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Uses and disadvantages
In the second Untimely Meditation, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, Nietzsche outlines three major ‘types’ of historiography: the ‘critical,’ the ‘antiquarian,’ and the ‘monumental.’ All three can both serve life and, if utilized improperly, inculcate a deleterious effect within him who wields it. And while Nietzsche is notoriously mum in this work as to precisely what life is such that history could serve it, his definition in the Gay Science could serve well here. “ What is life? — Life - that means something that continues to repel [abstossen] and to die [sterben]; Life - that means being cruel and relentless against everything that is weak and old in us; Life - that therefore means being without piety toward the dying ones, the tattered ones, and the old ones [Sterbende, Elende und Greise].” If life is such a state in which organisms grow by seeking empowerment and in which the elimination of what can no longer do so is fostered, then a historiography that serves life would by extension simultaneously displace those aspects of the past that hinder our growth, preserve what contributes to well-being, and highlight what is power-engendering. Now very far from his published philology’s aim of establishing facts quod vinci nequeat, and from the Birth’s aim of apprehending truth outside the boundaries of individuation, Nietzsche holds that each of the types of life-serving historiography has as its task the construction of a story about the past, one that is to help its writers and readers existentially as a means of orienting ourselves to our past, present, and future lives. Toward the background fades the demand for established facts, while to the fore of history emerge questions of value and meaning of various narratives for one’s life.
The critical historian, armed with codex and lexicon in his campaign against unreliable sources, seeks to scrutinize heritages and traditions of interpretation that have been built up around historical claims, like forensic detectives whose primary concern is not what happened but whether and to what extent what is claimed to have happened can be proven. The roots of long-held traditions and belief-systems are methodically unearthed and laid bare in the light of skeptical analysis. Like Nietzsche himself, both in his role as critical philologist and in his later genealogical effort to discredit the ‘sources’ of modern presumptions about good and evil, the critical historian requires a hard and brave character type. “He must have the strength [Kraft], and use it from time to time, to shatter and dissolve [zerbrechen und aufzulosen] something to enable him to live: this he achieves by dragging it to the bar ofjudgment, interrogating it meticulously and finally condemning it.” Here a dynasty’s alleged divine sanction to rule is unmasked as a particularly cruel suppression of political dissent; there the reverence felt toward a long-held value is exposed as docility before authority - “one puts the knife to its roots, [...] one cruelly treads all pieties under foot.”
But for this service to life, as with each of the historiographical tendencies, there lies a danger within critical history. “It is always a dangerous process, dangerous namely for life itself: and men or ages which serve life in this manner of judging and annihilating a past are always dangerous and endangered men and ages.”11 Critical history should serve as a check against overconfidence in traditions, against the too-easy acceptance of stories about the past. But the genuine historian should not rest content with destruction. Their systematic annihilation of inherited traditions, taken to a too-extreme degree, engenders an unhealthy distrust of all inherited values, indeed, a distrust even of the possibility of value at all. Critical history is “always a dangerous attempt because it is so difficult to find a limit in denying the past.”12 In the contemporaneous Encyclopedia of Classical Philology, Nietzsche claims in words mirroring Ritschl’s: “[c]ritique itself cannot be the goal, but only a means for the complete understanding. Insofar is critique only a phase of hermeneutic.”13 The critical historian is a destroyer, a deconstructor of traditions and of ossified systems of values. But in doing so, she can forget herself. For she is a product of the very traditions of values, customs, and beliefs she aims to reveal as fraudulent. For all her criticism, she ought still find some strong foundation in the past on which to build a present, lest she allows skepticism to degenerate into nihilism.
Unlike the critical type, antiquarian historians are ‘revering souls.’ Their need to develop and portray a holistic worldview is just the inverse of the critical urge. Theirs is an instinct toward artistic virtuosity, toward the production of a plastic portrait of the world. No aspect of the past has value in and of itself; value is only bestowed by the legislating activity of the historian. Antony’s affair with Cleopatra, in-itself, belongs to the past precisely as much as his yawning on a random morning in his youth. The former is incomparably more important, and thus more often remembered, due only to the historian’s act of affixing it as a valuable moment within the narrative of Augustinian Rome. “The small, truncated, decaying and obsolete acquire their own dignity and inviolability through the fact that the preserving and revering soul of the antiquarian man has emigrated into them and made there a homely nest.” Antiquarian scholars write history with the intention of preserving it. But certainly not all of it; their selective choice of topics and figures is a form of giving value to particular aspects of the past, polishing once tarnished ideas, eras, and personalities according to their own principle of selection. Here we may place patriotic historians, genealogists of family-trees, and all manner of preservation societies - each hope to show the value of something long since past, a good era or way of life that may no longer persist in the present.
