Eternal Snapshots of a Soulful Mind

A blue gondola cascades gently down a waterway in Venice. It crawls in languor, the afternoon sun immersing it in all its glory. As it rolls along under a stone bridge, Alan Lightman rests on his back, gazing at the blue sky, lost within his mind. He blinks. He finds himself in Bern, Switzerland, 1905, at the zenith of twilight. ‘It is a quiet time of day. Shopkeepers are dropping their awnings and getting out of their bicycles. From a second floor window, a mother calls to her daughter to come home and prepare dinner.’ Just as he sees the two colleagues who are coming home from the Patent Office, he blinks again. He is back at the gondola, but no time has passed. As Lightman imagines Einstein’s Dreams, so do I imagine Lightman’s own.

Such is the distinctive quality of Lightman’s book, Einstein’s Dreams (1992). It does not concern itself with a specific plot; it instead depicts different conceptions of time that appear as dreams to Einstein, who appears at regular intervals with his working partner, Michele Besso. No variation of the different paths time can take is excluded, including such prominent examples as “sticky time”, “mechanical time” and “time in fits and starts”. Lightman eloquently paints each variation with an ethereal and surreal texture. He does not concern us with the scientific possibility and theoretical probability of these wondrous concepts. Instead, he explores the real world implications and human reactions to different timescapes.

In a world where the center of time exists:
‘And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let do. The beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blond hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this pink glow on her cheeks, will never grow wrinkled or tired, will never get injured, will never unlearn what her parents have taught her, will never think thoughts that her parents don’t know, will never know evil, will never tell her parents that she does not love them, will never leave her room with the view of the ocean, will never stop touching her parents as she does now.’

The writing is simple, the images are indelible. A tortured Einstein roams the streets of Bern, formulating his new theory of time, but Lightman pays little attention to his titular character. Instead, through Einstein, he depicts our interaction, infatuation, relationship and obsession with Time as well as our desires and the consequences that spring from it. Snapshots at faceless individuals gaze upon the fragility of human existence, a tale woven with the barest of threads, worn at the edges, glowing in fits and starts, overseen by the tick of the Grand Clock. A proto-Groundhog Day scenario takes place with each chapter, as the citizens of Bern are manipulated under the rules that govern each new concept of time, thus making the city a prominent figure in these vignettes.

As we struggle to control this ever elusive group of nightingales, Lightman forces us to consider the possibilities that emerge from twisting pretzels with the sand of the hourglass. But for Einstein, on an early morning in June 1905, history has not been made, and time moves on.

Einstein statue by maveric2003, CC-BY-2.0

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A Distillation of Nietzsche

Nietzsche

God Is Dead.

I previously posted on Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen because of my Coursera course from Wesleyan University. The next philosopher that the course deals with is Friedrich Nietzsche and the text is his second essay from The Genealogy of Morals with the title Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters. It took a lot of effort for me to get through that text, and so I decided to distill what he says in this blog post, along with my own opinions in parts.

Let me first provide some context about Nietzsche. At the core of Nietzsche’s philosophies is this struggle for intensity to supplant morality because it leads to the decadence of society. Nietzsche’s most famous line: God is Dead. This wasn’t a religious statement in any way, but a critique of the notion of the “ideal”, a philosophical cornerstone purported by Plato that still exists even today. But Nietzsche believed there was no ideal, no standard, no endpoint, no measurement, no criterion against which humanity should be judged. In fact, he encouraged Man to live without a standard to aspire to, a standard that limited his potential and what he could accomplish. Ideals are an excuse to keep one from living and realizing intensity, and that is one of the ideas he brings up in the essay that we’re dealing with here.

So, what is Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters about? Nietzsche is trying to understand where guilt comes from and what this idea of a bad conscience is. He does this by looking at many things, including the origins of conscience, the forced demarcation between good and bad and the influence of society upon individuals. Ultimately Nietzsche criticizes the veil of guilt as an obstacle in the pursuit of intensity and as a way to limit individuals from realizing their true potential.

“To breed an animal that is entitled to make promises—is that not precisely the paradoxical task nature has set itself where human beings are concerned?”

Nietzsche begins by highlighting the ability of humans to make promises into the future as wondrous, even when they have the trait of forgetfulness imprinted within them. With forgetfulness, their consciousness is selectively aware of the important things and does not even notice the bodily functions that it goes through. He alludes to forgetfulness as ‘a porter at the door, so to speak, a custodian of psychic order, quiet, etiquette’ and states that ‘if forgetfulness were not present, there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hoping, no pride, no present.’

