Trialogue on Nietzsche

Moses May Hobbs, Bruno Lindan, & James Soderholm

JS: We have been discussing the Eternal Return and amor fati and how Nietzsche uses these ideas. And then Camus’s Sisyphus entered the picture. Camus’s famous last words—‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’—have been annoying me for a long time. How and why, exactly, is Sisyphus reconciled to—even happy about—his miserably recurring fate, and does that happiness have anything to do with amor fati and the Eternal Return? Nietzsche somehow manages not merely to endure his suffering and pain but to affirm them. Is that because he is also an artist—a literary philosopher who writes using different styles—who has the drive and talent to transmute suffering into tragic wisdom, and tragic wisdom into one book after another? I suppose these questions matter to me because when I first read about ‘the greatest weight’ (the test of the Eternal Return) it knocked me down for days and days. Would I be happy to live my life over and over again, eternally, down to the smallest detail? The question rather horrifies me. But it also makes me want to ram as much pleasure into every moment as I possibly can. Nietzsche—and Camus—manage to love even the horrible bits, the pain, the suffering. I cannot get my head around that.

MMH: There is certainly a remarkable parallel between the ideas of amor fati and Sisyphus’ happiness. Neither explores objective truth or reality: Camus, rather than stating that Sisyphus is happy, instead implores us to imagine so; similarly, Nietzsche does not assert that fate is intrinsically good so that we might love it, instead he elects to love fate in spite of what it might truly be like. However, the reasons for loving fate and life proposed by the two ideas differ fundamentally; Nietzsche proposes that one must love fate or else resign oneself to nihilism, whereas Camus proposes that the struggle of life and its hardships (constant and eternal hardship in the case of Sisyphus) lends living inherent joy. If anything Sisyphus’ happiness is rather less extreme than amor fati, and perhaps also more realistic, as it does not suggest that we love all of fate (even and especially as Nietzsche would say, pain and suffering), rather that suffering and struggle contains an aspect of joy which gives meaning to existence. It is in this distinction that Nietzsche’s own life is most relevant, as his experience of intense suffering allowed him to more readily welcome pain itself, rather than the accompanying joy which Camus emphasises. As to the relation of this to Nietzsche as an artist I am less sure, as his use of art to escape reality seems at odds with tragic wisdom – how does Nietzsche reconcile “We have art in order not to die of the truth” with tragic wisdom and the love of all aspects of fate?

BL: Both Camus and Nietzsche begin their analyses with the thesis that the world lacks inherent value, the concepts of the 'death of God' and the 'absurd' both entailing that we are incapable of transcending our existence - the task is to recognise what does and does not follow from this premise. Nihilists might seduce us into believing that it demands a certain way of living (or, rather, not living), though it seems that Camus and Nietzsche both assert an altogether more unsettling conclusion, namely that we cannot deduce anything at all - we are not compelled by any higher logic. The question of what to do becomes in essence a question of unguided choice - every why? can be a why not?. The notion of the eternal recurrence might seem to extrapolate the meaninglessness of existence to what Nietzsche views as its logical terminus - he says to the universe 'your work here is not finished', renders his existence as futile as it can be, stripping his actions of uniqueness, and then says - 'still I will love my fate'. In fact, it seems that something precedes amor fati, namely the choice to life immanently, which then entails the stance - Nietzsche wants to embrace the world as it is; where "truth" is such a world, art is the ultimate affirmation, since it takes our joy and our suffering and immortalises them, makes them eternal - we do not die of the truth precisely because we embrace it through art. But - why must we love fate to affirm life? Camus declares that life is valuable to us because "to say that life is absurd, consciousness must be alive" - our choice to continue existing affirms life. Can we not reason that Nietzsche's amor fati is inherently passive? Now that God is dead, we face the truth - our powerlessness - why accept it in the sense of not seeking to change it, why live as though we have chosen it? Nietzsche's critique of 'slave morality' hinges on the accusation that Christian virtues are really inescapable circumstances qua virtues - yet why does this not entail rejecting amor fati? "Human insurrection... is only, and can only be, a prolonged protest against death" - does amor fati entail willing self-restraint, and, if so, oughtn't we live as though we were free? Should we love life but not fate?

