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Beyond Good and Evil: Nietzsche on Love, Perseverance, and the True Mark of Greatness

“A man of genius is unbearable, unless he possess at least two things besides: gratitude and purity.”

Beyond Good and Evil: Nietzsche on Love, Perseverance, and the True Mark of Greatness

“All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up,” John Steinbeck wrote to his best friend on New Year’s Day 1941, as the world was coming undone by its deadliest war. “It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

It is a sentiment both lucid and noble, springing from one of humanity’s most humanistic minds. It is also an incomplete sentiment, for the dichotomy is not between good and evil but within the totality of being — something James Baldwin captured two decades and myriad miniature wars later in his staggering observation that “it has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”

A century before Baldwin, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) explored the complexity and nuance of this disquieting fundament of human nature in his 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil (free ebook | public library).

Friedrich Nietzsche

Composed of 296 numbered arguments, organized into nine thematic parts, and concluding with an epode, or aftersong, titled “From High Mountains,” this unyawning awakening of a book builds on the ideas Nietzsche had explored three years earlier from a more poetic angle in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, now examined with a pointed critical sensibility. It is at bottom a gauntlet to dogma, challenging the epochs-old notion of morality as the mere opposition of good and evil. The good person, Nietzsche argues as he hurls classical philosophy into discomposure and lays the groundwork for contemporary moral philosophy, behavioral economics, and social psychology, is not the opposite of the evil person; good and evil, rather, are different expressions of the same nature, which bubble to the surface by complex and nuanced currents of potentiality and choice.

In the seventy-second argument, Nietzsche — translated here by Helen Zimmern in the early twentieth century when his works were first published in English, and writing in an era when every woman was “man,” — extols the power of perseverance over the power of vehemence:

It is not the strength, but the duration of great sentiments that makes great men.

Two sentiments later, he supplements this with another necessity of greatness:

A man of genius is unbearable, unless he possess at least two things besides: gratitude and purity.

While Nietzsche places the active opposition to evil at the heart of the good, he admonishes that the preservation of this crucial purity, this hallmark of greatness, is an immense and delicate responsibility requiring constant vigilance over one’s own heart:

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

Art by Harry Clarke for a rare 1919 edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. (Available as a print.)

In the one sentence that best distills the essence of his entire book, his entire moral cosmogony, Nietzsche offers the ultimate — the only — charm against the transfiguration of heroism into monstrosity, the one elixir of moral might that at once fuels the fight of good against evil and subsumes it:

What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.

In the same era, animated by the same conviction as he was revolutionizing art, Vincent van Gogh was exclaiming in a letter to his brother that “whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!”

Complement this fragment of Nietzsche’s abidingly insightful and, in particular times such as ours, increasingly relevant Beyond Good and Evil with Hannah Arendt’s classic inquiry into the only effective antidote to evil and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a good human being, then revisit Nietzsche on the journey of becoming who you are, why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty, the true value of education, depression and the rehabilitation of hope, the power of music, the power of language, and his brilliant thought experiment about the key to existential contentment.

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The Gospel of James Baldwin: Musician Meshell Ndegeocello Rekindles the Fire of Truth for This Time

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”

The Gospel of James Baldwin: Musician Meshell Ndegeocello Rekindles the Fire of Truth for This Time

The history of the world is the history of telling others who and what we are — from tribal markings to national flags to family crests to pronoun-specifying email signatures. Every war that has ever been fought, political or personal, has been staked on these battlegrounds of identity and belonging. Every work of art that has ever been made has turned the battleground into a garden, where these same seeds of selfhood have come abloom in the artist’s being to touch with the pollen of some grander beauty and some larger truth other beings, clarifying and fortifying their own identity, their own presence, their own belonging in history. “An artist,” James Baldwin told the interviewer in his historic 1963 LIFE profile, “is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

