A Piece of Foreign Wisdom
Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, World Views, 345-102-MQ
When I was a young student, roaming Europe eager to flood my eyes with the beauties of past centuries, I once witnessed a peculiar encounter. Was it in France? Italy? Switzerland? Germany? No, definitely not in Germany…. I cannot recall. What I vividly remember, however, is the place where this strange meeting happened.
I had decided to exercise my modest artistic talents in some museum where I knew I could find calm, space, and a profusion of delicate, marble statues. I was well into my sketch when this most interesting character arrived, and without consideration for my endeavour, put himself right between my eternal sitter and me. This man was an alien, bent, the profile of an eagle, carrying around an old, worn-out, leather briefcase, his eyes scarcely visible behind the glitter of his small, round spectacles. I remember him so clearly because he wore the most fabulous moustache I have ever seen. In fact, his looks created such attraction that I didn’t care to mention that he was obstructing my view. It might be a lost opportunity, since my drawing was in good posture; if I may allow myself this innocent brag, never again did I replicate with such precision and intensity the lust in the gaze of those satyrs surrounding, in good bacchants, their debonair master. Nevertheless, I do not regret my silence, for when I look at this unfinished draft, I recollect the fascinating dialogue that shortly followed.
Completely absorbed in his contemplation, the first man did not look when a second one stopped near us, in front of a carefully carved Apollo. Maybe he was looking for some solace in the pagan god, since he was pallid, and his bones looked as if they were trying to come out of his skin under his long beard. His skeletal fingers were running, pen in hand, on a small notebook he had taken out of his pocket. This man was a true living dead, he seemed to come from the most remote place of the earth in quest of some comfort among the phantoms of the past. His writing frenzy must have excited the first man for he started:
—I see, sir, that you are in search for inspiration.
—In search? No, inspiration is a volatile muse that one ought to grip when she passes nearby. I always have a notebook at hand for such end.
—Ah, yes, I sometimes grapple with the white page myself, and I come here to find in the company of those fallen deities some insight on our current world. Their most fascinating aspect lies in the fact that they were once the masters of the universe, and that today they are little more than characters of folklore. Isn’t interesting that those gods are not revered today?
—Well, why would they be? The Ancients who followed them were in the wrong, weren’t they? The bests of them rest in Dante’s first circle of Hell, which, when you consider it, is not such a terrible fate for irremediably lost sheep.
—I see my good sir that you “have not yet heard anything of this, that God is dead!” (Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathoustra” 124).
—How can you utter such words without shivering of shame? Tell me, how can God be dead if his power suffuses all around us?
—Sheer illusions! People tamely drink the poison of falsities pouring from that Book they so revere.
—And I believe you, sir, possess a higher truth then…. Take care, for in following that path more than one has drowned in the filthy waters of their morbid self-admiration! (Dostoyevsky 293).
—And what, if I may ask, would be the sin in being more preoccupied by my palpable true self rather than by what you call God? What you perceive as a downfall represents for me the apex of one’s aspirations. Great is the one who looks at himself and finds within him the power to justify his life. Who is God, sir, to tell you who or what you are?
—God is an ideal, the supreme perfection whose example we must strive to follow closer. He is the cause of everything that is good, since he represents the highest value. We are imperfect beings, intoxicated by our feeling of selfishness, and restrained by the little scope of our experience and our vision. God lives through the ages, He saw everything and carries the sum of human knowledge across time. Progress can only come if we embrace His teachings, building on the basis of previous wisdom, and accepting to humbly broaden our horizon with His light, our light.
—What’s that, sir? “[T]he process of evolution does not necessarily mean elevation, enhancement, strengthening” (Nietzsche and Mencken 35). Morality, to which you refer, conveys old and dusty ideas. Surely, you don’t believe that a static knowledge coming from the depths of centuries is good to follow.
—I disagree, wisdom changes with time and each new experience. God is the origin, the reference, the sun around which gravitates our petty lives, and they ultimately merge to become one evolving morality which, nonetheless, never moves astray, for its centre is good and immutable.
—Morals change like a feather in the wind! Yesterday they were about carrying religion on the tip of a sword. Today, since the deed is done and the Christian plague covers the world, this so-called morality orders obedience and subjugation to the theologians! What did they do to deserve our respect, no! worse, our subservience, body and mind?
