Nietzsche and Me
I first read that God was dead in a tunnel on my way to class at the small mid-western liberal arts university I attended my freshman year. I had arrived there from the Houston suburbs just a few weeks before, terribly unsure of myself, and was rooming with a girl from Long Island, who was not, which only intensified my own self-consciousness. Just before classes began, the school had rented a replica steamboat for the freshmen and had bussed us over to the Mississippi River for an evening cruise. I was wearing, as I recall, a lime green pant and blouse coordinate set, but quickly realized that peasant shirts and Birkenstocks—a seemingly careless earthiness—was rather the look to cultivate. My roommate and I had gone together, not knowing anyone else, but she must have seen right away that to hang out with me would be a sure form of social death and she hurriedly got herself ensconced in the group of shiny, happy people gesturing confidently with drinks in their hands.
Weeks later, walking to class one autumn day, the air seemed tinged with a sort of clarity, and the scarlet trees illuminated by an inner light. As I reached the tunnel’s concrete wall, scrawled in black spray paint I read, “God is dead. –Nietzsche.” And next to that, in red: “Nietzsche is dead. –God.”
Here is a picture of me at my First Communion: standing next to Father, my mom and dad beside me, Jesus on the cross behind us, beatific. I am trying to believe that the papery wafer I’ve just eaten is the body of Christ. That the bitter wine I have tasted is his blood. I am trying to say a little prayer that He will fill me with His goodness and take away all my bad thoughts. Like the one that wonders how Mary could have had Jesus, without her and Joseph doing the thing in the picture book that Beth Allen, the older girl who lived next door, had shown me grown-ups do to make babies. Like the one that doubts how much fun heaven can really be—the faces of my family peeking out from little round holes in the clouds for all eternity. Like the one that suspects, when I say these prayers, no one is listening back.
In junior high and high school, my two best friends were Abby and Cherry, Christian Scientist and Southern Baptist, respectively. We were friends partly since we played volleyball together and since none of us drank—Abby and Cherry because of religious prohibitions, I out of a determination to do exactly the opposite of whatever it was the East Texas football players and the cheerleaders with winged hair and Jordache jeans were doing. So the bonfires out at construction sites and the parties in faux Tudor homes at the ends of cul-de-sacs were out of the question. It became our habit instead to drive to the man-made lake near the high school and sit in Abby’s wood-paneled station wagon and talk for hours on Saturday nights. We got into the routine of asking each other questions, one person at a time, the other two answering, while the muggy Houston air enveloped us like wet, raw cotton. Once, that summer before we all left for college—Abby to the East Coast, me to the Midwest, Cherry to Texas A & M—I asked, as the moon rose over the lake and the skinny, swaying pines and the water, “Do you think it’s okay to have sex before you get married?”—a question which now seems quaint in its naiveté. This was before the current fashion among evangelicals and fundamentalists for abstinence-only programs with biblical underpinnings like “True Love Waits,” but even then, Cherry and Abby didn’t hesitate. “The bible says that you’re only supposed to have sex if you’re married.” “Even if you really love the person?” I asked. But of course just by asking the question, I had already moved beyond their certainty into a state of doubt.
And then I read that God was dead in the tunnel on my way to class. I had enrolled in a series of Western Civilization courses—one of those Great Books programs in which we read “The Classics”: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Kierkegaard, Rousseau, Voltaire. We got to Nietzsche in the early spring, a muddy snow still on the ground, the trees’ bare branches clicking together in the cold air. It seems to me now that the experience of reading Nietzsche then was a little like falling in love—this recognition of something within me already that I was only waiting (though I hadn’t even known I was waiting) for someone to articulate. In this case, that something was doubt. And so reading Nietzsche felt more, as love always does, like a return than a discovery.
We were reading The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche’s polemic against Christianity and Christian morals which he wrote in 1888, just before he went mad. In it he argues that Christian morality has its roots in the denial of reality, that it has led us away from this life. So much of our earthly existence involves suffering, he claims. And Nietzsche knew this intimately. Because of ill health and almost intolerable headaches, he resigned his professorship in classical philology at the University of Basel. He was only thirty-five. He spent the next ten years seeking relief in various places—the Swiss village of Sils Maria, the Italian city of Turin—before his eventual descent into madness and his death at age fifty-six in an insane asylum.
