The Burnt Out Generation?

“Given that most exhaustion theorists’ arguments ultimately rest on the claim that their own age is the most exhausted,” writes Anna Katharina Shaffner in German burnout, “is it not time to concede that exhaustion might indeed be universal?”

Well, yes and no (sorry for the cliché.) It’s most likely true that people work too hard in pursuits that are ultimately fruitless, no matter the context, but perhaps it’s also true that to be burnt out is becoming something of a requisite. If you’re not too busy, you’re doing something wrong. Isn’t that messed up?

And isn’t it strange that the Germans, of all people, are preoccupied with exhaustion? It’s almost as if stereotypes aren’t true.

Maybe people have always been overworked. Shaffner writes:

Given that most exhaustion theorists’ arguments ultimately rest on the claim that their own age is the most exhausted, is it not time to concede that exhaustion might indeed be universal? If we were to venture further back into the past, crossing the frequently evoked modern/pre-modern threshold, we would find that many medieval men and women suffered from a lack of energy and spiritual weariness too, which might simply have been articulated in religious language – the numerous works written on melancholia and acedia (diagnoses that are also essentially structured around mental and physical exhaustion) suggest as much. Werner Post, in his beautifully written treatise on acedia (Acedia: Das Laster der Trägheit, 2011) has recently presented this argument in the most persuasive of terms. But one could look back further still: the weariness of the melancholic was a condition already theorized by Hippocrates and Galen. Rather than lamenting the horrors of modernity, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that exhaustion is simply an essential part of the human experience. Indeed, the fact that our energies are limited, and that this worries us, is very much part of what makes us human. What changes through history is not the experience of exhaustion as such, but rather the labels we invent to describe it, the causes we mobilize to explain it, and, of course, the specific cultural discontents that we tend so readily to map onto it.

But this also strikes me as a kind of cop out; it’s the Pleistocene-Overkill-Hypothesis apology of modern capitalism. People have always been burnt out, so stop complaining, will ya?

I think people have always been overworked, sure. But overworked is now the norm. If you take a moment (or a sick day) to relax and go for a walk, you’ve got problems. You’re unprofessional. You’re not managing your time well. See what I mean?


Reading Nietzsche: the Nazis Ruin Everything

“Europe is not so small,” Nietzsche wrote in a letter to his sister, Elisabeth, in March of 1885, “and if one does not want to live in Germany (and in this I am like him), one still does not need to go so very far away. But of course I do not have his enthusiasm for ‘things German,’ and even less for keeping this ‘glorious’ race pure. On the contrary, on the contrary—”

The “him” in this case is Dr. Förster, husband of Nietzsche’s sister and all-around horrible person. He left Germany in 1886 to emigrate to Paraguay, and in the following year he set up a colony known as “Nueva Germania”—sort of like a Jonestown for delusional Right-Wing ideologues.

Nietzsche earlier wrote in a letter to his friend, Malwilda, about the rift with his sister over the good doctor:

Meanwhile the situation has been changed by my radical break with my sister; for heaven’s sake, do not think that you should mediate between us and reconcile us—there can be no reconciliation between a vindictive anti-Semitic goose and me.

Now read this article by David B. Dennis, professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago, (“How the Nazi Party Recast Nietzsche”) about how the Nazis, with the help of Nietzsche’s sister, of course, co-opted (and by co-opted I mean completely changed) Nietzsche for their own twisted ends. He writes (apologies for the long quote, but it’s telling):

Cultural renewal in accordance with such perceptions of intellectual history was a central premise of the larger project of the Third Reich, fundamental to Hitler’s aims. But this agenda also contributed to the most destructive impulses of the movement. Indeed, German cultural identity as shaped by the Nazi regime did not merely justify anti-Semitism or policies of extermination, it led to them. Hitler’s racist standards of judgment were grounded in cultural terms, as he stated in Mein Kampf: “If we were to divide mankind into three groups, the founders of culture, the bearers of culture, the destroyers of culture, only the Aryan could be considered as the representative of the first group.” According to the Völkischer Beobachter, Jewish creators such as Heine, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn, Mahler, and Schoenberg—among many others—supposedly belonged in the latter, so they and their kind had to be eradicated.

Demonstrating that great cultural figures of the past would have agreed with these premises was a priority in the Nazi newspaper. One contributor put it in these stark terms: “to win over to our movement spiritual leaders who think they see something distasteful in anti-Semitism, it is extremely important to present more and more evidence that great, recognized spirits shared our hatred of Jewry.”

