Beyond Good and Evil

“Supposing truth is a woman–what then?” These, the very first words in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, set the mood for everything else that is to come. This initiating metaphor might strike some readers as bordering on sexist, but the lesson that Nietzsche hopes to teach us in this book is how to regard the world in a manner that transcends such simplistic dichotomies as male/female, good/evil, true/false, free/unfree, strong/weak, etc. Throughout this book, he admonishes us to be “free spirits” in the sense of becoming accustomed to the “tension” and ambiguity of the world so that we can utilize it for our own truly creative projects. Nietzsche wants us to see things through new eyes and to drop the old “masks” that encourage us to carve reality up into conventional, neatly categorized and mutually exclusive regions. The world is ambiguous, and Nietzsche thinks it virtuous to recognize the full depth of this ambiguity, savoring it and relishing its potential.

For Nietzsche, women symbolize everything that is mysterious, irrational, obscure and superficial. On a first take, and without trying to charitably understand his philosophical message, this stance might strike one as retrograde and misogynist. In fact, upon initially encountering certain passages in this book, I found myself rolling my eyes back in my head and clucking my tongue in disgust. Many of the assertions that Niezsche makes about women sound so stereotypically 19th Century that it is hard not to be offended. Take for instance the following:

“But she does not want truth: what is truth to woman? From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth – her great art is the lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty.” (Aphorism 232)

Understood literally and from the perspective of a polite, liberally educated denizen of the 21st Century, this is inexcusable. I recall, many years ago, listening to a talk by a feminist philosopher who made reference to these sorts of statements in support of her thesis that Nietzsche was nothing more than a product of his times: a sexist, woman-hating, male-chauvinist pig whose ideas and books had no place in our current world.

However, even at that time, I recognized that Nietzsche does not write books that a reader can simply dip into, extract isolated statements from, and then expect to really understand. To do so is to commit an accent fallacy by taking his words out of context. Nietzsche is not an analytic philosopher who uses language in order to literally state and and argue for his position, and to treat him as such is to fail to meet him on his own terms. His writing is more demanding than that, and it requires that you enter into his world, his perspective, and that you sincerely try to “see” things through his eyes. (This point, by the way, is beautifully expressed by Paula Cole in her song Nietzsche’s Eyes.) Doing this requires not only reading the isolated words and statements that Nietzsche has written, but also following along with the rythymns of his thought as he attempts to carry you toward a completed understanding of his new vision for a “philosophy of the future.” (I am familiar only with the English translation of this book, but Walter Kaufman has stated that the original German text is full of more puns, word play and double meanings than can adequately be conveyed in any translation.)

As noted above, Beyond Good and Evil begins with a metaphor: “Supposing Truth is a woman – what then?” (Preface) Why does he begin the book this way? Traditionally, Truth has been viewed as something stable, fixed, objective and profound. As Nietzsche suggests in Part One, “On the Prejudices of Philosophers,” the “will to truth” has traditionally driven philosophers (like Plato, Kant, Schopenhauer, etc.) to dismiss as “false” whatever is based in subjectivity and to affirm as “true” whatever is rooted in objectivity. As Nietzsche writes, “there may actually be puritanical fanatics of conscience who prefer even a certain nothing to an uncertain something to lie down on.” (Aphorism 10). Supposing, then, that this “prejudice,” about truth as something based in objective presence, as something that is certain and firm,  is a lie? Supposing truth is more like woman in the sense of being fickle, based on appearance, shallow and operating on the surface? What if “truth” is a “lie”?

In Part Two, “The Free Spirit,” Nietzsche continues to explore the implications of this idea and postulates the emergence of a new kind of philosopher that he calls an “attempter” (Versucher in German) (Aphorism 42). These attempters would be concerned with their own “truths,” and not with the truths others claim are universal, solid and rooted in eternity. What Nietzsche suggests is that these attempters might treat the truth as an artistic creation, something personal and subjective. With enough courage, the truth could be established by sheer, willful creation independent of how many people agree with it or are made happy by it. Just as the greatest artists create works that express their own personal visions, so too might these new philosophers, these “free spirits” or “attempters,” create truths that spring from their own noble, subjective perspectives.

In Part Three, “What is Religious,” Nietzsche suggests that philosophy as it has traditionally been practiced in the past, even when it has overtly rejected Christianity, has nonetheless been an expression of the religious longing for a world beyond the apparent realm. In conceiving of the Truth as a fixed and stable presence, philosophers have been driven to reject the transitory and changing world of perceptual flux for an unseen reality beyond appearances. This, by the way, is also the case for science, which has faith in the existence of objective but unseen causes behind all of the world’s perceptible effects. So it is that modern thought is shot through and through with a “religious essence” (religiöse Wesen) that has to do with a longing for something beyond the earthly realm. This religious essence seeks to “invert all love of the earthly and of dominion over the earth into hatred of the earth and the earthly.” (Aphorism 62).

