aesthetics, art, beauty, becoming, chaos, human, will

Aesthetics, Asymmetry and Weakness: Nietzsche and the Beautiful


Improvisation (Kandinsky)

“I owe to you the most beautiful dream of my life.”
– Nietzsche, [from a letter to Lou Salome]

I cannot help but admire Nietzsche when he writes in Twilight of the Idols that there is nothing beautiful but man. For Nietzsche, vanity is ‘the first truth of aesthetics.’ He even supplies a corollary: ugliness is precisely the ‘degeneration of the human.’ Here Nietzsche method allows us to see possibility for new forms of humanity, but he skirts dangerously close to anthropomorphisizing the entire universe as isomorphic to our social spectacle. Is beauty a vain preoccupation — or an elevation of the human to the cosmic? What is left of beauty, human or otherwise — outside of what we customarily associate with it?

What else, then, is beauty, besides an inborn addiction to custom, which finally becomes natural grace? He is certainly right that beauty, after all, is reckoned by an imaginary yardstick! Whereas, on the contrary, ugliness accompanies — and even establishes — the moral or customary exercise of power. Nietzsche precedes Artaud here in demonstrating every action is (a) cruelty. Thus if our power cannot express itself through action, it turns inward: “All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward… thus it was that man first developed what was later called his ‘soul” (Genealogy of Morals)

Yet as we become part of the human story, we become increasingly beautiful. And only if we give ourselves up completely to custom, from our heart out and from the earliest years of our life, can we ever hope to grow beautiful — by losing our instincts for self-preservation. Our power for violent self-assertion assuredly degenerates from non-use, just as our ability to defend ourselves slackens when we commit ourselves to symbolic rituals and social custom. And it is certain that over time we tend to make ourselves into these kinds of totalized subjects given over entirely to social processes, to a given sequence of cultural practices.

Thus we grow in beauty (or equivalently: vanity) when we do not pass through the tiresome struggle for power and surivival, processes which inevitably leave marks upon our bodies, rip our youth from us, criss-cross our human beauty with lines of resistance, deposit genealogical traces of vital affirmations. Intense engagements never fail to leave their mark; sometimes they can even become the truth of our entire existence.

So what is the beauty of a dream, of a woman? Is it truly a form of degeneration — an abstinence from the exercise of power, from the cruelty of activity? Or is it a much more cunning malice still? Supposing woman is the truth — is her beauty degenerate, or is the degeneration of (“humanity’s”) truth itself beautiful? There is a non-dialectical evolution of beauty from weakness, as of society from custom or of truth from error. The degeneration of survival instincts is at once a becoming-beautiful: “This is why the old baboon is uglier than the young one, and why the young female baboon most closely resembles man: is the most beautiful baboon, that is to say.”

The conflict between ugliness and beauty is no contradiction, but a steady evolution of characteristic forms of cultural becomings. The structure of culture works itself into the symmetry of faces; we now recognize symmetry as the fact of entropy, of decline — pure symmetry is a degeneration (of the human) into a total chaos. The pure beauty of total symmetry, of total chaos, is opposed from the beginning of time to organization, biological and otherwise. All organs struggle to survive within and upon the bodies they parasite. The will to power is a metaphor, and it is not.

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One thought on “Aesthetics, Asymmetry and Weakness: Nietzsche and the Beautiful

  1. by Justin McDaniel

    429 The new passion pg. 428

    “Why do we fear and hate a possible reversion to barbarism? Because it would make people unhappier than they are? Oh no! The barbarians of every age were happier; let us not deceive ourselves! The reason is that our drive to knowledge has become too strong for us to be able to want happiness without knowledge or the happiness of a strong, firmly rooted delusion.”
    In this section, Nietzsche further ventures into the quest for knowledge after the death of God, regarding both the positive and negative repercussions following that overcoming. The earlier times of civilization, those of genuine metaphysical conviction (the time of barbarism), were ‘happier’ because the drive to knowledge had not yet appeared, in fact there was not yet the need for it, metaphysics was entirely adequate. However, with the coming of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution, mankind has to carry the burden of our newly acquired knowledge; it is by our very nature that we cannot stop this from occurring. Once the metaphysical ‘sheet’ has been lifted and man discovers what has been hidden, by the nature of his constitution he can no longer return to that previous state of darkness.
    “Restless discovering and divining has such an attraction for us, and has grown as indispensable to us as is to the lover his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference—perhaps we too are unrequited lovers!”
    The analogy here comparing our drive to knowledge with that of a lover is telling insofar as the drive to knowledge shares a fiery, unrestrained essence in relation to that desire which is employed in order attain their respective ‘others’ (absolute knowledge or the object of sexual desire) . Mankind, in the quest for knowledge, ultimately fairs the same as the jilted lover. Because, like the offering of unrequited love, the pursuit of knowledge remains unfulfilled, unsatisfied in its ability achieve continuity with the object of desire: for Don Quixote it is Dulcinea that remains illusive; for the philosopher, it is absolute knowledge that remains tauntingly out of grasp.
    “we believe in all honesty that all mankind must believe itself more exalted and comforted under the compulsion and suffering of this passion than it did formerly, when envy of the coarser contentment that follows in the rain of barbarism had not yet seen overcome.”
    The ‘suffering’ caused by this passion is not unlike the suffering incurred by any other of the drives. Nietzsche posits that any individual drive that fully involves itself (interpreted by us later as “passion”) ultimately leads to suffering; such is the ultimate and unavoidable plight of Man. Here he reminds us that since suffering is fundamentally intrinsic in life, then it is a matter of degrees and essences that ones perceived ‘suffering’ can overcome itself by evolving, by adapting and improving itself in response to the conditions of our existence. Knowledge presents itself beyond ignorance, in an exalted state where its necessity is implied and the desire we have for it is compulsive. Just as the Christian ultimately derives pain from his inability to raise himself to the level of God, modern man is equally oppressed by his inability for complete universal comprehension. However, the burdensome power in knowledge overcomes the self-limiting forces of ignorance, despite the fact that both lead to angst.
    “Yes we hate barbarism—we would all prefer the destruction of mankind to the regression of knowledge! And finally: if mankind does not perish of a passion it will perish as a weakness: which do you prefer?”
    In a pessimistic conclusion Nietzsche affirms our powerlessness under this striving for knowledge. The scope of his nihilism here is acutely portrayed. Even if life is meaningless, it is the striving for understanding this meaninglessness that can paradoxically give us the best chance at achieving meaning. In other words: it is better to perish as a result of our freedom of pursuit than to perish as bystander: weak in the face of the world. It is our drives and passions that strengthen man and allow him to end in “fire and light” instead of in the “sand”.

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