Nietzsche’s Jesus

“. . . . he had denied any chasm between God and man, he lived this unity of God and man as his ‘glad tidings’ . . . .”

“One sees what came to an end with the death on the Cross: a new, an absolutely primary beginning to a Buddhistic peace movement, to an actual and not merely promised happiness on earth.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ (translated by R. J. Hollingdale): in the following seven sections, Nietzsche develops his vision (reinterpretation) of Jesus Christ:

29

What I am concerned with is the psychological type of the redeemer. For it could be contained in the Gospels in spite of the Gospels, however much mutilated and overloaded with foreign traits: as that of Francis of Assisi is contained in the legends about him in spite of the legends. Not the truth about what he did, what he said, how he really died: but the question whether his type is still conceivable at all, whether it has been ‘handed down’ by tradition. — The attempts I know of to extract even the history of a ‘soul’ from the Gospels seem to me proofs of an execrable psychological frivolity. Monsieur Renan, that buffoon in psychologics, has appropriated for his explication of the type Jesus the two most inapplicable concepts possible in this case: the concept of the genius and the concept of the hero. But if anything is unevangelic it is the concept hero. Precisely the opposite of all contending, of all feeling oneself in struggle has here become instinct: the incapacity for resistance here becomes morality (‘resist not evil!’: the profoundest saying of the Gospel, its key in a certain sense), blessedness in peace, in gentleness, in the inability for enmity. What are the ‘glad tidings’? True life, eternal life is found — it is not promised, it is here, it is within you: as life lived in love, in love without deduction or exclusion, without distance. Everyone is a child of God — Jesus definitely claims nothing for himself alone — as a child of God everyone is equal to everyone else. . . . To make a hero of Jesus! — And what a worse misunderstanding is the word ‘genius’! Our whole concept, our cultural concept  ‘spirit’ had no meaning whatever in the world Jesus lived in. To speak with the precision of the physiologist a quite different word would rather be in place here: the word idiot. We recognize a condition of morbid susceptibility of the sense of touch which makes it shrink back in horror from every contact, every grasping of a firm object. Translate such physiological habitus [i.e., condition] into its ultimate logic — as instinctive hatred of every reality, as flight into the ‘ungraspable’, into the ‘inconceivable’, as antipathy towards every form, all that is custom, institution, Church, as being at home in a world undisturbed by reality of any kind, a merely ‘inner’ world, a ‘real’ world, an ‘eternal’ world. . . . ‘The kingdom of God is within you‘ . . .

30

Instinctive hatred of reality: consequence of an extreme capacity for suffering and irritation which no longer wants to be ‘touched’ at all because it feels every contact too deeply.

Instinctive exclusion of all aversion, all enmity, all feeling for limitation and distancing: consequence of an extreme capacity for suffering and irritation which already feels all resisting, all need for resistance, as an unbearable displeasure (that is to say harmful, as deprecated by the instinct of self-preservation) and knows blessedness (pleasure) only in no longer resisting anyone or anything, neither the evil nor the evil-doer — love as the sole, as the last possibility of life . . .

There are two physiological realities upon which, out of which the doctrine of redemption has grown. I call it a sublime further evolution of hedonism on a thoroughly morbid basis. Closest related to it, even if with a considerable addition of Greek vitality and nervous energy, is Epicureanism, the redemption doctrine of the pagan world. Epicurus a typical decadent: first recognized as such by me. — The fear of pain, even of the infinitely small in pain — cannot end otherwise than in a religion of love . . .

