Nietzsche: Good/Evil. (1/31/99)
Frederic Jameson, in The Political Unconscious, has argued that the "imminent abolition of Nature," in and by the expansion of contemporary society and culture, provides one positive benefit in as much as it should be easier now to recognize the fact that the concept of good and evil is a "positional one that coincides with categories of Otherness." Jameson further suggests that evil can be defined as "whatever is radically different from me" and that the differential thus established between the individual self, the personal ego, and the Other constitutes evil as anything that embodies "a real and urgent threat to my own existence," whereas, one would presume, even though Jameson does not specifically say so, that anything which benefits "me" would be seen as a positive good. Making his point as clear as possible, Jameson says that "the Other . . . is not so much . . . feared because he is evil; rather he is evil because he is Other, alien, different, strange, unclean, and unfamiliar" (115). In passing, Jameson asserts that this realization of the connection between evil and otherness was taught to us by Nietzsche.
There are at least three binary oppositions at play in this construct that need to be identified before anything productive can be said about Jameson's position. They are: culture/nature, self/other, and good/evil. Stringing them out in a linear format where like attracts like, as Aristotle might have done, we have two opposite and opposed constellations: culture/self/good and nature/other/evil. When Jameson reports to us the fact that nature has been brought to the edge of annihilation by the proliferation and spread of culture or society, he is not telling us that something bad or evil has happened while we (Western Europeans?) were asleep. Not at all. In fact, Jameson is telling us that a positive good, a supreme virtue, the supreme value of human endeavor, has been achieved because in only a few hundred years humankind has managed to destroy that which has existed for millions of years. This is good, this is wonderful, this is a benchmark in human achievement, this is cause for celebration. Anyone who mistakes the intent of Marxism for an ecological movement predicated on the preservation of the natural world has slept through the indiscriminate pollution of Siberia by Soviet communism.
Attributing this perception of evil to Nietzsche, of course, while in one sense a perfectly justifiable thing to do, may be, in another, a serious distortion of what Nietzsche actually said. In his articulation of the Antichrist, for instance, which is a decidedly anti-Christian statement to say the least, Nietzsche expends a considerable effort in characterizing the relationship between Christianity, nature, and human consciousness. He states, in Chapter 15, for instance, that
"Once the concept of 'nature' had been opposed to the concept of 'God', the word 'natural' necessarily took on the meaning of 'abominable'--the whole of that fictitious world [of Christian belief] has its sources in hatred of the natural . . . and is no more than evidence of a profound uneasiness in the presence of reality."
The "fictitious world" of Christian belief that Nietzsche refers to here is composed of those elements of other-worldliness traditionally held by Christians as signifying superior states of consciousness when compared to actual states of human experience. In medieval terminology this sentiment was expressed by the admonition that good Christians should always already hold the world, the flesh, and the devil in supreme and absolute contempt. (See Eucherius: De Contemptu Mundi for one example of this Christian concept.) Nietzsche makes several lists of things that constitute the false world of Christianity: under "imaginary causes" he cites "God, soul, ego, spirit, free will"; under "imaginary effects" he notes "sin, salvation, grace, punishment, forgiveness of sins"; under "imaginary psychology" he refers to "repentance, pangs of conscience, temptation by the devil, the presence of God"; and finally, under "imaginary teleology" he lists "the kingdom of God, the last judgment, eternal life." When Nietzsche says that the imaginary world of Christian belief has its "sources in hatred of the natural," he makes it pre-eminently clear that Christian theology sees nature and natural reality as the foremost enemy of human salvation and well-being.
Nietzsche's perception that Christianity breeds a total and absolute hatred for natural reality is a theme he repeats a number of times in his exposition. He notes in Chapter 18 that
"The Christian concept of a god--the god as the patron of the sick, the god as a spinner of cobwebs, the god as a spirit--is one of the most corrupt concepts that has ever been set up in the world: it probably touches low-water mark in the ebbing evolution of the god-type. God degenerated into the contradiction of life. Instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yea! In him war is declared on life, on nature, on the will to live! God becomes the formula for every slander upon the 'here and now', and for every lie about the 'beyond'! In him nothingness is deified, and the will to nothingness is made holy!"