But the impulses of the antiquarians are not spared Nietzsche’s venom either. For the antiquarian type, present-day life stands in poor comparison with what he has elected to represent to himself of the past, and his turning back to some perceived ‘good-old days’ carries the consequence of turning him away from the present. Frustrated by his inability to render the present at all palatable and incapable of creating new idols for the future, he devotes his efforts to frantically preserving. The past and dead become the only sources of value, while what is to come can ever only be of lesser worth. How can the speeches of today’s politicians be compared to Cicero’s? How can the bravery of our soldiers compare with that of the Spartans? His ideal of the classical reveals what, to Nietzsche, is a thoroughgoing “mummification of life.”16 It is no longer inspired by the fresh air of the present, much less the hope for the future. “For it knows only how to preserve life, not how to engender it; it always undervalues that which is becoming because it has no instinct for divining it — as does monumental history, for example.”17
Just as the antiquarian scholar discovers in his past the scholarly, the noble, and the tranquil, and is thereby trapped in that past when all he sees around him is the worthlessness of the present, so too the ‘monumental’ historian artistically paints her own antiquity with a selective quality of judgment. For both, their selection of what to portray of the past effectively instils those events, people, and ideas with value. But what the monumental historian chooses to portray - what she considers great people, events, and deeds - reveals a rather different dynamic of drives and instincts. Instead of ‘mummifying’ life, the monumentalist invigorates it by acknowledging that something great has once happened and, more importantly, can once again return to the present. Her concentration on triumphal arches or memorials to the great and noble - in-itself nothing more than interesting ways to arrange stones - is the historiographical concomitant of a psychology that elects those elements as essential to life. And her election, too, is a formation and construction, emphasizing like Plutarch or Schiller the grand and ignoring the common, thereby creating “a chain of moments in the struggle of the human individual which unites mankind across the millennia like a range of human mountain peaks.” The monumentalist anticipates the possibility of further creating such idols and exemplars for the future, thereby externalizing a healthier psychological dynamic.
Despite this advantage for life, the monumental historian runs the risk of creating a falsely idyllic vision of the past. She concentrates on the noble and noteworthy at the expense of real life, in all its gritty and ignoble and illogical detail. “The past itself suffers harm: whole segments of it are forgotten, destroyed, and flow away in an uninterrupted colourless flood, and only individually exaggerated facts rise out of it like islands.” The monumentalist lack of objectivity creates too much and describes too little, thereby building a foundation for the present more on wishes than reality. “As long as the soul of historiography lies in the great stimuli that a man of power derives from it, as long as the past has to be described as worthy of imitation, as imitable and possible for a second time, it of course incurs the danger of becoming somewhat distorted, beautified, and coming close to free poetic invention.”20
An improperly focused monumental historian runs a further danger beyond this lack of objectivity. In a fascinating inversion of the famous ‘existential test’ of the Eternal Recurrence - a doctrine that was said by
Nietzsche himself to have been ‘discovered’ only years later - the monumentalist can potentially be trapped in hoping that the future resemble the past, that great leaders like Elizabeth I and heroic deeds like raising the flag at Iwo Jima be repeated.
Only if the earth were always to begin its theatrical performance once again after the fifth act, if it were certain that the same knot of motives [Verknotung von Motived], the same deus ex machina, the same catastrophe returned in the same determined interval, could the powerful man desire monumental history in complete iconic truthfulness [Wahrhaftigkeit], that is, each fact in its precisely described characteristics and unity, and probably not before the time when astronomers have once again become astrologers.21
Note here how the monumentalist’s lack of objectivity turns into dishonesty. The affirmation of the eternal return must concern one’s life as it truly is and has been - “all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself’22 - not of a past that has been handpicked and selected because of its perceived value. The monumentalist wills the return of that ‘Armada Speech’ or of the bravery of those at Iwo Jima for their greatness, but in no way cares to represent to himself the horrific train of causes that necessitated such speeches or heroic deeds, ignoring the many thousands of senseless deaths that were necessary before such actions, insignificant in themselves, could be considered so valuable.
It will always tone down the difference in motives and events, in order to set down the monumental effect [effectus] at the cost of the cause [causae], that is, the exemplary effect worthy of imitation. Thus, because monumental history turns away as much as possible from the cause, we can call it a collection of “effects in themselves” [“Effecte an sich”] with less exaggeration than calling it events which will have an effect on all ages.23
Although each of the three types of historian has its unique advantages and disadvantages for life, what emerges from Nietzsche’s analysis are two common presuppositions. These points are not only new but contrary to the meta-history of The Birth of Tragedy.
