some thoughts on Hugo Drochon’s recent New Statesman article on Nietzsche

This is a reactionary post in more sense than one: first it is a reaction against all those who have unjustly negative views on or connotations with Nietzsche, and second it is a post which was borne out of philosophical stimulation after having read Hugo Drochon’s recent brilliant article for The New Statesman, in which he summarises the main reasoning behind common alt-right associations with Nietzsche. There was however a distinct lack of Nietzsche’s own voice in the piece, and so here I try to amend this absence. My news feeds are frequently bombarded by pseudo-intellectual articles on Nietzsche, and in the vast majority of cases you find that they are written by people who have little to no experience of actually reading any of his work, other than that which has been shared or commented on secondarily, usually with charged intent, but who still choose to voice their very limited views and readings as gospel. But there is great importance in why people so often feel implored in this way after having read anything by the great philosopher.. And so I’ll begin my own such treatise with a quote or epigraph from the great man himself: “Whoever believed he had understood something of me had dressed up something out of me after his own image” (Ecce Homo: ‘Why I am so wise’). Now that is out of the way, I can express myself freely. For this is truly a seminal statement to understanding anything of Nietzsche’s work and philosophy, and also one which practically destroys most every interpretation of his work from the very outset (yes, including mine). My approach begins here, for any discussion of him surely must.. so now to a declaration of my own: Nietzsche is only to be understood once his work is viewed as being on the same level as a work of art. How so? Put simply, he provides a metaphor and we are to attach onto it our own subjective interpretations. He once declared that “culture can only proceed on the basis of the centralising significance of an art or artwork”, and this is what Zarathustra provides; Nietzsche regarded Zarathustra as more akin to art than literature. Indeed, when discussing this centerpiece of his entire philosophy, he describes that in reading it “one no longer has any notion of what is an image or a metaphor: everything offers itself as the nearest, most obvious, simplest expression… one has to go back thousands of years in order to find anyone who could say to me, “it is mine as well”‘ (Ecce Homo: ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’). Here then one finds the root of Bertrand Russel’s claim in his History of Western Philosophy indicated by Drochon, that is, ‘that he would rather have lived in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici than today. That he would rather live in the past than the present’ (Drochon, 2018). But Nietzsche also here indicates perhaps the primary concern of the work: to provoke that very ‘simplest expression’.. to cut to the very essence of things.. This is, quite clearly, an aesthetic philosophy, an artistic philosophy, which works at urging subjective ideas using a metaphorical potentiality. Drochon’s own observation, that Nietzsche ‘tells us more about ourselves and our times than it does about Nietzsche: when things are good we have the Nietzsche of individual self-creation, when things are bad we have Nietzsche the godfather of fascism”, only reinforces this idea in the more collective unconscious, societal sense.

