… and the Patriots, and the Celtics and the Bruins.
Just in case you were confused and thought this site belonged to Suffolk County DA Dan Conley, who is running for Mayor of Boston, that should clarify matters.
… and the Patriots, and the Celtics and the Bruins.
Just in case you were confused and thought this site belonged to Suffolk County DA Dan Conley, who is running for Mayor of Boston, that should clarify matters.
It’s been almost a week since my Richard Ben Cramer confessional non-fiction essay. I want to share some of the fallout from the piece.
On my blog, roughly 50 people have read it. Since I cross posted it on punditwire.com, the overall audience could be quite a bit larger, but I doubt it — I don’t think punditwire.com draws many readers and this piece in particular doesn’t necessarily appeal to the audience.
There were two very nice comments left here on the blog and I appreciate them. Seven other people have either written or spoken to me about the piece and said kind things. I also received a “are you out of your mind” comment from one of my aunts. Naturally, that’s the one that has stuck in my mind.
I appreciate my aunt’s point that revealing negative things about myself on the Internet can be dangerous — that there are always people eager to use things against you in life. I’m aware of those risks and can only say that I believe that holding back embarrassing personal information from my writing could, at this point in my life, be more damaging to me than putting that information out into the open. The validity of confessional non-fiction as a journalistic or literary genre has been in the air of late. This piece in the L.A. Times does a very nice job pointing out the best aspects of the genre and I do believe that the piece was good exercise for my writing.
The greatest risk, as I see it, is self-indulgence and narcissism. My aunt also accused me of having a “pity party” in the essay, which is stinging criticism. I hope that isn’t what most readers took away from it. I wasn’t trying to elicit pity or make the case that I was a victim of circumstances. Actually, my aim was to take personal responsibility for all of these failures, in the grand tradition of Saint Augustine.
Several people who know me well think that I was too tough on my 22 year old self. If I was trying to elicit sympathy for anyone in the piece, it was for the generic young person trying to integrate himself or herself into adulthood without much success.
But what I also hope came through in the piece was a certain joy that comes with a completely blank canvass, for those moments when you are free to make mistakes and recover quickly.
Overall, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed that so few people ended up reading the essay. However, essays on the Internet tend to have a much longer life than simple blog posts and who knows, maybe it will eventually reach a wider audience. To all of those who did drop by to read it, thank you. Nothing makes me feel better than knowing that people took the time to read, even if you hated it and hoped to block it out of your mind immediately.
Reeves Restaurant & Bakery was the oldest restaurant in Washington when it finally closed its doors in 2007. I will always remember it in its original 1209 F Street locale, where it was a famous haunt for journalists, bureaucrats and politicos long before the lobbyists invaded that stretch just north of the Federal Triangle for good. I don’t remember the first time I ate at Reeves, but I’ll never forget the last.
I had just started work a couple blocks away as the staff writer at the Computer & Communications Industry Association (located ominously at 666 11th Street.) I had a paycheck under my belt and, finally, some money in my pocket to afford a sit down lunch. It was March 1988. I was 22, had a real, adult girlfriend for the first time in my life, wore a suit and prepared to grab a seat at the counter for a quiet lunch alone while reading about the ’88 Presidential race in The New York Times.
And then I saw him come in the door, that rollicking bear of a man. Our eyes locked, I smiled nervously and said hi, and out of habitual cheerfulness he gave me a big grin and said hello. And then he remembered me. Within seconds, I was backed away from hostess stand towards the cigarette machine and he was leaning down over me. Richard Ben Cramer, with that unmistakable smoky rasp, proceeded to give me the harshest, longest tongue lashing of my life. I deserved every word of it.
I arrived in Washington a little more than six months earlier, driving a 1983 red Dodge Charger with a clanky carburetor and a smashed-in left fender halfway across the country from Columbia, Missouri, to start work on a no-pay job, with no place to live and no means to support myself. I had graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia’s journalism school (well, not actually, but we’ll return to that later) in May and had spent the summer hanging out in Hartford with my sister, four year old nephew and year old niece, blowing through $5000 in graduation gift donations unconsciously. I do recall getting a good tan that summer, but made little other productive use of the time.
