It’s been six short weeks since i was first introduced to Nietzsche, but I al ready feel compelled to consider whether taking GER 324 has been one of the best or worst decisions of my life. I have never thought this way before. These past six weeks have led me right up to the boundaries of my consciousness, and, peering through the slim cracks, I have come to realize that for all this time these walls have been facing the other way. Now I see the truth: I am trapped inside a structure whose exterior displays an unfinished mosaic of all-too-human drives and experiences, assembled from the oddly shaped tiles that everyone who’s ever brushed past it has left behind. I alone am within these walls and the leathery prison that encases them, like the smallest of a three-piece Russian doll that has never seen the light of day.
When I was in New York City a few week-ends ago, I passed by a homeless man who was singing and clapping along to a pop song that blasted through the open doors of a nearby clothing store. He was enjoying himself in what seemed to be a state of primordial unselfconsciousness; his upturned cheeks, which peeked out from beneath a thicket of wiry gray hair, were chafed red by the cold (he had been there for hours), and wrinkles extended out from the corners of his eyes like rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun. But behavior of this kind is anathema to modern society. At some point in time, it started to become enormously unfashionable to stage such public displays of raw feeling; we like to keep everything witty and cool until the air between us is so ironized that to do anything in earnest is a gross breach of manners—even of trust. So, naturally, some people laughed openly at him as they walked by. Others tittered, eyebrows arched at each other in bemused derision. He himself didn’t notice these reactions, but this laughter came to me as a rank, dismal breath from some well of normative disdain. A passage from W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk comes to mind: the author speaks of double consciousness as being “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” This homeless man was not afflicted by Dubois’s double consciousness, but I was struck by how much the rest of us around him were. Why do we feel compelled to shut down anything that deviates even slightly from the social standards to which we have unwittingly chained ourselves? I do not know.
Rousseau says something similar in his Discourse on Inequality. He makes a distinction between two kinds of “self- love,” which he names amour de soi and amour-propre. Amour de soi is “a natural sentiment” that, because it “inclines every animal to watch over its own preservation,” also allows us to view others as extensions of ourselves and to empathize with them. Amour-propre, on the other hand, is “only a relative sentiment, artificial and born in Society, which inclines each individual to have a greater esteem for himself than for anyone else,” and, according to Rousseau, is the kind of self- love that fueled colonialism and slavery. To simplify a very complex emotion with a long history and scale it down for a small example, each jeering passerby operated out of amour-propre. No one can think outside of their own perspective, so all of these antagonizers were projecting themselves onto this singing homeless man and analyzing him based on what they’d been raised to think of as appropriate conduct; and when they saw that he did not meet this standard, they judged him strange, eccentric, laughable.
Assuming that he was not altogether insane, there are only two explanations for this homeless man’s behavior. The first is ignorance. He may have been unaware of his surroundings, and in this case, ignorance was bliss. If he were suddenly to realize how he was being perceived by the people around him, perhaps he would have stopped his singing and clapping, or become deeply embarrassed. The second is indifference. He may have noticed these reactions but simply not let them jaundice his optimism. I’m not sure what Nietzsche would have said about the first possibility, but if this man was acting with conscious disregard for the opinions of others, then Nietzsche would have gladly unsheathed his pen in this man’s defense.
According to Nietzsche, this is how we should all go about our daily lives. There is absolutely no order in the world, and rules are for “sheep,” or those who are too weak to realize that these rules have no intrinsic value and feel compelled to follow them just because they have always been taught that it is good to do so. On the other hand, however, to throw these rules out completely and live in a kind of moral vacuum is even worse than to follow them blindly. Instead, we should only abide by the rules we think make sense, after creating or choosing them carefully instead of having behavioral norms thrust upon us by an outside authority, and in full knowledge that they have no value outside of what we ourselves impart to them. In short, everything is meaningless, but we must give things meaning. But knowing the full meaninglessness of our lives leads to nihilism and ultimately to death. How should we live, then, in the face of this “abyss”? We must stand firmly on the edge of it, and clap and sing.
In the Matrix, Morpheus offers Neo a choice. “You take the blue pill,” he says, “and the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Despite what Nietzsche might say, I don’t know if I have the strength yet to face this decision. I have been struggling to accept—even to read—some of Nietzsche’s writing; it has a disquieting power, like a sleeping crocodile that at any moment might spring awake and swallow me whole. Perhaps ignorance is indeed bliss. Why must we know the meaninglessness of everything we’ve ever been taught, everything we value as “good” and “true”? Why can’t Nietzsche leave us alone to be content with this deception? My hand falters before the red pill. Perhaps I am not the Übermensch.