—Who said anything about listening to theologians? As in anything, one must discern and avoid abuses. The good coming from the relation with God can only happen if one looks in himself for His voice. Religion is about an inner dialogue and a reflection on our own values. Only by doing so can people see if they “have the right to permit [themselves a] first step” in any endeavour (Dostoyevsky 516). Transcendence exists that we cannot grasp, and we must aim to listen and understand what we can to live the best possible life. An illuminating idea travels unaltered through the centuries, reflected in the image of God, around which should revolve human activity.
—You precisely recognize the problem: this permanency of the Christian morality’s core conveys across the ages the same mud, and ceaselessly defiles the essence of humankind. Why does anyone try to follow morals? Because they fear for their “soul.” What a poisonous concept! Those ideals that you praise were “invented in order to despise the body (…) to oppose with a ghastly levity everything that deserves to be taken seriously in life” (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo 334). Instead of lifting their earthly head proudly, people pollute it with the opium of “heavenly things,” and become shadows of themselves (Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathoustra” 145). Christianity, moved by the most unfathomable hatred for existence, promises a false afterworld to destroy it. Why won’t Christians look where they walk, the trees, the birds, the shape of the wind; instead of sinking their gaze in the abyss of an illusory realm beyond the stars?
—Those are dangerous words you speak, are you not one of those nihilists?
—Never! Nihilism is Christianity in disguise (Nietzsche and Mencken); it is not well suited for those of my kind.
—And may I ask what kind is that?
—The criminal type.
—Should I be concerned, sir, when you call yourself a criminal?
—You have no reason to be. Only the weak-minded trembles in a presence such as mine, for today “[t]he criminal type is the type of the (…) strong human being made sick. (…) It is society, our tame, mediocre, emasculated society, in which a natural human being, who comes from the mountains or from the adventures of the sea necessarily degenerates into a criminal” (Nietzsche and Kaufmann 549). Christianity has the force of the number to impose on the solid mind the label of criminal, and to continue undisturbed with its tenuous existence. One day, this whole act will break, the scenery will fall to unveil the truth: humankind will understand that the people truly worthy of respect and admiration rot in prison while the actual criminals, those who daily oppress and seek to destroy life, the real murderers, comfortably sit in church, looking at us from the outrageous height of their pulpits. I revere the criminal, for he refuses subjection and chooses life. Yourself, sir, might have some acquaintance with him. I see the subtle tremor in your hands, the fatigue under your beard, the inflexibility in your eyes of one who has experienced the Russian ostracism in the icy steppes of Siberia.
—I say, I must admire your keen eye and the boldness of your temperament. I confess that I spent some time in the remoteness of Russian prisons where I mingled with what you call the “criminal type.” And before you say anything, I admit having found there the sturdiest men, carved from the best Russian wood.
—I reckon then that we are both criminals.
—Maybe, but you’re mistaken about them, for in Siberia I found in each of my fellow companions of misfortune a pious Christian.
—That doesn’t surprise me. Everyone after a given time in dereliction bends, snaps off, and joins the rank of the good men. A caged criminal is the saddest of creatures. Of course, he will want to get out of his condition, and although he will never reach the heights in which he once lived, at least under the mask of inspired Christianity he will enjoy a little bit of freedom. But even converted, a criminal knows what he is worth, and it represents a consolation in itself. After all, “Catiline [is] the form of pre-existence of every Caesar” (Nietzsche and Kaufmann 550). Inside each criminal sleeps a revolutionary.
—I agree that criminal existence has its roots in the evaluation of one’s worth. The convict asks himself in the solitude of his cell: “was I a louse like all the rest, or was I a man? (…) Was I mere trembling flesh or did I have the right?” (Dostoyevsky 399). Remains the fact, however, that the licence to act is not determined by the action itself, but by higher virtues.
—Illusion again! “A virtue must be our invention (…) a virtue which has its roots in mere respect for the concept of ‘virtue,’ (…) is pernicious. (…) every man [must] find his own virtue, his own categorical imperative” (Nietzsche and Mencken 43). Only then can a man achieve its potential, reach its supreme value.
—You are right to some extent. Some few individuals have the right to make up their own virtues for the advancement of the whole of humankind. What would the world look like if Newton or Napoleon hadn’t followed their nature to the very last extremity? They are the builders of a new humankind, and we must revere them for that. But for the vast majority of us, the actions of a Napoleon are out of reach, and it must remain so. Otherwise, the earth would be flooded with the blood of unprecedented wars, and the oceans turn red from the innocent lives vanishing each day under the impulse of undeserving men. That is why there is a right to follow through such actions, and this permission is bestowed solely upon the strongest of men, for “I believe really great men must experience great sadness in the world” (Dostoyevsky 254). Building the “New Jerusalem” implies to live as a pariah (251).
