety-Nine, where Nietzsche makes explicit statements against Schopenhauerian philosophy, as well as to the poem “Pessimisten-Arznei” and the 1887 Preface, wherein he describes pessimism in physiological terms as a sickness. What Nietzsche writes is pellucid; little commentary from me is required. Briefly: Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the One Will is indemonstrable (that all causes are manifestations of the One Will); the idea that a genius is a timeless, subjectless, desubjectified subject of knowledge is ridiculous; there is no such thing as animal magnetism; pity is not separate from the selfishness of individualism, etc.
What I would like to focus on here is something that is less obvious: the way that Nietzsche subtilizes Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the Will.
As the title of Schopenhauer’s masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, suggests, the world has two valences. The innermost core of the world is the Will: the throbbing, palpitating, blind, stupid vital force, the will-to-live, the impulse to perpetuate and to preserve life. The Will is the impelling force of Nature. The Will is what makes one want to live, what keeps one alive, but more importantly, what makes us, usually inadvertently, continue the human species. All that we do, whether we think we are doing so or not, is in the service of the life-will, of the impulse toward the enhancement and enlargement of life.
The fundamental trait of the Will is striving. The exertions of the Will as objectivated in the human body are geared toward one thing (not a “purpose” or “goal”): the reduplication of humanity. While this might sound “heteronormative” or “heterosexist” (to use two fuzz words), it is not. Schopenhauer is not implying that the Will is a libido that is geared toward sexual reproduction; the Will is not the Will-to-sexually-reproduce. Childless farmers, non-procreative artists, the celibate, gays, lesbians, the transgender—all of these, too, dance the regimented, compulsory dance of life, creating conditions for future humanity. Homosexuality, for example, is a necessary counteraction / has a necessary counteractive effect which serves the drive to revitalize the human species.
Life, then, has no “purpose” other than its own perpetuation and promotion. Human beings are playthings of the will-to-live. The will-to-live continues, despite the endless deaths of individuals (there are no individuals, for Schopenhauer)—which is why suicide is both foolish and repulsive. You can kill yourself, but you can’t kill life. “Individuality” is subordinate to the push-to-keep-humanity-alive. The gay science is consciousness of the thrustings, the wellings, and the swellings of the Will and of the purposelessness of existence (Nietzsche, in this regard, likens the Will to the Wave, der Wille to die Welle).
Human beings think that they are their own masters, when behind every gesture, action, and word is the ascendant urge to renew the human species. As I explained above, in Human, All-Too-Human, Nietzsche destroyed the philosophical foundations of altruism and the free will; in Daybreak, he destroyed morality on the basis of the destructions of Human, All-Too-Human. In The Gay Science, we learn what human acts and thoughts subserve. We are marking time, marching in place, when we believe that we matter.
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are one at this stage: Individuals who believe that they are masters of themselves are self-deceptive. They are puppeteered by the Will (which Schopenhauer believes is the will-to-preservation; Nietzsche believes the Will is something else, as we shall see). Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, however, differ in their positions toward life. For Schopenhauer, life is tragedy (life is a business that cannot cover its own expenses; human beings arise only to be extinguished; the character of life is suffering). Nietzsche does not deny any of this—far from it—but for him, life is a comedy, a comedy because it has no goal, and consciousness of the pointlessness of life is the gay science. Why else would Nietzsche invite the Grillen to dance the dance of life? Grillen: this interesting word means both “crickets” and “whimsical (often, bad) moods.” We are invited to confront and absorb the negative in the dream-dance of life: hence, the frequent terpsichorean and oneiric figures that proliferate throughout the text. Nietzsche rejects Schopenhauer’s gloominess, his dourness, though he agrees that the maintenance, sustenance, and perpetuation of the human species is the result of a more fundamental human impulse than that of the principle of individuality (the principium indivuationis).
Nietzsche advances another step beyond his ex officio teacher and mentor, Schopenhauer, when he calls attention to how vices and how (later) squandering contribute to the will-to-live: Hatred, malice, envy, aggression, the desire to steal—all of these forms of so-called “wickedness” belong to “the astounding economy of the conservation of the species” ([die] erstaunliche[-] Oekonomie der Arterhaltung) [Paragraph One]. Much later, Nietzsche informs us that “Evil” is nothing more than another name for those who are vigorous, for those who are passionate (leidenschaftlich) [Paragraph 326], for those who enhance life, for those who stimulate opposition, with their passionate individualism and unconventional ideas.
Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, good nor evil in itself; we make it so. That is to say: Neither Good nor Evil exists. “Good” and “Evil” are mystifications, simplifications (and hence falsifications), abstractions. The dichotomy of Good and Evil is replaced, by Nietzsche, with the terms strong / fertile / healthy and the feeble / sterile / sick. Nietzsche seems to be using dualisms / dichotomies / binary oppositions himself. One must be careful not to think that Nietzsche is substituting one dualism for another, however.
