Heroic Imaginings, and Reality Checks

Reading Nietzsche has been very slow going for me because he makes me think, and as in this case, I sometimes indulge in these thoughts by writing. When I read Nietzsche, it seems that he is speaking directly to me, to right where I am in this moment. How could it be that just as I am remembering one of the most significant people who has shaped me, and more specifically, the truly incredible amount of love, devotion, and commitment that this one human being has shown me, Nietzsche writes about heroes, delusion, and vanity? Lest that seems like too harsh of a connection, hold on. More on this in a bit…

As an example of Nietzsche’s impeccable timing and insight, I just saw “The Adjustment Bureau,” which has been praised for its philosophical musings on free will and determinism but which, thanks to the personally peculiar intersections of casting, plot, and script, actually raised bewildering questions in me like, “Is all of this, my feelings, my thoughts, and even me seeing this particular movie right now, some coincidence?? Is it fate?” Though this film may not be the most salient example of inspirational art, Nietzsche notes that the metaphysical need is so strong, even in free spirits, that “the highest effects of art easily produce a reverberation of a long-silenced, or even broken metaphysical string.” As the strange “coincidences” of the movie shake me, so too does the timeliness of Nietzsche’s words. Might even the fact that I have been reading Nietzsche be part of a great playing out of destiny?! Is this, perhaps, evidence of Nietzsche great skill for contradiction? Or does it mark his brilliance? Responding to my situation of wonder–or doubt–or longing–Nietzsche writes, “If he becomes aware of his condition [of the metaphysical need], he may feel a deep stab in his heart and sigh for the man who will lead back to him the lost beloved, be she called religion or metaphysics. In such moments, his intellectual character is being tested” (Section 153, Human, All Too Human). Am I, in identifying so strongly with a movie and considering my experiences and latest wonderings as perhaps a strange series of fated events, actually demonstrating Nietzsche’s point? Is this an exposure of my metaphysical longing?

This situation is a very complicated. Let’s go back to heroes, delusion, and vanity.

Some people are truly inspirational. They achieve miraculous things and seem to evidence superhuman capacities to give, to heal, to lead, to love. Many of their stories give life to history. (Name your hero, and note that they may equally turn out to be another’s tyrant.) They are the people whose character traits provide resources for great myths and compelling movies. These are heroes who save lives or countries by virtue of their courage, their unbelievable physical and emotional strength. These are heroes who express inexhaustible depths of love and passion, who will do anything, especially sacrifice their own life, for the one they love. They are those who, in everyone’s eyes, are simply larger than life, and because of this, they inspire awe, amazement, admiration. They might motivate others to live like them, to emulate their qualities. Or more often, they are praised out of another’s vanity. In a sense, their incredible feats of love, strength, power inspire fear and inadequacy in others, so they are set apart as miraculous exceptions. We worship them out of our vanity, our self-love, because, as Nietzsche writes, “it does not hurt only if we think of it as very remote from ourselves, as a miracle (even Goethe, who was without envy, called Shakespeare his star of the farthest height, recalling to us that line, “Die Sterne, die begehrt man nicht”–one does not covet the stars).” I have known and been loved by one of these stars.

But while there are these heroes who have loved from the most devoted and unwavering depths, the source of their magical power is also in need of explanation. Are they really “super human,” or, perhaps, are they themselves the most caught up in the fantastic stories of myths and movies? Perhaps they are borderline figures who simply believe themselves to be heroes. Borderline delusional. Borderline magical because they actually believe in themselves so much that they are, or become, just as incredible as they imagine themselves to be. Whereas one might be tempted to criticize such fantastic faith in oneself as a heroic figure, Nietzsche notes that such valuations, if they turn out to be criticisms, are likely misguided. This is because seeming can become being.

Nietzsche writes, “If someone wants to seem to be something, stubbornly and for a long time, he eventually finds it hard to be anything else. The profession of almost every man, even the artist, begins with hypocrisy, as he imitates from the outside, copies what is effective. The man who always wears the mask of a friendly countenance eventually has to gain power over benevolent moods without which the friendliness cannot be forced–and eventually then these moods gain power over him, and he is benevolent” (Section 51). Is it possible that in playing the part and going through the motions, one could act so compellingly that she actually convinces herself of the truth of the very idea that she aims to embody? Most importantly, could this go beyond mere “convincing” and enter into actual being? Can one cultivate these abilities? These feelings??

In the next section Nietzsche goes on to explain that “all great deceivers” undergo the same process where “the belief in themselves overcomes them.” Without coming out of this condition of self deception, what some might call faith, these individuals can inspire others. In love as well as in religion, but one might also say sports, theater, politics, and sometimes even life in general, “Self-deception must be present, so that both kinds of deceivers can have a grand effect. For men will believe something is true, if it is evident that others believe in it firmly.” The effect, then, is the most significant element. Not the cause, not the root of one’s undying love, but rather the effect it has on oneself and another. Tragic lovers are inspirational not simply because they love so deeply, but because they themselves believe so firmly in their capacity to do so. And they inspire us to believe in them as well.

But despite the effects that such people might inspire, there is a risk to all of this as well insofar as “delusions often have the value of curatives, which are actually poisonous. Yet in the case of every ‘genius’ who believes in his divinity, the poison at last becomes apparent, to the degree that the ‘genius’ grows old” (Section 164). Though it is the belief in one’s greatness that can actually lead one to such great heights that set him apart from all others, in some (Nietzsche gives Napoleon as an example, and some might point to Nietzsche himself as an example, as well) “this same belief turned into an almost mad fatalism, robbed him of his quick, penetrating eye, and became the cause of his downfall.” Eventually, it seems, one’s conviction can lead to their demise. One’s passion is more thoroughly deflated when it is unrealized…or proves to be unrealizable. If one does not, or cannot, live up to one’s own expectation, if faith does not beat “fate,” then the ultimate disappointment unravels to reveal the greatest weakness. This is a problem for the heroic, self-deceptive believer. The hero is, after all, a very tragic figure.

But what about those who believed? What about those who felt so inspired and wanted to believe in these heroic figures? What happens when the heroic lover falters? What happens when the great leaders fall? At times, we might suffer from our own disillusionment about ourselves, but these heroic figures can also be parents, friends, teachers and lovers in whom we did believe, and perhaps still want to believe.

From all of this we can learn that there is some necessity in error, illusion, delusion. Sometimes, it is necessary for life. Always, it tests our character and strength.

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