A Soul's Fate: A Last Return to Nietzsche in the Age of Comedy
Featured image: Friedrich Nietzsche pondered where humans would existentially place themselves following the 'Death of God'? In this thoughtful piece R.C. Roberts, with due profundity, explores Nietzsche's stunningly accurate societal predictions in the aftermath. But, Roberts says, 'Even a prophet will, eventually, hear the echoing of their words stop.'
It can be said, with some envy on my end, that to call the German philologist Friedrich Nietzsche ‘prophetic’ would be an insult, mostly to Nietzsche, who has been far more accurate that any Biblical prophet or soothsayer of the ancient myths. Nietzsche deeply understood our psychological nature, and, as such, he was a master at predicting just how we would react to the ‘Death of God’ across Western Europe.
His momentous declaration—‘God is dead!’—was so momentous that most who analyse the work of Nietzsche are blinded by its glare. Even now, in the most academic, the most amateur, and the most technical of works, one will see a talk of, reference to, or rebuttal of the Death of God. One will also find YouTube channels, blog posts, and social media pages where people discuss how Nietzsche predicted the Nazi Regime, the Communist tyrannies, and the supposed wasteland of the world we have now, which is infected by nihilism.
Preface: The Age of Comedy
Relatedly, in an article dated for October of 2009, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a long, arduous, rambling article called ‘Cheap Laughs’ for The Atlantic, in which he lamented the extinction of professional reporters and journalists, who even then were seen as being replaced by comedian reporters like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. In his witty but always curmudgeon way, Hitchens wrote of then Senator Al Franken:
He begrudgingly, for the rest of the article, tried to grapple with a poll that had anointed Jon Stewart of The Daily Show as the ‘new Cronkite’ of the news. How come, you may be wondering, did I do this random juke, starting in one direction about Nietzsche, only to run on over to a passage about Hitchens and Jon Stewart? Simple, they are all related by the quote that adorns the top of this article: Nietzsche’s proclamation of our moralities being fit for comedy is where his works ends, and it is the last, perfect prediction he made. Hence, comedians proselytise our moralities, and, following their punchlines, we heed their words.
And we are here: we have arrived at the end of Nietzsche. Not because he was wrong, but because he has been right until this point. Even a prophet will, eventually, hear the echoing of their words stop.
Part I: The Comedy of Apocalypse
Our news, these days, truly does come from comedians. Where there is a very obvious bias on many news stations, the comedian seems to look for the truth, because they only disparage or praise what will bring cackle or chuckle. In a world in which tragedy has been embraced, discussed, memorialized, and made into art, in which fake news is proliferating, we have turned to these comedians because what we want is not truth, but rather intoxication while believing we are learning the truth.
Oscar Wilde noted that one ought to be funny when telling the truth; the comedian of our time says that the truth best be funny—else be prepared for it not to be spoken. The astute will say, ‘Hey! You just said the other news stations are not producing the truth! To you, I say this: the news, even to this very moment, feeds on tragedy (and its comedy) first, not truth, which is conditional on former. While the development of journalism has always been a work of vultures, looking for fresh carcasses, comedian-led news now shows tragedy as farce. Where the news wished for tears and testimony and war before, comedians are hoping for the same, but they are ready to make the weight of these events feel like feathers in your palm!
People talk of our problems with truth. Indeed, they bemoan, we are in a ‘post-truth’ era. But this has been so for a while: post-truth postmodernism is a dead, decaying horse which is brought out every now and then to beat. Truth, long ago, ceased to be covetable. Perhaps our own truths have always taken precedent. Our desire for news, and the journalism that covers it, has never been for want of anything objective. Thus, when the New York Times says, ‘The Truth is worth it’, I read a joke greater than anything a comedian could tell me. The truth is shone through an aesthetic lens meant to illicit and support the stories we develop.
Slippery as the truth is, the news has never really attempted to achieve it, much in the way scientists have never really possessed it, and philosophers have never really loved it. The pictures, the imagery of words, and the never-ending loops of clips and videos that come to us: they are art, even in the hyper-reality we live in.
Comedians-as-reporters, you see, are the same sort of artists: they both fetishise aesthetics. The lens is just different. While some truths make you cry, others makes you laugh. The stories only seem different because we are, even with technology, still confused creatures, of confused minds and hearts, with bad eyes and easily distracted ears. We say we have been made great by technology, but we have merely made technology itself better, and we are still here, imperfect and dreaming of a truth that is not truth. We want to laugh, or we want to cry—all else becomes truth by threads of a feeble mind.
The world seems like it is coming apart, and we are most concerned with getting the last laugh.
