Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nietzsche or Jesus?

I've been in a discussion of sorts with a friend about the ideas of Nietzsche, which I see as regrettably postmodern, the cause of great misery last century. This friend loaned me a book by Gilles Deleuze (Deleuze? isn't that an energy drink?) containing an essay which attempts to explain Nietzsche to the lay reader. My reaction to the essay follows.

There are two layers to Deleuze's essay, what he says, and what he's really saying.

What Deleuze is really saying is that Nietzschean philosophy is a room in a broken house. The room has large fissures in it. Deleuze, the landlord, is trying to plaster over those fissures.

To do so he has to try, in typical postmodern fashion, to redefine terms. In postmodern land, words never mean what they seem to mean, but something else. "The strong," "the weak," "master," "slave"-- the words when used by Nietzsche don't mean what you think. In some cases they might mean the opposite. It's a convolution necessary to explain Nietzsche to the wary reader. "Will to power," then, doesn't mean "will to power." Or it does, but not exactly. Any relation of "Triumph of the Will" to "will to power" is accidental. A misinterpretation.

What Deleuze is saying is that Nietzsche's ideas, at best, are subject to a lot of misinterpretation.

Nietzsche was famously hostile to God and Christianity. It seems to me that he (or Deleuze) gets the concept wrong when he calls Christianity a religion of death. Talk about misinterpretation! What made Christianity remarkable was that it burst on the scene as a religion of life. It's two biggest holidays celebrate birth, and rebirth. Easter was the starting point of, and reason for, Christianity. Resurrection was the crux of its appeal.

The idea of resurrection went back far into ancient times. The fact of resurrection is fundamental to nature.

The pagan religions which Christianity displaced were more like cultures of death. There was little value placed on human life. Murder, infanticide, war, blood in the arena-- trivial things to the Roman Empire, whose prevailing ethos, in practice, was power, raw power, the unceasing glorification and promotion of power.

The crucifixion of a revolutionary named Jesus was a simple demonstration of that imperial power.

It's been said that the quick face-to-face encounter between Pontius Pilate and Jesus was a cosmic event. Representative of Caesar, personification of the mightiest and most ruthless empire known, meets insignificant peasant. "What is truth?" Pilate asks, as a true postmodernist for whom truth is relative and conditional. Truth to him is a manifestation of power.

Can we say that Pilate was "the strong" and Jesus "the weak"? I don't know. It might be a reach. (Have more energy drink.)

The encounter was cosmic because Jesus-- if only historically- transcended the bounds of time and space. The ultimate yin-yang; flipping strength and weakness. The unknown's tiny and powerless movement of the poor, the sick, the weak, would overturn Rome itself. An unbelievable happening. Inexplicable to this day.

Some of Nietzsche's ideas, like the "Last Pope," seem borrowed from, or influenced by, Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.

Remember the debate between the two brothers? Just as Jesus "loses" to Pontius Pilate, Alyosha Karamazov doesn't prevail in the intellectual discussion against the pitiless atheistic logic of Ivan's tale. The Inquisitor represents power. Alyosha is a representative of Christ. He's not meant to win. He represents something other than intellect. His argument is on another level, from another realm. It's not even an argument. He just is. He represents humanity and what's best in humanity.

It's the genius of Dostoevsky that he not only presents the opposing side to his theme, but makes it overpowering.

One who enjoys the harsh poetry of Nietzsche shouldn't read Dostoevsky. There's no room in Nietzsche for pity and charity. Pity runs throughout The Brothers Karamazov, the author crying out on every other page for the powerless, the weak.

When I think about pity, about the strong and the weak, I think of another literary work, one that rivals Karamazov in emotional power and transcendent meaning, Shakespeare's King Lear.

Recall the plot: A clash of generational viewpoints. Lear is opposed by two of his daughters and their strong-willed husbands, who parallel in too-many ways the conscienceless postmodern yuppies of today. Disciplined, monied, ambitious-- outraged by Lear's drunken irresponsible merrymaking.

One of the son-in-laws-- Cornwall, the embodiment of casual evil-- fearing that an old friend of Lear's, Gloucester, has been in contact with the exiled king, gouges the man's eyes out. A truly horrific moment. One cannot but have pity while experiencing this scene. Do you recall what happens? One of Cornwall's nameless men, a servant, a nobody, in outrage and pity, stands up to the important nobleman and attempts to stop what he's doing. He's run through by Cornwall, but mortally wounds Cornwall in return. Most important is that he stands up, for the weak, for humanity, for the good, against pure conscienceless power. It's a great moment, because it's unexpected. It reveals selfless hope in a world of egoistic hopelessness. It shows that conscience-- pity, charity, goodness-- is never dead, even when the universe appears most brutal, most inhuman. It's a Christian moment. I don't believe Nietzsche would like it.

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