Philosophy for the weak

by Sam Kriss

But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are.
I Corinthians 1:27-28

A sick man, a spiteful man, an unpleasant man; a cruel and strange weirdo, a loser, a stateless foreigner living alone in a single room; in other words, a man who can’t bear to see a horse being whipped. He hugs its neck, he wails, he collapses. Eventually the police are called. What’s the deal with Nietzsche and horses? Twenty years beforehand, when he was young and strong, he’d abandoned his ancient books and joined the Prussian artillery, quickly distinguishing himself as an excellent rider. Then, one day, as he jumped happily into the saddle, something went wrong. He tore two muscles down his left side; he couldn’t walk for months. A fracture opened up. No more games with horses and cannon for young Fritz; an unhappy return to his old childhood world of classical philology, Hölderlin and Schopenhauer. From here on his body would only disintegrate: syphilis turns his bones to mush; indigestion sets his entrails on fire; genius, the worst sickness of all, sends him mad. All because of one horse. It’s hard to see Nietzsche angry at the horse, though; it’s much easier to imagine him bent over in pain as the horse watches with placid incomprehension, looking up into its dark eyes and suddenly conceiving of the doctrine of eternal recurrence. All this could happen again, exactly, to the last detail, and he’d be glad. Nietzsche trying and failing to mount his horse is a philosophical encounter. He loves horses, wild horses, war-horses, cart-horses. We could ask instead: what’s the deal with Nietzsche and his father? Ever since Freud’s Little Hans we’ve had to look at horses suspiciously. A horse isn’t just a horse, it’s a big snorting priapic dad. It’s strange, though: the same furious Nietzsche who tears down gods and nations speaks in only the kindest terms of his timid Lutheran pastor of a father; through him he invents an entire lineage of Polish nobility to be his ancestors. A delusional man. A man whose life isn’t so much a life as a constant writhing agony. His apartment in Turin is full of dust and little else; no wonder his lungs are playing up. It’s dark, and faintly moist, and it smells of decay. Moths flap about in gloomy corners. A single trunk, a single desk, a single bed. The gas-lamp outside sends the odd flicker of orange light, Dämmerung-deathly, across the room. In the middle of all this, Friedrich Nietzsche sits down at his desk and writes works of cold bright Arctic clarity.

In Anti-Nietzsche, Malcolm Bull confronts the modern-day ubiquity of that strange and lonely man going mad in Turin. Nietzscheanism is everywhere; Bull points out quite rightly how strange it is that a philosopher famous for his oppositionalism is so scarcely opposed. Socialists, feminists, and Christians swear their fidelity to the ideas of the anti-egalitarian, misogynist and atheist Nietzsche. However, Bull points out that defeating him isn’t an easy thing to do. Nietzsche writes about the will to power; if you try to critique his ideas, you’re only asserting your own will to power over his. Nietzsche writes about master and slave morality; if you try to overturn his principles, you’re only proposing your own master morality. Nietzsche’s works are full of conflict, war, and dynamite; if you try to fight him, he’s already won. So Bull doesn’t try. As he puts it, Nietzsche wants us to ‘read for victory,’ so he reads for defeat. Bull’s tactic is for us to accept Nietzsche’s philosophy in its entirety but to position ourselves on the ‘wrong’ side of every opposition. Rather than trying to raise ourselves to Übermenschen, we should become less than human; we should abandon the aesthetic; we should arm ourselves with nothing except our weakness, because we are weak. Bull encourages us to ‘read like losers.’ It’s a fascinating idea, but I think there’s something he’s missed. There’s no need for us to read like losers, because Nietzsche writes like a loser.

I usually don’t like this kind of biographical argument. When people claim that Bishop Berkeley’s subjective idealism was just a philosophical manifestation of his life-long constipation and inability to produce matter, I find it hard not to have a vague objection. It’s the same when there’s an attempt to reduce political ideologies to some kind of cod-psychopathology: you’re only a conservative because of your dominating father, I’m only a communist because I never got over my infantile egotism, whatever. These are ideas, they should be confronted as such. With Nietzsche it’s different. His great achievement was to drag philosophy down from its pretentious heights and roll it around in the mud a little. He was the first to see philosophy as a ‘kind of unintended and unwitting memoir’ of its author – as a symptom. There’s no reason to think that Nietzsche ever excluded his own (anti)philosophy from this perspectivism. When he tells us not to believe everything written down in fine style, he’s talking about his own writing. There’s a note of sad irony in all his works: his chapters with titles like ‘why I am so clever’ and ‘why I write such good books’ refer to nothing more than his migraines, his blindness, and his loneliness. Nietzsche carefully cultivated this image of his own lack: even as he was dying of syphilis, he continued to maintain that he’d never slept with a woman. In his Introduction to Antiphilosophy Boris Groys writes that ‘when Nietzsche praises victorious life, preaches amor fati and identifies himself with the forces of nature that are bound to destroy him, he simply seeks to divert himself and others from the fact that he himself is sick, poor, weak and unhappy.’ I don’t think diversion is what’s going on here. He’s coding or communicating his sickness; the incredible strength of his works and the incredible weakness of the man himself are one and the same thing, and neither one can be understood without the other.