Part II: The Apocalypse of Comedy
‘Fake news’: what a nasty phrase; what an odd phrase. If fake news deploys an aesthetic lens, as I have suggested—changing the scenery, shaping the story—what are its features? Faux aesthetics? The lack of a lens all together? Is it, perhaps most mendaciously, just another lens? To say it has nothing to do with truth is to place it where news and comic-anchors sit: within that long battle between tragedy and comedy. But it’s more twisted than that.
Fake news embodies the appropriation of what we took as news before, the distortion of already-crafted narratives. It is to stake a claim to pure interpretation of truth while refusing to give ceremony and pretend something has changed. It is to call a crow a different name, without consideration for what society knows it as. It is tantamount to one taking one’s phone and claiming it theirs, without so much a batting of an eye.
Then, fake news is an artform, for it has origins in us. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche puts it well:
Truth, fake-ness, art, beauty—they are subjective; but they are all corruptible, in virtue of man. Worst of all, these facts are well known and exploited by totalitarian barbarians.
Totalitarianism, we must now see, has always had a love of aesthetics, of art. Since art needs a director, it fits into the glove of the tyrant. Art survives because it is good and it is bad, and it is neither. It is whatever the creator, or in our addled world ‘influencer’, makes it into. And this art can be given divinity or darkness, heavenly aspirations or hellish breath, by a mere changing of one’s mind. Walter Benjamin banished the aurora of art, ushering in the mass-produced aesthetics of our postmodern age for having moved beyond the cult. But how even his farsightedness could miss that the new messiahs to come, the halos of the postmodern age, were going to be as feeble as ‘influencers’.
Part III: Life After Apocalypses
Terry Eagleton noted, in his overblown debate with philosopher Roger Scruton, that culture had come forth as a replacement for God. That is, in answer to the call of Nietzsche, culture stepped forth and looked into the abyss, and looked over the tomb of God, and spoke up. Our postmodern age is one of art, of an emphasis on interpretation, on a return to the idea of ‘human’. Hence it was decided that ‘human’ meant ‘artist’, where we, the artists, are meant to make the world and birth a new one from the old tragedies of dead morals and structures with no name. We were to build, to paint, to draw, to write, to set the world on our own shoulders. We were, as Nietzsche suggested, to be gods!
We hid ourselves, as gods are wont to do, behind the beautiful arts that became industries. We made a spectacle, and we forgot that every broken fragment we went about refurbishing. We drank nostalgia from a cup that only continued to become more empty, and every Dionysiac convulsion bred conflict because it all pointed to the people behind it all. Your art was not my art, and, thus, the spectacle began to look odd. It was all the colours, running together, into a grey milieu, and we lost the brightness we became familiar with. Even when reborn, for a moment, in the techne we call the Internet, it quickly became a place born of grey shades, where every tradition and every new idea and every nostalgic outcry was stirred into a molten grey sludge.
The traditions were lost, and gods without traditions are demons. Some reluctantly began to see what could be moulded out of this grey sludge, in which they began to pick out the white specs in the name of social justice. They have the optimism, shaky as it is, of demi-gods and heroes. Unsure of what fate has for them, they go forth anyhow, and they have decided to slay monsters, and since there is nothing divine to direct them, they direct themselves. They pick the monsters, and then they slay them.
Aesthetics—like truth, like morality—is driven by people, and we have been forced to see this by an explosion into this world of traditionalists who have no tradition, who purposely have shown us the arbitrary origins of art: ourselves. Fake news is a symptom that has given way to a diagnosis; it tells us that the lenses of news and comedy, like aesthetics, are themselves subject to us, that even our attempt to be gods are nothing without us, and we are nothing without it. When you show them a lens, they reject not the lens, but whoever has the lens, the person who does not know themselves, who is nothing to themselves.
Now, all the laughter and all the tragedy that we have ever known will not fill the void they have revealed. In response, we have made more images, we have continued to produce more and more, and the images come with births that announce their deaths in the same breath. We turn back to the Death of God and ask how we made it through that—and what next?
Art was the sacred game we made to atone our godless lives, to search for worthwhile beauty, the water we used to clean our knives, the festivals we found; but the blood that has been cleaned is from a genocide that has been forgotten.
It would be trite, and inaccurate, here, at the end, to declare that the arts are dead, that aesthetics ‘is dead and we have killed it’. But, still, we’ve learned that art leaves us malnourished, existentially unfulfilled, in its malleability. We need motive but we have nowhere to go.
In conclusion, to repeat the words of a prophet is to be a disciple to their faith, even if in error, and it is the faith of Nietzsche which, I proclaim, is over. It has reached its end. So to that, I do not repeat his words, or attempt to reckon with Nietzsche, who has now died twice, both before his posthumous birth and after.
Instead, I turn to the reader, as you race about your images in this collapsing spectacle, and I say this:
Your festivals have failed, and your atonement has been aborted. You are not forgiven, and you never will be. And yet, you must persist.
More of R.C. Roberts’ work can be read on The Pequod.