The Affirmation of Life

Bernard Reginster’s book The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism is an ambitious and thorough work. It proposes an interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy that emphasizes its orderly and logical structure, portryaing it as a consistent and coherent system offering a solution to the problem of nihilism and a strategy for the affirmation of life. Both in its purpose and tone, Reginster’s book reminds me of other works that approach continental thinkers and themes from a self-consciously analytic perspective; books such as David E. Cooper’s Existentialism, Antoine Panaïoti’s Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy, and James Tartaglia’s Philosophy in a Meaningless Life. The Affirmation of Life sits alongside these other efforts as a well-argued attempt to bring some order to what can sometimes seem like a very disorderly and unruly topic.

Reginster points out in the introduction to The Affirmation of Life that interpreters of Nietzsche generally fall into two categories. On the one hand, there are those who approach his writings piecemeal, taking his aphoristic style as evidence that Nietzsche never meant readers to think systematically about his work, but rather to read his books as a kind of poetry that plays with recurring themes, observations and insights. Like the musings of a insightful but scattered mind, this approach treats Nietzsche’s books as compendiums of ideas and thoughts lacking system or method. Nietzsche does encourage this sort of reading at times; for instance in Twilight of the Idols writing, “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” (I 26)

On the other hand, there are those who approach Nietzsche more “globally,” focusing on a theme or doctrine that is taken as playing a unifying role in his overarching philosophical system. In this approach, the variety of ideas appearing throughout Nietzsche’s books are taken as logically connected parts that hang together with regularity and order. In these sorts of interpretations, one particular doctrine is generally thought to be the key to unlocking the real meaning of Nietzschean philosophy; whether it be the revaluation of values, the Superman, the eternal return, or the will to power. For these kinds of interpreters, Nietzsche’s writing style and his periodic denunciations of systematic thinking are distractions from the actual, underlying structure of his thinking process, which can be reconstructed by looking at the overall trajectory of his life work. If you do this, so it is claimed, one will discover that Nietzsche was concerned with thinking through some particular sort of problem in an orderly and deliberate manner.

Reginster’s reading of Nietzsche is aligned with the latter approach. However, unlike past interpreters he tells us that it is not a particular doctrine that lies at the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy, but a “particular problem or crisis.” (p. 4) This problem is the “crisis of nihilism,” which, in its most general sense, is “the belief that existence is meaningless.” (p. 21) Nihilism is marked by the distressing loss of confidence in goals and ideals that once gave human life meaning and purpose. Nietzsche’s writings are mostly concerned with nihilism as a European crisis; a problem that emerges in modern times with the increasing erosion of Judeo-Christian beliefs. This devaluation of traditional beliefs is a problem since, as of yet, nothing has emerged to take their place, and thus meaninglessness and lack of purpose threaten to infect European culture. According to Reginster, Nietzsche’s entire philosophical project is an attempt to address this threat and to offer a replacement for these lost values.

Reginster identifies two variants of nihilism. The first variant emerges from the devaluation of goals that at one time actually did give life meaning and purpose. The second variant is rooted in the conviction that any goals that could give life meaning and purpose are in fact unrealizable. In the first instance, nihilism emerges along with the realization that the things we once valued – our highest aspirations – are now things that have lost their value for us. So, for instance, a person might at one point in time value the aspiration toward being rich, but then at some later point in life come to the realization that money-making is not really all that important, and thus that the life he or she currently lives has become meaningless. The second kind of nihilism has less to do with the content of particular goals themselves, but with their realizability or attainability. So, for instance, a person might continue to aspire toward, and value, becoming rich, but come to realize that it is, in fact, impossible to actually achieve riches. The goal is not realizable even though it continues to be desired, and so, once again, life becomes meaningless.

Reginster argues that for Nietzsche, in order for life to be meaningful, our goals must both be valuable and realizable. To avoid nihilism, then, the purposes and projects we embrace must have the possibility of actually being accomplished. Otherwise, we will either become disoriented or fall into despair. Nihilistic disorientation is connected to the conviction that the highest human values are no longer valuable, while nihilistic despair is connected to the conviction that the highest human values are  unobtainable because they are not objectively real, but rather illusory projections of the human mind.

