Nietzsche: the first perfect nihilist
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote at the opening of The Will to Power that he considered himself to be “Europe’s first perfect nihilist”.
For those who have some familiarity with Nietzsche’s philosophy, this declaration tends to come as something of a surprise. “Surely”, one says to oneself, “Nietzsche was a ferocious opponent of nihilism. Surely, for example, he savagely criticised Christianity, and its dead God, precisely on the grounds that it was nihilistic. Surely he wanted instead to argue affirmatively for the vigorous pursuit of life, and for the creation of new values.”
Well, yes../. and no. For arguably Nietzsche believed that the creation of new values was only possible once we had thoroughly expunged the old from our systems. And he believed that that was a lot more difficult to achieve than it would be tempting to think. He argued in The Genealogy of Morals that science and even atheism are nihilistic, because they still have faith in truth, they still believe in a god – Truth. Until we can get beyond such faith, which Nietzsche himself of course shared, and indeed exemplified, Nietzsche holds that we have no chance of creating truly new values, of dancing and affirming in a space beyond good and evil, beyond truth and falsity.
So, what is Nietzsche’s solution in The Genealogy of Morals? Arguably, it is this: to attack nihilism, but then to reveal that even the attack is still nihilistic because it is exposing the lies involved in religion etc., but all in the name of a new god, Truth), and that he, Nietzsche, himself, is in fact the apogee of nihilism. The reader is then encouraged, if s/he can, to start to get beyond both Nietzsche and what Nietzsche criticised, in his or her own way. Nietzsche destroys nihilism, but from the inside; like a virus, or a bomb, or an emetic.
He is the perfect nihilist, because he reduces even nihilism (and himself, in the process) to nothing, and thus dears the ground for something new.
Diana: a republican??!
Julie Burchill, shortly after Princess Di’s funeral, wrote the following:
“In the soft-focus shampoo commercials being churned out in such indecent haste../. [w]e have seen Diana the Good, Diana the Stylish, Diana the Dutiful… But we have not yet seen the other great Diana — Diana the Destroyer. … And destroyer she has been, gloriously so, with bells on; the greatest force for republicanism since Oliver Cromwell. [The Guardian, 02/09/97, p. 5]”
How so? Could such an extravagant claim possibly be justified? “Surely”, one says to oneself, “Surely people loved her precisely because she was such a lovely Princess. And surely she didn’t want a Republic — she wanted, even at the end, to be the King Mother, the mother of our future King.”
Well, yes… and no. I am not, of course, arguing that she was a republican, an anti-monarchist, self-consciously. But I am claiming that she embodied a devastatingly strong argument for republicanism.
Well, for sure people loved her because in their/our – in the public’s –perception, she was a Princess – and a human being.
One might ask this: Why the great grief, if she was indeed recognised to be a human being, not semi-divine in the way that royals used to appear to people in days gone by? Why the open, “un-English” grief?
It’s surely no coincidence here that she had publicised her own grief in recent months and years. That, unlike (for example) Princess Anne, unlike in fact any other royal in living memory — in fact, ever — she made it acceptable for a royal, a symbol of the nation, to grieve deeply and openly, to have and express emotion. Further: that she made it acceptable also for a royal to have bulimia../. to be in therapy …. to be deeply unhappy/depressed… to want a divorce… to want sex and fulfilment; … not to mention to be involved with controversial and political causes;… the list could go on.
Many many ordinary people felt close to her, as they never had done to a royal in this country ever — ever — because of this. They felt close to her because she was allowing them the forbidden, the impossible. That is to say: She was untouchable royalty — and yet she was as human as the social worker on the end of the phone, as the teenage Mum next door, as the drug addict hanging out on the street-corner.
She was a Princess, if anyone ever was – but she was also someone who did things quite incompatible with everything the principle of monarchy represents. Again, witness her lack of discretion, her lack sometimes of a stiff upper lip, her big-time real-life (soap) drama of heartache and pain, and her (in my view, admirable) involvement in what are frankly political matters (AIDS, land mines etc.). She was a royal, and yet not a royal. She was truly royal – but yet she wasn’t (like) a royal at all.
