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Tag Archives: Ecce Homo

“In a world full of violence, destruction and death, or “madness in every direction,” as Kerouac would have said, the subject becomes nothing but a projector of the evil within society.”
Cengiz Erdem

The Nihil Solipsist: a being that knows neither its own nothingness nor the dark self-cannibalizing force of all those others within; trapped within the introjected prison-house of an impure fear, bound to the cross of a symbolic gesture, tormented by the thought of its own paranoid-schizoid position this Nietzschean subject relishes the hunt as a repetition of the life-death drives it seeks to unleash at the hands of all those non-others within its own panopticon of deliriums. Cengiz Erdem in his essay The Nietzschean Subject tells us that the “paradoxical nature of the contemporary Nietzschean subject is a result of the turning of self into the other within in the process of becoming. The self of the present has not only become a prison-house of the others within itself but also it itself has become a self-contained monad with no relation to the outside and no awareness of the external world populated by the others’ selves.”

Erdem tells us that today everything has been reduced to the pure or impure exchange value of Capital; even the invention of subjectivity, which no longer touches the oldest of criteria: use value. Instead we have always already become a cog in the machine, a machinic subject, a zombified cogito serving the greater good of Capital itself. Like somnambulists in a dream matrix we have become the illusory beneficiaries of an inhuman thought:

“With societies based on exchange value the relationship between the subject and the object is confined in the paranoid-schizoid position. There remains no gap between the subject and the object when in fact there should be. Everything becomes a substitute for another thing and everything is substitutable. With the advance of global capitalism the subject itself becomes an object. The subject begins to act itself out as an object for the desire and consumption of the other. The subject becomes a substitute of itself.  With global capitalism the subject starts to feel itself as a machine; it becomes inorganic for itself when in fact it is essentially organic. In other words organs start to operate like non-organs, all organicity is replaced by inorganicity, life with death, and in this kind of a society everyone is always already dead.”

Consuming machines that we are we have been reduced to eating our own… shall I say it: shit! Instead of difference we have all become entrepreneurs of the self-same identity of Capital: trending our way to the avant-garde in our latest designer outfits we speak the local lingo like the good netizens we are, forging identities in a spurious masqueradism of conformity to the latest fashion boutique or philosophical blog, hip-hopping or rapping along to life’s happy nihilism like black metal fetishists apotropaically defending ourselves against the encrustations of an artificial slime world where the gods of filth and dionysian ecstasy infuse us with the abyss of the inhuman. Or, as Erdem defines it: “With the advance of global capitalism this herd-instinct can be said to have become nothing but a result of the exploitation of the life and death drives to reduce life to a struggle for and against life/death. The subject no longer has to carry the burden of being different. In this light and in this time we can see global capitalism creating not only the conditions of possibility for the subject to forget itself but also the conditions of impossibility for a remembrance of self, producing the non-knowledge of self as the counter-knowledge.”

Nietzsche‘s Ecce Homo has become for the new trend setters the glorious cookbook for ‘healthy living’, and all those pesky little ghosts of our forbears otherness has suddenly surprised us as the unmasking of our daily selves in the present. Erdem in a final colloquy relates that ”the the non-reason inherent in reason has become the reason itself, and yet the questions remain:

1. What can be learned from Nietzsche’s failure, which caused and continues to cause many other failures?

2. What are the conditions of possibility for a non-antagonistic and yet non-illusory relationship between the self and the other and how can they be sustained?

Those two questions could and should fill volumes, but being a small blog report upon the workings of such a fine mind we can only hope that Cengiz Erdem will be answering these either fully or partially in his upcoming book?

Addendum: Cengiz published another essay just after the previous one, Barbaric Regress and Civilised Progress contra Deconstruction and Affirmative Recreation, which offers some further reflection on the above topic.

via Dark Chemistry

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Image by kian1 via Flickr

Sceptic:  For me Nietzsche is one of those who do philosophy departing from a wound, from a deep-seated internal problem… The wound is internal to Nietzsche but the source of this wound is external, so you see, he is in-between. He attacks both sides at the same time, there is a profound neither/nor relationship, an endless struggle between the life drive and the death drive in Nietzsche’s books. As for Hegel, I’m not so sure what kind of a man he was. His philosophy doesn’t seem to give me “the kicks” as you say. But to me Hegel is sobering, and that is what I require. In Kant’s books you see everything divided and subdivided into sections and subsections. And you see Kant’s idea is there in three books. I find the life philosophy-academic philosophy distinction ridiculous and luxurious for our times. It deprives us of many great philosophers. Nietzsche’s is neither academic nor life, but a kind of open philosophy; philosophy without the final judgment. Nietzsche has never said and will never have said his last word.