In the case of Nietzsche, however, this process required a little more “spin” than the “selective scavenging” for biographical and textual evidence that scholar Steven Aschheim identified as the usual mode of such politicization. Some Völkischer Beobachter contributors recognized that Nietzsche had not been a committed anti-Semite, and had even criticized the anti-Semitic views of Richard Wagner, his own sister, Elisabeth, and her husband, Bernhard Förster. One editor, for instance, said about Nietzsche: “His work contains other crass contradictions and obscurities, especially in his treatment of the Jewish Question, where he sometimes confesses himself as an Anti-Semite, and then as a philo-Semite. Equally obscure is what he understood as race and nation. This may be a result of the eruptive nature of his creativity and the shortness of his life, which didn’t allow him enough time to go into these issues deeply.”

But other contributors wrote as if aligning Nietzschean ideas with Nazi anti-Semitism posed no difficulties at all. One article listed carefully selected passages from Beyond Good and Evil to show that Nietzsche “expressed himself extraordinarily farsightedly on the Jewish Question.” An article entitled “Nietzsche as Warner about the Jewish Danger” insisted that Nietzsche concerned himself with the Jewish Question, “as every clear thinking, every sensitive Aryan-German person must.” Nietzsche, the paper said, recognized the danger threatening Germans in the form of a completely foreign and utterly different race, and “warned us—and like so many hundreds of great, significant men who warned us before him, he warned in vain!”

And so, like usual, Nazis ruin everything for everybody.

Reading Nietzsche: Reading Schopenhauer

Bonus solstice gift: I found a Schopenhauer book on the free table here at the apartments, and decided to ring in the Nietzsche new year by reading some background philosophy to help contextualize the work of one of my favorite free thinkers. I rather enjoy researching and listening to the music that inspired the musicians I like (Little Richard, anybody?), and so likewise I thought it would be fun to read some of the work that inspired the existential philosopher I like most.

I’ve selected a rather long passage, so I won’t put it in block quotes. In the passage, Schopenhauer checks off many things that would one day be on Nietzsche’s list: a) the material world is primary; b) it is counterproductive at best, and dangerous at worst to postulate about other worlds; c) everything has already happened and will happen in the same way once again (the framework for the “eternal recurrence of the same”). We also see in this passage a real break with Hegel, especially in the bit about the mistake of marrying ethical or personal philosophies to historical “progress.” I guess there’s nothing like the 19th-Century Prussian monarchy to push people to call such ideas into question.

Without further elaboration, here is the section:

From The World As Will And Representation:

Our philosophy will affirm the same immanence here as in all that we have considered hitherto. It will not, in opposition to Kant’s great teaching, attempt to use as a jumping-pole the forms of the phenomenon, whose general expression is the principle of sufficient reason, in order to leap over the phenomenon itself, which alone gives those forms meaning, and to land in the boundless sphere of empty fictions. This actual world of what is knowable, in which we are and which is in us, remains both the material and the limit of our consideration. It is a world so rich in content and not even the profoundest investigation of which the human mind is capable could exhaust it.

Now since the real, knowable world will never fail to afford material and reality to our ethical observations any more than it will to our previous observations, nothing will be less necessary than for us to take refuge in negative concepts devoid of content, and then somehow to make even ourselves believe that we are saying something when we spoke with raised eyebrows about the “absolute,” the “infinite,” the “supersensuous,” and whatever other mere negations of the sort there may be…

Instead of this, we could call it more broadly cloud-cuckoo-land…. We shall not need to serve up covered, empty dishes of this sort.

Finally, no more here than in previous books shall we relate histories and give them out as philosophy. For we are of the opinion that anyone who imagines that the inner nature of the world can be historically comprehended, however finely glossed over it may be, is still infinitely far from a philosophical knowledge of the world. But this is the case as soon as a becoming, or a having-become, or a will-become enters into his view of the inner nature of the world; whenever an earlier or later has the least significance; and consequently whenever points of beginning and of ending in the world, and the philosophizing individual even recognizes his own position on this path.

Such historical philosophizing in most cases furnishes a cosmogony admitting of many varieties, or else a system of emanations, a doctrine of diminutions, or finally, when driven in despair over the fruitless attempts of those paths to the last path, it furnishes, conversely, a doctrine of constant becoming, springing up, arising, coming to light out of the darkness, out of the obscure ground, primary ground, groundlessness, or some other drivel of this kind.

But all this is most briefly disposed of by remarking that a whole eternity, in other words an endless time, has already elapsed up to the present moment, and therefore everything that can or should become must have become already.