“Zarathustra is a prophet!” they say. But a prophet who declares “God is dead!”? Where do we situate such a figure? Something crucial is to be found in this paradox: religion can both be a prison and a means of radical empowerment. This epochal declaration -“God is dead”- is best summarised by the controversial and yet often piercing insight of Heidegger, who reads such as the simple admission that ‘humanity must find a way of re-orientating itself in a world that has been thoroughly de-deified… [and so we should be] prepared to give our lives to a completely new kind of meaning and value’ (Heidegger’s Nietzsche, vol 1&2, 93). Nietzsche notorious antagonism towards christianity is by no means a personal but rather an ideological opposition. He sees Christianity as promoting and sustaining a ‘slave’ mentality over all that is ‘noble’ (both terms which are distinct from class – you could be a noble beggar for example), centralising its doctrines on ideas of pity, selfless devotion and submission to a ‘higher power’, at the expense of self and ego, and the potential for pushing ones’ own capabilities to max capacity. Nietzsche exposes and uproots that any society built upon such selfless laws and inhibitions will inevitably result in subjective disempowerment. But to reject such Christian views and ideals is not by any means to automatically veer into the realm of egoist, tyrannical and fascist ideas. Nietzsche expressed ‘I have chosen the word immoralist for myself as a symbol and badge of honour for myself; I am proud of having this word which distinguishes me from the whole of humanity. Nobody yet has felt Christian morality to be beneath him: that requires a height, a view of distances, a hitherto unheard of psychological depth and profundity’ (Ecce Homo: ‘Why I am destiny’). Of course devotion enables humanity to attain their very greatest heights.. but it also provides great psychological limitations where not always necessary. The unquestionable belief that killing oneself will enable for an ascension to some higher plane demonstrates a remarkable untapped power of belief in man, which only true religion and absolute belief can get at. Many of those people of the enlightened, scientific age may laugh on religion, but they are fools if they do not see that religion does not argue for any truth outside of oneself.. Of course they must also acknowledge that most all of the greatest thinkers throughout history were deeply religious. And of course, the ancient Greeks, the very founders of modern mathematical and scientific thought, the inspirational origin of much still remains a confounding mystery to the greatest minds of modernity, were of cultures fundamentally entwined with, indivisible from religion (Pythagoras himself founded a religion based on mathematics – which was furthered by the scientific truths which came to light – it was literally a religion powered by truth and scientific law). Religion gave the greeks inspiration and access to their greatest potential — Socrates was famously prone to inner voices… he was literally spoken to by his own inner God (bicameral mind theory on Socrates required… another time perhaps). I particularly love the example of the mathematical genius Ramanujan, who formed, solved and resolved mathematical problems the likes of which no Western mathematician had ever seen whilst in his destitute shanty in India under the divine inspiration of private Hindu gods. The greatest mathematicians of the age at Trinity frantically stumbled over one another to catch a glimpse at just a few lines from his thousands upon thousands of pages of notes, these profoundly brilliant unforeseen formulas which would take most others a lifetime, were for these mathematicians as close to proof of divine inspiration as anything on earth. Surely only mystical belief in its truest form can grant an individual such powers. Such then undoubtedly grants individuals higher meaning and significance, taps into some level of personal, unconscious law, superegoic law, which is situated beyond, and in no necessary relation to all reason and outward apparency. here then we locate the root of this paradox: Zarathustra is obviously a profoundly theological text – ‘everything happens involuntarily in the highest degree but as in a gale of a feeling of freedom, of absoluteness, of power, of divinity’ (EH: Zarathustra) – of course done with total knowledge and intent, without any hint of irony, this because Nietzsche is aware to the immense power religion holds over the individual, and provides perhaps the only (proven) means of tapping into it.. He once declared of Zarathustra- ‘here no “prophet” is speaking, none of these gruesome hybrids of sickness and will to power whom people call founders of religions’ (preface to Ecce Homo). Here is where the common misreadings and the misbelief that Nietzsche holds fascist ideas emanates; the crux where so many get lost and abandon faith in his thought. It is this seemingly quite simple boundary between laws that are erected by oneself and those by an outside force. great fear and anger and apprehension materialises when there is talk of ‘laws’ brought about by the inner world of an individual and not by way of some external agency. they are immediately seen as immoral, a sign of burgeoning madness, as highly dangerous individuals (this is seen as the realm of the sociopath). when Nietzsche underlines this ‘gruesome sickness’ here, he is talking of figures who are erecting ideological walls and laws which inhibit the subject in some fundamental sense (think of chastity as a simple example): Zarathustra staunchly opposes such and rather promotes individual laws, as do some religions such as Buddhism, which Nietzsche confides, ‘should rather be called a kind of hygeine, lest it be confused with such pitiable phenomena as Christianity: its effectiveness was made conditional on the victory over ressentiment” (‘why I am so wise’). In many respects that term which Nietzsche assigns such an individually empowered mentality, which has garnered particularly negative implications over time, the superman or ‘Ubermensch’, and which is very closely tethered to that other fundamental Nietzschean ideal, will to power, is nothing more than the individual ability to tap the ‘superego’, very much in a Freudian sense of the word. to escape this consigned morality and set ones own boundaries (which do not have to involve an empathic absence but more of an egoist certainty) is to be given the ability to tap the superego, to fomulate subjective laws, and so to relieve the huge weight of submission by christianity:- “overthrowing idols (my word for ‘ideals’) that comes closer to being part of my craft” (preface to Ecce Homo). In Brochon’s article, he describes psychologist Jordan Peterson’s view and seems to advocate his view of the incapacity for such a subjective ability to tap into this ‘law-giving’ state of mind: ‘Peterson agrees we are living in an age of nihilism, but rejects Nietzsche’s view that what is left for us is to create our own values – “We cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls” – We have a nature that must be discovered, and we need rules for our life so chaos doesn’t overwhelm order’ (Brochon, 2018). But this again neglects the crucial driving paradox of Zarathustra… that only a religious state of mind can give the individual access to the superman.. and this is exactly what Zarathustra provides!

