the philosophy of boredom: the boredom of philosopy

boredom as a philosophical problem

Svendsen’s conclusion: “Boredom is life’s own gravity."

As a philosopher, from time to time one must attempt to address big questions. If one fails to do so, one loses sight of what led one to study philosophy in the first place. In my opinion, boredom is one such big question, and an analysis of boredom ought to say something important about the conditions under which we live. We ought not – and are actually unable to – avoid considering our attitude towards the question of being from time to time. There may be many initial reasons for reflecting on one’s life, but the special thing about fundamental existential experiences is that they inevitably lead one to question one’s own existence. Profound boredom is one fundamental existential experience. As Jon Hellesnes has asked: ‘What can possibly be more existentially disturbing than boredom?’

The big questions are not necessarily the eternal questions, for boredom has only been a central cultural phenomenon for a couple of centuries. It is of course impossible to determine precisely
when boredom arose, and naturally it has its precursors. But it stands out as being a typical phenomenon of modernity. On the whole, the precursors were restricted to small groups, such as the nobility and the clergy, whereas the boredom of modernity is wide-ranging in its effect and can be said to be a relevant phenomenon today for practically everyone in the Western world.

Boredom is usually considered as something random in relation to the nature of man, but this is based on highly dubious assumptions regarding human nature. One could just as well claim that boredom is embodied in human nature, but that would also presuppose that there is anything at all that can be called ‘human nature’ – a presupposition that seems problematic to me. Postulating a given nature has a tendency to put an end to all further discussion. For, as Aristotle points out, we direct our attention first and foremost to that which is capable of change.
By postulating a nature we are claiming that it cannot be changed. It can also be tempting to postulate a completely neutral human nature, where man has just as great a potential to experience sadness as happiness, enthusiasm as boredom. In that case, the explanation of boredom is exclusively to be found in the individual’s social environment. I do not believe, however, that a clear distinction can be made between psychological and social aspects when dealing with a phenomenon such as boredom, and a reductive sociologism is just as untenable as a psychologism. So I choose to approach the matter from a different angle, adopting a perspective based partly on the history of ideas and partly on phenomenology. Nietzsche pointed out that the ‘hereditary fault of all philosophers’ is to base themselves on man at a particular period of time and then turn this into an eternal truth. So I will make do with stating that boredom is a very serious phenomenon that affects many people. Aristotle insisted that virtue is not natural, but that it is not unnatural either. The same applies to boredom. Moreover, an investigation of boredom can be carried out without presupposing any anthropological constants, i.e., anything given independently of a specifically social and historical space. We are dealing here with an investigation of man in a particular historical situation. It is us I am writing about, living in the shadow of Romanticism, as inveterate Romantics without the hyperbolic faith of Romanticism in the ability of the imagination to transform the world.

Even though all good philosophy ought to contain an important element of self-knowledge, it does not necessarily have to take the form of a confession modelled on Augustine’s
Confessions. Many people have asked me if I undertook this project because I suffered from boredom, but what I personally feel ought not to be of any interest to readers. I do not conceive philosophy as being a confessional activity, rather one that labours to gain clarity – a clarity that is admittedly never more than temporary – in the hope that the small area one feels one has shed light on will also be of relevance to others. From a philosophical point of view, my private conditions are irrelevant, even though they are naturally important to me.

I carried out a small, unscientific survey among colleagues, students, friends and acquaintances that revealed that they were on the whole unable to say whether they were
bored or not, although some answered in the affirmative or the negative – and one person even claimed that he had never been bored. To those readers who have possibly never been bored I can say by way of comparison that deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void. One tries to fall asleep, takes perhaps a few faltering steps, but does not gain sleep, ending up in a no man’s land between a waking state and sleep. In Book of Disquiet Fernando Pessoa wrote:

Certain sensations are slumbers that fill up our mind like a fog and prevent us from thinking, from acting, from clearly and simply being. As if we hadn’t slept, something of our undreamed dreams lingers in us, and the torpor of the new day’s sun warms the stagnant surface of our senses. We’re drunk on not being anything, and our will is a bucket poured out onto the yard by the listless movement of a passing foot.

Pessoa’s boredom is obvious – it is distinct in all its formlessness. It is, however, in the nature of things that very few people indeed can come up with an unequivocal answer as to whether they are bored or not. First, moods, generally speaking, are seldom intentional subjects as far as we are concerned – they are precisely something one finds oneself
in, not something one consciously looks at. And second, boredom is a mood that is typified by a lack of quality that makes it more elusive than most other moods. Georges Bernanos’s village priest provides us with a fine description of the imperceptibly destructive nature of boredom in The Diary of a Country Priest:

So I said to myself that people are consumed by boredom. Naturally, one has to ponder for a while to realise this – one does not see it immediately. It is a like some sort of dust. One comes and goes without seeing it, one breathes it in, one eats it, one drinks it, and it is so fine that it doesn’t even scrunch between one’s teeth. But if one stops up for a moment, it settles like a blanket over the face and hands. One has to constantly shake this ash-rain off one. That is why people are so restless.

It is perfectly possible to be bored without being aware of the fact. And it is possible to be bored without being able to offer any reason or cause for this boredom. Those who claimed in my small survey that they were deeply bored were as a rule unable to state accurately
why they were bored; it wasn’t this or that that plagued them, rather a nameless, shapeless, object-less boredom. This is reminiscent of what Freud said about melancholy, where he began by stressing a similarity between melancholy and grief, since both contain an awareness of loss. But whereas the person who grieves always has a distinct object of loss, the melancholic does not precisely know what he has lost.

Introspection is a method that has obvious limitations when investigating boredom, so I decided to look critically at a number of texts of a philosophical and literary nature. I regard literature as excellent source-material for philosophical studies, and for the philosophy of culture it is just as indispensable as scientific works are for the philosophy of science. As a rule, literature is a great deal more illuminative than quantitative sociological or psychological studies. This applies not least to our subject, where much research has focused on how the deficiency or surplus of sensory stimuli cause boredom without this always being particularly illuminative when considering such a complex phenomenon as boredom.
As Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst, has expressed it: ‘Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis.’

Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (1999)

nihilism unbound: john zerzan on the spirit of our age

The theories of the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan derive in part from the negative dialectics of Theodor Adorno, as well as concepts from other Frankfurt School theorists, including their analyses of alienation and society, art and culture, and so on. Zerzan posits for humanity a pre-historical golden age, which lasted until the advent of our original sin — the emergence of symbolic thought or “culture.” The little humanity we have left will soon be totally eclipsed by the dominance of robotic and cyborg technologies and virtual reality simulations: “Progress has meant the looming specter of the complete dehumanization of the individual and the catastrophe of ecological collapse.” (Running On Emptiness, p. 79).

The Age Of Nihilism


Technological mediation and separation continue on their emptying ascendancy, embodying so well capital’s impoverishing penetration of every level of life on this planet. But there are signs that an era of unchecked cynicism, engendered by this rampant advance of techno-capital, is finally being challenged. The challengers, moreover, are quickly deepening their understanding of how fundamental the challenge must be if it is to succeed.


With this in mind, the following comments on nihilism may well be less apropos than they would have been even a year or two ago. For the focus of this essay is passive nihilism, rather than the probing, critical variety, which is the active nihilism now emerging as a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, the question of how and why an enfeebling ethos of meaninglessnessand indifference came to predominate may still be of some interest.


In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev described the nihilist as one "who looks at everything critically … who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered." But during the same period, Dostoevsky portrayed modern, passive nihilism in Notes from Underground. Its protagonist was merely disgruntled, and lacked the passion and conviction necessary to hold convention to the flame of critique.


During the following century, it appears, the sense that nothing matters became widespread. One current among others, quite obviously, but a growing one. Nothing counts more than anything else, so nothing really counts. Nietzsche had said that nihilism "stands at the door" of modern civilization, and that door opened wider as the important sources of meaning and value steadily revealed themselves as inconsequential and irrelevant, unequal to the rigors of modern life.


Heidegger found in nihilism "the fundamental movement of the history of the West," and what was the bane of the nineteenth century became, by the 1990s, a banality. Nihilism, in the current postmodern clime, is simply the matter-of-fact state of mind of our period—so widespread today is the attitude that little or nothing is compelling, authentic, or makes a difference. Distinctions of value or meaning and the value or meaning of distinctions are less and less persuasive. There is a cultural exhaustion in the movement through decadence into nihilism. According to John Gray, nihilism constitutes modernity’s "only truly universal inheritance to humankind."