Stoic: Never?

Sceptic: And that there is no such last word or final judgment is itself Nietzsche’s last word and final judgment. It is with Nietzsche that we come to realize this paradoxical situation, this vicious cycle, within which we have come to be entrapped.

Stoic: But Nietzsche also makes us ask, what would be the price paid to escape from this vicious cycle?

Sceptic: That’s indeed another thing that he does. It is precisely because of these endless questions leading to one another, each question the answer of another, and this incompleteness of his philosophy is only one of the reasons that make Nietzsche attractive for many. The second is this: Nietzsche has four-five teachings, the first one is, which for me is the most important, that “knowledge is perspectival by nature.” As soon as he says this, his philosophy becomes an opening up to a new field for thought and life. Everyone can enter Nietzsche’s new space and take what they want, it is like a toolbox. There is something for Hitler in that work, something else for Bataille, for Heidegger, Freud, so you see how clear it all becomes in this context, what he means when he says on the title-page of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “A book for no one and everyone.” You can translate this as a book for everyone who will understand but at the same time for no one, since no one can completely understand what exactly Nietzsche means. This formula is applicable to his philosophy as a (w)hole, a philosophy for none and all at the same time. And there is no (w)hole of Nietzsche’s philosophy to be comprehended as a (w)hole anyway. This attitude would reduce “Nietzsche” to its bare bones when in fact it is a very fleshy writing. It wouldn’t be fair on Nietzsche. Mine is a stance from which I try to justify Nietzsche, save him. It is the tendency of most readers of Nietzsche to be his advocate. And yet I now realize that this attitude, too, is not so true to the spirit of Nietzsche. And this is the reason why I distanced myself from Nietzsche, after witnessing what has been happening in the world for the last one hundred years, since Nietzsche’s death. You might as well read “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz,” as “there can be no philosophy after Auschwitz.” Or you at least become compelled to admit, “after Auschwitz it becomes very difficult, almost impossible to unconditionally affirm Nietzsche’s philosophy.” You might, and you should, feel the need to introduce a distance between yourself and Nietzsche.

Stoic: Another paradoxical situation emerges here, for Nietzsche is himself against himself in this respect and on this subject.

Sceptic: Yes, he is indeed.

Stoic: And this indicates a self-deconstructive reading at work, that is, you are already deconstructing your own reading as you read Nietzsche.

Sceptic: But isn’t this a natural outcome of philosophical thinking? I think Nietzsche’s grandest illusion was his excessive self-assurance, a pathological self-confidence which led him not to use his critical eye in relation to himself as much as he did in relation to others. He perspectivizes truth but he never situates himself in the nineteenth century as a priest who had been influenced by the likes of Wagner and Schopenhauer; he never comes to terms with his finitude, and so he never manages to reconcile himself to life.

Stoic: In 1889, when his passage to the other side is semi-complete he is about forty-five.

Sceptic: Yes.

Stoic: The most interesting aspect of his work is its posthumousness. He left behind a multiplicity of texts in complete silence and yet all his work, this multiplicity of texts, is itself an unceasing and singular voice at times causing nausea. When one is looking at this oeuvre one wonders what kind of a will to power is Nietzsche’s, it’s not clear, some say it should be translated as will towards power. I think will to power and will to nothingness are one and the same thing. Will towards power and being towards death are the two constituent parts of becoming what one always already is. And what use of a will to truth if it is not in the service of becoming true to one’s being. Perhaps if his work had not been interrupted by illness, he, and we with him, would have been better able to make sense of these circular movements of thought.

Sceptic: Nietzsche’s working method involves taking notes as he walked… And then revising those notes…

Stoic: …Organize those thoughts, put them in order? But it’s different when Zarathustra speaks. He wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra locked in a room, sitting in a chair in front of a table on the mountains after his devastating Lou Andreas-Salomé experience. There is a close relation between aphorisms and steps, fragmentary writing and walking. It is the same in the case of other aphorism writers, there are flashes of insight involved, always fragmentary, little thoughts complete in themselves and yet to be formulated in relation to one another. Nietzsche’s process of thinking is itself discontinuous, fragmentary; it’s an attempt to give birth to partial objects without relation to an external idea of wholeness. As soon as something strikes him he feels as though if he doesn’t put it down immediately he never will. And since he thinks about the same thing from different perspectives through a period of time, the result is a plurality of partial objects all somehow linked to one another rather than to a whole outside them. He didn’t have time to make sense of all he thought. His thought was larger than his life. He used to write so rapidly but still his infinite speed of thought always left his writing behind.

