Daniel John Sportiello | Wednesday, April 7, 2010
“So,” I said. “I was thinking that I would give my students John Lennon as an example of the Overman.”
Peter laughed. “I don’t think that it’s okay to tease your students like that. Half of them won’t get the joke.”
“Ah!” I said. “The joke. Yes. Exactly.” I left his office before he had a chance to sense my embarrassment — which he, being British, can do — and found my way downstairs to Decio Commons. But by the time that I ran into John, I had regained my courage. “Do you think that John Lennon is the Overman?”
He laughed. “I can’t believe that you would think that.” That Nietzsche had heralded Lennon as the first of a new race of heroic artists was ridiculous, he explained: the Overman, quite clearly, is Jimmy Page.
It was only later that I realized that my question had been ambiguous — for John Lennon is really two men, not one.
The first is heir to modernity — to humanity freed from its bonds. After four centuries of desperate struggle against their inheritance, men could finally scream unto God their defiance — could tell him of their disbelief in him. At last, they said to themselves, we are free — are no longer slaves but rather gods. We need admit our brokenness to no one now, not even ourselves.
And yet this freedom, Nietzsche saw, was still a lie: “we men of knowledge of today — we godless men and anti-metaphysicians — we, too, still derive our flame from the fire ignited by a faith millennia old: the Christian faith, which was also Plato’s, that God is truth, that truth is divine.” Men had sacrificed God on the altar of Truth — and, in doing so, had unwittingly reenacted the oldest story of all, the sacrifice of God to God. That men no longer believed in God was irrelevant: so long as they believed in anything at all, they were still slaves living in the fear of him.
But to disbelieve not just in magic and I Ching and Bible and tarot but also in Hitler and Jesus and Kennedy and Buddha? To disbelieve in mantra and Gita and yoga and kings — in Elvis and Zimmerman and even Beatles? And yet, somehow, to go on living? If a man were to do this and do it truly, he would become something more than a man — would become someone who, somehow, creates within himself, here and now, whatever value that there is in the world. He would be one who could truly imagine that there was no Hell below us, and above us only sky. He would be the only God left.
This Overman would be the first with the courage to be neither Dreamweaver — First Man, the child of God who derives his value from above — nor Walrus — Last Man, the student of the absurd who despairs of value: now, he would be merely John — neither more nor less — and thus Reality. The Dream would finally be over.
All of this is, of course, colossal nonsense: when Nietzsche heralds his Overman, MacIntyre notes, his rhetoric “becomes cloudy and opaque, and metaphorical assertion replaces argument.” Had he tried to speak clearly of his Overman, Nietzsche would have realized that he belongs “in the pages of a philosophical bestiary rather than in serious discussion.” Indeed, man as God is but a phantasm, a fever dream that will haunt us until the last day. But that does not mean that we cannot chase after it in the meantime, breaking the world in the process.
MacIntyre agrees: “Whenever those immersed in the bureaucratic culture of the age,” he writes, “try to think their way through to the moral foundations of what they are and what they do, they will discover suppressed Nietzschean premises. And consequently it is possible to predict with confidence that in the apparently quite unlikely contexts of bureaucratically managed modern societies there will periodically emerge social movements informed by just that kind of prophetic irrationalism of which Nietzsche’s thought is the ancestor.” This past century — the culmination of a supposed Enlightenment — bore witness to Mao and Hitler and Stalin — to times of madness in which humanity, freed from its bonds, tried to tear itself apart.
The great irony, of course, is that these remain mere aberrations: left to themselves, men will only occasionally want to watch the world burn; more often, they will seek only sex and drugs and cable television. Such men are the brethren of the second John Lennon — the buffoon who imagined a world with nothing to kill or die for — and no religion, too.
To experience such a world, of course, requires only eyesight, not imagination. For all of his posturing, the real Lennon was like the rest of us: in his effort to become something more than a man, he lost his way and somehow become something less — someone for whom the meager dream of merely living life in peace is the only one left. And this, I take it, is what Peter and John were trying to tell me: in seeking the Overman, I found only the Last Man. God gone, he is the only man left to find.
Daniel John Sportiello is a graduate student in Philosophy. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.