The strong and the weak do not form a dualism, but a continuum or an “axis” (to use Brian Eno’s term). There are no opposites, only continua / axes. Sickness and health are not opposites—there are subdivisions, gradations, degrees, nuances, levels between the antipodes of “strength” and “feebleness,” between “sickness” and “health.” Health cannot do without sickness, as we learn from Paragraph 120 of The Gay Science and the 1886 Preface of Human, All-Too-Human. All values are derived from disvalues. Logic comes from illogic [cf. Paragraph 111]. Altruism is the chick that is hatched from the egg of selfishness. In Human, All-Too-Human, we learn that generosity is drawn from a selfish lust for power. In Paragraph 118 of The Gay Science and Daybreak, passim, we learn that benevolence (and pity, the affect that motivates benevolence) is the effort of the strong to appropriate the weak. Opposites interpenetrate.
The most fundamental human impulse is not the will-to-reproduce-life, as Schopenhauer believes. In the following words, Nietzsche definitively breaks with Schopenhauer: “In nature, it is not distress which rules, but rather abundance, squandering, even to the point of absurdity. The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the life-will; the great and small struggle revolves everywhere around preponderance, around growth and expansion, around power, in accordance with the will-to-power, which is simply the will-to-live” ([I]n der Natur herrscht nicht die Nothlage, sondern der Überfluss, der Verschwendung, sogar bis in’s Unsinnige. Der Kampf um’s Dasein ist nur eine Ausnahme, eine zeitweilige Restriktion des Lebenswillens; der grosse und kleine Kampf dreht sich allenthalben um’s Übergewicht, um Wachsthum und Ausbreitung, um Macht, gemäss dem Willen zur Macht, der eben der Wille des Lebens ist) [Paragraph 349].
The will-to-live is only the restriction of a much greater will. For Schopenhauer, the Will is the will-to-live; in Nietzsche, the Schopenhauerian Will is transformed into the will-to-power.
What is the will-to-power? The “will-to-power” means the following: All of life is composed of relativities of power. One creature is the dominant; the other is the subordinate. One creature is the master; the other is the slave. Not the desire for power, but desire as power is the fundamental characteristic of the will. Exertion, struggling, striving for the preservation of the human species is a secondary characteristic. The essential trait of the Will is the drive toward supremacy, toward ascendancy, over other organisms and entities.
All live organisms strive for dominance over other live organisms—but they also strive for dominance over the world. Such is the will-to-power. Power is not an object that is separate from the will; it is inherent to the will itself. The will-to-power is the will of power, the power-will.
NIETZSCHE LOVES WOMEN / NIETZSCHE LOVES MOUNTAINS / NIETZSCHE DOES NOT LOVE WOMEN / NIETZSCHE DOES NOT LOVE MOUNTAINS
Nietzsche, sadly, writes a number of disobliging things about women in The Gay Science.
Am I the first reader to notice that Nietzsche writes about women in almost the same way in which he writes about mountains? In Paragraph Fifteen, he tells us that mountains are only beautiful at a distance. A mountain is beautiful to look at, but it is not beautiful to be a mountain. The man who gazes at the mountain from the comfort of the Swiss boarding house is charmed; the mountaineer is not so enchanted. (Schopenhauer gave exactly the same example to illustrate the ephemerality of beauty, before Nietzsche did.)
In Paragraph Sixty, Nietzsche writes almost exactly the same thing about women. Women, we are told, produce magical effects on the spectator only at a distance. Fascination / bewitchment / enchantment implies distance. The comparison between women and mountains could easily be interpreted as a misogynistic comparison (for what is a mountain but a large rock?). However, as I have written elsewhere (in my commentary on Human, All-Too-Human), Nietzsche is not always merely a misogynist.
At other times, Nietzsche praises women to the sky. Consult Paragraph Sixty-Four: Old women—Nietzsche slyly utters while twisting his Vercingetorix moustache—know that the superficiality of existence is its essence. In other words, experienced women are more philosophically minded than experienced men. A philosopher (I will return to this point below) is not someone who sees the Platonic idea (eidos) through the masquerade of appearances. A philosopher is one who knows that there is no idea behind the curtain.
Anyone who still thinks that all of Nietzsche’s thoughts on women are reducible to misogyny should read on. In the poignant paragraph that follows, we learn that Nietzsche has sympathy (perhaps even empathy) for women who offer their bodies—and their shame—to men who neither appreciate them nor return their love. At another point, he even equates life itself to women / women to life itself: “Yes, life is a female!” (Ja, das Leben ist ein Weib!) [Paragraph 339]. This is the highest encomium that could ever be accorded to anyone. What is this if not philogyny (the love of women)? What is this if not crypto-feminism?
NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A FASCIST. NIETZSCHE WAS NOT A PROTO-NAZI
Of all the tabloid lies that have been told about him, none is as blatantly untrue as the rumor that Nietzsche was a fascist or a proto-Nazi. Such slanderous gossip could be refuted in a few words. Nietzsche renounced his German (Prussian) citizenship in 1869. He vilified the authoritarian state in Thus Spoke Zarathustra—and there has never been a fascist who did not revere the authoritarianism of the state. He believed in a rule of intellectuals [cf. Paragraph 283], or, to invent words, a cognocracy or a philosophocracy—surely, fascism is nothing if not anti-intellectualist (see my brief article “Fascism”). He inveighed against nationalism, racial hatred (Rassenhass), and the fetishistic piety of epidermal worship or “mendacious racial self-admiration” (verlogne[-] Rassen-Selbstbewunderung) [Paragraph 377]. Not only does Nietzsche suggest that “racial purity” (whatever this means) is undesirable—he even seems to suggest that it is impossible. He never ceased to ridicule and condemn Anti-Judaism (for one example of this, consult the final pages of Toward the Genealogy of Morals). He constantly expresses his admiration for the Jewish people [read Paragraph 475 of Human, All-Too-Human and Paragraph 205 of Daybreak]. On 29 March 1887, Nietzsche inked and mailed a letter to Theodor Fritsch, self-anointed Anti-Semite and one of the vilest ideological precursors of National Socialism, that contained these words as its closing paragraph: “Finally, how do you think I feel when the name Zarathustra is mouthed by an Anti-Semite?” Nietzsche was demanding that Fritsch stop sending him copies of the rag that Fritsch edited: the Antisemitische Correspondenz und Sprechsaal für innere Partei-Angelegenheiten.
This is scarcely the profile of a fascist or a proto-Nazi. The ethnic purifiers, the racial homogenizers, the phenotype idolaters, the ideological Aryans, the alt-rightists, the Neo-Nazis should find another “fave” philosopher (might I suggest Hegel?). Nietzsche revolted against everything these thugs, mugs, and lugs stand for.
OUT-KANTING KANT: ONTOLOGY IS PHENOMENOLOGY
The title Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (“the gay science”) has at least four meanings:
1.) At the most literal level, the gay science is poetry. The term gaya scienza was used by twelfth-century troubadours from Provence as another name for poetic art. The book itself is fringed by two series of poems: “Joke, Cunning, and Revenge” and “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei.” The most significant of these is “To Goethe” (from “The Songs of Prince Vogelfrei”), to which I will turn, briefly, below.
2.) The title carries a personal meaning. In the 1887 Preface, Nietzsche attributes the provenance of the book to a personal convulsion, the “saturnalia of a mind” (Saturnalien eines Geistes), an overturning, an overthrow of the romantic pessimism of Schopenhauer and of Schopenhauer’s disciple Wagner. The rejection of romantic pessimism does not lead Nietzsche into optimism (thank goodness). “The gay science” is the impassioned affirmation of the world-as-such in all of its ugliness, not the naïve hyperbole of Leibnizian optimism, which sees the world as the best of all possible worlds. To see the world as the best of all possible worlds is to see the world as better than it is, since there is only one world. This is the world, and there is no other. Optimism and pessimism are surpassed in favor of the life-affirming repudiation of all religion, of all morality, and of all metaphysics (which serves as the foundation of religion and morality). Metaphysics, by definition, posits a supraworld, a world-beyond-the-world, an Apart-from-the-world, an επέκεινα. This explains the book’s frequent references to Epicurus, who believed that if there are gods, they do not concern themselves with us. The Gay Science is not a Leibnizian book (far from it); it is an Epicurean book.
3.) The gay science, as I suggested above, is the consciousness of the purposelessness of existence—unless the promotion of life is itself a purpose. But how could the impulse to continue, to perpetuate, to reproduce the human species be a “purpose”? If the concept of purpose implies free will (and surely it does), then the impulse to propagate the human species is no purpose at all. The gay science is the joyous assumption of necessity. It is the cheerful knowledge that a supercomputer would be able to preprogram all of human behavior centuries before any of that behavior was enacted.
4.) The gay science is Nietzsche’s phenomenological ontology.
Let me address this final theorem here.
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche gives us a philosophy of superficiality. Nietzsche tells us, “We cannot see around our corner” (Wir können nicht um unsre Ecke sehn); the human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself, things in the world, and other selves under its own perspectival forms [Paragraph 374]. All we have are surfaces and surfaces of surfaces. The world is a glittering, glistening, trembling, quivering play of surfaces without depth—a scintillating mosaic with nothing behind it.
But if there is no depth, can there be a surface? For Nietzsche, there can be depthless surfaces—there is nothing beneath the surface; there are only grooves, filigrees, fissures, grooves incised on the surface of the world. There are nothing but veils and veils that veil veils. As he writes in the 1887 Preface: “We no longer believe that the truth still remains the truth when the veil is pulled off” (Wir glauben nicht mehr daran, dass Wahrheit noch Wahrheit bleibt, wenn man ihr die Schleier abzieht).
The disciple of the Temple of Sais pulls off the veil that veils the statue of Isis—there is nothing there beneath the veil. No revealed mystery, no depth. The unveiling is a forced striptease that does not lead to nudity, that does not lead to the truth, that never reaches an essence, that never comes to an ultimate profundity, but one that leads to another set of impermeable veils. What this means is that depth is superficiality, as superficiality is depth. A frog is a frog, a log is a log, a bog is a bog.
