ABYSSES OF AMOR FATI

LOVES OF FATE

Yet amor fati is not only characterised by the ability to transfigure one’s own suffering; it is also a positive state. Nietzsche indicates that ‘a full and powerful soul not only copes with painful, even terrible losses, deprivations, (…); it emerges from such hells with a greater fullness and powerfulness; and most essential of all, with a new increase in the blissfulness of love’. (WP §352) How is such an ‘increase’ experienced? Another passage indicates that from the ‘abysses’ of suffering, one returns ‘newborn, more ticklish and malicious, with a more delicate taste for joy, (…) with merrier senses (…) more childlike and yet a hundred times subtler than before’ (GS: 37, my italics) The increased strength, sensitivity and lucidity brought upon us by suffering do not disappear with the pain itself.

 They remain with us and transform our perception, not just of suffering, but of our whole life. We experience the ‘happiness which could only invented by a man who was suffering continually’. (GS: 110) We become more attentive and do not take anything for granted: the ‘smallest, tenderest, most fleeting moments life gives us’ (HH II: 213) now stand out, and we delight in the little nuances and details we would not have noticed before. To those who ‘love life, it seems that butterflies and soap bubbles, and whatever is like them among men, know most about happiness’. (Z: 68) We experience a constant sense of gratitude. Our demands on existence are much more modest; we know the ‘happiness of eyes that have seen the sea of existence become calm, and now they can never weary of the surface and of the many hues of this tender, shuddering skin of the sea’. (GS: 110)

In this paper, I have tried to shed some light on the oft mentioned but rarely discussed notion of amor fati. I have identified two central paradoxes (love of fate requires us to love a negative object, and we are supposed to achieve it knowing that our love will not make any difference to its object) and outlined two possible ways of understanding such love (erotic and agapic). I have suggested that while Nietzsche’s original reflections on amor fati in the Gay Science exhibit a tension between these construals, the erotic reading is bound to fail because it does not take into account the motivational gap between willing or affirming on the one hand, and loving on the other. By contrast, I have emphasised the mediopassive modality used by Nietzsche in relation to amor fati, which, like the middle voice in ancient Greek, signals that love of fate is an existential attitude which requires our participation but which does not fully depend on us. On such an agapic construal, the modality of Nietzsche’s remarks on amor fati is descriptive; his comments about the value of suffering are not meant as arguments to convince us that fate is lovable and thus trigger a quasi-Platonic ascent of love, but as observations made from the perspective of someone who already experiences amor fati. Note that one of the advantages of the agapic construal of amor fati is that it solves both the paradoxes I discussed at the beginning of this paper: loving a negative object is not a problem since agapic love is not dependent on the previously apprehended value of its object: furthermore, such value is positively transformed by the love itself. Secondly, while our love may not make any difference to the unfolding of fate which was not already pre-included in the latter (our loving fate, if it happens, is part of that fate itself), it will make a substantial difference to us. Our perception of the events that befall us (and of ourselves) will be greatly transformed. As we saw, this existential transformation will in turn allow us a sort of happiness which neither resignation nor rebellion could ever bring us. We experience ‘an equilibrium and composure in the face of life and even a sense of gratitude towards it’. (HH II: 212-3) Although this cannot count as a motivation for loving fate (since this would be subscribing to the erotic logic which, as we have seen, ultimately fails), it is enough to rebut the objection that such a love is pointless.

By way of a (long) conclusion, I now wish to discuss a number of objections. The first three concern, one way or another, the limitations of human agape, and the fourth its status as an ideal. To begin with, consider that in Luther’s version the transfigurative powers of divine love are infinite; there is nothing, past, present or future, that God’s love cannot redeem. But I cannot literally remake my past, nor make my past suffering a good thing at the time it was experienced. From this observation follows a two-pronged worry about the agapic construal of amor fati: on the one hand, I can learn to see retrospectively a value in my past which previously escaped me, and thus come to love even my past suffering. But then my love is not fully agapic and includes erotic elements. Or on the other hand, I may think that I can genuinely transform my whole life, but then I may well be deceiving myself about the extent of my powers. So either amor fati turns out to be a hybrid construct, in which (pace Nietzsche) eros supplements agape, or it risks being a case of self-deception.56 Is there a way out of this dilemma?