Reading Nietzsche: The Will to Power

One of the things anti-Nietzsche people love to throw in my face all the time is the idea of the “will to power,” which, they say, proves that Nietzsche really was as bad as his sister wanted him to be (for her own twisted benefit). My go-to response is, I think quite sensically, to send these usually well-intentioned folks some actual text. Take this snippet, for example, from a draft for a preface to the oft-cited work, penned in 1885:

A book for thinking, nothing else: it belongs to those to whom thinking is a delight, nothing else. That it is written in German is untimely, to say the least: I wish I had written it in French so that it might not appear to be a confirmation of the aspirations of the German Reich. The Germans of today are not thinkers any more: something else delights and impresses them. The will to power as a principle might be intelligible to them. Among Germans today the least thinking is done. But who knows? In two generations one will no longer require the sacrifice involved in any nationalistic squandering of power, and in hebetation. (Formerly, I wished I had not written my Zarathustra in German.)

The fact that The Will to Power was never published by Nietzsche—and, indeed, wasn’t even a full work, but instead a collection of cobbled-together notes, written by Nietzsche as he descended (or ascended?) into insanity, and marketed by his sister as a philosophical justification for proto-fascist German nationalism (as if it needed one)—illustrates that citing it, let alone citing just the title of it, is not a very substantive critique.

But even if it had been finished and published by Nietzsche himself, it would’ve been a work about personal will, about power over the paralysis of despair, and about the constant need to laugh at one’s self—and not, as is inferred incorrectly by the title, a work about seizing political power as a party and ruling with capriciousness and impunity just for the sake of it, or, for that matter, a work about using some kind of Machiavellian playbook to manipulate people in one’s climb to the top.

Here’s one of the last official things Nietzsche wrote while “lucid,” from the end of Nietzsche Contra Wagner, written in 1888 and published seven years later:

No, if we who have recovered [from the “educated” class’ version of art] still need art, it is another kind of art—a mocking, light, fleeting, divinely untroubled, divinely artificial art, which, like a pure flame, licks into unclouded skies. Above all, an art for artists, for artists only! We know better afterward what above all is needed for this: cheerfulness, any cheerfulness, my friends. There are a few things we now know too well, we knowing ones: oh, how we learn now to forget well, and to be good at not knowing, as artists!

When’s the last time you heard a sociopathic wanna-be dictator insisting on the need for cheerfulness? That’s right: never. And contrary to popular belief (which would be a good name for a Nietzsche biography, come to think of it), Nietzsche was not even a statist, let alone a German statist. He espoused a sort of Dionysian (and, later, Camusian) revolt: a defiant search for real, human meaning in the indifference of the universe and the absurdity of our existential condition, a search that should be fueled by spontaneity, wonder, dancing, laughing, and cheerfulness.

Reading Nietzsche: Enemy of the State

Due to his sister’s fabrications (and to the fact that people don’t read his work), Nietzsche is often thought of as not just a statist but as a particularly pro-German one. Most assume the “will to power” (which he never wrote) is to be understood in a Machiavellian, partisan manner: those who rise to the top of the political hierarchy deserve to be there, and those states with the strongest military deserve consequently to rule the world. But as with many things assigned to Nietzsche, this idea couldn’t be further from what he actually wrote.

For example, in writing about the worth of the contest in classical Greek society, Nietzsche extolled not the domination of one over many but the continual rotation and renewal of the struggle to be the victor, writing in Homer’s Contest:

“Why should no one be the best? Because then the contest would come to an end and the eternal source of life for the Hellenic state would be endangered. …Originally this curious institution is not a safety valve but a means of stimulation: the individual who towers above the rest is eliminated so that the contest of forces may reawaken–an idea that is hostile to the ‘exclusiveness’ of genius in the modern sense and presupposes that in the natural order of things there are aways several geniuses who spur each other to action, even as they hold each other within the limits of measure. That is the core of the Hellenic notion of the contest: it abominates the rule of one and fears its dangers; it desires, as a protection against the genius, another genius.”

The idea is never to dominate, but rather to constantly challenge oneself to improve—not by force, but by fair play and open competition. The will to power is thus a striving for self mastery, not some plan for global domination.

Here are some other choice quotes from Nietzsche on this topic:

“Deification of success is truly commesurate with human meanness.”

“The political defeat of Greece was the greatest failure of culture: for it has brought with it the revolting theory that one can foster culture only when one is armed to the teeth and wears boxing gloves. The rise of Christianity was the second great failure: raw power there and the dull intellect here became victors over the aristocratic genius among the nations. Being a Hellenophile means: being an enemy of raw power and dull intellects.”

“And perhaps a great day will come when a people, distinguished by wars and victories and by the highest development of a military order and intelligence, and accustomed to make the heaviest sacrifice for these things, will exclaim of its own free will, ‘We break the sword,’ and will smash its entire military establishment down to its lowest foundations.”

