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When Negativity Don’t Pull You Through: Asides 3

By Richard Marshall.

[Art: Bob Dylan]

Idiot wind
Blowing like a circle around my skull
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol
Idiot wind
Blowing every time you move your teeth
You’re an idiot, babe
It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

(Bob Dylan: Idiot Wind)

It was Allen Ginsberg’s recognition of what was happening with the rhyming of ‘skull’ with ‘Capitol’ in this verse that led to Dylan inviting him onto the Rolling Thunder Review tour back in the seventies. Ginsberg saw the rhyme as a buckling of intimate, private and existential despair with that of public, social and political power. Both skull and Capitol shared notions of governance – one of the person and one of the nation. The circling wind loads both released and unreleased resonances – change, breathe of God, stormy weather, hurricanes, wild souls – as does the circle which mimics the twin domes of skull and the Capitol building as well as the circles of wedding rings, wheels on fire and crowns . In so doing, the verse expanded its range so that what is intimate and personal is also taking measure of America’s immensity. So the song accommodates both the collapse of an ideal relationship and of an ideal politics, but only as a predator circles its prey. There’s no final end to the meanings. Of course the title half-reminds us of Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’, or doubles up and presses down on hidden things in that earlier song, a song where an overt political protest is buckled to a poetics that runs lines far away down from its public surface.  Both songs pull tight its nightmares and dreams through rhyme, showing dark glimpses of words and worlds lying below the surface, signalling blind links between verses, lines, asides, refrains and rhymes  so that  the  whole song compresses what seems like a huge and overwhelming expression of fearfulness and torment and hope and love into its torrential images. Idiot Wind is full of such compound ghosts. What I mean here is that the song combines relevant echoes not all of which are actually activated in the poetics, but which nevertheless explain how the song is structured and how it is heard. Keats writes about how inspiration is only’afterwards confirmed in a dozen features of propriety’, that it is after writing that he notices influences, meanings and echoes in what he wrote, and so should we, the reader. And these are not best understood as parts but better thought of as a compound unity.

The song seems to be saying, in more ways than one: Life’s not worth it. Better off buried. Better off having never been born even. But that’s just the first blush. A second later we feel the strength of wonder, and what we’re wondering about. Despite the lies and deceptions, the traps and failings, the voice repeatedly reiterates one startling fact: both the voice and its object remain, and keep on keeping on. Life is being asserted in the face of the terrible truths. It may be a wonder that anyone still knows how to breathe, but it really is a wonder. And it’s the truth Dylan asserts as well as the terrible things. It is that sense of wonder – both the questions about everything that keep being raised but also the wonderousness of everything – especially, as Ginsberg and Dylan both recognized, the wonderousness of the rhymes – that circles any mere contemptuous dismissal of life and blows back and gives life its zest. What is wonderous, says the song in its various manifestations of refrain, is our ability to breathe despite what might seem like crushing existential blows. Of course, the song has a troubling ability to look both ways at once: life is terrible and life is wonderous. And yet if you take both together it will choke, and if you thin it out to neither it will be empty, so there is a requirement to weigh a likelihood against another likelihood and make a decision of some sort. Is this a song about despair or is this a song about the wonder necessarily made possible only through despair? Dylan’s art is one were he invites you to have the experience of imagining the experience of this intense but prolonged moment, and resists allowing any one dimension to tyrannize any other. But in its insistent, imploring and beseeching address of the ‘you’ in the song, it’s a love song, intensely emotional and intimate – it continually addresses  ‘you’ you notice – and one where even though the whole round world is collapsing into idiocy and is being blown away, love remains, and in doing so allows us the experience of imagining that it does.  So it’s possible to hear the song as a perfect example of the Nietzschean response to Schopenhauer’s pessimism, its drama and tension being the realisation of terrible truths and finding influences from within awareness of those truths to rescue us from pessimism.

Nietzsche knows that the truth is terrible but it’s just meaningless misery and pain that has to be overcome, not mere misery and pain. Nietzsche’s materialist response replaces reason with passion. He argues that it is through an excess of emotions that pessimism is overcome. This is explicitly associated with sex. He writes that ‘… the peculiar sweetness and fullness characteristic of the aesthetic condition might have its origins precisely in .. sensuality … transfigured [so that] … it no longer enters consciousness as sexual stimulus’. Nietzsche is arguing against disinteredness and reason, arguing against the heart of a Kantian ascetic ideal of aesthetic appreciation and creation. Kant’s notion was intended to align aesthetic appreciation with knowledge where knowledge was impersonal and universal. Nietzsche ridicules this ideal. Beliefs are just symptoms of feelings. Neither knowledge nor aesthetics are Apollonian. Art promotes a psychology of the orgiastic. In this state the overflowing of emotions, even pain, are experienced as both holy and joyous. Nietzsche contrasts this approach with the ascetic. Asceticism converts these life-affirming feelings of sensuality into sin. The tragic feeling is identified as being this orgiastic feeling, and it is in art’s narcotic that the tragic life is understood and suffering overcome.