That inheritance has accelerated, it seems, since the failure of the movement of the 1960s, when belief in continuous Progress had reached its peak. As utopian oases dried up, a desert of inertia and pointlessness spread. By the ’80s, with nothing to look for and nowhere to go, youth were tagged as slackers, Generation X, etc. In the summer of 1990, the New York Times called kids the generation "that couldn’t care less."


With young people looking ahead to a lifetime of strain and empty consumerism, it should surprise no one that teens’ suicide rate has tripled in the past 30 years. Or that network television now offers what amount to "snuff" programs for the jaded and bored, as the population in general experiences its life-world as more and more of a vacuum in every way. A melancholy escapism flowers in this Dead Zone, this Nowhere.


Development is a given; this cancer of a system would soon collapse without its steady onslaught. It continues its onrush into the hypermodern vista of high-tech unreality. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a consequence of the erosion of the Christian world view. But this is a superficial judgment, in many ways confusing effect with cause.


A deeper causative factor is the march of technology, in the direction of the complete industrialization of society. From the present apex of cultural homogenization and standardized life, this is easier to see than it was for Nietzsche more than a century ago. The hollowing out of the substance and texture of daily existence is being completed, a process intimately related to the near impossibility of experiencing the world without technological mediation. The overall destruction of experience speaks to the deprivation at the heart of both technology and nihilism,


With this absence of unmediated personal experience at the heart of technological progress, skyrocketing levels of stress and depression cannot be surprising. Technology mediates between individuals and nature, ultimately abolishing both. With the triumph of technology, autonomy regresses and negates itself. The promises have all been lies. One is the promise of connection, so mercilessly (though inadvertently) mocked in a recent TV commercial: "I’ve got gigabytes. I’ve got megabytes. I’m voice-mailed. I’m e-mailed. I surf the Net. I’m on the Web. I am Cyber-Man. So how come I feel so out of touch?"


A set-up whose essence is efficiency is already fundamentally nihilist. Technical rules are rapidly supplanting ethical norms by making them irrelevant. What is more efficient or less efficient holds sway, not some moral consideration, even as the systemic goals of techno-capital are shaped by the evolution of its technology. Production, based on mastery and control, becomes more visibly a process of humanity devouring itself.


When powerlessness prevails, a generalized sense of paranoia is not an illogical symptom. Similarly, a current and telling form of cynicism is technological fatalism ("There’s nothing we can do about it"), further exposing the tendency of cynicism to shade into conformity. As Horkheimer and Adorno observed, "technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself."


Understanding and responsibility succumb to an ever-increasing fragmentation, a division of labor that is always unequal and alienating. The only wholeness resides in the fundamental system that turns all else into parts. As the moral self recedes, it becomes harder to grasp the relationship of these parts to one another and to see what they are part of. Domination and nihilism’s crisis of meaning are inseparably entwined.


For Heidegger, technology constitutes the final phase of nihilism. Under its sign all talk of freedom, happiness, emancipation becomes a mockery. In fact, technology itself becomes the ideological basis of society, having destroyed the possibility of other, overt forms of justification. Engagement or belief are hardly necessary for technology’s effective rule. In this way the nagging problem of declining participation in the system can be mitigated, or deferred.


Technology is the embodiment of the totalizing system of capital, and media is an indispensable, ever more defining bridge between technology and the commodity system. If the high-tech information explosion cancels all meaning in a meaningless noise, the mass-entertainment industrial complex pumps out increasingly desperate diversions to a society of relentless consumerism.


"Infotainment" and McJournalism are the latest pop culture products of nihilism. Why bother with truth if nothing can be done about reality anyway? And yet media, like technology, is always promising solutions to problems it has created, or worsened. One example among many is the significant rise in teen smoking in the 1990s despite an enormous media campaign aimed at reducing teen smoking. Strangely enough, beefing up the media does not combat alienated behaviors.


In the United States, and soon to spread elsewhere as not less than a function of development, we witness the recent transition to an amusement society of commodified spectacles and simulations. The eclipse of nonmediated reality feeds still greater urges to escape an emptied everyday life. Massified culture works in favor of distraction, conformity, and culturally enforced stupidity. The consequent lack of authenticity produces a mass turn-off, not unrelated to the decline of literacy.


The collapse of the distinction between reality and simulation in the world of representation can be seen as the ultimate failure of the symbolic. Art, music, and other forms of symbolic culture are losing their power to pacify and console us. Simulation technologies are just the most recent steps away from lived life, toward represented life. Their failure to satisfy means that the system must turn, increasingly, to containment and control.


To protect the desolate society an alternative to that society is safely set up, by means of image technologies. As the social dimensions of human life disappear along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the next stage of human existence. We are moving steadily toward the goal of complete illusion—virtual life in a virtual reality.


Under the Juggernaut, the subject is not supposed to have any sense of social causality, structure, coherence, or motive. Virtual Reality’s merely surface experience is exactly mirrored by postmodernism’s fascination with surfaces. As the culture that can just barely still be called one, postmodernism celebrates its own depthlessness, and is thus nihilism’s essential accomplice. It comes to pervade society when too many have given up hope that they can plumb the depth and roots of the whole. Postmodern perspectives are grounded in the incapacity to specify why change might be desirable or how it might come about.


Postmodernism is fundamentally the collapse and refusal of the chance to understand the totality. This indeed is the postmodern boast, mirroring the fragmentation of life instead of challenging it. Its "politics" is that of pragmatism, the tired liberalism that accommodates to the debased norm.


Deconstruction, for example, treats every moral statement as an endlessly manipulable fragment that possesses neither meaning nor intrinsic worth. Rem Koolhaus formulates the overall PM subjugation as follows: "According to Derrida we cannot be Whole, according to Baudrillard we cannot be real, according to Virilio we cannot be There."


Postmodernism, it might be argued, expresses fewer illusions, but the basic ones remain unchallenged. Its exhausted, ironic cynicism is prostrate before the nihilist ascendancy. What could be more passive than critique-less postmodernism double talk—an ideology of acquiescence.


Falsely laying claim to the protection of the particular as against the universal, postmodernism presents no defense whatsoever against the most universalizing force of all, technology. In the guise of particularity it incarnates nothing less than the realization of technology’s universalizing Midas touch.


Postmodernism emphasizes plurality, accessibility, absence of boundaries, endless possibility. Just as consumerist society does. And just as speciously. Where culturally a glut of meaningless information and incoherent fragments hold sway, the glut of ersatz commodities provides a perfect economic parallel. The liberty that remains to us is essentially the freedom to choose among brands A, B, and C, and the KFC in Tienanmen Square expresses domination as surely as the suppression of human rights protesters there in 1989.


"Systematic consumer segmentation and micro-marketing" is the dominant model of individualism today in the nihilist ethos of listless yet restless buyers. In fact, in an overwhelmingly commodified existence, consumption becomes the number one form of entertainment. Little wonder that academic journals now seriously discuss not only the McDonaldization of society but also its Disneyization, while life is largely defined in terms of consumer styles. The cognitive and moral focus of life becomes that of consumer behavior—including, it should be noted, voting and recycling.


Nihilism has effectively leached out the substance and texture from the life-world in the painful progression by which capital and technology have reduced and debased everything in their way. There is no exit from the closed system except by the elimination of that system.


Civilization begins by myth and ends in radical doubt, to paraphrase E.M. Cioran. This may remind us that cultural radicalism, which has become such a convention, feeds the dominant system rather than undermining it. Culture, born of alienation, needs alienation to go on. We must challenge the idea of symbolic culture as well as the reality of high-tech barbarism.


Nihilism is not a one-way street with no return, rather a route that has revealed the ensemble of domination for what it is. There are now very visible signs of the possibility of breaking its hold, redeeming its long, dark night.