Nietzsche’s own conception of nihilism, Reginster claims, is ambiguous in the sense that his writings equivocate between addressing nihilism as disorientation and addressing nihilism as despair. The problem is that these two senses of nihilism actually seem to conflict with one another, since if one no longer values a goal, then its unattainability would not be a source of distress, and, on the other hand, if a goal can’t be realized, then by its very nature it becomes drained of value. In other words, if one is a disoriented nihilist, then there is no reason for one to also be a despairing nihilist, and vice versa. If you don’t value riches, for instance, then you won’t even care that they can’t be achieved. And, if you know that you can’t be rich, then the desirability of aspiring toward riches will vanish. Reginster argues that most interpreters underemphasize the ambiguity in Nietzsche’s understanding of nihilism, but that nonetheless it is key to understanding his strategy for affirming life and overcoming both despair and disorientation.

The crux of Nietzsche’s strategy is, first, to reveal the groundlessness of traditional values and, second, to introduce a new highest standard of attainable values based on the will to power. So, the overcoming of nihilism proceeds in stages. The first stage involves revealing that the highest values currently driving western culture to nihilistic despair  – Judeo-Christian values –  lack objective standing. Since they are not objectively “real,” Judeo-Christian values are illusions that are “life-negating” in the sense that they encourage us to pursue goals that are unattainable (such as everlasting life in heaven). Revealing the inherent unrealizability of the values implied by this belief system undermines their value, and so this first stage of Nietzsche’s strategy liberates us from Juedo-Christian nihilism as despair. By revealing the illusory, and thus unattainable, nature of things like God and heaven, their desirability as aspirational goals vanishes. However, the elimination of these traditional values in turn provokes nihilistic disorientation. With the death of God, a void is left in place of the highest (unattainable) values, and the entire moral order that was implied by God’s existence collapses. We are robbed of our highest (unattainable) goals and aspirations, and life becomes, once again, meaningless insofar as there is no organizing center, no ultimate guiding purpose to life. Nihilism as disorientation is thus introduced.

The second stage in Nietzsche’s strategy is to offer a revaluation, showing that “life-negating values are not the highest values.” (p. 50) He does this, according to Reginster, by proposing the will to power as a replacement for the highest “principle” or ethical “standard” (p. 148). What this accomplishes is to introduce a this-worldly, attainable standard of value, as opposed to the other-worldly, unattainable standard advocated in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The main barrier in the way of advocating this new standard, however, is “the problem of suffering” (p. 159). Influenced by his reading of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche regards this problem as the issue uniting all western (and some non-western) moral systems. Whether it is Christianity, Buddhism, Utilitarianism, or Eudaimonism, the condemnation of suffering seems universal. But if, as all of these systems claim, suffering is an evil that to some degree will always remains a part of our life in this world, then the goal of eliminating suffering is itself nihilistic, since it involves the pursuit of something that can never be actually and fully realized in the here-and-now. All of those moral systems advocating the end of suffering are, thus, life-negating insofar as they promote the nihilism of despair.

The conclusion Nietzsche thus reaches is that any non-nihilisitic value system must embrace the inevitability of suffering, and he advocates the will to power as his solution. The doctrine of the will to power holds that the highest good is power itself, and power just is the “overcoming of resistance” (p. 177). Power is only manifested (as Schopenhauer had already suggested) in the course of its practical, concrete exercise. It is not a “thing,” but rather a process or “activity” (p. 196) that occurs when two forces encounter one another and clash. There is, in this sense, no such thing as potential, unexpressed power; only power actually manifested in the course of active expression. Power becomes manifest only when there is some obstacle to be overcome. Furthermore, any obstacle we encounter must offer some degree of opposition to our efforts. But opposition to our will is also what makes for difficulty, struggle and suffering in life.  With resistance, thus, there is always pain and suffering, but without it, there is no possibility for the exercise of will power and the sort of overcoming that makes us feel happy and joyful in our accomplishments. It follows, then, that if we are to value power as our highest value, then we must also value suffering.