JS: I think God’s being dead—and our having killed him—delivers us completely into the will to power and its affirmation in and through creating great artistic masterpieces, including the masterpiece called ‘life’, if that is what we will. Nietzsche’s inspiring madman says:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

How do you two respond to this attempt to surpass or transcend atonement in order to invent new games, to become god-like—at once creature and creator—in order to take our lives, at long last, in our own, shaping hands? Is that attempt welded to the eternal return or to amor fati? What supreme moments of joy can there be in our lives, Nietzsche seems to say, until we get beyond God, Western metaphysics and the perception of ourselves as the victims of previous values rather than as the creators of new ones? And how can we get beyond merely passive suffering and pain in order to see in them the resources from which we re-create ourselves and great deeds? I wonder if Nietzsche thought that his creating ‘Zarathustra’ was itself a new language game (so to speak) that puts us beyond good and evil and therefore beyond Judeo-Christian mortality.

MMH: Perhaps it is the duality of creature and creator that best explains the apparent inconsistency of eternal recurrence and of the passage “The Greatest Weight”; the passage seems to simultaneously recommend living joyfully, with the prospect of eternal recurrence as the greatest weight upon your actions, and living as before – loving fate instead of changing it. If, upon the death of God, we are considered to be both creatures and creators, the resolution to this apparent contradiction might be that different courses of action are prescribed within the same passage – ourselves as creators should live joyfully, attempting to influence fate, thus accepting the mantle of greatness left from the death of God; as creatures however we must love the fate created by the creator, much as before in a world with God, using the possibility of eternal recurrence to strip the actions of ourselves as creatures of the weight put upon us as creators. As to the problem of becoming Gods ourselves, making ourselves worthy of the murder of God in the process, Nietzsche’s love of art and role as an artist appears to be his supposed solution. Art (including Zarathustra), which does not purport to offer a traditional moral message is the mechanism, Nietzsche seems to suggest, by which we might move beyond the death of God, allowing us to reach a point where tragic wisdom and amor fati can define us, rather than God or transcendental comforts. Art in Nietzsche’s eyes seems to hold a similar role to the absurd for Camus, as a marker of consciousness and as evidence of our ascendance to Godhood, but is also vital to Nietzsche’s personal love of fate. To make art of his own suffering allows Nietzsche to welcome the demon and affirm all, the process of making fate art is both loving that fate and accepting tragedy – thus Nietzsche reconciles amor fati and tragic wisdom with his own life and the death of God, but in doing so does he not act much like the Christian: making virtue of necessity?

BL: As is often the case with Nietzsche's equivocal rhetoric, I wonder if there is a feasible alternative interpretation of his declaration of God's death - it seems that it might be a test of the same nature as the Eternal Recurrence. "How shall we comfort ourselves", "what sacred games shall we have to invent" - are we not, we post-Christians, striving to live in the world as it is? We speak of the alleged duality of creature and creator, though are we not now neither - must we not "become who we are"? We are Zarathustra's 'child', now crafting our own values, so are we to try to become godlike ourselves to be worthy of the murder of God? The death of God permeates more deeply than simply the decline of one particular 'transcendental' system of belief - it signifies the collapse of the entire notion of the 'transcendental', the death of absolute or divine authority over the individual - personal and moral. Hence, to require ourselves to be gods to justify the murder contradicts the very essence of the act - the death of God is a realisation of the essential emptiness of the universe, the vast chasm between will and world - the absurd. This encounter with the absurd will impel us not to the creation of a replacement, not to regret, not pity - the deed's 'greatness' withers as we become more and more assured that we do not in fact need God - its 'greatness' precedes it, but upon its eventual occurrence, dissipates. The passage seems to be a taunt, testing if we have actually escaped transcendence, simultaneously an expression of the fear of nihilism in the wake of God's death, and the necessity that we surpass our fixation with it. However, the very process of evading and eliminating the 'transcendental' seems like it might be doomed to fail - are we too unstable, too fearful of the truth that we must always create some comfort for ourselves? Now alone, can we truly begin to surpass these tendencies? Have they not emerged from some intrinsic part of our being, but merely from the inescapable circumstance of lack of knowledge? Now that we are more aware and possess a greater understanding of the universe than ever before, can we begin the journey to the superman that had for so long been prevented by the chokehold of divine authority?