Who and what we are is, of course, a complex mosaic with myriad tesserae, drawn from our genetic and cultural inheritance, shaped by the biological ancestors chance has dealt us and shaped equally by the spiritual ancestors we have chosen for ourselves, all of our ancestors themselves shaped by myriad confluences of chance and choice. The mosaic rests atop the most elemental stratum of our nature, for as Rachel Carson observed, “our origins are of the earth… so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”

Musician and conceptual poet Meshell Ndegeocello reanimates Baldwin’s words from that altogether vivifying 1963 interview to weave around them a lush lyric meditation on the roots and realities of personhood in an enchanting prose-poem, part of her multimedia experience Chapter and Verse — a project she envisioned as “a twenty-first-century ritual toolkit for justice, a call for revolution, a gift during turbulent times,” inspired by Baldwin’s prophetic 1963 book The Fire Next Time, which occasioned the LIFE tribute.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.

Complement this small fragment of Ndegeocello’s majestic Chapter and Verse with Anne Lamott’s lovely letter to children about books as an antidote to isolation and Baldwin’s great friend, champion, and fellow genius Gwendolyn Brooks’s forgotten 1969 poem about the power of books, then revisit Baldwin’s own account of how he read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and some of his most poignant, least known words of wisdom set to music by Ndegeocello’s friends and frequent collaborators Morley and Chris Bruce.

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Octavia Butler on Creative Drive, the World-Building Power of Our Desires, and How We Become Who We Are

“Love quiets fear. And a sweet and powerful positive obsession blunts pain, diverts rage, and engages each of us in the greatest, the most intense of our chosen struggles.”

Octavia Butler on Creative Drive, the World-Building Power of Our Desires, and How We Become Who We Are

After the glorious accident of having been born at all, there are myriad ways any one life could be lived. The lives we do live are bridges across the immense river of possibility, suspended by two pylons: what we want and what we make. In an ideal life — a life of purpose and deep fulfillment — the gulf of being closes and the pylons converge: We make what we want to see exist.

This interplay is what Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) explores throughout Parable of the Talents (public library) — the second part of her oracular Earthseed allegory, which also gave us Butler’s acutely timely wisdom on how (not) to choose our leaders.

Octavia Butler by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — an illustrated celebration of women writers who have enchanted and transformed our world.

More than a century after Walt Whitman — another rare seer of truths elemental and eternal, another poetic prophet of the world to come, who made what he wanted to see exist and in making it helped bring that world about — wrote that “there is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,” Butler writes:

Self is.

Self is body and bodily perception. Self is thought, memory, belief. Self creates. Self destroys. Self learns, discovers, becomes. Self shapes. Self adapts. Self invents its own reasons for being. To shape God, shape Self.

[…]

All prayers are to Self
And, in one way or another,
All prayers are answered.
Pray,
But beware.
Your desires,
Whether or not you achieve them
Will determine who you become.

Butler’s sentiment is only magnified by knowing that the word desire derives from the Latin for “without a star,” radiating a longing for direction. It is by wanting that we orient ourselves in the world, by finding and following our private North Star that we walk the path of becoming.

Artist Margaret C. Cook’s illustration for a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

To become, of course, is no easy task — to become, that is, what you yourself desire to be, without mistaking your culture’s or your idols’ or your lover’s desires for your own. E.E. Cummings knew this when he wrote half a century before Butler that “to be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” You win the fight, Butler intimates, by the clarity of your purpose and the perseverance with which you pursue it:

If you want a thing — truly want it, want it so badly that you need it as you need air to breathe, then unless you die, you will have it. Why not? It has you. There is no escape. What a cruel and terrible thing escape would be if escape were possible.

To want what you want so fiercely, to love it so absolutely, is not a personal indulgence in hubris or delusion — it is, Butler affirms, the mightiest antidote to the terrors of being alive and, in consequence, the fuel for your most generous contribution to the world:

Love quiets fear.
And a sweet and powerful
Positive obsession
Blunts pain,
Diverts rage,
And engages each of us
In the greatest,
The most intense
Of our chosen struggles.