First, in place of the dissolved subjectivity of the aesthetic interpreter of history, here in The Uses and Disadvantages the subjectivity of the observer is absolutely essential in the process of constructing a historical account. In direct contradiction to the Dionysian aesthete who apprehends the true “Idea” of tragedy through his closer unity with the world as Will, here, just
HL 2; KSA 1, 261.
FW341; KSA 3, 570.
23 HL 2; KSA 1, 26iff.
two years later, Nietzsche presumes the mind cannot re-present objective reality in-itself apart from the necessary facticities of its own workings. A subject’s view of the world becomes a function of reality’s interaction with not just the Kantian pure intuitions of space and time or the Schopenhauerian triad of space, time, and causality, but also of a host of dynamic psychological processes which inculcates a selectivity of awareness, a remembering and forgetting of empirical stimuli, exaggerations and distortions. In a note written mere months after the appearance of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche writes, “Unconscious inferences actuate my thinking: it is a passing over from image to image: the last-achieved image serves as an impulse and motive. Unconscious thinking must take place outside of concepts: therefore in Anschauungen. But this is the way in which contemplative philosophers and artists infer. They do the same thing that everyone does regarding their personal psychological impulses, but carried over into an impersonal world.” Somewhat later, “Impulse is the pre-condition of all Anschauungen.”'5 Notice the drastic change from his published position’s claim about a “luminous hovering in purest bliss and in wide-eyed Anschauen, free of all pain” mere months before. The physiognomic dynamic that underlies all conscious representation and judgment can no longer be temporarily suspended, as was necessary for both Schopenhauer’s artist and for Nietzsche’s ecstatic Dionysian reveler, but must be understood as the psychological well-spring from which individual historians’ judgments flow. The form of subjectivity Nietzsche presumes in Uses and Disadvantages is thus hardly a ‘clear mirror of the object’ but a dynamic of conscious and, more notably, unconscious drives, instincts, and affects.
Second, following from his revision of the subject, Nietzsche also reformulated his notion of judgment. Whereas in The Birth of Tragedy, the aesthetic apprehension was bound to the Schopenhauerian vision of the diremption of the subject-object dichotomy, in the books to follow Nietzsche recognized the essential connection between historical judgment - indeed all judgment - and the psychological dynamic that constitutes subjectivity. This prohibits precisely the representational realism about the past that characterized Nietzsche’s early philological work and the hope for a subject-less objectivity in The Birth of Tragedy. “The history of his city becomes for him the history of himself; he reads its walls, its towered gate, its rules and regulations, its holidays, like an illuminated diary of his youth and in all this he finds again himself, his force, his industry, his joy, his judgment, his folly and vices.” “As a genius of construction [Baugenie],” Nietzsche thinks humankind “is to be greatly admired, but not on account of his drive for truth [Triebes zur Wahrheit], for pure knowledge of things [reinen Erkennen der Dinge].”° Far from being able to judge how the past ‘really was,’ now “man spins his web over the past and subdues it, thus he gives expression to his artistic drive - but not to his drive towards truth or justice.”
Although none of these three types of historian evinces an absolutely lifeembracing psychological fundament, one can draw from Nutzen und Nachteil a portrait of what such an historian would look like. Far from the perfect fact-collector, Nietzsche’s recommendation is that the true historian be constituted by a certain quality of greatness. “History belongs above all to the active and powerful man,” Nietzsche tells us, like Schiller or Goethe, who views the past as a model for inspiration, not merely to imitate, but as an “incentive to do as others have done and do it better.” And again, “history is written by the experienced and superior man. He who has not experienced greater and more exalted things than others will not know how to interpret the great and exalted things of the past.” And again, “[N]ow it would be right to say that only he who constructs the future has a right to judge the past. If you look ahead and set yourself a great goal, you at the same time restrain that wanton analytical drive.”34 The historian evidently must be such a ‘master,’ who from his own salutary conglomeration of instincts can perceive what is worth knowing and preserving in the past.35 Although Nietzsche is vague on the details, what he means in a single word - indeed in Nietzsche’s own word - is that what marks the right interpreter is ‘power.’ “It is not justice that here sits to judge; it is still less clemency [Gnade] that here passes the judgment: but life alone, every dark, striving [triebende], unapologetically self-fulfilling power [Macht].” Which historians judge from out of this power and which speak from weakness will be the subject of the following sections.
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