“It’s better to burn out than to fade away” – 20 Years Without Kurt Cobain (1967-1994)

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It seems to me quite ironic and ambiguous that a band named Nirvana was actually the living and struggling embodiment of what Buddhists call Samsara. As if he was bound to the wheel of craving and suffering, Kurt Cobain screamed his guts out just like I imagine Prometheus (so beautifully depicted in Rubens’ painting) screamed day after day as the eagle devoured his liver. Nirvana is perhaps the most tragic rock and roll band there was, seen from the perspective of Cobain’s death, but it ‘s also one of the most exciting pages of rock history in the 1990s. It inspired us, with its punkish courage, to take mainstream culture by assault. Off with commercial shitty kitsch! He wanted art to be undiluted expression of raw and true emotion, communicated through the means of songs bursting with juvenile energy, suicidal tendencies, drug experiences, Beatlemania, and an up-bringing in what he called “a punk rock world”.

 He violently departed from us, 20 years ago, in April 1994, by blowing his brains out with a shotgun on his 1-million-dollar mansion, chez lui on Trigger-Happy America. When he chose suicide as a way-out-of-the-Samsarian-mess, his daughter Frances was 20 months old and couldn’t possibly understand anything about the struggles of a heroin addict with his condition as an international pop-superstar. Singing as if he was a tree rooted in dark angry soil, his voice seemed to arise from an abyss of suffering, especially located in an intense point of pain inside his belly. That invisible wound made tremendously audible by his music rang so true and filled with authenticity, in an era of poseurs and fakers and hair-metal yuppie cowshit. Lester Bangs once wrote that “expression of passion was why music was invented in the first place”, and Cobain also seemed to believe in this – and he wasn’t ashamed to put his “dark” emotional side, from depression and paranoia to sociophobia and alienation, to craft the punk-rock hymns that turned him unwillingly into The Spokesman Of A Generation. Extraordinarily capable of expressing his feelings, Cobain’s heart poured out of himself like lava from a volcano, letting us peek through a sonic keyhole into the labyrinths of an anguished life seeking release and craving for pain to end.

Cobain’s musicianship was spectacularly exciting and innovative – even though he borrowed a lot from a similar heavy, distorted and fast guitar-sound, similar to the one invented and mastered in previous decades by Johnny Ramones and Mick Joneses – he created out of that something that was distinguishable his own. Cherishing intensity rather than complexity, and emotional catharsis more than rational self-controlness, Nirvana’s music carried within it some much power that the whole thing mushroomed into one of those rares episode in music history when a band becomes History, defines an Era, before burning-out instead of fading-away. I call them “The Exploding Stars”. I would argue, If you permit me to trip a little bit on some stoned hypotheses, that Cobain’s voice spoke to millions, and his music stirred up such an intense commotion, because of the authentic and desperate artistical expression that he was able to create out of his Samsarian suffering. In 1991, the kitsch of American pop culture – from Michael Jackson to Guns’N’Roses – was suddenly kicked in the butt by the 1990s equivalent to MC5’s Kick Out The Jams to the 1960s and Nevermind The Bollocks, Here’ The Sex Pistols to the 1970s.  

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And here we are, 20 years after he took a shortcut into that land which no voyager ever comes back from (like Shakespeare’s Hamlet said), discussing his legacy and trying to understand his life and his death. Violent deaths occur every day and all the time, of course, and why should the death of a rock star be made so much fuzz about? The thing is: American Culture is deeply influenced by the realm of Pop, which is a money-making-machine mainly, of course, but sometimes explodes out of control and becomes a cultural force that manages to transcend the markets. It becomes something to be dealt with by Art History, by Sociology, by Philosophy, by Anthropology, by Existential Psychology etc. Or do you perhaps think that the more than 60 people who committed copycat suicides after Cobain’s demise in 1994 related to Cobain only as consumers do with manufacturers of products? Could we possibly say that the more than 5.000 people who went to his funeral, and joined in a candlelight vigil, were merely mourning because they had lost one of their hired entertainers? What about more than 50 million records sold (how many billions of downloads, I wonder?): did all these listeners heard Cobain just as a manufactured commodity? No! Cobain had an authenticity arising from the trueness of feeling underlying his music, and this set him apart from everything that was going on in “Mainstream American Culture” in that era.

Nirvana kicked the door to the ground for Underground America to step into the spotlight in 1991, “The Year that Punk Broke” (when Sonic Youth signed to a major; when Pearl Jam and Soundgarden skyrocketed to the top of charts; when Seattle’s scene became “The Big Thing” in a process juicily conveyed by Hype! , the documentary). Violent and untimely deaths happened all around Cobain while he experienced and interacted with people from the music scenes of Aberdeen, Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle. Prior to Cobain’s suicide, there had been other tragedies in Seattle Rock City: for example, Mia Zapata‘s cold-blooded murder in July 1993, when the singer-songwriter of The Gits (one of the awesomest “grunge” bands that never made it to the Mass Media…) was raped and killed after leaving a bar in Seattle. Or the fatal-OD that took to an early grave Andrew Wood, singer in Mother Love Bone (whose remaining members went on to build Temple of The Dog and then Pearl Jam).

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TWO GRUNGY TRAGEDIES BEFORE COBAIN:  MIA ZAPATA’s murder (watch below the full The Gits doc) and ANDREW WOOD’s fatal OD (listen below to the tribute album by Temple Of The Dog, wich contains the grungy-hymn in which Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell share vocal duties, “Hunger Strike”).

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Suicide is common currency in rock’n’roll mythology. The Who had screamed in the 1960s, for a whole generation to hear: “I hope I die before I get old”. Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My” stated that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” – a phrase later to become one of the most quoted from Cobain’ suicide letter. The Dead-at-27 Club had already a plentiful of members – Hendrix, Morrison, Janis… – when Nirvana’s lead singer joined them on this fraternity of bones. His originality was in his means-of-death: he was the first of them to have commited suicide. But did he really choose to leave life in order to become myth? Or such ambitions were not the case for someone craving to escape a labyrinth of angst, rage, stomach-aches, annoying fame, never-ending tours and chronical dissatisfaction? To get back to my point in the beggining of this trip: isn’t suicide, in Cobain’s case, an succesfull attempt simply to blow to smithereens the whole damned Samsara? After all, this man was an extremist not only in art but also in life, and it’s quite possible he entertained extreme notions about what Nirvana was all about.

