:: Article

on the tragedy of life

Ken Gemes interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Ken Gemes never stops brooding on what the postmoderns got right about Nietzsche, about the lack of seriously considered theories in Nietzsche, about why his naturalism isn’t of interest, about the stark nihilist fact at the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophical outlook, about the role of the genius, about being strangers to ourselves, ressentiment, Nietzschean localism, about Freud and Nietzsche’s relationship, about the ascetic ideal, about the canonical virtue of scientific empirical testability, about the need for fine grained logical content, about the value of his different philosophical interests and why what Nietzsche says may well be literally true. All in all, this one walks into the essential territory like its griot time…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Ken Gemes: I was recently contacted by a person who knew me at school; I had not heard from this old schoolmate for about 35 years. He recalled that aged 15 in history class I got caught out by the teacher for giving superficial answer unfounded on any actual historic facts. I apparently replied to the teacher’s criticism saying “I don’t care. When I grow up I am going to be a philosopher and philosophers don’t need to know any empirical facts”. Becoming a philosopher (not necessarily a Philosophy Professor) was my childhood ambition. Part of the reason was that my father pressed me with rather philosophical literature when I was fairly young; the like of Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse and Freud. Another crucial factor was that I grew up in the relaxed, materialistic, anti-intellectual Australia of the 60’s and 70’s and had great difficulty reconciling that world with the world of my moderately neurotic, cultured, Hungarian, holocaust survivor, war refugee parents – they came to Australia in 1951. I could not put those two utterly disjoint worlds together and that always gave me a sense of the unreality of things; I had this sensation of wanting to put my fingers through walls to see if they were really there. Also I have a brain dysfunction in virtue of which I have a comparative deficit of visual memories. I can recall sentences not pictures and hence have a taste for complex theoretic things – sentences that hang together in a coherent way are much easier to encode. At first this, along with my father’s tastes, led me to psychology and Freud in particular. But I soon found endless ruminations about people’s hidden motivations both emotionally debilitating and not sufficiently structurally complex to remain interesting. Philosophy gave me a complex, abstract, theoretical world where I found refuge and safety.

3:AM: You’re a leading Nietzsche scholar. There’s been in the last decade or so some interesting developments in the understanding of this philosopher. One shift has been away from a postmodernist interpretation. So to begin with, can you say something about how you think postmodernism used and abused Nietzsche? Was Foucault the main culprit in this?

KG: The postmodernists got something decidedly right about Nietzsche. Nietzsche, they say, disagrees with Descartes’ and Kant’s assumption that there is a pre-given soul or self for each person. That soul/self is a fiction. However that is merely on the descriptive side. On the normative, prescriptive, side, the post-modernists celebrate the demise of the self; they think we should totally jettison the notion of self.

For instance, the post-modernist Lytoard says we should reject all meta-narratives that try to create a centre of meaning; rather we should become ironists and employ multiple narratives, giving none any real authority. This is in fact the very nihilism that Nietzsche predicted would follow from a thorough appreciation of the Death of God. What strong individuals, the type that Nietzsche really cares about, do in the face of the collapse of all received, externally sanctioned, meta-narratives (be they that of religion, utilitarianism, Marxism, etc) is create their own meta-narrative; they impose their own values, recognizing that this is an existential act of self creation. Foucault himself actually gets a lot right about Nietzsche but also deforms him for his own purposes. I have no problem with that, since strong creative readers, rather than truth obsessed scholars, are Nietzsche’s preferred readers. That said, I find Nietzsche a hell of a lot more interesting than Foucault.

3:AM:I guess it was Nietzsche’s critique of truth that led to some of the postmodernist conclusions. So what do you think he was saying about truth?

KG: It is typical of modern philosophers to try to make Nietzsche speak to their limited concerns; hence they ask about Nietzsche’s theory of truth, Nietzsche’s epistemology, Nietzsche’s metaphysics. I don’t think Nietzsche had any seriously considered theory of truth, and was a fairly uneducated dilettante in his naive speculations about metaphysic, epistemology and the like. I would suggest that he occasionally fastened on to certain themes in epistemology and metaphysics because he thought he could use them to drive his normative agenda. For instance, the claim that there is no free will “in the superlative metaphysical sense” paves the way for a critique of received moral notions of guilt and responsibility. He was far more interested in, and perspicuous on, such psychological questions as “Why do we value truth so highly?” then such standard philosophical question as “What is the nature of truth?” Nietzsche says that he who reads him well reads him as a psychologist. I agree, but would add that one should also read him as a Kulturkritiker.