Sceptic: If only he had lived longer and thought with less speed.

Stoic: Perhaps he could have finished the work of his life in a much more precise way. If he were able to write a second Ecce Homo at sixty years old, he could have survived his thought. But of course I’m assuming too much here.

Sceptic: Actually it is good to throw some light on where Nietzsche is coming from and where he is heading towards. It makes visible the great potential of Nietzsche’s thought; explicates the possibilities of new ways of thinking and living it has to offer.

Stoic: In a new light everything becomes other than itself.

Sceptic: Plato criticized his own concept of the Idea later in life. Perhaps if Nietzsche had lived longer he would have had a critical look at his earlier work.

Stoic: The other day I had a look at On The Genealogy of Morality as a preparation for our conversation. In it I saw Nietzsche thinking about two hundred years ahead of his time. And this prophetic stance is not very common among philosophers. Usually poets tend to tell of the future.

Sceptic: Poets do tend to have messianic expectations.

Stoic: Yes, poets too operate at messianic levels but Nietzsche is assured that what he thinks will take place in the future will actually take place; he believes in the truth of what he assumes. And worst of all, we now see that what he thought would happen is really happening. Have a look at what he says:              

What meaning would our entire being have if not this, that in us this will to truth has come to a consciousness of itself as a problem? … It is from the will to truth’s becoming conscious of itself that from now on—there is no doubt about it—morality will gradually perish: that great spectacle in a hundred acts that is reserved for Europe’s next two centuries, the most terrible, most questionable, and perhaps also most hopeful of all spectacles…[1]

He sees the rise of Nihilism. And we see him say this in Genealogy published in November 1887. It has been 117 years and we can say that his prophecy has proved to be true for the first 117 years out of 200. On this account we can bet that this truth will increasingly maintain its truth status in the remaining 83 years. Looking backwards he tells of the future. With a messianic force he writes Ecce Homo in which he proclaims himself Christ and Dionysus. What he means by that self-fashioning is that he has passed across the Nihilism, went through the will to nothingness and reached the point after the fantasy is traversed where Christ and Dionysus confront one another. But Nietzsche never says that he is the overman. Nietzsche, in Ecce Homo, fashions himself as the one who remains the man who wants to die. In Gay Science we see the theme of God’s death merging with the story of a madman wandering around with his lamp, looking for God. He distinguishes two forms of Nihilism: one is an active nihilism he associates with destruction, the other is an exhausted and passive nihilism he identifies as Buddhism.

Sceptic: Perhaps it’s true; today we know the West is turning towards the East.

Stoic: He sees not one, but two distinct futures of a Nihilist Europe. But I don’t really get what he means when he says he has himself overcome nihilism. Has he really overcome nihilism or is it just wishful thinking?

Sceptic: I don’t know whether he has or he has not overcome nihilism, but what I can say concerning why he thinks in that way is this: In a nut-shell nihilism is the absence of “where” and “why,” or “direction” and “intention.” Nietzsche is convinced that he is showing humanity a new direction towards which to head. His project of revaluing the values is itself an attempt at overcoming nihilism, but this attempt only partially overcomes nihilism, for even after all the values are devalued there remains the new values to be created out of the ruins of the old. Revaluation cannot be completed unless destruction is left behind and creation takes its course.

Stoic: Absolutely. Nihilism is necessary for the devaluation of values, but should be left behind before revaluing the values. So nihilism is a useful tool in turning the existing order against itself but when it comes to creating the new it is nothing other than an enemy. Nietzsche’s discourse is almost a Marxist discourse without Marxist terminology. To see this aspect of Nietzsche more clearly let me give you a brief account of the master-slave relationship in Hegel and Nietzsche. For Hegel everyone is a slave and some slaves, out of a dissatisfaction with slavery, fight to death for mastery, win the fight, and through recognition by the slaves as the masters, become masters, and dominate the slaves. Dialectical process, however, does not end there and in the next stage, and “as history has shown us” in Marx’s words, since in time everything turns into its opposite, slaves eventually become masters. Whereas for Nietzsche from the beginning there are masters and slaves, which he calls active and reactive forces, but the ones who play the role of masters are in fact the slaves and the slaves the masters. So what Nietzsche wants to say is that slaves dominate the masters because of the false values upon which human life is built. Reactive forces are the slaves who occupy the master position and active forces are the masters who occupy the slave position. It is always the reactive forces who win because their reactions are contagious and it is extremely easy for them to multiply themselves and degenerate the others. The active forces, however, although they are the strong ones, are always crushed under the false value system created by the reactive forces. If Hegel is saying that everything eventually turns into its opposite and the roles are reversed only after a struggle to death, Nietzsche is saying that the roles are always already reversed and the way to set things right, rather than passing through reversing the roles, passes through a revaluation of all values on the way to a new game. How would you respond to that?