People loved her because she was a contradiction — “The People’s Princess”. She had a unique mystique, because she and the media circus around her progressively destroyed once and for all the mystique of royalty in this country She has left the Windsors (ably assisted, it must be said, by Tony Blair and various others) desperately trying to maintain some such mystique, some raison d ‘etre for the monarchy, even while ‘modernising’ and attempting, fairly hopelessly, to ‘listen to the people’. The extraordinary (and in many people’s opinions, gob-smackingly hypocritical and despicable) efforts of the Windsors to retrieve Di as “one of them” at the funeral — notably, the draping of the coffin with the Royal Standard, and even the weasel words of Elton John’s saccharine song, turning Di into a symbol of England and obliterating her name in the process (while the original version was all about the change in Marilyn Monroe’s name) — ran into a brick wall at the moments when some diminution of the stiff upper lip was perhaps called for. The Windsors try to retain their difference, their distance, their mystique — and look worse in the process, as when they refuse to applaud Earl Spencer’s astonishing barn- (or should that be barricade-?) storming speech, when they refuse to cry, when they fail to put their arms around their children. They are caught in the contradiction now, too!
Once more people realise explicitly that Di was a contradiction, then they’ll realise, as many already have, that she was the Princess who killed the monarchy. The idea of royalty has been unveiled finally as an illusion, as an impossible pose based on nothing. Monarchy in this country has been revealed as having no clothes, has been destroyed by the truth, even if it refuses to admit the fact yet (Just as the theistic religions have refused to allow that God is dead). Di was unsustainable, a one-off. I think we all know that the royals we have left to us can’t be what she was. The mystique has gone — there’s no reason why it should ever come bask. The royals are finally, inescapably, irredeemably, human, and ordinary. But there’s simply no point in a royal family, no point to all that money and all those pseudo-distinctions, when there’s nothing to set that royal family apart from and above the common people. The logic of the humanness of the royals finally being realised — the logic of recognising their kinship with the inhabitants of Coronation Street (or at least, of Dallas) — points inexorably toward a republic. When “the Queen of hearts” is loved more than any real queen could be, we have already moved beyond the days of the real monarchy. What is unreal, and dead, ought to lie down.
“But”, it will be said, “What about her sons? She can live on through them, with them on the throne. Isn’t that, and not a republic, the legacy we ought to want for her, even if sadly she can never now see it realised?”
But, as we heard Earl Spencer movingly speak of protecting those children at Westminster Abbey, and saw them standing their in all their young fragility, and in their inhuman efforts to retain composure, surely many of us thought something like this: Do we want anyone, ever again, to have the kind of probably pretty miserable and awful life and death that Diana did, the kind of life which one is so depressed by that one wants out not only of the royal family, but of life itself (her suicide attempts)? Would we really want the Princes — or even the Windsors to be stuck in the horror-story, in the contradiction, that she was. “Even after you died, the Press [that we buy…] still hounded your sons…” …Does any Diana-fan want her sons condemned to be either just like the Windsors who hated her – or else stuck in a horrible and fateful contradiction, between irreconcilable roles, as she was, and as they increasingly are?
Surely not. Once you’ve seen through the mystique, you don’t want to force new children to have to keep on living it, living stuck under its burden. Why should more children have to live that absurd li(f)e; and why should the children of England in general have to continue to grow up living vicariously through and in the shadow of that life of media images?
Rather than one of her children ascending to the throne, Di’s more fitting memorial would be for her to be the first and last people’s princess — for there to be no more new princesses, no more princes, and no more new kings.
That’s why Princess Diana was, as Julie Burchill wrote, “a glorious force for republicanism”. It’s up to her people now to make the republic, and not the flowers and teddy-bears and poems, into her permanent memorial.
Thus Diana might very well turn out posthumously to have been this country’s first and last perfect republican. She could be characterised as a Nietzschean, albeit a slightly unconscious one – for, like him, she embodied a truth that destroyed its nemesis from the inside, by both becoming and exposing it. Nietzsche took nihilism to its logical conclusion, and in him, the anti-nihilistic nihilist, it perished of the truth, of the contradiction, of itself. Princess Di, the impossible human-royal, showed — exposed — the truth of ‘royalty’, and exploded it, like a beautiful firework, that must fade.
Like Nietzsche, and like Christ, and like Socrates, she was a sacrifice. She died, we might even say, for the truth. And her legacy, what she has really given birth to, her true child (of love?), may be a republic – in which her biological children can be ordinary citizens, and not have to live the lie of “royalty.”