3:AM: What is your general position about Nietzsche then? Is it in the naturalist camp in the tradition of the German mid 19th century materialists like Buchner or do you situate him coming from some other place and going somewhere else?

KG: I don’t doubt that Nietzsche was in some sense a naturalist. But I don’t find that to be of much interest. In the 19th century naturalists were more or less a dime a dozen and I don’t see that he adds much to the picture.

3:AM: Is the tragedy of life in Nietzsche the stark nihilist fact that life is meaningless?

KG: Yes. Schopenhauer focused on the, for him, atemporal fact that life inevitably involves suffering. For Nietzsche’s the fundamental problem, a problem that only comes fully into view with modernity, is that life appears meaningless. Note, I refer to appearance deliberately; for the psychologist Nietzsche it does not really matter whether life actually is, or is not meaningful. What is crucial is that to us moderns it appears meaningless. Current Anglo-American interpreters tend to emphasize Nietzsche’s undoubted debt to Schopenhauer. But if we see Nietzsche as not being primarily fixated on the problem of suffering but on the particularly modern problem of the loss of meaning we have a perspective that allows emphasis of his debt to Wagner. One of Wagner’s key obsessions is that our modern will to truth destroy all those illusions and myths that provide existential meaning to our lives. It is from his engagement with Hölderlin and Wagner, among others, that Nietzsche picked up this theme.

3:AM: Do you agree with Leiter’s arguments that conclude that Nietzsche was addressing a limited type of person, the genius, and that broadening his conclusions to a more general position and audience misconceives his project?

KG: Nietzsche, like his early mentor Wagner, was influenced by the German Romantics’ notion that modernity lacks any cultural unity. He first naively followed Wagner in believing that a new unified high culture could be created through a new mythology. He soon wised up and saw (as did Taine, De Tocqueville, and Mill in his occasional pessimistic moods) that philistine culture (“the tyranny of the majority” to use De Tocqueville’s words) was inevitable. The mature Nietzsche, like the early Nietzsche, still ultimately cares about high culture, but came to believe that its survival and development was in the hands of a few individuals of genius. It is such individuals who are his real conversational partners and who he really cared to influence. In a sense, he is talking in a one way, albeit temporally two directional, conversation to the dead (his great predecessors such as Schopenhauer and Goethe) and to the yet to be born (his successors, including Mann, Rilke, Hesse and the like).

3:AM: You take a key message from Nietzsche’s Genealogy to be that we remain of necessity “stranger to ourselves.” Can you explain what you think Nietzsche is saying in what you call a “beautiful and uncanny phrase”?

KG: There is an intellectual sense in which we are “strangers to ourselves”; namely, there are parts of our psyche that we are unaware of. Thus the Christian slave, who preaches love, is typically unaware that in fact he has a raging repressed desire to have revenge against his oppressors. But the really profound sense in which we are strangers to ourselves is that there are parts of us that are in a sense split-off, working autonomously, from our conscious I and other parts of our psyche. Nietzsche’s ideal, for his select few, is the achievement of a sublimated unity, where the parts (for Nietzsche these are fundamentally different drives) are integrated into a unified whole. This estrangement from ourselves precludes such a unity and so prevents us having genuine selves and freedom.

3:AM: Does Nietzsche intend us to stop being strangers, to engage in a “shattering struggle” using “momentous courage”?

KG: As a decided elitist (he says “let the rules of the herd rule – in the herd”) he thinks the vast majority of us will inevitably remain strangers to ourselves. And doing so is not such a bad thing as it makes our pathetic lives bearable, and also we are needed to do the non-creative work, which is all we are rally capable of, and which is needed to keep society going. But for those with genuine talents he thinks finding a master voice (a master drive) that sublimates, brings into unity, the other minor keys is the high road to full creative expression. This seems to me a rather fanciful romantic notion; a kind of unity worship, Einheit über alles. I don’t see why unity is essential to full creativity. I think he is on a better track when arguing that a disunifed self (for Nietzsche a kind of non-self) is not one that can fully overcome ressentiment – the ressentiment that comes when any parts of ourselves are pathologically repressed. Again, I am not sure that being a creature of ressentiment precludes the high creativity that Nietzsche so valued. I suspect that his real objection to ressentiment is that it makes its bearer ugly. His ultimate criticism of ressentiment may be aesthetic.

3:AM: You say that Nietzsche is “always a local rather than a global thinker.” This seems strange given that he seems to go back to very ancient pre-Socratic roots to justify his claims, and this seems a pretty global procedure. But also, doesn’t the claim of being local threaten his message with parochialism – modernity has changed since he was writing, so his locality has gone and he is no longer relevant?