Sceptic: Well, Nietzsche looks at things otherwise. Through eternal recurrence everything is continually inverted into the spotlight and everything turns into something other than itself in time. So he comes to the conclusion that everything is so reversed that the weak wins. That’s what he sees as the outcome of nihilism. In Nietzsche’s world what everyone understands from improvement is in fact the opposite of the real meaning of improvement. Look what he says, 

One should at least be clear about the expression “be of use.” If by this one intends to express that such a system of treatment has improved man, then I will not contradict: I only add what “improve” means for me—the same as “tamed,” “weakened,” “discouraged,” “sophisticated,” “pampered,” “emasculated” (hence almost the same as injured…)[2]

Stoic: I admire him for what he achieved but at times doesn’t he become more than self-confident. I occasionally feel that he saw himself as a prophet.

Sceptic: Well, it is obvious that he suffered from a certain megalomania. No doubt he lacked self-critical eyes.

Stoic: Does he give you the feeling that he regarded himself a prophet from time to time? Could he have thought he was revealing the word of God?

Sceptic: The thinker talking through Zarathustra’s mouth has that prophetic quality. Zarathustra is himself a prophet. There are various speculations concerning Nietzsche’s entry into the realm of madness. When it occured and so on. Some say when his books are read with a clinical intent there is no trace of madness in his work. I don’t agree with this. Already in Zarathustra there is a deterioration of his thought processes. An exaggerated self-confidence appears in Ecce Homo. But to be considered a prophet is what Nietzsche dreaded most. He says it in Ecce Homo: “I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy.”

Stoic: One still wonders whether he is the first prophet without a God, if he thought himself to be the first prophet without a God, and with this thought he went off the rails?  

Sceptic: Are you listening to what I’m saying? 

Stoic: He also sees himself as the disciple of Dionysus.

Sceptic: Have you heard what I’ve just said?

Stoic: He signed Dionysus the last letter he wrote to Strindberg.

Sceptic: And Crucified at the same time. Nietzsche’s thought is full of paradoxes. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why it is a philosophy for everyone. On any topic, on this or that subject, there is this perspective and there is that. You can choose whatever works for you and ignore the others. But that’s not what I’m really concerned with. The contradiction at the heart of Nietzsche is that his theory of eternal return and the becoming of overman cancel each other out. There are two distinct layers of time at which Nietzsche’s teaching operates. First is the linear time of history, the time in which animals live, it is a measurable time. Birth, reproduction, internalisation, metabolism, dissolution all take place in this time; it is the time of life and death. The exact opposite of this time is the circular time of the spirit. It is a time that transcends the linear time and the physical world. It is a product of man’s dissatisfaction with the physical world; a will to go beyond the physical and/or outside time. He conceived of both of these forms of time (Aeon and Chronos) and he existed in both at the same time. He was a man who knew that there is nothing outside physical time and/but who still strived to go beyond this time.

Stoic: How agonizing is that? I think it is none other than himself he is talking about when he says,

Precisely this is what the ascetic ideal means: that something was lacking, that an enormous void surrounded man—he did not know how to justify, to explain, to affirm himself: he suffered from the problem of his meaning. He suffered otherwise as well, he was for the most part a diseased animal: but the suffering itself was not his problem, rather that the answer was missing to the scream of his question: “to what end suffering?”[3]                 

All his life he tried to make sense of the inordinate measure of suffering and privation he had to endure. In vain he looked for a way of exposing “the vanity of all human wishes.” He was dissatisfied with his life and he hated himself for that. He kept resisting the Stoic within himself. But his Sceptic side was incapable of putting something other than the teachings of Socrates in the place left empty by the demolition of his Stoic side. He equally resented having remained under the shadow of Socrates. To escape from Socrates he attacked Plato’s metaphysics of presence and did this with the tools he borrowed from Heraclitus; a pre-Stoic philosopher who has deeply influenced both the Zeno of Citium, who was the founder of Stoicism, and the Zeno of Elea, who explained how it could be possible for a tortoise to pass Achilles in a race. If you look at the latter Zeno’s paradox carefully you see that what he wants to say with all his arrow business is that there can be no motion out of immobility. Yes, the arrow is at rest at every instant and the mind unites those individual instants each a picture in itself. What the eye receives is already what the mind’s synthesizing force creates. We see the arrow in motion when in fact it is, at every instant of its existence, at rest. You see where Zeno is coming from there. He is coming from Heraclitus’ idea that “one cannot step into the same river twice.” The river which is stepped into is a different river at each instant of its flow. You can see that Heraclitus is making a distinction between the flowing water and the bed in which it flows. It is Heraclitus who first splits time. So Zeno finds himself in a split time and can say that before rational thought unites time there is no movement to be perceived.