Back in May, I had a needle stich plan to follow the New York Yankees around the country, buying scalped tickets in every American League ballpark. In my fantasy, this adventure would lead to a magazine story (which surely Sport, Inside Sports or even the USA Today Baseball Weekly would eagerly snatch up) about the art of buying cheap tickets from scalpers. This ingenious, witty piece would lead magazine editors to knock down my door for future efforts, and my life as an independent, successful freelance journalist would take off. Oddly enough, I was able to convince my mom that this was a solid idea, and she eagerly donated most of the seed money to get me started. I remember converting the cash to American Express Travelers Checks, which gave me the appearance of studious sobriety at every Dunkin Donuts and 7-Eleven I visited that summer.
My grand tour took me all the way from central Connecticut to Boston and back. There in May I watched a Yankees-Red Sox game and I’m not sure if I even bought the ticket from a scalper. If I did, I didn’t interview anyone or do what any skilled journalist would consider reporting. Even though I’d just graduated journalism school and had written a few dozen bylined stories, I had brutal social anxiety and was terrified of interviewing people either live or over the phone. It still baffles me why I ever thought journalism was a suitable profession.
I wish I could pinpoint some grand bender or mishap that led me to lose all of the money and forgo my grand dreams. But life took over instead. I remember spending maybe $100 in a Boston bar after the Yankee game, where I somehow ended up talking to a very attractive brunette in a red dress who had a boyfriend, but nonetheless did everything but state bluntly that she wanted to sleep with me that night if I’d only spring for a nice hotel. I stubbornly refused to spend in the neighborhood of $100 on a hotel that night (expensive at the time) and we parted ways. I go back and forth thinking that I was a fool to miss that opportunity or really smart to steer clear of that thief or prostitute who saw me flashing the AMEX checks around. Karl Malden would probably approve.
But I didn’t blow the money on the room (or that woman.) Mostly, I remember hanging out in Hartford and taking my nephew to a lot of movies. I vaguely recall seeing “Mannequin” twice. Then sometime after July 4, the money slowly draining away, it dawned on me that I had unfinished business in Columbia and had to head back to school. I still had an apartment filled with a lot of useless junk, plus the banged up Charger. That car was a source of embarrassment and shame for me. A huge pickup truck ran a red light in Columbia several months earlier and hit me nearly broadside. If I’d slammed on my brakes a split second later, the truck would have hit flush with the driver’s door and I probably would have been crushed. But the brush with death wasn’t what was embarrassing.
What’s embarrassing is that Farm Bureau Insurance, after receiving a couple repair estimates, cut me a check for $1550 … and instead of getting the car fixed, I slowly spent every penny. Again, there was nothing to show for it all, just more license to be careless for a long stretch. My parents planned to give me another car – some pewter-colored Renault – as a graduation gift, but I asked them to please give it to my sister instead. She, whose husband had recently abandoned her, needed it much more than me. I won points for being the good brother, but in reality, I was too ashamed to explain the whole car insurance payout problem.
But there was an even greater embarrassment waiting for me in Columbia – despite attending the graduation ceremony with all of my friends, I hadn’t actually earned a diploma. In my final semester, I was supposed to finish an independent study philosophy course on Marxism with Professor Joe Bien. And given the lack of structure or plan, I naturally blew the class off completely and was left with a fat Incomplete for the final semester.
However, I had no idea how to right an incomplete grade and Professor Bien was nowhere to be found that summer. But now that I had my car, I was free to seek my fortune in any direction and pretend this little academic snafu never happened. So I started looking for work. More accurately, I peered at a bulletin board in the J-School and took the first job that caught my eye – a non-paying job in Washington D.C. researching a book about the 1988 Presidential election by a man named Richard Ben Cramer.
I spoke to his researcher Mark Zwonitzer about the opportunity and he offered it to me immediately. My experience covering state politics in Jefferson City for the Columbia Missourian was probably a plus. But in truth, my rabid interest in Presidential politics was probably my best qualification. Today, college aged political junkies are close to a majority. But back in 1987, political apathy on campuses was at an all-time high. The fact that I could name all of the candidates in the 1988 race – even the obscure ones like Pete duPont and Bruce Babbit – made me unusual. So with my great baseball adventure gone bust, I now turned to my great political adventure. I was going to be part of a massive project to rival the work of Theodore White and Hunter S. Thompson. I was going to meet the candidates and campaign staffers would know me by my first name.