Nietzsche at this point in the book realizes that we need a chance to absorb what he has written, and so Part Four, “Epigrams and Interludes,” presents a series of short aphorisms that embody various aspects of the wisdom he has been articulating. Aphorism 63 strikes me as especially interesting as it is the first aphorism in this section and it seems to indicate Nietzsche’s own awareness of his role as the teacher of a new perspective in philosophy: “Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students – even himself.” What I take as the significance of this statement is the thought that Nietzsche’s entire being is engulfed in the role of teacher. He is not simply writing books or creating a career for himself; he is a living, breathing embodiment of his philosophy.

Part Five initiates a “Natural History of Morals,” in which Nietzsche introduces his distinction between “slave” and “master” moralities. These divisions replicate in the domain of morality what he has already observed in regard to traditional philosophical treatments of Truth. Slave moralities claim that what is “good” is universal, objective and applicable to all people. Platonism and Kantianism, democracy and Christianity all serve as examples of systems promoting the view that goodness benefits the many and that evil is that which harms the many. Nietzsche, however, suggests that perhaps this is due not to some naturally given “truth” about things good and evil, but is due to a struggle for power between the “weak” and the “strong.” Because the “weak” multitudes feel threatened by a few “strong” individuals, the “weak” band together, creating “herds,” and thus find strength in numbers. With this strength, the herd oppresses the strong by imposing a universal standard of behavior upon them. Thus, what is “good” is simply what allows the herd to maintain its control over society and to stave off nonconformity. Here you can really see how the concepts of “weak” and “strong” are deconstructed in such a manner that they become relativized. Insofar as the “weak” band together as a herd, they become collectively “strong,” and insofar as the “strong” are individually vulnerable to the whims of the herd, they become “weak.” Good and evil are a matter of perspective, Nietzsche tells us, and he clearly has his own preference for the “master morality” of the few, individually strong and creative nonconformists who are terrifying to the mediocre members of the herd.

This last point is driven home in Part Six, “We Scholars.” Here, Nietzsche criticizes the modern tendency toward scholarly specialization as an attempt to force philosophers to become something like assembly line workers who are merely instruments for the happiness and prosperity of society as a whole; in other words “slaves” to the community. You see this today in colleges and universities, of course. Everyone is encouraged to specialize, to dig deep into a single area of study and thus to make a contribution to the collective well of knowledge that can then benefit all people. Scholarship, in this sense, is “good” according to its utility.  Nietzsche objects to this perspective on the role of the philosopher and instead asserts:

“He shall be greatest who can be loneliest, the most concealed, the most deviant, the human being beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, he that is overrich in will. Precisely this shall be called greatness: being capable of being as manifold as whole, as ample as full.” (Aphorism 212).

Notice that the qualities he alludes to as “great” are similar to the ones he attributes to women: ambiguity, fecundity (as in childbirth), and obscurity. The great scholar, then, is no herd animal. He is a free spirit who stands alone and is misunderstood by the crowd.

In Part Seven, “Our Virtues,” it is no coincidence that Nietzsche now comes back to his metaphor of woman as truth: “…even now truth finds it necessary to stifle her yawns when she is expected to give answers. In the end she is a woman: she should not be violated.” (Aphorism 220). His “philosophy of the future” is a philosophy that takes this “womanly” view of truth. It rejects “measure,” “boring utilitarianism,” and “religious” puritanism. What follows are some quite shocking and intentionally provocative statements concerning women: They should not be granted equality, and they should reject “enlightenment.” If women unlearn their fear of men and become their equals, then woman would “surrender her most womanly instincts.” (Aphorism 239). By becoming more like men, woman experiences a “borification.” (Aphorism 239). For those who have not followed along with Nietzsche’s rythym of thought up to this point, it would appear that he is advocating the preservation of the same old stale, sexist hierarchies that have dominated society for thousands of years. But this is precisely what he is not advocating. Instead, Nietzsche is suggesting that men should become more like women.

“Men have so far treated women like birds who had strayed to them from some height: as something more refined and vulnerable, wilder, stranger, sweeter, and more soulful – but as something that one has to lock up lest it fly away.” (Aphorism 237a).

In other words, just as simple-minded thinkers interpret the world as divided between mutually exclusive qualities (good/evil; strong/weak), so it is simple-minded for the philosopher to reject “feminine” virtues as incompatible with “maleness.” Both men and women are symbolic to Nietzsche of differing tendencies in culture and in philosophy, and his complaint is that we have become too “male” in the sense of emphasizing certainty, measure, usefulness, etc. as the standards for things being “true” and “good.” What is needed is a “feminine” counterbalance.

