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Laugh at the truth. Forge an alliance with wisdom.

August 15, 2010 13 comments

In 1900, the Prussian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche died after a very long illness.  Nietzsche died just as a new Century was born – the Century of the internet, the atomic bomb, the motor car, factory-scale murder, mass production and consumption, of universal suffrage, civil rights; the century where we saw human beings on the moon but also still in mass graves.

I have had a long love affair with Nietzsche’s work, which has in many ways given me a (very challenging) framework with which to understand, criticise and make sense of things, of ‘modern life’, or whatever you might want to call it. For me, Nietzsche is one of the very few true giants of philosophical thinking. In order to do justice to Nietzsche’s ideas that are relevant, this post is quite long. I am being quite self-indulgent but my hope is that a discussion of these ideas now will inform further posts and hopefully stimulate some debate.

I really don’t think you can think about what I want to think about, without bringing Nietzsche into it.  His influence has been so far reaching in so many ways, culturally, politically, philosophically, it is astonishing.  For instance without Nietzsche there would be no Freud, without Freud contemporary Western culture would be very different: those baby boomers may not have made the break from the culture of their parents generation and so much of what we take for granted in culture and politics would be different now.  I would suggest watching some Adam Curtis documentaries here (if you can get hold of them – I got a knock-off from ebay that didn’t work…) http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/

Here we should probably get one thing out of the way: Nietzsche’s unfortunate appropriation by the Nazis (this was instigated by his sister Elisabeth Nietzsche who went to Paraguay with her crazy husband to found an Aryan colony but it didn’t work so she came back to Germany to interfere with her brother’s work instead).  This is ironic considering his disgust for anti- Semitism and mass political movements of any kind (including democracy), which he contemptuously refers to as aspects of the ‘herd mentality’. This appropriation also negatively affected Nietzsche’s reception in Europe and the USA for a long time after World War 2. But over the last 50 years, this shadow has passed over his work. He does say some things that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic, but the point is really that everything Nietzsche writes is controversial – he pretty much despises everyone, because pretty much everyone is unable/not willing to think for themselves. Nietzsche is often seen as a negative thinker because he criticises just about everything, and doesn’t give any easy answers. His contempt is part of his charm and it reflects the challenging nature of his ideas. Really he is a profoundly positive thinker, which is moving when considered in the light of his painful and difficult life.

Nearly eleven years before his death, Nietzsche suffered a complete mental breakdown and then a series of strokes. Nietzsche had suffered all his life from very poor health including crippling migraine.  He was a very lonely person. The one time he fell in love that we know about was with the very interesting Lou Salome (above on the left, posing in the cart; Nietzsche is the one with the massive ‘tache) who turned Nietzsche’s advances down and later went on to have a relationship with Freud.  But Nietzsche was a pioneer. He knew this, but very few other people did and so his usual reaction was contempt. The peak of his career came in his 20s but because of his bad health he had to resign his prestigious professorship and move to the mountains where the climate was better for him.  With his academic career pretty much over, his work became more and more difficult for people to engage with and he had few friends.  Yet he kept on writing and he knew that one day his work would be taken seriously. If only he had known how seriously his work is now taken, Nietzsche probably would have been proud of his legacy but also disgusted by the people reading it, and the institutionalization of his ideas.

What I find so inspiring about Nietzsche’s work is that he thinks the most serious thing one should do is not take anything too seriously. He wrote a book called The Science of Joy (unhelpfully translated into English as ‘The Gay Science’): that’s how seriously he took not being serious. Nietzsche is often a very funny writer. The chapters of his last book Ecce Homo have absolutely classic titles: ‘Why I am so Wise’, ‘Why I am so Clever’ and ‘Why I Write Such Good Books’.  He was probably already a bit bonkers by then.  You have to love this man.

One of the main themes in his work is the death of God, what he calls the advent of nihilism, and the subsequent revaluation of values.  If we follow this line of thinking we can begin to see how Nietzsche can help us negotiate the ethical maze, or at least see it from a different, perhaps rather radical perspective.  The idea is that Nietzsche is challenging us to act despite there being no way that we can know what is objectively right or wrong.  The more I think about this, the more unsettling it becomes.  It is very hard to feel liberated by this imperative as Nietzsche wants us to.  However that is the challenge.

For Nietzsche, nihilism occurs when modern society experiences the loss of what we might call objective truth.  This means that there is no longer a satisfactory and all-encompassing answer to the question ‘why’ that can show us in a convincing manner how things “really are”.  The loss of objective truth can be explained as being particular to the modern age or ‘modernity’, because modernity is characterised by a rapid destabilising and undermining of traditional structures of authority, meaning and discourse. Like the decline of religion for instance.  Nietzsche highlights the loss of objective truth in modernity by examining our moral belief-systems. He argues that crucial to these structures of authority, meaning and discourse is the idea that truth is a property of things.