It takes a deep person to recognize that the world is superficial, which is why Nietzsche writes that mystics are not even superficial / surficial: “Mystical explanations are estimated as deep; the truth is, they are not even superficial” (Die mystischen Erklärungen gelten für tief; die Wahrheit ist, dass sie noch nicht einmal oberflächlich sind) [Paragraph 126]. My interpretation of this statement: A mystic / mystagogue is someone who ignores the surfaces of life in favor of a deeper world that does not even exist.
The all-important Paragraph Fifty-Four—the centrifugal force of the book—liberates appearances from essences. We learn here that a phenomenon is not the appearance of a thing; a phenomenon has its own integrity. Appearance is not the opposite of some essence (Gegensatz irgend eines Wesens). Appearance is not a death mask (eine todte Maske), an unknown X (ein[-] unbekannt[es] X), the crust or shell of a thing. “Semblance,” Nietzsche writes, is “the acting and living themselves” (Schein ist für mich das Wirkende und Lebende selber). Though Nietzsche does not write the following explicitly, he implies: Appearance is essence.
In this extraordinary paragraph, Nietzsche emancipates himself from his unofficial teacher Schopenhauer and from Schopenhauer’s unofficial teacher Kant. It is not merely the case that we only know appearances and never things in themselves, Nietzsche suggests to us. Nietzsche celebrates and affirms—with the giddiness of gaiety—phenomenality without Dinge an sich (“things in themselves”). Here, Nietzsche is moving away from Schopenhauer (and from Schopenhauer’s predecessor, Kant), who still believed that there is a supersensible truth beyond the world of appearances. Whereas Kant believed that things in themselves underlie appearances, Nietzsche here affirms that there are only appearances and no things in themselves.
Further, Nietzsche positions himself against all ethics of prudence. Reason does not have a pure employment—all ethics are ethics of prudence, of convenience, of self-interest.
Kant does assert repeatedly that the forms of knowledge (particularly, the forms of sensibility, space and time) cannot be applied to things as they are in themselves. Neither are they applicable to three “Ideas of Reason” that entranced the originators of Christianity (and, to an extent, Christian Wolff): God, the free will, and immortality. On this, Nietzsche and Kant are in agreement. The “Ideas of Reason” have no correlative in experience. Where is God? Where is the free will? Where is immortality?
However, Nietzsche goes much further than Kant. Nietzsche utterly denies the reality of God. He utterly denies the reality of the free will. He utterly denies the reality of immortality. We must admit that Nietzsche was far more enlightened than Kant. In comparison with Nietzsche, Kant appears to be clouded by intellectual benightedness. Nietzsche thinks that God, the free will, and immortality are intellectual errors and that human reason is by no means bound to accept them even as noumenal realities.
Nietzsche, then, is out-Kanting Kant: There is no noumenal self, no supersensible morality, no noumenal world. There is no separation between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds. Although Nietzsche never actually writes this, we can aver with confidence that Kant was not enlightened enough. Kant is not the representative of the Enlightenment that most think him to be. Nietzsche, who was born forty years after Kant died, takes the Enlightenment to its logical conclusion. He certainly took the Enlightenment much further than Kant ever did.
Nietzsche phenomenalizes the world. That is to say: Nietzsche superficializes the world.
Heidegger is wrong when he claims that Nietzsche inverts Platonism. To “invert” Platonism would be to place the phenomenon above the essence (eidos). Nietzsche does not invert Platonism. He displaces Platonism.
Does this imply that life is a lie? Nietzsche will write in the Nachlass that “[t]ruth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live.” This, regrettably, is one of the most unfortunate things that Nietzsche ever wrote. For does not this interpretation of truth presuppose truth? Is Nietzsche not assuming that his own statement is true? Is he not hoping that we, the readers, will accept his statement as a true statement? Or is he suggesting that his own statement is erroneous? This is one of the Megarian paradoxes: A man comes from a city where everyone lies. He says, “I am lying.” Is he telling the truth? Nietzsche writes that truth is a lie. Is he telling the truth?
Nietzsche’s argument might be saved if we rewrite his statement as follows: “There is no truth (no absolute reality, no reality absolved of perception and perceptibility); there are only things that we take as the truth.” To cite a popular-cultural example: The film I, Tonya (2017) seems to proceed from this understanding—all the while discounting any perspective other than that of Team Tonya. In the film, Tonya Harding is the victim, not Nancy Kerrigan.
Most of the poems in The Gay Science are nothing more than silly fun (and Nietzsche admits this), but there is one that stands out: “To Goethe.”
World-Play, the masterful, / Blends being and semblance:—
Welt-Spiel, das herrische, / Mischt Sein und Schein:—
To paraphrase: There is no “deeper life.” Being is appearance, Sein is Schein, ontology is phenomenology. Life is a scintillating mosaic, a play of surfaces. Again, this is not an inversion, but a displacement of Platonism.