The exception to this forgetfulness is the existence of memory, wherein forgetfulness ceases to function in the cases where promises are to be made. He clarifies that memory is not an inability to be rid of an impression once it has been etched into the mind, nor is it a case where the forgetfulness apparatus has been harmed and one obsesses over something constantly. He says: ‘…it’s an active wish not to be free of the matter again…a real memory of one’s will…But how much all that presupposes! In order to organize the future in this manner, human beings must have first learned to separate necessary events from chance events, to think in terms of cause and effect, to see distant events as if they were present, to set goals and the means to reach them with certainty…’

The only way for man to be able to make promises into the future with other men is to become predictable. When man is predictable, man is trustworthy, says Nietzsche, and so over time man is made predictable by two things: the “morality of custom” and the social straitjacket (two terms that aren’t explained in the text, but that we can effectively understand as the social stigma and the confines of custom as a historical tool to maintain the existing morality within a culture.). The result of being able to make promises is the origin of responsibility, when people are responsible for honoring arrangements no matter what misfortunes may befall them in the future. Being seen as a responsible person builds trust, respect and fear and these are things that separate men in terms of the power they wield. The proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, of this power over oneself and destiny, has become internalized into the deepest parts of him and grown instinctual, has become an instinct, a dominating instinct…The sovereign man calls this instinct his conscience.

But how is conscience created? How do people know when to do something or, more importantly, when not to do something? It’s important to remember that we’re talking about people during the prehistory of man, when people were not civilized and had no notion of what is right and what is wrong the way we see it today.

When the human being considered it necessary to make a memory for himself, it never happened without blood, martyrs, the most terrible sacrifices and pledges, the most repulsive self-mutilations (for example, castration), the cruellest forms of ritual in all the religious cults (and all religions are in their deepest foundations systems of cruelty)—all that originates in that instinct which discovered in pain the most powerful means of helping to develop the memory. 

Nietzsche takes the example of what the Germans did to attain mastery over their basic instincts and their crudity:

Stoning

Flaying

Drawn and quartered

So, in his words, that’s how conscience was created. But what about “bad conscience”? As Nietzsche asks this question, he introduces a concept that this essay quotes often: the contractual relationship between creditor and debtor. This introduction is done in a very circuitous way through the development of the idea of punishment. Punishment carries with it negative connotations about crime and sentences and prison and humiliation for us today, but punishment originated as repayment for the inconvenience faced by the victim.

For the most extensive period of human history, punishment was certainly not meted out because people held the instigator of evil responsible for his actions, and thus it was not assumed that only the guilty party should be punished:—it was much more as it still is now when parents punish their children out of anger over some harm they have suffered, anger vented on the perpetrator—but anger restrained and modified through the idea that every injury has some equivalent and that compensation for it could, in fact, be paid out, even if that is through the pain of the perpetrator.

When punishment is seen as a transaction between two parties, it serves to explain that back in the day debtors who were serious about upholding their promises would offer themselves as collateral in the event of defaults while the creditor would see this as an opportunity to better his social standing and to derive pleasure from inflicting harm upon another human being (the explanation behind this creditor with serial killer tendencies is that all human beings have a primal desire to express cruelty because of our disinterested malice. Celebrations in the medieval age were not seen without their fair share of animal torture and casual murder. I found this concept hard to understand, but then pop culture provides us with wonderful references with Calvin Candie from Django Unchained and the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. These are characters that express no remorse for their inhuman actions whatsoever and in fact derive pleasure from it. But what about less extreme examples? I for one derive pleasure when I get more marks in a test than my friend Aditya. I love to rub it in and make him feel bad, knowing he would do the same for me. Isn’t that deriving pleasure from the suffering of someone else?)

Calvin Candie

“I live for this shit…”

And then, sadly, Nietzsche enters the Blabberzone, where you don’t really understand what the hell he’s trying to say, but you think that it’s got to mean something profound and provocative and generally along the lines of what he’s been saying so far. But you read it again, and again, and again, and nothing changes. You scratch your head, sleep on it, but nope, Nietzsche’s nonsense is here to stay. What I’m talking about is the seventh paragraph of the text, which I think is vaguely about the interpretation of suffering over time and the ideas of free will vs. a deterministic universe, but I gave up on it after many tries.

Luckily he gets back to making sense in the next paragraph. If punishment originates as repayment by a debtor for not going through with a transaction, what then is justice?