This was stupid, of course. As an unpaid intern, my job was to transcribe Cramer’s interviews, typing everything into a program called XyWrite, and to fill out entry after entry into a massive data base that Cramer and Zwonitzer were maintaining for every single piece of reportage that might end up in the book. Cramer himself was nowhere to be found. He seemed to be spending most of his time those days schmoozing the Bush family, convincing George W. in particular that he had no interest in doing a hatchet job on his dad and could be trusted to tell the family story straight. In hindsight, I can’t imagine how he stretched his $500,000 advance from Random House for more than four years, considering that he was spending roughly 300 days a year on the road.
A couple weeks into the job, I finally got my opportunity to meet the man. Mark and I met Cramer at Union Station, where my assignment was to carry his bags. Simple enough. Except that Cramer wasn’t your usual weary traveler happy to unload, he was a whirling dervish who I had trouble keeping up with, who was rapidly spinning tales of his time on the road and his skirmishes with Marvin Bush from the second he spotted Mark and who seemed to be grasping his carry on and hard-shelled Samsonite suitcase with such ferocity that I saw no reasonable opportunity to relieve him. So I just followed, empty handed, trying to keep up on foot and by ear, guilty that I had no real reason to be there with them.
Despite this awkward first meeting, Cramer didn’t let on any disdain for me. Mark was encouraging me to look for full-time work, confident that I could still help out the project on a part-time basis. To assist this effort, Cramer wrote a “To whom it may concern” recommendation that concluded “if you should choose to hire Dan, you’ll be grabbing an ace.” He was a confident, blustery, big hearted guy like that.
Over the next several weeks, Mark started giving me bigger, more substantial research assignments. First, I tracked down voting records for Biden and Dole, which wasn’t such a simple task in the pre-Internet days. Then Mark sent me on a fishing expedition about Dole – go to the Library of Congress and dig up anything you can find. Here’s where things started to fall apart.
As you can tell from my Independent Study fiasco at Mizzou, free range intellectual inquiry was not a strong suit for me at that age. Given lots of time and freedom to look for nothing in particular, I spent little time working productively. Living freely in a big city for the first time in my life, I had other things to draw my attention. And by November of that year, I was trying to balance my impoverished lifestyle with something new for me, a girlfriend.
Yes, I went all the way through college without having a serious girlfriend, which is probably cause enough for me to go on several hundred more words worth of digressions. But let’s ignore all of that and plant me squarely in the fall of 1988, finally getting lucky with blonde former gymnast named Julia. And let’s leave the story at that, because as romances go, this one was nothing spectacular.
It was, however, a major financial crisis for me. Girlfriends mean dates and dates mean money, not just for dinners and movies, but for clothing and shoes. This put a major crimp in my no-pay job lifestyle. Every couple of weeks I begged my mom for more money. In between, I found myself cutting corners – borrowing from friends and paying back slowly. Stretching out bills and rent payments. And then I did something that was truly awful.
Over Thanksgiving, Mark was going back home, but he left me with some assignments at the Capitol Hill headquarters (which was Cramer’s house) and these assignments would cost some money. I had to do some shopping and gather some supplies, and to pay for this, Mark left me his ATM card. For a few days, I used the card as prescribed, taking out money for what the house needed and nothing more. But over the week, I started to take out more, $20 here and there. And by the time Mark returned home, I owed him about $200.
It was around this time that I began to feel trapped. My personal obligations to my roommates were piling up. I owed my employer. And, quite honestly, I was getting laid and didn’t want that to end. I screwed a lot of people over at this point – Cramer and Zwonitzer included. I never returned the work and didn’t pay back what I owed.
Over the next couple of months, thanks in part from Julia’s pressure, I started to get my life into some order. I found a new apartment and then a job. I had daily routines and weekend dates. And then I walked into Reeves for lunch.
“Listen you, you have a lot of our research still on you and you have a responsibility to this project,” Cramer began. Then he rattled off a list of my transgressions. I took money from Mark. I left them high and dry without notice. And then, the coup de grace, I had the audacity to use Cramer’s letter of recommendation to help secure my new job. Ouch. I never expected him to find out about that. Note, however, that I still did get the job, even though he found out. Cramer didn’t use his anger or his power to spike my chances.
After he was done, I spoke timidly. “What can I say … you’re right. Every word you just said is true,” I replied. I made an effort to explain why I made such bad choices, how I didn’t have money or a job and felt desperate and things got way out of hand.
I’ll never forget the way his demeanor melted as I explained myself. His voice softened and he seemed to understand it all, even if I didn’t. He said, gently, that I really should try to pay Mark back as soon as I could because he didn’t pay him well and it really hurt him. And if there’s anything that I still had that was important to the project (I didn’t, actually), that I should bring that by the office too.
