Something is About to Happenby Nick Pappas
Although it feels irrelevant to contemplate Nietzsche’s prophetic writings in the weeks after September 11th, especially sitting where the World Trade Center’s shadows used to be, it also has a reassuring effect. Partly this is because he seems so good at describing the present. As contradictory interpretations of the attack hustle for our attention, Nietzsche speaks of the modern age as a proliferation of values, ontologies, and interpretations of the world.
What’s even more reassuring is Nietzsche’s delight about the centuries ahead, whereas our anxiety over the U.S. military actions and terror at the thought of more attacks make next week look like a threat and “next year” sound as though it will always have quotation marks around it. Nietzsche can’t wait for the future. He gleefully sees morality perishing two hundred years down the line. He calls on everyone who loves the human species to help create a new kind of philosopher who knows how to think. Forget the sorry present and don’t lose heart over past disasters.
What’s curious is that Nietzsche doesn’t make any actual predictions. Just wait, he says, when things get really different they will sure be weird. He does announce that morality will perish, but since he thinks we really don’t know what morality is, that’s being handed to us as a message we can’t read. In the Genealogy of Morals, he calls the bad conscience an illness, “as pregnancy is an illness”: this both says that guilt makes you feel uncomfortable and walk funny, which makes clear enough sense, and presages a new birth of human possibilities, which means almost nothing.
Nietzsche would say he’s being as specific as he can. If he described the future more explicitly we couldn’t understand him. We have no words for prophetic communication when the future promises to be so different that the present’s words don’t capture it.
But how does that work? Have words been left out of our vocabulary? Is this like someone in the 1880s foreseeing Reese’s Pieces or Palm Pilots and not knowing how to pass the vision along?
And if it is about not having the words to describe the future, then what’s a reader supposed to do with empty hopefulness from the nineteenth century? Nietzsche didn’t know about airplanes and skyscrapers, and he wasn’t talking about that kind of thing anyway. But that’s the future that has turned out to matter, not some imaginary life that lies beyond words.
Maybe Nietzsche’s expectations seem beside the point because of the unsavory doctrines connected with his name. You might imagine him saying that the gloriously heartless morality of the masters fell to cunning slave morality and must return; and healthier human animals once lived sensually in the moment, before sliding into guilt, self-denial, neurotic monotheism—all of which it’s now time to sweep away.
Whether or not Nietzsche thinks such happy humans ever did populate the past, they are not his vision of the future. If he gets nostalgic about the carefree violence of ancient days, he also deflates his own nostalgia. The masters may have been happy and strong, but their dullness made them fragile, too. They never understood the world they lived in. The guilty conscience may lash the human animal from the inside (doubling the surface area available to be whipped), but it also gives the animal an inside it never had before and the promise of developing into something better.
Anyway, it’s misleading to call modern culture an example of slave morality as opposed to master morality, guilt as opposed to its absence, ascetic idealism as opposed to art. Nietzsche sees moderns as palimpsests who’ve been written on in different languages, at different times, for different purposes: there’s humility in them but also nobility; a bit of responsibility and a dose of guilt; religious faith and trust in science on one hand, art-loving on the other. “We modern men […] are determined…by different moralities,” is what he says in Beyond Good and Evil (all translations by Walter Kaufmann); “our actions shine alternately in different colors, they are rarely univocal”. Prehistory is “present in all ages,” not because humans don’t change but because they change by adding values and practices to the ones they already have. Even if moralities once existed in pure form they’re mixed together now; and mongrels come from thoroughbreds, not the other way around.
Beyond Good and Evil, subtitled Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, is the book in which Nietzsche most often looks ahead toward the “exceptional human beings” he’s waiting for, reckless philosophers he calls experiments. “Many generations must have labored to prepare the origin of the philosopher,” and he considers his book part of the labor.
Given words like “generation” and “labor,” it’s not surprising to find Beyond Good and Evil circling around the topic of procreation, the business of where these new philosophers are going to come from; only procreation turns out not to mean what you think. Nietzsche helps himself to the language of birth and pregnancy but he makes it metaphorical. A genius is “one who either begets or gives birth, taking both terms in their most elevated sense,” he says—and the emphasis is his, pointing with both hands at the biological language at the same time that he denies its biological meaning. In another place, back on the subject of geniuses, Nietzsche says that there is “one which above all begets and wants to beget, and another which prefers being fertilized and giving birth.”