Sceptic: But this means that Zeno thinks reason creates something out of nothing, or movement out of immobility.

Stoic: And this is very similar to the foundational truth upon which Epictetus builds his therapeutic philosophy. Epictetus says that we create our history, our past, present, and future. It is up to us to change the way we perceive things, put them in a new light, see ourselves differently, and act in way which would be in harmony with nature, in accordance with reason, and for the benefit of all. Epictetus doesn’t see the care of the self as other than the care for the other, he reconciles the interior and the exterior of the subject. So knowledge is a construct of the synthesis of the internal and the external; we project what we have introjected. Between projection and introjection there is a synthetic activity that unites the internal and the external, or the psychic and the material. And a balance between the truth of what’s really going on outside and how the subject perceives this truth is a sign of health. An internally constituted external authority, the truth of universal humanist rationalism, governs the subject in harmony with nature. Listen to what nature says to you and you will know the right thing to do, truth is of nature, say the Stoics. But Plato says: “I, the truth, am speaking.” How megalomaniac is that?

Sceptic: It is quite megalomaniac indeed. And that is the Platonic side of Nietzsche, an exaggerated self-confidence.

Stoic: But with the thought of eternal return Nietzsche is shattered. He realizes how random and chaotic life is and I think his thought of eternal return is a response to his fragmentation at the time he was in Turin. The contingency of all things led him to formulate the eternal return, a circular time with no beginning or an end. In this circular time “a throw of the dice will never abolish the chance,” as Mallarmé put it. So after the nihilistic fantasies and Dionysian hallucinations are traversed the new age of bliss begins for the ones who have learned to learn from what happens to them in this life and rather than fall into the wound pass across it and affirm life as it is. Amor fati is both the driving force and the outcome of the eternal return. Everyone is born free. One who loves one’s fate whatever happens is free. It is a very Stoic thought; as long as the mind is free who cares about the body in chains. But this is not to despise the body, on the contrary, Stoics do care about their bodies; cleanliness, appetite, health, good behaviour, humour, kindness, affirmative attitude; it is a very naturalist social philosophy.

Sceptic: I didn’t know that you were so off the rails. If I understood you correctly, in eternal return there is no room for Darwinist linear evolution. Evolution is peculiar to linear time. Nietzsche is after finding a new form of progressive movement in complicity with the circular movement of time. The idea of eternal return is a very vague formulation of what he was really after. It is Bergson who came closer to saying what Nietzsche wanted to say. In his Creative Evolution Bergson investigates Zeno’s paradox and comes to the conclusion that Zeno’s idea that there can be no movement in-itself because time is infinitely divided within itself is not sufficient to theorize a practical and creative evolutionary process other than a linear progress. Bergson says that cinema achieves what Zeno thought was impossible. By creating motion pictures out of pictures at rest at every instant he introduces mind as a projection-introjection mechanism just like a camera. “But while our consciousness thus introduces succession into external things, inversely these things themselves externalise the successive moments of our inner duration in relation to one another.”[4] Bergson doesn’t differ from Zeno as much as he thinks he does, in that, it was Zeno who said mind projects what it had introjected. And this projection-introjection mechanism is a binding-splitting force at the same time. It binds the subject to the social as it splits the subject within itself, right?

Stoic: Well, almost. It is a matter of working through ways of dealing with history, with the contingency of every event and the randomness of what happens to us in time. Stoics look down on death and suffering. They say that which has happened cannot be changed in linear time, but in circular time everything can be changed in perception and then projected onto the present so as to leave behind the traumatic incident and move on towards becoming present. So, you see, you are always already present and yet this presence is always changing in relation to your past and future, and hence while you are always present you are never present, you are always a non-presence becoming present. So the way in which you relate to your past, the way in which you read your history, determines your actions at present, so why don’t you read your past in such a way as to enable yourself to become self-present. It is about creating the self so as to create itself as a perpetually renewed self-presence. It is not out of nothing that something is created, there never is nothing for the self. You can see that it is all very closely related to the thought of death in Stoics. “Let death and exile and everything that is terrible appear before your eyes every day, especially death; and you will never have anything contemptible in your thoughts or crave anything excessively.”[5] It is one of his principal doctrines always to start from sense-experience. Life is a process of breaking down and remaking the sense of experience. 