 Nirvana’s music was not Zen at all – it was the sound of fury delivered in packages of Beatlesque melody and punkish attitude. When, 20 years ago today, he chose utter self-destruction, this was hardly a surprising ending for someone who had talked openly about suicide for years and years, and who had previously attempted it some times before, and who almost named the follow-up to Nevermind with the phrase I Hate Mysef And I Want To Die… Not surprising, but still mysterious and fascinating and hard to fully understand. Some writers and interpreters see Cobain’s suicide as something despicable, and criticize him for being a sell-out who couldn’t enjoy his success, or a kid who couldn’t stand his “tummy-ache” and chose some dumb radical medicine. In his article “An Icon of Alienation”, Jonathan Freedland writes, for example, about Cobain’s Last Days (also portrayed in cinema by Gus Van Sant):

“Generation X-ers are meant to be the slacker generation, yet here was the slacker-in-chief living the yuppie dream: married, padding around a $1.1 million luxury mansion with a garden for his baby daughter to play in, and Microsoft and Boeing executives for neighbours. It proved to be no refuge for Kurt Cobain, the boy who had come from blue-collar nowhere and made himself an international star and millionaire. Holed up inside the house overlooking the perfume-scented lake, he pumped his veins full of heroin, wrote his rambling suicide note, and did so much damage to his head that police could only identify his body through fingerprints. Dental records were no use, because nothing was left of his mouth.” – JONATHAN FREEDLAND, An Icon Of Alienation.

Some say some sort of suicide gene or tragic curse ran in the Cobain family: three of Kurt’s uncles had killed themselves. But the picture, of course, is much more complex than the “family tree” explanations wants to admit. It’s well known that Kurt Cobain was deeply pained both by stomach-aches and by childhood traumas (he was, every journalist repeated to exhaustion, the “son of a broken home”). His heroin-addiction, which he justified as a means of self-medication, it seems to relate also to some frantic need to numb his existential discomfort and disgust, to reach periodically some “artificial paradises” similar to the ones experienced by Baudelaire, De Quincey, Burroughs, Ken Kesey and tons of other artists and mystics. But no explanation of his bloody choice of escape from life can be convincing without a discussion about Celebrity, Fame, Success. As Will Hermes wrote in Rolling Stone magazine: “The singer-songwriter, who wrestled with medical problems and the drugs he took to keep them at bay,  was also deeply conflicted about his fame, craving and rejecting it.”

That’s what makes Nirvana so interesting: a punk band kicking out the jams in Sub Pop records turns into the highest-selling band in the world and becomes rich on the payroll of a major record company – Geffen. I would like to attempt to reflect briefly upon some of the reasons that explain Cobain’s suicide, but without venturing to give a comprehensive biography of the man or his band – a job already done brilliantly by Charles Cross’s Louder Than Heaven, by the Nirvana bio written by Everett True, or by the documentary About a Son by A. J. Schnack.

Let’s head back to 1991, when Nevermind exploded into the mainstream pop arena and became a cultural phenomenon of huge proportions. This landmark album wasn’t only a big commercial hit, destined to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. It wasn’t only one of the greatest rock’n’roll albums ever made, with songs so powerful that Simon Williams describes them as “savage indictments of the rock ethos, eye-bulging, larynx-blistering screamalongs”. It wasn’t only a passing fancy of youngsters who would completely forget about the band when the next wave of pop novelties came along. Nevermind was an era-defining masterpiece of epic proportions, the most important album of the whole grunge era, the record that stands out in the 1990s as something unique and unsurpassed. It kicked out the jams with its raw power and heartfelt catharsis, and finally punk rock aesthetics and ethics became common currency and were delivered to the astonished masses. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a song named jokingly after a deodorant, and in which Cobain said he was merely ripping off The Pixies, took MTV by storm in 1991 and buried for awhile the Disco-Yuppie-Crap and the Hair-Metal-Bullshit. It kick-started the Grunge Era and opened the gates wide open for the Seattle scene to become immensely influential through Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, The Screaming Trees, and many others. For the first time ever in the U.S., it seemed like Punk Rock was gonna win its battle and inject rebelliousness and dissent into the veins of American suffering from a hangover after the Reagan-years in Shopping Centerish Yuppie America.

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 “Nirvana have also been seen in sociological terms: as defining a new generation, the twentysomething ‘slackers’ who have retreated from life; as telling unattractive home truths about a country losing its empire and hit by recession; as representing the final, delayed impact of British punk on America. They have also shocked people by trashing male gender codes: kissing each other on the national network show Saturday Night Live, appearing in dresses in the video for their single ‘In Bloom’, doing pro-gay benefits. We may be more used to this in Britain, but America is a country with much more machismo in its popular culture. A sensational appearance on last year’s globally broadcast MTV Awards, where they smashed their equipment and mocked rock competitors Guns N’Roses, sealed their status as America’s bad boys…” JON SAVAGE, Sounds Dirty – The Truth About Nirvana

 Nirvana wasn’t political like The Clash, but yet they certainly did a political statement with their career. Kurt Cobain shoots himself in the head and his brains get splattered all over the American Dream – that thing that, George Carlin said, “you have to be asleep to believe in”. Nirvana was much more about a provocation, à la William Burroughs (Cobain’s favorite writer), on the despised Square Society of White America. It’s punkish agression against Yuppie bullshit. It states that music shouldn’t be seen only as product or merchandise, and that it can convey emotions that can “infect” large portions of society with its groove, its stamina, its mind-expansion and energy-raising powers.

Kurt Cobain could be described by psychopathologists as clinically depressed or bi-polar – it’s known he had familiarity with Ritalins and Lithiums and other creations of the Pharmacological Industries in Capitalist America. But Nirvana’s music is not only a downer – on the contrary, Nevermind cointained so much power that it seemed like it was capable of awakening a whole generation out of its lethargy and inaction. But Cobain couldn’t and wouldn’t be the “leader of a generation”, the preacher telling in the microfone for the converted masses which way to follow. He wouldn’t become a parody of himself (“I hope I die before I turn into Pete Townsend”, he said), he wouldn’t be a happy millionaire smiling for the papparazzis, he simply wouldn’t conform to letting Nirvana become a sell-out act of merely market-wise relevance. With his death, he turned Nirvana into a symbol for decades to come, a band never to be forgotten.

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 “The sleeve of Nevermind shows a baby swimming underwater towards a dollar bill on a fish hook. The intended meaning is clear: the loss of innocence, the Faustian contract that usually comes with money. Take it, but if you do, you’re hooked for life. It’s a parable of Nirvana’s current dilemma: they’ve taken the bait, but the contradictions of their success are threatening to tear them apart. How can the members of Nirvana retain their integrity, which is very important to them, in a situation which demands constant compromise? How can they sing from the point of view of an outsider now that they’re in a privileged position? How can they suffer relentless worldwide media exposure and still retain, in Grohl’s words, ‘the spontaneity and the energy of something fresh and new’ that has marked their career?” – JON SAVAGE

“Teenage angst paid off well, now I’m bored all old”: that was the statement that began In Utero’s sonic ride. In it, Cobain wants to take us with him on his downward spiral, never afraid to let the songs show his inner confusion and Samsarian suffering. He didn’t believe in a loving God acting as a Daddy up above on the clouds, looking out for their pet-children, but rather was seduced by Buddhist notions, for example that of Karma. Nirvana’s music seems like some sort of ritual of Karmic cleansing, in which Cobain attempts, through a visceral outpouring of emotions, especially the ones that are burdensome, to attain some release.