JS: Raised by strict Lutherans—including a clerical father he truly loved—Nietzsche must have found it both devastating and liberating to get beyond the ‘metaphysical comfort’ available to all Christians and others who look to a transcendental realm for meaning. That ‘choke-hold of divine authority’ still grips entire nations and I think Nietzsche would be stunned by how many people in our time continue to be asphyxiated by God, or Allah, or Whomever. And yet one can gently sympathise with the need—even the demand—to find meaning in life to avoid the embarrassing absurdity of existence. To engage in philology and philosophy takes work and it is far easier to rest content with previous values and beliefs. Rejecting his religion, a young Nietzsche writes to his pious sister, Elizabeth: ‘Hence the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.’ He will spend the next two decades demolishing metaphysics and religious values. In The Gay Science (This Joyful Wisdom is the better translation) Nietzsche says, ‘Not a day goes by that I do not lop off some comforting belief’. Most people do not amputate themselves in order to be devotees of truth. I think there often is a kind of taunting—or teasing?—braggadocio in Nietzsche’s tone. But can you goad people out of Plato’s Cave or Christian dogma? I suppose Zarathustra is leading by example. Nietzsche amputated his way to the truth and ended up calling that truth ‘the will to power’, a much-maligned and misunderstood expression. I think Alexander Nehamas’ book has persuaded me that ‘the will to power’ must be linked to Nietzsche’s project of aesthetic self-fashioning, reading his own ‘Life as Literature’. That way one can author one’s own meanings and effectively replace God as a creator. But how difficult it is to think of one’s life as an emerging work of art—that takes enormous work and most people are enormously lazy. Is nihilism, like belief, a form of sloth?

MMH: Nihilism seems to occupy two roles in Nietzsche’s work: the first is as an enemy, a state of mental and artistic stagnation that one must strive against, in which sense nihilism is indeed a sign of laziness; the other is as a test, one of the two conditions that must be avoided in any proposed approach to life – in which sense nihilism is a vital instrument to Nietzsche, following the death of God, whatever new “sacred games” we invent must avoid both transcendental comforts and nihilism. Nietzsche’s pride about stripping himself of comforting beliefs is a part of this search passing the aforementioned tests. If one can “lop off” all comforting beliefs and become a devotee of truth without falling into the clutches of nihilism, Nietzsche seems to say, then one has survived the death of God and all transcendental beliefs; this is the tragic wisdom that Nietzsche brags he alone is in possession of. The perception of one’s own ‘Life as Literature’ however, fills another void left by the death of God; if all transcendental systems and their accompanying senses of morality are gone, we must signal our having moved ’beyond good and evil’ or else choose nihilism or religion. The acceptance of life as art does exactly this, by defining our lives by artistic merit rather than by morality and probability of transcending, we prove our worthiness of killing God. This is done not by becoming Gods ourselves, but instead by doing away entirely with the crutch that is God (as embodied by comforting beliefs, ‘good and evil’ and transcendence). Nietzsche, in a similar vein to Camus, suggests that devoting oneself to anything other than the absurdity of existence and truth is not the discovery of meaning in life, but rather the denial of it. Nonetheless, Nietzsche himself seems to struggle with such complete acceptance, the dual pressures of amputating comforts whilst steering away from nihilism leaving but a narrow path that seems to entail intense suffering for him, providing yet another reason for Nietzsche’s emphasis on art, as a comforting truth. It still however seems impossible for us all to do as Nietzsche and amputate belief, a task made harder, not easier, by our increasing understanding of the universe – is it possible to have both scientific progress and devotion to truth simultaneously, or does the increasing clarity with which we can view the world make belief all the more necessary?