“Rather perish than hate and fear, and twice rather perish than make oneself hated and feared–this must someday become the highest maxim for every single commonwealth too.”

“Let us consider the contribution of culture in general made by Germans in the first half of this century with their spiritual labor, and let us first take the German philosophers. They have reverted to the first and most ancient stage of speculation, for they have been satisfied with concepts instead of explanations, like the thinkers of dreamy ages; they revived a prescientific kind of philosophy.”

Deutschland Deutschland über alles, this is the end of German philosophy.”

“The stronger the state, the fainter is humanity.”

So yes, one might rightly say that he was an elitist, but to say he was pro-state, or even pro-German, is quite a stretch. I think the most immediate and kindest critique that Nietzsche would make of any state is that it’s ultimately boring in its forced homogeneity. Nietzsche was at heart an enemy of conformity, after all.

Why is this critique important today? Well as the state crumbles (bridges collapse, roads go into disrepair, water systems fail, etc.) we will need to have ready-made communities of support in order to handle complex tasks and uphold public health and safety. Shit, we will need these networks just to be able to find food, since most people believe that food comes from super markets and isn’t affected by seasons. The more people begin to become disinvested in the delusion of the all-powerful state, and the more they seek and practice alternative systems, the better off we’ll be when water ceases to run out of the tap on command. Nietzsche was/is, as usual, challenging his readers to not take the nation-state as the default, since it’s just as arbitrary and coercive as the feudal manor or the provincial castle.

Rome still exists in the minds of people, and indeed, many people think the US is just a modern incarnation of the same empire. The literal foundations of this empire are weakening (Roman concrete was stronger than our own is today, ironically), but the danger is that the ideological foundations will remain steadfast, even in the face of patent evidence of decline—and of ecological catastrophe. In light of that danger, it’s important to constanstly remind people that there are individual plants older than civilization, and that our state, like all states before it, will eventually fail. The difference is that when our state fails, it’ll take all other states—and most of the living planet—down with it. For a chance of any humans surviving to exist, we must begin now: doing both the mental and physical work needed to see it through.

Reading Nietzsche: Cutting Through the Fog

“A great value of antiquity lies in the fact that its writings are the only ones that modern men still read with exactness.”

So much of what we discuss when we discuss philosophers is their aura: the swirling ethereal cloud that is either made of stories (i.e. filtered, second- or third-hand ideas about their ideas), or made of their highly sensationalized biographies. Or sometimes it’s some conflation of the two: Marx wrote a blueprint for (and single-handedly brought about) the Soviet Union, right?

When remaining in this ambient bubble, any formulation of thought about what the philosophy can offer us inevitably loses sight of the initial catalyst of that very process: the text itself.

No one may suffer more from such a text-detached fog as Nietzsche, who, depending on the day, is authoritarian, nationalist, racist, antisemitic, or all of the above—in short, a Nazi—and who, by virtue of being both a scholar in the classical tradition and a product of the 19th Century, is also provincial, pedantic, anachronistic, and irrelevant. Whew.

But the text still sits here (and at your local library), cloud or not, and every time I pick it up—whether it’s been days or years since I last did—it always offers me something of value: some new way of thinking about things or some new reason to feel emboldened and happy (for one of the biggest misconceptions of his work is that it’s overly cynical or depressing, when in fact much of it is about experiencing joy by creating meaning—and indeed about joy being its own meaning).

This week’s example is about the glorification of suffering. Hitchens has made this same point about Mother Teresa and others, but even Hitch might stand jealous of this masterful weaving of words:

If we admit, for example, the truth of the doctrine of Schopenhauer (but also of Christianity) concerning the redemptive power of suffering, then it becomes regard for the “general welfare” not only not to lessen suffering, but perhaps even to increase it—not only for oneself but also for others. Pushed to this limit, practical ethics becomes ugly—even consistent cruelty to human beings. Similarly, the effect of Christianity is unnerving when it commands respect for every kind of magistrate, etc., as well as acceptance of all suffering without any attempt at resistance.  (from On Ethics, 1868)

Dulce Et Decorum Est

A poem by Wilfred Owen:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I need not elaborate on this poem at any length, both becuase it’s so explanitory and deep and also because it’s routinely tought in High-School English classes, but here’s a thing I wrote about the Christmas Day Truce, and what Owen may have thought about it. On Christmas day in 1914, German and English troops along the front held a temporary cessation of hostilities in order to celebrate together with songs, beer, gift exchanges, and football. Similar truces were said to have happened in the American Civil War, which makes sense (as much as war can make sense) since many of the people on either side were literally brothers and cousins.