—from John Zerzan, Running On Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (Feral House), 2002, pp. 109 – 114.

from the opening chapter of fanny howe’s indivisible


Fanny Howe’s novel Indivisible (2000) does things with words and with the good old Aristotelian categories of time and space that you don’t see much of these days. Henny, a filmmaker, is married to McCool, an alcoholic musician. They live in a working-class part of Boston. Without children of their own, Henny raises foster kids and also opens their door to transients for much-needed money. Tragedy and betrayal result, and there’s lots of good stuff about mysticism and philosophy in general and Buddhism, Marxism and Catholicism in particular. Nietzsche and Bambi — who else would you expect? — also figure into the story. On the verge of a religious conversion, Henny locks her husband in the closet…









I locked my husband in a closet one fine winter morning. It was not a large modern closet, but a little stuffy one in a century old brick building. Inside that space with him were two pairs of shoes, a warm coat, a chamber pot, a bottle of water, peanut butter and a box of crackers. The lock was strong but the keyhole was the kind you can both peek through and pick. We had already looked simultaneously, our eyes darkening to the point of blindness as they fastened on each other, separated by only two inches of wood. Now I would not want to try peeking again. My eyes meeting his eyes was more disturbing than the naked encounter of our two whole faces in the light of day. It reminded me that no one knew what I had done except for the person I had done it with. And you God.



A gold and oily sun lay on the city three days later. Remember how coldly it shone on the faces of the blind children. They stayed on that stoop where the beam fell the warmest. I wasn’t alone. My religious friend came up behind me and put his arm across my shoulder.

“We have to say goodbye,” he murmured.

I meant to say, “Now?” but said, “No.”

I had seen I’m nobody written on my ceiling only that morning.


Brick extended on either side. The river lay at the end. Its opposite bank showed a trail of leafless trees. My friend was tall, aristocratic in his gestures — that is, without greed. He said the holy spirit was everywhere if you paid attention. Not as a rewarded prayer but as an atmosphere that threw your body wide open. I said I hoped this was true. He was very intelligent and well-read. He had sacrificed intimacy and replaced it with intuition.


I wanted badly to believe like him that the air is a conscious spirit. But my paranoia was suffusing the atmosphere, and each passing person wore a steely aura. “Please God don’t let it snow when I have to fly,” he said and slipped away. My womanly body, heavy once productive, and the van for the children, gunning its engine, seemed to be pounded into one object. It was Dublin and it wasn’t. That is, the Irish were all around in shops and restaurants, their voices too soft for the raw American air and a haunt to me. “Come on. Let’s walk and say goodbye,” he insisted. We walked towards St. John the Evangelist.


“I’ve got to make a confession,” I told him. “Can’t I just make it to you? I mean, you’re almost a monk, for God’s sake.”

“No,” said Tom. “The priest will hear you. Go on.”

Obediently I went inside. The old priest was not a Catholic. He was as white as a lightbulb and as smooth. His fingers tapered to pointed tips as if he wore a lizard’s lacy gloves. It was cold inside his room. Outside – the river brown and slow. A draft came under the door.

I think he knew that a dread of Catholicism was one reason I was there. He kept muttering about Rome, and how it wouldn’t tolerate what he would, as an Anglican.


Personally I think pride is a sin. But I said “a failure of charity” was my reason for being there. This was not an honest confession, but close enough. The priest told me to pray for people who bothered me, using their given name when I did. He said a name was assigned to a person before birth, and therefore the human name was sacred. Then he blessed me. Walking out, I felt I was dragging my skeleton like a pack of branches. After all, a skeleton doesn’t clack inside the skin, but is more like wood torn from a tree and wrapped in cloth.

Outside Tom was waiting and we walked over the snow. “I missed that flute of flame that burns between Arjuna and Krishna — the golden faces of Buddha, and Yogananda, Ramakrishna, Milarepa, and the dark eyes of Edith Stein and Saint Teresa. Are all Americans Protestant? The church was cold, austere. I’m a bad Catholic.”

He nodded vaguely and said: “But you’re a good atheist. Catholicism has an enflamed vocabulary, don’t worry. You can transform each day into a sacrament by taking the eucharist. You just don’t want to bother.”


Even the will to raise and move a collection of bones can seem heroic. Only an object on one side — or a person — can draw it forwards — or on another side an imagined object or person. Maybe the will responds to nearby objects and thoughts the way a clam opens when it’s tapped. “Mechanistic…. We really should put more trust in the plain surface of our actions,” I said.

“Do we really have to say goodbye? And leave each other in such a state?”

“We do.”

“But first, Tom — I have one favor to ask you.”



Exactly ten years before, during a premature blizzard, I left all my children at home and went to meet my best friends in the Hotel Commander. I did so carrying the weight of my husband like a tree on my back. This was a meeting I couldn’t miss, no matter how low I stooped.

The walk from the subway to the hotel was bitter, wet and shiny. Traffic lights moved slowly on my right, while the brick walls and cold gray trees sopped up the gathering snow. I kept my eyes fixed on the left where dark areas behind shrubs and gates could conceal a man, and stepped up my pace.

Lewis and Libby were already seated in a booth in a downstairs lounge. I shook off my coat and sat beside Libby and we all ordered stiff drinks, recalling drunker meetings from earlier youth. I leaned back and kept my eyes on the door, in case my husband appeared and caught me offguard.

“Relax, Henny,” Lewis reproved me.

“I’ve never met him,” Libby cried. “It’s unbelievable.”

“He’s unbelievable,” said Lewis.

“He can’t be that bad.”

“He is. He should be eliminated. He won’t let her out of the house, without her lying. She probably said she had a neighborhood meeting tonight. Right?”

“Henny’s not a coward.”

“She likes to keep the peace though. That’s not good.”

“I’m going to be back in the spring. I’ll meet him then,”

Libby said. “And if he’s all that bad, I will do something to him.”

“Henny has an mercenary army of children around her, protecting her against him,” Lewis explained. “They aren’t even her own.”

“Hen, tell me the truth. Do you wish he would die? I’ll make him leave you if you want me to,” said Libby.

A renunciatory rush went down my spine when I saw, out in the lobby, the back of a man in a pea-jacket and woollen cap. Gathered over, I left the table for the rest room, and Libby followed breathless. She was wringing her hands, smelling of musk rose, and dancing on her pin-thin legs in high heel boots that had rings of wet fur around the tops while I sat in the sink. “Was it him? Was it him?”

We never found out.

That was the same night we climbed out the hotel kitchen window and walked up a slippery hill, one on each side of Lewis, hugging to his arms, while the snow whipped against our cheeks and lips, and we talked about group suicide.

“Phenobarbital, vodka and applesauce, I think.”

“No, Kool-aid, anything sweet.”

“For some reason.”

“Jam a little smear of strawberry on the tongue.”

“Or honey.”

“Catbirds and the smell of jasmine and we all lie in a line under the stars.”

“With great dignity.”

“Despite the shitting.”

“And die.”

“Die out.”

“I can dig it,” said Lewis. “I can dig it.”

“But we have to do it all together,” Libby said.



There is a kind of story, God, that glides along under everything else that is happening, and this kind of story only jumps out into the light like a silver fish when it wants to see where it lives in relation to everything else.


Snow is a pattern in this story. It was snowing the day of my first visit to the Federal Penitentiary. The ground was strung with pearly bulbs of ice. I had visited many social service offices in my day, but never a prison. I associated prison with sequence and looked around for a way to break out. As a first-time visitor, and in the early moments, I remembered nervously standing with a crowd of strangers waiting for someone familiar to emerge from behind a green door with a big light over it. For each one of us, the familiar person would be a different person, but our experience would be the same. I already know that some conflicts in life have no resolution and have to be treated in a different way from common problems.


But prison seemed to relate to issues of privacy in ways that were unimaginable to those who had never been forcibly hidden. Simplistically I was scared of being in a jail because it was a space that was unsafe from itself, the way a mind is. But I forced myself, as I sometimes do, to go to the place I dreaded the most — to the place that was so repugnant, it could only change me. Maybe the sacred grove of our time is either the prison or the grave site of a massacre. I have always believed I must visit those sacred groves, and not the woodlands, if I want to know the truth. In this case, I only wanted to see someone I loved and to comfort her by my coming. And surely enough, I did undergo a kind of conversion through my encounters with the persons there. When you visit someone in prison, this paranoid question comes up: Do I exist only in fear? The spirit hates cowards.

It broods heavily in the presence of fear. I only felt as safe as a baby when I was holding a baby or a child and so, sitting empty-armed, in a roomful of strangers, watching the light over the heavy door, was a test of will.

Then I saw a child — a little boy in the room with me — he was like a leaf blowing across an indoor floor. And while waiting for my friend to comeout the door, I moved near him.

I asked him what book he had brought with him. He kept his face down and said, “Gnomes.”

“Do you read it yourself, honey?”

“No, I can’t. Tom reads it to me.”

“Do you want me to read some?”

