Giving Meaning to Suffering

If religion, morality, philosophy, academic learning, and science have all been re-formations of the same basic ascetic material, driven throughout by a need to devalue ourselves, to diminish our own particular, transient, and vulnerable existence by comparison with some superior and unconditionally valuable entity or state, the question arises: Why? Nietzsche's answer is, in short, that the ascetic ideal enables our existence to be meaningful. The first and last sections of the Third Treatise rehearse the telling formula:

the human will [...] needs a goal— and it would rather will nothingness than not will [...] man was rescued by [the ascetic ideal], he had a meaning [...] now he could will something [...] And, to say again at the end what I said at the beginning: man would much rather will nothingness than not will.

What then are 'not willing' and 'willing nothingness'? 'Not willing' means, I suggest, becoming goal-less and ceasing to be able to give 'meaning'

20 He says, 'we knowers today, we godless ones and anti-metaphysicians' are included in the ascetic ideal, but who can this mean but himself, since he knows no friends? (See GM III. 24, 27.)

to existence. 'Willing nothingness', on the other hand, means the great nihilistic self-negation that Nietzsche explains as hatred of the human, still more of the animal, still more of the material, this abhorrence of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and of beauty, this longing away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, wish, longing itself [...] an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life.

Why on earth would this be a preferred stance for human beings to occupy? Nietzsche's diagnosis is that by making diverse forms of self-hatred constitutive of our most fundamental conceptions of self, world, and value, we have successfully shielded ourselves from a threatening tide of arbitrariness and pointlessness. We have attained meaning for our suffering, yet done so at the expense of worsening our sufferings:

[Man] suffered from the problem of his meaning. He suffered otherwise as well, he was for the most part a diseased animal: but the suffering itself was not his problem, rather that the answer was missing to the scream of his question: 'to what end suffering?' Man, the bravest animal and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering in itself: he wants it, he even seeks it out, provided one shows him a meaning for it, a to-this-end of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering itself, was the curse that thus far lay stretched out over humanity—and the ascetic ideal offered it a meaning! Thus far it has been the only meaning; any meaning is better than no meaning at all; in every respect the ascetic ideal has been the faute de mieux' par excellence there has been thus far. In it suffering was interpreted; the enormous emptiness seemed filled; the door fell shut to all suicidal nihilism. The interpretation—there is no doubt—brought new suffering with it, deeper, more inward, more poisonous, gnawing more at life: it brought all suffering under the perspective of guilt.21

On the basis of this passage one can argue that the final message of the book is deeply humane and liberating. Thus Arthur Danto reads Nietzsche's insight as: 'Suffering really is meaningless, there is no point to it, and the amount of suffering caused by giving it a meaning chills the blood to contemplate.'22 We erect conceptual constructions such as religions, moralities, metaphysical systems, because we feel a need to interpret the

21 GM III. 28; cf. II. 7 on meaninglessness of suffering. 22 Danto (1988: 24).

plain and simple first-order sufferings of which life is full. We say, for example: 'We deserve to suffer, because our existence is an affront or transgression against some higher order'; or 'We can be sure that suffering is ultimately tolerable because it would not come to us unless it were meant in fulfilment of some greater purpose'. But such interpretation of the fact of suffering torments us with a new more sophisticated level of suffering. This pattern has indeed been exemplified more than once in the Genealogy, in the picture of the self-torture wrought through conceiving ourselves as guilty before God, and in the ascetic priest's ability to reverse the direction of ressentiment. For Danto, Nietzsche's diagnosis is that, in satisfying this need to impose meaning on suffering, we have become sick, and that is surely right, given Nietzsche's extensive laments over the 'insane pathetic beast man' and the 'true doom of European health'. Danto claims further that Nietzsche's therapeutic aim is to free us altogether from this need to give suffering a meaning. According to Danto, 'it goes against [our] instinct to believe, what is essentially the most liberating thought imaginable, that life is without meaning', but Nietzsche is urging us to believe just this, to release ourselves from 'meanings which truncate the lives they are supposed to redeem'23 and to undergo a 're-education and redirection' of the will, 'its return to the goals of simply normal life'.

This reading has a strong appeal. It seems a fitting culmination of Nietzsche's anti-Christian, anti-metaphysical polemic and an exemplification of the rancour-free tragic wisdom he advocates, facing the harsh and problematic aspects of life with an attitude of joy, without asking that they be redeemed by higher meanings or purposes.24 And yet there are some questions to pose of Danto's reading. First, do Nietzsche's parting words in the Genealogy leave us with the genuine possibility of the human will's finding no significance in human suffering, of the will's having no overall direction and leaving existence imbued with no meaning, unable to answer the question wozu Mensch uberhaupt? —'to what end man at all?' Could the human will be so radically altered that it would in future tolerate such a vacuum? Secondly, would Nietzsche really find this a desirable outcome? After all, his Second Treatise ended in a climactic evocation of the task of the human of the future, who 'makes the will free again, [and] gives back