One way to comprehend Nietzsche's position here, to come to terms with what he probably means, is to recognize the fact that real people have little or no choice but to live in the real world. He objects to Christianity because of its other-worldly preoccupation, because of its insistence that true life, supreme life, the absolute good in life, can only be achieved by making a declaration of war against "life," "nature," and the "will to live." An example of how this vision works, and why Nietzsche so vehemently attacked it, can be fabricated from an analysis of the sin of gluttony. One thing to keep in mind here is that I intend to use a Marxian methodology, which does not point to Nietzsche, who was not a Marxist, so much as it is meant to reflect Jameson, who is one. Two concepts are essential to a Marxian analysis of cultural artifacts: understanding what is meant by ideology, on the one hand, and recognizing the role ideology plays in the creation of political and economic hegemony, on the other.
Ideology, in its Marxian context, refers to the fact that the dominant class in any social structure has the right, the duty, and the obligation to create a myth about itself and its relationship to every other inferior class of the society which generates a false consciousness in the minds of all social inferiors that they are truly inferior and must accept without protest or argument the consequences of that immutable status. This process, of course, is extremely complex, time consuming, and in most ways arbitrary. Individuals do not create the ideological content that comes to define entire cultures. No single person has the power to define every aspect of the dominant class's mythic relationship to the society in which he/she lives. Many years, even centuries, are required for ideological consensus to emerge. All sorts of uncontrolled contingencies alter its structure over time. Ideology, in other words, is not regulated by boards of political and economic advisers and overseers. One of the pre-eminent myths of dominant class ideology is the notion that someone is in control of the development of social structures. Even Marxists, who should know better, believe that it is possible to control the direction of social development.
Hegemony, of course, is the object, the goal, and the hope of ideological manipulation. In short, the dominant class fashions ideological content, which is always meant to generate a false consciousness, a false perception of reality, and then employs the mass media (and there has always already been a mass media) through which the myth of class dominance is spread and communicated to everyone who belongs to the inferior classes of any given society. The teleological intent of the ideological production of the dominant class is to convince everyone else in society that the false consciousness being projected is true, good, beneficial, productive, valuable, sincere, heart-felt, inevitable, immutable, and so on. When everyone has been brought into agreement with the dominant ideology, when there is little or no dissent, when everyone consents to be ruled by the dominant class, a state of hegemony is said to exist.
In the early Middle Ages (500-1100 A. D.), as everyone knows, the Christian church (Roman Catholic in Western Europe), was the dominant, if not the only, source of ideology in society. This condition came about for a number of reasons, not the least important of which was the fact that the only literate people in Europe, as a class at the time, were members of the clergy. No one else could read or write. That, of course, is an exaggeration but one that reveals an important point. The only people outside religious orders who were taught the arts of reading and writing were members of the aristocracy, and only those members of that secular class who were willing to learn did so. It is also true that the hierarchy of the church, primarily because Bishops exercised more power than Kings, had the authority and right to decide whether a member of the aristocracy would be allowed to learn those skills. What ought to be obvious here is that reading and writing played little or no role in the distribution of ideology in the early Middle Ages and that fact seems to belie the assertion made earlier that there have always been organs of mass media in society.
In defense of that statement I simply offer the fact that the pulpit was the primary source of ideological content in medieval society. So, what we have then is a priest standing above the masses in the pulpit preaching, as Christ and God had done before him, a sermon condemning gluttony as being one of the seven deadly sins. Chaucer's Parson, in the final speech performance of the Canterbury Tales, gives us a representative taste of what those medieval sermons were like:
"After Avarice comth Glotonye, which is expres eek agayn the comandement of God. Glotonye is unmesurable appetit to ete or to drynke, or elles to doon ynough to the unmesurable appetit and desordeynee coveitise to eten or to drynke. This synne corrumped al this world, as is wel shewed in the synne of Adam and of Eve." (X.417-18, The Riverside Chaucer)
That the Parson would connect the sin of gluttony to the original sin of Adam and Eve, the sin of eating the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, the sin that got man kicked out of the Garden of Eden, should not come as a surprise to anyone reading this kind of document at the end of the twentieth century. To qualify as one of the seven deadly sins the offense against the Christian God must be severe enough to earn the sinner an eternal spiritual death if he/she fails to repent of that crime against God before his/her earthly death. The Parson cites St. Paul as an authority for making his case against gluttony more powerful and notes that Paul perceived people given to excessive appetite as "enemys of the croys of Crist, of whiche ende is deeth" because they refuse to give up an excessive "savouren [of] erthely thynges" (X.819). Hence, anyone who refuses to give up an enjoyment of earthly things necessarily ignores the higher, greater goodness of achieving heavenly pleasures in the afterlife. The Parson continues by arguing that a person who is accustomed
"to this synne of glotonye, he ne may no synne withstonde. He moot been in servage of alle vices, for it is the develes hoord ther he hideth hym and resteth." (X.820)
A person who routinely practices gluttony can resist no other sin and is a slave to every other vice because he/she hides and conceals him/herself in Satan's hoard of demons. One thing to remember about the "develes hoord" in the Middle Ages is that people actually believed it existed in reality, that it was a pack of demons and monsters that could be encountered at virtually any time in the wilderness of the untamed and uninculturated natural environment.
