The Stare Into the Abyss; or, Do Not Throw Your Pearls Before Swine
I awoke this morning with Nietzsche’s famous quote about “the stare into the abyss” on my mind, and thought I would post something further about that. As I couldn’t recall the exact source of his aphorism, I attempted to locate it online and became frustrated when page after page, site after site, got the entire quote dead wrong! They even failed to cite the source for it.
Finally, I looked it up in German, keying off the word “Abgrund” — abyss.
The aphorism (146) occurs in Jenseits von Gut und Böse translated into English as Beyond Good and Evil. Here it is in full in German
Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, daß er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einem Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.
Translated, it means “Who goes to fight monsters best see to it that he does not become the monster himself. And when you stare long into the Abyss, the Abyss also stares back into you.”
However, page after page misquoted this passage as “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” This error is so crude that it leads to a complete perversion and corruption of Nietzsche’s intention and meaning. And this error is so ubiquitous that I couldn’t help feel that it was intentional in a kind of unconsciously deliberate way. I can’t help but suspect that, right here, is the key to understanding why so many people do not understand Nietzsche, get him completely wrong, and mistake him for something he was not.
I also can’t help but feel that the error, so ubiquitous, arose from a kind of cowardice in the face of Nietzsche’s insight and through a denialism. There is a world of difference between being stared “at” and being stared “into” (in dich hinein). Being stared into by the abyss is penetrating. Being stared “at” touches only the surface and even throws up a barrier to being penetrated or touched inwardly by what you perceive. Being stared “at” leaves the subject unchanged and unaltered by the percept.
By contrast, Nietzsche’s love of the truth and his spiritual boldness was such that he was willing to be penetrated and changed by his experience, to suffer it as well if need be and not deny it. He could not have said anything else by “when you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares back into you” and not “at you”. In Nietzsche’s statement, the subject-object dichotomy is dissolved, and the abyss and the soul are experienced as being one and the same. But where “at you” is used, the subject-object dichotomy is conserved by the use of the little word “at”.
It is clearly cowardice that invited such a corruption and distortion, an accusation that Nietzsche hurled at Pascal also, who he otherwise admired. Pascal had voiced his fear of the abyss, “The eternal silence of the infinite void terrifies me” he wrote, and turned away from the emptiness into religious conviction and the consolation of belief. This denial of truth and experience — this turning away from experience and the “threat” of being personally changed by experience — this is what is accomplished by misquoting Nietzsche here by the words “at you”.
After that, Nietzsche becomes impenetrable, because it was precisely this stare into the abyss and experiencing the abyss staring back into him simultaneously that ignited his creativity and his philosophical quest. He had been touched by death and the meaning of death, for that is what the stare of the infinite into oneself is. It dissolves the boundaries of the Self. This is what Pascal, in his terror, would not surrender to the “eternal silence and the infinite void”.
And it is why Nietzsche has been misquoted.
The fault also obscures the profoundity of Nietzsche’s thought process. It is not dualistic so much as dialogical. Without understanding how the abyss which Nietzsche beheld could also communicate itself “into” Nietzsche in the act of beholding it, you cannot understand what Nietzsche means when he writes, in Zarathustra, “fundamentally we experience only ourselves.” That ends up corrupted and perverted as well. We are not just what we behold, but as we behold — that is, perception.
Thou art that. And as a man perceives, so is he. Self-overcoming entails allowing oneself to be touched by death, and to arise again from this, Phoenix-like, which is Nietzsche-as-Zarathustra. This is what happened to Nietzsche with his “stare into the abyss” in which the abyss also stared back into him — not at him.
It’s a prime example of the wisdom of the statement “do not throw your pearls before swine”. The “swine” is the vulgar mind, the commonplace mind, the ignoble soul, the middling mind, the zombie mind, the bean-counter mind — the anxious, unimaginative, uncreative, devitalised mind. It’s the kind of reactionary mind that, afraid of being touched by death or change, mistranslates the stare of the abyss in dich hinein perversely as “at”, and thus turns the gold of wisdom back into the lead of ignorance again and again and forgoes the possibility thereby of all self-overcoming, self-transcendence, and true self-realisation.