Rather than trying to answer this question directly, it may be worth looking at a passage in which Nietzsche specifically considers the problems raised by our inability to reshape our past note its title: ‘On Redemption’. ‘“It was”: that is what the will’s teeth-gnashing and most lonely affliction is called. Powerless against that which has been done, the will is an angry spectator of all things past’.57 (Z: 161) The text then explains how, under the influence of the spirit of revenge, the will, from being a potential ‘liberator’, becomes a ‘malefactor’: faced with its painful ‘inability to go backwards’, it ‘wills itself and all life was supposed to be punishment’. Existence itself comes to be seen as an unredeemable punishment, and the only apparent solution consists in the (Schopenhauerian) ‘fable song of madness’: ‘willing must become not-willing’. (ibid.) By contrast, the true solution resides in the full assumption of the creative powers of the will: to ‘unlearn the spirit of revenge and all teeth-gnashing’, it must be taught to ‘will backwards’. (Z: 163) At this

point, however, Zarathustra breaks off and ‘looks like a man seized by extreme terror’. He does not explain how willing backwards could be achieved but after a moment laughs and comments that ‘it is difficult to live amongst men because keeping silent is so difficult’. (ibid.) What can we make of this narrative, and how does it connect to amor fati? It clearly stems from the same sort of consideration as the dilemma outlined above: how do we deal with our inability to change our past, and the suffering this entails (in particular through the twin forms of regret and remorse)? Willing backwards, mysterious as it is, would nip the dilemma in the bud by allowing us to retrospectively project our will in the past and to acquire total control over our lives: the sting of the ‘it was’ would be removed because what was would ultimately turn out to have been what we willed it to be even then. Thus willing backwards would offer us an autonomous form of redemption, a redemption purely based on the power of willing and without any need for amor fati. In Nietzsche’s (very biblical) terms, the will must become a ‘creator’ and ‘its own redeemer and bringer of joy’ (Z: 162, my italics), combining both the creative power of the Father and the redemptive attributes of the Son a possibility that not even the Pelagians, who were keen to minimise the need for grace, dared consider.58 No wonder that Zarathustra should look terrified and lapse into silence! However, note that such a super-human redemption is not open to us and that, like the Overman itself, it is presented both as an imperative (‘the will to power must will something higher than any reconciliation’) and as an open ended question (‘how shall that happen?’ (Z: 163)). Although Nietzsche does not explicitly make the connection, I would suggest that amor fati represents a human, heteronomous alternative to willing backwards and a secularised version of grace. As we saw, the existential transformation it entails is not dependent on our will (love cannot be willed into existence). What I have called its medio-passive modality captures the fact that even though we may try to prepare for it, we cannot ensure its coming: like grace (which, in the Lutherian tradition Nietzsche was raised in, cannot be secured through works either), love happens (or not) to us from the outside. Yet like willing backwards, albeit differently, it can help us deal with the pain of the ‘it was’: whereas the first, if it could be achieved, would remove the cause of the suffering by literally transforming our past volitions, amor fati is meant to change our relation to our (unchanged) past, and more generally to time, in such a way that neither revenge nor despair can hold sway on us anymore.

 