Nietzsche writes this: ‘The fundamental fact of the Hellenic instinct – it’s ‘will to life’ – expresses itself only in the Dionysian mysteries, in the psychology of the Dionysian state. What did the Hellenes guarantee for themselves with these mysteries? Eternal life, the eternal return of life; the future promised by the past and the past consecrated to the future; the triumphant yes to life over and above all death and change; the true life as the overall continuation of life through procreation, through the mysteries of sexuality. That is why the sexual symbol was inherently venerable for the Greeks, the truly profound element in the whole of ancient piety. All the details about the acts of procreation, pregnancy, and birth inspired the highest and most solemn feelings … gives religious expression to the most profound instinct of life directed towards the future of life, the eternity of life, – the pathway to life, procreation, as the holy path… It was Christianity with its fundamental resentment against life that first made sexuality into something unclean, it threw filth on the origin, the presupposition of life.’

In Nietzsche the tragic poet is Dionysian. Sexual hedonism is a predominant theme. Nietzsche scholar Brian Leiter regrets that it is largely a suppressed feature in the secondary literature.  In ’The Gay Science‘ Nietzsche writes that ‘Answers to the questions about the value of existence… may always be considered first of all as the symptom of certain bodies’ (Pref:2). Nietzsche states that a person’s moral judgments merely codify symptoms, that they bear ‘… decisive witness to … the innermost drives of his nature.’ Moral judgments are ‘… only images and fantasies based on a physiological process unknown to us.’ They are ‘… symptoms and a sign language which betray the process of physiological prosperity or failure.’

Leiter’s reading continually reminds us that Nietzsche was heavily interested in the mid-19th century German Materialist idiom. Their emphasis on Physiology as the explanation for all things human was formatively decisive in Nietzsche. He went one step further than Descartes. Descartes thought that all animals were bodily machines. Nietzsche added that humans were too. Sexuality is linked to the physiologising of the mental, the metaphysical and the moral. Our suffering, and our creativity are bodily symptoms. Nietzsche believed that our physiological cause and response mechanisms were non-cognitivist. Inclination and aversion are the result of feelings – of disgust, pleasure and other affective mechanisms. They are not the result of reason. Our reasons are post-hoc rationalisations. From this Nietzschean perspective ‘Hamlet’ is the result of ‘anal erotic pleasure/pain stimulation.’ Even when reasons are confounded we hold to beliefs. In the moments of erotic physicality we have the causal machinery for all our values. Sex vividly presents the Cartesian animal that civilisation likes to suppress.

Nietzschean hedonism is complex. Pleasure is certainly not the chief good. Existence is not justified according to a hedonic calculation. It is the anesthetizing of pain that motivates Niezsche’s thoughts about the aesthetic, which in turn leads to his surmise that art is linked to a sublimated feeling of sensuality. Art arouses us (like sex) and attracts us (like sex) and provides meaning to thwart suicidal nihilism. Leiter suggests such feelings can be thought of in terms of a continuum running from sex to listening to Beethoven. The ‘sweetness and fullness’ is likened to seduction and ‘intoxication.’

Nietzsche writes: ‘ Without intoxication to intensify the excitability of the whole machine, there can be no art… Above all, the intoxication of sexual excitement, the most ancient and original form of intoxication. There is also an intoxication that comes in the wake of all great desires, all strong affects; a intoxication of the festival, the contest, of the bravaura of performance, of victory, of all extreme movement the intoxication of cruelty; the intoxication in destruction … or under the influence of narcotics… The essential thing about intoxication is the feeling of fullness and increasing strength.’

The contrast with the ascetic narcotic is clear: whereas one affirms and increases love of life, and one’s strength, the other turns one against both it and oneself. The artist’s experience is sublimated sexual arousal. This aesthetic value overcomes rational suicidal tendencies. Nietzsche’s spectacularly illiberal elitism and anti-morality was about preserving the artistic genius from restrictions that would obliterate their ability to fulfil their artistic role. The elitism is not about aristocratic breeding, wealth, intelligence or any of the usual suspects. He is wholly concerned with genius. Nietzsche’s examples of the overman are Goethe and Beethoven (and Nietzsche too). He thought that without the artist, we would be deprived of the spectacle of artistic genius and deprived of such as these, we would deprive ourselves of the source in life of aesthetic pleasure. The terrible truths of life are only terrible if meaningless and Nietzsche presents a materialism that delivers meaningfulness.