31

I have anticipated my answer to the problem. Its presupposition is that the type of the redeemer has been preserved to us only in a very distorted form. That this distortion should have occurred is in itself very probable: there are several reasons why such a type could not remain pure, whole, free of accretions. The milieu in which this strange figure moved must have left its mark upon him, as must even more the history, the fate of the first Christian community: from this the type was retrospectively enriched with traits which become comprehensible only with reference to warfare and the aims of propaganda. That strange and sick world to which the Gospels introduce us — a world like that of a Russian novel, in which refuse of society, neurosis and ‘childlike’ idiocy seem to make a rendezvous — must in any case have coarsened the type: the first disciples in particular had to translate a being immersed entirely in symbols and incomprehensibilities into their own crudity in order to understand anything of it at all — for them such a type could not exist until it had been reduced to more familiar forms. . . . The prophet, the Messiah, the judge who is to come, the moral preacher, the miracle worker, John the Baptist — so many opportunities for misunderstanding the type. . . . Finally, let us not underestimate the proprium [i.e., characteristic] of all extreme, and in particular sectarian veneration: it extinguishes the original often painfully unfamiliar traits and idiosyncrasies in the revered being — it even fails to see them. One has to regret that no Dostoyevsky lived in the neighborhood of this most interesting décadent; I mean someone who could feel the thrilling fascination of such a combination of the sublime, the sick and the childish. One final viewpoint: [. . . .] I myself have no doubt that [a] plentiful measure of gall (and even of espirit) has only overflowed on to the type of the Master out of the excited condition of Christian propaganda: for one knows very well how resolutely all sectarians adjust their Master into an apologia of themselves. When the first community had need of a censuring theologian to oppose the theologians they created their ‘God’ according to their requirements: just as they unhesitatingly put into his mouth those totally unevangelic concepts which they could not do without, ‘Second Coming’, ‘Last Judgment’, every kind of temporal promise and expectation. —

32

I resist, to repeat it, the incorporation of the fanatic into the type of the redeemer: the word impérieux alone which Renan employs already annuls the type. The ‘glad tidings’ are precisely that there are no more opposites; the kingdom of Heaven belongs to children; the faith which here finds utterance is not a faith which has been won by struggle — it is there, from the beginning, it is as it were a return to childishness in the spiritual domain. The occurrence of retarded puberty undeveloped in the organism as a consequence of degeneration is familiar at any rate to psychologists.  — Such a faith is not angry, does not censure, does not defend itself: it does not bring ‘the sword’ — it has no idea to what extent it could one day cause dissention. It does not prove itself, either by miracles or by rewards and promises, and certainly not ‘by the Scriptures’:  it is every moment its own miracle, its own reward, its own proof, its own ‘kingdom of God’. Neither does this faith formulate itself — it lives, it resists formulas. Chance, to be sure, determines the environment, the language, the preparatory schooling of a particular configuration of concepts: primitive Christianity employs only Judeo-Semitic concepts (– eating and drinking at communion belong here, concepts so sadly abused, like everything Jewish, by the Church). But one must be careful not to see in this anything but a sign-language, a semeiotic, an occasion for metaphors. It is precisely on condition that nothing he says is taken literally that this anti-realist can speak at all. Among Indians he would have made use of Sankhyam concepts, among Chinese those of Lao-tse — and would not have felt the difference. — One could, with some freedom of expression, call Jesus a ‘free spirit’ — he cares nothing for what is fixed: the word killeth, everything fixed killeth. The concept, the experience ‘life’ in the only form he knows it is opposed to any kind of word, formula, law, faith, dogma. He speaks only of the inmost thing: ‘life’ or ‘truth’ or ‘light’ is his expression for the inmost thing — everything else, the whole of reality, the whole of nature, language itself, possesses for him merely the value of a sign, a metaphor. — On this point one must make absolutely no mistake, however much Christian, that is to say ecclesiastical prejudice, may tempt one to do so: such a symbolist par excellence stands outside of all religion, all conceptions of divine worship, all history, all natural science, all experience of the world, all acquirements, all politics, all psychology, all books, all art — his ‘knowledge’ is just the pure folly of the fact that anything of this kind exists. He has not so much as hear of culture, he does not need to fight against it — he does not deny it. . . . The same applies to the state, to society and the entire civic order, to work, to war — he never had reason to deny ‘the world’. . . . Denial is precisely what is totally impossible for him. — Dialectics are likewise lacking, the idea is lacking that a faith, a ‘truth’ could be proved by reasons (– his proofs are inner ‘lights’, inner feelings of pleasure and self-affirmations, nothing by ‘proofs by potency’ –). Neither can such a doctrine argue: it simply does not understand that other doctrines exist, can exist, it simply does not know how to imagine an opinion contrary to its own. . . . Where it encounters one it will, with the most heartfelt sympathy, lament the ‘blindness’ — for it sees the ‘light’ — but it will make no objection . . .