But he didn’t arrive at no Enlightnenment – not even plain and simple piece of mind. In Rome, March 1994, he attempts suicide with more than 50 pills of Roipnol. He couldn’t stand the never-ending tours, the stupid interviews, the persecution by papparazis, the fans acting like Neanderthals, the need to repeat for the thousandth time “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – even in those nights when we didn’t felt like doing it. He simply wasn’t able to “enjoy” the ride of popstardom inside the Commercial Machinery of Profit Seeking Corporate America. When Rolling Stone did a cover issue with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt that read: ‘CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK’. Even tough he hated Corporate America, he was immersed in it, and it had the means for him to take his message to larger audiences instead of limiting himself to the narrow world of punk-rock and indie concerts where you only preach to the converted. Nirvana never did corporate rock, but instead they did dangerous music that the industry soon discovered that resounded with millions of people worldwide. To call them “sell-outs” is narrow-mindedness. They tried instead to deeply transform Mainstream culture by taking it by storm. This is one of the most influential bands in the history of rock because it inspired us to reclaim the airwaves out of the hands of those fuckers Terence McKenna talks about in “Reclaim Your Mind”:

He never felt at ease or at home under the spotlight of mass media, gossip magazines, commercial TV shows. Always a punkish outsider and underdog that never quite fitted into the mainstream’s machinery of popstardom, he identified himself with feminists, oddballs, weirdos and other non-conformist and eccentric individuals and urban tribes. He despised pop icons like M. Jackson or Axl Rose, and loved The Pixies, The Raincoats, Young Marble Giants, all sorts of lo-fi and low-budget underground “indie” stuff. Even tough proto-grungers such as Husker Du’s Bob Mould, Black Flag’s Henry Rollins or The Replacements’ Paul Weterberg done something similar to Cobain both musically and lyrically, neither exploded internationally like Nirvana to wide-spread impact on thousands of lives.

I remember him as punk rock kid from a fucked-up town filled with macho-men rednecks, and who expressed his rage against mainstream American culture with extraordinary talent. I remember him as an aesthetic extremist who loved William Burroughs’ stoned literature, and who entertained himself in his Aberdeen years with peculiar fun such as watching Faces of Death after eating hallucinogenic mushrooms. I remember him also as a sometimes sensitive and tender guy who had pet-turtles in his bathtub and hated in his guts all sorts of homophobia, misoginy and Neanderthal stupidity. I remember him as a music geek that loved underground music and did everything in his power to invite his audience to listen to his favorite “indie” artists (like Pixies, Breeders, Meat Puppets, Vaselines, Daniel Johnston, Beat Happening, Flipper, Bikini Kill, Half Japanese, Billy Childish, Butthole Surfers…).

David Stubbs, in his article “I Hate Myself And I Want to Die”, writes:

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“Rock’n’roll mythology is fed and defined by its occasional deaths. Usually, these are due to some excess or other – driving too fast, getting too high, taking too much, going too far, the romantic pushing back of life’s envelope, testing the limits, wanting too much, wanting it now, forfeiting tomorrow in the bargain. Rock’n’roll mythology dictates that its heroes die because they wanted to live too much. Kurt Cobain, however, didn’t want to live. He wanted to die.”

It can be said that he’s the most perfect embodiment in rock music of  Nihilism, that cultural phenomenon which Nietzsche predicted, in the 19th century, that would become wide-spread. Cobain radically acted upon his nihilism, towards his self-destruction, what sets him apart from other famous nihilists, like Emil Cioran or Arthur Schopenhauer, who died of old age and so-called “natural causes”.

The man died, but his deeds are still with us, haunting us like Prometheu’s scream as he’s being eaten by an eagle, inspiring us like a Punk Monument to raw power in an age of slumber, provoking us like a tragic character which awakens us to a life that ain’t no picnic. There’s reason to mourn and get the paralysing blues when we considerer Cobain’s suicide, but there’s also reason to cherish and celebrate a life that has left a legacy that millions of us feel that have enriched our lives. Cobain struggled in Samsara and that makes him a member of a brotherhood called Humanity. Nirvana always sounded to me like the music of a brother, expressing what we, his brothers in suffering, also experienced but were unable to express so powerfully and unforgettably as he did.

[By Awestruck Wanderer]

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CRONENBERG’S MUTATIONS: A tribute to one of cinema’s greatest artists and profoundest thinkers

David and the Fly

The Creator and its Creature: Cronenberg together with Mr. Bundlefly

CRONENBERG’S MUTATIONS
Article by Eduardo Carli de Moraes

PROLOGUE

I have recently spent a whole afternoon wandering around at the Evolution exhibition, wonderfully produced by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It was such an amazing tribute to one of Canada’s greatest artists alive, David Cronenberg. I was already an admirer of his oeuvre – I’ve watched every film that Cronenberg has ever delivered, and some of them several times – but TIFF’s homage to this great creative mind took me on a thrilling “trip down memory lane” (to quote a memorable line by Ed Harris’ character in A History of Violence).

Since the late 1960s, Cronenberg has been producing some of the most tought-provoking and original films I’ve ever seen, and in this article I intend to argue that his body of work deserves our high praises for its artistic accomplishments. I don’t see why he should be confined within the limits of genres such as science fiction and horror: Cronenberg has gone way beyond the boundaries of “specialized filmmaking” and has built a cinematic legacy that bears the mark of far-sighted vision and unique imagination.

naked lunchHere is an artist that never shies away from challenging themes: he has adapted to the big screen some works of literature deemed “unfilmable” (such as William Burrough’s Naked Lunch or Don De Lillo’s Cosmopolis); he has depicted sexual perversions and car-fetishism in impacful ways (in his film on J. G. Ballard’s Crash); he has engaged in a debate with Marshall McLuhan’s theories about media and its social effects (in Videodrome); he has explored the mysteries of schizophrenia, paranoia, depression, identity crisis, among other dark corners of the mind (in films such as Dead Ringers, The Brood, Spider…). Cronenberg, to sum things up, may be understood as a philosopher of cinema, who uses his art in order to understand the world around him, to share his fears and doubts about the paths treaded by Western civilization, and to awaken us from the slumbers of conformity by sounding the alarms on some doubtful process through which the human mind and body is being transformed and mutated.

Some oversensitive people may certainly turn away from his work in disgust and horror, claiming that the guy is obsessed with disgusting creatures, nasty and monstruous mutants, scary uncontrolable viruses, and lots of bloodshed and carnage. There’s definetely a B-movie flavour to some of Cronenberg’s work, but this doesn’t mean his investigations are narrow and shallow. If some of his movies are far from being eye-candy, and if his esthetic choices have a strong tendency against kitsch, it leads us to ask: is the role of the artist to caress us and entertain us rather than to provoke us, shock us and kick us out of our comfort zones?

In the following explorations of Cronenberg’s films, I’ll attempt to throw the spotlight on the great contribution his art embodies as a reflection upon human psychology and the mysteries that underlie the mutations of our identities in the midst of our society’s ever faster techno-scientific transformations.

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I. THE NEW FLESH

videodromeAt TIFF’s Evolution exhibition, it was stated that “Cronenberg demonstrates a keen interest in doctors and scientists who initiate experiments with unforeseen, often disastrous, consequences”. Very well remarked: in Cronenberg’s realm, science and technology often produces “disasters” and “monsters”. Things never seem to turn out the way they had been planned to. There’s an abyss between good intentions and the actual outcomes of the experiments – and this abyss is one that Cronenberg’s loves to explore. In many cases, it’s as if Science is being seen from the lenses of its victims, from the perspective of the abused or the deranged by it.