Enlivening as this notion might be, even more enlivening is its manifestation in the shared struggle — for at its best, the art born of these private obsessions in the crucible of the Self goes on to touch other Selves, dissolving the isolating illusion of separateness and aloneness to furnish, in Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase, “an occasion for unselfing.”

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The Shadow Elephant: A Tender Illustrated Fable About What It Takes to Unblue Our Sorrows and Lighten the Load of Our Heaviest Emotions

In praise of that quiet, nonjudgmental place of permission where all healing begins.

The Shadow Elephant: A Tender Illustrated Fable About What It Takes to Unblue Our Sorrows and Lighten the Load of Our Heaviest Emotions

The strange thing about life, the wondrous thing about life, is that it is impossible to dull one hue of our emotional experience without dulling the entire spectrum, impossible to feel deeply at one end of it without feeling as deeply at the other. And without the chromatic intensity of feeling life deeply and fully, why live at all?

This elemental truth is especially pronounced in a creative life — a life that requires of us what Virginia Woolf called, in her transcendent existential epiphany, the “shock-receiving capacity” that makes an artist an artist. And yet we go to extreme lengths to avoid receiving this shock of aliveness, to avoid fully feeling the portions of the spectrum we deem unhandsome or inconvenient, to dull our own sadnesses and divert others from theirs, then walk away when we fail. It is a human impulse, this urge to shoo the sadness away. It is also dehumanizing, for only when we let the blues rush in with their full intensity do we become fully alive and awake to the dazzling spectrum of feeling that makes life worth living.

That is what Canadian author Nadine Robert and Italian artist Valerio Vidali explore with great subtlety and tenderness in The Shadow Elephant (public library).

The book opens with a lovely quote from The Little Prince, line-broken like a poem:

And when you are comforted
(we all eventually are)
you will be happy to have known me.
You will always be my friend.

Then the story unfolds, introducing the melancholy protagonist — a great blue elephant, prostrated with a heavy feeling against a great gradient of blue.

Some said the elephant was gloomy.
Some said he was trying to hide his sadness.
Some said he preferred the shadows.

The other animals of the savannah — bright and cheerful and suncast — try to lift the elephant out of his gloom by telling him silly stories, dancing him silly dances, bringing him their favorite foods.

Not a smile. Not a sound.
The elephant listened attentively,
but remained in the shadows.

And then, one day, a tiny mouse out of breath emerges from another scale of existence and asks simply whether she can sit beside the elephant and rest a little. This small ask — this nonjudgmental and unanxious presence with the elephant’s sadness — becomes the portal of his transformation.

The elephant is at first incredulous that the mouse isn’t there to distract him from his blues with some gimmick. But then she begins to tell him her own story — how she had gone out into the savannah to find her sister’s most precious possession, a golden key; how she had walked a whole day, only to become as lost as the key; how she is now terrified that she would find neither what she went looking for nor her way home.

Something about the mouse’s plight, about the ease with which she shares her sorrow with him, unlatches something in the elephant. He begins to cry — big, silent tears. Then she begins to cry, by that exquisite natural bond of creaturely sympathy that binds us when we cease to feel separate and alone in our sorrow.

Slowly, “drained of his tears,” the elephant rises, large and light, and hoists the mouse onto his back, offering to give her a ride home. Gently, without unease or demand, she invites him to tell her his own story.

“I can try,” he exhales as they vanish together behind the horizon of aloneness.

The Shadow Elephant comes from my friends at the visionary Enchanted Lion Books, makers of uncommonly poetic and profound illustrated portals into the emotional universe — treasures like Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, and The Forest (also illustrated by Vidali).

Complement this particular treasure with The Heart and the Bottle — Oliver Jeffers’s tender illustrated fable of what we stand to lose when we deny our difficult emotions — then revisit a moving animated short film about depression and what it takes to recover the light of being.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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