Occasionally–the first time being about 10 years ago, or so– I’ll attempt to read Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It’s a book any self-respecting intellectual or radical thinker or simple-minded liberal or Un-American is supposed to read. If you don’t read it, your membership to any of the aforementioned labels/clubs gets revoked. Therefore, every couple of years, I start to get antsy and I begin to feel nervous that if I don’t read the book, others will recognize that I’m just a “Poser,” a “Fake,” a “Sell Out,” or even an “American” and so I dig through a much-too-big pile of unread books that I have in a closet and pluck out Zinn’s opus, and the same thing happens every goddamned time.
I can’t make it past the first two chapters.
Each and every time I start from the beginning, as any worthwhile book should be read, and I make it through the first two chapters and… I just can’t do it.
It’s not that it’s a terrible book, of course, it’s just that there’s only so much repugnant violence, narcissism, megalomania and misanthropy I can read about before I start suffering the effects of vicarious trauma and before my Life Force just begins to smolder out. And it just so happens that Zinn’s book contains near enough of that stuff to border on accomplishing just that.
Human beings are monsters. Violent, petty, narcissistic, megalomanic, misanthropic monsters. And so I read the first two chapters, become physically and psychically ill and refuse to read the book for several years.
It’s difficult to fully enjoy the lunch-hour virtues of YouPorn when it’s at the forefront of your mind that its existence was made possible only by the merciless torture and slaughter and suffering of the original inhabitants of this glorious land. Sure, I admit it–at the disgust of plenty of people who find this idea distasteful–that I feel somewhat guilty about events that I seem to have had little to nothing to do with. But that’s only because I understand too well the idea and reality of karma. Atrocities were committed in the name of “progress” and I and my world are the result of that progress. I can only watch free porn on my lunch break because millions of other human beings–who were just as, if not more so, deserving of having peaceful, happy lives as I am–were destroyed in the most monstrous, horrific means imaginable, all in my name, really. And people who understand karma understand all too well the fact that the future influences the present just as much as the past does (or, more correctly, the fact that the distinction between past, present and future is illusory).
• • •
Anyhow, about a month ago I attempted once again to read the fucker and again I made it through the first two chapters before deciding that some lighter, more leisurely reading was in order. And with that I began reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathrustra. In case it hasn’t been readily apparent by my constant name-dropping of Nietzsche in my recent essays, I’ve been reading a lot of him lately, and there’s something we need to attempt to clarify about that morbid little creep Nietzsche before we get into the crux dilemma of this here essay. What we need to clarify is that Nietzsche’s words were carved into quartz with a machine gun–meant to get people’s attention and ricochet and, yes, even injure others. However, his ideas were inked into Bible paper with an exacto knife. That is to say, while his language was blunt, the ideas those words were trying to get across were much more subtle, nuanced, careful, even delicate. This contradiction has lead Nietzsche to become one of the most misunderstood writers in all of “Western” civilization. I mean, it’s his own fault, really. He obviously (and quite understandably) had a fetish for offending the sensibilities of mere “normal” people, or–as he would refer to them–the “flock.” Still, it’s too bad when you’re reading something as valiant and brave and noble as Thus Spoke Zarathrustra and you know the only thing most people got from the thing is some perverted idea of the “Ubermensch.”
The Ubermensch. The justification for thousands of Wall St. anal goblins, Randian dweebs, and untold numbers of petty and crude middle-manager types. Only mean, petulant, self-centered, greedy, petty, mediocre, stupid, soul sucking leeches would read Nietzsche and get the idea that his idea of the Ubermensch was mean, petulant, self-centered, greedy, petty, mediocre, stupid, soul sucking and leech-like. Alas: the flock.
The Ubermensch, instead, is that individual who has the highest of ceilings and who fulfills her potential. Who peers beyond the illusory limitations we impose upon ourselves and accomplishes feats which become legend and myth and which point to liberation and self actualization. In Nietzschean terms, the Ubermensch is simply that person who listens not to the flock, but to their own “daemon” and who seeks out a life they would be more than willing to “say yes” to the prospect of living life again and again, ad infinitum in the highly unlikely-but-frightening-nonetheless case of Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence. The Ubermensch is supposed to inspire each of us to make human life on this planet what it has always had the potential to be–i.e. spontaneous, creative, bold, heroic. The Ubermensch is she who shows us nothing more than how to make human life worthwhile.