“History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake”, goes the famous saying by James Joyce in Ulysses. Watching David Cronenberg’s films I frequently get a feeling of entering a nightmarish world, where epidemics and plagues rage, and human heads suddenly explode, and brains get messed-up by medical interventions, consumption of pharmaceutical drugs, or misguided scientific manipulations.

It seems Science is a nightmare from which Cronenberg is trying to awake. And that by filming his dystopic visions he suceeds in sharing his nightmares with his perplexed audience. William Burroughs once said, later to be quoted by Kurt Cobain in a punkish Nirvana song: “just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” Likewise, it could be said of Cronenberg’s filmed nightmares: just because they’re pessimistic and terrifying, it doesn’t mean they can’t turn out to become reality. Just remember Chernobyl, in the past; just take a look at Fukushima, in the present; with these catastrophes in mind, Cronenberg’s phantasies will appear to our eyes as explorations of possibilities that we might unfortunely realize.

The originality of David Cronenberg cinema lies in, among other elements, the way he questions the consequences of technological “advancements” and scientific experiments: it can be a new brand of psychotherapy that relies on the un-repressed expression of rage (The Brood); it can be the evolution in video-games and artificial/digital environments (eXistenZ); it can be a new drug supposedly destined to turn life on Earth into a chemically induced Paradise (ephemerol in Shivers); it can be innovations in the fields of surgery, genetics or robotism…

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Cronenberg’s cinema is surely dystopic, dismal, pessimistic, and one gets a “mood”, from his films, of anxiety and preocupation arising from the possible outcomes of our self-remaking, of mankind’s efforts to transform itself and to transcend its present limitations. Everyone who’s seen some of his films knows that scientific experiments – including the ones inside the field of Psychology, which interests Cronenberg very lively! – can end up going terribly wrong. And one of the thrills of watching his movies derives from the fact that we know this artist is not going to spare us, that he’s gonna make us confront some bloody and disruptive occurences.

Since the beggining of his carreer, with Stereo (1969) or Crimes of The Future (1970), Cronenberg was into description of “laboratorial environments”, but within them there were no rat labs: in his films, the rat labs are always human beings. In one interview, the director states that he never makes “monsters movies”, but rather describes the ways through which the human body is transformed into a monstruous and uncontrolable post-human organism. In Cronenberg, the illusion of safety and control almost always ends up terribly shattered to pieces with the eruption of chaos and unpredicted consequences.

TIFF’s exhibittion EVOLUTION claimed that Cronenberg must be understood as one of the greatest thinkers in the whole of Canadian culture – and I agree entirely: he’s a philosopher of the big-screen with as much to say to us as Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Lévy, Manuel Castells, or other of the thinkers of our present-day Technological Age. Cronenberg’s contribution to an interdiscilinary debate concerning genetics and eugenics, obsessions and fetishism, biotechnology and scientificism, is outstanding.

The “mood” in most of his films makes it clear that Cronenberg isn’t buying naively the ideology that says technological and scientifical progress will lead us to Paradise on Earth. It’s quite frequent, in Cronenberg’s films, that the attempt made by human scientists to reshape our bodies ends up messing things up badly. The transformations that the human body undergoes with its constant interactions with technology, the way our bodies and minds end up emboding technology, is one of Croneberg’s obssessions. The bio-ports in ExistenZ are the best example: holes in our bodys, similar to a computer’s entrance door, through which we can be plugged in to an artificial realm that cuts us off from day-to-day “natural” reality. But decades prior to that, he had already painted a gory portrait of the possible evolutions of television in his unforgetable Videodrome. There he explores the possible transformations of media, tripping on McLuhan’s ideas to end up creating a nightmarish dystopia, filled with hallucinationaty head-helmets and very weird mutations that give birth to a “new flesh”.

The effect of going through several roller-coaster rides in Cronenberg’s sci-fi park is, among other, this: skepticism about the marvels brought to us by advancements in technology and science. Cronenberg’s imagination may seem a little bit “paranoid”, in the sense that his fantasy springs from the fear that things can go horribly ashtray in human civilization while we venture into ever increasing degrees of artificiality. But there’s not a single drop of idealization of the past, or of Rousseau’s Natural Man, in Cronenberg’s work: he doesn’t seem to see any way backwards that will leads us to the way things used to be. It can be said that this cinema deeply anguised by time’s irreversibility and portraying the dangers of artificiality. It would also be unjust to say he’s condemning techno-cientific advancements; it seems to me Cronenberg’s tries to underline the ambiguity of this processes we have developed. They can have largely beneficial results for medicine and health, for example, but the other side of the coin – the nightmarish side – also deserves to be taken into account. An example: of course it would be silly to deny the importance of X-rays, for example, for the diagnosis of disease, but it would also be silly (and dangerous!) to ignore that a body that gets exposed to an excess of radiation can suffer terrible consequences.

Nothing guarantees us that the New Flesh is an evolution on the previous one – it may be a backward step. It may be the unleashing of forces we’ll be unable to control. It may be nightmares coming true.

But it would be unfair to dismiss and undervalue Cronenberg’s artistic insight if we were to treat him as a pessimist always obsessed with disasters. Of course there’s lots of bloodshed in his films – just remember the ending of A History of Violence, that rivals with the most gruesome of scenes in Tarantino’s or Sergio Leone’s oeuvre. But a debate about violence in cinema can’t leave Cronenberg out of the picture: something quite original and unique is involved in this peculiar brand of cinematic ultra-violence. I would argue that the profoundness we can find in his films, if only we delve deep enough in their secrete layers, arises from an anxious questioning of the real ways of our world.

Cronenberg is deeply concerned by what’s going on with our world, even tough sometimes he seems to be filming some future or alternative society. Cronenberg’s vision has been labeled by many as “dystopic”, and I feel that’s quite accurate: this guy ain’t filming utopias where perfection and harmony have been realized. He’s much more into letting his worst nightmares get an objetified existence as film – so many others can dream Cronenberg’s nightmares. To sum things up, I would say that he engages in an anxiety-ridden cinema, with a dystopic flavour to it, with several irruptions of ultra-violence, throught which Cronenberg acts as a critic of Western commercial-industrial society. For this reason, among many other, he deserves recognition as an artist of many merits, among them the fact that he sounds the alarms on the possible consequences of mankind’s attempt to deeply re-shape Nature – including our own.