“Sure,” he said and lifted his smile. His eyelids were brown and deeply circled and closed, as long as the eyelids of the dead whose lashes are strangely punctuated by shadows longer than when they were alive and batting. He wore a limpid smile that inscribed a pretty dimple in his right cheek.

“I’m getting obsessed,” he said, “with books about gnomes, goblins, elves, hobbits.”

“How do you mean obsessed?”

“I want to know everything about them. And sometimes I’m sure they really exist and run around my feet.”

“How can you tell?”

“My shoelaces come untied sometimes, and I think I feel them on my shoes.”

“I don’t know, honey. I’ve never seen one. Let’s go read about gnomes.”

When I took his hot little hand in mine, I felt the material charge of will and spirit return to me. I had an instinctual feeling that the room held me fast by my fate. To be here was to be physically “inside” but the way a ghost is inside the world when it returns to haunt someone and still can depart at will. The ghost is confused, paralyzed by its guilt at being present without paying the price for it. Punishment is easily confused with safety.  

Continue reading

was leo strauss really a straussian?

An overview of Leo Strauss by two of his former students who reject the widespread conception that Strauss was a conservative or reactionary whose ideas derived from the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Instead, they assert that Strauss’ animating idea was for a return to the ancients, since the relativism and, ultimately, the nihilism of modernity undermined the possibility not just of politics but of philosophy itself.  


Strauss’s Philosophical Project 

From reading the popular press (or, to speak more precisely, semipopular press) like the New York Times and the New York Review of Books in the thirty-some years since Strauss’s death, one would think that he had attained prominence in the United States primarily as a conservative political ideologue. Although he was a Jew who emigrated from Germany to flee the National Socialists, Strauss has even been castigated as a Nazi. Despite the portrayal of Strauss as the intellectual source of the “neoconservative” foreign policy of the Bush administration, he said and wrote very little about American politics. He did express his opinion that liberal democracy was much better than the totalitarian alternatives confronting it in the twentieth century; but as an émigré, he often stated, he was not really qualified to comment on American politics. Also, his chief concerns lay elsewhere, with the question of the character and fate of philosophy. “He rarely left the esoteric world of high thought, preferring to construct a history of political philosophy.” And that, we maintain, is where Strauss’s significance primarily lies. He presented a novel diagnosis of what is often called the crisis of the West but which could also be dubbed the end of philosophy.

 He tried not merely to revive but to reform this distinctive form of intellectual activity, which, he argued, defines Western civilization. Strauss’s signature idea was his call for a return to the ancients, his appeal for a reconsideration and reappropriation of the political philosophy of the classics: the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and so on—a group of writers Strauss thought of as “Socratics” because they followed the path of thought opened up by Socrates. Strauss did not begin with a commitment to ancient philosophy, although, as his youthful attachment to Plato indicates, he was seized by an admiration for them, or at least for Plato, from an early age. It was only when he was well along in life, sometime in his thirties, that Strauss concluded that a return to the ancients was both possible and desirable. Like most German students of philosophy of his day, he began as a student of modern philosophy. Having studied with Ernst Cassirer and Edmund Husserl, Strauss met and came to admire Martin Heidegger, who later became the founder of existentialism. He also read Friedrich Nietzsche very seriously in his younger days. His attempt to return to the ancients represented a break not only with these particular thinkers, but with modern philosophy in its entirety.

 The important story about Strauss is the story of his call for this return—how he came to formulate it as a philosophic project, what he saw to be the barriers to such a return (barriers that made the very idea of return unthinkable to most of his contemporaries), what he meant by calling for return, and what the chief consequences of his call for return were. His main impetus for returning to the ancients was a growing dissatisfaction with the various manifestations of modern philosophy, including dissatisfaction with the great modern critics of modern philosophy, Nietzsche and Heidegger. In response to that dissatisfaction, he came to a new or at least very untraditional understanding of the ancients; he rediscovered an older and very nonstandard tradition of Platonism, which, in his opinion, contained a superior understanding of ancient philosophy. It also opened up an understanding of ancient philosophy that was immune to the critiques to which it had been subjected by modern thinkers, from Machiavelli in the sixteenth century to Heidegger in the twentieth. Their criticism of ancient philosophy failed, he came to believe, because they never understood correctly the doctrines they were criticizing. The ancients to whom Strauss wanted to return were thus very different from the ancients as depicted in the textbooks.

The first and perhaps chief consequence of Strauss’s recovery of the ancients was therefore a reconceiving of the entire philosophic tradition. Not only did he come to understand the classics differently from the way they had been understood, but he also radicalized a commonplace distinction between ancients and moderns. With the emergence of modern philosophy, Strauss believed, there had occurred a cataclysmic break with the older philosophy, a break of such magnitude that all that came after was simply a working out of the implications of that break. In the Straussian frame, the difference between ancients and moderns became decisive; Strauss sided with the ancients and traced the ills of modern philosophy and many of the ills of modern politics to that break with ancient philosophy and the consequences of that break.

Part of Strauss’s new grasp of the ancients was an appreciation of political philosophy, of politics, and of the relation between politics and philosophy as a central theme of Socratic philosophy. Strauss had noted already that the greatest philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century, those dominant when he formulated his philosophic project (Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger), all lacked a political philosophy or any serious philosophic reflections on politics. Another way to formulate Strauss’s signature doctrine, then, is as a call for the rebirth of political philosophy. In this reborn political philosophy, a philosophy that took its bearings from Socrates, not Nietzsche or Heidegger, Strauss believed he had discovered a far more adequate grasp of politics than that prevalent in the academy (social scientific political science) or in political life (ideologized politics). The reconceptualization of the philosophic tradition was thus to be at the same time a reorientation of thinking about politics. Strauss’s project was, to say the least, ambitious.

Although Strauss has recently become famous, if not infamous, the world was slow to take notice of him. One reason the significance of Strauss’s work is only now coming to be properly or truly appreciated in the United States is that many American intellectuals became aware of the arguments against which he positioned himself, in particular the thought of Martin Heidegger, only after Strauss’s death. Living and writing in America, Strauss wanted to respond to Heidegger, but he did not want to propagate Heidegger’s thought by explicating his turgid prose. As a Jew who had fled Hitler’s Germany, Strauss was all too aware of the unsavoury political associations of Heidegger’s Nazi-sympathizing thought. Strauss therefore directed his arguments against what he called “radical historicism,” by which he meant Heidegger. Few of his American readers understood whom or what Strauss actually had in mind.


Strauss’s Departure from Heidegger and Nietzsche

Strauss opposed Heidegger, at least in part, because, as he saw it, he and Heidegger had begun with the same philosophical problem or source—the challenge posed by Friedrich Nietzsche. In classes at the University of Chicago in the mid-1960s, Strauss suggested that the best introduction to Heidegger’s thought was to be found in his lectures on Nietzsche, first published in German in 1962. Whereas most others would look to Being and Time, Strauss thought Heidegger’s confrontation with Nietzsche was most revealing of Heidegger’s project.

Strauss himself had been enthralled at an early age with the author he had read furtively in gymnasium. Indeed, Nietzsche exercised a powerful intellectual influence on him for quite some time. In a letter he wrote to Karl Loewith in 1935, Strauss stated that “Nietzsche so dominated me between my 22nd and 30th years, that I literally believed everything that I understood of him.” By the time he wrote to Loewith, however, Strauss had discovered that he agreed with Nietzsche only in part. Like Nietzsche, Strauss “wanted to repeat antiquity . . . at the peak of modernity.” Like Nietzsche, that meant, Strauss wanted to revive a truly noble form of human existence. But Strauss had come to believe that the polemical character of Nietzsche’s critique of modernity had prevented him from realizing his intention. Strauss came, moreover, to have a very different notion of the peak of antiquity, or the most noble form of human existence. Whereas Nietzsche praised blond beasts and Caesar with the soul of Christ, Strauss tried to revive Platonic political philosophy and the Platonic hero, Socrates, who was not a great favorite of Nietzsche’s. In contrast to Nietzsche, Strauss never praised ancient generals and statesmen such as Pericles or Caesar, nor their modern imitators such as Napoleon. He wanted to revive ancient political philosophy, not ancient politics.

