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Nietzsche on the Journey of Becoming and What It Means to Be a Free Spirit

“…become master over yourself, master of your own good qualities… acquire power over your aye and no and learn to hold and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims…”

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) wrote in his magnificent meditation on how to find yourself. But building that bridge requires a special kind of willingness, a singular capacity for self-liberation — something Nietzsche explores in his 1879 masterpiece Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (public library | free ebook), which he aptly describes as a “discouraging-encouraging work” dedicated to the romantic ideal of the free spirit.

More than a century before modern psychologists came to pinpoint how our beliefs about human nature shape human nature, Nietzsche writes:

Such “free spirits” do not really exist and never did exist. But I stood in need of them, as I have pointed out, in order that some good might be mixed with my evils (illness, loneliness, strangeness, acedia, incapacity): to serve as gay spirits and comrades, with whom one may talk and laugh when one is disposed to talk and laugh, and whom one may send to the devil when they grow wearisome… [And] I see them already coming, slowly, slowly. May it not be that I am doing a little something to expedite their coming when I describe in advance the influences under which I see them evolving and the ways along which they travel?

Nietzsche considers how such spirits are born:

A soul in which the type of “free spirit” can attain maturity and completeness had its decisive and deciding event in the form of a great emancipation or unbinding, and that prior to that event it seemed only the more firmly and forever chained to its place and pillar… The great liberation comes suddenly to such prisoners, like an earthquake: the young soul is all at once shaken, torn apart, cast forth — it comprehends not itself what is taking place. An involuntary onward impulse rules them with the mastery of command; a will, a wish are developed to go forward… a mutinous, willful, volcanic-like longing for a far away journey…

Illustration by JooHee Yoon from Beastly Verse

But this vitalizing process of becoming, Nietzsche cautions, is rife with struggle and difficulty — something he considered essential to a fulfilling life. (A century later, C.S. Lewis would write: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”) Nietzsche considers the uncomfortable but necessary rupture that precipitates this breakthrough of the free spirit, and the fine line between constructive and destructive rebellion:

Things of pain and ill belong to the history of the great liberation. And it is at the same time a malady that can destroy a man, this first outbreak of strength and will for self-destination, self-valuation, this will for free will… The liberated … roves fiercely around, with an unsatisfied longing and whatever objects he may encounter must suffer from the perilous expectancy of his pride; he tears to pieces whatever attracts him. With a sardonic laugh he overturns whatever he finds veiled or protected by any reverential awe: he would see what these things look like when they are overturned.

This disposition of the true free spirit, Nietzsche argues, requires a mindset strikingly reminiscent of the Buddhist notion of non-attachment. He writes:

A man of such destiny … basks in a special fine sun of his own, with a feeling of birdlike freedom, birdlike visual power, birdlike irrepressibleness, a something extraneous (Drittes) in which curiosity and delicate disdain have united. A “free spirit” — this refreshing term is grateful in any mood, it almost sets one aglow. One lives — no longer in the bonds of love and hate, without a yes or no, here or there indifferently, best pleased to evade, to avoid, to beat about, neither advancing nor retreating…

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Nietzsche traces the further unfolding of the free spirit’s journey:

A step further in recovery: and the free spirit draws near to life again, slowly indeed, almost refractorily, almost distrustfully. There is again warmth and mellowness: feeling and fellow feeling acquire depth, lambent airs stir all about him. He almost feels: it seems as if now for the first time his eyes are open to things near. He is in amaze and sits hushed: for where had he been? These near and immediate things: how changed they seem to him! He looks gratefully back — grateful for his wandering, his self exile and severity, his lookings afar and his bird flights in the cold heights… Now for the first time he really sees himself — and what surprises in the process. What hitherto unfelt tremors! Yet what joy in the exhaustion, the old sickness, the relapses of the convalescent! How it delights him, suffering, to sit still, to exercise patience, to lie in the sun! Who so well as he appreciates the fact that there comes balmy weather even in winter, who delights more in the sunshine athwart the wall? They are the most appreciative creatures in the world, and also the most humble, these convalescents and lizards, crawling back towards life: there are some among them who can let no day slip past them without addressing some song of praise to its retreating light… It is a fundamental cure for all pessimism (the cankerous vice, as is well known, of all idealists and humbugs), to become ill in the manner of these free spirits, to remain ill quite a while and then bit by bit grow healthy — I mean healthier. It is wisdom, worldly wisdom, to administer even health to oneself for a long time in small doses.

Becoming a free spirit, Nietzsche insists, requires learning “to read the riddle of that great liberation” — a liberation the fruition of which he captures in a passage nothing short of transcendent:

You had to become master over yourself, master of your own good qualities. Formerly they were your masters: but they should be merely your tools along with other tools. You had to acquire power over your aye and no and learn to hold and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims… You had to find out the inevitable error in every Yes and in every No, error as inseparable from life, life itself as conditioned by the perspective and its inaccuracy. Above all, you had to see with your own eyes where the error is always greatest: there, namely, where life is littlest, narrowest, meanest, least developed and yet cannot help looking upon itself as the goal and standard of things, and smugly and ignobly and incessantly tearing to tatters all that is highest and greatest and richest, and putting the shreds into the form of questions from the standpoint of its own well being.

