Nietzsche on history and happiness (and flat ontology)

by CarlD

[A man] cannot help envying [animals] their happiness — what they have, a life neither bored nor painful, is precisely what he wants, yet cannot have because he refuses to be like an animal. A human being may well ask an animal: ‘Why do you not speak to me of your happiness but only stand and gaze at me?’ The animal would like to answer: ‘The reason is I always forget what I was going to say’ — but then he forgot this answer too, and stayed silent: so that the human being was left wondering.

In the case of the smallest or of the greatest happiness it is always the same thing that makes happiness happiness: the ability to forget or, expressed in more scholarly fashion, the capacity to feel unhistorically during its duration…. He who cannot sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past… without growing dizzy or afraid will never know what happiness is — worse he will never do anything to make others happy…. Imagine a man who did not possess the power of forgetting at all and who was thus condemned to see everywhere a state of becoming: such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this stream of becoming… he would in the end hardly dare to raise a finger.

Yup. From Untimely Meditations, courtesy of Rachel. For more on happiness see Bob Ritzema’s excellent blog devoted to the subject, Life Assays.

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17 Comments to “Nietzsche on history and happiness (and flat ontology)”

  1. Sweet quote. It gets worse than Nietzsche intimated, even – ask trauma survivors what’s it’s like not to be able to escape the eternal recollection of the past.

  2. I would suggest that Nietzsche aptly describes our contemporary Western mindset. Paralyzed by the knowledge that its been tried before and that everything is still on the way to being… something.

  3. Nietzsche gives me a stiff pain in the nether regions. And not the good kind.

    And not just because every college student who reads him secretly believes him (or her) self to be an Ubermensch, not least because the alternative is so unpleasant.

  4. This quote comes at an eerily appropriate moment in my life.

  5. such a man would no longer believe in his own being, would no longer believe in himself, would see everything flowing asunder in moving points and would lose himself in this stream of becoming… he would in the end hardly dare to raise a finger.

    Or, he might have achieved satori and become a master of Zen, a Daoist sage, or achieved total mastery of a martial art. Nietzsche may have been afraid to go with the flow. That doesn’t mean everyone is.

  6. Or, like Carl Spackler, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.

    So you got that goin’ for you, which is nice.

    But only if you caddy for the Dalai Lama.

    Yeah, I, too, was thinking that Friedrich could have read some buddhism.

  7. I will never forget my one true moment of Zen. I was a freshman at Michigan State, taking judo to satisfy a phys ed requirement. I was paired with a green belt considerably larger than I was (I was still a lowly white). So I grabbed hold, relaxed, and waited for the inevitable. The next thing I knew he was flying over my shoulder.

    No, it didn’t happen a second time….But the once is a great memory.

  8. Narya, you’re right – vulgar nietzscheanism is just as irritating and pernicious as vulgar marxism. Whether Karl and Friedrich should be blamed for that is a different question.

    As to Zen, I don’t think you’re disagreeing with Nietzsche. He had read his Schopenhauer, who (as much as any 19th century European) had read his Buddhism. When N. says “He who cannot sink down on the threshold of the moment and forget all the past… without growing dizzy or afraid will never know what happiness is” he is describing the Zen enlightenment, and John’s judo moment. Perhaps you’ve mistaken his reflection on what happens if we go in the opposite direction and fetishize history for his prescription? Imagine a man who did not possess the power of forgetting, he says. As Drew notes, he was diagnosing a culture.

  9. Hey John, how do you like the Spartans’ chances against the Badgers tonight?

  10. Carl, your Nietzsche quote reminds me of the movie Groundhog Day. It’s an eternal return in which the past is forgotten by all but one man. That nothing ever changes is one thing, but knowing that it never changes is enough to make even this narcissist suicidal. After some unspecified number of iterations the memoried man finally realizes that he can change the course of fate through self-improvement, the small incremental steps eventually reaching a tipping point where he not only gets the girl but becomes a better human being. I loved that movie when I saw it the first time; now I’m ready to have it return tonight on the DVD player. I wonder if it will turn out the same way.

  11. So, really, the Carl Spackler quote up there is doubly referential. Or something.

    A friend and I did our yearly Groundhog Day viewing on Sunday, though we may repeat tonight.

    Carl, I haven’t read Fred in years, but my annoyance was persistent when I did read him.