KG: To answer the last part first: The lack of the illusions of meaning remains one of the core problems of modernity. So Nietzsche’s core problem is arguably still with us. But we may indeed get over that and then perhaps Nietzsche will have less to say to us. It is his belief that all great ideas have their own death built into themselves; they overcome themselves. Genius that he was Nietzsche saw his own obsolescence in his vision of the last men; people who were contented with herd happiness and do not feel the call of existential questions. He was appalled by such lack of ambition but at the same time realized that he had no purchase on such creatures.

Nietzsche is a local thinker in the sense that he does not ask, as a typical philosopher would, questions such as “What is the value of truth?”, hoping to find a final answer that serves all people for all time. Rather, he asks what is the value of so and so’s high estimation of truth. Thus he says in his own case and that of Goethe their high estimation of truth was part of their engagement with the world; but for typical scholars their high estimation of truth is a way of disengaging from the world. Like Schopenhauer they aspire to be mere passive mirrors of the world; pure subjects of knowledge. Similarly with religions and illusions, Nietzsche does not globally condemn them tout court but asks of each illusion and religion whether it serves to affirm life or deny life. For instance, he has no problem with the illusion of the Greek Gods; the Greek Gods were simply a projection, a personification onto nature, of the Greeks themselves; so that in worshipping a God filled nature the Greeks were in fact healthily worshipping themselves and their natural drives. The Judeo-Christian religions, in contrast, use their God to slander this world, saying that (acting on) our natural drives, for instance sexual and aggressive drives, is an affront to God. Philosophers ask the global question what is good; Nietzsche asks local questions like what is good for this kind of person in this kind of situation. Thus he allows that a high valuation of altruism and compassion may be good for members of the herd but for genuinely creative individuals they may be a debilitating distraction.

3:AM: You have compared Freud and Nietzsche on the idea of sublimation and you find Nietzsche’s account or analysis superior. Can you first say how the two thinkers diverge?

KG: There is a stupid question (not one you asked) about how the genius, Freud, borrowed from another genius, Nietzsche – usually this is asked in the context of an implication that Freud did not properly acknowledge his debt to Nietzsche. This is not something we should care about. What is helpful is to use the work of one to illuminate that of the other.

From a Nietzschean point of view, Freud is focused rather on the mundane descriptive causal problems of herd happiness and unhappiness. Nietzsche, of course, has total disdain for such pedestrian problems. It is Nietzsche’s focus on the idea of great individuals that leads him to a picture of sublimation as a thorough integration of the drives, and, conversely, to picture pathology as a disintegration of the self into mere competing drives. Freud, on the other hand, notoriously had a good deal of trouble separating pathology from sublimation. Both, for Freud, involve the redirection of sexual impulses; sublimation leading to symptom like formations that are socially acceptable (for instance, in the case of Leonardo Da Vinci, a fixation on artistic creation), as contrasted to the case of pathology where the symptoms are social unacceptable (for instance, in the case of the psychotic judge Schreber, a fixation on the belief that God is attempting to castrate and feminize him). From a psychologist’s point of view the mere vagaries of social acceptability should not mark the distinction between the healthy and the pathological. I am on Nietzsche’s side here; much of what society approves of is pathological and some of what it disapproves of is quite healthy.

3:AM: Given the psychological insights you find in Nietzsche, why should we heed him now rather than just turn to the psychologists who followed and have gone on since?

KG: Nietzsche is a psychologist with a grand normative vision. Most psychologists have no articulate normative vision or implicitly follow Freud’s totally mundane vision of turning extraordinary unhappiness to ordinary happiness. Also, Nietzsche had the good taste to at least implicitly recognize that psychology cannot yet seriously hope to be rigorous science. Personally, I think because of complexity issues it never will be – it is computationally intractable (too many variables) for beings like us. Freud maintained a fairly inappropriate, one might even say, near fraudulent, veneer of scientific authority for much of his career.

3:AM: And if as you say Nietzsche says philosophy is merely the last manifestation of the ascetic ideal, why continue with doing philosophy? Do you like the ascetic ideal? Or is he wrong to think of philosophy like that? And how could he know whether philosophy was the last manifestation anyway?

KG: Well, as Nietzsche himself says, the ascetic ideal gave man depth and made him interesting. Unlike Nietzsche, I still think it can be a source of great creativity. Nietzsche has as tendency to berate it as pathological, but that is probably, as he himself realized, an expression of its pathological effect on him. Like Nietzsche, I strongly value human creativity in its highest forms and philosophy is one expression of that creativity. Of course it’s desperately difficult to be a genuinely creative philosopher, and people like Descartes, Kant and Nietzsche put us lesser mortals totally in the shade – talk about the difference between Gods and the human-all-too-human! Still we help keep the philosophical Gods alive and add more or less important footnotes to their work. To use another metaphor, there is a wide space of reason; the Gods map out significant portions of that space, we mortals explore and map out minor alleys.