33

In the entire psychology of the ‘Gospel’ the concept of guilt and punishment is lacking; likewise the concept reward. ‘Sin’, every kind of distancing relationship between God and man, is abolished — precisely this is the ‘glad tidings’. Blessedness is not promised, it is not tied to any conditions: it is the only reality — the rest is signs for speaking of it . . .

The consequence of such a condition projects itself into new practice, the true evangelic practice. It is not a ‘belief’ which distinguishes the Christian: the Christian acts, he is distinguished by a different mode of acting. Neither by words nor in his heart does he resist the man who does him evil. He makes no distinction between foreigner and native, between Jew and non-Jew (‘one’s neighbor’ is properly one’s co-religionist, the Jew). He is not angry with anyone, does not disdain anyone. He neither appears in courts of law nor claims their protection (‘not swearing’). Under no circumstances, not even in the case of proved unfaithfulness, does  he divorce his wife. — All fundamentally one law, all consequences of one instinct. —

The life of the redeemer was nothing else than this practice — his death too was nothing else. . . . He no longer required any formulas, any rites for communicating with God — not even prayer. He has settled his accounts with the whole Jewish penance-and-reconciliation doctrine; he knows that it is through the practice of one’s life that one feels ‘divine’, ‘blessed’, ‘evangelic’, at all times a ‘child of God’. It is not ‘penance’, not ‘prayer for forgiveness’ which leads to God: evangelic practice alone leads to God, it is God!  — What was abolished with the Evangel was the Judaism of the concepts ‘sin’, ‘forgiveness of sin’, ‘faith’, ‘redemption by faith’ — the whole of Jewish ecclesiastical teaching was denied in the ‘glad tidings’.

The profound instinct of how one would have to live in order to feel oneself ‘in Heaven’, to feel oneself ‘eternal’, while in every other condition one by no means feels oneself ‘in Heaven’: this alone is the psychological reality of ‘redemption’. — A new way of living, not a new belief . . .

34

If I understand anything of this great symbolist it is that he took for realities, for ‘truths’, only inner realities — that he understood the rest, everything pertaining to nature, time, space, history, only as signs, as occasion for metaphor. The concept ‘the Son of Man’ is not a concrete person belonging to history, anything at all individual or unique, but an ‘eternal’ fact, a psychological symbol freed from the time concept. The same applies supremely to the God of this typical symbolist, to the ‘kingdom of God’, to the ‘kingdom of Heaven’, to ‘God’s children’. Nothing is more un-Christian than the ecclesiastical crudities of a God as a person, of a ‘kingdom of God’ which comes, of a ‘kingdom of Heaven’ in the Beyond, of a ‘Son of God’, the second person in the Trinity. All this — forgive the expression — a fist in the eye — oh in what an eye! — of the Gospel: world-historical cynicism in the mockery of symbolism. . . . But it is patently obvious what is alluded to in the symbols ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ — not patently obvious to everyone, I grant: in the word ‘Son’ is expressed the entry into the collective feeling of the transfiguration of all things (blessedness), in the word ‘Father’ this feeling itself, the feeling of perfection and eternity. — I am ashamed to recall what the Church has made of this symbolism: has it not set an Amphitryon story at the threshold of Christian ‘faith’? And a dogma of ‘immaculate conception’ into the bargain? . . . But it has thereby maculated conception —

The ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is a condition of the heart — not something that comes ‘upon the earth’ or ‘after death’. The entire concept of natural death is lacking in the Gospel: death is not a bridge, not a transition, it is lacking because it belongs to quite another world, a merely apparent world useful only for the purpose of symbolism. The ‘hour of death’ is not a Christian concept — the ‘hour’, time, physical life and its crises, simply do not exist for the teacher of the ‘glad tidings’. . . . The ‘kingdom of Heaven’ is not something one waits for; it has no yesterday or tomorrow, it does not come ‘in a thousand years’ — it is an experience within a heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere . . .

35

This ‘bringer of glad tidings’ died as he lived, as he taughtnot to ‘redeem mankind’ but to demonstrate how one ought to live. What he bequeathed to mankind is his practice: his bearing before the judges, before the guards, before the accusers and every kind of calumny and mockery — his bearing on the Cross. He does not resist, he does not defend his rights, he takes no steps to avert the worst that can happen to him — more, he provokes it. . . . And he entreats, he suffers, he loves with those, in those who are doing evil to him. His words to the thief on the Cross contain the whole Evangel. ‘That was verily a divine man, a child of God!’ — says the thief. ‘If thou feelest this’ — answers the redeemer — ‘thou art in Paradise, thou art a child of God.’ Not to defend oneself, not to grow angry, not to make responsible. . . . But not to resist even the evil man — to love him . . .

Such is the sight of saints. . . . Their heart is their eye

Eyes don’t see. Catherine of Emmerich was right to say that she only saw through the heart. Such is the sight of saints. How could they not see more than us, who see only through our senses? The eye has a limited field; it always sees from the outside. But with the world of your heart, introspection is the only mode of knowing. The heart’s visual space = God + the world + nothingness. That is, everything.

The eye can magnify; in the heart everything is magnificent. I understand Mechthild of Magdeburg when she laments that neither the beauty of the world nor the saints can comfort her, nothing but Jesus and his heart. Neither mystics nor saints need eyes; they don’t look at the world. Their heart is their eye.

[E. M. Cioran, Tears and Saints]

Rorty, Playfulness, and the Onward March of the World-Spirit

Insofar as one can attribute philosophical views to Freud, one can say that he is as much a pragmatist as James and as much a perspectivalist as Nietzsche — or, one might say, as much of a modernist as Proust. For it somehow became possible, toward the end of the nineteenth century, to take the activity of redescription more lightly than it had ever been taken before. It became possible to juggle several descriptions of the same event without asking which one was right — to see rediscription as a tool rather than a claim to have discovered essence. It thereby became possible to see a new vocabulary not as something which was supposed to replace all other vocabularies, something which claimed to represent reality, but simply as one more vocabulary, one more human project, one person’s chosen metaphoric. It is unlikely that Freud’s metaphors could have been picked up, used, and literalized at any earlier period. But, conversely, it is unlikely that without Freud’s metaphors we should have been able to assimilate Nietzsche’s, James’s, Wittgenstein’s, or Heidegger’s as easily as we have, or to have read Proust with the relish we did. All the figures of this period play into each other’s hands. They feed each other lines. Their metaphors rejoice in one another’s company. This is the sort of phenomenon it is tempting to describe in terms of the march of the World-Spirit toward clearer self-consciousness, or as the length of man’s mind gradually coming to match that of the universe. But any such description would betray the spirit of playfulness and irony which links the figures I have been describing.

This playfulness is the product of their shared ability to appreciate the process of redescribing, the power of language to make new and different things possible and important — an appreciation which becomes possible only when one’s aim becomes an expanding repertoire of alternative descriptions rather than The One Right Description. Such a thrift in aim is possible only to the extent that both the world and the self have been de-divinized. To say that both are de-divinized is to say that one no longer thinks of either as speaking to us, as having a language of its own, as a rival poet. Neither are quasi persons, neither wants to be expressed or represented in a certain way.