24 See TI, 'What I Owe to the Ancients', 5. I follow Ridley's conception of tragic wisdom; see Ridley (1997: 23-4).

to the earth its goal and to man his hope'. The human of the future is to redeem humanity precisely from the same will to nothingness—a task beyond Nietzsche, but delegated to his greater literary offspring Zarathustra (GM II. 24, 25). In that passage the godless anti-metaphysician is not one who teaches the need to abandon the search for meaning in favour of wanting ' simply normal life', rather one who is strong enough to create new meaning and direction on an ambitious scale. Danto's vision of human beings freed of yearnings for overarching and redemptive meanings is attractive. But the thought of our pursuing nothing but healthily ordinary goals is arguably closer to Nietzsche's notion of not willing' than it is to his dream ofrestoring a goal and a hope to humanity and the whole planet. What would differentiate Danto's human beings from Zarathustra's 'last man', who ' will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond man'?25 One way to escape from truncating meanings is to eschew all meanings, one way to evade the ascetic ideal is to have no ideals at all, but I am not convinced that it is the way Nietzsche prefers.

Where, then, is the arrow of Nietzsche's longing directed? The close of the Genealogy is not explicit on this point, and the book in some ways ends as enigmatically as it began. But his claim that the ascetic ideal is dominant ' for want of anything better' faute de mieux) must surely provoke us to find a more positive alternative, an attitude to one's existence that keeps the will alive without the self-destruction of willing nothingness. In earlier writings Nietzsche locates the antithesis of self-hatred in an ideal of the most high-spirited, vital, world-affirming individual' who wants what was and what is [...] just as it was and is through all eternity' (BGE 56), in clear reference to the doctrine of eternal recurrence that was Zarathustra's teaching.26 He also talks of people becoming ' human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves!' (GS 335) and proclaims that ' one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself—be it through this or that poetry or art' (GS 290).

Because he has these goals of aesthetic self-satisfaction and complete self-affirmation I suggest that Nietzsche is not against giving meaning to suffering, but in favour of it. I assume that ' giving meaning' means making

25 Z I, ' Zarathustra's Prologue', 5; trans. Kaufmann.

26 See Z III, ' On the Vision and the Riddle', ' The Convalescent', ' The Seven Seals', and IV, ' The Drunken Song'; also GS 34i.

sense to oneself of the existence of something, and that 'giving meaning to suffering' means making sense to oneself of the suffering that occurs in one's life. Nietzsche's notion of giving meaning to suffering must differ crucially from the ascetic ideal in making a sense of suffering that is affirmative of self. But it differs in other ways too. The ascetic ideal generalizes about all human suffering and teaches us to make sense of it within a ready-made metaphysical picture: all human suffering is to be redeemed because of the place of humanity in a universal world-order of values. Nietzsche's ideal differs in that for him the sense we can make of our suffering is creatively achieved rather than given, and personal rather than universal. Rather than offering a blanket response of Mitleid to those who suffer in any way, Nietzsche calls upon us to recognize the entire economy of my soul and the balance effected by 'misfortune', the breaking open of new springs and needs, the healing of old wounds, the shedding of entire periods of the past [...] that there is a personal necessity of misfortune; that terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks, and blunders are as necessary for me and you as their opposites; indeed to express myself mystically, that the path to one's own heaven always leads through the voluptuousness of one's own hell.

Some relatively commonplace reflections support Nietzsche here. People who suffer intensely through illness, betrayal, and isolation (all known to Nietzsche himself) sometimes embrace these misfortunes as an integral component oftheir lives, as part ofwhat made them who they are, as things that they would go through again if they had to relive their lives—and this affirmativeness is often experienced by others as unintelligible. The sense to be made of such misfortunes cannot be known to any of us in advance and is an individual task in relation to the particularities of each life.

The goals of self-affirmation and aesthetic self-satisfaction that emerge as candidates to counter the ascetic ideal tend in different directions. The ascetic ideal inclines us to despise and feel guilty about large areas of the natural self and its doings, and to wish we were other than we are. In the counter-ideal of self-affirmation Nietzsche imagines this attitude reversed into a positive willing towards the whole self.But if one wants everything about oneself to be as it is and everything about one's past experiences and actions to be as it was, one wants, implicitly, to affirm the full truth concerning oneself without pretence, distortion, omission, or obfuscation, to look life in the face and 'own' it all, terror and tedium included. On the other hand, the ascetic ideal also has at its core the unconditional valuation of truthfulness, and to escape this valuation one would have to pursue the goal of creative falsifying —distortion, artifice, stylization—in regard to oneself. In this light aesthetic self-satisfaction looks to be a distinct goal from that of total self-affirmation. If Nietzsche proposes more than one counter-ideal, that in itself should come as no surprise. After all, the more affects we bring to bear upon the interpretation of ourselves the better we shall understand ourselves, and to insist on there being only 'one way' would be to risk perpetrating a new monistic 'deification' rather in the manner of the ascetic ideal itself. But whether self-affirmation and aesthetic self-satisfaction are indeed distinct goals, and whether, if distinct, they are compatible, are among the questions I shall pursue in the final chapter.

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