Sceptic: And after his intense sense-experiences Nietzsche dies, leaving behind words that have long ago ceased to be his. Writing is a process of transforming the sense-experience to make it visible for the others. But at the same time writing is itself a sense-experience. And in Nietzsche we very occasionally see writing about the experience of writing. There is an intense meditation on the affective quality of language in Nietzsche.   

Sceptic: But he is partly blind to what’s going on not only inside him but also outside him.

Stoic: He gets too excited about the affect of language. And together with the will to experience more of it he falls on the side of total dissolution. He pushes his thought to its limit after which there is nothing, but he goes on and in utter dismemberment he finds himself. But when he finds himself he is already dismembered and so finds that there is no self outside the social. To find that out he had to push his thought to its limit and pay the price with the loss of his mental health. Perhaps he was a bit too aggressive towards the Stoics who could have shown him a way out of his dilemma: “Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or hits you, but the judgement about them that they are insulting. So when someone irritates you be aware that what irritates you is your own belief. Most importantly, therefore, try not to be carried away by appearance, since if you once gain time and delay you will control yourself more easily.”[6] But Nietzsche was busy with struggling with Stoics for their rationality and universality.

Sceptic: Well, Nietzsche’s aim has never been to write therapeutic prescriptions for the ill. He sees this as taming. And yet this is what he is doing. With Nietzsche therapy and critical theory confront each other. “With priests everything simply becomes more dangerous, not only curatives and healing arts, but also arrogance, revenge, acuity, excess, love, lust to rule, virtue, disease; though with some fairness one could also add that it was on the soil of this essentially dangerous form of human existence, the priestly form, that man first became an interesting animal, that only here did the human soul acquire depth in a higher sense and become evil—and these are, after all, the two basic forms of the superiority of man over other creatures!…”[7]  Here he is talking about Christianity and Buddhism, but you can imagine the same criticism directed against not only Plato but also the Stoics. Nietzsche’s sees the Jews as the beginners of “the slave revolt in morality.”[8] You see, he is after an attitude to life that would be neither Jewish nor Greek. And the common ground on which both the Greek and the Jewish civilizations are built is an assumption that man is superior to other animals. It is not difficult to see where he is coming from if you remember that Christians thought Jews to be as inferior as animals. As for Buddhism, it is passive nihilism, a will to nothingness, for what is Nirvana if not a mystical union with God, with nothingness. After dissolving all these belief systems in a universal cesspool Nietzsche moves on to a revaluation of all values in the light of the Genesis in The Old Testament: “At the beginning was the word.” But what God is, for Nietzsche, is precisely this: nothingness. It doesn’t start from nothingness, it starts with language, and everything comes from language which has neither a beginning nor an end.

Stoic: But I think you are missing Nietzsche’s point there. For there is a pre-linguistic domain which is not nothingness, but something in between nothingness and everything that there is, that space between is the realm of partial objects which serve the purpose of relating to the world even before the language is acquired. And with this he comes back to what Zeno was saying. At the beginning there is no-motion, but that state of the being of things is not perceivable, for the mind unites partial-objects to form a sequence of events, before which there is nothing perceivable. Zeno says, movement in-itself and for itself is impossible because there can be no movement prior to the synthesis of the individual states of being at rest. But with cinema we see that motionless pictures are put one after the other in a particular sequence and when the film revolves a continuity of images, a flow of pictures is created. There is the illusion of one continuous motion of events when in fact each event is a motionless picture in itself.

Sceptic: But if it cannot be perceived how can you say that at the beginning there is nothing and immobility?

Stoic: Well, that’s not what I’m saying. There is nothing at the beginning precisely because nothing can be perceived before the beginning. You see, there is the absence of something, there is nothing as the object of perception. You have to assume that beginning itself has no beginning so that you can begin living, acting, and doing things. Otherwise how can you live with the thought of being surrounded by nothingness and death at all times? Death is where you cannot be. It is absolutely other to you, its presence signifies your absence and inversely. Perhaps we should have said there is nothing before the beginning and after the end. That fits in better with everything.

Sceptic: Yes, and with this sentence the riddle is solved to some extent; it is not a matter of beginning or ending; everything is in the middle, and nothing is before the beginning and after the end. The eternal return has neither a beginning nor an end.

Stoic: Even when you die your body is still in the process of dissolving; you dissolve into other things and become something else. It is not resurrection I’m talking about here. Nor is resurrection what Nietzsche attempted to theorize with the thought of eternal return, but a very materialist understanding of nature and its relation to man. Nietzsche never says what exactly the eternal return means but from what he says we come to a grasp of what it might mean. Let me quote Nietzsche at length. In this one of the best descriptions of what the eternal return might mean we see Zarathustra talking with a dwarf about time, the moment as a gateway to possibilities, and the passage of time.

