Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Madman

Friedrich Nietzsche

(From: "The Gay Science")

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!” – As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there he excited considerable laughter. “Have you lost him then?” said one. “Did he lose his way like a child?” said another. “Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Or emigrated?” – thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are all his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is more and more night not coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? – gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives – who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed – and whoever shall be born after us, for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto…

In Auschwitz, where they recognised that the smell of burned and decomposing flesh was actually the corpse of God, there were many who answered Nietzsche's question precisely by kneeling on the dirt and asking God for guidance nonetheless. Absurd? And yet he gave them answers (see October 28 in "The Book of Days"). In Auschwitz, where they recognised that the smell of burned and decomposing flesh was truly just the corpse of Man (can one use the phrase "truly just" in a sentence such as this one? nothing in the whole of human history was ever more "truly unjust"), there were many who answered Nietzsche's question by putting God on trial, and finding him guilty of both indifference and suicide, and sentencing him as a punishment for this most heinous crime – to eternal life. (Ah, paradoxes! Don't we humans just love our paradoxes!) 

Beyond argument (nothing is beyond argument – and yet the phrase is apt), this passage of Nietzsche's is the most cataclysmic in all modern prose: the annunciation of the tearing of the Veil, the blowing of the ram's horn to declare the alarum for the apocalypse, and circumambulate his Black Rock backwards, in order to disintegrate him like a Golem. Yet nowhere is it stated, nowhere is it affirmed, that God is truly dead (indeed, He is self-evidently alive and well and living in these sentences - both the ones I am writing here, and the judicial one, passed by the heirs of Nietzsche).

So many paradoxes (so many necessary parentheses)! And questions – vast, rhetorical questions. Were there ever more rhetorical questions asked in a single breath? Was there ever written a greater, a more extraordinary example, of rhetoric, and hyperbole, than this? But for all my irony, the questions, like the paradoxes, are truly momentous and monumental. How do we live our daily lives, how do we distinguish good from evil, how do we construct a civilisation, if the bulb and the battery have been taken from the torch, and yet we still expect, nay demand, eternal light? Nietzsche was the midwife at the birth of modern Man, an induced delivery by forceps and without benefit of epidural; and what came out of the womb was monstrous – another Golem, this one an anti-Christ; Lucifer's talons, fangs and wings were all in evidence, as well as the impudence and arrogance, the unyielding mind, the rabid rage for destruction, the sarcasm and cynicism, the impious laugh.

These latter words are not mine (though I added the Golem); they belong to Nikos Kazantzakis, the greatest of modern Greek writers, both in Katharevousa – high Greek – and in demotic, the colloquial. Kazantzakis speaks in his "Report To Greco" of his first encounter with the Übermensch:

"His impetuosity and pride swept me off my feet, the danger intoxicated me, and I plunged into his work with fright and longing, as though entering a bustling jungle full of famished beasts and dizzying orchids. Each day I could not wait for my classes at the Sorbonne to end and night to fall. I longed to go home and have the landlady come and light the fire so that I could open his books – they were all piled high on my desk – and begin to share his struggle. I had grown accustomed little by little to his voice, his halting breath, his cries of pain. I had not known – only now was I discovering this – that the anti-Christ struggles and suffers just as Christ does and that sometimes, in their moments of distress, their faces look the same...
"His pronouncements struck me as impious blasphemies, his Übermensch as the assassin of God. This rebel had a mysterious fascination, however. His words were a seductive spell which dizzied and intoxicated; they made your heart dance. Truly, his thought was a Dionysiacal dance; an erected paean raised triumphantly at the most hopeless moment of the human and superhuman tragedy. In spite of myself, I admired his affliction, mettle, and purity, as well as the drops of blood which bespattered his brow as though he too, the anti-Christ, were wearing a crown of thorns."

The story of Kazantzakis' Orphean journey through the thought of Nietzsche is as powerful as any physical epic of the heroes, worthy of adding to this collection both as personal voyage of discovery and as the best brief explication of the Übermensch philosophy that you will read. At its end, before rejecting the philosophy as "just another paradise, another mirage to deceive poor unfortunate Man and enable him to endure life and death", he raises "three cheers for Nietzsche, the murderer of God" and poses one final, rhetorical question of his own, a challenge gauntleted to each of us: "Would I, I wondered, ever be able to confront the abyss with this tranquil, untrembling glance?"

Would any of us?

Friedrich Nietzsche's "The Gay Science" is published by Penguin Classics; "Report To Greco" by Nikos Kazantsakis is published, in English translation, by Simon and Schuster.

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