These are the kinds of sentences that frustrate Nietzsche’s readers, as they are full of language that keeps promising to cut through the philosophers’ intellectualism—language of sex and pregnancy, of domination, violence, exploitation—and then winds up being strictly figurative. Nietzsche worries the problem of a future being but won’t talk about the reproduction path to that being. When he says he wants “giving birth” to have an elevated sense, he sounds too squeamish to think about the unelevated sense of the process.
Take the comments about women in Beyond Good and Evil: for all Nietzsche’s sarcasm about romance and the sexual fulfillment that he sees feminists demanding “with medical explicitness,” he barely acknowledges the biological outcome of women’s relationship to men. All this “sex” and hardly a word about babies. When he does mention children he speaks respectfully of their mothers, but only as they figure in their children’s lives, men and reproduction having been shuffled offstage.
Nietzsche’s silence about reproduction could be laughed off as pathological if it weren’t so relevant to his promises about future human beings. Whether or not his silence is a symptom, it’s also a gap in his reasoning. If he refuses to talk about birth and babies, except in the “elevated sense” of the words, then where does he expect the future to come from?
What Nietzsche does wind up talking about in Beyond Good and Evil are not individual births but patterns of birth, populations that either remain pure or mingle, stand firm under siege or achieve enough prosperity to loosen up and become diverse. Sometimes the terminology is genetic, and he seems to be peddling nineteenth-century racial theories:
In an age of disintegration that mixes races indiscriminately, human beings have in their bodies the heritage of multiple origins, that is, opposite, and often not merely opposite, drives and value standards that fight each other and rarely permit each other any rest. Such human beings of late cultures and refracted lights will on the average be weaker human beings.
But just when you think you’re hearing another repellant coot grouse about miscegenation, Nietzsche twists the gloomy forecast around:
When the opposition and war in such a nature have the effect of one more charm and incentive…then those magical, incomprehensible, and unfathomable ones arise, those enigmatic men predestined for victory and seduction...They appear in precisely the same ages when that weaker type with its desire for rest comes to the fore: both types belong together and owe their origin to the same causes.
Ethnic, social, and racial mixing is the problem but also its own solution. Which type emerges is a matter of chance—another reason why Nietzsche won’t pin his predictions down.
The diversity in a civilization doesn’t have to depend on genetics. It can happen when a culture escapes poverty and permanent warfare: “A type becomes fixed and strong through the long fight with essentially constant unfavorable conditions”: so purity of hardship accomplishes as much as purity of pedigree. “Conversely,” he writes, “we know from the experience of breeders that species accorded superabundant nourishment…soon tend most strongly toward variations of the type and become rich in marvels and monstrosities.” Whether variation comes from parentage or comfort, it will yield odder specimens both good and bad.
I started out naming another variation that has been in New York’s air, which is the range of interpretation of the attack on the Trade Center. One example: George W. Bush immediately called the attack “cowardly.” Within a week Michael Wolff replied in New York magazine that whatever driving an airplane into a building may be, it’s not cowardly; Susan Sontag said more acidly in the New Yorker that the cowardice was American and anyway that courage is “morally neutral.” These distinct assessments of a single fact begin not as anyone’s mistake but in the distinct ideas of courage in different traditions and histories. When Nietzsche says that we are determined “by different moralities,” he is describing a circumstance in which all three judgments are using the word correctly. For one form that variation takes is jumbled moral discourse. Nietzsche says that under harsh conditions that don’t let a species vary, language too tends toward uniformity. Communication is transparent. “The greater the danger is, the greater is the need to reach agreement quickly and easily about what must be done.” When conditions permit people to deviate from the norm, so does their language.
Modern moral psychology, for instance, is the legacy of antiquity and Christianity, industrialized capitalism, but also a century’s worth of psychological science. So “courage” does mean (as the president meant when he denied it to America’s attackers) a state identical with all other virtues, including philanthropy and peaceableness. And it means (what Wolff seems to have had in mind) one virtue separate from the others, associated with pride and persistence; and it’s something you can describe without moral theories (Sontag’s view), a condition neither praised nor blamed in which one does not let fear inhibit action.