This is why Nietzsche praises artists, creators of illusions of profundity. This is why artists are compared to lovers, and lovers are compared to artists; both conceal naturalness [Paragraph Fifty-Nine]. Art is the “good will to semblance” (gute[r] Wille[-] zum Scheine) (Paragraph 107)—that is, art is illusion without the pretext of being true (unlike, say, religion). Art resembles existence, which is already aesthetic. This does not mean that art represents things in the world, as Aristotle believes. It means that art repeats the phenomenal character of existence. We are drawn to works of art because they remind us that life is already art—that is, they remind us that life is already a shallow play of appearances. Art reminds us that life is already a constellation / a clutch / a cluster of illusions.
This is why what flying fish love most about life is its skinnishness / skinness / skinnedness / epidermality (Hautlichkeit) [Paragraph 256]. For life is a vast skin without fat or muscle—a skin of many pigmentations.
This is why the name of a thing (its reputation) is more important than the thing itself. A name describes the human relation to a thing; it does not describe the thing itself. The name of a thing is the skin that becomes its very body [cf. Paragraph Fifty-Eight]. Indeed, without a name, a thing is not accessible at all. Language gives birth to reality—Nietzsche almost writes this [cf. Paragraph 261].
Language is not reducible to some meaning behind letters and punctuation marks. Language inheres in letters and punctuation marks. This point is reflected by Nietzschean novelist Hermann Hesse, a writer who has long been adored by public and reviled by Germanists, in the fourth chapter (“Awakening”) of his novel Siddhartha. In this chapter, the eponymous protagonist throws off religion and affirms his self, the surfaceness of life, and the signifierness of language (sit venia verbo):
“Meaning and essence were not hidden somewhere behind things, they were in them, in all of them” (Sinn und Wesen waren nicht irgendwo hinter den Dingen, sie waren in ihnen, in allem).
The affirmation of the empirical is not scientific reductionism, for science destroys mystery / ambiguity [cf. Paragraph 373]. It is not scientific reductionism; it is the gay science. The gay science: to be unfavorably disposed toward meta-phenomenal ideas and toward absolute unbudgeable, unrustable convictions. The gay science is the joyous, impassioned affirmation of empty phenomena.
The lightness of being is not unbearable—to write against the worst of the pseudo-Nietzschean novelists, Milan Kundera (Hesse is his superior). Not only is the lightness of being bearable, it is joy-inspiring. Nietzsche celebrates the joyous weightlessness of existence. The gay science—and The Gay Science—is a gay phenomenology.
“GOD IS DEAD”: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
How could God die, if God never existed to begin with?: Both Foucault and Christopher Hitchens have posed this question. The answer, of course, is that Nietzsche never intended the literal death of God when he wrote, “God is dead.” He meant the implausibility of believing in the otherworld, the unbelievability of belief in the otherworld. One should recall the story of the lunatic in the marketplace that Nietzsche tells us in The Gay Science: The people of the marketplace do not even believe in God and are indifferent to the lunatic’s rantings. The point is not that God does not exist but that the idea of God is unbelievable.
If God is dead, this is because God is depth. Any belief in metaphysical depth becomes incredible.
God is dead because God is depth.
WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME KILLS ME: WHAT DID NIETZSCHE MEAN WHEN HE WROTE, “WHAT DOES NOT KILL ME MAKES ME STRONGER”?
Nietzsche is a thinker who many talk about, but few have read—thoroughly, at least. One of his statements that is repeated everywhere throughout American popular culture, a statement that permeates everything from the now-moldering and –smoldering Web site MySpace to the sounds of Kayne West, is “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker) [from Götzendämmerung].
The 1887 Preface to The Gay Science helps one understand this statement, probably the most oft-quoted statement that Nietzsche ever made (eclipsing perhaps even the death of God and the abyss-that-is-looking-into-you): “I doubt that [the great] pain ‘improves’ us—; but I know that it deepens us” (Ich zweifle, ob [der grosse] Schmerz ‘verbessert’—; aber ich Weiss, dass er uns vertieft).
The 1887 Preface clarifies in advance what Nietzsche meant by “What does not kill me makes me stronger”: What Nietzsche means by “what does not kill me” is “the great pain,” the most excruciating pain of one’s life. The great pain makes me deeper.
But what or who is this “me”? The “me” is the free spirit. What does not kill the free spirit makes the free spirit deeper. Pain makes the free spirit become another person—the free spirit is always becoming another person. A way of retranslating this famous formulation, then, might be: “The great pain annihilates and recreates the free spirit.”
What does not kill me kills me.
The new person is a questioner—one who poses questions as to the questionableness of existence. After an experience of pain, the free thinker—the survivor of the trauma—delights in the experience, for s/he knows that pain is necessary and produces meaning. Pain problematizes existence, highlighting its ambiguity / equivocality.
What does not kill me makes me more profound—and (to retranslate this remark into the terms of The Gay Science) my profundity makes the world appear superficial.
