Reading Nietzsche: Philosopher as Troubadour

Nietzsche, Music, and Silent Suffering

Yunus Tuncel

The Agonist


Something that is perhaps little known about Nietzsche by those who don’t read him is that he composed music early in his life—music which was, apparently, quite bad:

Wagner politely reminded him of his poor compositions; Bülow gave a harsh critique to Nietzsche himself on his Manfred-Meditation (your music is “…more detestable than you think”), and Brahms never responded to Nietzsche’s letter. Nor was the audience well disposed towards his music. “He played one of his compositions to an audience in Basel, which was received with displeasure, according to Julius Piccard.”

I must admit, it is strange to imagine Nietzsche singing, based on the common pictures of him deep in thought, with a certain pensive scowl, although it makes perfect sense that he would sing, and do so quite loudly, considering his philosophy; “Without music, life would be an error” is one of his more quoted sayings.

And indeed, that he wrote several sections of quickly repeated sayings indicates how much music informed his work. There’s a reason people remember short, easily quoted lyrics, and Nietzsche perhaps knew better than most that people like to recite what we now call sound-bytes, and so, he must’ve thought, “why not write them for people so they remember what I want them to?” Someone without a deep knowledge of music would most likely not think of employing such a strategy, which takes into account that, for example, Americans know the first and last lines of the “Star-Spangled Banner”, but usually get very hazy in the middle.

Music is culturally important precisely because it’s easy for people to remember and recount; in fact, music, in the form of lyrical poetry, was/is used by many cultures in place of writing as a way of codifying stories of the past, solidifying values and beliefs of the collective, and even announcing current events: all of which we’ve classified generally as forms of “oral history.”

As M.T. Clanchy points out in From Memory to Written Record, even as late as the 11th century in England:

When historical information was needed, local communities resorted not to books and charters but to the oral wisdom of their elders and remembrancers. Even where books and charters existed, they were rarely consulted at first, apparently because habits of doing so took time to develop. Unwritten customary law—and lore—had been the norm… as in all communities where literacy is restricted or unknown.

And as Thomas Wright argues quite persuasively in Political Songs of England (to borrow two English examples): “A single passage of the satirist or poet will sometimes throw more light over the character of historical events than whole pages of research and discussion.”

A Review of Yelp Joining ALEC

Amid much controversy, Yelp! has joined ALEC, according to this report on ColorLines. Color of Change also reported on Yelp’s dealings, commenting:

Yelp!’s action is even more bizarre given that the company paid at least $10,000 to join ALEC during the opening week of George Zimmerman’s murder trial in Florida. Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted of all criminal charges for fatally shooting unarmed teen Trayvon Martin — and will likely be immune to any civil penalty for wrongful death — thanks to the NRA-written Shoot First law that ALEC recklessly pushed out to 25 other states.

In response, Color of Change has launched a page to “Tell Yelp! No,” which you can visit if you’d like to do just that. I’m assuming that a site dedicated to allowing people to review other places will be more than amenable to some constructive criticism. So don’t be shy.

In the meantime, Joshua Brustein of Business Week disagrees (surprise!), reporting that Yelp joined ALEC simply to protect reviewers from being sued by companies who don’t like negative reviews. According to the report posted on The Daily Beast:

At an ALEC meeting in Chicago last week, Yelp’s director of public policy, Luther Lowe, delivered a presentation to ALEC’s civil justice task force urging the group to consider adopting model legislation on strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. If approved, the anti-SLAPP policy would have to be ratified by ALEC’s communications and technology task force, which includes representatives from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo.

From this other vantage, Yelp and ALEC are just teaming up to fight injustice, with the latter doing its part by “taking more civil libertarian stances on technology issues than it has in the past.”

I, for one, am not holding my breath. Even if Yelp and ALEC have honorable goals in this case (which is not clear or likely), ask yourself why a company has to join a group like ALEC to have any shot of passing legislation in their favor. Or, ask yourself why companies have the money and power to even consider getting legislation drafted in their favor, while individuals toil away in the doldrums of the justice system.

“Is ALEC doing the right thing?” is the wrong question. “Why does ALEC exist?” is a better one. Then you can move on to “Are corporations people?” And let the critique continue to widen…


“You educate women, and give women rights that are equal to anybody else’s on this planet, and they generally choose to have fewer children, because they have another way to contribute to society that would be difficult if they had seven kids to care for.

Every place where you’ve got really educated women, you’ve got a society that is more and more livable. The more women decision makers we have, the better our chances. All we have to do is offer fair, equal opportunity to half the human race, the female half. This problem will start taking care of itself really, really quickly. A whole lot of environmental problems, within a couple generations, will also ease up because there’ll be a lot more space on this planet for other species.”

– Alan Weisman

All Things Bright and Beautiful

A poem by Heather Christle:

Ideas come from the ocean
They walk out of there
They just can’t wait!
A cruller comes from there
and also once some beauty
And when the idea
of people is over we will
walk right back in there
and make some jokes
toward commanding the waves
like we are long-dead kings
with a knack for rhetorical gesture
and that is how the ocean
will remember us I think

Here’s something bright and bubbly for your Wednesday morning, as you yawn and sip coffee and look outside and wonder why people invented offices.