I wish I could give this a happy feel good ending, where Cramer’s anger scared me straight or his compassion touched me in a meaningful way. But the truth is that I continued to be a mess, off and on, long after that confrontation. It’s been 25 years and I still haven’t paid Mark back the money I owe him. He’s an accomplished writer and documentary film maker now, and probably doesn’t need the cash, and it was my loss, not his. I burned a bridge senselessly.
I also never saw Cramer again. That’s too bad, because I would spend many of the next 25 years working in and around politics and would have dozens of conversations about “What It Takes” through the years, including one that lasted at least an hour with George Stephanopolous in 1992, on the day before the Richmond Presidential debate. I had an opportunity to be in the acknowledgments of a great book – to be someone a great writer could call a friend – and I blew it.
I think back to those days 25 years ago stunned at how I could live with such glib self-assurance. For some years afterwards, I joked that the fall of the Berlin Wall made my decision to skip out on my philosophy seminar class a sensible decision. Then two years ago I finally got around to reading Marx’s Capital and felt the loss at not having Bien’s guiding hand along the way. Perhaps Bien might have convinced me to pursue a philosophy PhD or introduce me to his other philosophical passion, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who I also read long after leaving the college campus.
At the time, it was always money that seemed to be driving wedges, but the reality is that I managed relationships even worse than I managed my finances. And so, today, I mourn Richard Ben Cramer’s passing like most people do, as a reader of his works, not as a friend, not as a valuable contributor to his memorable project. Others will talk and write about the marks he left on the world far more meaningfully and eloquently than I will. And that’s my loss.
Some people we miss because of the space they leave behind in our lives. Others we miss because they haunt our memories and animate our regrets. Today, I’m thinking about Richard Ben Cramer and wish that I had cared enough about myself 25 years ago to treat him and Mark Zwonitzer with the respect they deserved.
The Dark Knight Rises opens on Friday, which promises to be one of the most explicitly Nietzschean films ever produced. I’ll be excerpting some of Nietzsche‘s most telling quotes about masks this week to set the stage, then will have a series of essays this weekend to spell out my theory.
Here’s the first take, from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy:
But suppose we disregard the character of the hero as it comes to the surface visibly – after all, it is in the last analysis nothing but a bright image projected on a dark wall, which means appearance through and through; suppose we penetrate into the myth that projects itself in these lucid reflections: then we suddenly experience a phenomenon that is just the opposite of a familiar optical phenomenon. When after a forceful attempt to gaze on the sun we turn away blinded, we see dark-colored spots before our eyes, as a cure, as it were. The bright image projections of the Sophoclean hero – in short, the Apollonian aspect of the mask – are necessary effects to glance to the insides and terrors of nature; as it were, luminous spots to cure eyes damaged by the gruesome night.
After dancing around the periphery of amor fati for several sections, Nietzsche gets to the core issue in Gay Science 290 in one of his most profound statements. He starts by describing precisely what it means to look retrospectively upon your life and to embrace it willingly:
To “give style” to one’s character— a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.
This is extraordinarily difficult for me. I saw a glimpse of myself from a couple weeks ago in my kids’ pictures today and thought that I looked terrible and needed to lose weight, even though I’m in the middle of half marathon training and know that I’m making rapid progress. My confidence took an immediate drop and when I looked in the mirror next, I did so with a far more critical eye than I have of late.
The same is true when I receive critical responses to something I’ve written or have an opinion shot down. My old boss Doug Wilder was fond of saying “I never succumb to flattery, because criticism might crush me.” Good advice, perhaps, but I do succumb to flattery, from others and myself, and can easily be crushed by criticism.
So it is a great and rare art to be able to view ones weaknesses honestly and to delight in them. I don’t think that I have the strength for that. The best I can do is see these weaknesses and passing faults that I can address. I can become healthier, I can write better, I can think more clearly. But while Nietzsche would agree that we’re all in a constant state of becoming, I don’t think amor fati has room for the kind of self criticism that is second nature to me.
Later on, Nietzsche explains why it’s necessary to become completely satisfied with yourself — even your worst moments and greatest weaknesses:
For one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold. Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims, if only by having to endure his ugly sight. For the sight of what is ugly makes one bad and gloomy.