—I completely agree; those who create their own virtue experience a “Chandala feeling” and “liv[e] in this half tomblike atmosphere” (Nietzsche and Kaufmann 550). Only time polishes their memory. Alas, it is too late for them! However, in a world freed from the burden of Christian morality crushing the spirit, and liberated from that right to become extraordinary, anyone could be a Napoleon; by that I mean someone whose life is justified by his own actions. The world would not transmute into an eternal battlefield, although the overcoming of the Christian poison will bring about “wars the like of which have never yet been seen on earth” (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo 327). But I speak here of a struggle of the mind: the deposition of this mendacious system and the rise of a new order in which humans are the most precious value, the paramount. I do not talk of extraordinary men, I refer to overmen. They are the following step. They wouldn’t be an exception, but a glorious norm. However, this liberated state can only be reached through the empowerment of the individual against the insidious hypnotic that is Christianity, in the fumes of which one feels his life slip from his grasp.
—Christianity is not a soporific! It relieves from the pain that you preach. You want war, you want destruction, you eagerly expect a new order, a world in which only the ones blinded by their self-adoration would remain, irremediably lost. You propose the hallucinogen, the vehicle of deception that ultimately drives in the darkest vagrancy. Your rhetoric is destructive, and I pity those who listen to it, for they sign their own death sentence. Man cannot alone support the hardships, and God in his infinite mercy offered Himself to us. Life is a long journey spent stumbling and suffering, but one can always expect the soothing light sitting at the end.
—’Tis not the light that expects, but the individual, and this wait is so long that it becomes fatal. “Precisely because of this power that hope has of making the suffering hold out, the Greeks regarded it as the evil of evils” (Nietzsche and Mencken 61). Pain is an ineluctable dimension of life, but I see it as an opportunity. People need to feel extreme discomfort before undertaking necessary steps, and in that regard, nothing betters pain. “Drunken joy it is for the sufferer to look away from his suffering and to lose himself” (Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathoustra” 143). What one must understand is that suffering is relieved not on the presumption of heaven, but with direct action taken immediately, empowerment on all fronts, supreme affirmation of one’s individuality and own power. Thus, one will not “lose himself.” The small yet gigantic thing needed is simply will.
—Indeed, we feel suffering to an extreme level, and it motivates to find relief. Unfortunately, it is often sought in sinful behaviours, among which pride occupies a predominant place. Pain stems from within ourselves when we consider our unbearable imperfection. However, alleviation only comes when committing to the strenuous path of piety, not resorting to intoxicants, self-infatuation, or worse, suicide. We must adopt a great compunction in the face of our sins, only then is redemption at reach.
—How could a mute god help in anything worldly?
—You don’t know how to listen. God’s voice is around us at each instant. I pity that you seem so lost, and through my pity, He speaks.
—Ah! Spare me your pity, please! Trust me, it would benefit you. I understand that you have your god in the highest esteem, and everything you said, in fact, is not very original since almost two thousand years of unbridled exegesis created a corpus most worthy of contempt in which we find in minute details everything that you just said. I share a new vision, something that has never been written, and that will be remembered through the ages as the moment when “a convulsion of earthquakes” made God shiver (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo 327)…
—Take care that your hubris does not attract a punishing lighting bolt!
—No need to worry, I always philosophize under a solid roof! You may refuse to acknowledge it right now, but from your pity more suffering arises. Isn’t it painful enough to be yourself? Must you take upon your shoulders to share the suffering of others? That, sir, is pity: “Suffering is made contagious by pity” (Nietzsche and Mencken 37). God asks too much of you, He demands that you suffer eternally, He prohibits you from the slightest dream of relief. What do you expect from all that? That the world be yours, that you find a place in it? Sir, the world “is the work of a suffering and tortured god” (Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathoustra” 142). Be greater than that, be stronger than Him, empower yourself, dare to will, and soon you will construct your own world!
—But tell me, how could there be love in the world without pity? We love because we share the suffering; love is the most extreme degree of empathy which doesn’t go without a part of pity. A loveless world, sir, ought to frighten even the most stoic man. Who can rightfully claim to have lived without the slightest trace of infatuation? We all have a mother, a father, a lover; at some point in his life, one ineluctably encounters love around a corner. Don’t tell me you pretend to be entirely free of Cupid’s grip?