3:AM: Changing subject matter now, you’ve argued that we don’t need to have the same essence common to all explanation and that there’s a way of explaining ‘content’ that allows for unifying what on the face of it seems incompatible things such as Freudian theory, statistical mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. This is all in the context of understanding science as a way of putting everything under a simple set of laws. Can you firstly say what your argument is, and why it answers critics to this idea of explanation as a form of reductionism?

KG: I do not see laws as the marker of science. What I see as a canonical virtue of scientific theories is empirical testability, much as the old, unfairly maligned, hypothetico-deductivists would have it. But I do not think there is any essence to explanation (e.g. explanation as reduction of, or to, laws). There are merely different explanatory virtues a theory might have. One such virtue is being able to reconcile apparently incompatible phenomena. This is a virtue of Freud’s theory – using the notion of repressed trauma he can explain why the patient Anna O both desires to drink water and is incapable of doing so. It is also a virtue of certain theories in physics; for instance, renormalization theory introduces certain mathematical tools to reconcile theoretical claims about infinite quantities with empirical observations that yield only finite quantities. Making prima facie incompatible things compatible is often a key virtue of particular philosophical theories. The problem with Freud as a scientific theory is that it has this explanatory virtue of providing a narrative that can fit seeming conflicting parts into a coherent whole, but lacks just about every other virtue.

In my philosophy of science work I introduced a new notion of logical content that allows for precise accounts of hypothetico-deductive confirmation and accounts of the notions of a reduction of laws and reduction of incompatibility. My basic shtick is that the logical positivists and their successors were stuck with a too coarse-grained account of logical content – they took the logical content of a claim to be the class of all its logical consequences. I argue that a lot of their formal projects which have been abandoned, often more for technical than for genuinely philosophical reasons, can be completed once one moves to a finer grained notion of logical content.

In terms of genuine creativity I think my work on logical content is of a much higher grade than my work on Nietzsche. My work on Nietzsche is more within the margins of current fashions of Nietzsche scholarship and so is more widely appreciated (at least in the Nietzsche community). My work in general philosophy of science is rather retrograde and unfashionable. Still, if any part of my work has a real chance of surviving (always a low probability) it is the work on content and philosophy of science. That work is really original and creative, and who knows, perhaps it will be eventually picked-up by others.

My philosophical life has always been a bit schizophrenic. I like formal work because in getting results one has a real sense of achievement; the theorems you prove are yours for life. Also there is something safe in the technical world, a world far removed from that of flesh and blood humans. On the other hand, those results are so far removed from the world of flesh and blood humans it is not always clear why anyone should care about them. Freud and Nietzsche, on the other hand, are clearly talking about flesh and blood issues, but for all we know what they say could all be total Luft (hot air). Until the birth of my severely handicapped son Alex I was more at home in the depersonalized world of formal philosophy. But after that I got brought back into the pain of the human world and felt I could only do work that spoke to more human issues; hence the focus on Nietzsche.

3:AM: Is your argument and perspective on this motivated by Nietzschean considerations? Are you a Nietzschean or is your interest just scholarly?

KG: My Nietzsche work is really disjoint from my philosophy of science work. As for being a scholar of Nietzsche, yes that is true. Philosophers often have a fair degree of healthy hubris in thinking their work is really important. Alas, I have a strong reality principle which makes me all too aware of the relative triviality of my own work; so studying and trying to elucidate the thoughts of an out-and-out genius seems a very worthy occupation to me. Still, when wearing my philosophy of science hat I say what while what Nietzsche says could all be the literal truth, since his work deals with questions of psychology, and psychology is basically epistemologically infirm, there is no way of knowing if any of it is true. As someone who comes from a background in literature I nevertheless value Nietzsche as one who gives us really interesting narratives about ourselves and our developmental histories. I like to think that these narratives are not simply attempts to describe the world but are partially constitutive and formative of the human world.

3:AM: And for the interested reader here at 3ammagazine, are there five books you could recommend?