All of which makes Nietzsche’s argument against servile faith in a realm beyond this world all the more courageous. “Sufferers,” he says, speaking of the adherents to Christianity, “have to be sustained by a hope which cannot be refuted by any actuality—which is not done away with by any fulfillment: a hope in the Beyond.” Christians cling to this hope, Nietzsche claims, this expectation that in the Kingdom of God, their suffering will finally find relief. The Beyond thus drains value from this world. It makes us lazy. We grow fat on grace. And what happens, Nietzsche claims, when we do this, when “one shifts the centre of gravity of life out of life into the ‘Beyond’—into nothingness—”? “[O]ne has deprived life as such of its centre of gravity. The great lie of personal immortality destroys all rationality, all naturalness of instinct—all that is salutary, all that is life-furthering, all that holds a guarantee of the future in the instincts henceforth excites mistrust. So to live that there is no longer any meaning in living: that now becomes the ‘meaning’ of life . . . .”
It’s a rational argument and it made sense to me then. And it still does. Belief in a world beyond this solid earth, muddy with snow, a life after this one in which all suffering would end and we’d peer out from our round holes in the clouds: this would justify what we’ve suffered, give a reason for our suffering. Otherwise, earthly existence could be almost unbearably bleak.
But we’d have to work so hard to get to that Beyond. “Oh, Lord,” I’d prayed when I was young, “fill me with Your goodness.” Which really only meant, it seemed to me, reading Nietzsche, keep me from acting on my instinctual urges. “[M]an is, relatively speaking, the most unsuccessful animal, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts,” Nietzsche says in The Anti-Christ. And I was wondering: how instinctual, after all, were any of those commandments and prohibitions I’d memorized and accepted without questioning?
“This book belongs to the very few,” I read in Nietzsche’s Foreword to The Anti-Christ. He continues:
One must be honest in intellectual matters to the point of harshness to so much as endure my seriousness, my passion. One must be accustomed to living on mountains—to seeing the wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egoism beneath one. One must have become indifferent, one must never ask whether truth is useful or a fatality. . . . Strength which prefers questions for which no one today is sufficiently daring; courage for the forbidden; predestination for the labyrinth. An experience out of seven solitudes. New ears for new music. New eyes for the most distant things. A new conscience for truths which have hitherto remained dumb.
I read that my freshman year in college, lonesome and unsure of my place in the wider world, and hoped he was speaking to me.
With my newfound rationale for a critique of Christian morals, I thought to myself what a free thinker I’d become. I took to making what I thought of as shocking statements about Christianity’s repression of natural instincts to guys I went out with. I drank beer. I slept with a boy I wasn’t sure I loved. Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists have good reason to condemn Nietzsche, I suppose. He carried me over to the Dark Side.
But the more immediate, though perhaps less conscious result of reading Nietzsche my freshman year in college was a sort of sinking and spreading terror that set in, like an oil slick on the bright surface of water. My thoughts got stuck in it.
I wanted someone to answer for all that I had been told was true for so long and that now seemed to be falling away from me. So I wrote the parish priest, Father Connelly. I told him how afraid I was of death, how I feared there was nothing else beyond this life, how that made me wonder what the point of being good was. I still have his response on parish letterhead, written in his firm hand. “Death—” he begins. “We are all afraid of it. But the Christian believes that Jesus by his death and resurrection has overcome it and that for those who identify with him they too will rise from the dead.” He goes on, “It is important to be good for by being good we identify with Jesus and will then rise with him on the last day.” It was pretty standard fare, and pretty disappointing. It somehow didn’t reach what I was grappling with, because it still accepted as fact the Christian premise. Reading his response, I suppose I had somehow hoped he would admit that, secretly, he didn’t really believe in the old myth of the virgin birth, all those miracles, the risen Christ healed of his wounds. And then I had to finally admit to myself that it was I who no longer believed.
It’s been many years now since I read that Nietzsche said God was dead on the tunnel wall. I am the wife of a man I love and the mother of three daughters who fill my days with their small worries and revelations. I long ago gave up God. My children filled his place. And they tie me to the earth, to the earthly, which I should think would please Nietzsche.
Reading a writer who once moved you after many years, the effect is a little like that of peering through a kaleidoscope and then twisting and looking once more. The same brilliant colors are there, but a new pattern reveals itself. Which is to say that I’ve been reading Nietzsche again and thinking about instinct from the other side of the divide of my life—that is, as a parent, rather than as a child.
When my girls were babies, I began reading Charles Darwin and Alfred Lord Wallace and became enthralled with the process of evolution and its driving force, natural selection. Perhaps what brought me to these naturalists was my aching need to see as ordered a universe in which God had died and left us here to fend for ourselves. Viewed through the lens of evolutionary biology, the world made sense again. From the smallest ant masticating food for the larval brood, to me changing diapers, giving baths, swaddling my babies against the cold, we were, all of us, doing nothing more than trying to survive and get our genes into the next generation. The actions of all living things, even my love for my daughters, could, it seemed to me, be reduced to this: mere instinct, a drive, an urge.