My stance on whether Nietzsche held fascist and pro-Nazi beliefs is I hope, by now very clear. He incessantly and vociferously attacked the German people, he also descended from polish aristocracy, and he absolutely abhorred anti-semitism. In Beyond Good and Evil, he declared ‘”LET NO MORE JEWS COME IN!”… thus commands the instinct of a people whose nature is still feeble and uncertain… the Jews are beyond all doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race [eat that Hitler, and all you other dumb fascist fucks!] at present living in Europe, they know how to succeed even under the very worst conditions’ (Beyond…). Need you read anything else to prove that Nietzsche was in no way whatsoever aligned with Nazi ideas and ideology?? I shall end with the question with which Drochon began: “Is Nietzsche doomed to be abused and misunderstood?”. Nietzsche knew the power of his ideas, knew that they could and would be used to bolster ideals which in no way matched his own: ‘why i am dynamite: one day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous – a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far’. there are two ways to read this: that this eerie prediction proves his philosophy dangerous and morals questionable; or that he has provided us with something with which we are not yet able to fully grasp.. the gift of a seedling philosophy so empowering and invigorating and affirmitive of human potential that we can only wish that someday it might become understood and so a real possibility for every man…

(NB: feature image is Edvard Munch’s Nietzsche (1906))

“there once existed such an art”…

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William Blake – Laocoon engraving (1817)

It is not without profound sorrow that one admits to oneself that in their highest flights the artists of all ages have raised to heavenly transfiguration precisely those conceptions which we now recognise as false: they are the glorifiers of the religious and philosophical errors of mankind, and they could not have been so without believing in the absolute truth of these errors… A moving tale will one day be told how there once existed such an art, such an artist’s faith”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Human all too Human

Secrets of the Sistine: Michelangelo’s hidden anatomical images

There has been a great many recent developments in the approach to Michelangelo’s iconic work in the Sistine Chapel; this mainly due to the discovery of various hidden messages and images which remained unnoticed for centuries until a small number of meticulous historians and scientists with an aesthetic eye came on the scene. One such theory posits that the renowned artist and sculptor had most likely deliberately used a type of paint which would crack and blanch over a relatively short space of time as a means to undermine Pope Julius II (ArtLark). Historians know that Michelangelo was very much against designing the now iconic frescoes of the Sistine (which he painted over just four years: 1508 – 1512), and rather wanted to focus on sculpture which he then viewed as being far superior. But the Pope was adamant, and insisted that Michelangelo produce a painted image. Esteemed painter and composer Sir Hubert Herkomer once explained that Michelangelo ‘had a distinctly sly side to his nature. I wonder if it is generally known to what tricks he resorted in order to circumvent the command of the Pope… when he had covered some space [i.e. painting progress] he asked for a visit from the Pope, that he could see with his own eyes that he was blundering with the material… [what’s more] nearly half the cracks were painted by Michaelangelo himself’ (excerpt from Herkomer’s ‘My School and My Gospel’ [1907]).