WHAT IS THE ETERNAL RECURRENCE OF THE SAME?
The Gay Science contains the first published reference to the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same (an unpublished reference occurs earlier, in the notebooks—see the notebook of August 1881): In order to attain your highest humanity, “you desire the eternal recurrence of war and peace” (du willst die ewige Wiederkunft von Krieg und Frieden) [Paragraph 285]. By the “eternal recurrence of war and peace,” Nietzsche does not intend that our lives will repeat themselves infinitely. He intends that we ought to live our lives as if our lives will repeat themselves infinitely. The infinite repetition of our lives is a thought-experiment, not a metaphysical claim. The infinite repetition of our lives is a philosophical imperative, an “Ought.” (I will pursue this topic in much greater depth when I discuss Beyond Good and Evil and the Nachlass.) The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is the philosophical imperative: Live your life for nothing other than its own infinite repetition.
Schopenhauer constantly refers to Hinduism (or as he calls it “Brahmanism” or “the Vedanta philosophy”) throughout The World as Will and Representation. The extent to which Nietzsche is indebted to Hinduism has yet to be sufficiently explored. One should not ignore the epigraph to Morgenröthe, which comes from the Rig Veda: “There are many days that have yet to be dawned.”
Is it possible that Nietzsche was inspired by Hinduism when he came up with the Eternal Recurrence of the Same? I am thinking of the Hindu concept of samsāra. Samsāra is the endless recycling of rebirth and redeath. The only way out is nirvāna, the extinction of the self (the word nirvāna originally referred to the extinguishing, the snuffing-out, of a candle flame). For the Hindu, the point of life is not to reenter the cycle of samsāra. The point of life is to suspend samsāra—not to perpetuate it.
The Eternal Recurrence of the Same is not a matter of hopefulness, even though the future is perfect.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
WHY I CAN’T STAND GEORGES BATAILLE
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
I first discovered Bataille at the age of eighteen. Here was a French Nietzschean who wrote strident essays and excessively explicit novels. What was there not to like? Throughout my eighteenth and nineteenth years, I read the oeuvres of Bataille, alongside the works of Heidegger, Derrida, and many others.
Around the age of twenty, my relationship with Bataille underwent a change. I could no longer stand to read his writings.
La Littérature et le Mal (1957) destroyed my love for Bataille. The book is almost unreadably silly. Bataille argues, with the most incredible casuistry, that literature and evil are the same. Literature evades collective necessity. Evil evades collective necessity. Both literature and evil evade collective necessity. Therefore, literature IS evil. However, this does not seem to imply, according to Bataille, that evil is literature.
This is a bit like saying: A duck is not a zebra. A chicken is not a zebra. Therefore, a duck is a chicken. However, a chicken is not a duck. This is the logical fallacy known as affirmative conclusion from a negative premise or illicit negative.
“Hegel, la Mort et le Sacrifice” (1955) troubled me, as well. I had read enough of Hegel to know that Bataille was making intellectual errors, was misinterpreting Hegel.
Bataille’s misinterpretation of Hegel may be summarized thus: Human beings sacrifice the animal parts of themselves in order to become fully human. Nowhere does this statement appear in the Gesammelte Werke of Hegel. Hegel writes instead: [Der Geist] gewinnt seine Wahrheit nur, indem er in der absoluten Zerrissenheit sich selbst findet. When he writes that the Spirit finds itself in a state of absolute shreddedness, Hegel means that the human mind exteriorizes itself as an object and restores itself from its self-exteriorization. The human mind is both itself and outside-of-itself at the same time. There is no sacrifice of the animal for the sake of the human.
In L’Érotisme (1957), Bataille’s thesis is that death and eroticism issue from the same source, and many of his arguments are unforgettably convincing. But his opening argument is both banal and irrelevant: Bataille contends that the relation between sex and death is apprehensible at the microbiological level: When the ovum is fertilized, it is demolished. The ovum “dies” in order to form the zygote.
This has absolutely nothing to do with the phenomenology of eroticism, nor does it have anything to do with the phenomenology of mortality.
Last month, I read as much as I could endure of the fragments collected in The Unfinished System of Non-Knowledge. These are the incoherent screechings of a lunatic.
* * * * *
THE BLUE OF NOON: A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia
According to Georges Bataille’s autobiographical note, Le Bleu du ciel (“The Blue of the Sky”) was composed in the twilight before the occupation of Vichy France.
The descending night darkens these pages.
Dissolute journalist Henri Troppmann (“Too-Much-Man”) and his lover, Dirty give way to every impulse, to every surfacing urge, no matter how vulgar. Careening from one sex-and-death spasm to the next, they deliver themselves over to infinite possibilities of debauchery. A fly drowning in a puddle of whitish fluid (or is it the thought of his mother, a woman he must not desire?) prompts Troppmann to plunge a fork into a woman’s supple white thigh. The threat of Nazi terror incites a coupling in a boneyard.
