Nietzsche And Illness
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June 07, 2017, 07:16 AM
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I’ve been reading Nietzsche’s 1888 book On the Genealogy of Morality, which includes the famous assertion of master morality versus slave morality. In Nietzsche’s mental model of prehistory, the masters seem to be Conan the Barbarian warrior-aristocrats, blond beasts, while the slaves are the indigenous masses conquered by the Indo-European invaders. (William Jones’ 1790 announcement in Calcutta that there must have been an Indo-European protolanguage had massive consequences for how Europeans thought about themselves, since it implied that Hinduism, with its extreme social stratification, may resemble what Europeans’ ancestors may have believed.)

Interestingly, in Nietzsche, the slaves are smarter than the masters and they are also more interesting. The masters’ morality is simple-minded: good versus bad. Everything the masters value in themselves — health, hunting, dancing, conquering, etc. — is good and everything about the pathetic slaves is bad and depressing.

Slave morality resentfully reverses these values. Now the slaves are good and the masters are not bad, they are evil. Judaism and Christianity are slave moralities.

I was struck by how literal is Nietzsche’s insistent that the masters are healthy and active and the slaves are sickly and listless. This is not a psychological metaphor for Nietzsche.

These bearers of oppressive, vindictive instincts, the descendants of all European and non-European slavery, in particular of all pre-Aryan population – represent the decline of mankind! These ‘instruments of culture’ are a disgrace to man, more a grounds for suspicion of, or an argument against, ‘culture’ in general! We may be quite justified in retaining our fear of the blond beast at the centre of every noble race and remain on our guard: but who would not, a hundred times over, prefer to fear if he can admire at the same time, rather than not fear, but thereby permanently retain the disgusting spectacle of the failed, the stunted, the wasted away and the poisoned? And is that not our fate? What constitutes our aversion to ‘man’ today? – for we suffer from man, no doubt about that. – Not fear; rather, the fact that we have nothing to fear from man; that ‘man’ is first and foremost a teeming mass of worms; that the ‘tame man’, who is incurably mediocre and unedifying, has already learnt to view himself as the aim and pinnacle, the meaning of history, the ‘higher man’; – yes, the fact that he has a certain right to feel like that in so far as he feels distanced from the superabundance of failed, sickly, tired and exhausted people of whom today’s Europe is beginning to reek, and in so far as he is at least relatively successful, at least still capable of living, at least saying ‘yes’ to life . . .
Instead, most slave religions and ideologies are, in Nietzsche’s mind, reactions to pervasive physical illness (he considers depression to be a physical illness, which might be true):
For, to speak generally: with all great religions, the main concern is the fight against a certain weariness and heaviness that has become epidemic.

We can regard it as inherently probable that from time to time, at certain places on earth, almost from necessity, a physiological feeling of obstruction will rule amongst large masses of people which, however, is not consciously perceived as such, through lack of physiological knowledge, so that its ‘cause’ and its cure can be sought and tested only on the psychological-moral level (– actually, this is my most general formula for what is usually called a ‘religion’).

Nietzsche himself was not very healthy, suffering from migraines and depression, and then losing his mental powers at age 44. But he was heroically active, writing a huge number of books in a short lifetime.

Something that’s hard for 21st Century people to recognize is how concerned people in the past were with pervasive illness. For one reason, they were sick more than we are. Second, the causes of illness weren’t well understood.

“What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?” — W.H. Auden
This Auden quote from 1932 is usually treated these days as a metaphor for England as a “sick society” due to the Depression or the class system or whatever. But actually the young Auden was writing literally about people feeling ill. (Auden subscribed at the time to some crackpot theory about how illness was caused by moral repression or whatever. I can’t quite remember.)

You can see it in books like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain where the main character checks himself into a tuberculosis sanatorium for years without much evidence that he actually has TB, but you know, you can never tell.

Southern California was settled from 1887 onward to a large extent by affluent people from Back East worried about TB. That’s why inland, dry Pasadena was where the money classes moved, while avoiding cool, moist Santa Monica. My parents were very concerned in 1981 about my moving to Santa Monica because the clammy Santa Monica fogs would damage my health. It took me a long time after to figure out that they were thinking of places to live in pre-penicillin terms, while I had never worried once about contracting TB.

Even in 1888, Nietzsche still seemed to subscribe to the old miasma (bad air) theory of disease causation.

What do I find absolutely intolerable? Something which I just cannot cope alone with and which suffocates me and makes me feel faint? Bad air! Bad air! That something failed comes near me, that I have to smell the bowels of a failed soul!
From Wikipedia:
The miasma theory of disease transmission held that diseases such as cholera, chlamydia, or the Black Death were caused by a miasma (μίασμα, Ancient Greek: “pollution”), a noxious form of “bad air”. The theory held that the origin of these epidemic diseases was a miasma, emanating from rotting organic matter.[5] Miasma was considered to be a poisonous vapor or mist filled with particles from decomposed matter (miasmata) that caused illnesses. The miasmatic position was that diseases were the product of environmental factors such as contaminated water, foul air, and poor hygienic conditions. Such infection was not passed between individuals but would affect individuals within the locale that gave rise to such vapors. It was identifiable by its foul smell.

This was the predominant theory of disease transmission before the germ theory of disease took hold in the last decade of the 19th century.

Nietzsche goes on to list some of his other theories for the cause of widespread illness, such as miscegenation:
- Such a feeling of obstruction can be of the most diverse descent: for example, as a result of crossing races that are too heterogeneous (or estates [classes] – estates always indicate differences in descent and race as well: the European ‘Weltschmerz’, the pessimism of the nineteenth century, is essentially the result of a foolishly sudden mixing of estates);

- or it could be brought about by unsound emigration – a race ending up in a climate for which its powers of adaptation are inadequate (the case of the Indians in India);

- or by the after-effects of a race’s age and fatigue (Parisian pessimism from 1850 on);

- or by a faulty diet (alcoholism of the Middle Ages; the nonsense of the vegetarians who at least have the authority of Sir Christopher in Shakespeare on their side);

- or by corruption of the blood, malaria, syphilis and such like (German depression after the Thirty Years’ War, which infected half of Germany with ruinous diseases and thus prepared the ground for German servility, German faint-heartedness).

I’m being unfair to Nietzsche by quoting this because in this part he sounds kind of like a crank, whereas in most of the book he sounds like a genius, although not necessarily a trustworthy one.

My impression is that one connection between Nietzsche and Hitler was a common German fear of being poisoned, whether by miasmas, bad food, or mixed blood. For example, my Germanophone Swiss grandfather moved from Oak Park, IL to Altadena, CA in 1929 because he was a health food nut and in SoCal he could grow a lot of his own food in his garden. The proto-hippie Nature Boy movement in Southern California in the 1940s started out among long-haired sandal wearers hanging out at a German couple’s health food store in West Hollywood.

Paul Johnson wrote in Modern Times:

Race-poisoning was a comparatively common obsession in the time of Hitler’s youth, rather as ecological poisoning became an obsession of many in the 1970s and 1980s.
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