This suggestion may go some way towards solving the first horn of the dilemma. Remember that the background of the problem is Nietzsche’s requirement that our fate should be loved in its entirety, and not just on balance. As we saw, this entails that all its aspects should be loved, which is clearly impossible on an erotic construal, for structural reasons (we cannot love the negative). The objection consisted in pointing out that this may well be impossible on a purely agapic construal as well, although this time for practical reasons which have to do with human finitude and our inability to transform our past. However, such ability, although it is central to willing backwards, is not required for amor fati: what is needed is a transformation, not of the past, but of ourselves. Furthermore, and importantly, there are several indications in Nietzsche’s writings that the primary temporal focus of such transfiguration is not our relation to our past, but our ability to live in the present. Thus in the autumn of 1882, very soon after having written to Overbeck about amor fati for the first time, he remarked in the Nachlass that ‘any love thinks of the instant and eternity but never of “duration”’. (KSA, VII 1, Juli 1882-Winter 1883: 88 ( Z I 1, 3 [1] n° 293), Nietzsche’s italics) Note also that all the passages quoted above (including those in footnotes) which describe the state in which lovers of fate may find themselves are in the present tense. Yet another text, entitled At Noontide (recall that for Nietzsche noon is the hour of the ‘shortest shadow’, in which time is compressed into a single, present moment) shows Zarathustra passing ‘an old gnarled and crooked tree which was embraced around by the abundant love of a vine (…); from the vine an abundance of yellow grapes hung down to the wanderer’. (Z: 287). Drawn by the grapes, Zarathustra stops and lies down besides the tree. As he falls asleep, he speaks to his heart: ‘take care! Hot noontide sleeps over the fields! Do not sing! Soft! (…) Precisely the least thing, the gentlest, the lightest, the rustling of a lizard, a breath, a moment, a twinkling of the eye little makes the quality of the best happiness. Soft! What has happened to me? Listen! Has time flown away? Do I not fall? Have I not fallen listen! Into the well of eternity?’ (Z: 288) Admittedly there is no explicit mention of amor fati in this passage. However it is connoted both by the agapic elements of the description (the ‘abundant love of the vine’, the ‘abundance of yellow grapes’) and by its content: here too the emphasis is on the rare ability, which amor fati bestows upon us, to notice the ‘smallest, most fleeting moments that life gives us’ not butterflies and soap bubbles as before but the similarly small and apparently insignificant rustling of a lizard. Like all its previous counterparts, the excerpt is in the present tense, and the fading away of the other temporal extases is indicated by various rhetorical means: Nietzsche’s insistence on the shortest possible temporal span for the object considered (a ‘breath’, a ‘moment’, a ‘twinkling of the eye’), Zarathustra’s musing about the flying away of time, and the reverse order of his last two questions  (do I not fall? Have I not fallen?), from present to past and not past to present as one might logically have expected. This passage strongly suggests, as do others, that amor fati does not work so much by providing us with ways to re-evaluate our past positively but by allowing us to live fully in the present, free both from the temptations of the spirit of revenge and from worries about the future. Of course, it is somewhat paradoxical to think that loving fate would allow us to sidestep thoughts about temporal succession. But the fatal element remains present: it is expressed differently, not by means of a linear consideration of the concatenation of past, present and future events, but through an intuitive understanding of the unavoidability of what happens in the present tense, when we ‘experience all things as necessarily linked’. (K, 2: 98)

Thus clarifying the challenge of the ‘it was’ and construing amor fati as a human alternative to the super-human (and unachievable) redemption of willing backwards allows us to understand its agapic element better and to resolve the first horn of the dilemma: it removes both the requirement that we should be able to literally transform our past and the need for narratives that would allow us to love it backwards on erotic grounds. However this only makes the second horn, namely the risk of self-deception, more pressing. Can my relation to existence truly be transfigured to this extent? Is such a love humanly possible? Or do I just delude myself into thinking that it is? Self-deception is a notoriously problematic topic in that it is equally hard to describe the phenomenon appropriately and to present a coherent account of the psychological factors that supposedly make it possible.59 In fact, the difficulty is such that some are inclined to deny its existence altogether (in which case, however, there would be no objection to answer here).60 Furthermore, the sort of description and explanation available varies considerably depending on how weak or strong the cases envisaged are: instances of weak self-deception are very close to wishful thinking in that they can be construed as requiring no self-deceptive intent and no violation of our normal epistemic standards. The subject, although he is motivated by a negative affect, has no intention to deceive himself and does not know that he is doing it.61 By contrast, strong cases are sometimes said to exhibit both an intention to deceive oneself (although it does not take the self-defeating form of a conscious choice) and a failure of reflective self- knowledge.62 Without entering into these debates, it seems possible to describe amor fati as a case of self-deception operating along the following steps63 (artificially separated for the sake of clarity): (1) faced with the experience of pain or suffering, which I see as a consequence of my fate, (2) I experience a negative affective response to the latter (such as anger, resentment or hatred). This negative affect is in itself painful because it expresses an unpleasant truth about myself or my situation hinting perhaps at my powerlessness in the face of my fate, my inability to cope with it, or at weaknesses in my character such as self-pity or cowardice. (3) In order to prevent this painful secondary affect and what it expresses from coming to reflective awareness, I deceive myself into believing that I love my fate. This instrumentally adopted belief allows me to think that I envision my pain in a positive light64 and that I am genuinely endowed with the sort of virtues which I wish to have (for example being a strong, generous and powerful individual who is capable of overcoming pain). The whole process is made possible by the fact that neither my negative secondary affect nor my motivation to deceive myself are reflectively available to me at the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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