Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality

On the Genealogy of MoralityOn the Genealogy of Morality by Friedrich Nietzsche

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel like I’ve been reading this book all my life, but I’ve never done it carefully and from cover-to-cover before. I first tried it when I was too young to understand (18 or 19—a crack-spined copy purchased at a now-defunct occult shop on the South Side of Pittsburgh), then again in the summer of 2003, when I did understand a bit, more than I wanted; it put me off Nietzsche for a while—the description of the beast of prey, performing murder, rape, and arson like a schoolboy playing a prank, sounded entirely too Bush-esque in that first year of the Iraq war.

But now I see that Nietzsche put all the offensive shock-jock stuff up front—about the blond beast, the Jewish priests, the slave revolt in morality, etc.—maybe to scare away the unworthy reader, or maybe just to gain enough attention to get more people to read the rest of the book. By the end of it, the Jewish priests and the slave-revolt are mostly redeemed (as creators of culture and saviors of the will), and you get the impression that our sickly philosopher wouldn’t be happy hanging out with a bunch of “Aryan” jock-imperialists, no matter how noble. “Blond beast” isn’t a “race” concept as Nietzsche uses it—he appends it to a multicultural coalition of conquering peoples (Greeks, Arabs, Germans, Japanese)—but if anything its “German” resonance should serve to disqualify it in his eyes since he loathes the beery nationalism of his time. True, he seems to see nationalism and socialism as necessarily bound together, and he opposes them together, but subsequent history has been kinder to that thesis than it has been to Marx’s utopian internationalism. What is the Left today but a defense of various ethnonationalisms against white universalism?

The man of ressentiment, Nietzsche says, has a soul that “looks obliquely,” that loves hiddenness and secrets. You can’t tell me he doesn’t prefer this to the noble conquerors, since it describes his own method. The supposed object of his polemical attack keeps sounding like Hamlet! The ambivalence of this book is what moves me. “A Polemic,” it’s subtitled, but his genealogical method, in which each concept is explained as a function of its use at different times by individual actors for distinct purposes, allows him to rove among various historical types (the priest, the artist, the philosopher, the scientist) and explore their relation to the ascetic ideals, the will to nothingness, that he sees as the basis of morality. Nietzsche’s historical and psychological sense gives this book a strange resemblance to a novel, a modernist novel where the organizing consciousness drifts this way and that across a social landscape, alighting in this mind and that; I am reminded oddly of my beloved Mrs. Dalloway. The novelistic—dialogic—quality of Nietzsche’s writing calls Nietzsche’s propositions into question as propositions, which is why I don’t think the book’s trespasses against our contemporary morality have to be taken as absolutes, as absolutely disqualifying. He allows in the text that the text will be criticized: he calls implicitly for the active reader.

Nietzsche endorses interpretation, rumination, which he defines as the unavoidable falsification of “reality” in the service of creating values. He claims that ascetic ideals arise from a belief in truth as opposed to interpretation. Therefore, the against-the-grain reading I present here—i.e., that this book is a novel; that its heroes in fact are the priests, Jews, Christians, and metaphysicians who turned against the merely given to create values in the name of the ideal—is in the text’s own spirit, as is my relative indifference to Nietzsche’s more dated claims (the anti-Christian ranting, important in its own period but now banal, even philistine; the sexism, in which Nietzsche betrays no historic sense whatever of gender roles as value-creations and constructs; the insistence on a physiological basis for all intellectual dispositions, in which he uses a worrying healthy/sick language that I suspect he’d think twice about in our era of “biopolitics,” if I’m using that shibboleth correctly).

The end of the third treatise, in which Nietzsche explains his problem with atheists, Darwinists, empiricists, and utilitarians—they who purified the ascetic ideal of faith in the supernatural, boiling it down to the no-less erroneous faith in truth—is of special relevance to today, as we are awash in dunderheaded “materialism” and scientism. I won’t belabor Nietzsche’s famous analysis of ressentiment; I think its relevance to all disputants in at least American politics today should go without saying.

This is a masterpiece—provided you interpret it. That’s what I didn’t understand in my callow and moralized youth. You have to read it like a novel.


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