Instead, however, the term has come to mean the opposite. Ayn Rand, for example, took the idea of the Ubermensch and came up with that asshole John Galt. At least 80-percent of venture capitalists and silicon valley entrepreneurs (at least those who are literate) believe they’re the embodiment of the prophecy of the Ubermensch. When Nietzsche spent all those words and pages extolling the reader, pleading with the reader, begging the reader to have the courage to live the heroic life, did he mean for the reader to make enough money to drive a BMW? Did he mean go out and earn that title of “Special Projects Manager of Marketing and Public Relations”? Did he mean use your rich daddy’s money to build casinos and hotels and to marry a series of increasingly vacuous blonde bimbos all the while failing to give an ounce of that money or effort to a barber to fix your stupid fucking hair?
Some people seem to think this is sort of the case. And maybe it has more to do with my own biases and values, but I can’t believe that’s what Nietzsche meant. What “the flock” wants can’t be heroic, can it? That’s why they’re the flock and the Ubermensch is the Ubermensch.
But then what? What is the heroic life? How can I partake in the Nietzschean “Yes-saying” to life? How can I aspire to be an Ubermensch when everywhere I look the yes-sayers, the self-proclaimed Ubermensches are filthy fucking asswipes? How can I do so knowing that everything we value about life and heroism is back asswards? How can I say yes to life and jump headfirst into it when I’ve read the first two chapters of Zinn’s book and know that Ubermensches like Columbus, Pizarro, Cortez, and the violent Calvinist Protestants created this life, continue to create it and will continue to create it ceaselessly into the future? The real Ubermensch seems like some violent, dumb, frightened, insecure mediocre mind who comes down from the mountain with some moronic idea that gahd has spoken to him (it’s usually a man, because men are “tough” and “realistic” or whatever) and has demanded that he destroy all that is glorious about life.
Some people say that you have to at least give people like Columbus and Cortez credit for their bravery. That it took untold amounts of courage to set off on dangerous voyages to unknown lands and to war with alien peoples when vastly outnumbered. But it takes no courage to destroy. That goes for Muslim terrorists, street terrorists, government terrorists and whatever the fuck you call these knuckleheads. It took far less effort to burn the Aztec Empire to the ground than it did to build it. And it’s not courage, so much as fear, that leads some asshole to cross an ocean and stomp out an entire society just so he can get rich and make a name for himself. Hell, in my (involuntarily) celibate teen years, I would have happily died if it meant impressing whatever girl I thought I was in love with at the moment. I did tons of brave, stupid shit (futilely) attempting to impress any number of girls and it took no courage whatsoever. In many ways it would’ve taken more courage not to do some the things I did, and I feel the same way about Pizarro’s dumb ass.
Look around us. Look at the people. Look into their eyes. What do you see? Is there life there? Is there life behind those eyes? Is there courage? Bravery? Creativity?
We’re all fucking miserable. Everybody is miserable. Most of us are already dead. In the best among us we might find quantums of love emanating from the few remaining embers of what we call a soul. Some may glow with the softest, briefest glimmers of hope. But the vast majority of them have the same look in their eyes as my pet kitty when we brought him home from being neutered. They’re automatons. Corpses. The Walking Dead. Puppets with invisible strings being tugged along by some abstract idea of fame or wealth or recognition or retirement. And like any puppet, no reasons need be given. Just pull the strings and watch it do what you want. As misguided as your typical Blood or Crip, but at least the gangbanger is fighting for some ideal that borders on honor or heroism.
Look at them. The short-sleeved pastel shirts and khaki shorts with high socks and white tennis shoes. Fat pink calves showing, paunchy, balding with a ring of gray hair, pink scalp exposed. Late for tee time. Boring, spoiled, entitled kids attending a large state college and everyone’s impressed only because the school has a football team that plays on ESPN a couple of times per year.
I love them all. And Nietzsche loved them all, as well. And if you know he went mad, you know he probably went mad because for all his talk of “yes-saying” he couldn’t say yes to this shit. He couldn’t say yes to the whole of life, like he liked to believe he could. He gave the people the idea of the Ubermensch and they ignored it and him wholly. He gave them a solution, and instead they came up with their own: They did more of the same shit, but they did it harder. They went HAM. All their wants, all their desires, driven by all their fears. Everybody’s miserable because they all work all the goddamned time and there’s always some other nincompoop looking at all this madness who decides, “Look at those miserable sacks of shit, all pushing and grasping and groping. But I’m not like that. I’m going to push and grasp and grope harder. I’m going to do the exact thing that makes them miserable, but I’m going to do more of it and somehow I won’t end up being like them.”
That’s called being an adult.
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