 ‘Everything straight lies,’ murmured the dwarf disdainfully. ‘All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.’

‘Spirit of Gravity!’ I said angrily, ‘do not treat this too lightly! Or I shall leave you squatting where you are, Lamefoot—and I have carried you high!

‘Behold this moment!’ I went on. ‘From this gateway Moment a long, eternal lane runs back: an eternity lies behind us.

‘Must not all things that can run have already run along this lane? Must not all things that can happen have already happened, been done, run past?

‘And if all things have been here before: what do you think of this moment, dwarf? Must not this gateway, too, have been here—before?

‘And are not all things bound fast together in such a way that this moment draws after it all future things? Therefore—draws itself too?

‘For all things that can run must also run once again forward along this long lane.

‘And this slow spider that creeps along in the moonlight, and this moonlight itself, and I and you at this gateway whispering together, whispering of eternal things—must we not all have been here before?

‘—and must we not return and run down that other lane out before us, down that long, terrible lane—must we not return eternally?’[9] 

You see, what renders the eternal return possible is saying yes to difference in repetition. The eternal return is Nietzsche’s grand conception which excludes all binary opposition and defies the binary logic of being and non-being. You can see that it is far away from what Diogenes Laertius was saying concerning the relationship between absence and presence. For Laertius where there is absence there can be no presence and inversely. But Nietzsche thinks that being and non-being, presence and absence are intermingled, are the two constitutive parts of becoming. One side of becoming accomplishes its movement while the other fails to accomplish its movement. So the persistence of being can only take the form of becoming. It is the becoming of being that counts as the immaculate conception of the eternal return. The eternal return is not a metaphysical concept, rather it renders possible attachment to the material world, the world as it is before turning into a fable in and through a linear narrative of history. The eternal return is a tool for interpreting the world in its infinity and finitude at the same time, and its legacy lies in its rejection of both a purely transcendental and a purely immanent interpretation of the world. When Nietzsche makes the dwarf say “everything straight lies[…] all truth is crooked, time itself is a circle,” he is pointing towards an ethical imperative, namely, that one must give free rein to the unconscious drives so that in time, as these drives are let to manifest themselves in and through language, it becomes apparent that it is ridiculous to repress them for it is repression itself that produces them; so the more one represses them the more one contributes to their strengthening. As you see what at stake here is a way of governing the self in relation to others. Eternal return is will to power and will to nothingness at the same time, it is the name of the process of becoming through which the subject becomes other than itself. This becoming other than itself of the subject is in the form of an emergence of the new out of the old, that is, realization of an already existing possibility and will towards its actualisation through this realization. So the subject assumes what it was in the past and upon this assumption builds its present as already past and yet to come. It is in this context that Foucault says genealogy is “a history of the present.”

Sceptic: Very interesting. You seem to have figured out the ways of passing across the avenues Gilles Deleuze opened in the way of explicating the meaning of eternal return and its use. Look at what he says in a passage, perhaps the most lucid articulation of Deleuze’s conception of time and its passage in Nietzsche and Philosophy:

What is the being of that which becomes, of that which neither starts nor finishes becoming? Returning is the being of that which becomes. “That everything recurs is the closest approximation of a world of becoming to world of being—high point of the meditation.” [Will to Power, 617] This problem for the meditation must be formulated in yet another way; how can the past be constituted in time? How can the present pass? The passing moment could never pass if it were not already past and yet to come—at the same time as being present. If the present did not pass of its own accord, if it had to wait for a new present in order to become past, the past in general would never be constituted in time, and this particular present would not pass. We cannot wait, the moment must be simultaneously present and past, present and yet to come, in order for it to pass (and to pass for the sake of other moments). The present must coexist with itself as past and yet to come. The synthetic relation of the moment to itself as present, past and future grounds its relation to other moments. The eternal return is thus an answer to the problem of passage. And in this sense it must not be interpreted as the return of something that is, that is “one” or the “same.” We misinterpret the expression “eternal return” if we understand it as “return of the same.”[10]

Stoic: It is true. Let me explain. With the big-bang a substance of infinite intensity begins its still ongoing process of expansion-contraction. And this process must always already be complete for it to even begin taking its course of becoming; everything happens at present and for that reason there is neither a beginning nor an end of time. The force combinations are infinitely repeated but because of its previous repetition the quality of the forces themselves change and give birth to its becoming different from itself through repetition of what it assumes itself to be in relation to time. So the subject always already is what it strives to become and yet the only way to actualise this becoming what one is is this: one has to realize that what one is striving to become is already what one is. All the configurations have to repeat themselves eternally for the return of the same to take place. But when this same returns one sees that it has never been the same but always already different from itself. When the future comes it becomes present, the subject is always at present and can never know what it would be like to exist in another present. There is nothing and the present.

