Coming to terms with life and death
Bound Variables | Friday, April 1, 2011
Nietzsche warns, in his Ecce Homo, against a sentimental misreading of his Overman: “this word ‘Overman’ is understood almost everywhere with complete innocence to mean values that are the opposite from the ones appearing in the figure of Zarathustra, which is to say the ‘idealistic’ type of the higher sort of humanity, half ‘saint’, half ‘genius.'” Nietzsche does not hesitate to offer an alternative model: “if I whisper to people that this type would look more like a Cesare Borgia than a Parsifal, they do not believe their ears.”
Whoever he would be, it is clear, the Overman would not conform to the artistic ideal that came to represent the counterculture of the late twentieth century — a kind of saintly genius of which John Lennon is the paradigm. But is there any room between hippie and homicidal dictator? The Overman, it is clear, would be a man of violence — and yet he would somehow use this violence not to destroy but rather to create — to revaluate values, not to abolish them.
When can violence be legitimately used? The Overman, according to Nietzsche, would use violence to teach us — to free us from our slavery to fear and transform us into what we were meant to be. In the first section of his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues that “the two opposed values ‘good and bad,’ ‘good and evil,'” — that is, the aristocratic morality and the slave morality — “have fought a terrible millennia-long battle on earth.” And though “the second value has had the upper hand for a long time,” Nietzsche excoriates this slave morality and hopes for its overthrow — that is, for a revaluation of values, a creative violence to be wrought by the Overman.
Who is this violent artist, this Overman? Someone very different, it is clear, from both Lennon and Hitler, from both Parsifal and Borgia — someone who would seem, at first, hardly human at all. Someone like Roy Batty.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner tells the story of a dystopian detective, Rick Deckard, who is tasked with hunting down five replicants — genetically engineered slaves, superficially indistinguishable from humans but far faster, stronger, and smarter — who have escaped and returned to Earth. Led by Roy — graced with superlative speed, strength, and intelligence — these replicants hope to force their “father” to reengineer them beyond their four-year lifespans.
Roy and his replicant allies are natural aristocrats, but the natural slaves — that is, the humans, who are far weaker than the replicants — have banded together to enslave those who would otherwise be their masters. The humans — Deckard, for example — see the replicants as evil: they need to be hunted down. And the replicants, brainwashed into the slave morality, see the humans as evil, hunting down those — Hannibal Chew, J. F. Sebastian, and Eldon Tyrell — who created and enslaved them. In doing so, the replicants act out of resentment — anger at the harm their enslavers did to them.
Both humans and replicants are afraid: they want most of all to prolong their own lives — and this frequently means killing those “evil” individuals that they see as threats. However, after his encounter with Tyrell, Roy realizes that life isn’t about — indeed, couldn’t be about — staying alive as long as possible: the important thing is to accomplish great things with the time that one has — to take on great challenges and overcome them. “The flame that burns half as long burns twice as brightly,” says Tyrell — “and you have burned so very brightly, Roy.” Only in this way, by embracing danger, can one cease to live in fear — and only when one ceases to live in fear can one cease to hunt down one’s enemies: by the end, Roy no longer sees Deckard and the other humans as evil — for, indeed, any significant difference between humans and replicants has been shown to be illusory, now that the replicants have developed a truly human emotional depth.
This is the reason that Roy engages in his final, almost playful combat with Deckard: Roy is trying to teach him something. “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?” Roy asks Deckard. “That’s what it is to be a slave.” His point is that, so long as the humans and the replicants live in hate of one another, they are slaves to their fear of death — like Nietzsche’s Last Man, unable to live for anything but the safety of pleasure and the absence of pain.
And, in the case of the humans, this is especially perverse, for their meager pleasures are the products of a socioeconomic system built upon slave labor in hellish conditions on the edges of space. But things do not have to be this way: Roy saves the life of Deckard to show him that they do not have to see one another as evil, that they can live without fearing one another — that is, without fearing death.
Death is imminent — whether in four years, as for the replicants, or in seventy, as for the humans. “It’s too bad she won’t live,” Gaff quips — “but then again, who does?” To live free is to come to terms with death — and to forge one’s own path, not to follow that of the aesthete directed by a dystopian capitalism and concerned only with prolonging his own comfort. Both humans and replicants have the capacity to reach beyond themselves, beyond their fear, and to care for others — as does Roy when he saves Deckard, as does Rachel when she loves Deckard. He knows that he cannot return to the slave morality that defines the profession of the blade runner: he can no longer serve and preserve a society that keeps and kills slaves as though they were mere machines.
“You’ve done a man’s job, sir!” yells Gaff. In hindsight, his sarcasm is obvious: so long as Deckard continues to think in terms of man against machine, he is merely a pawn in a radically exploitative socioeconomic order — an order that is hunting down the woman he loves.
So the sometime blade runner decides to run. But not before finding one last clue — an origami unicorn, left by Gaff outside Deckard’s apartment. Does Gaff know of Deckard’s recurring unicorn daydream? Does Gaff know for certain what Deckard only suspects — that he too is a replicant, manipulated by Chief Bryant into “retiring” his own kind? “You are the blade, blade runner,” Gaff once joked: was he trying, perhaps, to reveal something? Deckard is certain, at any rate, of only one thing: whatever lesson he has learned, Gaff learned it long ago—and is therefore willing to help Rachel and Deckard escape together. Into a future taught to them by creative violence — one unknown, but free.
Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on WVFI at 1 p.m. on Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and not necessarily those of The Observer.