Both, however, have power over us — for example, the power to kill us. The world can blindly and inarticulately crush us; mute despair, intense mental pain, can cause us to blot ourselves out. But that sort of power is not the sort we can appropriate by adopting and then transforming its language, thereby becoming identical with the threatening power and subsuming it under our own more powerful selves. This latter strategy is appropriate only for coping with other persons — for example, with parents, gods, and poetic precursors. For our relation to the world, to brute power and to naked pain, is not the sort of relation we have to persons. Faced with the nonhuman, the nonlinguistic, we no longer have an ability to overcome contingency and pain by appropriation and transformation, but only the ability to recognize contingency and pain. The final victory of poetry in its ancient quarrel with philosophy — the final victory of metaphors of self-creation over metaphors of discovery — would consist in our becoming reconciled to the thought that this is the only sort of power over the world which we can hope to have. For that would be the final abjuration of the notion that truth, and not just power and pain, is to be found “out there.”

[From Chapter 2 (“The Contingency of Selfhood”) in Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity].

Why I am a Destiny :: Nietzsche

1

I know my fate. One day there will be associated with my name the recollection of something frightful — of a crisis like no other before on earth, of the profoundest collision of conscience, of a decision evoked against everything that until then had been believed in, demanded, sanctified. I am not a man, I am dynamite. — And with all that there is nothing in me of a founder of a religion — religions are affairs of the rabble, I have need of washing my hands after contact with religious people . . . I do not want ‘believers’, I think I am too malicious to believe in myself, I never speak to masses . . . I have a terrible fear I shall one day be pronounced holy: one will guess why I bring out this book beforehand; it is intended to prevent people from making mischief with me . . . I do not want to be a saint, rather even a buffoon . . . And none the less, or rather not none the less — for there has hitherto been nothing more mendacious than saints — the truth speaks out of me. — But my truth is dreadful: for hitherto the lie has been called the truth. — Revaluation of all values: this is my formula for an act of supreme coming-to-oneself on the part of mankind which in me has become flesh and genius. It is my fate to have to be the first decent human being, to know myself in opposition to the mendaciousness of millennia . . . I was the first to discover the truth, in that I was the first to sense — smell — the lie as lie . . . My genius is in my nostrils . . . I contradict as has never been contradicted and am none the less the opposite of a negative spirit. I am a bringer of good tidings such as there has never been, I know tasks from such a height that any conception of them has hitherto been lacking; only after me is it possible to hope again. With all that I am necessarily a man of fatality. For when truth steps into battle with the lie of millennia we shall have convulsions, an earthquake spasm, a transposition of valley and mountain such as has never been dreamed of . . .

2

Does  one want a formula for a destiny that has become man. It stands in my Zarathustra.

— and he who wants to be a creator in good and evil has first to be a destroyer and break values.
Thus the greatest evil belongs with the greatest good: this, however, is the creative good.

I am by far the most terrible human being there has ever been; this does not mean I shall not be the most beneficient. I know joy in destruction to a degree corresponding to my strength for destruction — in both I obey my dionysian nature, which does not know how to separate No-doing from Yes-saying. I am the first immoralist: I am therewith the destroyer par excellence. —

[From Ecce Homo, translated by R. J. Hollingdale]

O my brothers, break, break the old tablets!

For the old gods, after all, things came to an end long ago; and verily, they had a good gay godlike end. They did not end in a “twilight,” though this lie is told. Instead: one day they laughed themselves to death. That happened when the most godless word issued from one of the gods themselves — the word: “There is one god. Thou shalt have no other god before me!” An old grimbeard of a god, a jealous one, thus forgot himself. And then all the gods laughed and rocked on their chairs and cried,

“Is not just this godlike that there are gods but no God?”

*

In a dream, in the last dream of the morning, I stood in the foothills today — beyond the world, held scales, and weighed the world. . . .

*

I flew, quivering, an arrow, through sun-drunken delight, away into distant futures where no dream had yet seen, into hotter souths than artists ever dreamed of, where gods in their dances are ashamed of all clothes — to speak in parables and to limp and stammer like a poet; and verily, I am ashamed that I must still be a poet.

Where all becoming seemed to me the dance of gods and the prankishness of gods, and the world seemed free and frolicsome and as if fleeing back to itself — as an eternal  fleeing and seeking each other  again of many gods, as the happy controverting of each other, conversing again with each other, and converging again of many gods.