Part Eight, “Peoples and Fatherlands,” further emphasizes this point. Europe, he complains, has become fragmented by bigotry and racism. The bleak, obscure North has become divided from the sunny South, and it is time that these divisions are healed. “Europe wants to become one.” Nietzsche tells us that it is time for a “new synthesis” and that we need to “anticipate experimentally the European of the future.” (Aphorism 256).

The final Chapter, Part Nine, “What is Noble,” reaffirms Nietzsche’s vision of a new philosophy. Within every soul, there exists both strength and weakness. (Aphorism 260). Philosophers should not be afraid to recognize this ambiguity, seize it and utilize its potential in order to fashion their own new, creative, interesting and uniquely personal forms of truth. The philosopher should be an artist who courageously asserts his own “will to power,” articulating a perspective on the world that he embraces and loves, both for its beauty and, perhaps, its cruelty. A philosopher in this sense is both man and woman. He is “pregnant with new lightnings” (Aphorism 292) and yet manly in his “hardness” with himself and others.

In the closing section, “From High Mountains: Aftersong,” Nietzsche offers a poem that, in its last line, summarizes the aspiration and the hope that guides this entire book: “The wedding is at hand of dark and light – .”

I love this book; but that came only after struggling with its content and setting aside the various prejudices (both positive and negative) that I have about Nietzsche and his philosophy. I first encountered his writings as a teenager, and over the course of many years, I think that I have carried a very particular version of Nietzschean philosophy in the back of my mind that, while not necessarily untrue, has put a very particular spin on how I think about his writings. As a self conscious teenager who was struggling to establish his own identity and sense of worth, I tended to resonate with Nietzsche’s admonishions to be “hard” and “manly” while rejecting all things “weak” and “soft.” As a middle aged man, I now see something more subtle and well-rounded in Nietzsche’s worldview. We are all both weak and strong, cowardly and courageous, masculine and feminine in one way or another.

The world truly is ambiguous.

Antichrist

Lars Von Trier’s film Antichrist is one of the most upsetting, horrifying and gruesome films I have ever seen. It is often repellent, frequently pornographic and nearly unwatchable in parts due to some extremely brutal depictions of bodily mutilation. There is almost nothing entertaining about the film. It is unpleasant to watch. It is bleak, and it is depressing.

And yet Antichrist is also masterfully crafted and psychologically deep. The repulsive and unsettling character of the film’s imagery and action hammers home a profoundly nihilistic message that is cosmic in scope, and which is depressing precisely because of its difficult truth. This message is that nature is vicious, and that  humans, even though we want to forget it, are a part of nature. As a part of nature, the only thing that keeps us from tearing one another apart is our uncanny ability to repress and sublimate our deepest urges and drives. Without this ability, civilization would be impossible, and yet, ironically,  it is because of repression that we are doomed to experience self-alienation and despair. We are a part of nature, but we must pretend that we are not if we hope to hold onto such things as human dignity, moral law and social order. In order to live with one another peacefully, we must deny who we really are.

“Supposing truth is a woman – what then?” writes Nietzsche in the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil, and in Antichrist Von Trier eagerly sets his talents to answering this question. The movie begins with a prologue, filmed in slow-motion black and white, and set to Handel’s “Let Me Weep.” In this prologue, the film’s two nameless protagonists, “He” (Willem Dafoe) and “She,” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are having sex. In their passion, they are lost to the world around them; so much so that they are unaware that their young child has observed them (in what Freud referred to as the “primal scene”) and subsequently has fallen out of an open window to his death onto the sidewalk below. This opening sequence is shamelessly shocking in how it contrasts the innocence of a child with explicit shots of an erect penis thrusting into a vagina. The connection between the two is obvious – children are the product of sexual union between men and women – but still, we desire to obscure this truth. The child in the film has no knowledge of the primal sexuality of which he is the product, and we ourselves think it indecent to be reminded of this fact of nature. But that does not make it any less true. Nor does the horror we feel upon watching this child fall to his death make the reality of human mortality any less true. Everyone who is born is the product of physical lust and is destined to die. In this short, awful prologue then, Von Trier has compressed the entire trajectory of human existence.

The couple now falls into grief, and Chapter One of the film (Grief) begins. “He” is a therapist (or as a feminist sociology teacher of mine was fond of saying, “the-rapist”), and makes the poor decision to act in this capacity for his wife. “She” is a graduate student who has been working on, but has not finished, her thesis project dealing with the history of witchcraft and the persecution of women. In order to confront her grief, He compiles a list of things of which She is fearful. Near the top of this list is Eden, the name they have given to their cabin in the woods where She has done much of her writing. They decide to go back to Eden so that She can confront and overcome her most primal fear.