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David Cronenberg

II. THE RE-SHAPING OF NATURE AND HUMAN ATTEMPTS AT SELF-TRANSCENDENCE

If there’s anything in our era that seems to be a shared truth, a point of conccord and no controversy, is that mankind’s been re-shaping Nature in massive scale and in various ways through technological interventions, medical innovations, advancements in genetic manipulation etc. If the artistic genre of “Science Fiction” is to survive as a culture force, relevant to the general audience, it needs to adress the dangers and anxieties that befall us all in such a world. That’s what Cronenberg’s cinema does so well. In the second part of this article, I’ll focus on the some of his films in which mutations are a central theme.

the-fly-movie-poster-1986There are lots of Gregor Samsas in Cronenberg’s films: the process by which Kafka’s character gets transformed into a giant bug is not merely repeated in cinematic form, but serves as a theme upon which Cronenberg builds several variations. Seth Bundle (Jeff Goldblum), in The Fly, is the most obvious example: the scientist who gets things messed up in his laboratory and ends up getting his genes mixed with that of an insect.

In Kafka’s masterpiece, the “mood” is of a horrific family drama that may remind the reader of Strindberg or Kleist. In Cronenberg’s case, we’re taken to a futuristic sci-fi scenario in which Bundle attempts to create a means of tele-transportation, which he deems likely to cause a whole revolution in the common limits of mankind. If he suceeds, history will rain down un-ending glory on him, and we’ll be honoured as one of the greatest scientists and innovators of all time – a new Galileo, a new Kepler, a new Einstein! But high hopes seldom live up to their promise in Cronenberg’s art.

There’s not a drop of cheap optimism in The Fly: it’s an enormously enjoyable film, well-crafted in all technical aspects, a masterpiece of narrative in cinema, but it’s message is far from being ear-candy. The Fly is actually a tragedy. For those of you who haven’t watched it, please jump to next paragraph so you won’t have your fun spoiled by my revealing of its ending. The Fly can be seen as a tragedy because it shows how a scientist goes through a terrible misfortune, having his organism monstruously transformed by the technological process he was aiming to master, and ends up having to ask the woman he loves (embodied by the gorgeous Geena Davis) to aid him in suicide. Life-conditions, for him, have been so screwed up by his experiment, that his only choice ends up to demand someone to put him off his misery. Josef K, in Kafka’s The Trial, feels he’s being killed “like a dog”; similarly, Seth Bundle’s demise is a terrible, gory and grotesque event – in which he’s murdered like a nasty fly. Things have turned out so horribly that the world needs to be rid of the monstruous human-insect he tragically became.

M. Butterfly (1993)But it would be demeaning to say that Cronenberg is a mind that can only imagine transformations in the human body there are due to techno-cientifical intervention and manipulation. In M Butterfly, for example, the transformations that René Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) goes through have nothing to do with his genetic structure, or with surgery, eugenics or laboratorial side-effects. Gallimard, a french diplomat working in China at Beijing’s embassy, starts off his metamorphosis when he watches a performance of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. Cronenberg leads us, with his known talents as a compelling story-teller, in a downward spiral that shows how deeply Gallimard will have his identity changed and deranged in the life-process the film encapsulates.

At first, Gallimard is shown as an arrogant person, very ethnocentric, certain that he’s the living embodiment of civilization and finesse: he believes that Western presence in China and Indochina is cherished by the majority of the population, and he’s certain that the United States is going to suceed in the war efforts in Vietnam and Camboja. He’s a married man, and his wife (Barbara Sukowa, who recently embodied Hannah Arendt in Margareth Von Trotta’s film) would never suspect Monsieur Gallimard of being anything but a loving, faithful husband – and definetely heterossexual.

M Butterfly, among Cronenberg’s films, is one of the richest in terms of the possibility of discussion of gender matters. Sexual identity is shown as something that’s far from solid and immutable – it also undergoes changings and mutations. Gallimard thinks he’s straight, a “normal” heterossexual guy, but his experience in Beijing’s opera will call that into question when he falls in love with an opera diva (a man dressed as a woman). Gallimard ignorance of Chinese cultural reality is made obvious by the fact that he seems to be completely unaware that female characters, in China’s operatic spectacles, are played by men – a custom that has existed also in the past of West (for example in England, during Shakespeare’s epoch, something described, for example, by Richard Eyre’s brilliant film Stage Beauty).

M Butterfly is filled with Gallimard’s delusions: his beliefs doesn’t correspond to the facts. He, for example, believes he has fallen in love with a chinese woman, an opera diva, when in fact he’s been used by a Communist Party spy who’s gathering information about Western military actions in Indochina. Gallimard believes he has found true love outside the bonds of marriage, and abandons himself to the calculated seduction of the transvestite-spy. When he wakes up to what’s really going on, the whole structure of his personality will be shattered.

In Puccini’s opera, the Jananese girl kills herself after being abandoned by the american foreign; in Cronenberg’s film, the positions shift: now the Western guy is the one who’s going to kill himself because of the abandonenment he suffered. When the dream cracks and dies, when Gallimard finds out all the truth and realizes he has been used, then love’s past utopia metamorphosis into suicidal frustration and self-destruction.

The Fly, I claimed such paragraphs ago, could be seen as a tragedy; well, M. Butterfly is another. Its tragic core lies in the crack in identity’s continuity. Gallimard’s psyche gets cracked by the sudden death of his illusion. He was severely mistaken about China – and never really knew the “woman” he claimed to love. In the end of the process that the film narrates, he’s utterly confused about his own sexuality, uncertain and shaken: he lost all the prior confidence in his “straitght-ness”, his “masculine normality”. In his death trip, in the ritual in which he sacrifices himself, very Orientaly, as if attempting a hara-kiri, Gallimard has become himself the Oriental and the Transvestite.

The well-defined limits of his previous personality gets crushed by new experiences. He’s boundless and insane. He cuts his own throath in front of the audience of prisoners, as thus becomes an embodiment of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The brilliance of this masterpice in filmmaking, which I consider one of the most under-valued classics of the 1990s, lies in authentic description of the mutations that can occur to the human body and mind.

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Gallimard, in M Butterfly, lived through a severe “personality crisis”. Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), in A History of Violence, will struggle with something similar. In this film, Cronenberg focuses in his attention on an attempt at vountary change of identity. The man we get acquainted with at the beggining of the film, Tom Stall, we’ll soon discover to be a fabrication of Joey Cusack, who wanted to shed his skin like a serpent and abandon his own past behind.

Tom Stall is an idealization of the real flesh-and-bones man, Joey Cusack, who, after too much bloodshed in gangster environment during his life in his native Philadelphia, decides he’s gonna leave a life of crime behind and become a model citizen and family-man. When Cronenberg’s film starts, it seems he has suceeded: he has a beautiful wife, and they engage in very sexy affective playfulness; their two kids seem to be doing quite allright, despite the bullies at scholl and some baseball fights. But when something is going allright in a Cronenberg film, prepare yourself: it’s a clear sign that we’re headed for disaster.

Joey Cusack tried to transform his identity, tried to impersonate his fabrication of an ideal personality, but forgot something: everyone who knew in his past would lot easily permit his sliping away unto other identities. There’s a phrase in P. T. Anderson’s Magnolia that seems to be a description of his situation that fits like a hand in a glove: “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

Ed Harris’ character, in the film, seems like a scary monster that sticks his head out of the abyss of the Past. Joey Cusack may have felt he had enough of his past, but well… his past hadn’t had enough of him. He’s bound to experience a dark re-awakening of the past who he mistakingly supposed he had buried. A History of Violence, despite being a very exciting thriller to watch, reveals a lot about the human condition. A man wants to throw away who he was and re-shape himself, becoming someone else: who among us haven’t felt a similar desire at some point in our lives? But the past is embodied in ourselves in such ways that we’ll never be able to discard it like a serpent does with its skin.