For example, we might say that something is good. When we say this, we are also saying that we believe that it is true that something is good.  The fact that we think it is true in effect ascribes a property to an object/person/idea, in this case “goodness”. We might say, for example,  “I wonder where all the good in the world has gone”.  The outcome of this is the belief that we can match language to reality, that the words we use actually correspond to “the facts” about something in the world, and this is what makes them true.  Nietzsche argues, particularly in two of his books ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and ‘The Science of Joy’, that this whole way of thinking is a fiction.  Truth does not correspond to any facts about reality. Truth is, he believes, actually no more than a series of authoritative metaphors that we use to describe our world and with which we keep our values in place.  We do this in order to satisfy what he calls ‘the desire for certainty’. The desire for certainty is motivated by our drive for survival. We all have it, all life is driven by self-preservation.   You may see Nietzsche’s influence on Freud here.  Nietzsche’s account of truth really says that when we call something good, we might believe that our doing so matches language to reality.  But we are deceiving ourselves.  In fact, we are more likely to call something good because it asserts our individual or group power, thus satisfying our survival-drive. This is what he says about the subject:

…man needs to believe in an unbiased ‘subject’ with freedom of choice, because he has an instinct of self-preservation and self-affirmation in which every lie is sanctified.  The reason the subject (or, as we more colloquially say, the soul) has been, until now, the best doctrine on earth, is perhaps because it facilitated the sublime self-deception whereby the majority of the dying, the weak and the oppressed of every kind could construe weakness itself as freedom, and their particular mode of existence as an accomplishment.

I love the way he writes; those italics drip with sarcasm.  Anyway so following on from this we have Nietzsche’s take on religion and the death of God.

Nietzsche claims that among the discourses of science, metaphysics and religion, the ‘best doctrine on earth’ for sustaining objective truth is theological truth: the established authority of God. In The Science of Joy, Nietzsche describes the ‘death of God’, the moment when the highest value is devalued. ‘The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives’.  Nietzsche’s challenge in this famous passage is the accusation that we have killed God.  We have to recognise that the loss of the ultimate objective truth is our doing, because we ourselves created the story that there is objective truth in order to satisfy the desire for certainty.  Once truth vanishes, we are left with nothing theological or philosophical upon which we can rely to orient ourselves in an increasingly complex and disorienting world.

Once we recognise that truth is merely a set of psychologically motivated values we are left with a sense of horror at the absurdity of the lack of meaning in life. Nietzsche calls the drive to keep our values in place, thus avoiding this absurdity, the ‘will to truth’. He claims that the will to truth is just a means of concealing the terrifying fact that truth is merely what we call various values, which are themselves motivated by psychological drives.  As such he writes, ‘truth is a useful deception’.  It is useful because it keeps the values we have invented in place, making them look like values that are something to do with the way things really are.  The greatest and therefore most dangerous cultural expression of the nihilistic will to truth for Nietzsche is Judeo-Christian morality. Nietzsche argues that God, as the ultimate expression of truth, is the ‘great justifier’.  This is because Christianity prevents us from seeing the absurd nothingness of life by directing our attention away from the physical to the metaphysical. Because it is concerned with the metaphysical rather than the physical, Nietzsche argues, Christianity is life denying. Christianity is the embodiment of disgust for life, because it focuses on the metaphysical rather than the physical world. Why look to another world, why deny life? He asks.

For Nietzsche, the only thing to do under the conditions of nihilism is to affirm life, to confront the absurdity of existence and then bravely embrace it. Nihilism thus represents the complete breakdown of the traditional order of meaning and values, allowing those who embrace nihilism to experience the opportunity for revaluation and reinterpretation. This revaluation is really an ethical practice. It focuses on the creation of new meaning after the breakdown of traditional meaning, allowing the individual to ‘laugh at the truth’ and ‘forge an alliance with wisdom’.

In defiance of the idea that it is the task of the wise philosopher to seek the truth, Nietzsche claims that it is not wise to seek truth. Instead he argues it is wise to give up the idea that truth can be sought after or discovered as if it is something objective or ‘out there’, a property of things which can be found or revealed to us.

This idea, I believe is truly challenging. It’s inherent scepticism forms the basis of an interesting theoretical and ethical imperative. In other words, this idea can perhaps inform us when we are trying to understand what is the right thing to do. The challenge of course is to try to avoid both objective truth and relativism. One problem with Nietzsche as an ethical thinker is that with the collapse of values, everything is relative.  So actually what we do doesn’t matter, because every thought and action is of equal value.  Clearly this isn’t the case.  For instance you may believe that it is wrong to torture and kill someone, not because your religious values say it is, but more because you have no right to make anyone else suffer.  Here, Nietzsche may ask why don’t you have the right to make anyone suffer.  Your answer may be because you have respect for the integrity of someone else’s life.  This may well actually be based on the remnants of religious sentiment (the soul etc), or it may not.

However is it the case that if we take a Nietzschean view then why shouldn’t we torture and kill? If all values are relative, why should we have any respect for life at all? Whether the intention is there or not, I see this question being dealt with in the extremely creepy Michael Haneke film Funny Games (1997) where two young men utterly without empathy kidnap and torture a family just because they can.  Similarly in the fantastic Hitchcock film Rope (1948) two young men (why is it always young men? Would women do this?) commit murder, again just because they can, but here we have some sort of rationale. They wish to exert their intellectual and social superiority (a misinterpretion of Nietzsche) and see the crime as an experiment.  In both films there is no moral anchor as all actions are conceived as relative.  However, what we could say here is that although the young men in each film are laughing at the truth, they fail to forge an alliance with wisdom. So they fail in Nietzschean terms. Nietzsche is charging us to revaluate and reinterpret our moral values but this does not mean we should have no moral values. If we are brave enough we are supposed to create our own values and delight in our ability to do so, and our ability to choose the course of our own actions and stick to it.  At the very least Nietzsche’s challenge can help us to negotiate a world without the absolutes we once had. I think that Nietzsche can help inform really tricky moral issues and I will come back to this in subsequent blogs.

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