Nietzsche and an Insidious form of Forgetting

jpg_642_Vulliod_-_Le_ressentiment_et_la_nouvelle_GMThroughout Nietzsche’s writing, repressed by the flair of his central theses, one can find the teaching of the joyous, affirmative act of forgetting. Forgetting? What could possibly be positive about forgetfulness? People who forget are typically taken as being, at best, foolish or silly, and at worst, unknowing and stupid. Nevertheless, for Nietzsche forgetfulness is a kind of virtue; and I believe that Nietzsche’s virtue of forgetting, despite—no, through—the risk of appearing unwise Nietzsche’s account of forgetting is the impetus for radically new form of knowing and being human. The aim here is not to locate and elaborate upon this new form of knowing; rather, I want to present and denounce an insidious form of forgetting that has become ubiquitous in the West.

In a multiplicity of places Nietzsche subtly attempts to educate his readers on the art of forgetting. Consider: with tragedy, a listener “could forget his critical exhaustion and abandon himself” to a place where “the world of phenomena [is led] to its limits, where one denies oneself and seeks to flee back again into the womb of the true and only reality.”[1] Moreover, when Nietzsche argued that truth is an illusion, he did so the basis that it is “only through forgetfulness can man ever come to believe that he is in possession of truth.”[2] Indeed, he asserts, “forgetting is essential to action of any kind”—because “it is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting.”[3] Further, with his love for art, he maintains that it is a goal of contemporary artists to teach the masses to “forget themselves and breath again,” with the hopes of bringing them “out of this forgetting [with] an incitement to flight and reformation.”[4] Finally, he informs his readers that humans are “an animal that needs to be forgetful,” and that it should “be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness…without forgetfulness[5].” Yet: is it immediately obvious? Does it make immediate sense why forgetting is central to human life? Perhaps: not. – Certainly not. Is it that we have failed to read Nietzsche carefully, with his consistent remembrance to remind us to forget?

…Perhaps we have realized a double negation: is it that we have forgotten how to forget?

Forgetting to forget. Forgetting in forgetfulness.

This sounds wonderful: the blissful ignorance of a second naiveté.

But is such forgetting permissible in our world? Our world, in which the Holocaust is not even a century behind us; in which, Genocide still reigns, still grips the lives of countless precisely through the amnesiac cycle of the triumph of the few; in which the American Dream has begun to recognize itself for what it is: the right to crush colored lives in the name of Protection, or, the right to shoot one another in our classrooms of education, the “hope of our future”? Turning our heads to, forgetting, such atrocity so quickly is truly a mark of our time. Yet it is strange that the white masses today—that we make ourselves, as masses, to be innocent of our own time. Hence, inherent is the contradiction in our modern subject: we realize and rely on our networked sociology, the worldwide range of our impact; yet we refuse to include within ourselves the violence involved being globalized. Recall: claiming a home once only meant displacement of another’s sense of place. This violence has become old-fashioned. Today we have extended our reach, extended the brutality of our own contradiction onto others: no longer is claiming another’s land sufficient for one to comfortably settle in, realizing “ah yes, now I am home”; nowadays, what is additionally necessary is that one’s ideas run the gamut of our information technologies, become processed by a multitude of
the anonymous, and return different yet unchanged. That is, we no longer colonize land—we now also find it necessary colonize the virtual, the conceptual spaces of others, before we ever feel at home in ourselves. No doubt this is what Arendt meant by the banality of evil: we breathe evil, we live it…but refuse to identify (with) it. Thus, we are, by our own lights, innocent; we have successfully forgotten in a way that makes it possible for white life to continue supreme.

Yes: we are enjoying our second naiveté.

No: if Nietzsche’s idea of forgetting were aimed at creating such a hell, then his entire corpus ought to be forgotten. And that was not Nietzsche’s point—far from it. Presenting Nietzsche’s notion of forgetting in this naïve sort of way allows culture to remain in stasis: to linger on until the last man has finally come and gone. That is, in wanting to inquire about the possibility of forgetting to forget one assumes a frivolity on our part: there is only weak ambivalence—we have, at once, heeded Nietzsche’s insight, but have also refused to take the time to take the risk of forgetting, of unknowing the present. Thus, the ease with which we forget today cannot be what Nietzsche means when he says that there could be no happiness, no life, without forgetfulness. Such a reading overlooks much of the critical force of Nietzsche’s tactfully placed meditations on forgetting. What new form of knowing has humanity unveiled in century of oppression that separates us from Nietzsche? None—what remains is merely refinement of the culture that Nietzsche was loath to forget criticizing; the perfecting of Christianity’s df4bbdc13addfc7b06_pbm6ii5f8march to colonize the world in the name of love. It is only from within the Christian framework that bombing a Doctors Without Borders hospital—of sending drone, machines, to do the handiwork of their righteous creators—is made thinkable at all. Who are the great Christians today? It is telling that Presidents must be Christian, that Bush and Obama still must have a favorite
passage of scripture in order to garner public support; that Trump can confidently proclaim, “I will be the greatest representative of the Christian’s they’ve had in a long time.” (Notice Trump’s acknowledgment of the perversity of the situation: his willing acceptance of the Christian appearance of being ‘washed white as snow’, yet his immediate separation from Christian accountability: “the best Christian they’ve had…”) Nietzsche warned us of these figures that use their innocence to indulge in absolute nihilism: “The soul of the Christian who has freed himself from sin is ruined afterwards by hatred of sin. Just look at the faces of the great Christians! They are the faces of great haters.” Therefore, in wanting to inquire about the possibility of forgetting to forget one assumes a frivolity on our part: there is only weak ambivalence—we have, at once, heeded Nietzsche’s insight, but have also refused to take the time to take the risk of forgetting, of unknowing the present.

[1] The Birth of Tragedy, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 131-132.

[2] “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” in Early Notebooks, 255.

[3] On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, in Untimely Meditations, 62.

[4] Daybreak, 112.

[5] On the Genealogy of Morals, 58.


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