Friedrich Nietzsche and the confessions of a teenage nihilist.
Part 1 – what Fred said.
“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?”
According to some commentators that is possibly the most over-used and least understood of not only Nietzsche’s work but of all philosophical and theological statements , in short and in plainer English all deep-thinkers and religionists. It also became a kind of catch call for the hip and trendy generations of the 1950’s and 1960’s suggesting that any idea of or belief in god was now dead and buried and that we all needed to ‘get over it’ and move on to become post-christian ‘ubermensch‘ (supermen) that could go beyond previous ideas of good and evil and create new values. Some today seem to say ‘god is dead’ and celebrate it with ‘aren’t we clever to have killed him’ – Nietzsche though seemed to be experiencing the results of what that would actually mean for us and realizing that far from good and clever that it would be disastrous.
If the term ubermensch (over-man) sounds familiar then it was the term that the Nazi’s misappropriated to set themselves up as racially superior to just about everyone else but especially the Jews, Slavic peoples, the Gypsies and so on whom they regarded as and called untermensch (under-men).
If this ‘god is dead‘ is his central statement then there’s also a lot more because in the same piece he is predicting that the moral effects of two thousand years of christian thought and morality would break down although there would still be reflections or shadows on the cave walls – instead and replacing christianity though would be several things : the rise of new ideologies, the rise of nihilism and despair and the descent of man to become the ‘last man”. Many I suspect will be familiar with the ‘god is dead’ expression , less I would think be familiar with what he then predicted and I for one have ever seen his final stage ‘last man’ discussed.
In brief today what he was saying is something like……. ‘the last man is the archetypal passive nihilist. He is tired of life, takes no risks, and seeks only comfort and security. Therefore, The Last Man is unable to build and act upon a self-actualized ethos.’ In a way , that man has decayed and degraded seeking only safety and comfort and we should maybe add ‘merely seeking comfort, safety and pleasure’ (my interpretation).
Paint it black and white.
Anyway……I intend this post as a much more personal one in my Covid Coda series because although I look outwards and see a huge amount of nihilism and cynicism out there I also only have to look inwards a layer or two and see that it was what I grew up with and what I became.
It’s a small measure of how life was so different in 1969 to how it is now that I remember my dad buying his first car and us getting our first television at home rather than going round to our nan’s house to have ‘tea’ (supper) and watch something there. I remember the first Doctor Who (William Hartnell) and the first Dalek’s and then the first Cybermen……all in black and white.
The most shocking images that I actually saw live , or as near to being live as film technology would allow, were from the Vietnam war and the one with the greatest shock value was the on street shooting of a suspected north Vietnamese officer (Nguyen Van Lem) by south Vietnamese police general Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Several years ago I just happened to be doing some research about the Vietnamese war and only then came across the back story of why and how that happened – honestly though it was just the pinnacle , in a way, of hundreds of film clips and thousands of photographs taken during that time.
Eddie Adams photo, Saigon 1968.
I grew up in a sleepy market town where nothing really happened – except that I still believe that I genuinely saw a UFO one evening from my bedroom window – I was maybe 7 or 8 at the time, couldn’t sleep and i’d never even heard of flying saucers except maybe in a childs comic. Anyway, television brought the outside world crashing into our living room – the Cuban missile crisis, the moonshot, the Torrey Canyon oil spill and so on. In one sense it was an age of great technological hope and aspiration, that we were going to the moon and beyond and we were about to get clean and infinite energy from nuclear power – but it was also a new era of darkness and nihilism – Vietnam really happened and continued out of a sick desire for political power and the then Soviet premier (Nikita Kruschev) declared that he wanted to have it out with the west, once and for all time.
The market town, by the way, was way out in the Lincolnshire fens which are dead flat and deadly quiet even on a busy day….except perhaps that between Lincolnshire and Norfolk is the home of the American and British nuclear air forces and their nuclear strike bombers. On a Sunday we seemed to often be part of the new social habit of going out for a drive and we often drove past the RAF and USAF bases – one time we drove past a line of missiles cocked to the sky and pointing east – my late mum commented that they were the ‘Nukes’ but I knew that they were just ‘Bloodhound’ anti aircraft missiles because I had a model of one.
