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Friday, 31 January 2014

The Greater Stress: Nietzsche’s Test of Affirmation vs. Christ’s Test of Renunciation


"...for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life."
- Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Apollo"

A while ago I was struck by the need for someone to write a Christian parody of Nietzsche’s famous and most haunting passage, “The Greatest Stress,” in which he spells out the psychological implications of his doctrine of eternal recurrence (the idea that the universe will forever replay itself and your life will be caught in its eternal cycle). This parody, being the Christian reverse of Nietzsche’s original parable, must naturally be based on a linear cosmology, in which the demon whispers to you in the liveliest hour of the day, and the highest point of your soul: “is your desire something you could live with for all eternity?” (or something along those lines). This test, I thought, seemed to be a test of the same, if not greater, existential intensity. Could you imagine proceeding through eternity on the trajectory you are on?

I was, of course, simultaneous struck by the awareness that this parody would likely go unwritten for a long time… unless I wrote it. This was less than ideal, since it would take an equal of Nietzsche for this parody to have the force I would like. Nonetheless, I could not spend my life in wait of a genius to accomplish the task. So below is my attempt. But first, the original parable, and then some background.

The greatest stress.

How, if some day or night a demon were to sneak after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything immeasurably small or great in your life must return to you-all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over, and you with it, a grain of dust.”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or did you once experience a tremendous moment when you would have answered him, “You are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly.”

If this thought were to gain possession of you, it would change you, as you are, or perhaps crush you. The question in each and everything, “Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?” would weigh upon your actions as the greatest stress. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal Confirmation and seal?

(Nietzsche, The Gay Science)

Contained in this passage is Nietzsche’s doctrine of Eternal Recurrence. Nietzsche was fond of none of his ideas as much as this one (insofar as it is possible to be “fond” of the sort of ideas that Nietzsche had). The idea came to him, Nietzsche tells us, when he was taking a stroll through the woods by lake the lake of Silvaplana. He stopped by a magnificent boulder and – “this idea came to me.” Eventually the idea embodied for Nietzsche the ultimate test for his Übermensch. At that moment in front of the boulder he had stumbled on (what he believed was) the hardest worldview to affirm. Here was a stone that even Sisyphus could not roll up the hill – but could the Übermensch? The one who could, at his lowest point, still find the resources to will it all, and not only that but to will it all again and again: that one is worthy of life. Thus this most difficult of affirmations became Nietzsche’s “formula for the greatness of a human being” (Ecce Homo).

In his book, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, Walter Kaufmann explains that the meaning of the doctrine of eternal return is not simply that of a introspective test you might perform on yourself while waiting for the bus – and then (upon a negative answer) work on it with all the diligence of one engaged in “personality improvement.” It is an introspective test, yes, but its power ought to rattle you to your foundations.

So, says Kaufmann, while many believe that the doctrine was intended to require man to ask himself constantly: ‘Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?’ [t]hat, however, is not the meaning of Nietzsche’s conception of ‘the greatest stress.’ As ever, he is not concerned with particular actions but with the individual’s state of being. Man is to ask himself whether his present state of being is such that he would have to answer the demon with impotent anger and gnashing of teeth, or whether he could say: ‘Never did I hear anything more godlike!’ If he is one of those who are still imperfect and unredeemed, if he still finds that the demonic doctrine all but drowns his soul in dread, then it might serve him as the greatest possible stimulus to his ‘will to power’ and to his yearning for that joyous affirmation of himself and life which would enable to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation. (325)

The idea is certainly a powerful one; what is so interesting, though, apart from its inherent power to seize a soul, is that in it we have a distillation of Nietzsche’s essential stance towards life, the universe, and everything. What is the nature of this stance?

Nietzsche’s basic posture towards life can be viewed best, I think, if set alongside another, paradigmatically different stance. For instance, Christianity. (In what follows some Christians may be surprised at what I am calling a “Christian stance.” I apologize, in a half-sincere sort of way, for using this label if you disagree with its content and desire to brand your own approach with it – though I do try to represent the essential content of the spiritual approach of the large and varied Christian tradition[s]). 

Kaufmann describes the one who affirms the eternal return as one who, “instead of relying on heavenly powers to redeem him, to give meaning to his life, and to justify the world, he gives meaning to his own life by achieving  perfection and exulting in every moment” (324). Simply put, Nietzsche’s idea of the perfect man truly and sincerely “wants nothing to be different – not forward, not backward, not in all eternity” (Ecce Homo).

How is this different from a Christian approach to one’s life, all of history, and the future of the universe and all things in it? I believe the two approaches face opposite directions, though they do contain the same raw energy, the same spirit of affirmation. I will get to that similarity later, for the more concerning antagonism must be addressed first. Nietzsche’s ideal human poses one of the most direct challenges to the heart of Christ’s message and the entire spiritual tradition of Christianity. While the key virtue for Nietzsche is amor fati, a total and perpetual yes-saying, the key virtue in the Christian tradition is renunciation. (True, love is “the greatest of these,” but at least vis-à-vis one’s fallen life, renunciation is prior to and more immediate than love. One might call it a “movement of love,” but the point stands.) Because our natures are tangled in untruth and our desires distorted, the Christian “ideal” is always grounded in the ability – the incredibly difficult ability – to want everything to change, to want one’s self to change, to want the universe to reverse is basic orientation. The kind of repetition Nietzsche advocates celebrating is the epitome of hopelessness in the eyes of a Christian, whose life is built on the foundations eschatological hopefulness.