Not a very cheerful view for a mother of three young girls to have, I’ll admit, and not one I was inclined to share with other mothers pushing their babies in swings at the park. And maybe I only half believed it anyway. At any rate, reading Nietzsche again recently, I was initially reminded so much of Darwin. For starters, the title of the book—the point of the book itself—was Beyond Good and Evil. And after all, one logical conclusion to be drawn from the Darwinian system is that no right or wrong exists in the natural world and in the evolution of it. The instinct to perpetuate ourselves pulses through all living creatures, from fire ants to fairy wrens to shiner perch to spotted hyenas to us. And this instinct sounded, at first, at least, an awful lot like Nietzsche’s will to power.
“Suppose, finally, we succeeded in explaining our entire instinctive life,” Nietzsche says, “as the development and ramification of one basic form of the will—namely, of the will to power, as my proposition has it; suppose all organic functions could be traced back to this will to power and one could also find in it the solution of the problem of procreation and nourishment—it is one problem—then one would have gained the right to determine all efficient force univocally as—will to power.” Initially, I even thought “natural selection” and “will to power” might be nearly interchangeable terms. But in fact, Nietzsche is after something quite different. For Nietzsche, there is no ultimate goal of self-preservation, of passing on of genes. Drives move through us, impel us. But our bodies aren’t arcing towards a defined end. “A living thing,” Nietzsche says, “seeks above all to discharge its strength—life itself is a will to power; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.”
“A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength” . . . There was something else, some larger distinction between Nietzsche and Darwin. Darwin’s concept of evolution, after all, is ultimately passive—a record of accidental change traced onto all living things. But for Nietzsche, living things seek, and in seeking, in discharging that primal energy, there is active creation, even if, at times, it creates by destroying. And so here was something I could live with, some resolution of the chaos of the universe and its order. Reading Darwin, I had begun to see the actions of all creatures, myself included, as part of this grand evolutionary scheme, all of us working toward a shared goal: procreation, the passing on of ourselves. But, though I accepted the incontrovertible science of this view, I had a harder time, as I said, believing that was all there was to it. My love for my children only, in the end, an instinct? Could that really be? Reading Nietzsche again, it seemed possible to think that what had formerly seemed sheer instinctual urge to convey my genetic code to my offspring, might actually be some outward manifestation of an inner creative questing. And so Nietzsche, preaching the will to power, offered redemption to me again.
But then, quite unexpectedly, I found myself on the other edge of Nietzsche’s wrath. He says:
The highest and strongest drives, when they break out passionately and drive the individual far above the average and the flats of the herd conscience, wreck the self-confidence of the community, its faith in itself, and it is as if its spine snapped. Hence just these drives are branded and slandered most. High and independent spirituality, the will to stand alone, even a powerful reason are experienced as dangers; everything that elevates an individual above the herd and intimidates the neighbor is henceforth called evil; and the fair, modest, submissive, conforming mentality, the mediocrity of desires attains moral designations and honors.
I read this and all I could think about were the times I had scolded the girls for defying me, for their selfishness, for their small cruelties. I thought how independence is perfectly fine until your kindergartner wants desperately to convert her room into a menagerie for small amphibians and reptiles despite your insistence that these creatures would be much happier, really, Sweetie, in their natural habitats; until your second grader refuses all food but peanut butter sandwiches despite your persistent forays into gourmet cooking; until your sixth grader begins cultivating a mildly Gothic look despite your preference for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s sunbonnet and pinafore and cheerful disposition. Had I become the anti-Anti-Christ? The shepherd, leading her flock, wanting everyone to stay in the fold? It’s much easier herding sheep, after all, than a bunch of preening, free-thinking cats.
“Involuntarily, parents turn children into something similar to themselves—” I read; “they call it ‘education.’ Deep in her heart, no mother doubts that the child she has borne is her property; no father contests his own right to subject it to his concepts and valuations. . . . And like the father, teachers, classes, priests, and princes still see, even today, in every new human being an unproblematic opportunity for another possession.” I began to panic a bit. Because what Nietzsche says is not untrue. Every time I called for Sabine to stop doing cartwheels in the grass and come in for dinner, every time I forced Mary Martha to sit at the piano and practice rather than let her flit around the house in pink tutu and ballet shoes, every time I demanded Ellie remove the black eyeliner she had recently begun applying to the rims of her pretty eyes, I was, I suppose, treating them like my property—prized possessions, perhaps, but property nonetheless. And further, I sent them off each day into a world that asked them to stand in a straight line, to not interrupt, to think in standardized ways so they might pass their standardized tests. I was forcing them into the herd morality.
