Wednesday, 7 August 2019

JC Powys gets to the bottom of Nietzsche

I've been listening to my penfriend Keri Ford's reading (in his inimitable, fascinating New Zealand dialect!) of John Cowper Powys's early (1915) essay collection Visions and Revisions on the Librivox site:

Despite being so early in his oeuvre, this book is full of Powys's typically original and surprising insights (and his craziness, of course); and I have been especially bowled-over by his psychological understanding of Nietzsche - which makes sense of this strange yet compelling philosopher whom I have been reading (off and on, albeit mostly off) for some 35 years.

In a nutshell, Powys sees Nietzche as abnormally sensitive to suffering, and his project as a need to know the worst possible about Life, and to accept it.

So N. put forward and developed a series of ideas that he personally found to be the most horrible and horrifying aspects of his experience. He stated these as truths, explored their implications; then (in effect) Nietzsche challenged himself to accept, and indeed embrace, these distinctively personal horrors as positive Goods.

So, for example, the idea of eternal recurrence - by which every life, every specific event, is (supposedly) recycled and relived again-and-again forever; meant that everything that most horrified Nietzsche could never be coped-with, would become utterly intolerable; unless he was able to embrace it as not merely necessary but positively Good, indeed the best possible.

Ultimately Life as is, Just Is; and we must choose to Love it.

This strikes me as a similar end-point as was reached by Charles Williams in his essay The Cross; although CW reached his view from a 'Platonic' perspective that all time is present at all times, so that the worst that any human has ever suffered is always happening everywhere (e.g. Christ Is Being crucified as you read This; and again Now).

Nietzsche, as well as being a very strange and strangely-driven person; was an extremely rigorous thinker; who took a sadistic delight in following ideas through to unpleasant conclusions. But the sadism was ultimately self-directed - and led to insanity and silence (abetted by syphilis).

The reason N. was and is highly regarded as a philosopher, is that something very much of this kind was a genuine consequence of mainstream classical philosophy and theology; Nietzsche saw, and experienced, this unwelcome truth with absolute lucidity; which in turn (thanks to his unexcelled quality of prose) carries conviction.

The Answer to Nietzsche, as I understand it, is to regard the mainstream as erroneous; and to embrace instead some kind of developmental pluralism (as I have done over the past five plus years).

And this was, indeed, what JC Powys attempted to do, explicitly; although Powys failed to achieve it, and instead got stuck in a failed attempt at reverting to Original Participation*, ultimately because of his rejection of the reality of God as a loving Father and creator; which rejection stemmed from an awareness that this was what he most deeply wanted and knew must be true if his totally-despairing conclusion was to be avoided.

For Nietzsche; the fact that a properly understood Christianity was The Only Possible Answer, was sufficient reason to reject it - since this meant that it was too good to be true+.

*Note: Many Romantics over the past 200 years have attempted to 'revert' to an early childhood/ hunter gatherer state of unconscious, passive, immersive participation in The World - but it is impossible. Or, insofar as it is possible, it cannot be remembered, nor advocated - precisely because it is un-conscious and passive; it entails the obliteration of conscious thinking. People can only get back as far as totemism; which is the earliest and simplest phase of ordinary religion. Totemism (as of Australian Aborigines, or Pacific Northwest Amerindians) is a communal religious practice, that deploys symbols (the totems) and a fixed body of stories about-them; preserved in a ritual oral tradition. Powys describes his personal subjective totemism in considerable detail in his Autobiography. It involved daily observances (eg tapping his forehead against a specific stone, and praying to one of his deities) and extensive propitiation ceremonies (e.g. transferring fish from small drying puddles to larger volumes of water). 'Paradoxically' these imply the early stages of exactly the kind of mainstream, conventional church religion that Powys deplored; those temple religions based on ritual sacrifices designed to placate essentially-malign deities. Similar types of totemism were written about by DH Lawrence. It seems to me that to refuse objective external church Christianity, but advocate subjective individualistic internally-validated totemism, is to jump from the frying pan into the fire. This 'move' fails to solve the main problems of religion and instead exacerbates them, by privatising doctrine and practice.

+ This, in turn, implies that Nietzsche was saved, that he chose Heaven not Hell. Because when, after death, Nietzsche learned that Christianity was really true, not TGTBT, he would certainly have embraced that truth; and done so with a joy and gratitude that we can scarcely imagine.      


Francis Berger said...

"This, in turn, implies that Nietzsche was saved, that he chose Heaven not Hell."

I like this very much, and I am inclined to think the same about Nietzsche.

Bruce Charlton said...

Francis - I think that Nietzsche's role in the divine plan was perhaps that, if we are able to go through his work and out of the other side, we will emerge decisively strengthened for these times we now experience.

Nathaniel said...

Nice post Bruce.
I too have had a fascination with Nietzsche, especially his writing style, and I also get a perverse enjoyment listening to people use his ideas to give wind to their own egotistical selfish aims and attempts to justify transhumanism. I don't think he can be exonerated either. That being said, I have Nietzsche down as an artist, a very peculiar one. I also have "WARNING: RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL" stickers on the front of all the books I have of his, and I hope it is true what you mentioned about him being saved.

(I see the Will to Power as a mistaken idea, similarly with Schopenhauers idea of the world as Blind Will. But I understand any conclusion of mortal Men will necessarily miss the mark, because we cannot grasp the totality of reality through a lens of Power, as it always corrupts/destroys/seeks to dominate Nature as opposed to participate. It
For me, Divine Loving Authority encompasses all Creation)

The fact that God could create free beings over against himself
is the cross which philosophy could not carry, but remained hanging from.
Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)

My question Bruce: do you think Nietzsche is relevant today, and do you think a reading him through a Christian lens is something that would be beneficial to conscious evolution and salvation?

Bruce Charlton said...

@N - I would never say that any specific person is necessary for 'everyone' to read; I think we are (or can be, if we let it) guided to what/ who we most need; and then the most important thing is to be honest about the work, honest from the heart (intuition), that is. I'm simply saying that there is a path through Nietzsche to Romantic Christianity.

Nathaniel said...

I totally agree with that. My instinctive Yes to suffering was confirmed and validated for me reading Nietzsche, however, I see many ready N and fall into Transhumanism - attempted elimination of suffering through mortal means.

Andrew said...

Dr. Charlton, thanks for this. This post is encouraging and feels inspired.

-Andrew E.

Simpleton said...

I love your posts, but you use too many acronyms. I have to re-read your articles to figure out what you're referring to.

Bruce Charlton said...

@S - Blame PG Wodehouse. I find it amusing; and I don't see any obligation to make these very short blog posts any easier to gulp-down than they already are!

Simpleton said...

Come to think of it, I find it amusing too.