To sum things up, I would argue that Cronenberg’s artistic merit lies in his ability to portray and discuss humanity as a dynamic entity, changing through time, and not merely an instrument of outside forces (like a leaf in a river stream), but also in attempts at self-reshaping and self-transcendence. Throughout the history of Western philosophy in the last three millenia, some great thinkers have stressed the mutability of Nature: Heraclitus, for example, said that “everything flows” and that it’s impossible to bathe two times in the same river; his 19th century disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, would also suggest in his visionary philosophical poem Zarathustra, the changeability of Man, depicted as a tight-rope walker that traverses the abyss whose margins are the beasts (behind us) and the Übbermensch (ahead us).

The impression I get after having travelled along with Cronenberg’s creations is that he deserves to be seem as a philosopher of cinema who’s deeply concerned in understanding mutations. Humans, for Cronenberg, never were and never will be fixed creatures: we’ll wander through Earth sheding our skin like serpents and trying to transcend out present through re-shapings both of our natural environments and our bodies and minds. In Cronenberg’s oeuvre, we get acquainted with the idea of Humanity as a mutant entity whose future glory is far from guaranteed: it may happen, his films seem to say, that History turns out to be a nightmare from which we won’t be able to awake. And simply because of this: the nightmare is real, and we ourselves are monsters of our own creation.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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 Here’s a selection of Cronenberg’s greatest works:

DANCING NEAR THE ABYSS: Nietzsche’s dangerous life as portrayed by Stefan Zweig…

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Some remarks upon...

nietzsche zweig
STEFAN ZWEIG (1881-1942),
Part of the trilogy “The Struggle With The Demon – Kleist, Hölderlin and Nietzsche”
Introduction and Translation by Will Stone.
Hesperus Press, London, 2013.


stefan-zweig-nietzsche-le-combat-avec-le-demon_2254061-MArticle by Eduardo Carli de Moraes:

PART I. A DANGEROUS LIFE

Maybe the thrill in our veins when we read Nietzsche derives from the sense of danger that his words exhale: he’s inviting us to dance near the abyss, and without safety nets. Nietzsche desires life to be risky and full of surprises, and is furious against all tendencies of sheepish conformity. A true lover of art and poetry, Nietzsche was both a great thinker and a great artist – one who claimed that “we have art so that we might not die of the truth.” For him, an authentic “free spirit” doesn’t shy away from confrontation with the riddles of existence, even the most scary and painful ones: if you want knowledge, you’ll have to face the monsters of the abyss, and let the abyss stare into you!

As Karl Jaspers wrote on his awesome book about Nietzsche, the philosopher worthy of his task is a figure similar to Theseus: he enters boldily into the labyrinth, willing to face the danger of being eaten by the Minotaur. In Stefan Zweig’s writings on Nietzsche we feel the emphasis falling upon the dangerousness of Nietzsche life and fate. In his introduction, Will Stone recalls how much Zweig’s book focuses on “the decisive abandonment of security by Nietzsche and his propensity to take an ever more self-destructive tightrope walk, where all safety nets are strictly forbidden.” (Will Stone, Introduction, XIX)

“Voluntarily, in all lucidity, renouncing a secure existence, Nietzsche constructs his unconventional life with the most profound tragic instinct, defying the gods with unrivalled courage, to experience himself the highest degree of danger in which man can live.” (Zweig, p. 6)

Few philosophy books can be said to be as exciting as a roller-coaster ride or a bungee-jump. I believe Nietzsche’s impact on posterity has to do, partly, with those adrenaline shots we receive from his writings. We can re-read his words many times because they provoke us, entice us, marvel us, enfuriate us – but hardly ever leave us indiferent. The flame of life, in each to us, seems to burn more brightly and intensely when we come to spend so time in company with Nietzsche’s flaming words. My experience as a reader of Nietzsche’s books leads me to cherish him as a powerful voice who affects people deeply – some may disagree with him, but this disagreement itself is usually so vehement and intense that it serves as a sign of the echoes, either consonant or dissonant, that Nietzsche’s words arouses. Philosophy in the 20th century was profoundly shaken and inspired by Nietzsche’s books, but in his life, as Zweig points out, he was eaten alive, bit by bit, by the demon of solitude.

Despite his attempts to make his voice be heard, many commentators point out that Nietzsche lived an utterly lonely, isolated existence – “a solitude deprived even of God”, writes Zweig. Nietzsche ended up “crushed by the world’s silence.” (pgs. 5-7) In the following lines, Zweig is less a biographer than a painter: he’s trying to get us in synch with the philosopher’s emotional mood: “One feels here is a man residing in the shadows, apart from all social conviviality, (…) a man who over the years has lost the habit of social interaction and dreads the prospect of being asked too many questions.” (pg. 10)

Nietzsche’s health can be seen as one reason for his choice of an isolated life-style, but it doesn’t explain why the philosopher chose to cut himself even from the most basic of relationships needed, for survival reasons, for someone in his condition: the relationship with a doctor! Nietzsche rarely sought aid of professionals in the medicine field: he mostly self-medicated. He kept away from alcoholic beverages, never drank cofee nor smoked cigarettes. His pension-room had always among its furnishing elements, according to Zweig’s lively description, “an horrifying arsenal of poisons and narcotics”:

 “On a shelf, innumerable bottles, flasks and tinctures: for headaches, which regularly occupy so many wasted hours, for stomach cramps, spasmodic vomiting, instestinal weakness, and above all, those terrible medicaments to control insomnia – chloral and veronal.” (11)

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A portrait of the philosopher by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch


Imagine Zweig as a painter, and his words as drawings in our imagination, and let’s hear how he further paints Nietzsche portrait: the philosopher’s eye-sight is poor, without his glasses he would be blind as a bat. But that seems to be no impediment to his will to devote so much energy into the activities of reading and writing (which demand so much eye-labor). Most nights, Nietzsche’s brain just won’t turn off, and he can only restore his energies by sleep if he ingests some kind of soporific medicine.

“Sometimes he spends the whole day confined to bed. And no one comes to his aid, not even a helping hand, no one to lay a cool compress on his burning brow. No one to read to him, to chat with him, to laugh with him… never a warm naked female body beside his own.” (p. 11-12)

A grim picture of disease and loneliness is painted before our eyes by these Zweigian words, but they serve merely as background for the main figure in the painting: a tragic hero in the realm of knowledge, Nietzsche himself, and the process by which he falls down into the abyss. Would we dare, right here and right now, rebelling against the silence that springs from his grave, delve into the mystery of Nietzsche’s life and death?