By elevating the will to power to the highest of all values, Nietzsche accomplishes a revaluation that he believes satisfies both of the conditions for a meaningful life. First, since power just is the overcoming of obstacles, and since all humans value this sort of overcoming (regardless of the nature of the particular obstacle that they overcome), the will to power represents a goal that is intrinsically valuable. Thus it overcomes nihilism as disorientation. Second, since power is always concretely expressed in this world, it is, by its very nature, something attainable (in varying degrees) in the here-and-now. It is not an illusory, unrealizable goal. This overcomes nihilism as despair.

The last two chapters of Reginster’s book address Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence and his advocacy of Dionysian wisdom, suggesting that both are integral to the preceding interpretation. Just as the will to power offers an alternative to the belief in God, the eternal recurrence offers an alternative to the Christian ideal of eternal life in heaven. It is an attempt to conceptualize life as active, never ending becoming rather than as a static state of passive being. In this way it encourages us to embrace impermanence, which is at the very heart of the idea of will to power as a process. Finally, with the mythic figure of Dionysus, we find another alternative to Christian ideals. In Christianity, it is the beaten and battered Christ, and his condemnation of suffering, that inspires admiration, while the god Dionysus, on the other hand, represents the life-affirming celebration of destruction, suffering, and change as parts of the creative cycle of nature itself. In these ways, Reginster suggests, both Dionysus and the eternal recurrence are something like Nietzschean myths, offered as alternatives to the traditional Christian myths of God, Christ and heaven. For readers who embrace his revaluation in terms of the will to power, they represent life-affirming, non-nihilistic guidelines for how to live life in the here and now.

There is much more argumentative detail in The Affirmation of Life than I have summarized here. Reginster goes to meticulous lengths in building his own position, remaining very diligent in his reconstruction of competing interpretations of the material, and providing plausible counterarguments for why his own reading of Nietzsche is especially consistent and complete. It was a pleasure to follow along with the author’s thinking process, which exhibits an unusual amount of analytic skill and care for the material. My only criticisms of the book have to do with the lack of a concluding chapter and Reginster’s omission of any serious engagement with Heidegger’s major work on Nietzsche.

Given that the arguments in The Affirmation of Life are so intensely detailed and interlocking, it would have been nice if there was final summation of the book’s overall argumentative trajectory. As it is, the book ends rather abruptly, with a short but incomplete two page conclusion tacked on to the last chapter on Dionysian wisdom. I did a lot of underlining as I read through the book for a second time, and once I got to the end of its 268 pages, I had to go back through and reconstruct the overall argument for myself. I hope I got it all right. In any case, it would be helpful if, upon reaching the end of the work the author’s own summation was provided so that a reader like myself could be reassured that he got all of the pieces in the proper order.

The omission of Heidegger is a complaint only because it struck me, once I had finished the book, that there are aspects of his four volume work on Nietzsche that are directly relevant to Reginster’s interpretation. Heidegger, like Reginster, attempts to demonstrate that Nietzsche’s various doctrines – the will to power, the eternal recurrence, and nihilism – all play integral roles in a consistent Nietzschean philosophy. He also claims that the will to power is central to the revaluation of values and that the eternal recurrence is Nietzsche’s way of attempting to think Being as a process of becoming. One of the major – and I think very interesting – differences is Heidegger’s claim that nihilism is not something that can legitimately be “overcome,” since instead of a problem or crisis, nihilism is actually an aspect of Being itself. I am curious as to how Reginster would respond to this Heideggerian reading of Nietzsche.

In any case, I highly recommend Bernard Reginster’s The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism to those readers who have a serious interest in Nietzsche, nihilism and who appreciate detailed, scholarly and meticulous argumentation. This is not a book that can be read through quickly or superficially. It is one that requires patience, time and focused attention. It is a difficult book in these ways, but as Reginster himself suggests, difficulty goes along with the overcoming of obstacles, which in turn makes us happy in the expression of our will to power!