Here are some more poems like this one.


Don’t Forget About the Bees


I’m becoming “that guy” in email and social media exchanges with friends: the guy who always brings up the ecological collapse (what a downer!) with the same emblematic but not-so-rhetorical question: “But what about the bees?”—which, to some friends with whom I communicate more regularly, has just become a one-word riposte: “bees”. Oh that’s an interesting piece about how economies are managed by tinkering with collective delusions, but… bees. Oh that’s a strange notion, that humans don’t have a carrying capacity, but… bees.

This time it wasn’t an email exchange, but a “debate” on Real Time with Bill Maher that got me thinking about our buzzy little friends; the panelists were discussing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and were focusing wholly on their safety, as in: “How do we make GMOs as safe as possible for human consumption moving forward?” Occasionally they veered into slightly different territory, asking how GMOs should be labeled, but for the most part the unstated but real question was (and is): “How can we increase food production on the dwindling arable land we’ve got so that (fill in the blank: from “so that people don’t go hungry” to “so that the US can remain competitive in the global marketplace blah blah blah”).

Then I came across this article in Scientific American, which—surprise!—totally justifies GMOs and downplays any legit questioning of them as “hysteria,” “herd mentality,” and a “pathological adherence to the Precautionary Principle.” Oh, and let’s not forget my favorite, “false moral outrage.” And what’s so great about GMOs? Well, the author assures, they’re better than dioxin. How insightful. Here’s a snippet:

In spite of this extensive consumption – surely constituting a global laboratory involving billions of daily, repeated, controlled experiments – there is no evidence of distinct harm from GMOs. That does not mean that no GMO can ever do any harm, just that the evidence until now is flimsy at best. From a chemical standpoint I have said before that I would rather trust foreign bits of DNA circulating around in my blood than things like dioxin and chlorofluorocarbons which can wreak demonstrated havoc.


Quickly, before addressing the unstated assumptions that come with the above quote and the on-going “debate” the article mentions, I’d like to point out that, via this piece by Kiera Butler at Mother Jones: “A full third of the world’s food is wasted, according to a new report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.” So if you’re worried about feeding people, maybe you should ask why corporations lock their dumpsters before asking why people who care about ecosystems have a problem with mega, mono-cropped agriculture—as well as, on some level, with agriculture itself. And, yes, lots of people have a problem with agriculture (attempting, poorly, to reconcile the alienation it causes is probably the origin of Abrahamic religion, for one example).

The first red flag for me is the line “there is no evidence of distinct harm from GMOs”—by which, giving the author the benefit of the doubt, he most assuredly means no harm to humans, medically, i.e. GMOs won’t make you drop dead or get cancer or anything like that. But this assessment of course misses the point: GMOs will cause harm to humans by exasperating and expediting the very destruction of the natural world, on which all life (even human, can you believe it?) depends. GMOs could have no direct health risks to humans whatsoever, but they still risk the health of the ecosystem by furthering mono-cropping, which depletes soil (cf. peak soil); by artificially increasing the population of humans, who love to pollute, consume, and, as I’ve already mentioned, throw away food; and by confusing, if not killing, bees—without whom we’d be, as my relatives love to say, even more up shit’s creek than we already are.

One little piece of the last article I linked to above:

Genetically modified seeds are produced and distributed by powerful biotech conglomerates. The latter manipulate government agricultural policy with a view to supporting their agenda of dominance in the agricultural industry. American conglomerates such as Monsanto, Pioneer Hybrid and others, have created seeds that reproduce only under certain conditions, often linked to the use of their own brands of fertilizer and/or insecticide.

The genetic modification of the plant leads to the concurrent genetic modification of the flower pollen. When the flower pollen becomes genetically modified or sterile, the bees will potentially go malnourished and die of illness due to the lack of nutrients and the interruption of the digestive capacity of what they feed on through the summer and over the winter hibernation process.

Fun times. And this nuance is just one little piece of the giant, complex puzzle that is an ecosystem—and one little piece that nobody at Scientific American seems to think about. To paraphrase a quote that I forget the author of: we don’t know enough to attempt to control this world. We don’t think about the infinite ramifications of our decisions, and by “our” I mean the oligarchy that decides things for everyone else, in order to make all risk public and all reward private.

When we don’t have enough food to support 1 billion people—let alone the projected 9 billion—will people then say that GMOs were a great solution to the world poverty and hunger problem?

Here’s a thought: instead of trying to figure out how to squeeze every last drop of energy out of a given piece of soil, until it’s exhausted and dies, bringing whole ecosystems down with it, why don’t we take steps to lessen the human population gradually and with volition, by educating and emancipating women, so that we don’t need Monsanto’ed seeds and we don’t need scientists in labs growing tumors in rats (they’re so different from us, Scientific American insists… woops, there’s that “false moral outrage” again) and, ultimately, we don’t need to irrevocably change what a flower is, just so GDP doesn’t go down by a percentage point on some computer screen somewhere.