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Zweig seems to want his reader to pity the fragile and lonesome state of poor Nietzsche – friendless, abandoned, unloved. I couldn’t help imagining how Nietzsche himself would judge Zweig’s portrait. Nietzsche himself was never attracted by self-pity, and it may be argued that he chose voluntarily to lead a life in which we wouldn’t bother others with his health issues – as if he was trying to put to practise a radical attempt at self-reliance, even in the worst conditions. As Jacob Burckhardt points out, Nietzsche lived as if his task were “to increase independence in the world” (quoted by Zweig, pg. 89), and it’s hard to imagine a philosopher who took so seriously the task of being independent. The fluctuations of his health had profound impact upon his emotional state and the “mood” of his tought: by his own life-experience Nietzsche extracted awesome insights into the inner workings of the human mind. He’s arguably one of the greatest psychologists of the 19st century (he claimed to have learnt psychology mainly with Stendhal and Dostoivésvki), an certainly a pioneer in pre-Freudian times.

 Zweig’s book focuses a lot on Nietzsche’s life, especially the connection between his existential loneliness and his outstanding artistic and philosophical productions. It leads the reader to ask himself: why did this philosopher, who had demolished the moral ideals of asceticism (mainly in his Genealogy of Morals), chose to live in a condition of isolation similar to those hermits he criticised so much? What caused Nietzsche’s attitude of removal from sociability: was it arrogance or pride ? What could have acted as an impediment in the route to Alterity, in Nietzsche’s life? What was the obstacle he couldn’t trespass, keeping him from crying out for help and accepting the aid of human love? Were the people around him to blame for being indiferent and uncomprohensive?

According to Zweig, aways, everywhere he lived, Nietzsche was a foreigner. And that usually doesn’t make easier the task of building friendship. It can’t be said that friendship is highly valued in his books. And it doesn’t seem to me that Nietzsche pursued in his life, with much interest or passion, a quest for human warmth and love. Lou Salomé is maybe the sole female figure in Nietzsche’s life to have aroused in him some kind of dream about redemption by love, some passionate widening of his emotional chest to the realm of the Other, but we know well things didn’t turn out that rosely. Nietzsche couldn’t see la vie en rose and his passion for Lou Salomé turned out to be a devasting heart-break. After the rupture with Lou Salomé, facing what he calls “the greatest crisis of his life”, he writes Zarathustra, a work-of-art and an philosophical poem that carry the mark of something unique. His bond with Lou had collapsed, in ruins were all the bridges of dreams, and in utter solitude he set out to write a book about a character who spent ten years far from all human contact, and tries to re-descend among the humans, to reveal what he learned whilst dwelling in the wilderness, only to discover that everyone miscomprehends him. A book born out of Nietzsche’s abyss, filled with dancing stars, chaotic and colourful as life itself. 

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PART II. THE WOUND OF NO REPLY

“The year-in year-out lack of a really refreshing and healing human love, the absurd loneliness that it brings with it, to the degree that almost every remaining connection with people becomes only a cause of injury; all that is the worst possible business and has only one justification in itself, the justification of being necessary.” – Letter sent by Nietzsche to his friend Overbeck, 3.2.88

Much speculation about Nietzsche breakdown in Turin is to be found in dozens of books. To this pile of speculation, Zweig adds his own contribution:

“For 15 years this cave life of Nietzsche continues from rented room to rented room, while he remains unknown…. only the flight of Dostoyevsky, almost at the same moment in time, with equitable poverty and neglect, is illuminated by the same cold grey spectral light. Here, as there, the work of a titan conceals the gaunt figure of the poor Lazarus who daily expires from his despair and infirmity in solitude, as day by day, the miracle savior of creative will awakens him from the depths. For 15 years, Nietzsche emerges thus from the coffin of his room, moving upwards and downwards, with suffering upon suffering, death upon death, resurrection upon resurrection, until, over-heated by such a flood of energy, his brain breaks apart. (…) Un-accompanied and unkown, the most lucid genius of the spirit rushes headlong into his own night.” (13)

Tough Nietzsche suffered a lot, he didn’t turn angrily against life, nor did he sought final relief in suicide. His philosophy is born out of the dwellings of his mind with his pains: “pain always searches to know the causes, whilst pleasure remains in a fixed position and does not look backwards”, he wrote. “Mighty pain is the last liberator of the spirit; she alone forces us to descend into out ultimate dephts.” And elsewhere: “I know life better, because I have so often been at the point of losing it.” (p. 23)

“Nietzsche never sets up house, with a view to economizing and conserving, he builds no spiritual home; he wants (or perhaps he is forced by the nomadic instinct in his nature) to remain eternally without possessions, the solitary Nimrod who wanders with his weapons through all the forests of the spirit, who has no roof, no wife, no child, no servant, but who, on the other hand, has the thrill and pleasure of the hunt; like Don Juan, he adores not the enduring feeling but the fleeting moments of greatness and ecstasy. He is solely attracted by an adventure of the spirit, by that ‘dangerous perhaps’ that stimulates and excites as long as the chase is on but as soon as attainmet is reached loses its grip.” (29)

In Zweig’s perspective, Nietzsche sounds the alarms and alerts us – prophetically – against the ills of nationalism and praises cosmopolitism:

“Nietzsche is content to be without country, without home or possessions, cut off forever from that ‘parochialism of the fatherland’, from all ‘patriotic subjugation’. His perspective will be the lofty one of the bird in flight, of the ‘good European’, of that ‘essentially nomadic race of men who exist outside of nations’. (…) Once Nietzsche has established himself in the south, he steps definitively beyond his past; he is peremptorily de-Germanized, de-Christianized… the navigator to the realm of the future is too happy to be embarking on ‘the fastest ship to Cosmopolis’ to experience any nostalgia for his unilateral, uniform and univocal fatherland. That is why all attempts to re-Germanize him should be strongly condemned.

At the same time as de-Germanizing him, the south also serves to de-Christianize him completely. Whilst like a lizard he enjoys the sun on his back and his soul is lit right through to his innermost nerves, he ponders what exactly had left the world in shadow for so long, made it so anguished, so troubled, so demoralized, so cowardly conscious of sin, what had robbed the most natural, the most serene, the most vital things of their true value, and had prematurely aged what was most precious in the universe, life itself. Christianity is identified as the culprit, for its belief in the hereafter, the key principle that casts its dark cloud over the modern world.This ‘malodorous Judaism, concocted of Rabbinic doctrines and superstition’ has crushed and stifled sensuality, the exhilaration of the world and for fifty generationshas been the most lethal narcotic, causing moral paralysis in what was once a genuine life force. But now (and here he sees his life as a mission), the crusade of the future agains the cross has finally begun, the reconquest of the most sacred country of humanity: the life of the world.” (pg. 61-63)

Zweig also suggests that, with Nietzsche, it appears for the first time upon the high seas of German philosophy the black flag of a pirate ship. With Nietzsche, it dawns

“a new brand of heroism, a philosophy no longer clad in professorial and scholarly robes, but armed and armored for the struggle. Others before him, comparably bold and heroic navigators of the spirit, had discovered continents and empires; but with only a civilizing and utilitarian interest, in order to conquer them for humanity, in order to fill in the philosophical map, penetrating deeper into the terra incognita of thought. They plant the flag of God or of the spirit on the newly conquered lands, they construct cities, temples and new roads in the novelty of the unkown and on their heels come the governors and administrators, to work the acquired terrain and harvest from it the commentators and teachers, men of culture. But the final objective of their labours is rest, peace and stability: they want to increase the possessions of the world, propagate norms and laws, establish a superior order.