Nietzsche’s illiberal perspective suggests that he is only writing to those incapable of succumbing to the narcotics of ascetic ideals, and more innocent ones such as : [‘T]he general muffling of the feeling of life, mechanical activity [drudgery], the small joy, above all that of ‘love of one’s neighbour’, the herd organization, the awakening of the communal feeling of power, whereby the individual’s vexation with himself is drowned out by his pleasure in the prospering of the community – these are measured according to a modern standard, [the] innocent means in the battle with listlessness…’ This isn’t about political manoeuvres, nor social ones. It’s a way of understanding Beethoven. A higher human being is one who responds to the spectacle of genius and is impervious to the seductions of both innocent or ascetic values. The fate of the non-aestheticised majority is of no great consequence to Nietzsche. His concern is only with those needing the narcotic of artistic genius. The highest human beings are those most attuned to the terrible truths about existence who make art to maintain their affective allegiance to life. The enticement of the spectacle of genius, a spectacle incompatible with the triumph of ascetic moralities over the past two thousand years, is the fulcrum of his writings.

Nietzsche sees life as ‘essentially amoral’, failing to live up to the morality we emotionally invest in. Our societies are morally evil judged by even the most luke-warm ethical system: wars are declared, torture used, innocents killed, individuals imprisoned, wrong-doers get rich, good-guys get punished, the rich get richer, the poor poorer and so on. And beyond this, life is ‘ … essentially a process of appropriating, injuring, overpowering the alien and the weaker, oppressing, being harsh, imposing your own form, incorporating, and at least, the very least, exploiting’ although Nietzsche objects to the slander these terms have been subjected to ‘from time immemorial’.

For Nietzsche the terrible truths are existential, moral and finally epistemic. We know little. What we do know science delivers and it fails to sustain our illusions about our selves. Most of our cherished beliefs are illusory. To know what others really think of oneself would make you clinically depressed. That much of what we cherish, including our moral beliefs, are lies and falsehoods, coupled with the idea that the truth is unbearable, is a core of the Nietzschean philosophy. So the question for Nietzsche is the key one derived from Schopenhauer and the one we began with: ‘Why continue to live?’

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Leiter writes: ‘There are relatively few claims about Nietzsche that are uncontroversial, but I hope this one is: Nietzsche was always interested in responding to that Schopenhauerian challenge, from his earliest work to his last. And the animating idea of his response also remains steady from beginning to end, I shall argue, namely, that as he puts it in the new 1886 preface to ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ life is justified only as an aesthetic Phenomenon.’

In  ‘Birth Of Tragedy’ Nietzsche writes: ‘it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified’ and ‘existence and the world seem justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon’. Nietzsche’s answer to his question: ‘what is the Dionysian perspective on life?’ is given in his new preface to the book in 1886: his last work ‘Ecce Homo’ contrasts the affirmation of life against the sense that life is deficient. ‘Saying yes to life, even in its strangest and harshest problems; the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility … that is what I call Dionysian, that is the bridge I found to the psychology of the tragic poet.’

The moral response of Christianity, the ‘slave morality’, embodied a disgust for life that he opposes. In returning to his ‘Birth of Tragedy’ in 1886 he writes: ‘It was against morality that my instinct turned with this questionable book, long ago; it was an instinct aligned itself with life and that discovered for itself a fundamentally opposite doctrine and valuation of life – purely artistic and anti-Christian. What to call it? As a philologist and man of words I baptized it, not without taking some liberty – for who could claim to know the rightful name of the Antichrist – in the name of the Greek God: I called it Dionysian.’ Nietzsche then celebrates aesthetic value, illusion, deception and the destruction of Christian morality.

Admitting the erasure of any rational or cognitive warrant for living, Nietzsche appeals to the affective attachment to living as nevertheless justifying life over suicide. Leiter asks: can something have aesthetic value if bereft of epistemic value? Nietzsche believes it is precisely that which marks out the aesthetic. This is partly because epistemic value is linked to moral value. Hence this: ‘In truth nothing could be more opposed to the purely aesthetic interpretation and justification of the world which are taught in this book than the Christian teaching, which is, and wants to be, only moral and which relegates art, every art, to the realm of lies; with its absolute standards, beginning with the truthfulness of God (and science!), it negates, judges, and damns art. Behind this mode of thought and valuation, which must be hostile to art if it is to be at all genuine, I have never failed to sense a hostility to life – a furious, vengeful antipathy to life itself: for all life is based on semblance, art, deception, points of view, and the necessity of perspectives and error. Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life.’