  12. Well for one thing, I don’t suppose you enjoyed his flaming misogyny. But Beauvoir didn’t like women for exactly the same reasons (weak, dependent, sneaky, manipulative), and we call her the mother of modern feminism.

    Loved the Spackler reference. You know, I never saw that movie until a couple years ago (people kept telling me that I had to, my herd mentality circuit snaps shut), and I still haven’t seen Groundhog Day, or E.T., or Titanic, or Rocky Horror Picture Show.

  13. Absolutely love Groundhog Day; it’s very Buddhist (though apparently many religions claim it). And fun. Possibly my second-favorite Bill Murray movie; Caddyshack kinda falls apart in places, though.

    ET, meh, some of it is entertaining, but I have no need to ever see it again.

    RHPS is quite fun, not least because of Susan Sarandon (!), but not something you Really Must See.

    I haven’t seen Titanic, either; I know the plot (big ship; hits iceberg; people drown) and the moral (poor people are, well, poor, but they’re more LIVELY! and shit, because rich people are . . . something; did i mention the iceberg and the drowning?).

  14. And I haven’t read all that much Beauvoir, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she at least recognized the behaviors as a survival strategy in a patriarchal culture rather than as some kind of innate, genetically/genitally determined feature. But I may be wrong about that.

  15. Like Nietzsche (arguably; the label is anachronistic) Beauvoir was an existentialist: existence precedes essence. The money quote is “One is not born, but becomes a woman.” So being a woman sucks not just because things suck for women, but because woman is a sucky thing to be. Therefore, for example, “On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself — on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life . . .” Survival strategy? Sure. But not an appealing one, and not to be celebrated.

    I find Nietzsche’s misogyny hard to take. He says all sorts of insulting things about women, with snark and gusto as usual. But the Beauvoir lens helps a lot. He said the same sorts of insulting things about Christians – slave moralists – the point is that the constructs are defined by weakness and resentment, not that all female humans are biologically doomed to inferiority. N & B both prefigure a critique of the second wave and of identity politics, which on their view are based on embracing the spoiled identity rather than transcending it.

  16. Thank you for that–and I’d add that, in a patriarchy, men are no more able to “love,” or for that love to be a source of strength, than are women, so I disagree with B on that one. And one “becomes” a man, as well, despite “man” being default for “human” in a patriarchy. Of course benefits and privilege accrue to men simply by virtue of maleness, so the “becoming” processes differ, perhaps.

    Eventually, it becomes useful to question what the point of gender really is, other than supporting patriarchy (and I’ve never been able to come up with one).

  17. The point of gender is pretty straightforward — the defense of property. No, that’s not quite right, the defense and perpetuation thereof. The most rigid forms of patriarchy and the gender categories they embody are all associated with traditional forms of agriculture or pastoralism and the endemic warfare associated with them. Under these conditions both family and tribal/national survival depend on (1) reproduction of the population and (2) defense of the family and tribe/nation’s property. Women are essential for (1) and, so long as enough survive to father the next generation, men are expendable for (2). With the possibility of violence inherent in all relationships, the males who do the fighting have the upper hand and tend to regard the women and children as part of the property they are duty bound to defend. Even in ur-democracies like the ancient Greek polis, the franchise is restricted to fighting men, who are, politically and legally speaking, the only full adults.

    It is an interesting bit of history that the political battles that won women the right to vote and a separate-but-equal instead of clearly subordinate domestic role in modern democracies coincided with wars fought by large conscript armies on behalf of modern nation states. The men went off to war and the women were left in control of households in which they had been subordinate when the household was the primary unit of production as well as consumption, a pattern continued after WWII, when the men went off each day to work in the offices and factories of industrial armies whose operations were spatially as well as functionally distinct from their homes, where their wives were left in control. From this perspective, the feminist movement of the second half of the 20th century owes a lot to the rise of consumerism, the role of housewives as the primary controllers of household consumption, and the increasing employment of women required to support economic growth in consumer instead of producer-driven markets. As individuals who now earn and spend their own money, account for the majority of voters, and a growing proportion of the armed services as well, women have at last come close to achieving the full equality that growing numbers of men also believe they should have.

    Should you wish to envision a future in which this trend continues to its logical conclusion, pick up the DVDs and watch Battlestar Galactica .

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