Ignoring Nietzsche’s weakness can get you into trouble. I’m not talking about the fascists, whose Nietzsche is more a signifier than a thinker, but people like Georges Bataille. Bataille was a great philosopher but a really shoddy Nietzschean. While he famously confronts Hegel with laughter, he takes Nietzsche far too seriously – because Nietzsche’s laugh is that of the weak, choked with phlegm. Bataille wasn’t weak, even despite his tuberculosis. He lived an affirmative life of the kind that Nietzsche recommended: he wasted several fortunes in bars, casinos, and brothels; he founded secret societies; he was an enthusiastic participant in the partouze, he masturbated over the corpse of his mother while his pregnant wife slept in the next room. He was outwardly courteous and handsome; he didn’t need to hide his face behind a ridiculous moustache. He didn’t quite get it. You can see this in some of his most overtly Nietzschean texts; The Practice of Joy before Death, for instance. Bataille writes that ‘man “is” as soon as he stops behaving like a cripple, glorifying necessary work and letting himself be emasculated by the fear of tomorrow.’ Later he shows us how to do this: ‘I AM joy before death. Joy before death carries me. Joy before death hurls me down. Joy before death annihilates me. I remain in this annihilation and, from there, I picture nature as a play of forces expressed in multiplied and incessant agony.’ It’s powerful stuff, but there’s a glaring lack of irony here, a very un-Nietzschean didacticism. Bataille doesn’t quite get it because Nietzsche is a hypocrite, and he isn’t.

Bataille’s attitude to weakness is one of disavowal: Je sais bien that I am tubercular, mais quand même when I scream I AM THE SUN the verb être is the vehicle of an amorous frenzy. This is particularly evident in his writings on ritual orgy. In Eroticism Bataille rejects the idea of the orgy as an agrarian ritual, or at least the idea that the ritual orgy is entirely reducible to agrarian ritual. Instead it’s seen as an intrusion of the sacred world (that characterised by continuity, deindividuation, violence and ecstasy) into the profane world of work and discontinuity. The ritual orgy is a religious experience in the highest sense; it has no primary purpose other than unleash the transgressive forces of violent and frenzied eroticism. Bataille likens the orgy to war, another explosion of the sacred whose secondary, political purpose is only assigned to it later; it becomes enmeshed in his doctrine of excessive life and overabundant strength. He refers to ‘the men who ordained these orgies,’ but the men who ordained these orgies were women. The Dionysian Mysteries were a grotesquerie, a festival of the weak and the excluded in Greek society: women, slaves, cripples and outlaws. Their power was like Nietzsche’s: the paradoxical power of weakness, a power Bataille has disavowed. When the weakness goes; so does the power. Last year I took part in a masquerade orgy in London’s South Bank; the principle of female ordination was there (men could only attend if accompanied by a female partner, only women could approach men) but it was immensely different from the ancient mysteries. Afterwards many of my friends wanted to know what it had been like; more specifically they wanted to know if the whole thing had been tinged with horror and if it had left me feeling dead inside. They were quite disappointed to find out that it had just been quite fun. The people there were young and wealthy, bankers and investors; before we could go we had to send photos to the organisers so they could make sure we were attractive enough. In Bataille’s terms, it was libertinage rather than dissolution. There was no element of the sickness or the weakness that expresses itself as lightning and dynamite.

It’s notable that the discussion of ritual orgy in Eroticism is immediately followed by a critique of Christianity. The reason the Bacchic orgy no longer exists as a mass phenomenon has to do with Christianity’s reappraisal of the sacred and the profane; Bataille argues that in Christianity the sacred is associated exclusively with purity and the non-erotic love of agápē, while the ‘bad’ elements of the sacred (frenzy, violence) become part of the profane world, which is condemned as evil. In doing so Christianity loses much of the religious spirit, replacing it with sterile piety. Even so, it can’t abolish the impure aspect of the sacred, which finds its medieval expression in the Witches’ Sabbath and the Black Mass, inverted representations of Catholic liturgy. Again, Bataille’s argument loses something from the absence of any sense for weakness; he doesn’t see what really distinguishes Christianity. As he himself notes, the ‘sacred world is nothing but the natural world.’ It’s the order of the profane, with its division into work-time and leisure-time, that’s an artificial world formed through societal rites. However, the formation of the profane world is itself a product of religion; the laws which set up taboos and demand diligence in work are universally held to be a product of divine or cosmic revelation. Religion doesn’t belong to the sacred; it establishes a boundary between the sacred and the profane. The innovation of Christianity is to cast the profane world as the site of evil, to reject the world of work and to uphold the radical continuity of the weak. It’s true that the medieval Church tried to suppress the unruly side of the sacred, and that this impurity nonetheless found a way to express itself; but it wasn’t in the Witches’ Sabbath and its inversion of Christian prayer. Instead, frenzy, violence, and liberation were expressed precisely within the fabric of Christianity, in the form of the peasants’ revolt. These uprisings, generally led by radical preachers and taking inspiration from Biblical communism, erupted with all the thunder and fury of the sick and the weak, flaring up across Europe from the 1300s until they reached their apotheosis in the French Revolution. In Christianity, the sacred is class struggle.

Nietzsche would have called this slave morality, but Nietzsche loved horses. He saw a horse being whipped on the Piazza Carlo Roberto in Turin and rushed over to the animal, cradling its neck, trying to protect it. Then he collapsed. His Zarathustra surrounded himself with eagles and serpents, but Nietzsche loved cart-horses, slow and docile animals cowering under the whip. This doesn’t invalidate his philosophy; it opens it up. Master and slave morality aren’t in absolute opposition; just like Nietzsche’s power and his weakness, they form a dialectic. At a certain extreme point an identity of opposites is reached: the weak are the strong, and the strong are the weak. All it takes is a little will.

The image at the top of this essay is from Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which you should watch.