Again, in ‘The Gay Science’ we have this: ‘Had we not approved of the arts and invented this type of cult of the untrue, the insight into general untruth and mendacity that is not given to us by science – the insight into delusion and error as a condition of cognitive and sensate existence – would be utterly unbearable. Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. But now our honesty has a counterforce that helps us avoid such consequences; art, as the good will to appearance … As an aesthetic phenomenon existence is still bearable [ertraglich] to us, and art furnishes us with the eye and hand and above all the good conscience to be able to make such a phenomenon of ourselves…’

He opposes ‘aesthetic Socratism’ on the same grounds. Wherever to be beautiful entails intelligibility, Nietzsche finds the error of thinking that knowledge is virtue. He writes: ‘Socrates is the prototype of the theoretical optimist who, with his faith that the nature of things can be fathomed, ascribes knowledge and insight the power of a panacea, while understanding error as the evil par excellence.’

He turns this on its head, approaching art as deception with a good conscience. Thus here: ‘… art, in which precisely the lie is hallows itself, in which the will to deception has good conscience on its side.’ (Genealogy of Morals 3rd Essay). Plato thus is ‘ the greatest enemy of art that Europe has produced. Plato contra Homer: that is the complete, the genuine antagonism.’

What is the Homeric world? It is a world that substitutes moral uplift and cognitive success for ‘… the accents of an exuberant, triumphant life in which all things, whether good or evil, are deified’. Aesthetic value here trumps the moral. The issue was never one of just suffering. The issue was meaningless suffering. And even the placid life of the bourgeoisie faces the terror of meaningless annihilation. This is Nietzsche’s point of antagonism to the slave morality that substitutes meaningless horror for meaning of a perverse kind. By explaining the horror in terms of a moral deficit, the meaningless is substituted for what he considered the perverse lies of asceticism.

‘Every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering; still more precisely, a perpetrator, still more specifically a guilty perpetrator who is receptive to suffering – in short, some living thing on which, in response to some pretext or other, he can discharge his affects in deed or in effigy: for the discharge of affect is the sufferer’s greatest attempt at relief, namely at anethetisation – his involuntary craved narcotic against torment of any kind. It is here alone, according to my surmise, that one finds the true physiological causality of ressentiment, of revenge, and of their relatives – that is, in a longing for anethetisation of pain through affect …[O]ne wishes , by means of a more vehement emotion of any kind, to anesthetise a tormenting, secret pain that is becoming unbearable and, at least for the moment, to put it out of consciousness – for this one needs an affect, as wild an affect as possible and, for its excitation, the first best pretext’ .

So the ascetic blames herself for her pain; the resulting self-loathing acts as a narcotic to relieve the pain. In this way the ascetic resists suicide. But the cost is to exacerbate suffering. This is why Nietzsche reviles the ascetic religious narcotic. ‘[I]t makes the sick sicker.’ Art is a different narcotic that achieves the same end but without the accompanying side effects. Art restores the affective attachment to life. Art’s role is to prevent suicide for those immune to asceticism.

Nietzsche writes: ‘The truly serious task of art …[is] to save the eye from gazing into the horrors of night and to deliver the subject by the healing balm of illusion from the spasms of the agitations of the will’. Art is a protection and remedy to the tragic insight of our existential situation.

‘Dionysian art … wishes to convince us of the eternal joy of existence: only we are to seek this joy not in phenomena, but behind them. We are to recognize that all that comes into being must be ready for a sorrowful end; we are forced to look into the terrors of the individual existence – yet we are not to become rigid with fear: a metaphysical comfort tears us momentarily from the bustle of the changing figures. We are really for a brief moment primordial being itself, feeling its raging desire for existence and joy in existence; the struggle, the pain, the destruction of phenomena, now appear necessary to us … We are pierced by the maddening sting of these pains just when we have become, as it were, one with the infinite primordial joy in existence, and when we anticipate, in Dionysian ecstasy, the indestructibility and eternity of this joy’. Dylan’s version of this goes:

‘I been double-crossed now
For the very last time and now I’m finally free
I kissed goodbye the howling beast
On the borderline which separated you from me
You’ll never know the hurt I suffered
Nor the pain I rise above
And I’ll never know the same about you
Your holiness or your kind of love
And it makes me feel so sorry’

Schopenhauerean defences of pessimism were muted against this particular challenge where our sorrow is nevertheless eternally joyful…

Read here Part 1 and Part 2 of this mini series reflecting on Pessimism.



Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 25th, 2019.