I don’t know at what point I began to chafe irremediably against Nietzsche exactly, though I suspect it was in reading that long diatribe against women in Beyond Good and Evil. Toward the end of the chapter entitled, ironically, “Our Virtues,” he veers off into his own darkness, careening, lost. “Woman has much reason for shame,” he begins, “so much pedantry, superficiality, schoolmarmishness, petty presumption, petty licentiousness and immodesty lies concealed in woman—one only needs to study her behavior with children!” And that is, as I said, just the beginning. I suddenly felt caught short. How could something this vile come from someone I had so admired? Someone whose thinking I’d made my own? Years ago, Nietzsche had articulated for me what I only dumbly sensed. I had found what felt like a truth through him and now he was asking me, “What is truth to woman? From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth . . . her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty.” I took it as a personal affront.
Something had been bothering me, anyway, reading Nietzsche this time around—something angry and lunatic and solitary and sad beneath his brilliance that I hadn’t wanted to admit to. “Every choice human being strives instinctively for a citadel and a secrecy where he is saved from the crowd, the many, the great majority,” he says in Beyond Good and Evil. “Anyone who, in intercourse with men, does not occasionally glisten in all the colors of distress upon himself voluntarily, that he persistently avoids it, and remains, as I said, quietly and proudly hidden in his citadel, one thing is certain: he was not made, he was not predestined, for knowledge.” I was reading that passage one night, sitting in a big blue armchair near the window, listening to the sleepy hum of my children’s voices. They were bathed and ready for bed and my husband was helping them brush their teeth. When they were finished, they came out and curved in beside me and on my lap. Sabine showed me the empty space in her mouth where her tooth used to be. Ellie reminded me that she had Karate the next day. Mary Martha sucked her thumb and held her blankie next to her cheek. And I thought how lonely a citadel can be and how much more I understand because I have my daughters and my husband to pull me out of that tower. “Earth’s the right place for love,” Robert Frost says.
Though Nietzsche might not disagree with Frost, I don’t think he ever properly accounts for our instinct for intimacy, perhaps especially (though not exclusively) as it occurs in parents towards their children. He says, “There is no other way: the feelings of devotion, self-sacrifice for one’s neighbor, the whole morality of self-denial must be questioned mercilessly and taken to court . . . . There is too much charm and sugar in these feelings of ‘for others,’ ‘not for myself,’ for us not to need to become doubly suspicious at this point and to ask: ‘are these not perhaps—seductions?’”
Nietzsche wants to argue that the will to power is what drives us always—never altruism. And that what may look like altruism on the surface is merely selfishness disguised. It pleases us, he says, to do good, to have good done to us, to watch good being done. We feel self-satisfied. But Nietzsche, unmarried, childless, alone is those bare rooms, never held a newborn child in his arms, never examined every vein, so near the surface, never wondered at the fingers, impossibly small but perfect in form, their nails fragile as the eggshell of a finch. These features and a thousand gestures accrued over the formation of a life, a living thing once connected to you, once part of you, once you—adhere a child to the parents. Devotion and self-sacrifice grow out of this bond. Though, admittedly, there’s nothing charming or sugary about it. There is, rather, as Darwin would have recognized, a ferociousness in the parental love that moves through and drives us—a biological imperative to protect and nurture as strong and as endlessly creative as any will to power.
One clear day a few summers ago, we took our daughters to Galveston, to the beach there, away from the oppressive humidity of the city. For awhile, they played in the water, chasing after the waves rolling in. Later, after eating gritty peanut butter sandwiches and throwing the crusts to the gulls hovering overhead, the girls began to bury me, their dimpled hands patting the sand onto my outstretched legs. They squealed with pleasure at their own sadism. I looked at their faces, pink with sun, their round bellies, a little flatter and a little thinner than the summer before, and I thought how everything is a wearing away towards which we drift, cursed. Stone and shell eroding to sand. My daughters’ bodies settling into clearer conclusions. And me, too, lying there, buried. We were, all of us, rushing toward our own inexorable ends.
Whether love be biological imperative disguised—mere instinct, that is; or whether it be sacred, some manifestation of the divine; or whether it be something in between: in love we are opened. Opened to pleasure, of course, which breaks before us, a vista we walk willingly into. But in love we are also opened up, beneath some invisible scalpel, to the possibility of suffering. Which is to say that we become vulnerable.
Vulnerable comes from the Latin verb, vuln, “to wound.” And for me, anyway, the pleasure of parenting has always been inextricably tied to the pain. The wounding lies in being constant witness to these small creatures growing, and in knowing how their growing means that, eventually, they must leave. And what you are witnessing as well is, of course, your own dissolution.
“If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in,” says Nietzsche: “only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory.” Sometimes my husband and I pretend to press down on the girls’ heads, wrap our bodies around their small selves, tell them we won’t let them grow. We want them to stay little forever. But I suppose if we want to hold on to them, and to the memory of them smiling as they bury us in sand that was once stone, we should instead open ourselves to the hurt, that blazing conflagration. Let it burn itself into us, a disfiguring wound.