I can’t argue with anything Nietzsche has to say here, it describes me well. When I focus on my faults and on my weaknesses, rather than my opportunities for growth, I become gloomy. My revenge is usually turned back on myself in the form of depression and anxiety (which I think bears some interesting resemblances to Nietzsche’s descriptions of the ascetic ideal), but I’m prone to lashing out and taking revenge like anyone else as well.
Being depressed and ill spirited infects those around you, creating a cycle of negativity. The only way to pull yourself out of it is to create a cycle of positive growth, good moods leading to good behavior, creating improvement in the traits and behaviors that contribute to the depression, making you a more pleasant person to be around and someone with less drive to lash out at others.
Creating this cycle of growth takes many forms — today, antidepressants are frequently prescribed. Different forms of therapy can have positive results. For some, merely starting new habits, such as an exercise regimen or a new diet can begin a positive cycle. Perhaps most useful of all is to take on a new personal project that focuses your energies in a positive way.
Because Nietzsche’s philosophy is first and foremost biography, I believe that what he’s describing with amor fati is his own method for avoiding depression, and it’s by far the most complete method that I’ve encountered. Nietzsche advocates an all-of-the-above approach, stuffing in as many positive behaviors as possible while at the same time coming to complete peace with yourself, past and present.
He’s considered a philosopher, but I think Nietzsche is better described as a wisdom psychologist. Embracing amor fati is part of my own therapy. It’s difficult, but it’s working for now.
UPDATE: I feel the need to add on a bit, because I didn’t address the deeper, more difficult aspect of amor fati above. It’s one thing to offer a way to break a depressive cycle, quite another to offer a lifelong strategy for avoiding future depression and to keeping a cheerful outlook on life.
A great failing of the contemporary mental health profession, in my opinion, is this assumption that there’s a steady state out there than can be attained once the fog of depression lifts. Sure, patients may get “maintenance level” doses of anti-depressants and semi-regular therapy, but these are just safety nets, they are not a prescription for avoiding a depressive syndrome.
Nietzsche takes a far more radical approach, built on his concept of will to power. In this context, will to power means that there is a constant internal struggle in life between various drives. To pretend that there’s a steady state is to not intervene in this struggle, to let the dominant drives take control. So if your propensity is to gain weight, without intervention, you’ll gain weight. If your propensity is to spend time at work at the expense of your family, you’ll do that.
This is obviously a vast oversimplification of Nietzsche, there’s far more to it and, as Richard Rorty wrote, success in this venture requires an individual to become a poet and invent a new language:
The process of coming to know oneself, confronting one’s contingency, tracking one’s causes home, is identical with the process of inventing a new language – that is, of thinking up some new metaphors. For any literal description of one’s individuality, which is to say any use of an inherited language-game for this purpose, will necessarily fail … To fail as a poet – and thus, for Nietzsche, to fail as a human being – is to accept somebody else’s description of oneself, to execute a previously prepared program, to write, at most, elegant variations on previously written poems. So the only way to trace home the causes of one’s being as one is would be to tell a story about one’s causes in a new language.
Again, this is an extraordinarily difficult task. No matter how simple amor fati may appear on the surface, Nietzsche didn’t speak of an overman lightly … to succeed in his mission is nearly impossible and as I’ll write in future essays, what he’s really asking of his readers is to emulate Samuel Beckett and learn to fail better.
Nietzsche observes, with great hope, that a new world of philosophy stands to be discovered just as the Americas was discovered. Or to paraphrase Lisa Simpson, maybe philosophers will discover something millions of people had already experienced:
What is needful is not pity for them. We must learn to abandon this arrogant fancy, however long humanity has hitherto spent learning and practicing it. What these people need is not confession, conjuring of souls, and forgiveness of sins; what is needful is a new justice! And a new watchword. And new philosophers. The moral earth, too, is round. The moral earth, too, has its antipodes. The antipodes, too, have the right to exist. There is yet another world to be discovered—and more than one. Embark, philosophers!
It’s tempting to make fun of this quest, noting that philosophers haven’t just failed to discover new continents since Nietzsche, they’ve lost the ability to navigate. But in fact there are philosophers who agree with what Nietzsche has to say here and share his optimism. Derek Parfit, for example, writes in conclusion of Reasons and Persons:
There could clearly be higher achievements in the struggle for a wholly just world-wide community: And there could be higher achievements in all of the Arts and Sciences. But the progress could be greatest in what is now the least advanced of these Arts or Sciences. This, I have claimed, is Non-Religious Ethics. Belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning. Disbelief in God, openly admitted by a majority, is a recent event, not yet completed. Because this event is so recent, Non-Religious Ethics is at a very early stage. We cannot yet predict whether, as in Mathematics, we will all reach agreement. Since we cannot know how Ethics will develop, it is not irrational to have high hopes.
