Monday, December 12, 2011

The Futility of Suffering and Nietzsche

Right after I woke up this morning I started reading the new articles on Vanity Fair. I started reading a new piece on aesthetic stagnation first and after getting upbeat at its premise it only seems apropos that I move on to Hitchens.

While reading Hitchens' article entitled Trial of the Will, I got to thinking about things I'd either experienced in life before or read in previous publications. I illustrate. First I got to thinking about David whom I met in grad school. He turned on to Dosteyevsky and Nietzsche around the same time we met so naturally we clicked. I'd run into David at the oddest times. One night, when my grad school significant other and I were driving home from dinner, I saw David walking by himself on the sidewalk. "Slow down. I think that's David" I say. We do just that. I roll down the window and say, "David! It's late. And cold. I mean, not that it matters." I felt my person giving me an eye-rolling but, naturally, I didn't care. What David and Bri time meant was hours upon hours of Lit Crit talk. We would both dive into a literary discussion almost maniacally. We'd start with Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, move on to Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche and in true, 'light' fashion finish with a good chat about existentialism.

Ha. I think to myself, this morning, as my hair is wrapped up in a towel and I find some pleasure out of smelling the body lotion I've been keen on for years. I get on my email and do a keyword on David. I have to say 'hey,' I think to myself. I enter his name and a sea of David words come at me. I open one particular email. The first sentence that jumps out was when he was traveling one summer around Europe and he was telling me about me his peregrinage. He writes, "I suffer regularly which is good for a person, I reckon." Ah, David!

Suffering and learning. Suffering does little for learning. It makes sense that we'd create a whole narrative of learning around it. I mean, it's bound to serve some purpose, right? Actually, the more I think about this, and I've bee thinking about this since early adolescence, the more I'm convinced that it's nothing more than a shallow myth. This is why back in 2004 I readily agreed with Woody Alen and why I easily get on Hitchens' side on the topic today. Granted, I also have much literary and historical context to back this up. Think Nietzsche. People tend to romanticize him and more often than not forget that his twilight years were yet another example of how impervious to learning one is when in deep suffering. Nietzsche's last years were a scene straight out of the third circle of hell.

There's little catharsis in suffering. The only good feeling that it generates is when it reaches its very end. The thought of not having to experience it again produces relief. And relief feels good when tasted after hardship.

I'm amazed at how our brains work. During the time I was in the shower this morning, it managed to give me a nice little essay, equipped with a full bibliography, of my readings and experiences on one topic. I started with David, moved on to Nietzsche, and closed with Woody Allen's Spiegel magazine interview back in 2005. I read it closely then. I also taught it in my German Literature course that Spring. A bit from the article says, and I translate:

"There is nothing really redeeming about tragedy. Tragedy is tragic, and it's so painful that people try to twist it and say "it's terribly hard, but look we've achieved something, we've learned something." This is a weak attempt to find some kind of meaning in tragedy. But there is no meaning. There is no up-side. And suffering does not redeem anything; there is no positive message to learn from it."

What was Nietzsche's phrase again, Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker i.e., "What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger"? And how strong exactly was Nietzsche during the last decade of his life? By all accounts he was an etalon of feebleness thanks to his intense physical and mental suffering.

So, what's die Moral der Geschichte? The moral of the story would be, when attempting to grapple with hardship, stay away from Nietzsche and any viable association you might want to make between learning and suffering. Sometimes, stuff needs to be experienced and left alone, wrapped up and hidden in some drawer.

I close with Hitchens' own words on pain. His own experience of sickness and suffering is what fueled his new article on Vanity Fair. He concludes: "I am attracted to the German etymology of the word “stark,” and its relative used by Nietzsche, stärker, which means “stronger.” In Yiddish, to call someone a shtarker is to credit him with being a militant, a tough guy, a hard worker. So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing."

What I learned from reading Greek tragedies as a child was that the best thing to do with suffering is to evade. Pretty good reaction, if you ask the adult version of me. Pretty, pretty good.


Dimitri said...

Hey Bri, Great piece. BTW, it's Mikhail Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita".

I too have drawn strength and resolve from Hitchens' struggle and have grown "starker" from it. I can no longer accept anything less than the most honest confrontation of reality.

Sra said...

Interesting take. Never thought of suffering in that light, but I think you and Allen and Hitchens are on to something. Like the new background on the blog.

B.R. said...

-Dima! Ma certo, Bulgakov!!
Was in a Dostoyevsky frame of mind this past weekend hence the projecting. All fixed up. :)
Was also thinking of our own discussions of Pushkin, btw.

Time, how oddly and quickly it moves. All is well, I trust....

-Thanks, Sra. The background felt like a nice mix of medieval and contemporary.
I've long held that the reason why suffering gets often lumped with learning and growth is because it's easier to 'decode' it when something is gained from it.