Where all time seemed to me a happy mockery of moments, where necessity was freedom itself playing happily with the sting of freedom.

*

Now I wait for my own redemption — that I may go to them for the last time. For I want to go to men once more; under their eyes I want to go under; dying, I want to give them my richest gift. From the sun I learned this: when he goes down, overrich; he pours gold into the sea out of inexhaustible riches, so that even the poorest fisherman still rows with golden oars. For this I once saw and I did not tire of my tears as I watched it.

*

My brothers, the firstling is always sacrificed. We, however, are firstlings. All of us bleed at secret sacrificial altars; all of us burn and roast in honor of old idols. What is best in us is still young: that attracts old palates. Our flesh is tender, our hide is mere lamb-skin: how could we fail to attract old idol-priests? Even in ourselves the old idol-priest still lives who roasts what is best in us for his feast. Alas, my brothers, how could firstlings fail to be sacrifices?

But thus our kind wants it; and I love those who do not want to preserve themselves. Those who are going under I love with my whole life: for they cross over.

*

Everything that the good call evil must must come together so that one truth may be born.

O my brothers, are you evil enough for this truth? The audacious daring, the long mistrust, the cruel No, the disgust, the cutting into the living — how rarely does all this come together. But from such seed is truth begotten.

*

“Thou shalt not rob! Thou shalt not kill!” Such words were once called holy; one bent the knee and head and took off one’s shoes before them. But I ask you: where have there ever been better robbers and killers in this world than such holy words?

Is there not in all life itself robbing and killing? And that such words were called holy — was not truth itself killed thereby? Or was it the preaching of death that was called holy, which contradicted and contravened all life? O my brothers, break, break the old tablets!

*

“To the clean all is clean,” the people say. But I say unto you, “To the mean all becomes mean.”

Therefore the swooners and head-hangers, whose hearts also hang limply, preach, “The world itself is a filthy monster.” For all these have an unclean spirit — but especially those who have neither rest nor repose except when they see the world from abaft, the afterworldly. To these I say to their faces, even though it may not sound nice: the world is like man in having a backside abaft; that much is true. There is much filth in the world; that much is true. But that does not make the world itself a filthy monster.

There is wisdom in this, that there is much in the world that smells foul: nausea itself creates wings and water-divining powers. Even in the best there is still something that nauseates; and even the best is something that must be overcome. O my brothers, there is much wisdom in this, that there is much filth in the world.

*

To gain knowledge is a joy for the lion-willed! But those who have become weary are themselves merely being “willed,” and all the billows play with them. And this is always the manner of the weak: they get lost on the way. And in the end their weariness till asks, “Why did we ever pursue any way at all? It is all the same.” Their ears appreciate the preaching, “Nothing is worth while! You shall not will!” Yet this is an exhortation to bondage.

*

There stands the bark; over there perhaps the great nothing lies. But who would embark on this “perhaps”? No one of you wants to embark on the bark of death. Why then do you want to be world-weary? World-weary! And you are not even removed from the earth. Lusting after the earth I have always found you, in love even with your own world-weariness. Not for nothing is your lip hanging; a little earthly wish still sits on it. And in your eyes — does not a little cloud of unforgotten earthly joy float there?

There are many good inventions on earth, some useful, some pleasing: for their sake, the earth is to be loved. And there is such a variety of well-invented things that the earth is like the breasts of a woman: useful as well as pleasing.

But you who are world-weary, you who are earth-lazy, you should be lashed with switches: with lashes one should make your legs sprightly again. For when you are not invalids and decrepit wretches of whom the earth is weary, you are shrewd sloths or sweet-toothed, sneaky pleasure-cats. And if you do not want to run again with pleasure, then you should pass away. To the incurable, one should not try to be a physician — thus Zarathustra teaches — so you shall pass away!

But it takes more courage to make an end than to make a new verse: all physicians and poets know that.