Strauss came to question not only the adequacy of Nietzsche’s understanding of the ancients, but also his analysis of the modern crisis. The date at which Strauss says that he ceased to believe everything he understood of Nietzsche coincides roughly with the publication of his own first book, Spinoza’s Critique of Religion (1930). Strauss’s study of Spinoza led him to conclude that the early rationalist modern critics of scriptural religion had failed in their effort to prove that revelation was false, because revelation had never claimed to rest on, or be available to, human reason; and human reason had never been able to generate a comprehensive account of the whole that left no room for the biblical God. “If one wished to refute orthodoxy,” Strauss maintained, “there remained no other way but to attempt to prove that the world and life are perfectly intelligible without the assumption of an unfathomable God. . . . Man had to establish himself theoretically and practically as the master of the world and the master of his life; the world created by him had to erase the world merely ‘given’ to him.” Merely showing, as Spinoza had done, that statements in the Bible were contradictory or anachronistic did not prove that they were not the word, or accurate depictions of the acts, of an omnipotent and unfathomable God. To show that miracles were impossible, modern rationalists had to give a systematic explanation of everything that had occurred or could occur. Unable to do so, Enlightenment thinkers had attempted by means of mockery “to ‘laugh’ orthodoxy out of a position from which it could not be dislodged by any proofs supplied by Scripture or by reason.” By the twentieth century modern rationalism in the combined form of natural science, progressive politics, and industrial technology had shown that it could not describe or remake the world in completely rational form. In Nietzschean terms, Strauss’s study of Spinoza had convinced him that God was by no means necessarily or evidently dead, either as a philosophically disposed-of entity, or as an object of human attachment and belief.

Nietzsche had insisted that the denial of God was a requirement of intellectual honesty, or probity, which, he thought, was our last virtue. Probity constituted a kind of spiritual courage or, in Heideggerian terms, resolution to face the utter meaninglessness of human life and the world. But, Strauss objected in his 1935 book Philosophy and Law, if the world is utterly meaningless, if there is no truth, then there is no basis for Nietzsche’s obligation to declare it or to live by it. According to Nietzsche, the intellectual probity that required him to posit and declare that God is dead was a product of the Christian conscience turning against itself. However, Strauss again pointed out, if there is no God, there is no ground or reason to have, or to listen to, such a conscience. Nietzsche’s own philosophy was based on the same scripturally derived morality he himself had declared to be invalid once the ground of that morality, faith in God, was eroded. Strauss thus attempted to move beyond Nietzsche, for Nietzsche’s philosophy was paradoxically grounded or generated by the very commitments he renounced. Nietzsche was, in this sense, deeply incoherent.

The antagonism to religion characteristic of modern philosophy that Nietzsche had made manifest was not a result simply of the demands of reason, Strauss concluded. The late modern philosophical critique had established, if anything, the limits of reason, and that conclusion made even more incredible the claims of reason to disprove revelation. Rather than constituting a logical conclusion, modern philosophical atheism rested on an act of will. Modern philosophers, even those prior to Nietzsche, had insisted that there was no superhuman, independently existing order or source of morality, because they wanted to improve the human condition. To improve that condition significantly, Strauss maintained, they thought it would be necessary to manipulate nature, even to transform it entirely. But nature would not and could not be manipulated so long as it was regarded as the product of a divine creation. To remake the world, modern thinkers were led to deny the Creator God.

Strauss thus began to suspect, as Heidegger was to argue later, that the core or essence of modern philosophy was technological. But, whereas Heidegger argued that the technological grasp of beings was a necessary result of a fateful dispensation of “Being” itself, Strauss saw it to be the result of a fateful choice. The crisis of modernity was not so much scientific in origin as it was moral and political. The modern attempt to improve and elevate human life threatened to end, as Nietzsche had so powerfully shown, in the utter degradation of human life in the “last man” or in mass society. Once human beings ceased to recognize any superhuman goals or standards by which their efforts could be judged, they stopped striving for anything beyond comfortable self-preservation. As a consequence, their lives lost all nobility. The early modern political philosophers had made the acquisition of power a means to the end of relieving the general human condition; the acquisition of virtue was no longer viewed as an end in itself, and the ancient conception of human excellence as the form of human life worth living had been lost.


Strauss’s Analysis of the Contemporary Crisis

The point of departure for Strauss’s call for a return to the ancients was the congeries of ill effects of modernism that he called “the crisis of our time.” The crisis was both announced and partly provoked by Nietzsche and his successors such as Heidegger. As Strauss understood it, the crisis was constituted by the triumph of “radical historicism,” which he thought to be ultimately another name for nihilism. Radical historicism was radical not merely in reductively insisting that all thought reflected its age, or that no thought could escape the limitations inspired by its historical situation. It was radical also in denying that there were any permanent realities whatever. The consequences of this denial were very grave, Strauss thought. On the one hand, there was the contention we now identify with postmodernism: the denial of “foundations” for knowledge or truth. That denial meant the end of philosophy as it was known from Thales to the twentieth century. The “end of philosophy” meant the replacement of the quest for truth with the positing of conventions, or the consensus of “communities” of “knowers,” or mysterious dispensations of fate, or poetry, or pragmatic effectiveness as the measure of a “truth” that could only be written in quotation marks. On the other hand, Strauss thought, the “crisis of our time” was more narrowly political and moral; because it heralded the “end of philosophy,” it also produced a deep-going relativism, denying the possibility of trans-historical truth with respect to moral phenomena. The loss of faith in moral and political truth had two apparently opposite but intimately connected and unfortunate consequences, as Strauss saw it. One was that it encouraged a kind of decisionism, such as is found in many continental philosophic movements of the twentieth century, existentialism for example. In the face of the groundlessness of moral and political choice, what counts is “commitment,” the decision itself, not the substance of what is decided for. Intrinsic merits of political and moral choices were held to be beyond debate: justice, moderation, and sobriety, traits once held to be sine qua nons of responsible action, were not merely no longer favored; they were positively disfavored as signs of lukewarmness or weakness of will. Understanding them to be responding in this way to “the crisis of our time,” Strauss was not surprised to see great thinkers at the “end of philosophy,” like Heidegger, support Hitler and the Nazis.

The other political and moral outcome of radical historicism was loss of faith in any moral truths and the adoption of a passionless lack of commitment to anything but toleration. Strauss never denied that toleration was a virtue, but he shared, in this case, Nietzsche’s revulsion against the “last man,” who said “we invented happiness” but who knew nothing of striving, of the search for excellence, of sacrifice or commitment to anything beyond reality T.V. or Monday Night Football. This lack of commitment, which Strauss’s student Allan Bloom called “flatness,” not only emptied human life of its higher callings, but also endangered the societies that fell prey to it, because life poses challenges not well met by those who look no further than comfort and entertainment.

Strauss came to see that this crisis, in both its philosophical and its political aspects, derived from modern philosophy’s great act of rebellion against classical philosophy and biblical religion. The founders of modernity, thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza, set mankind on a path that, via an almost inexorable dialectic, produced the end of philosophy and the “last man” as announced and diagnosed by Nietzsche. If modernity was at the bottom of the problem, then, Strauss concluded, the proper response was a retreat or a return to premodernity. Strauss’s first efforts at return were to call for a return not to the ancients themselves, but to the “medieval enlightenment,” as developed by the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides, to whom he paid abiding and recurrent attention throughout his long scholarly career. Strauss’s turn to Maimonides proved, however, to be a step on his way to Plato and Socrates.

—from Catherine H. Zuckert, Michael Zuckert, The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy, (2006), pp 30-36.





baudrillard’s america: “nostalgia born of the immensity of the texan hills & sierras of new mexico”

the opening of jean baudrillard’s america always makes me think its writer is not a sorbonne professor but a wide-eyed innocent on whom nothing is lost, a child precocity who counts  among his forebears de tocqueville, kerouac and nietzsche. . . 






Caution: Objects in this mirror may be closer than they appear!


Nostalgia born of the immensity of the Texan hills and the sierras of New Mexico: gliding down the freeway, smash hits on the Chrysler stereo, heat wave. Snapshots aren’t enough. We’d need the whole film of the trip in real time, including the unbearable heat and the music. We’d have to replay it all from end to end at home in a darkened room, rediscover the magic of the freeways and the distance and the ice-cold alcohol in the desert and the speed and live it all again on the video at home in real time, not simply for the pleasure of remembering but because the fascination of senseless repetition is already present in the abstraction of the journey. The unfolding of the desert is infinitely close to the timelessness of film…




The Mexicans, become Chicanos, act as guides on the visit to El Alamo to laud the heroes of the American nation so valiantly massacred by their own ancestors. But hard as those ancestors fought, the division of labour won out in the end. Today it is their grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are there, on the same battlefield, to hymn the Americans who stole their lands. History is full of ruse and cunning. But so are the Mexicans who have crossed the border clandestinely to come and work here.