In America, as Charles Taylor has noted, you cannot argue that there is a majority who openly admit a disbelief in God. But my theory is that this is not the greatest impediment to the new ethical optimism of Nietzsche and Parfit. The real barrier to ethical progress is the widespread belief that values are determined solely and purely by economic markets. As Michael Sandel noted in his book The Moral Limits of Markets:
Putting a price on the good things in life can corrupt them. That’s because markets don’t only allocate goods; they also express and promote certain attitudes toward the goods being exchanged. Paying kids to read books might get them to read more, but also teach them to regard reading as a chore rather than a source of intrinsic satisfaction. Auctioning seats in the freshman class to the highest bidders might raise revenue but also erode the integrity of the college and the value of its diploma. Hiring foreign mercenaries to fight our wars might spare the lives of our citizens but corrupt the meaning of citizenship. Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods they exchange. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.
The values of the marketplace have taken the nihilism that Nietzsche described to heights that even he could not comprehend. Slavoj Zizek describes our current predicament beautifully when discussing last summer’s riots in London:
The protesters, though underprivileged and de facto socially excluded, weren’t living on the edge of starvation. People in much worse material straits, let alone conditions of physical and ideological oppression, have been able to organise themselves into political forces with clear agendas. The fact that the rioters have no programme is therefore itself a fact to be interpreted: it tells us a great deal about our ideological-political predicament and about the kind of society we inhabit, a society which celebrates choice but in which the only available alternative to enforced democratic consensus is a blind acting out. Opposition to the system can no longer articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project, but can only take the shape of a meaningless outburst. What is the point of our celebrated freedom of choice when the only choice is between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence?
I contend that we have reached an age far more dangerous that Nietzsche envisioned — one where religious values are still de jure arbiters of society, while the de facto morality has become the market itself. At the moment we’re engaged in a U.S. Presidential election that has the feel of something important, yet is far too small for our times. Does anyone doubt that no matter who wins this race (and God help us if it all ends much like the 2000 race) that the opponents will merely take to the streets in 2013? And these street protests will have nothing to do with policy, they will just be more spasms of anger, more meaningless outbursts.
In an age when economic growth is considered the only genuine good — and that good is in limited supply and skewed heavily to a tiny fragment of society — what other choice does the public have? Yes, embark philosophers on this new moral continent. But don’t fool yourselves thinking that religious morality is your foe. Your real enemy is the idea that everything has a price.
Nietzsche envisioned a future for humanity where, through culture and evolution, people would be able to live with constant elevated moods:
To be a human being with one elevated feeling—to be a single great mood incarnate—that has hitherto been a mere dream and a delightful possibility; as yet history does not offer us any certain examples. Nevertheless history might one day give birth to such people …
So far history has not created these permanent moods, but perhaps science might. I imagine a time in the not-too-distant future, perhaps even today, where a man suffering from depression takes an experimental drug that elevates his mood, but with a strange side effect: every beautiful woman he sees touches off the feeling of love at first sight.
He walks through the city in a state of eternal bliss, drunk with all the beauty around him. Over time he notices that this feeling of love at first sight doesn’t require an object, it’s with him constantly. The feeling we yearn for most in life, that joy of being connected with pure beauty and in sync with perfect love is his constant companion.
But this bliss becomes strangely vacant because he occupies this state alone. There is no genuine love or connection, just the brain chemistry of happiness. Is this man alive? Is his happiness real?
In the end we discover that, in the drug experiment, the man was taking a placebo. Nietzsche would tell us that God was the placebo. But does that make the joy he experienced any less real?
Nietzsche frequently takes breaks in his writing to remind his readers that his philosophical path is not for everyone. I continue to wrestle with questions like whether it’s possible to be a liberal Nietzschean and whether you can have a traditional family life and follow the Nietzschean way. I’ll have much more to say about these questions as this series continues.
Today he poses a different challenge:
Here are hopes; but what will you hear and see of them if you have not experienced splendor, ardor, and dawns in your own souls?
What Nietzsche is describing here is an artistic temperament, the ability to see beautiful and to feel deeply. If you lack the artistic temperament, then you’re not a good candidate for his philosophy and you’ll never be one of the Hyperboreans.