The Parson's sermon is a generic form identified as such by the Parson himself in Chaucer's Prologue to the speech performance. He makes a point of saying so when he refuses to tell a fabulous story as the other pilgrims have done before him. He says "Thou getest fable noon ytoold for me" (X.31), after Harry Bailly calls him forth to tell the final tale of the journey. The sermon itself is also completely typical, even stereotypical, because Chaucer, true to the literary practices in the 14th Century, copied most of the text, probably even word by word, from penitence manuals that were circulating in England and France at the time. The discourse in the Parson's Tale, therefore, was not invented by Chaucer but was copied from existing source material that had been produced in all likelihood by a scriptorium controlled and operated by a religious order of cloistered monks. The content and form of the sermon, in other words, is orthodox church ideology through and through.
The keyword in the passages quoted above is the term "coveitise." I say that because of the role covetousness plays in medieval theology in general. In the Parson's words, not only is it a sin to eat and drink excessively (to exhibit or indulge an "unmesurable appitit"), but it is also equally damnable to desire ("coveitise") to eat or drink with an unrestrained appitite. When one considers the fact that most serfs in the Middle Ages suffered from chronic malnutrition, that the vast majority of the population of Europe under the feudal system went to bed every night in a half-starved condition, what sense does it make to preach sermons every other Sunday about the terrible sin of gluttony? Most of the people who heard the sermons did not possess the resources to indulge in gluttony but virtually everyone of them, since they were perpetually hungry, even starving, could certainly relate to the idea of desiring to be in a position to satisfy their hunger. Since hunger is a condition that naturally produces a desire to satisfy the need for food, condemning the desire to eat, and who is to say precisely how much food is too much for a starving man to want, is virtually the same as condemning a person to death.
As ideology this process is ideal because, as the Parson makes clear, "Agayns Glotonye is the remedie abstinence" (X.831). Telling a starving man that his desire to eat food he does not have and cannot get is a deadly sin against God which will result, if he does not repent, in his death and eternal punishment in hell, gives him an obvious choice between suffering hunger without desire for food (an impossibility to all except the suicidal because hunger itself is a natural and inevitable biological signal that one needs to take nourishment), and accepting the risk of eternal damnation by continuing to desire what his religion tells him he cannot have. He cannot have it because the remedy for gluttony, and the desire to become one, is to abstain from satisfying the desire to end your own life-threatening hunger. How you cure the sin of desiring to eat is to abstain from both the desire and the act of fulfilling that desire. To make this perfectly clear: Christianity in the fourteenth century gave an individual starving man the choice between being hungry (desiring to be well-fed), when he did not have enough to eat, and eternal damnation to hell if he refused to give up his desire and accept the penance of abstinence. In a very real sense, then, hunger itself, being hungry itself, because it is a desire to eat, was always already a deadly sin. Hence, to die of hunger was portrayed by the medieval church as a positive good, as a means of escaping from the deadly sin of gluttony. Nietzsche's comment that the Christian God is a "contradiction of life" is therefore quite obviously well-founded.
From an ideological point of view this concept and its articulation in the medieval equivalent of the mass media (sermons preached from the pulpit) was not nearly as illogical and absurd as it may appear to be to us today. Since salvation and the achievement of eternal life in heaven was more desirable than living a good, pleasant, enjoyable life on earth, which for most people was well beyond realization anyway, the condemnation of a natural need for sustaining life pointed the starving man toward a way out of this veil of tears and suffering that was officially sanctioned by the church. In other words, if you died of starvation because you continually practiced abstinence from eating too much, or at all, you would earn time off from your stay in Purgatory and would reach heaven more quickly than would a person who did not practice abstinence as stringently as you had done. In fact, the rich man, who was your lord on the feudal ground of your earthly existence, because he did not practice abstinence at all, might not ever reach heaven. The trade off was simple: if you suffered on earth, you could expect to be rewarded in heaven; if you were rewarded on earth, you could expect to be punished in the afterlife. A momentary and passing travail on earth is always already preferable to an eternal damnation in hell.