Pompous Mormon symmetry. Everywhere marble: flawless, funereal (the Capitol, the organ in the VisitorCenter). Yet a Los-Angelic modernity, too — all the requisite gadgetry for a minimalist, extraterrestrial comfort. The Christ-topped dome (all the Christs here are copied from Thorwaldsen’s and look like Bjorn Borg) straight out of Close Encounters: religion as special effects. In fact the whole city has the transparency and supernatural, otherworldly cleanness of a thing from outer space. A symmetrical, luminous, overpowering abstraction. At every intersection in the Tabernacle area — all marble and roses, and evangelical marketing — an electronic cuckoo-clock sings out: such Puritan obsessiveness is astonishing in this heat, in the heart of the desert, alongside this leaden lake, its waters also hyperreal from sheer density of salt. And, beyond the lake, the Great Salt Lake Desert, where they had to invent the speed of prototype cars to cope with the absolute horizontality… But the city itself is like a jewel, with its purity of air and its plunging urban vistas more breathtaking even than those of Los Angeles. What stunning brilliance, what modern veracity these Mormons show, these rich bankers, musicians, international genealogists, polygamists (the EmpireState in New York has something of this same funereal Puritanism raised to the nth power). It is the capitalist, transsexual pride of a people of mutants that gives the city its magic, equal and opposite to that of Las Vegas, that great whore on the other side of the desert.



the final days of friedrich nietzsche: “tears in turin” by muharem bazdulj




Shame.—A beautiful horse stands there, scratches the soil, wheezes, and longs for someone to ride it and loves the one who usually rides it—but, oh, what a shame! Today he is not able to soar on the horse, being tired.—That is a shame of a tired philosopher faced with his own philosophy.


The Dawn


There are cases in which we are like horses, we psychologists, and become restless: we see our own shadow wavering up and down before us. A psychologist must turn his eyes from himself to eye anything at all.


Twilight of the Idols




Just as the sun began to draw golden hieroglyphs on the wall through the translucent fabric of the curtains, Nietzsche woke up. The bed was under a window, so Friedrich, lying on his side, was able to observe undisturbed the golden symbols’ dance on the white wall across from the window, a dance that reminded him of the flickering of Midsummer’s Eve fires. In the silence he heard only the uniform sound of his own breathing and the slow and regular beating of his heart (as always, his pulse was never more than sixty beats per minute, just as it usually was never less than that limit; his heart beat exactly once per second like some atomic clock, the temporal equivalent of one of those geometric bodies of exact dimensions made of a particular alloy that are kept in a special institute as prototypes of official measurement units; thus if one kilogram is in fact the mass of an equilateral cylinder of a radius of thirty-nine millimeters made of an alloy of 90 percent platinum and 10 percent iridium kept in the International Bureau for Measurements and Weights in Sevres, then one second is the time during which Nietzsche’s heart made one beat, and not, as it is claimed, the duration of 9192631770 periods of radiation corresponding to the transition between two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom—if this means anything at all). With his right hand he was massaging his forehead around the temples. Maybe he had a headache. Last night, as usual, he was bothered by insomnia, which almost every night was as quietly and unpretentiously persistent as the sound of a fountain. It returned eternally. That is why this morning, too, Nietzsche was lying wide awake and trying, apparently, to give his tired body a rest, a rest his brain did not want. It was as if his brain had an inkling of the rest it would not give his body. On a night table next to the bed were books stacked in straight towers, like floors of a high-rise. The letters on their spines formed some strange crossword, with the vertical letters making incomprehensible and mostly unpronounceable piles of consonants mixed with a few vowels, while the horizontal letters proffered the famous names of Dostoyevsky, Seneca, Stendhal, Kant, Thucidydes, Schiller, Heraclitus, Rousseau, Goethe, and Schopenhauer. On a desk by the wall, illuminated by the sun, were Nietzsche’s papers and writings. He had written a lot in the past year, a year whose last hours were just passing. He had never liked this holiday, this so-called New Year, the grotesque tail of Christmas, dies nefastus, a day that in fact represents the day of the circumcision of the purported Messiah, his almost grotesque first spilling of blood. But today’s day was nearly special even according to Nietzsche’s personal calendar, the calendar he had invented in The Antichrist (which was on the desk among other writings), completed exactly three months ago, on September 30, 1888, according to—as he wrote—the false calendar. That day Nietzsche declared to be Salvation Day, the first day of the first year, making this thirty-first day of December of 1888 the second day of the third month of the first year. Nietzsche frowned while the thoughts of some mystic quasi-pythagorian analogy were probably going through his head. In fact, the day dearest to Friedrich, which he would pick as a starting point for his calendar (from which he—it is completely logical—did start counting time in a way), was his birthday—October 15. That day was in some way his name day—luckily, not in a religious sense. October 15 was the birthday of the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV after whom Nietzsche was named. On the desk among the manuscripts, as a silent witness, his Ecce Homo was lying. Nietzsche probably knew by heart all the sentences he had written not so long ago. Maybe he was whispering them now in his bed. As I was born on October 15, the birthday of the above-named king, I naturallyreceived the Hohenzollern name Friedrich Wilhelm. There was at all events one advantage in the choice of this day: my birthday throughout my entire childhood was a public holiday. If Nietzsche was really remembering his childhood birthdays, when he believed that his whole homeland was celebrating just his birthday, then he could not have missed an ironic detail connected to his birthday and the calendar he had established three months ago that had declared September 30 Salvation Day and the start of a new calculation of time. By establishing his own calendar he had made himself a kind of Julius Caesar (and he loved Caesar as can be witnessed by another of his works, Twilight of the Idols, lying on the desk between The Antichrist and Ecce Homo). Caesar’s calendar was adjusted approximately fifteen days backward by Pope Gregory, but if Nietzsche’s calendar could be adjusted, this could be done only by some antipope and Antigregory, and adjusted in the only possible way, fifteen days ahead, making New Year’s day fall on his birthday—the Antichrist’s birthday, instead of some Middle Eastern mess about the circumcision of a purported Messiah. Nietzsche smiled silently. In moments of silence and loneliness he always found most similar to himself the personalities he scorned the most in his writings, the personalities of the two greatest and most famous oral teachers (and that was probably their only feature completely opposite to his own, because Nietzsche was a teacher only in a written sense, but orally—while teaching at the University—he was only a lecturer; but even this difference between the oral preaching of his two greatest impossibles and his own leaning toward written prophecies was more a consequence of the times than their characters): with the dialectician and the rabbi, Socrates and Christ. He raised himself on his elbows just to reach a clock on the night table with books, to see the time. It was almost eleven. But still, Nietzsche lay down again. Forgetting, apparently, that he had awakened at daybreak, he thought it might have been noon already, making this late morning moment too early for getting up. If he had already resigned himself to wait for noon in bed, then there was no reason not to do it. Again he smiled gently, as if he remembered that Russian novel in which the hero wakes up at the beginning of the novel and spends the whole first section lying lazily in bed. But Friedrich was not accustomed to lazy lying in bed. It must have been that some strange and undefined weakness enveloped him this morning, this day actually, because he was still prone even at half an hour after noon. But realizing the time, he immediately got up. Strangely, he was not hungry. He spent the next three hours—almost till dusk—sitting in a chair. This way his afternoon was the same as his morning, apart from his back being in a vertical position. Luckily, it was not cold although it was December. Such was Turin. (The quiet and aristocratic city of Turin—so he wrote in Ecce Homo.) When dusk fell in his room, Nietzsche decided to go out. The decision to eat something was more the fruit of his giving in to habit rather than to demands from his belly, his brain searched for food more than did his stomach. After having a quick meal, Nietzsche walked through the streets of Turin for a long time. Almost paradoxically, his tiredness diminished as he walked more. A light southern wind was bringing a puff of additional warmth to the already mild air, like the feeling of a burst of blood to the head of a man with fever. Nietzsche’s forehead was beaded with sweat. But his heart was still working like a clock (and this comparison should not be considered colloquial but rather concrete and the most correct possible), and his breathing was just slightly quicker. At a street corner he stopped for a bit. He did not pause to rest (he didn’t need to), nor because he was in thought (in his youth he had read somewhere that people with lower mental capabilities are incapable of thinking and walking at the same time, the start of any barely significant thinking stops them immediately; then with pleasure he remembered a fact he had noticed long ago, although without assigning to it any positive or negative meaning, the fact that he thought better and quicker while walking), he simply tried to separate the sensations of time and space, to put himself under the control of time while being motionless in space, as if by doing this the power of time over him would be higher, as if the sum of time and space within a person is always constant, bringing him closer to time if he gives less control to space, and vice versa. Then he went to a particular spot, his own spot on the banks of Po. He had gone there for the first time when he completed The Antichrist, on the first day of the first year of his own calendar. For the last three months he had been coming here almost every time he went walking. He watched the water flowing. A river by day is not the same as by night. The sound of a river flowing in darkness is unreal and healing. He came back home fifteen minutes after ten o’clock and went straight to bed. Usually he went to bed later, trying to trick the insomnia. But this time he lay down early and, amazingly, fell asleep quickly. He did not want to be awake to hear the clock strike twelve irrevocable chimes.