That’s simple enough, but I’ve had an experience that brings some contemporary depth to this challenge. While on the anti-depressant Lexapro, I’ve sometimes had the feeling of non-contextual elation. It’s not a feeling of being buzzed, drunk or stoned, it’s a very specific feeling — very much like love at first sight.
That sounds wonderful and for awhile it is, but over time it becomes increasingly strange because there’s no new object for this elation and it’s not possible to consciously fake the feeling.
So let me invert Nietzsche’s proposition — what if you feel splendor, ardor and dawns in your existence, but the feelings are artificially stimulated? Do these experiences raise consciousness or numb us to genuine experience? And since, for Nietzsche, suffering is a necessary component for creativity and striving toward goals, might these feelings annihilate the will to power?
One other question I’d like to raise: is it possible that human moods come first with the actions and human associations we ascribe to them actually found after the fact? Do moods drive us towards connections and actions that bring coherence to our feelings?
I’ve ruminated on this fragment (Gay Science 285) for a few days now, because I haven’t been able to crack it. On the surface, it seems like something out of Zarathustra. I’ve thought about whether the translation is off and whether it might be more lyrical in German. I’ve even considered skipping it, because it’s yet another Christian denunciation fragment and a relatively weak one at that.
Nietzsche advised his readers to take in his aphorisms slowly and I can see why after reading this one over several times. The key phrases do not immediately jump out, but here, after several lines from an interlocutor warning what’s lost when Christianity is renounced, Nietzsche lays it down:
Man of renunciation, all this you wish to renounce? Who will give you the strength for that? Nobody yet has had this strength!
This reminds me of the most frequent criticism of Sartre‘s existentialism, that no one has the strength to carry its heavy burden where every choice in life becomes a test of good faith and authenticity. It also reminds me of the Nirvana song “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” specifically the line “I miss the comfort in being sad.” Self overcoming takes courage. Sometimes what seems like misery can appear, in retrospect, to be an evasion — loneliness and melancholy can be like security blankets that permit you to stay safe and comforted. When in that state, no one feels strong enough to break free.
Nietzsche answers this challenge with the most Christ-like form of discourse, a parable:
There is a lake that one day ceased to permit itself to flow off; it formed a dam where it had hitherto off; and ever since this lake is rising higher and higher. Perhaps this very renunciation will also lend us the strength needed to bear this renunciation; perhaps man will rise ever higher as soon as he ceases to flow out into a god.
It’s only by giving up comforts, not just Christianity, but also material comfort, psychic comfort, anything that promises continuing inner peace, ultimate wisdom and power, that humans can ultimately bear the burden of lives inevitably filled with perpetual conflict. Nietzsche believes that this conflict is the nature of existence. The will to power is a desire for endless conflict and (unsatisfactory, regardless of outcome) resolution, leading to more conflict. It’s in this act of striving where people are most happy.
Amor fati is an acceptance of this conflict and an understanding that you’ll make mistakes and will suffer defeat and embarrassment along the way. Accept these defeats and continue struggling. This will make you stronger and will push you to greater struggles, which increases your joy and your desire for the eternal return of everything in life, especially the moments of greatest striving.
Having completed a lengthy, in-depthy survey of Montaigne, I’ve come to appreciate most of all the French essayist’s persistent skepticism. Montaigne’s call to reserve judgment and to declare “what do I know?” in most situations is refreshing given our know-it-all opinionated culture.
Nietzsche suggests in this fragment that this skepticism might stand in conflict with an amor fati approach to life — that one must own his or her thoughts and beliefs and promote them vigorously:
Everything good, fine, or great they do is first of all an argument against the skeptic inside them. They have to convince or persuade him, and that almost requires genius. These are the great self-dissatisfied people.
I’d like to suggest a compromise between Montaigne and Nietzsche — Montaigne’s view is appropriate for the democratic masses who must learn to absorb and integrate information from a wide variety of actors and voices. Having an open mind as a democratic actor is an appropriate response.
But for the leaders and innovators of a culture, such skepticism is a hindrance. The great have to put this skepticism beside and push heroically into the void, knowing full well that they might be wrong. Convincing yourself that these actions are correct is a form of genius and Nietzsche suggests elsewhere that all forms of philosophy are biography in disguise. To philosophize is to challenge the inner skeptic, to take a stand for reason in a universe where reason rarely prevails.