Sorry to be that guy.



Reading Nietzsche: In the Comics

You’ll have to believe me that I have actually been reading from my Nietzsche anthology over the past two weeks, despite no specific passages to share in my weekly “Reading Nietzsche” post (would you believe, “I was busy having anti-semites shot?”).

But I would be remiss if I didn’t steer you towards a great way to start each day, especially if you go to some office every morning: Nietzsche Family Circus. Nietzsche Family Circus is, as the name suggests, random pairings of Nietzsche quotes and “The Family Circus” cartoons. Hit “refresh” for an endless stream of quotes and drawings that, for some reason, seem to match up perfectly.

If you like this kind of thing, consider also checking out Garfield Minus Garfield, which is Garfield comics with Garfield removed entirely, “in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle,” and Silent Garfield, which is comics with Garfield in them but all of his thoughts are removed.

Back to Nietzsche, here’s a cool comic by Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton: “Thereafter pretentious men may quote me ad nauseam.”

On Opting In

Let’s take Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest at her word, and stop funding the corporate-military junta.

“Anyone with e-mail understands what it means when you are signed up – opted in – to a list without your consent,” says Americans United for Life leader Charmaine Yoest about the impending implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions, known colloquially as “Obamacare,” adding, “For the first time in U.S. History, Obamacare opts in almost every American to all kinds of abortion-related policies, intertwined at multiple levels. And if you try to opt-out, the answers for many has been NO, and the punishments severe.” According to their September 17 press release, Yoest says, “You could call Obamacare the ‘Abortionist Full Employment Act’.”

Well, then—sign me up. Since many smart people seem to agree that educating and emancipating women is the best—if not only—method for alleviating global poverty, and since, yes, we do have an overpopulation problem, it strikes me as both fair and within the bounds of common sense that our society give women full information and full agency over their own bodies and destinies. (Plus, since I cannot give birth to a child and therefore have no idea what that’s like or how that would mentally and physically affect me, I think the simple code of decent taste compels me to not insist someone go through the very expensive and very dangerous process—let alone coerce them to do so by legislating my morality. Call me crazy. Note that if you want to have a kid, go for it—the pro-choice side is not arguing that the “pro-life” side must have abortions, which is a critical but often overlooked nuance.)

But back to the point, and the lead-in to this piece: “Anyone with e-mail understands what it means when you are signed up—opted in—to a list without your consent.” Yes, we all understand this phenomenon quite well, living in the heart of empire, with no decision-making ability whatsoever and no real way to drop out, since all the rivers are polluted. While running the risk of conceding even more ground (and we’ve already conceded too much ground already—literally), I would almost like to grant Ms. Yoest this point, and say, “Fair enough, you don’t want your tax dollars going to things you don’t morally agree with,” because, let’s face it, neither do most people I should hope. So let’s open the floor, then, to things that others find morally objectionable, and would like immediately and permanently de-funded. I, for, one, would like my tax dollars to stop subsidizing corporations, especially oil and gas companies.

Why, you ask, do I have a conscientious objection to corporations? There are many reasons, ranging from making people sit at desks to making people step on each other’s throats, but here’s some fun with numbers: “In 2010 alone, 1,270 infants were reported to have died following attempted abortions and notably that is only one year,” Yoest claims, falsely. Okay, well, with just a short trip through the beginning of the alphabet, I can add up the reported 25,000 African elephants50,000 bees20,000 chimpanzees, and 600 dolphins (the dead ones in the Gulf of Mexico; not counting the ones being born without eyes) that have been recent casualties of our culture. Can my tax dollars stop funding corporations that are causing the extinction of animals, please? I never “opted in” to this kind of destruction; I was put on this list without my consent.

Of course, this thought experiment is just hypothetical; the oligarchy would never let people actually decide what they want to fund or build, because… well, look up the definition of oligarchy. But should Yoest get her wish, on the grounds that Obamacare cannot coerce people to do or support something that they find morally wrong (which would actually be on the grounds that the oligarchy can’t let women control their reproductive capacity, since steady and perpetual population growth is paramount to GDP), then let the floodgates open. Quakers should not just opt out of military service but demand that the military be de-funded. By Yoest’s “logic,” if any group of people morally objects to an action, then it should be illegal and/or not paid for by the public purse. It worked for Prohibition, right?

And furthermore, one can deflate Yoest’s sensationalized claims simply by citing the Hyde Amendment. Remember the Hyde Amendment? Passed in 1976 and affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1980, it prohibits federal funds from being used for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the life of the mother. It’s still on the books, and still lets states set their own regulations on funding for abortion providers. According to the Bill Moyers page linked to above: “In order to assuage opponents of abortion in his own party, President Obama signed an executive order stating that The Affordable Care Act—which could expand Medicaid to cover as many 21.3 million additional low-income Americans by 2022—would maintain current Hyde Amendment restrictions.”

So, there, you see? Obamacare is not the scary monster that Yoest describes. Don’t get me wrong: I wish it were. But alas…