Reading Nietzsche: Asleep and Awake

Few could (or can) write like Nietzsche. His use of analogy and his playfulness with words is perhaps unrivaled, at least for “philosophers,” used in quotes because he may not have accepted the invitation to such a club. In his brief preface to Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche lays waste to a size-able chunk of Western orthodoxy, including both the post-Socrates-Greek and Christian intellectual traditions, and even has room for a dig at future fundamentalists, all in one seemingly effortless stroke:

It seems that, in order to inscribe themselves in the hearts of humanity with eternal demands, all great things have first to wander the earth as monstrous and fear-inspiring grotesques: dogmatic philosophy, the doctrine of the Vedanta in Asia and Platonism in Europe for example, was a grotesque of this kind. Let us not be ungrateful to it, even though it certainly has to be admitted that the worst, most wearisomely protracted and most dangerous of all errors hitherto has been a dogmatist’s error, namely Plato’s invention of pure spirit and the good in itself. But now, when that has been overcome, when Europe breathes again after this nightmare and can enjoy at any rate a healthier—sleep, we whose task is wakefulness itself have inherited all the strength which has been cultivated by the struggle against this error. To be sure, to speak of spirit and the good as Plato did meant standing truth on her head and denying perspective itself, the basic condition of all life; …But the struggle against Plato, or, to express it more plainly and for ‘the people,’ the struggle against the Christian-ecclesiastical pressure of millennia—for Christianity is Platonism for ‘the people’—has created in Europe a magnificent tension of the spirit such as has never existed on earth before: with so tense a bow one feels this tension as a state of distress, to be sure; and there have already been two grand attempts to relax the bow, once by means of Jesuitism, the second time by means of democratic enlightenment—which latter may in fact, with the aid of freedom of the press and the reading of newspapers, achieve a state of affairs in which the spirit would no longer so easily feel itself to be a ‘need’! …But we who are neither Jesuits nor democrats, nor even sufficiently German, we good Europeans and free, very free spirits—we have it still, the whole need of the spirit and the whole tension of its bow! And perhaps also the arrow, the task and, who knows? the target

As with many of Nietzsche’s passages, the question resounds: Where to begin? Loving a good pun, I would start with the phrase “we whose task is wakefulness itself,” since it has many ramifications for becoming a doomer, i.e. looking realistically, with eyes open, at the ecological/economic/material situation in which we find ourselves.

Nietzsche is of course playing with the common wisdom that holds that leading a virtuous life leads to more peaceful, restful nights (from which the question “How do you sleep at night?” comes), and as is to be expected of him, he both challenges that notion and turns a formerly extolled idea into one that should be reviled, as if to say: The end result of your so-called virtue is sleep? What kind of goal is that? I, for one, would rather be awake, with all my senses about me and with full consciousness.

This theme is further strengthened by his use of the term “perspective,” meaning the human experience, as interpreted psychologically—subjectively—by the sensory organs, via the brain. He describes perspective as “the basic condition of all life,” offering a nod to both the strict materialists and to their ostensible foes: those who contend that emotions are as important as, or even trump, physical needs. There are those, for example, who point out that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is flawed in that it doesn’t account for the subjectivity of the human brain (when one is very nervous, she usually loses her appetite, for example), and I must admit these people are becoming more and more convincing.

But back to the point: it’s hard to keep one’s eyes open. I read the news (in print and online) every morning and, I must say, it’s getting more and more difficult to continue the farce. 200 species went extinct today, and what did I do with myself? I swam in the pool, and read the newspaper, and read Nietzsche. Then I made a pizza and now I’m drinking copious amounts of Saison. Are my eyes as open as I’d like to think, or am I in some kind of somnambulant haze?

The elephant-in-the-room tension of Nietzsche is that he surely knew what needed to be done, but he didn’t take any kind of action; he wrote about waiting for others to overcome their societally-enforced inhibitions and become free—thus in the process setting others free. He recognized civilization as a trap, and even tried to describe the escape hatch. But he never opened the escape hatch himself. He just kept on describing it until he went clinically insane (according to his sister), and was left in a state of intellectual paralysis until he died, having liberated no one.

And yet the text he created is out there, and anyone can read it for free (at your local library). He wrote so that others could take up the sword against the status quo. Is that a courageous act or a cop out?

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2 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: Asleep and Awake

  1. Very interesting article! If you don’t mind, I’d like to add that Nietzsche most probably didn’t go insane in the usual, psychiatric sense. His sister tried very hard to spin his life story for her own, personal reasons and it is likely that she never understood much about him or his philosophy. Today’s doctors have different opinions about what was wrong, from a slow growing brain tumour to a disease of the arteries in the frontal lobes of the brain. Tertiary siphilis is ruled out nowadays, because he lived for ten more years after his breakdown.
    Perhaps it doesn’t matter much what was medically wrong. But what is important is that Nietzsche never managed to write down all of his ideas. He had an extremely productive year before the events in Turin and because he had reflected on many of his earlier works afresh some years later, it would have been very interesting to read his own later comments on these last works. I also think that Nietzsche was a man of ideas, rather than one of action. It’s a consequence of being ambivalent and of looking for the many different facets, I think. It’s often slogans that move us to action, not passages like the intriguing one you quoted here. Still, I really like what you did with the theme of being asleep and being awake in relation to the present time.

  2. Yeah I blame his sister for the many popular but untrue ideas about his life and work. As the story goes, right before he went insane, he hugged a horse who was being whipped in order to defend the animal. I would love to be able to read this thoughts on that, but alas…

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