Nietzsche: Wakeful Dreams

Philosophers, scientists, historians; thinkers of all sorts find their own little territories of thought, usually exploring or pushing the boundaries of thinking already thought by others.

Truly great thinkers found their own countries of thought: the Descartes, Kants and Hegels of the world.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in my dim-witted estimation, did not just set the boundaries of his own country of thought, but discovered just how much unexplored territory there was underneath and beyond it. Descartes, Kant, Hegel, they had their own all-enveloping systems of thought; they knew they’d happened upon the truth and totality of things.

Nietzsche, vain and maniacal as he was, pointed far beyond boundaries set by philosophers, by looking deep within. He knew that we know nothing. Most of all, we know nothing of ourselves.

About halfway through Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche departs from the dense and complex prose characterising Parts 1 to 3. Part 4: Maxims and Interludes contains reams of powerful, pithy one-liners covering psychology, society, sex, religion, music, and everything in-between.

Nietzsche declared he philosophised with a hammer. The 122 hammer-blows in this chapter ‘sound out’ whether our ideas are hollow, by striking them at their very base; at the level of our most basic assumptions – as we shall see. These hammer-blows are fittingly abrupt, immensely powerful, shocking even, and often disorientating.

Enough of our prelude to Nietzsche’s interludes. We will limit ourselves with one to discuss today – more to come.

“What we do in dreams we also do when we are awake: we invent and fabricate the person with whom we associate – and immediately forget we have done so.”

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §138

I’ve met many famous and/or dead people in my dreams. I’ve hung out with Barack Obama. I’ve ridden on horseback with Bruce Lee across the plains of Latvia. I am sorry to say, real as they felt, they were utter fabrications.

Nietzsche’s point – one of them, I think – is that we project and assume much of the person with whom we associate, much in the same way as we do in dreams. I couldn’t tell you anything meaningful about the lives of Obama or Bruce Lee, because they are simplified apparitions projected from my own mind, based on limited experience of both of them, both within my dream and ‘real’ life.

We witness someone do a good deed, see them post happy-looking photos on social media and hear that they are a good person. The remainder of a person, the stuff we don’t see, is – by us – invented and fabricated. They are simplified and categorised as a ‘good person’.

To take an extreme example, just to caricature and illustrate Nietzsche’s point: Winston Churchill. I’m enchanted by his story. He was such a magnificent man, and illimitable arsehole. Do you know, for example, that he used to defraud art collectors by (quite convincingly) plagiarising great works of art and selling them as originals? Of his thousand or so biographies, you’re unlikely to read that in many. But that just does not fit within our collective projection of the man, which approximates an invention or fabrication more so than any other individual that springs to mind.

Likewise, we see only snippets of the people with whom we associate, even those closest to us. You’ve no true, verifiable knowledge of the inner-life of other human beings, their thoughts and feelings. You perceive some limited amount through limited perceptive apparatus, and assume the remainder. We project low resolution avatars of people, and assume that this invention or fabrication, this is who they are – for our own sanity and for simplicity, if nothing else.

This isn’t some paranoiac ramble. We barely have a grasp of our own thoughts and emotions, or even memories. Why would we ever assume we can bridge the gap with another human being, when we know not ourselves?

I speak not against friendship or love, by saying this, nor does Nietzsche. Just the opposite. These leaps of faith must be made if we are ever to make friends or find love or trust people. The point is this – and this is precisely what makes friendship and love so special – they are leaps of faith. You fall in love, into the unknown, into the unknowable. Therefore it’s important we invent and fabricate, to some degree, and ‘immediately forget we have done so’, lest we forever fret about the unknowable remainder of our friends and family. Such is faith.

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