Their only desire is to begrime whatever is elevated, to vulgarize the holy, to pollute it, to corrupt it, to bring it down into the mud.
By muddying whatever is “sacred,” they maintain the force of “the sacred.”
As a historical document, Le Bleu du ciel is eminently interesting. It offers unforgettably vivid portraits of Colette Peignot (as Dirty) and the “red nun” Simone Weil (as Lazare).
It is also the story of a man who is fascinated with fascism and the phallus, of someone who loves war, though not for teleological reasons. It is the story of a man who celebrates war on its own terms, who nihilistically affirms its limitless power of destruction.
As the night spreads, the blue of the sky disappears.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia
According to Nietzsche, Kant writes what the common man believes in a language that the common man cannot understand. Malcolm Gladwell, it must be said, vigorously reaffirms what the common man believes in a language that the common man CAN understand, thus flattering the common man and “making him happy.” “To be made happy”: a Gladwellism for “to be satisfied with a consumer item, such as a book by Malcolm Gladwell.”
In Outliers (2008), Gladwell argues, in essence: “It is better to be mediocre than it is to be brilliant!” Perhaps that is too blunt of a truncation, but the book seems to welcome such simplicity.
We are introduced to Chris Langen, “the public face of genius in American life” , who nonetheless works in construction and “despairs of ever getting published in a scholarly journal” . Langen fails because he was raised in abject squalor, and his mother “missed a deadline for his financial aid” . By contrast, Robert Oppenheimer, a “success” for his complicity in the atomization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was “raised in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Manhattan” . Other actors on the community-theater proscenium include Marita, a twelve year old from an impoverished family who gives up her evenings, weekends, and friends to slave away in one of New York City’s most rigorous and competitive middle schools. She will succeed, Gladwell suggests, because she “works hard” and is given a “chance.” Indeed, Bill Gates was a “success” because he was given unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal at the age of thirteen. The Beatles were a “success” because they forced themselves to perform eight-hour concerts in Hamburg between 1960 and 1962. Along the way, the reader is pepper-sprayed with anecdotes about Korean aviation and Kentuckian aggression that have no apparent relevance to the thesis of the book, except to “demonstrate” that one’s “cultural legacy” sometimes has to be jettisoned in order for one to become “successful.”
Gladwell is arguing, in nuce, that success–euphemistic for “financial prosperity”–corresponds not to one’s intelligence, but rather to opportunity and social savoir-faire. The thesis isn’t so much false as it is banal. Of course, one must have social skills and opportunity to be “successful.” And yet I would contend, pace Gladwell, that even social skills and opportunity are not enough, by themselves, for an individual to succeed financially. Life never brooks such easy recipes (or follows such “predictable courses” , to use Gladwell’s language).
What, precisely, does Gladwell mean by “intelligence”? The author hypostatizes the Intelligence Quotient Test and thus subscribes to the false supposition that intelligence can be quantified and measured. If you receive 180 on the Intelligence Quotient Test, in other words, then you are a super-genius. Now, I did score [number redacted] on the I.Q. Test, but that, in itself, is no guarantor of my genius. Intelligence is an impalpable thing, and there is no necessary relationship whatsoever between one’s intelligence and the I.Q. examination, just as, following Gladwell, there is no necessary relationship between one’s I.Q. score and “success.”
Moreover, Gladwell ignores the temporal differences that separate his stories. Oppenheimer lived in an America that was less intimidated by, and envious of, intelligence than the America of the twenty-first century. I differ from Gladwell, and my counter-thesis is the following: Even if Langen possessed superior social skills, it is very likely that he still would have failed in life.
Why? Because the culture has become a home for Swiftian Lilliputians, ever-ready to manacle down any Gulliver who comes their way. Yes, Gladwell is correct in suggesting that geniuses almost always fail and the mediocre almost always triumph, but he completely misses the reasons. You cannot possibly succeed if you are a genius unless you camouflage, to a certain extent, your intelligence. We are living a culture that, instead of lionizing intelligence, disdains it. Those who possess a higher intellect than the multitude are looked upon with acrimony and mistrust. Such is the “leveling-off” or equalization of all distinction to which polymaths and geniuses have long since grown accustomed.
Similarly, there is the impulse in this book to anathematize genius, as if genius were some kind of cancerous polyp that should be excised. It is not difficult to detect a certain defensiveness in Gladwell’s anti-intellectualist posturing, not merely as if the myth that genius equals success needed to be debunked, but as if genius, in itself, were something intrinsically negative, threatening–damaging, even. Gladwell, non-genius, is content to attack genius in Outliers with the same vehemence with which he attacked critical thinking in Blink. And for exactly the same affective reason: Gladwell is as intimidated by genius as he is cowed by critical thought, for which he substitutes anecdotes lifted, quite uncritically, from single sources: books by John Ed Pierce, Richard E. Niebett and Dov Cohen, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin…
Gladwell’s most ardent admirers–non-brilliant readers who want reassurance that their non-brilliance is a formula for success–sigh plaintively and bleat. And the mediocre shall inherit the Earth.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Niccolo Machiavelli argued that the expansion of power comes from opportunity in the early sixteenth century. But he qualified: from opportunity and through cleverness (virtù in Italian).