The first morning of the New Year was well under way when Nietzsche woke up. Amazed, he rubbed his sleepy eyes, trying to remember the last time he had slept this well, so deeply and for so long. It was almost ten o’clock. This time his body did not desire lazy lying but immediate rising. Nietzsche got up and began measuring the room with his steps, as if merely standing was not enough but rather it was necessary to emphasize his alertness and the pleasure caused by refreshing sleep. He yawned not in the nighttime but in the good-morning way, which expresses not sleepiness but ultimate escape from the gluey fingers of sleep—these two facial grimaces are identical, but identical in the same way that in ancient Egypt a  hieroglyphic symbol could represent two diametrically opposite things. This was a good beginning to January, almost like the one that a few years back gave him The Gay Science. To that January he had dedicated a poem in which he thanked it for crushing the ice of his soul with a flaming spear. Maybe this would be a similar January. Each month has its own special and direct, weather-independent influence on our bodily condition, even on the condition of our soul.— Somewhere sometime he had read this forceful diagnosis, which he accepted as correct even before it proved itself a few times in his life. Even his intimate calendar almost did not disturb the internal structure of months. With a new beginning came a new sequence of months, but some natural events, such as the beginnings of the seasons, still fell around the twenty-second of the month, just as in the false calendar. He stopped in the middle of the room almost out of breath. Walking in the room exhausted him, like a long walk in his cage exhausts a tiger. Then he opened a window and breathed good morning southern Piedmont air for a long time. The climate had always had a strong influence on his health and mood, and, consequently, on his writing. Who knows what would have happened to him had he always lived in his homeland, up there in the Teutonic cold? Good air makes a person feel fed and watered. This morning even the sky cheered up Nietzsche: clear, blue, bright, and crowded with birds. Leaving the window open, Nietzsche turned toward the interior of the room. He was looking at his desk. At the desk’s edge lay sorted manuscripts of his completed works, and the rest of the heavy wooden surface was messily covered in handwritten papers with sketches of aphorisms and conceptual writings. They were lying there in heaps, more like fallen tree leaves than like leaves of paper, like an illustration of the magnificent Wordsworth-Huxley misunderstanding, that tragic and symbolic meprise, which occurred when Huxley, for the title of a novel, took a phrase Wordsworth had used in a poem in which he invited a friend into the bosom of nature, calling on him to forget about those barren leaves of old books; Huxley, therefore, named his novel Barren Leaves, but in its translation into foreign languages the novel is just about always called Barren Tree Leaves. But the unrelenting perfect linearity and continuity of time (despite its eternal return that confirms it, since a circle is more cruel and strict than a simple straight line and thus, through its everlasting repetition, confirms the basic clear and light einmal ist keinmal line of existence) did not allow Friedrich to think about this paradox that he would certainly have liked, and so the smile on his face was caused by a simpler and more easily guessed analogy, by the fact that both the wooden desk and the leaves of paper were made of the same material; only the age of this particular desk prevented the thought that the wood and the paper had been made from the same tree or maybe from two neighboring trees. Today Nietzsche was in a good and diligent frame of mind. He walked to the desk and began looking at and sorting the messy papers, attempting with a glance to read and decode a fragment of text written with his quick and hard-to-read handwriting, written when he was trying to keep up with a whole flood of his thoughts in those lucid moments when it seemed that every drop that spilled from the pot that is his head had to be absorbed by paper or it would be irretrievably lost. He succeeded in sorting a heap of individual leaves into some kind of regular mass and put it aside. Happily and contentedly he began to flip through the pages of his completed manuscripts. He touched the pages of Ecce Homo gently, with, it seemed, the pleasant feeling that his writings justified their own existence. He turned over the pages, reading only the subtitles, as if flipping through a newspaper. The self-conscious pathetical-vain pomposity of these subtitles elicited a happy smile. He whispered slowly the rhetorical questions that headed the chapters: Why I am so wise, Why I am so clever, Why I write such excellent books, Why I am fate. In those phrases there was perhaps a grain of self-irony, or at least a hint that might eventually let one detect self-irony, but still this was his opinion and this was the easiest way to express it. Someone somewhere speaking about self-praise quoted a thought of Lord Bacon—the wisest, brightest, and meanest of mankind—who pointed out that even for self-commendation the ancient Latin praise of slander is valuable: Semper aliquid haeret. Maybe Nietzsche remembered Bacon because he had noticed his name on the pages he’d flipped and subconsciously glanced at: We hardly know enough about Lord Bacon—the first realist in the highest sense of the word—to be sure of everything he did, everything he willed, and everything he experienced in himself. The other names written on the manuscript’s pages must have been noticed as well: Heine, Wagner, da Vinci, Bach, Ranke, Horace. Each name brought its own associations, the same way that smell and taste evoke their own recollections and stimulate memories. He liked to think that future poets and philosophers would consider him as significant as he considered a few of his own teachers. His time was not fond of him. He put Ecce Homo aside and took up the manuscript of The Antichrist, perhaps remembering one of the first sentences in that book, a sentence he had written while thinking about himself: Some men are born posthumously. In fact, resentment wafted from all his works due to the absence of tribute and admiration, resentment concealed by self-love and a pose of prior knowledge and expectation or almost prophetic  presentiments about thefate accorded to his writing by the times he lived in, by the fairly unenviable and rather subdued level of reception of his works. Yet, while still young, he had made noncontemporaneity his main goal. He was troubled most of all by the unreceptiveness of the times, but he always consoled himself with the firm belief—and on mornings like this one he believed it without a trace of suspicion—that his time would come, a time when one day his name would be associated with the memory of something tremendous. Already there were some sensible and prophetic souls who had not passed out from the thin mountain air of his writings. Recently he had mailed a short text about himself—an encoded life—at the request of the Danish professor Brandes. Perhaps that somewhat poetic curriculum vita had provoked him into writing Ecce Homo, a kind of autobiography. Brandes was not the only one who discerned his greatness. A small group of admirers scattered around the world, like some sensitive and tiny animals, apprehended the coming earthquake that would be caused by his thought, like rats they knew that the ship of contemporaneity should be abandoned, that weak and ornate yacht that has been trying for as long as possible to hide one unpleasant and uncorrectable fact—that it is sinking. He flipped through the pages and read the manuscripts till it became dark. Then he lit a lamp and sat quietly looking at the wall, probably thinking about his works in the swaying and shadowy, solemn and almost churchlike silence. Lately he could read and write under artificial light only with great difficulty. The letters were searching for the sun. He sat motionless for a long time; only his forehead would occasionally be covered with wrinkles like a sea covered with small waves stroked by a light wind. Sometimes his right hand would press his temples, covering his forehead with its span, like a kid measuring distance. When he glanced at the clock it was already nearly midnight. He lay down and, amazingly, again fell asleep quickly. His spirit sank into sleep at practically the same moment that his body sank into the bed. According to the Bible, King David always fell asleep this quickly.