Somehow I understood or felt that an obliterating nuclear war was highly likely and that it would all just end in an instant with a flash and bang under a mushroom cloud…..only later did I realize that it maybe wouldn’t be like that but a slow and poisoned end, against either end though it did seem as though ‘nothing really matters’ and that the only way to deal with it was via some form of escapism.
So…..’I was a teenage Nihilist’ just as Nietzsche predicted but that I wasn’t so much seeking safety and comfort but thrill seeking and life experience – rock climbing and big motorbikes…..sex, drugs and rock n roll perhaps. I was lucky though because I was and am temperamentally suited to being alone in the outdoors and even when I was as miserable as I could be I found that I could go unto the outdoors and ‘leave it there’. As far as teenage confessions go I honestly think that nihilism was just a good excuse t do whatever I felt like doing for me……and sod anyone else ……and then ultimately a lead-in to a dangerous form of pride.
Even though I joke about it today I was never that much into alcohol or other drugs and my nihilism seems to have gone inwards which is self destructive but not outwards as I often see happening today ; there has been progress if you like but a progression from self destruction of anything like faith and belief inwards to rioting, violence , destruction of property and a tearing down of anything that represents authority.
Today, I know that I saw those film clips and those images in black and white and either silent or with a plummy , upper middle class BBC presenter giving an overdubbed opinion – now, I seem to remember it much more strongly as a Youtube clip with a 1970’s sound track ; the Stones of course and ‘Paint it Black‘ or ‘Fortunate Son‘ from Credence Clearwater Revival…..best of all perhaps in my memory is clips of US helicopter gunships and ‘This is the end’……..the Doors.
So maybe I don’t remember the Vietnam war as having a rock and roll soundtrack but I certainly associate it that way perhaps because I also absorbed some of the music of the day – after that though I both remember and associate certain times and specific events with music whether that was ‘Hanging on in quiet desperation‘ (Pink Floyd) through the 1970’s or getting really angry with the Thatcher government and her deliberate destruction of the mining industry and community in the 1980’s and all to a hardcore punk rock beat…..’Anger is an energy‘ (Public Image) perhaps or ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday‘ (U2).
Good music, as I see it, often had something to say even when it wasn’t the kind of music that I would listen to , I was working in Intensive Care when HIV/AIDS made us suddenly wary of blood and my memory of that is ‘Its a Sin‘ by the Pet Shop Boys……I’m sure there was good music after that but somehow it seemed that even ‘not giving a fuck’ (The Stone Roses) was just a pose so I even became cynical about Nihilism…..how good is that ?
Part 2. Beyond Nietzsche.
I first read Nietzsche when I was far too young and stupid to understand it and then forgot about it for most of my life – I only then came to his work when I accidentally discovered Dr Jordan Peterson and his series of lectures about personality. Even Peterson, who is a lot smarter than I am, says that Nietzsche is hard to read because so much meaning is compressed into few words and that Nietzsche seemed to be living with the effects of ‘god is dead’ 50 years ahead of it’s time.
Sometimes it seems to me that reading Nietzsche is a bit like reading an old testament prophet foretelling the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah say and i’m a bit wary of reading into it what isn’t there although yes, there’s a lot to be going on with.
As I understand it through reading and watching Peterson and others I get that Nietzsche himself was a kind of paradox – both anti church and anti Christian in his philosophy while also saying that losing faith or belief or practice in those things would bring about a catastrophe. What he wanted or proposed is that man would or could go beyond conventional Christian morality , beyond good and evil, become the over-man, and create his own new moral state. That or that the opposite outcome would be the descent and degeneration into the ‘last man’ – I need to work on that in a separate post.
Experience though suggests that we are good at creating destructive new ideologies and new quasi religions and equally good at nihilism and despair but far less good at creating new morals and values that will work for all people over a long time like for instance Christianity may have done.
Nihilism may have been an inevitable consequence and nihilism is easy…..easy to be miserable, easy to not give a fuck, easier by far to hate and tear something, anything, down ; it’s far harder but infinitely more rewarding to build something or to care for someone, to turn away from the misery of the self or to properly look inward and admit to what is there and to then do something about it.
In the next post/s in this series I want to explore the idea of the safety obsessed, comfort seeking and pleasure obsessed ‘last man’ and as a kind of counter to that to also start to look inwards through the examination of our own psychological traits and maybe through the practice of an examination of conscience.