BL: It seems that the 'truth' to which Nietzsche urges us to devote ourselves, at least for our purposes of trying to reason how we ought to live, is as much an act as an end in itself, perhaps only so; perhaps a 'devotee of truth' is one who elects to 'inquire' rather than 'believe', and nothing more; perhaps living 'immanently' means no more than living with awareness of the absurd. We do not have to 'devote' ourselves to the absurd - what could possibly constitute such an act, anyway? - we must merely be aware of it. The supposed conflict between Nietzsche's ruthless version of Cartesian doubt and the need to avoid nihilism can be resolved by realising that nihilism is itself a comforting belief - it is indeed a form of laziness; nihilism in the purest sense of rejecting the notion of objective meaning is, I think, a correct conclusion to draw from the death of God, though Nietzsche seems to say that there is meaning, only we should expect to toil in order to uncover (or create?) it, rather than holding a belief that said meaning emerges from something beyond. Either stance - nihilism or religion - then, is lazy, since to endorse either one is to deny, whether by choice or ignorance, the necessity of struggle in order to find truth - this truth, though we might speculate about its nature, is something that we cannot ever truly grasp, for we are forever on the bridge from ape to ubermensch. After the death of God, the phase space (so to speak) of our possible thoughts and actions loses any inherent imbalances - each possible way of living becomes objectively 'equi-meaningful', that is, meaningless. Then, once we have accepted the death of God, we choose ourselves how to live, knowing that the only reason our own path is such is because we have willed it. I cannot see how to escape nihilism in the strict sense I have mentioned, but where nihilism is a stronger hypothesis than simply the lack of inherent meaning, then art, Nietzsche tells us, is its antidote - art is, just like truth, not so much a thing or an idea as a way of living or a state, the state of perpetually seeking to live one's life in the most fulfilling and affirming way possible. Art is an act of creation, and this creation can only be affirming in the post-God world if it is all-consuming. Thus, 'we have art in order to not die of the truth' because if we did not live our lives as art, we would not be living in acceptance of the fundamental premise of existentialism - the death of God, the absurd - and in not accepting it, it would drive us either to suicide or to "philosophical suicide", the dual enemies of nihilism and religion, both obfuscating humanity's relation to the world by claiming said relation to be comprehensible. We choose not to ignore the mountain, nor to claim we are content in the valley - we climb the mountain, and, upon realising at the summit that there is an even higher peak to climb, we continue - it is the route up that matters most.

Yet - in living an artistic (affirming) life, Nietzsche suggests we dedicate ourselves to mental toil, rid our lives of indulgences such as alcohol, and embrace solitude - but I am reminded of Bill Hicks' famous words about the world - "it's just a ride". We might delude ourselves into self-important notions of grandeur, shunning simple pleasures in pursuit of a grand ideal, but does the importance of 'devoting' one's life to truth in the Nietzschean sense (i.e. accepting his interpretation of an artistic life) rely on there being something out there, some truth, some meaning, that we might discover, might reach? Or does the death of God mean we ought to 'devote' ourselves in the way Camus wishes, pursuing art, but not shunning the things that make us happy, however simple they may be?

JS: Your combined comments on Nietzsche, nihilism, sacred games, simple pleasures and the artistic life somehow brought to mind a little poem by Philip Larkin called ‘Water’.