When Jameson suggests that Nietzsche taught us to perceive evil as being a function of difference between self and other, between culture and nature, he essentially ignores the fact that Nietzsche was making that claim in the context of an assault on Christianity. In the Christian tradition, of course, nature was perceived as a consummate evil, as a threat to human salvation because, as Chaucer's Parson points out, nature provided a place where Satan was able to conceal his hoard of demons whose purpose was to draw humankind away from obedience to God's law. Evil-doers, gluttons for instance, were able to hide and find rest in the devil's hoard. The abolition of nature therefore becomes a positive good because it reduces the ability of the devil to hide from the legions of puritanical witch-hunters who were pursuing the "develes hoord." At some level, primarily along the ground of the political unconscious, Jameson accepts the notion of the inevitable, and even desirable, outcome of the abolition of nature as a positive good, an idea whose origin and power rests firmly on the ground of medieval theology. He then uses that concept as a means of mitigating the significance of evil itself, by making it a function of difference between self and other, in effect demystifying it, so that no one can accuse him, and Marxian theory itself, of pursuing a course of ideological action which might be characterized as contemptible, as evil, when he and it refuse to face the fact that the unequivocal destruction of nature threatens the very survival of human populations in every corner of the world. The Marxian notion that human culture has a right and a duty to exploit natural resources without any regard for the consequences of that behavior tells us exactly which part of the political landscape Jameson perceives as being relegated to the realm of the unconscious.
The issue here comes down to means versus ends. Christianity pursued the destruction of nature because it represented evil and was perceived as a place from which Satan actively sought to promoted a human disobedience to God. Destroying nature, therefore, enhanced everyone's opportunity for salvation and if a Christian profited materially from that exploitation so much the better. Marxism, in Jameson's explication of it, pursues the exploitation of nature, even to the point of abolishing it altogether, for the sake of creating an ideal state of existence for humanity on earth. The withering away of the state, the abolition of social classes, and so on, is the objective goal of Marxist theory and, as Jameson draws to the end of his discussion in The Political Unconscious, he reminds us that the artistic text has two simultaneous functions: "the ideological and Utopian" (299). In other words, the destruction of nature and the wealth that is generated by doing so will, under a Marxist political system, lead inevitably to the creation of the perfect utopian state.
From a native American point of view, where we have been content so far to stand back and allow the Eurocentrics to duke it out among themselves, it is easy enough to put Jameson aside because of his unwillingness, or inability, to imagine what might be wrong with the idea that man has the right and duty to destroy nature for his own material gain. That is a standard axiom of Marxian theory and practice. The only thing Marxism ever meant to do was change the name of the exploiter from capitalist to proletariat, to shift the power, and the economic gain derived from it, from the owners of the means and modes of production in the capitalist system to the workers in the socialist or communist system. Nature, and the people who still persist in living with and inside of its limitations, are as expendable under the one as it and they are under the other.
This point is obvious when one simply reverses the direction and signification of a term like "Otherness" from the Eurocentric to the native American point of view. If evil can be defined as that which threatens to exterminate "me" because I am different, alien, strange, unclean, and so on, then clearly for the last 500 years evil is the mantle worn by Europeans in the Western hemisphere because that is precisely what they have been doing to native Americans since their arrival.
Taking Nietzsche to task because he correctly identifies the ground of Christian belief as a hatred for nature and natural reality would be senseless from a native American perspective. Nietzsche is merely telling us what we have spent 500 years learning first hand from the witch-hunters who found what they (mis)took for a limitless field in which to do their burning. The problem with Nietzsche's perspective is ultimately the same one that infects all Eurocentric discourse. His subject position as the Antichrist places him at the bottom of the hierarchy of Christian political discourse, a place he freely chooses to be, of course, as the champion of those values which Christianity condemns: power and the will to use it, courage, valor, honor, strength, all of which he attributes to his version of the natural world. In choosing to embrace other-worldly illusions, Christianity refuses to live in the real world and condemns anyone and everything that retains a connection to it. Nietzsche, like the Marxists, intends to reverse the hierarchy, not do away with it altogether, so that he will rise to the top, gain the upper hand against his adversaries, and presumably, stick to them like they have been sticking it to him. Nietzsche's thought functions primarily at a basic level of primal revenge. Native Americans harbor similar motives, aspirations, and sentiments, but have generally come to realize that acting on them in reality is counterproductive because of the disparity between European force and native American power. While spirit might be a difficult road to walk over time, it will nevertheless prove to be the best course for any of us to follow.
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