Sceptic: Eternal return is the first conceptualisation of the death drive. It is not death drive but it operates the way death-drive operates, and since none of these have any existence outside their operations they are the two different forms the same content takes. The subject of the eternal return wills nothingness and this willing nothingness always returns as a will to power. You can see that Nietzsche uses this grand conception of the relationship between creation and destruction to invert destructive and reactive Nihilism into the spotlight; he turns Nihilism against itself through the thought of eternal return as the thought of becoming other than what one thinks one is. What was repressed and locked into the unconscious once turns into its opposite and becomes the order of the day in a new light and in another time. In this light time is itself the fourth dimension of space. That is how Nietzsche can see the rise of Nihilism in its material, historical conditions. We all come and keep coming from inorganic substance and will end up there. Nietzsche’s confrontation with truth was the confrontation of brain with chaos. And out of this confrontation emerges the truth of the death drive, the will to nothingness disguised as the will to truth, the internally constituted external governor of a Nihilistic Europe.

Stoic: Yes. They are in our midst and yet exterior to us. We are surrounded and governed by nothingness and death which have neither a beginning nor an end. Well, at least not for us, who are those governed by them. For when we die we are nowhere to see our dead bodies or experience death as our own. Death occurs where there is the absence of my self’s sense-experience, all the rest is a process of being towards death, dying, becoming-dead. When death finally arrives even my name ceases to be mine, or rather, it is realized that even my name has never been mine. There remains no one to carry out my life in my name once death is here.

Sceptic: Death and nothingness are interior and exterior to us at the same time. Most of us, however, keep the thought of death at bay at all times; those of us are the ones who live their lives without thinking about death, for they think, in a Spinozan fashion, that “he who is free thinks of nothing less than of death and his meditation is a wisdom not of death but of life.” This is the time of good-sense where everything is identical and everything can be substituted by something else.

Stoic: The will to power and the will to nothingness reverse the roles. We break down as we go along the way towards the completion of passing across the field of partial objects.

Sceptic: Precisely. You told me what I was trying to tell you.  And what is thought worth if it is not in the service of the present? Sacrificing the present by scarfacing yourself for the sake of a better future face is itself the worst thing that can be done to your face at all times. In vain is he/she who strives for immortality.

Stoic: Let us move on to the subjects of finitude and infinity, then. Here is a question for you: Are we finite becomings or infinite beings?

Sceptic: We might as well be neither or both of these. It’s a matter of taste depending on whether you see being alive as a process of dying or a process of living.

Stoic: I think we who are alive, or at least think we are, are infinite beings by nature, but turn into finite becomings in and through our cultures. I say we are infinite beings because infinity has no beginning or end, so it’s impossible for an infinite entity to be a becoming, only a being can be infinite, whereas a finite entity has a beginning from which its becoming starts taking its course and comes to a halt at the end. Since the concept of time is a cultural construct imposed on nature by human beings, because we see other people die, we have come to imagine that we are limited by finitude and surrounded by infinity, when in fact it is the other way around; that is, we are infinite beings and death constitutes an internal limit to our being in the world, giving birth to our idea of ourselves as finite becomings. Do you understand?

Sceptic: Yes I do. We don’t have to strive for immortality, for we are always already immortals who are incapable of realising their immortalities.

Stoic: Shall we leave it at that, then?

Sceptic: Let’s do so.

Stoic: No last words?

Sceptic: None at all.

Stoic: No worst of all words.

Sceptic: None worse than last words.

Stoic: Well then, the end to which we are all devoted shall be to raise our glasses to this worsening suffering!

Sceptic: To what end last words?

Stoic: To what end suffering?

Stoic and Sceptic: Oh, dear!  

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morality, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Cambridge: Hackett, 1998), 117

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morality, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Cambridge: Hackett, 1998), 103

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, On The Genealogy of Morality, trans. Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen (Cambridge: Hackett, 1998), 117

[4] Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will, 228

[5] Epictetus, The Encheiridion: The Handbook, trans. Nicholas P. White (Cambridge: Hackett, 1983), 16

[6] Epictetus, 16

[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genalogy of Morality, 15-6

[8] Nietzsche, 17

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 178-9

[10] Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 48


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