At that point, the man with the moustache stopped and stared intensely the eyes of his interlocutor. In a fleeting moment, I believe I saw his lips quiver. The other man gazed at him somewhat arrogantly, seeing that, in one strike, he had recovered the upper hand. However, this was just a flashing instant, and the conversation rekindled.
—Who said anything about love? But while we are at it, I don’t mind expressing my view on the subject.
—The opposite would have surprised me….
—“Love is the state in which man sees things most decidedly as they are not!” (Nietzsche and Mencken 62). That is why Christianity chose it as its emblem. It veils sight, diminishes one’s judgment and desires, tames the mind, and leaves us with nothing but velleities. It is one of religion’s greatest “ingenuities” (62). You speak the truth when you say that there is no love without pity, in fact, there is no pity without love. That sentiment is the root of all other deviance, and if one seeks to ease his suffering, he must first learn to reject Christian love. Look at this Dionysus, can’t you see the love in his eyes? He adores the earth, the pleasures of existence, carnal delights, “the very first instincts of life” that Christianity “taught men to despise” (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo 332). One must choose how he loves!
—And then, after? Once the taste of food fades away, once the smell of flowers becomes a feeble stream, once no one wants to follow you between your sheets, once all that is left to do is to watch time pass by as you lay lame in bed, until your eyes slowly close on the last glimpses of that world to which you sacrificed everything, and that will continue to live, undisturbed, long after you…. What then?
The man paused
—I beg your pardon.
—Complete, utter void. An abyss.
—Who or what are you to affirm that? You don’t know! “Who ever made [you] judge” of what is the world (Dostoyevsky 389)? It is your absolute lack of modesty that fuels your loathing for Christianity! You cannot accept to be a grain of sand in the universe, you must be yourself at all costs and affirm your boisterous egoism. I know that deep inside, you feel alone. The abyss is not in the sky, it lives within you.
—I see that you improvise yourself as a psychologist, and you certainly have what it takes to make a great one, from what I know of our conversation, but I have no need to be analyzed. I perfectly understand who I am, and besides, you do too. I must be myself at all costs—that’s the only way: “it [is] only by a way of life that one [can] feel one’s self ‘divine,’ ‘blessed,’ ‘evangelical,’ a ‘child of God.’” (Nietzsche and Mencken 83). One must not, under no circumstances, look away from the matters of the world, “[t]he concept of ‘beyond,’ the ‘true world’ [was] invented in order to devaluate the only world there is” (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo 334). The only true morality lies with the earth. She is our sole master and lover. Kiss the earth, for she is the lone thing that stands between you and the void. Spend your time expecting an afterworld, and you negate life. Rather, say Yes. But it comes with a cost. One must fight the Christian duty: “self-destruction (…) turned into the sign of value itself” (334). I cannot “separate doing No from saying Yes”: to life, to power, to the individual, to the Dionysian energy of chaos that sleeps inside each and every one of us. All this must coalesce and, bursting, bring the individual to the state of power through the shatters of Christian morals. Whoever follows this path will discover that “[t]he ‘kingdom of God’ is not something that men wait for: (…) it is an experience of the heart, it is everywhere and it is nowhere” (Nietzsche and Mencken 85)….
The bearded man stood before him, stunned. I, too, was astonished. For a moment, time seemed to have been suspended in the museum’s room, and, for a fleeting instant, the statues appeared more alive than us three. Then, the man with the moustache broke the silence and solemnly concluded:
—“Have I been understood? —Dionysus versus the Crucified—” (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo 335).
The Russian slowly moved from Apollo and joined the other man in front of his statue, which he contemplated in the search, probably, of what he could discover in its eyes.
This is, to the best of my memory, what I recall happened on an afternoon in the Classical Greece chamber of an anonymous museum. Of course, Europe being what it was at the time, this conversation took place entirely in French, but I translated it here as to share with my fellow Englishmen a piece of foreign wisdom that they are usually so prompt to disdainfully dismiss. Do not ask me why I remember this conversation in such detail; I had at the time, and still do, the intuition that I have been the witness of a rare moment in history.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Robin Feuer Miller, et al. Crime and Punishment. Translated by Sidney Monas, New York, Signet Classics, 2006.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Ecce Homo: How One Becomes what One Is. Translated by Walter Kaufmann, New York, Random House (Vintage Books), 1989.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. “Thus Spoke Zarathoustra.” The Portable Nietzsche, edited by Walter Kaufmann, Penguin Books, 1985, pp. 121–160.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and H. L. Mencken. The Antichrist. The Floating Press, 2010.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Kaufmann. The Portable Nietzsche. Penguin Books Canada, 1983.