*

What is the highest species of all and what is the lowest? The parasite is the lowest species; but whoever is of the highest species will nourish the most parasites. For the soul that has the longest ladder and reaches down deepest — how should the most parasites not sit on that? The most comprehensive soul, which can run and stray and roam farthest within itself; the most necessary soul, which out of sheer joy plunges itself into chance; the soul which, having being, dives into becoming; the soul which has, but wants to want and will; the soul which flees itself and catches up with itself in the widest circle; the wisest soul; which folly exhorts most sweetly; the soul which loves itself most, in which all things have their sweep and countersweep and ebb and flow — oh, how shoud the highest soul not have the most parasites?

*

Thus I want man and woman: the one fit for war, the other fit to give birth, but both fit to dance with head and limbs.

And we should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.

*

O thou my will! Thou cessation of all need, my own necessity! Keep me from all small victories! Thou destination of my soul, which I call destiny! Thou in-me! Over-me! Keep me and save me for a great destiny!

And thy last greatness, my will, save up for thy last feat that thou mayest be inexorable in thy victory. Alas,  who was not vanquished in his victory? Alas, whose eye would not darken in this drunken twilight? Alas, whose foot would not reel in victory and forget how to stand?

That I may one day be ready and ripe in the great noon: as ready and ripe as glowing bronze, clouds pregnant with lightning, and swelling milk udders — ready for myself and my most hidden will: a bow lusting for its arrow, an arrow lusting for its star — a star ready and ripe in its noon, glowing, pierced, enraptured by annihilating sun arrows — a sun itself and an inexorable solar will, ready to annihilate in victory!

O will, cessation of all need, my own necessity! Save me for a great victory!

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

Suicide: the one truly serious philosophical problem — Camus

O my soul, do not aspire to
immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.

— Pindar, Pythian iii

An Absurd Reasoning

Absurdity and Suicide

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.

If I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent than that, I reply that one judges by the actions it entails. I have never seen anyone die for the ontological argument. Galileo, who held a scientific truth of great importance, abjured it with the greatest ease as soon as it endangered his life. In a certain sense, he did right. . . . That truth was not worth the stake. Whether the earth or the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question. On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions. How to answer it? On all essential problems (I mean thereby those that run the risk of leading to death or those that intensify the passion of living) there are probably but two methods of thought: the method of La Palisse and the method of Don Quixote. Solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity. In a subject at once so humble and so heavy with emotion, the learned and classical dialectic must yield, one can see, to a more modest attitude of mind deriving at one and the same time from common sense and understanding.

Suicide has never been dealt with except as a social phenomenon. On the contrary, we are concerned here, at the outset, with the relationship between individual thought and suicide. An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps. Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had greatly changed since, and that the experience had “undermined” him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man’s heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.

There are many causes for a suicide, and generally the most obvious ones were not the most powerful. Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection. What sets off the crisis is almost always unverifiable. Newspapers often speak of “personal sorrows” or of “incurable illness.” These explanations are plausible. But one would have to know whether a friend of the desperate man had not that very day addressed him indifferently. He is the guilty one. For that is enough to precipitate all the rancors and all the boredom still in suspension.

But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it. Let’s not go too far in such analogies, however, but rather return to everyday words. It is merely confessing that that “is not worth the trouble.” Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, the uselessness of suffering.

What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. All healthy men having thought of their own death, it can be seen, without further explanation, that there is a direct connection between this feeling and the longing for death. . . .

