The Crisis of the Western Mind
All the various crises of Late Modernity are but branches arising from one root crisis. The root crisis is a crisis of consciousness. The shared (but often unconscious) metaphysical foundations that together form the undercurrent of the Western worldview and structure of consciousness that Isaac Newton called “The Frame of the World” are in turmoil. And this has been so, at least, since Nietzsche’s “madman in the marketplace” announced the death of God, for “God” was the name given to unify and lend coherence to the ensemble of elements that comprised the metaphysical foundations of the Western structure of consciousness, as this structure’s assumed self-evident or axiomatic truths.
Before Nietzsche, however, the brilliant English Renaissance priest and poet John Donne (1572 – 1631) had already anticipated, two centuries prior to Nietzsche’s declaration, the incipience of the metaphysical crisis and the impending death of God in his great poem “An Anatomy of the World“, with its remarkably prescient lines,
From Donne to Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) over two centuries pass — 8 or 9 generations — which is an indication of just how conservative culture and thought really are, and how slow to change and to recognise itself and its true circumstances. Today, to a certain extent, the mass media — the technologies of communication and transportation — have changed much of this, since we are now on “fast forward” (as Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock described). Today, we live the permanent revolution in strange circumstances where even conservatives think of themselves as “revolutionaries” and espouse revolutionary doctrines of “creative destruction”.
This absurd self-contradiction in which conservative thought is wedded to notions of permanent revolution is a measure of the very same incoherence and fragmentation of the metaphysical foundations of the Western worldview that both Donne and Nietzsche recognised, for Donne’s death of the world soul is only the preface or overture to Nietzsche’s final announcement of the death of God. This was the implicit historical trajectory of the mental-rational structure of consciousness as described by Jean Gebser in his book The Ever-Present Origin, from its efficient (or effective) mode as “universal reason” to its present degraded state of functioning as “deficient” or defective “rationality”.
Nietzsche realised that the metaphysical foundations of the modern consciousness structure could no longer support it. To borrow a meme from Karl Marx, the infrastructure could no longer support the superstructure and were in historical contradiction. The structure of consciousness, the “Frame of the World”, now existed in a condition of profound self-contradiction that could only end tragically — in self-negation, which is nihilism. The intuitive recognition of this state of self-contradiction is what informed Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as discussed in earlier posts. The narrative trajectory and dénouement of Stevenson’s tale — the mutual destruction of Jekyll and Hyde — corresponds precisely to Nietzsche’s succinct formula for nihilism — “all higher values devalue themselves” — and he forecast “two centuries of nihilism” as having become an unavoidable and inexorable fate for the Modern Era. Incipit tragoedia, he wrote towards the end of The Gay Science. “The tragedy begins….” (die Tragödie beginnt….) are the very last words of Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, words penned even as the most shockingly destructive forces and ideologies the world has ever witnessed were assembling on the temporal horizons of the Modern epoch, bearing witness to the sunset and twilight of the Age of Reason.
Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God no more “caused” nihilism and the Western crisis of consciousness and values than post-modernism “caused” the decadence of Late Modernity. As usual, it’s a case of shooting the messenger, or of “playing the man and not the ball”, as they say. The vulgar-minded have tended to make of Nietzsche something he was not implicitly, for before Nietzsche was Donne and Blake, and they, too, saw the necessary trajectory that the dynamics of the Age of Reason would follow. That implicit dynamic simply became self-conscious in the thinker called “Friedrich Nietzsche”, just as post-modernism is only the self-consciousness of an era that has now already run its course and has exceeded its shelf-life and its sell-by date. War is the way human beings have chosen to bring terminally ill eras to a conclusion, and that is what the whole destructive period from 1914 to 1945 represents. We just don’t live within the temporal and metaphysical horizons of the Modern Era any longer, although thought is often very late in catching up with the new reality.
Nietzsche’s concern was the self-overcoming of this nihilism. But he also realised that the only way out was through, much like Dante’s journey through the Inferno. This is where Nietzsche’s thaumaturgical philosophy resembles alchemy. We must pass through the crucible. We must find the spiritual strength to endure the hammer-blows because, while we might feel with each blow the imprint of a diabolic, nihilistic power upon our souls, it is only the work of the Jeweller, the transmutation of our leaden natures into the gold of the transhuman. In Nietzsche, the “bridge” to the overman is this crucible.
This is the principle of “creative destruction” that some interpreters have claimed to glean from Nietzsche (the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, for example, who influenced the neo-cons), but who typically misapply it merely to justify their own ideologies or their pet economic theories, etc, but who, like the “chickenhawks” in the neo-conservative movement and the Bush administration, actually refuse to cross over the bridge themselves, endure the crucible, or suffer the hammer-blows that others must learn to bear upon their souls and bodies themselves. This is typical of the reactionary mentality.
But what is this Nietzschean doctrine of bearing the hammer-blows of our fate except a re-interpretation of the long-suffering faith of Jesus? “Resist not evil”. That is Nietzsche’s true faith — that the only way out is through and to bear it cheerfully for the sake of the future overhuman and the resurrected integrity of the Earth. In fact, I would go so far as to say that all of Nietzsche is a revaluation or transvaluation of the Christian message — his attempt to recover and re-establish, on a new basis, what we might call “the Lost Gospel of Jesus”.
Two extracts from his Will to Power should give occasion to pause and reconsider Nietzsche’s purposes and projects. I’ll cite both of them here to demonstrate why Nietzsche is so often mistaken for what he is not,
Not exactly the words one would expect to hear from the mouth of the great “Anti-Christ”.
“I have also The Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no,” William Blake wrote in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell. And it is this “Bible of Hell” that the great “Anti-Christ”, Nietzsche, actually delivers. The meaning of this “Bible” Blake explains in “The Voice of the Devil”,
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outer circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
To that extent, then, Nietzsche and Blake are engaged in a common enterprise, and Nietzsche’s “aristocratic radicalism” resembles Blake’s “spiritual radicalism” for that reason. What Blake promised, Nietzsche delivered. And it is certainly ironic that, in Blake (and, as it turns out, in Nietzsche too) the legacy of Jesus is actually defended by the “devils” against the distortions and perversities of the “angels”.
But then, who does the Bible say is “the wisest of all creatures”? It is the serpent. Homo sapiens, despite flattering himself that he is the wisest of all creatures, isn’t even considered a runner-up in the spiritual order of things.