Eden and the forest are the embodiment of nature. The fear that She has of this setting is the fear that anyone has when forced to confront their authentic and true self. She is afraid that her real essence will be exposed, that the mask of civilization will drop away and that she will stand naked without a disguise. This is not just embarrassing; it is terrifying since it is a revelation not just to others, but also to one’s own self. It entails a confrontation with one’s own bestial nature. Consequently, She does not even want to walk through the woods in order to get to the cabin. Her feet burn as they touch the ground, even as her husband insists that it is all in her head. But her burning feet are merely an indication that nature is not a welcoming place to be. It is terrifying and uncivilized. It is a place where “chaos reigns.”

Chapter Two is titled “Pain (Chaos Reigns).” It is during this section of the film that He subjects She to a course of exposure therapy. She must walk on the ground, confront the woods and come to terms with her fear of nature. In Eden, as it turns out, all is not well. We come to find that nature is cruel and excessive in the suffering it demands. A deer is spied with a stillborn fawn hanging limp from its birth canal. A wounded, bloodied fox lies dying in the grass and barks “Chaos reigns!” The oak tree standing next to their cabin drops hundreds of acorns onto the roof, reminding them that in order for one tree to thrive, hundreds of acorns (its babies) must die. A baby chick falls from a nest, helpless and covered with ants, only to be snatched up and eaten alive by a passing bird of prey. This is nature, “red in tooth and claw.” As She tells her husband, “Nature is Satan’s church.”

With this exposure, her cure is initiated, and so is Chapter Three: Despair (Gynocide). It is during this part of the film that some of the most awful and appalling imagery appears. After announcing that her treatment has been successful, He comes to realize that the result is not what he had expected. Her defenses lowered, She comes into full contact with her inner nature, experiencing the sublime force and savagery of desire unleashed. She furiously copulates with her husband, and then masturbates madly before exploding in an uncontrolled rage because she fears that her husband will leave her. She crushes his testicles with a wooden beam, knocking him unconscious, rubs his penis until he ejaculates blood and drills a hole in his leg, to which she then attaches a heavy mill stone in order to keep him from leaving. She wanders away and He eventually regains consciousness, flees with difficulty and hides in a hole beneath a tree. (The hole, no doubt, represents a vagina, which in this film is both a danger and a lure to the male character. Throughout the film, the female lead is terrified of this particular tree hole; an indication that she fears her own nature.) While in the hole, He encounters a blackbird whose loud, cawing cries betray his hiding place, and so his wife finds him and drags him back to the cabin.

In the final Chapter: The Three Beggars, She, seemingly unable to endure the unrepressed intensity of her own boiling, primal, sexual rabidity, snips off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors. As She lays bleeding on the ground, He detaches the mill stone from his leg. When he looks over toward his wife’s prostrate form, the three animals, who are the the first three chapters’ namesakes, are laying next to her. Grief is a deer, pain is a fox and despair is a blackbird. He envisions them all as constellations in the night sky, reinforcing the idea that these are cosmic principles, laws of nature that are inscribed into the heavens. Nature is cruel and eternally filled with grief, pain and despair. He then strangles his wife to death and escapes the cabin.

The Epilogue depicts He climbing to the top of a hill and then seeing the three animals – “the three beggars” – ghostly but still present. As he looks upon them, He realizes that a multitude of faceless women are climbing the hill toward him. Nature is still in pursuit. He is not going to escape.

“Supposing truth is a woman – what then?” Lars Von Trier has answered Nietzsche’s question in this film. Nature is the truth, and in Antichrist woman is the embodiment of nature. She is beyond good and evil. “Mother Nature” is terrifying if left to her own devices. She requires the repression and sublimation of her forces in order to build civilization and to avoid the reign of chaos. “Thus man likes woman peaceful – but woman is essentially unpeaceful, like a cat, however well she may have trained herself to seem peaceful” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 131).

Lars Von Trier states that Antichrist is the most important film of his career. It was made when he was just emerging out of a deep depression so severe that he required hospitalization, and as a testament to his own grief, pain, and despair, the film is tremendously powerful. While many people, including critics and some of his leading ladies, accuse Von Trier of being sexist and misogynistic, such ad hominem attacks do nothing to undermine the profound depth and authenticity of this film. Von Trier confesses that he drew from his own dreams (and nightmares!) in order to make Antichrist, and it is in dreams, as Freud taught, that the unconscious forces of thanatos and libido make their most honest and unrepressed appearance. In this way, Von Trier is perhaps more naked in Antichrist than are his lead actors.