. . . . Hitherto, and it has not been wasted effort, people have played on words and pretended to believe that refusing to grant a meaning to life necessarily leads to declaring that it is not worth living. In truth, there is no necessary common measure between these two judgments. One merely has to refuse to be misled by the confusions, divorces and inconsistencies previously pointed out. One must brush everything aside and go straight to the real problem. One kills oneself because life is not worth living, that is certainly a truth — yet an unfruitful one because it is a truism. But does that insult to existence, that flat denial in which it is plunged come from the fact that it has no meaning? Does its absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide — that is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest. Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others, outside all methods of thought and all exercises of the disinterested mind. Shades of meaning, contradictions, the psychology that an “objective” mind can always introduce into all problems have no place in this pursuit and this passion. It calls simply for an unjust — in other words, logical — thought. That is not easy. It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. Men who die by their own hand consequently follow to its conclusion their emotional inclination. Reflection on suicide gives me an opportunity to raise the only problem to interest me: is there a logic to the point of death? I cannot know unless I pursue, without reckless passion, in the sole light of evidence, the reasoning of which I am here suggesting the source. This is what I call an absurd reasoning. Many have begun it. I do not yet know whether or not they kept to it.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself.

Absurd Walls

Like great works, deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying. The regularity of an impulse or a repulsion in a soul is encountered again in habits of doing or thinking, is reproduced in consequences of which the soul itself knows nothing. Great feelings take with them their own universe, splendid or abject. They light up with their passion an exclusive world in which they recognize their climate. There is a universe of jealousy, of ambition, of selfishness, or of generosity. A universe — in other words, a metaphysic and an attitude of mind. What is true of already specialized feelings will be even more so of emotions basically as indeterminate, simultaneously as vague and as “definite,” as remote and as “present” as those furnished us by beauty or aroused by absurdity.

At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. As it is, in its distressing nudity, in its light without effulgence, it is elusive. But that very difficulty deserves reflection. It is probably true that a man remains forever unknown to us and that there is in him something irreducible that escapes us. But practically I know men and recognize them by their behavior, by the totality of their deeds, by the consequences caused in life by their presence. Likewise, all those irrational feelings which offer no purchase to analysis. I can define them practically, appreciate them practically, by seizing and noting all their aspects, by outlining their universe. It is certain that apparently, though I have seen the same actor a hundred times, I shall not for that reason know him any better personally. Yet if I add up the heroes he has personified and if I say that I know him a little better at the hundredth counted off, this will be felt to contain an element of truth. For this apparent paradox is also an apologue. There is a moral to it. It teaches that a man defines himself by his make-believe as well as well as by his sincere feelings, inaccessible in the heart but partially disclosed by the acts they imply and the attitudes of mind they assume. It is clear that in this way I am defining a method. But it is also evident that that method is one of analysis and not of knowledge. For methods imply metaphysics; unconsciously they disclose conclusions that they often claim not to know yet. Similarly, the last pages of a book are already contained in the first pages. Such a link is inevitable. The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

* * *

All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant’s revolving door. The absurd world more than others derives its nobility from that abject birth. In certain situations, replying “nothing” when asked what one is thinking about my be pretense in a man. Those who are loved are well aware of this. But if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again, then it is as it were the first sign of absurdity.

It happens that the stage sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep,  and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm — this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. “Begins” — this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery. In itself weariness has something sickening about it. Here, I must conclude that it is good. For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it. There is nothing original about these remarks. But they are obvious; that is enough for a while, during a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd. Mere “anxiety,” as Heidegger says, is at the source of everything.

[From Albert Camus’  essay The Myth of Sisyphus]

Each time it tries to say more than this
The tip of the tongue must wrestle a leech.

— Bill Knott, Lines from Future Poems

Was that life? Well then! Once more!

But there is something in me that I call courage; that has so far slain my every discouragement. This courage finally bade me stand still and speak: “Dwarf! It is I or you!”

For courage is the best slayer, courage which attacks; for in every attack there is playing and brass.

Man, however, is the most courageous animal: hence he overcame every animal. With playing and brass he has so far overcome every pain; but human pain is the deepest pain.

Courage also slays dizziness at the edge of abysses: and where does man not stand at the edge of abysses? Is not seeing always — seeing abysses?

Courage is the best slayer: courage slays even pity. But pity is the deepest abyss: as deeply as man sees into life, he also sees into suffering.

Courage, however, is the best slayer — courage which attacks: which slays even death itself, for it says, “Was that life? Well then! Once more!”

[Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On the Vision and the Riddle]