An Analysis of THE YELLOW WALLPAPER (Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
by Joseph Suglia
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL.
In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was committed to a sanitarium in Pennsylvania run by one Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, the popularizer of a cure for female hysteria. Every female hysteric, according to Mitchell, should be placed under the watchful supervision of a (male) physician. He must oversee the strict regimentation of her body’s habits. Such vigilant monitoring is a conditio sine qua non for any physician who wishes to cure the patient of her malady. She must submit unquestioningly to the physician’s will and obey all of his prescriptions — one of which, invariably, is the injunction to do nothing. Bed rest is compulsory and should be vigorously enforced. The patient is to be placed in a state of perpetual invalidism; all forms of activity to which she is accustomed must be invalidated. Above all, she must not write.
Five years later, Gilman published the novella The Yellow Wallpaper, a slightly veiled polemic against Weir Mitchell (the physician is even mentioned explicitly in the text) and the “cure” to female depression and hysteria that he advocated. The narrative is written from the perspective of a woman who undergoes a nervous breakdown. What we are reading is her diary, which charts her gradual mental deterioration. The narrator and her husband/physician, John, have rented an ancestral house for a summer. John prescribes for the narrator a “rest cure” that is clearly indebted to the teachings of Weir Mitchell. She is prohibited from writing; she writes nonetheless, perhaps to spite him. Isolated in her room and completely inactive except for her writing, the narrator becomes transfixed by the sickeningly grotesque wallpaper that surrounds her. She projects her self into the convoluted patterns of the paper and imagines a feminine figure-not necessarily a “woman,” but rather a “shape… like a woman”  — entangled in the radiating network of festooning fronds and vines. The feminine shape escapes from the wallpaper’s intricate web and is seen “creeping up and down” in the “dark grape arbors”  of the courtyard. In the final scene of the work, the narrator, who has seemingly lost her mind, tears off the wallpaper and crawls and “creeps” “smoothly”  across the floor and over John, who has collapsed lifelessly after seeing his wife wriggling and writhing on the ground. Since all of this is composed in the present tense, apparently she is writing as she is creeping.
Two orders of writing are figured in the novella. On the one hand, there is the language of the yellow wallpaper, which spreads its sprawling patterns, its fecundating, fungoid forms, all over the room in which the narrator is confined–this is clearly representative of the language of medicine and maleness. On the other hand, there is the ideolect of the female narrator, who frees herself by writing in defiance of her husband’s orders. Writing is here figured as a mode of activity–which, for Mitchell, is a quintessentially male practice (women who are active, according to Mitchell, ape men).
Little known in the century in which it was written, The Yellow Wallpaper was rediscovered in the late twentieth century and has become what is easily one of the most “over-interpreted” works of fiction in the last few decades. Most interpreters have pointed to the novella as a figuration of female liberation in modernist fiction. Despite its seeming simplicity, they invariably point to the text’s so-called “ambiguities” and “contradictions,” the most glaring of which is the manner in which the novella ends; most seem to believe that the novella ends complicatedly and equivocally. Does the narrator, in fact, achieve liberation? Or does she not? John, it is often said, faints to the floor, and fainting, as we are told too often and erroneously, is somehow “feminine.” Therefore, the narrator has perhaps achieved a “victory” over John. (One should also call attention to the fact that John is referred to, in the final scene, as “that man” , his proper name having been replaced by a demonstrative pronoun and a common noun.) And yet the narrator is also reduced, at the close of the novella, to the status of a worm or a snake, crawling and creeping across the floor along a self-ordained path. She certainly seems to have “precipitated” into what is usually described as “madness”–a “madness” that is attributed not to her “imaginative power and habit of story-making” , but rather to her husband’s profession. Her progressive “improve[-ment]”  has resulted in a regressive deterioration. Because of this central ambiguity between “positive” and “negative” meanings, the novella seems, at once, a celebratory and affirmative “portrayal” of female liberation from a constraining, male-dominated order and an elegiac, despairing cri de coeur that proclaims the seeming impossibility of liberation from tyrannical maleness.
The notion that this is an interesting “ambiguity” or “contradiction” escapes this reader. Far richer literary works of art were produced by women a few decades after The Yellow Wallpaper was written. The writings of Daphne Du Maurier (born in 1907) and Shirley Jackson (born in 1916) are far richer, more macabre, and more complex than those of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. No one with a modicum of a scintilla of a tincture of a shred of a mote of a jot of an iota of rationality would deny that The Yellow Wallpaper has a didactic character, and, with the exception of a few trite “ambiguities,” its meanings are almost completely self-explanatory. The simplicity of the work may explain the multiplication of critical discourses that it has generated.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
by Joseph Suglia
The plural of haiku is haiku.
The frog leaps into the water:
My inexistent wife
Plays the flute.
The grapes dance;
The rats are in the barn
Eating the oats.