A few months ago, an ex-student of mine sent me the image–courtesy bros.failblog.org–above. It made him chuckle out loud; he was in a library when he came across it and decided to send it to me because he thought I would have a similar reaction. (This was shortly after I had announced that I would be teaching a Nietzsche seminar in the spring semester.) Well, it made me chuckle and chortle a bit. I sent it on to a couple of friends–yup, they chuckled too–, and went so far as to make it my GMail profile image.
But what is so funny here? The juvenile rhyming, the placement of the sunglasses on Nietzsche’s otherwise solemn visage, the color coding in black and white that evokes Tarantino-cool? Well, of course. And they work because in turning Nietzsche into a Reservoir Dog, the image reinforces a well-established not-so-academic impression of Nietzsche that supposedly appeals to angsty undergraduates and teenagers everywhere: the ass-kicking, taking-no-prisoners polemicist, slashing and burning his way through the thickets of orthodoxy. (This is the Nietzsche imagined walking into a Wild West saloon, and suggesting, not so gently, that everyone put down their rotgut whisky and pay attention to the Zarathustrian gunslinger now in town.) It might also be the Nietzsche that tries to emerge from Ecce Homo, letting everyone know what time it is, and why indeed, the clocks have been commanded to do so by him.
Let’s not forget too, that if you wanted to dig a bit deeper, you could associate ‘sunglasses’ with ‘style,’ and well, when you think of Nietzsche, don’t you remember all those times he went on–and on–about ‘style’?
From The Gay Science, Book IV, Section 290:
Giving style” to one’s character – a great and rare art! It is exercised by those who see all the strengths and weaknesses of their own natures and then comprehend them in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason and even weakness delights the eye.
Or, from Twilight of the Idols, “Reconnaissance Raids of an Untimely Man”, Section 11:
The highest feeling of power and sureness finds expression in a grand style. The power which no longer needs any proof, which spurns pleasing, which does not answer lightly, which feels no witness near, which lives oblivious of all opposition to it, which reposes within itself, fatalistically, a law among laws — that speaks of itself as a grand style.
Finally, it might also be that we associate Nietzsche with laughter, for he often makes us laugh out loud when we read him. Sometimes the laughter is provoked by his wordplay, his puns; sometimes it is evoked by the pleasure he provides us as he goes after those that deserve his scorn, far more skillfully than we can imagine ourselves ever being able to. Nietzsche knows he can be a joker and a jester; in dressing him up as he has been above, we are reminded of that aspect of his persona. There was plenty of grimness in Nietzsche’s life, but his writing, at least, often tried its best to keep that at bay.
9 thoughts on “Nietzsche as Reservoir Dog With ‘Style’”
Samir, I’m curious how you feel about the nastiness in Nietzsche. The viciousness. The racialism. The (IMHO) antisemitism.
About the only thing I find of worth in Nietzsche is the anticipation of the depth-psychological conception of the unconscious and the twisted logic of self-deception. With respect to most of the rest, there are other philosophers who did it better…and without the nastiness.
I find enough of philosophical value in Nietzsche (including the anticipation of Freud you mention) to be able to handle his various rhetorical excesses. I don’t think he is anti-semitic – I think there are plenty of lines that are philo-semitic to counteract the primary exhibits for the contrary case! Most generally, I don’t look to him for political philosophy – he is far more insightful in other respects. Perhaps I’m being selective, but I do that with almost anyone I read.
My response is clearly inadequate; perhaps I can do better in a longer post. Hopefully, very soon.
Nietzsche was very critical of German nationalism and anti-Semitism, which was exceedingly bold , considering he was living in 19th century Germany (!). The charges of anti-Semitism might be related to the fact that his sister collaborated closely with the Nazis, and gave them his manuscripts. That reflects on his sister, not the philosopher himself.
What, exactly, did other philosophers do better? That is a rather pat conclusion. Nietzsche’s relevance remains astonishing to me; I can’t imagine Foucault would have happened otherwise.
Samir Chopra wrote:
“Perhaps I’m being selective, but I do that with almost anyone I read.”
I don’t know…is this really true? Or does it hide the truth? Are there not people whom you will not read, because their views and statements are abhorrent enough that whatever good is there is not enough to overcome them?
Of course, this is a judgment call. But that’s where the details become relevant, and Nietzsche has undoubtedly thought and said some of the most hateful things of anyone in our discipline (and I would argue, the *most* hateful things, if one only considers the people in our discipline, who are taken with any seriousness or given any respect).
Let’s recall that it was Nietzsche who said the following:
“As we all know, priests are the most evil enemies to have–why should this be so? Because they are the most impotent. It is their impotence which makes their hate so violent and sinister…so cerebral and so poisonous…
Whatever else has been done to damage the powerful and great of this earth seems trivial compared with what the Jews have done, that priestly people who succeeded in avenging themselves…by radically inverting all their values…It was the Jew who, with frightening consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value equations…and maintain, with the furious hatred of the underprivileged and impotent, that “only the poor, the powerless, are good…We know who has fallen heir to this Jewish inversion of values…” The Genealogy of Morals (First Essay, vii).
Of course, as you know, it gets worse. Nietzsche then goes on to blame Judaism for Christianity–which is, of course, his main stalking horse, because of its promulgation of “slave morality.”
“Has not Israel, precisely by the detour of this ‘redeemer’, this seeming antagonist and destroyer of Israel, reached the final goal of its sublime vindictiveness.” Genealogy of Morals (First Essay, viii)
This is the final straw. It’s bad enough that Nietzsche articulated and perpetuated some of the most damaging characterizations of Jews and Judaism, which have haunted us throughout the ages. He is now blaming us for the very civilization that has persecuted us. Christendom has wrecked the worst kind of destruction upon the Jewish people imaginable and now Nietzsche comes along and tells us that it’s our own fault.
It’s been good to read this stuff again, because it has convinced me, even more, of what utter trash it really is. The writing is vaporous and self-congratulatory (the attempts at poetry are the most pathetic, but it’s all pretty garish stuff), the history is rubbish, the theology sophomoric, the sentiments unhinged and hysterical, the philosophy cynical and conspiratorial. With the exception of the anticipation of Depth Psychology…and it’s barely an anticipation, given how late in history Nietzsche comes…there is so little here of worth that it boggles the mind as to why otherwise humanistic people would twist themselves into pretzels to try and justify the man and his “work.”
Sorry, but it’s ugly stuff. As a Jew, it’s especially hard to listen to, but I have to hope that anyone can see just how ugly it is. I find the attempt to “rehabilitate” him revisionist and without a compelling rationale.
I’m eager to hear what your thoughts are, Samir, or those of your other readers.
Yes, this is always the defense. He was critical of German Nationalism. Sure, he was, but it was in favor of an even more unpleasant aristocraticism and racialism. He was critical of a certain kind of antisemitism. Sure he was, but it was in favor of an even more unpleasant version, which saw Jews as the originators of a sniveling, impotent “slave morality.”
The praise of Nietzsche is always in generalities and always follows revisionist hermeneutics. It rarely goes to the hard, unforgiving text, which does not lie. The point isn’t that he never said anything good…hell, that’s true of the worst people in the world. The point is that he said so many horrible things, and the good things he said were said better by so many more appealing people, that I just don’t see much use for him.
This is all in the realm of opinion and taste. I am not suggesting that he be taken from the curriculum. I am not demanding that he be removed from the shelves of the library. But I think that the attempt to rehabilitate him is a massive exercise in special pleading, which ultimately is unsupportable by the black and white of the text.