KG: I want to recommend things that your readers might not have come across rather than my five favorite books:

KG: The Dream of Heroes by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Really, anything by Casares, for instance, The Invention of Morel, and A Plan for an Escape. Casares collaborated on several hilarious books (including The Chronicles of Bustos Domencq – a wonderful spoof of modernism) with Jorge Louis Borges (Borges’ Labyrinths is a must read for the philosophical minded – the great thing about Borges, besides his incredible wit and erudition, is that he knows exactly what his ideas are worth, that is 3-5 pages. That cannot be said for most of the rest of us.). The Dream of Heroes deals in a comic and subtle way with the common intimation that our visible life is not our real life, which has somehow been denied us. It shows how this other worldly longing can literally obliterate the real possibilities of this world. Casares, in terms of sheer wild imaginative genius, is the closet one can come to E.T.A Hoffman (I am thinking here in particular of Hoffman’s nightmarish vision The Golden Pot).

Read Conrad’s short story The Duel, then see the film The Duelists by Ridley Scott. The book has an ending different from the film which gives it added depth. The film, influenced a lot by still life paintings, is incredibly beautiful and has some wonderful lines not in Conrad’s story. When one of the protagonists is challenged with the question “Who are your friends” (meaning who will act as your seconds in a duel) he replies “Frankly sir, I have no friends stupid enough to participate in such a farce”. This is a line I have much recourse to.

Chekov’s novella The Duel. To some extent this is a more human version of the fight between Settembrini and Naphta in Thomas Man’s The Magic Mountain. Chekov’s plays are notorious talk fests, typically with no proper climax or denouement. His real work is in his short stories – though some of them are quite slight. The Duel, notoriously, has a ridiculous ending, but in its dealing with the clash between a modern Darwinist world view and a vision more attuned to human frailties, it shows a wonderful appreciation of the mixed grey tones of life. Generally, I prefer Chekov and Turgenev to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The latter especially insists on painting in terms of extremes whereas the former two, like Conrad, are more attune to the subtle shades. For instance, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are prone to a ridiculous idolization of the Russian peasant as some kind of pure uncontaminated soul. Turgenev and, especially, Chekov are aware that centuries of abuse have led the peasants into some of the lowest vices, including, dishonesty, brutality and alcoholism. Nevertheless, while recognizing the debasement produced by abuse, they still have a fundamental sympathy for the downtrodden, without the absurd idolization.

Read Fontane’s Effi Briest, and then see the film of the same title by Fassbinder. The film is surprising as the iconoclast Fassbinder sticks very closely to the book, save for a couple of stupid Brechtian moments where a placard is held up more or less telling us the moral of the story. I do not deny the charge that Effi is in some sense the idiot’s version of Madame Bovary. But the crucial point for me is that I cannot take Flaubert’s extreme condescension to all the characters in his books. Fontane still maintains a fundamental sympathy for all his characters and expands a sympathetic moral vision. I am partial to the claim that literature, more than philosophy, is a prime means of moral education and development.

For a riotous vision of enthralling tragic, comic, and pathological dimensions read Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of my Nervous Illness; the basis for Freud’s brilliant but far less compelling case study (Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of A Case of Paranoia). Besides inventing the uncanny notion of soul murder (“the crisis that broke upon the realms of God was caused by somebody having committed soul murder”) he tells us the literally false, but somehow poetically deeply true, claim that “God did not understand the living human being and had no need to understand him, because according to the Order of the World, He dealt only with corpses”. Freud’s claim is that the pathological is separated from the normal not by a difference in kind but by a difference in degree. I read Schreber and do not see a great difference from many people I know, myself included; as Freud says it’s a matter of degree, not kind.

Let me finish with two films I think your readers might not otherwise come across. Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution and Lars von Trier’s Element of Crime. The former deals poignantly with the end of the haute bourgeoisie in their more humanistic manifestation. It begins with the wonderful nostalgic line from Talleyrand “Those who did not live before the revolution do not know how sweet life can be” and contains at least two scenes of stunning virtuosity. One where a member of the landed gentry now fallen on hard times has to say goodbye to his estate – he concludes “Here life finishes, and survival begins” (Qui finisce la vita e comincia la sopravvivenza). In another scene the hero comes to realize that he has only been playing at being a revolutionary and tells us he has “nostalgia for the present”; he explains that he is somehow removed from the actual events in his life so that he comes to experience the present as if he were only a spectator of his own actions and not their perpetrator. This film poignantly chronicles the collapse of the kind of humanist vision that my father tried to imbue in his children. Element of Crime is an homage to Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It is set in a kind of post-apocalypse Europe, where it is always dark and always raining. It is done with sodium lighting which gives the images a kind of faded sepia coloring – like old photographs. The story is more or less idiotic, a detective investigating a series of crimes some of which, in the end, he himself and his mentor may have committed. What is wonderful is that it fully realizes a kind of landscape and logic of nightmares. My good friend John Richardson, to this day, complains that he has nightmares about this film after I “forced” him to watch it with me.

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, January 25th, 2014.