Justice at this first stage is good will among those approximately equal in power to come to terms with each other, to “come to an agreement” again with each other by compensation—and in relation to those less powerful, to compel them to arrive at some settlement among themselves.—

Nietzsche then segues into the interaction between the community and the individual. Individuals in societies enjoy certain privileges that they would not have gotten were they living outside the community. A community and a society is built on trust between individuals, so when a person commits a crime against a community, he effectively violates the trust of the community. Nietzsche believes that at this point in history, society still doesn’t recognize the crime itself as being inherently bad, but that by breaking their trust and violating his promise to the community, the criminal had lost the privilege to remain in the community. His punishment results in being outlawed from the community, and a degradation of his social standing.

But after cycles of this behavior, when society grows in power, what happens then? In the words of Nietzsche:

As it acquires more power, a community no longer considers the crimes of the single individual so serious, because it no longer is entitled to consider him as dangerous and unsettling for the existence of the totality as much as it did before. The wrongdoer is no longer “outlawed” and thrown out, and the common anger is no longer permitted to vent itself on him without restraint to the same extent as earlier— instead the wrongdoer from now on is carefully protected by the community against this anger, especially from that of the immediately injured person, and is taken into protective custody.

It is here that the community separates the criminal and the crime in an effort to compromise the desires of the victim and general unrest and attempt to find equivalent punishment according to the severity of the crime. But then Nietzsche becomes idealistic and states that the stronger a society becomes, it would let its criminals go without punishment because it is strong enough to sustain itself from crimes. This magnanimous utopian gesture is mercy.

One of Nietzsche’s complaints with the way we understand the world is why revenge is correlated with justice – does the suffering of another person satisfy us to provide “justice”? In fact, he postulates, revenge is a reactive emotion to any situation, an emotional outburst that drives reason, fairness and rationality away from the mind, akin to how a bull flares up when it sees a matador fluttering a red sheet in the stadium. Justice, however, seeks to drive away these reactive emotions impartially, and does this “partly by dragging the object of ressentiment (party in danger) out of the hands of revenge, partly by setting in the place of revenge a battle against the enemies of peace and order, partly by coming up with compensation, partly by establishing certain equivalents for injuries…” But the most important thing that the Man who upholds justice does is that he establishes law – a higher power with the ability to demarcate what is illegal and what is illegal – and this elevates the authorities that govern the people to a higher state where attacks against it are treated as attacks against the law and it essentially reverses the effect of revenge, which is to consider the crime only from the viewpoint of the injured party.

After yet another philosophical digression (which doesn’t need any elaboration because it doesn’t really add anything to the overall arc of the essay), Nietzsche draws attention to the need for clarifying the purpose of punishment and its “meaning”. Punishment is something that is hard to define because it carries a variety of meanings along with it. Earlier it was easier to untangle these meanings, but the best definition for something is when it has no history of being defined. The danger of highlighting any one meaning for punishment is that it pushes the other meanings to the background. He provides various examples of this: punishment as a way of rendering someone harmless, as a prevention from further harm; punishment as compensation for the damage to the person injured, in some form or other; punishment as isolation of some upset to an even balance in order to avert a wider outbreak of the disturbance; punishment as way of inspiring fear of those who determine and carry out punishment. 

“This’ll show you to ask me about the meaning of why I was hitting you before!”

But the most essential purpose of punishment that even we in the 21st Century utilize to justify institutions like prisons and rehabilitation centers is the power of punishment to awaken guilt within criminals. Nietzsche opposes this idea in two ways. Firstly, he believes that emotionally, criminals shut themselves down in prisons and penitentiaries, choosing to descend into an existence defined by gloomy seriousness and self-abasement in the extreme cases. Secondly, the judicial system alienates criminals from guilt because in their minds they feel as if they have done no wrong because the crimes of which they have been convicted are committed all around them by the police and the prosecution in their own ways and yet they are lauded for it. This is where the idea of what is just and unjust comes into play – the crimes in themselves are not crimes. If everyone around us robbed supermarkets and faced no consequence, it would just be a way of life. Crimes are defined by how society and the authorities look at them. Look at marijuana, why is the consumption of it illegal? Just because the government says so. The only guilt that criminals feel upon being punished is the regret that they were caught and that something went wrong with their plan. The effect of their punishment is that they become more careful not to repeat their mistakes next time.

After all this exposition, Nietzsche turns to what his hypothesis as to the origin of “bad conscience” is. It started with the creation of society where a bunch of primitive men and women decided to live together. Here, ground rules were made amongst them, and if violated, the guilty party would be punished. Man could not listen to his oldest guide, instinct anymore, for when instinct told him to mate with another man’s wife, his rational mind, his conscience, told himself that that would result in punishment. And so man was at conflict with himself and this led to the internalization of man.