Nietzsche, in contrast, storms into German philosophy like the filibusters making their entrance into the Spanish empire at the end of the 16th century, a wild unruly swashbuckling swarm of desperados, without nation, ruler, king, flag, home or residence. Like them he conquers nothing for himself, or anyone following him, not for a god, or a king, or a faith, but uniquely for the pleasure of conquest, for he wants to acquire, conquer and possess nothig. He concludes no treaty nor build a house, he scorns the rules of war put in place by philosophers and he seeks no disciple… Nothing was more foreign to Nietzsche than to merely proceed towards the habitual objective of philosophers, to an equilibrium of feeling, to repose in a tranquilitas, a sated brown wisdom at the rigid point of a unique conviction. He spends and consumes successive convictions, rejecting what he has acquired, and for this reason we would do better to call him Philaleth, a fervent lover of Aletheia, truth, that chaste and cruelly seducing godess, who unceasingly, like Artemis, lures her lovers into an eternal hunt only to remain ever inaccesible behind her tattered veils.” (pg. 43)

In Nietzsche’s fate we can read the tragedy of someone who, tortured by disease and anguish, embarks head-on in Knowledge’s dangerous adventure. Alone and frail, but bold and curious, he’s a man who, like a serpent, exchanged skins thoughout his life. But, as Zweig points out, his only homeland was solitude. Wherever he lays his hat, there he’s alone. He journeys through the land, but doesn’t seem ever to leave loneliness behind. There’s a song by Portishead in which Beth Gibbons wails: “This loneliness just won’t leave me alone”. It’s quite possible Nietzsche knew a lot about this emotional mood. The philosopher has been acquainted with the blues. Sometimes, it seems, he tries to believe isolation is a merit and that the geniuses of humanity shouldn’t mix with the riff-raff – that’s why many nostrils can smell arrogance in Nietzsche attitude, some aristocratical eliticism, as if the man believes he shouldn’t wallow in the mud of common vulgarities.

This loner consoles himself, to lessen the pains of his solitude,  with the idea that posterity will understand and honour him. Free spirits yet to be born keep him company through his darkest hours. He warms himself by the fireside of his imagination of future glories. Zarathustra is filled with images, bursting from a mind intoxicated by poetry, of better days to come, of men who have outgrown mankind as we know it. The question I pose is: how maddening is it to seek human warmth on the imaginary realm? Can you cure yourself from loneliness with the dreamt shadow of future friends?

In Nietzsche’s final years, he gets increasing bombastic. Now he brags he’s dynamite. His previous books were almost completely ignored by the general population of the planet, and he can’t deal with this easily, emotionally speaking: he felt “only immutable solitude multiplied” and this is what, according to Zweig, “turns his soul gangrenous”: the wound of no reply.” (75)

 His descent into the abyss is portrayed by Zweig as a tragedy of utter solitude. Nietzsche sinks, his brain shatters, because the burden of the world’s indifference and deafness is too much to bear. Nietzsche’s own judgement of his past achievements, in Ecce Homo, may sound deeply narcisistic and self-glorifying: he believes, for example, that Zarathustra is the biggest gift ever given to humanity, the greatest book ever written, and that whole universities should be created and devoted to its study. Some chapters of Nietzsche’s intriguing auto-biography are filled with self-celebration and megalomania, as if he’s trampling modesty underfoot: Nietzsche explains to his readers why he  is so wise, how does he manage to write such great books, and considers himself to be an event in History that will divide it in two epochs. Zweig’s interpretation invites us to understand this as a symptom of his social isolation, of his frustration about the silence that surrounded his ideas, and which was so rarely broken in Europe during his life (only George Brandes, professor in Copenhagen, made an effort to spread Nietzsche’s ideas in academic circles during the philosopher’s life).

When he reached the period when he wrote his last books – among them are The Antichrist, Twilight of the Idols, Ecce Homo… –  Nietzsche seems to be increasingly furious, bombastic. He writes with outbursts of rage and indignation, striving to get some answer from the world around him. Even hostility from readers seems to him to be better than silent indifference. This is how Zweig describes this late Nietzschean works:

“There are contained the most unbridled scornful cries of rage and heavy groans of suffering, flayed from his body by the whip of impatience, a savage growling through foaming mouth and bared teeth… provoking his epoch so that they react and let go a howl of rage. To defy them still, he recounts his life in Ecce Homo with a level of cynicism which will enter into universal history. Never has a book exhibited such a craving, such a diseased and feverish convulsion of impatience for response, than the last monumental pamphlets of Nietzsche: like Xerxes insubordinately battling the ocean with a scourge, with insane bravado he wants the indifferent to be stung by the scorpions of his books, to defy the weight of immunity which enshrouds him. (…) In the glacial silence and lost in his own entrancement, he lifts his hands, dithyrambic his foot twitches: and suddenly the dance begins, the dance around the abyss, the abyss of his own downfall.” (p. 77)

Stefan Zweig’s book is filled with this kind of highly dramatical images, as if he’s trying to honour Nietzsche with a painting worthy of a tragic hero. It’s certainly a very impressive and sensitive portrayal of Nietzsche, tough in its less than 100 pages it doesn’t share many details of the philosopher’s life (this has been done by Curt Paul Janz, Rudiger Safranski and other biographers). Zweig’s perspective is filled with melancholia and he decribes the “struggles with the demon” experienced by Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche as something he also has experienced in his own flesh. Zweig’s life, similarly to that of Nietzsche, can’t be said to have ended happily: he was living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when he commited suicide in 1942. He had sought refuge from the horrors of the World War in Europe, a jew fleeing from the claws of the Holocaust. For a while, he believed Brazil to be “the country of the future”, a safe harbour where no racism or anti-semitism existed. In his book, Brazil – Country of The Future, he idealizes his new home with the eyes of the refugee who was leaving behind a world of intolerance, hatred and persecution. Then, frustration takes over, and he shoots himself in Petropolis. But that’s another story.

I believe Zweig’s Nietzsche is a book whose great merit lies in the description of Nietzsche’s existential position, one of social isolation of almost complete lack of community bonds. He’s downfall, according to an interpretation by Brazillian philosopher Oswaldo Giacoia, one of the leading figures in Nietzsche studies in Latin America, is deeply related the fact that he couldn’t belong to what Hannah Arendt used to call “a common world”. One of the most interesting psychological problems posed by Nietzsche’s fate, it seems to me, is this: how important for psychic health are the lived experienced of community bonds? What are the consequences of radical rupture with the whole dimension of alterity? Or, put more simply, what’s the price that pays the person who lives without any of the warmth provided by friendship and love? 

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Stefan Zweig, author of “The Struggle With The Demon – Hölderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche”. Click here to read an excerpt of the last chapter of Zweig’s book.

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