So, for Nietzsche the point is an unqualified affirmation – an ecstatic embrace of this world, one’s own life and the entire history of things and events that made it possible – amidst a decadent European environment of ressentiment and other-worldly desires. We might say that, for Nietzsche, affirmation is the ultimate good, because it is only affirmation that redeems life (not some promise of a future life). For this reason, says Kaufmann, “the eternal recurrence was to Nietzsche less an idea than an experience – the supreme experience of a life unusually rich in suffering, pain, and agony. He made much of the moment when he first had this experience because to him it was the moment that redeemed his life” (Kaufman, 323). So, insofar as the idea of eternal recurrence is affirmed, it is redemptive. The embrace of the idea stimulates one to an enhanced existence: “The weak, who are able to stand life only by hoping for kingdom, power, and glory in another life, would be crushed by this terrifying doctrine, while the strong would find in the last incentive to achieve perfection” (325). Stimulus to life? Nothing wrong with that! … Right?

In fact, I would not quibble with the phrase “affirmation is the ultimate good.” Christianity, however, would just like to put in, “yes, but before affirmation there must be a rejection.” And in this difference whole worlds are contained. As far as affirmation goes, Nietzsche does not differ with the best of the Christian tradition, which is far from “other-wordly.” But affirmation must be rightly orientated, rightly placed in time, and have as its content only the best. 

Augustine also made much of the moment that redeemed his life – writing one of the greatest works in the western tradition: Confessions. But this moment was not a moment of pure affirmation: it was characterized by a renunciation, a conversion from one way of life to another, a destruction of himself, a death – and a resurrection. Here was a man whose life might be used to demonstrate Aristotle’s magnanimous man. Affirmation was easy for him – but renunciation? Could it not be that he also discovered a worldview impossibly difficult to affirm – perhaps even more so than that of the eternal return? What a thing to do, at the height of life, to suddenly turn around and renounce it! “Is it that I’ve known bliss?” asks O’Siadhail in his poem “Pond”. What a startling question to ask oneself of one’s own happiness.

But there is an incredible seed of affirmation contained in this rotten fruit of renunciation. It is the longing for a higher possibility in the self breaking out like a solar flare. For, in truth, we never know what is best, what is highest, what is worth affirming, by some default of our nature. “We are without understanding of ourselves,” says Teresa of Avila, “we are at an infinite distance from our desires.” If we are honest, we find it intensely difficult to say what exactly is for our own good.

In the final page of the Ultimatum of his Either/Or II, Kierkegaard puts the meaning and purpose of renunciation like this: “In relation to God we are always in the wrong.” But instead of a resulting in despair or passive obedience, “this thought puts an end to doubt and calms the cares; it animates and inspires to action… Would you wish, could you wish, that the situation were different? Could you wish that you might be in the right; could you wish that that beautiful law which for thousands of years has carried the generation through life and every member of the generation, that beautiful law… could you wish that that law would break” (341)? Wishing that we might be in the right would mean wishing that there were in fact nothing better than what we know and that we could never be more than what we are. It is, then, profoundly life-affirming to wish that we are in the wrong, profoundly life-affirming to wish to renounce what is not life – and to wish to have eyes that can see the difference.

At the height of life, then, what if the demon came to you? Could you wish it for yourself, certain that this is your highest fulfillment? Or would you tremble to think – standing there with your fancy drink amidst the din of another party, or perhaps sitting there on the couch reading a favorite book in front of a fire, or perhaps in the very moment of winning the lottery or a promotion – that there might be something greater out there which you neglect?  Could you possibly stomach the thought that you will have in eternity what you desire most in this life, that everyone will hit precisely the target they are pointing themselves towards when death’s gun fires? This is the great terror contained in Matthew 8:5-13: “Be it done for you, as you believed,” says Jesus to the centurion, and so it is. Kierkegaard, expounding these words in Works of Love, says, “God’s relationship to a human being is the infinitising at every moment of that which at every moment is in a man” (352). This is the Christian paradigm, which phrases the question thus: What if in the end, our desire, our interpretation of things, the direction of our life and the framework that allows that direction, are (graciously or horrifyingly) real.

A Christian parody of Nietzsche’s test of the Übermensch, then, might look something like this…

The greater stress.

How, if some sunny day an angel were to push past the noise and the pleasure and the people, were to catch you in your relentless, exhilarating forward motion at the peak of your life’s bliss, and yell to you, “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will continue living, for eternity, it becoming increasingly more itself, rolling into itself more of the same goodness, more of the same joys, that you experience only in embryo even now. The trajectory of bliss you have set for yourelf – with all the money and sex and power, or all the comfort and pleasure of mildness and stability, or all the gratitude and recognition and personal gratification of immense learning, or all the vague titilations of entertainment and travel and dilettante experience – you will have and never, never lose.

Would you not say in exultation, “you are a god, and never have I heard anything more godly”? Or did you once experience a tremendous moment when you would have thrown yourself down and gnashed your teeth and cursed the angel who spoke thus? Ah, who would apprehend what the angel speaks of as hell?

But if you did, if you discerned in the angel something tantalizing, attractive perhaps, disturbing certainly, but compelling – if you let the angel’s words take possession of you, they would change you, as you are, or perhaps crush you. For who could be certain, if they allowed themselves to step back a moment, that the bliss they experience here on earth is of the highest sort, is their final fulfilment? The question in each and everything, “Do you want this now and forever?”  would weigh upon your actions as the greatest stress. “What if you get exactly what you desire? What if…?”  How strange would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than that you do not get what you want, that your bliss might not carry on into eternity but be transformed for something unknown, something you have never seen, but something you are told is better, higher… holy?

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