In a sentiment that his compatriot Rilke would echo a generation later in writing that “the future enters into us … in order to transform itself in us long before it happens,” Nietzsche adds:

Our destiny exercises its influence over us even when, as yet, we have not learned its nature: it is our future that lays down the law to our to-day.

Complement the wholly rewarding Human, All Too Human with Nietzsche on the power of music, the importance of embracing difficulty, and his ten rules for writers.


Italo Calvino on Photography and the Art of Presence

“The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.”

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Susan Sontag wrote in her legendary 1977 treatise on photography, which stands as an astoundingly prescient depiction of today’s visual culture. But seven years earlier, Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985) — another writer of extraordinary prescience and enduring cultural insight, and a man of great wisdom on writing, the psychology of distraction and procrastination, the paradox of America, and the meaning of life — spoke to this same concept in his magnificent 1970 short story collection Difficult Loves (public library).

Through the words of one of his characters — a photographer named Antonino — Calvino channels the compulsive nature of our “aesthetic consumerism” and captures our tendency to leave the moment in the act of immortalizing it:

The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow… The minute you start saying something, “Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!” you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.

Illustration by the late Yan Nascimbene for Calvino’s short stories

Decades before we started manicuring and art-directing life in order to Instagram it rather than simply living its glorious messiness, and even before Annie Dillard’s unforgettable meditation on the difference between walking with and without a camera, Calvino writes:

The taste for the spontaneous, natural, lifelike snapshot kills spontaneity, drives away the present. Photographed reality immediately takes on a nostalgic character, of joy fled on the wings of time, a commemorative quality, even if the picture was taken the day before yesterday. And the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself.

All thirteen stories in Difficult Loves are absolutely wonderful, exploring various aspects of relationships and the contortions of communication. Complement this particular fragment with Annie Dillard on the two ways of looking, Hannah Arendt on being vs. appearing, and Anna Deavere Smith on the power of “aesthetic force,” then revisit Calvino on how to lower your “worryability”, the two psychological types of writers, how to assert yourself with grace, and the key to great writing.


Louis I, King of the Sheep: An Illustrated Parable of How Power Changes Us

A subtle reminder that we are separated from those less fortunate than us by little more than unmerited cosmic odds.

“Never be hard upon people who are in your power,” Charles Dickens counseled in a letter of advice to his young son. And yet power has a way of calling forth the hardest and most unhandsome edges of human nature — something John F. Kennedy observed in his spectacular eulogy to Robert Frost, lamenting that power “leads men towards arrogance” and “narrows the areas of man’s concern.” Redemption, he argued, is only possible when we recognize that “what counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity.”

It’s a difficult lesson to impart even on the most intelligent and receptive of grownups, and one especially crucial in planting the seeds of good personhood in childhood, when we first brush with power dynamics in ways so real and raw that they can imprint us for life.

That’s what French illustrator Olivier Tallec accomplishes with extraordinary humor, sensitivity, and warmth in Louis I, King of the Sheep (public library) — one of the loveliest children’s books I’ve ever encountered.

Inspired by watching children tussle with power on the playground, it tells the story of a humble sheep named Louis who becomes self-appointed king after a fickle gust of wind deposits a royal crown at his feet.

As Louis I rises to power by nothing more than chance, he gradually transmogrifies into an entitled and arrogant tyrant — a woefully familiar behavioral pattern calling to mind the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment, that cornerstone of social psychology in which students were randomly assigned to be either prison guards or prisoners in a mock-jail and the “guards” proceeded to exploit their randomly assigned power to a point of devastating inhumanity.

Intoxicated with his newfound authority, Louis I goes on to find himself a throne “from which to hand down justice,” begins addressing the people, and embarks upon such royal activities as hunting — even for lions.

He receives the world’s greatest artists at his palace and esteemed ambassadors from distant lands come to bow at his feet.

Eventually, he becomes so drunk on power that he decides he must bring order to his dominion by driving out all sheep who don’t resemble him — perhaps Tallec’s subtle invitation to parents to teach kids about the Holocaust, that darkest of episodes in the history of human nature, undergirded by the very same atrocious impulses.

And then, just like that, another fickle gust of wind takes the crown away.

The story is at heart an imaginative and intelligent parable of the inherent responsibility that comes with power. Embedded in it is also a reminder that we are separated from those less fortunate than us by little more than unmerited cosmic odds, even if it’s more flattering to believe otherwise.

Complement this immeasurably delightful gem with Adrienne Rich on what power really means and JFK on poetry and power, then revisit Tallec’s playful and poignant illustrated allegory of why we fight.

Louis I, King of the Sheep comes from Enchanted Lion Books, the independent Brooklyn-based powerhouse behind such uncommonly wonderful picture-books as The Lion and the Bird, Beastly Verse, Little Boy Brown, and the illustrated biography of E.E. Cummings.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books


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