Nietzsche’s Disavowalist Moment

by hyphology

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a spectacular event unfolded that would forever change history. God was murdered. This scandalous transgression was met with multiple reactions. For some, God’s role was transformed into the logical truths of rationalism. For others, suffering became an eternal condition that only compassion could alleviate for brief moments. A few even continued to cling to the hope that God was alive and well; they transmuted their hopeless hope into “faith.” Yet, the ultimate scandal, according to one German philologist, was that we had assassinated God.

The death of God, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, meant the complete loss of any absolute or universal meaning to life. Contemporary morality and science attempted to mend this void. While Nietzsche offers innovative critiques of moralists (e.g. Kant) and the scientific method, his most venomous rejoinders are directed toward pessimists such as Arthur Schopenhauer. According to Nietzsche, pessimism essentially throws in the towel when confronted with the void of a meaningless existence. It accepts suffering as the eternal condition of life. If the pessimist does not kill herself, she only continues to live for momentary, compassionate acts that unite humans in their shared suffering. Against the pessimist’s resignation and the scientist’s self-certain rationalism, Nietzsche promotes a “gay science” whose task is to tarry with the suffering of existence in order to discover increasingly powerful moments of joy.

In The Gay Science, details of this new science are interspersed with attacks on ancient and modern attempts to escape pessimism (e.g. art, Greek tragedy, Wagnerian opera, religion). The culmination of these guerilla-style interventions is the fourth and final chapter titled “St. Januarius.” (In the second edition, a preface and fifth chapter were added to the book.)  In this chapter Nietzsche turns away from criticism and focuses in on his positive philosophy. It opens with the inauguration of a new year and a new type of person: “I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers. Let looking away be my only negation! And, all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!” The Yes-sayer becomes the pinnacle of affirmation; she is the person who resists pessimistic resignation to suffering and creates the new values required for a joyful life.

The Yes-sayer is Nietzsche’s response to the renouncer who throws away life in order to ascend to a higher world. Moralities of renunciation are often found passing down decrees such as, “Do not do this! Renounce! Overcome yourself!” Above all, the Yes-sayer wants to do something and to continue doing it until she has mastered it. The negative virtues whose “very essence is negation and self-denial” are foreign to her. Indeed, it is only by rejecting everything foreign that one becomes a Yes-sayer. In a reverent passage about the people of Genoa, Nietzsche boasts of their allergy to uniformity and conformism:

Here you find, upon turning every corner, a separate human being who knows the sea, adventure, and the Orient; a human being averse to the law and to the neighbor as to a kind of boredom, who measures everything old and established with envious eyes: he would, with a marvelous cunning of imagination, like to establish all this anew at least in thought; to put his hand to it, his meaning to it—if only for the moment of a sunny afternoon when his insatiable and melancholy soul feels sated for once, and only what is his own and nothing alien may appear to his eye. [My emphasis.]

Unlike these special humans, the Northerners are “builders” who want to possess and refashion everything they see so that they can secure it under their watchful eye. The distinction drawn is between the builder that works with what is given and seeks control versus the “human” who seeks novelty, adventure, and passion. The builder works on a world that others have prepared for her, while the “human” seeks new worlds. In this way one can understand Nietzsche’s contradictory claims that one must be oneself and also lose oneself.

At first, Nietzsche claims that “one thing is needful: that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself.” The significance of this first claim can only be understood as a reaction to moralities and religions that demand that one lose oneself. To give up one’s personal goals and ambitions would be to fall again into the nihilistic void of pessimism. Yet, paradoxically, one is only able to become satisfied with oneself precisely by losing oneself in new feelings, thoughts, and habits that challenge the status quo. Hence Nietzsche’s requirement: “For one must be able to lose oneself if one wants to learn something from things that we ourselves are not.” This act of losing oneself is likened to setting sail for uncharted seas; mastering newly found strengths is likened to learning how to pull in the sails. (One could spend a great deal of time tracing the metaphorical and literal role of the sea in Nietzsche’s work.) The paradoxical move of losing oneself to become oneself is what Nietzsche infamously refers to as living dangerously. Indeed, it is a new kind of philosopher who will discover how to live dangerously. But the discovery can only be made by boat.

