Thursday, April 08, 2010

Friedrich is a Macho Man

OK, time for a confession.

I've tried to take Nietzsche seriously. Really, I have. I even have a gorgeous 4-volume hardbound set I inherited from my father, a Sonderausgabe. I don't give it prime bookcase real estate, but I do hold onto it--you know, just in case I'm ever overcome with a desire to read Human, All Too Human in German.

Basically, the problem is that Nietzsche makes me cringe or giggle--or both.

It's true that the rejection of metaphysics should make his thought attractive to me. And, OK, I get it that he wrote some sensible things, like "All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses" (Beyond Good and Evil).

But what do we do about the misogyny?
"Ah, women. They make the highs higher and the lows more frequent."

Or the misanthropy?
"A subject for a great poet would be God's boredom after the seventh day of creation."

My first exposure to Nietzsche was in an undergraduate existentialism class in which the reading assignment included excerpts from a number of his works. I came into class with the thought that just about everything I had read was a fancy-schmancy way of saying "Let's get high." I didn't detect a great deal of seriousness in it, much less mental stability or even genius. How shocked I was to see the reverence with which these passages were treated! Somehow ironic, given that I had interpreted parts of the assignment as a send-up of hero-worship and a goad to independent thinking and critique.

And then, there is Ecce Homo. Wikipedia:
According to one of Nietzsche's most prominent English translators, Walter Kaufmann, the book offers "Nietzsche's own interpretation of his development, his works, and his significance" (Kaufmann 1967: 201). The book contains several chapters with self-laudatory titles, such as "Why I Am So Wise", "Why I Am So Clever", "Why I Write Such Good Books" and "Why I Am a Destiny".
I've decided that when it comes to Nietzschean scholarship, one can do no better than to turn to the Village People:
Every man wants to be a macho macho man
to have the kind of body, always in demand
You can best believe that, he's a macho man
ready to get down with, anyone he can

Funky with his body, he's a king
call him Mister Eagle, dig his chains
You can best believe that, he's a macho man
likes to be the leader, he never dresses grand

Every man ought to be a macho macho man,
To live a life of freedom, machos make a stand,
Have their own life style and ideals,
Possess the strength and confidence, life's a steal,
You can best believe that he's a macho man
He's a special person in anybody's land.

Dig my big thick mustache!
Macho, macho man
I've got to be a macho! HEY!

Village People - Macho Man (version longue)
Uploaded by scorpiomusic. - Explore more music videos.


Nick said...

Well, if misogyny is going to prevent you from taking someone seriously, you're going to have to throw Aristotle, Kant, Plato, Schopenhauer and even the Buddha into the trash. I think the idea is that we still have something to learn from them even though they had some erroneous beliefs about women (who were basically uneducated in Nietzsche's time and thus "confirmed" the stereotypes).

More interestingly, though, Nietzsche might take issue with your assumption that these "macho" values (great confidence, scorn for others, etc.) are unquestionably bad. Why should we assume this, when so many great pillars of culture and civilization are created by such people? Laugh if you want, he will say, but if the world were populated only with nice, relatively meek, considerate people, it would also be unspeakably impoverished, dull, and lifeless.

Evelyn Brister said...

Overconfidence, leading to a failure to hear or give credit to others' creative ideas; scorn for others, leading to abuse and social waste (particularly the waste of women's talents) rather than supportive co-construction of new forms of creative expression...

These values aren't themselves unspeakably impoverished, dull, and lifeless? They seem so to me.

Since when does being respectful of others ("considerate") prevent one from contributing to culture and civilization?

Nick said...

*I* don't necessarily agree with Nietzsche. I would just note that we are now arguing on his terms... you are engaging with his claims instead of dismissing them as obviously silly.

Moreover these arguments depend on certain facts of the matter... is a kind, considerate person actually more productively creative? What evidence do we have for this?

As I understand it, there is plenty of literature in social psychology to suggest that this is not the case. The creative arts (often) require a kind of single-minded devotion that can easily crowd out more social concerns. So it also is with pursuing important results in the sciences. These "lifeless" values you mention may in fact be the source of some of humanity's greatest accomplishments.

So all I'm saying is that once you start to engage with his claims seriously, you see that they're not quite so silly. We assume that morality and creativity are in harmony, but this may not be the case. We need to argue for this harmony if we are to dismiss "macho" values so easily.