 

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Carsick

I was appropriately shocked when I first saw John Water’s film Pink Flamingos at a midnight screening in Berkeley sometime in the 1980’s. I was with my girlfriend, and I recall wanting to walk out during a scene when Divine gives a blow job to her son, Crackers. Funny how that was that part of the movie that made me so uncomfortable. It wasn’t the part where a chicken was crushed to death between two people having sex. It want’t the famous “singing asshole” scene. I wasn’t even that freaked out when Divine ate a pile of dog shit. It was the blow job. That was just too much.

Since then, John Waters has become something of a hero to me. I’ve seen all of his movies, read most of his books, and have attended his live stage show This Filthy World. He makes me laugh with his sardonic perspective on American culture, and I love how he challenges mainstream moral values and aesthetic sensibilities in his own peculiar, good natured way. I think what I appreciate most about Waters, however, is what I perceive as his weird and charming detachment from the twisted world that he inhabits. While associating with criminals and junkies, strippers and prostitutes, Waters has always seemed to me to stand above and apart from the decadence. I see him as a spectator who, while being lovingly fascinated by filth, perversion and obscenity, does not really take part in it himself. Though he lives, works and plays shoulder-to-shoulder with dangerous outsiders, I never had the impression that Waters himself was at all dangerous or threatening. In this way, perhaps I have tended to see something of myself reflected in him; someone who lives in this freakish world but is not of it.

This feeling was somewhat sabotaged for me when I recently read John Water’s Carsick. I found a remaindered copy at our local anarchist bookshop and eagerly dived into it, expecting to really like the book. While there is a lot of funny material in it, there is also much of Carsick that struck me as slapdash and at points even tediously annoying. With apologies to my hero, let me explain.

Carsick is divided into three sections. Part one, “The Best That Could Happen,” is the author’s fantasy about his imagined, best possible hitchhiking experience. Part two, “The Worst That Could Happen,” imagines the worst possible scenario. These first two sections are fictional while only the last section tells John Waters’ actual, real-life experience hitchhiking across the country.

My favorite episode appears at the end of part one when Waters imagines developing a temporarily magic asshole after being anally raped by aliens. His enchanted farts allow him to levitate, inflate flat tires, and bring Connie Francis out of an Alzheimer’s-like stupor! When Waters himself is magically farted on by his ride, Johnny Davenport, he grows a full head of hair. This all made me laugh out loud.

Perhaps the most touching chapter in part one has John Waters picturing himself being picked up by Edith Massey, who in real life died in 1984. He cries in joy when he discovers that she faked her own death to escape show biz and is now 94 years old “and still kickin'” (p. 48). Now running a second-hand pharmacy outside of St. Louis, Edith leads a quiet, happy life with her cat. Edith and John get a final chance to tell one another “I love you,” before Waters continues on his hitchhiking journey. I found this chapter to be very sweet, giving me the John Waters that I really like; a sensitive guy who loves his weird, freakish friends.

Many other episodes in the first part of the book left me with uncomfortable feelings. Waters writes a lot about his own sexual fantasies, which involve him giving a hand job to an outlaw demolition derby driver and getting all lustful over a bank robber who has a perpetual hard-on. It’s not that this material offended me, but it did violate my image of Waters as the detached, ironic observer. Instead of poking fun at the filthy decadence around him, in these parts Waters reveals a bit too much of his own lustful desires. It’s not that I am so naive as to believe that he doesn’t have lustful feelings, it’s just that by expressing them in the first person, my image of him as a gentle, harmless onlooker was replaced with an uneasy sense that he had become an old man on the prowl for younger men.

The second fictional part of the book chronicles Water’s worst imagined hitchhiking experiences, including psychotic fans, an involuntary tattoo, jail time, a goiter, and his death by decapitation, ending with eternal damnation in Hell. In the abstract, part two works better for me than it does in its concrete execution. Here we get all of the author’s worst possible fears, crammed together one after the other, and when I consider it as a whole, it strikes me at once as more funny and more solemn than it seemed when I was actually reading it. The material is absurd, but the ideas that Waters is working with here are quite serious: his own fears and insecurities about aging, his health, his fans, his sexuality and the vulnerabilities of being an old man.