Nietzsche awoke at daybreak, amazed and happy. Again he had slept well and deeply. He was turning in bed, waking up. Lusciously, he rolled his tongue in satisfaction, like a dog. He was still in the thrall of yesterday’s excellent mood, that almost physically tangible height of self-consciousness and agitated satisfaction. Ideas, concepts, phrases, sentences—the totality of the mental architecture and rhetorical facade of his works stood under his view, and he was satisfied with the plasticity of that phenomenon, its picturesque appearance. Along with this vision, in the background, he saw a moving sequence of the events and situations of his life from the times that certain of his works were created. He recalled certain memories and relived them in the sweet-and-sour and distressingly painless way that occurs when a self from some past period splits from the present self and they feel only a slight identification with each other as if with some imaginary personality, a figment, a personality after all not so likeable, but which has some insignificant detail that allows for identification, let’s say a similarity of lips or clothing, for example. But apparently all these things he recalled so indifferently today had made his works such as they are, and so they seemed significant to him. Although his mood was closer to yesterday’s than to that of two days before, his behavior was, on the contrary, closer to that of two days ago than to yesterday’s. Nietzsche lay awake in bed till nearly noon, not due to some weakness this time but rather due to the satisfaction of spiritual abundance, due to the enjoyment of idleness that is (as he himself wrote before) what a true thinker desires the most. Still he did not intend to spend the whole day lying down. He was an ascetic in his intimate pleasures, even though in recent months he had occasionally written true praises of indulgence (actually, mostly about simple animal indulgence, indulgence in the things he himself liked). His youthful character, which to some extent was expressed in those events he had been recalling this morning, lingered more in the practical atavism of his habits than in the theoretical evolution of his writings and rhetorically formed thoughts. The similarity with yesterday’s mood also repeated itself today in the will to work. As he had yesterday, Nietzsche sat at his writing desk and read his own manuscripts. But as opposed to the previous day, his inner state did not have that pleasant uniformity. In the background it was as if some undetermined shadow was waxing, a shadow that covered the sun his soul so desired, a shadow that slowly grew as after high noon. He tried to chase away or forget that unpleasant feeling by walking in the room, trying through physical activity to bring a pleasant ingredient to the dull chemistry of the complicated mechanism of his consciousness. After a while he sat again and began flipping quickly and chaotically through his manuscripts, one after another, as if searching in every one of them for a formula that would sum up his complete opus and teaching. From the background of his brain, from some sphere of the huge terra incognita that was his internal kingdom, an obsessive refrain, a chorus of unpleasant suspicion, was relentlessly emerging to the surface of his spiritual sea, and it was slowly but surely coming to occupy the front line of his mood, triumphing over yesterday’s happy self-satisfaction. Most likely, the siren’s song of this suspicion expressed skepticism toward the fruit of his efforts. It was something that must have been hard on him, although suspicion is in fact something human, truly human. It must have seemed to Nietzsche that the various casual thoughts and associations he had had over the previous two days had carried a hint as to what was now happening, like when a sailor understands the meaning of what had seemed to be an innocent cloud just before a storm breaks. Then he took up the manuscript of The Will to Power, a work he thought that by its name alone expressed the concrete quintessential originality and novelty of his teaching. This work, too, had been created last year. His spirit lives in all the other works from that period. What is good?—Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man.—This nearly catechistical phrase, in question and answer form, is at the beginning of The Antichrist. But the unpleasant feeling was spreading organically through his body. Nietzsche again stood up and began walking about the room. He had no desire to go out, as if the unpleasant feeling manifested itself also in some kind of agoraphobia. Suddenly he stopped by the bedside night table, a night table with books, as if seeing it for the first time. He looked at the hardbound works of his teachers and educators. As if hypnotized, he picked up The World as Will and Representation. Then perhaps he remembered Dostoyevsky, the only psychologist from whom he learned anything, a psychologist who belongs to the most beautiful happy moments of his life. In one Dostoyevsky novel, a German (apropos—Dostoyevsky, that deep man, was right ten times over to devalue trivial Germans) looks for answers to his dilemmas by opening the Bible at random and taking the first sentence he sees as a prophecy, as a kind of Pythian perfect advice to be followed. At random Friedrich opened the Bible of his youth: The World as Will and Representation. The heavy tome opened to the beginning of the fifty-fourth chapter. Nietzsche’s glance fell on the next-to-last sentence of the second paragraph: Since the will always wants life, exactly because life is nothing else but a manifestation of that will in representation, it is completely unimportant, it is just a pleonasm, if instead of saying simply will we say will to live. Nietzsche read this sentence aloud several times, and then closed and put aside the book. He sat on the bed and stared at the wall. He must have been remembering two opposite pages of his experience that stood for the two poles of his youth: his education of a philologist and his enthusiasm for Schopenhauer. Now these two poles melted together in some kind of metaphysical disappointment. Perhaps it seemed to him that his whole life was just a pleonasm. Because what is the will for power other than the most ordinary will to live or simply just will, the blind will of Schopenhauer. He had dedicated his life to a phantom. And perhaps he remembered his pure youthful love for Schopenhauer, a love he had betrayed so nastily so many times in last year’s writings, like a divorced husband slandering the former wife whom he still loves above all. He was disgusted by this yearning for his youth, just as he was disgusted by all vulgar commonplaces, but he was also yearning for sincerity, for a source, for health, strength, vigor, enthusiasm. Outside it was getting darker, as it was in his soul. Nietzsche probably sat in the dark till after midnight.




Opening his eyes this morning, Nietzsche did not know if he had awakened. In fact, he was not sure if he slept at all last night. He had spent the whole night in some giddy delirium, a surrogate of sleep. It was overcast outside. The first clouds of the new year were floating above Turin. Immediately after opening his eyes, which could be called awakening only by inertia, Nietzsche got dressed and went out. He had not left the house for a full two days. He went out into the fresh air driven perhaps by  some ancient instinct, some almost archetypical hope that relief would come from fresh air in open spaces. It was still early and the streets were deserted. The first sign of life he saw was a carriage on the corner. He heard a whistle, but not a whistle made by the wind. As Friedrich approached the corner with the carriage, the whistle became mixed with the sound of his footsteps and the coachman’s cruel cursing. The incisive scream of a whip nearly covered the horse’s painful groan. At the street corner, the laughing coachman was beating the horse with a thick leather whip, beating it cruelly, bloodily, and for no reason. With his eyes frothing, the coachman watched a neat and refined gentleman approach him. He began hitting the horse even harder, more briskly and more frequently. The thick bristly mustache of the slowly approaching gentleman was visibly trembling. The coachman thought that Nietzsche was laughing approvingly. But in fact Nietzsche was looking into the horse’s sad eyes, into the animal’s terribly sad eyes. His already slow steps became shaky and insecure as a drunkard’s. With his last remaining strength he came up to the horse and embraced it firmly, running his hands through its mane like a man playing with the hair of his beloved. His shoulders were heaving in an almost fatal spasm. The whip in coachman’s hand froze and became mute. Perhaps for a moment the coachman thought that he was dreaming. The gentlemanly pedestrian embraced the horse and shed tears. For the first time since his childhood Friedrich Nietzsche was crying.



Muharem Bazdulj, The Second Book, Northwestern University Press, 2005. Originally published in Bosnian in 2000 under the title Druga knjiga. Translated from the Bosnian by Oleg Andrić and Andrew Wachtel.



aesthetics, suffering & foucault’s “the care of the self”: new ways of understating the individual

Cover Image

In The Gay Science Nietzsche observes that:      
every art, every philosophy may be viewed as a remedy and an aid in the service of growing and struggling life; they always presuppose suffering and sufferers. But there are two kinds of sufferers: first, those who suffer from the over-fullness of life—they want a Dionysian art and likewise a tragic view of life, a tragic insight—and then those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and knowledge, or intoxication, convulsions, anaesthesia, and madness.              
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), p 328.
All of which leads me to these preliminary thoughts: in much of Michel Foucault’s work the concepts of the individual self, of personal identity, of the atomistic subject, are considered to be little more than the residue of a rejected and decaying metaphysics. Yet when Foucault came to explore what he termed the care of the self, his attitude toward the individual seems somehow different to me: it is as if he is surreptitiously positing a new form of the individual, one markedly different than the traditional concept, with its basic suppositions of personal unity and continuity. It is this older notion of individual personhood that Foucault sought to supplant with his new ideas on the self and action. He sums up this conflict between differing notions of the self as follows:
The theory of the subject (in the double sense of the word) is at the heart of humanism and this is why our culture has tenaciously rejected anything that could weaken its hold upon us. But it can be attacked in two ways: either by a "desubjectification" of the will to power (that is, through political struggle in the context of class warfare) or by the destruction of the subject as a pseudo-sovereign (that is, through an attack on "culture": the suppression of taboos and the limitations and divisions imposed upon the sexes; the setting up of communes; the loosening of inhibitions with regard to drugs; the breaking of all the prohibitions that form and guide the development of a normal individual). I am referring to all those experiences which have been rejected by our civilization or which it accepts only within literature.
— Michel Foucault, "Revolutionary Action: ‘Until Now,’" Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), p 222.