With the above paradox in mind, one can appreciate Nietzsche’s disavowalist moment. In order to be oneself, one must lose oneself. In other words, Nietzsche’s infinite call to affirmation that surges forth from his texts is only possible with a preliminary, essential, originary negation. To become a Yes-sayer, one must first say No to oneself and embark on dangerous journeys. Nietzsche himself underlines in the first paragraph of the fourth chapter that “looking away” will be his negation (his first and, supposedly, only). Yet, the act of looking away will come up again. Nietzsche advises against seeking the punishment of others because it takes away energy that could be spent on extending one’s own influence. By becoming greater oneself, one enacts a sort of punishment against others: “Let us darken the others through our light! No—let’s not become darker on their account, like those who punish and are dissatisfied! Let’s sooner step aside! Let us look away!”

Stepping aside, looking away—is this not the fundamental disavowalist gesture? Dis-avowal is not to deny or negate, but to avow alongside or otherwise. The Rimbaudian seer (voyant) does not desire to see nothing, but to see other lives as they are lived. Not only is Nietzschean affirmation vulnerable to such a maneuver, it is the foundational maneuver. This becomes clear in Nietzsche’s comments on the necessity of criticism: “We negate and have to negate because something in us wants to live and affirm itself.”

The foundational negation of the Yes-sayer (what we have previously called “radical disavowal”) is an event that brings together a response to the death of God and a reaction to the renouncer. Nietzsche encodes this complex statement into allegory:

There is a lake that one day refused to let itself flow off and formed a dam where it used to flow off: ever since, this lake rises higher and higher. Perhaps this very renunciation will lend us the strength to bear renunciation; perhaps man will rise ever higher when he no longer flows off into a god.

The ultimate and originary renunciation of the Yes-sayer is meant to guard her against any pessimistic resignation. It also initiates a process of beautifying oneself against the ugliness of the renouncer. This process builds up an individual’s strengths so that she no longer requires a god to give her life meaning or passion. The preliminary, radical disavowal is so essential to this process that, when concluding the fourth chapter, Nietzsche can use only words of resignation to describe his “morality:”

I do not wish to keep quiet about my morality, which tells me: Live in seclusion so that you are able to live for yourself! Live in ignorance of what seems most important to your age! Lay at least the skin of three hundred years between you and today! And let the clamour of today, the noise of war and revolutions, be but a murmur to you.

But is this kind of withdrawal really possible? Can one be ignorant of one’s own age and continue to grow, influence, and discover? While there are many examples of successful disavowalists, one is quite fitting at this point. Hidden in the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird is the subtle disavowalist, Dolphus Raymond. In a space and time dominated by racial inequality, Raymond performs a radical disavowal that renounces racist violence as much as it connects him with the victims of that violence.

In a segregated town with deep racial tension, Raymond belongs as much to the black community as he does to the white community. He is a white man married to a black woman. This transgression of social convention would normally be sufficient to mark him as an outcast. However, Raymond is always seen drinking from a jug in a brown paper bag and acting as if he were drunk. This gives others a reason for his so-called “abnormal” behavior (i.e. marrying a black woman). By the end of the novel, the contents of the jug are revealed when he offers a child a drink of it; all along it was Coca-Cola. (In that very scene, Raymond becomes what Deleuze and Guattari have termed the “anomalous,” an “exceptional individual” that invites others into a new world.) Raymond plays the role of the town drunk in order to subvert the polarization of local racism.

"Dolphus Raymond" in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

“Dolphus Raymond” in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Even though he has had children with his wife and sits in “colored only” sections, Raymond maintains his privilege as a white male. He disavows the black-white binary not by choosing a side, but by discovering a path that allows him to participate in both communities. By saying No to compliance with the norms of his racist culture, Raymond opens new possibilities for personal and communal growth. However, this affirmation can only follow an originary, essential negation.

Of course, the possibility of this specific form of disavowal cannot be admitted in all situations. If Raymond were born black, he would not be able to elicit the same response with his actions. It is in part due to his privilege as a white male that this possibility is open to him. Thus, there are no general laws of disavowal, only transcendental ones. Raymond provides us with an example of radical disavowal become affirmation, but does not offer any practical program for combating racial violence in all of its contemporary forms.

We began by meditating on Nietzsche’s scandalous accusation that we were God’s assassins. We end by recognizing the even greater scandal at the heart of Nietzsche’s work: the radical disavowal that must precede affirmation. In another passage from The Gay Science, he tells us that the “taste for hidden and forbidden powers” indicative of science has its origins in “magicians, alchemists, astrologers, and witches.” We interpret disciplines such as alchemy as forms of study that anticipated modern science. However, it was often the case that these disciplines never aspired to such a thing. The same is true of Nietzsche’s disavowalist moment: our only negation (looking away) eventually will give rise to the fantastic power of affirmation. As such, the disavowalist is the alchemist of possibility and the Prometheus of terra incognita.