It is interesting that Water’s desires (as expressed in part one) and his fears (as expressed in part two) often seem to be rooted in the same things. For instance, in part one he imagines being recognized by loving fans who take him on various absurd adventures, while in part two he imagines being threateningly pursued by a crazy fan who won’t stop reciting lines from all of his most infamous films. In part one he lustfully imagines gay encounters with some of the men who give him rides, while in part two, he fearfully imagines being picked up by a psychotically anti-heterosexual gay man named Blossom who forces him to participate in a crime spree. In part one he imagines being picked up by a police officer who sniffs poppers and loves the movie Hairspray, while in part two he imagines being thrown in jail by abusive police. Water’s desires and fears seem intermingled. He desires the very things that he fears, and he fears the very things that he desires.

The last, non-fictional section of the book is a little over 100 pages long, chronicling Water’s actual, real-life hitchhiking journey from Baltimore to San Francisco. A lot of people have commented on the possibility that the first two sections may have been included in order to beef up what would otherwise have been a very short and, honestly, unexciting travelogue. I don’t know if that is true or not. One thing that does come through, and that continues a consistent thread with the earlier sections,  is a focus on Water’s own fears and desires. In this third, real-life section of the book, his fears turn out to be largely empty and his desires are unfulfilled. He is never attacked or abused by anyone he gets a ride with, and although he lusts after some of the people who pick him up, nothing ever comes of it. All of the people that he hitches rides with turn out to be very nice, even though most of them have no idea of who he is. Assuming that he is just an elderly homeless man, all of these people are kind and generous to him. Others, like an indie band on tour, an ex-marine, and a middle-aged couple on vacation with their dog, do recognize him and are thrilled to pick him up. In contrast to the outrageousness of the first two sections of the book, however, nothing all that exciting really happens in this final part. Waters doesn’t even make the effort to explore the towns that he passes through on his adventure. Instead, he stays at chain motels, eats at chain restaurants and goes to the movies once. He is consistently anxious and uncomfortable, more concerned with his lack of expensive hand lotion than he is with meeting American outsiders. During his entire real-life hitchhiking adventure Waters seems more eager to get the journey over with than he is with observing and documenting the underbelly of America. This third section, thus, feels to me like a missed opportunity for the king of filth to explore American culture as it exists along Interstate 70.

The idea of John Waters hitchhiking across America is funnier than what is actually chronicled in this book. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the fictional parts of this story more than the real-life part. In the first two sections, the absurdity that transpires is more Waters-esque than the mundane, real life journey Waters takes in the last section. I also found myself unsettled to read about Water’s own lustful feelings; especially in the final section when he is wondering (in real life) if he is going to hook up with the men that he gets rides from. I know its normal for people to think these things, but in the case of John Waters, I hate to think of him as an old man on the prowl. I prefer to think of him as a detached observer and admirer of this filthy world.

But I suppose that has more to do with me and my own hang-ups than it has to do with John Waters, who, by the way, still remains one of my heros.

Good Price on Cinematic Nihilism

In case anyone is interested, Amazon is selling brand new hardcover editions of Cinematic Nihilism for $34; a huge discount off of the original publisher’s price, which is $110. This is a much better bargain than my own author discount.

Purchase is limited to one book per customer.

Cinematic Nihilism Presentation at College of Marin

On October 26th I delivered a presentation on my new book, Cinematic Nihilism, at the College of Marin. This video of the presentation is about 56 minutes long and includes a group discussion at the end. Thanks to David Patterson, who both organized and filmed the event, as well as to everyone who attended!

APA Blog Post

I have written a guest blog post for the American Philosophical Association’s website detailing the arguments from my book Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. It includes an excerpt from “Chapter 9: Yukio Mishima and the Return to the Body.”

You can read it here:

American Philosophical Association

Cinematic Nihilism Discount Code

Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings, is scheduled for release in September. The hardcover edition is available now for preorder from Edinburgh University Press, or in the US from Oxford University Press. You can use the code from the coupon below to get a $33 discount. The softcover edition will come out next year.