As I read Nietzsche, the future begins not so much when odd specimens are born as when formerly unnoticed cases, people of odd sentiment and insight, play with the distance between what they mean and what everybody else is saying. The future will differ from the past not because of any facts you can guess in advance—the disappearance of morality is not a fact—but because the existing facts turn out to fit new interpretation. The guilty conscience used to be thought of as the perception of something wrong you had done, but now the joke is that you can also call it the expression of great inner power; and so on.
Call this a future in which morality shades into a parody of itself, and the future burbles along still looking further ahead, pretending nothing has happened. (Something is always about to happen.) There’s a side of Nietzsche, the buffoon in him, who teases that future along by mocking the complacent moral vocabulary of the present. This quotable Nietzsche is hard at work in Beyond Good and Evil, a book obsessed with tossing our moral vocabulary around until it kaleidoscopes into bright new colors. A certain kind of wisecrack pervades the book:
A curiosity of my type remains after all the most agreeable of vices—sorry, I meant to say: the love of truth has its reward in heaven and even on earth – […]
English happiness—I mean…comfort and fashion.
We are accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.
Nietzsche has not avoided discussing literal pregnancy and parturition out of squeamishness, but because literal talk is not what we need. The facts are as they will be, only needing the right new words to describe them; and the right new words are the same old jokes we know, but in the hands of a joker. Nietzsche wanted to take begetting and giving birth in their most elevated sense because they are metaphorical means of reproduction that make new metaphors. You can’t predict what the new parodies will be without inventing them, so it’s natural that he doesn’t try to describe the future (which will be the future of the language and the language of the future).
I started this piece with a couple of ideas in mind about Nietzsche, sex, and metaphor. After the World Trade Center’s destruction I wondered if the subject needed writing about. Why not put it off at a time like this?
On the other hand I didn’t want to write about the attack. I lived two blocks from the towers with my five-year-old-daughter when they collapsed. My family spent three weeks with friends before we could move back home; so my general thoughts about September 11th come with associations that are just my own and shouldn’t especially interest anyone else.
Still the disaster keeps seeping into our thoughts about every other subject; why not into a meditation on morality and prophecy? (I am writing before we see the ultimate effects of the World Trade Center attack, and with no desire to predict them.) Nietzsche kids about moral parody, but that doesn’t mean he’s not scared of it. And suppose the conditions for parodic moral discourse arrived but were not at all funny. Suppose the distractedness we’re seeing around town—people cooking meals and changing the oil and going to the movies, but as if putting those actions within quotation marks—suppose you called this state parodic. Can it be that our shock takes this form because such devastation requires an unambiguous reply, but our moral language can’t stand the strain? In that case even sincere efforts to speak morally will mock the possibility of moral discourse, the way it would mock ethical reasoning to ask Ted Bundy (no matter how sincere you were), “What if everyone did that?” or “How would you like it if someone did that to you?” The fervency of the response fails; or rather, fervency of feeling does not guarantee fervency of response if the response has no words to express itself with.
Imagine that not just some of the songs you grew up loving (“Space Oddity,” “Revolution”) had been sold to commercials, but all of them. The music that read your mind and spoke it now stands for ginger ale and arch supports—which is funny, but coldly funny; and these are only songs. Nietzsche is picturing that kind of future for the most serious words we know. No wonder he warned that he was talking about “the most terrifying, most questionable…of spectacles.” He envisioned a time when “Resume normal activities” would be a sentence that slipped around on the reality it tried to grip and sounded like a joke just waiting for a punch line; also a time when military attacks have been codenamed “Operation Infinite Justice” because “justice” without a high-intensity modifier doesn’t sound like enough. I can understand him now, though I still don’t get why he called this state “perhaps also the most hopeful of spectacles.” In fact that line sounds more glib than ever—and Nietzsche on the whole sounds more glib than ever—but maybe this is just a sign that I should stop writing, before my desire to spank Nietzsche with a few hard moralistic words tricks me into making an inadvertent joke of the last serious words I have to reach for.
NICK PAPPAS teaches Philosophy at City College of New York. He is currently working on a book on the nature of cause and effect in Nietchzes writing.