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Close-up of the cracks in ‘the creation of Adam’

But this is not an isolated accusation against Michelangelo and his troublesome ways. In fact, there is another theory which far surpasses the ‘material blunder’ claim which was likely more of a personal vendetta against the Pope. No, this next theory is far grander in scale, and has been argued by some to be a move which not only undermined Papal power but the lasting influence of the Catholic church itself. Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ is probably the most iconic piece of religious art in human history, but what if it came to light that this image was actually an audaciously extravagant piece of covert anti-Catholic propaganda, hidden in the very nucleus of Catholicism itself? In the early 90s a frankly astounding discovery/proposition was made by Doctor Frank Meshberger, and has gained much traction over the past few years, not just among historians but among anatomists and scientists alike. In the Creation painting, God is depicted in a red shroud with various other cherubic figures, the shapes and positions of which, including their garments, together accurately mimic the structure of the human brain along with all its proportional intricacies. The validity of this claim is further supported by the fact that there were a great many anatomical sketches found in Michelangelo’s study at the time he was designing the images for the Sistine.

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In addition to the crowning Creation image, anatomical depictions of the brain have later been found in other portions of the Sistine frescoes. In 2010 two neuroscientists from John Hopkins University found another hidden portion of the brain, this time from a different angle, situated in God’s throat (see above image), the shape of which had perplexed historians for many years who assumed it to be an oddly shapen goiter (a claim probably stemming from one of Michelangelo’s poems written whilst creating the frescoes, in which he describes the terrible conditions and bodily contortion underwent whilst painting the Sistine: ‘I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den!’). So the question then is; why would Michelangelo go through the effort of concealing these anatomical images? As stated by Nick Squires, the images could and have indeed been seen to represent ‘a coded attack on the church’s disdain for science’. But then again, they could also have been merely a very ostentatious form of gloating; of solidifying his superior anatomical knowledge in a time when dissection was a crime punishable by death. True, an anatomical image of the human brain stands as an archetypal symbol for scientific knowledge, but at the same time couldn’t the images be seen to in fact represent the exact opposite? In that God’s situation inside the brain could suggest that the only means of acquiring true knowledge is by accepting and submitting to his almighty wisdom. Or similarly, looking at the more recently discovered throat image, by accepting the word (the throat as universal symbol for speech) of God as absolute knowledge. Considering Michelangelo himself was believed to be deeply religious, particularly later in life, and to have perceived the intellect as a divine gift, this would certainly seem a more viable argument. But alas, we are restricted to mere speculation.

What is perhaps even more astounding is Michelangelo’s own belief that his frescoes for the Sistine were wholly inadequate; shameful even. In one of his poems he expresses in defeat ‘Come then, Giovanni, try – To succour my dead pictures and my fame; Since foul I fare and painting is my shame’. Considering that the hidden images have only come to light in the past few decades, half a century after their creation, and which have only been able to be located and verified by leading scientists and neuroscientists of the 21st century, to consider such paintings shameful is truly a testament to his genius. Indeed, these ever expanding discoveries add a whole new and intriguing dimension to the most iconic religious images in all of human history, but perhaps what’s more important is that it makes us realise how much our fundamental perceptions change over time. Well that, and it also raises the question “what else did we miss?!”

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564)
Volterra’s portait of Michelangelo (believed to have been painted around 1545)

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NB: excerpts from Michelangelo’s poems sourced from Buonarotti (trans. Symonds 1878)

Umberto Eco on the Duality of God

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Salvador Dali – ‘Egg yolk Sun’ (1955)

“The fact is that the ideas of God that have peopled human history belong to two types. On the one hand there is a personal God who is the fullness of being (“I am he who is”) and therefore sums up in himself all the virtues mankind does not have, and he is the God of omnipotence and victory, the Lord of Hosts. But this same God is often shown in an opposite way: as he who is not… This God who is not passes through the very history of Christianity: He hides himself, is ineffable, can be drawn upon only through negative theology, is the sum of what cannot be said of him; in speaking of him we celebrate our ignorance and he is named as vortex, abyss, desert, solitude, silence, absence… A religiosity of the Unconscious, of the Vortex, of the Lack of Center, of Difference, of the beance has spread through modern thought as the subterranean counterpoint to the uncertainty of the nineteenth-century ideology of progress and the cyclic play of economic crisis. This secularised and infinitely absent God has accompanied contemporary thought under various names, and burst forth in the renascence of psychoanalysis, in the rediscovery of Nietzsche and Heidegger, in the new anti-metaphysics of Absence and Difference”

– Umberto Eco