In performing the simplest things they felt ungainly. In dealing with this new unknown world, they no longer had their old leaders, the ruling unconscious drives which guided them safely—these unfortunate creatures were reduced to thinking, inferring, calculating, bringing together cause and effect, reduced to their “consciousness,” their most impoverished and error-prone organ! I believe that never on earth has there been such a feeling of misery, such a leaden discomfort—while at the same time those old instincts had not all of a sudden stopped imposing their demands! Only it was difficult and seldom possible to do their bidding.

(The best example of this struggle.)

Since societies led to the invention of “bad conscience”, what led to the creation of societies? Nietzsche attributes this creation to a pack of blond predatory animals, a race of conquerors and masters, which, organized for war and with the power to organize. This pack creates structures around other individuals and hammers out the freedom from them and designs a framework for the society. These higher individuals are not the reason for bad conscience, but without them bad conscience would not have been created. This powerful instinct for freedom,  driven back, repressed, imprisoned inside, and finally still able to discharge and direct itself only against itself—that and that alone is what bad conscience is in its beginning.

Nietzsche then brings a new perspective on the contractual relationship we saw before when it comes to tribes and their ancestors:

In primeval times, the living generation always acknowledged a legal obligation to the previous generations, and especially to the earliest one which had founded the tribe (and this was in no way merely a sentimental obligation: the latter is something we could even reasonably claim was, in general, absent for the longest period of the human race). Here the reigning conviction is that the tribe exists at all only because of the sacrifices and achievements of its ancestors—and that people have to pay them back with sacrifices and achievements.  In this people recognize a debt which keeps steadily growing because these ancestors in their continuing existence as powerful spirits do not stop giving the tribe new advantages and lending them their power.

The tribe would try to pay back its debt with sacrifices and ceremonies and festivals, but most of all with obedience towards following customs and traditions.

“A couple of oranges would’ve been fine, I just got the munchies.”

And so as the tribe grew in power, so did the tribe’s feeling of gratitude and debt towards their ancestors for giving them the strength to continue this far. Nietzsche then says:

If we think this crude form of logic through to its conclusion, then the ancestors of the most powerful tribes must, because of the fantasy of increasing fear, finally have grown into something immense and have been pushed back into the darkness of a divine mystery, something beyond the powers of imagination, so that finally the ancestor is necessarily transfigured into a god. Here perhaps lies even the origin of the gods, thus an origin out of fear!

For me this is the most important part of the essay because it introduces the religious aspect to the question of guilt. God fearing individuals are people who feel guilty when they violate the values that have been put forth by their religion and so live their lives constantly obeying those precepts. This theory is highly possible and logical because it is easy to elevate the status of one’s ancestors to the point where they become mythic simply because latter generations pass on stories that transform them into legends as reverence builds for these past heroes. I’m also considering becoming an atheist because of this. It seems so cowardly to fear something which doesn’t exist and which prevents me from being the best version of me, chained by fear and doubt and dependence on the will of God to give me the things I want. Religion is also an ideology that has brought the most conflict in our world, where whole communities have been wiped out because one group of men wish to bind another group of men under the tribe which they have mythicized. Dictatorships are a version of monotheism, where a despotic dictator like Kim Jong-Il wanted his citizens to believe that he was a God. So religion itself is symbolic of the will to power that Nietzsche talks about, it’s a tool that politicians use to get votes, it’s a tool for prejudice to disseminate amongst congregations on topics like homosexuality and it ultimately amounts to nothing.

Religion is also fuel for the bad conscience and guilt that Man feels now that there are societies around him. Guilt towards God: this idea becomes his instrument of torture. He interprets his animal instincts and innermost thoughts of cruelty and vulgarity as crimes against God and berates himself for this and it is the most extreme form of self-torture. In this spiritual cruelty there is a kind of insanity of the will which simply has no equal. Nietzsche contrasts the Christian God, the God that tortures people, to the Greek Gods, who are manifested as the different aspects of the Old Man, the Man of Instinct and people have long ago forgotten this idea that they are guilty to their gods. This guilt is essentially an excuse for violence, animal torture and sacrifices and a whole lot of practices that would have otherwise not existed.

That’s basically where Nietzsche finishes. He’s more of a diagnostic philosopher rather than someone with a cure, as the professor in my Coursera course says. But all of the above are interesting ideas to ponder about and they offer some great food for thought.

Note: The quotes from Nietzsche in this text have been edited into a more concise and user friendly fashion. They are not exact quotes from the Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters text. 

Attributes: 

  1. Nietzsche. by ~radicalpanda at deviantART, CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0
  2. Django-Unchained-Leonardo-DiCaprio by PhysicalFlaws at flickr, CC-BY-SA-2.0.
    The rest are public domain pictures from Wikimedia Commons.