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Larkin often relies on religious idioms, but this poem is obviously also a Nietzschean forgetting of all the old beliefs in the cheerful construction of a new value drenched by the most elemental—and life-giving—of all things: water. I imagine that this new, invented ritual is one that we would enjoy repeating eternally—to loop back to the beginning of this trialogue. We three have been dancing around the idea that the effort to create new values is partly a ludic affair: a sacred and intoxicating form of play. Nietzsche writes: ‘We must regain the seriousness of a child at play’. Larkin plays around with religious language and then simply—almost childishly—transcends it. Poetry (from the Greek poeisis: making) is thus the opposite of nihilism. To the extent that a culture or an individual is not poetic, it relies on old values and conventional beliefs. ‘God Save the Queen’—is not a lyric or a poem or a song, on this reading, because it merely retails outdated and increasingly-implausible values. What must the British people do to get beyond threadbare platitudes and narcoleptically-nihilistic ‘songs’ that sink one into nostalgic complacency rather than raise one’s soul to a Dionysian pitch of ecstatic re-creation? Or raise one’s glass so that in it the imprismed (a word I just made up) light ‘would congregate endlessly’?

MMH: As has been established, the nostalgic, untruthful comfort of so much of what we consider art is to Nietzsche as great of an adversary as Nihilism and religion; being as it is so similar in its laziness to those other enemies of Nietzsche’s efforts. Larkin’s water is truly Nietzschean and presents yet another interpretation of Nietzsche’s devotion to truth, in that Larkin makes art not of the truth in Water, but rather he devotes himself to the truth and the invention of new games and does so artistically – much like Nietzsche. Perhaps therefore Nietzsche’s apparent bragging regarding his lopping off of comforting beliefs is in actual fact the very process he deems to be so vital to finding meaning in life. Notably, despite his ongoing devotion, Nietzsche never attempts to write the truth which he aims to discover; rather it seems that he values the process of searching for truth and making art (the apparent bragging in his writings on the matter) of the search above any attainable end goal (an idea firmly rooted in the religious ideas Nietzsche is so desperate to rid himself of). As to how we can move beyond the laziness and comfort of ‘God Save the Queen’ and become creators of true poetry, the answer would seem to lie in how we relate to outdated artistic and societal values - whilst the conservative religious believer welcomes them and the nihilist wallows in them, to create genuine art one must have no relation to these values; Nietzsche’s assertion that “looking away shall be [his] only negation” is a clear example of this approach and brings us back to Amor Fati – a (perhaps also childlike) love of any and every occurrence and an ability to move ‘beyond good and evil’. Larkin succeeds in his creation of actual poetry because he documents in Water his rejection of traditional values and comforting beliefs in favour of artistic truth, Larkin’s endless congregation of light in a glass of water is neither transcendental nor nihilistic, a game invented without the need for God or despair.

BL: As we conclude this Trialogue, can we consider ourselves better poised to tackle the problem that we commenced with - Nietzsche's daemon and his greatest weight? We have contemplated how we might live our lives in the most fulfilling way, how we might best deal with the threat of philosophical stagnation, and thus it would seem that we are now in a position to reply to the demon - yes! However, I am concerned that this would not be the fullest realisation of what we have established. The necessity to create instead of to follow or to accept yields the pursuit of art as an end; the death of God leads us to reject everything that might hold us back, everything that might bind us - the acceptance of traditional morality, the comforts of the sublime, the rejection of the synthesis of values. We seek to acknowledge all the ways in which we are imprisoned, such that we may free ourselves from them. In creating art, though, do we accept the world as it is? We have touched upon this problem - is art the embodiment of the world? Is it the opposite? The universe, stripped of God, is vast, empty, the world is harsh, apathetic - the fundamental premise that underlies this Trialogue is the absurd, our inability to meaningfully understand or affect our fate; uninhibited creativity, ludic and unceasing, is, I think, the means with which we reject it. We have considered the binary responses to the demon - answering in despair, detesting that we must repeat our lives eternally, or answering in jubilation, embracing that very necessity. Ultimately, the idea of the eternal return is a tool that we can use to transcend the need for it. We say to the demon - "whatever fate is given to me, I shall seek to fight it" - we crave no fate and reject all. The ultimate affirmation of our lives is to realise that they are irreparably divorced form the universe - they exist as relevant to us only, and thus we should seek to make them as meaningful as possible to ourselves. Whatever misery our fates may hold, we must live our lives dancing, for "the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion".