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Nietzsche Past & Future
‘I Am A God’: On Becoming More Than Human
David Birch compares the attitudes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Kanye West.
On his 2013 album Yeezus, the Chicago rapper Kanye West highlighted something that the world had failed to notice, namely, that he is a god. He had been called many things in his life – including a jackass by Barack Obama – but never this. Naturally, West’s deific pretensions incurred accusations of narcissism and blasphemy. The offending song was unambiguously titled ‘I Am a God’, and its message was clear: I, Kanye West, am more than human.
Nietzsche by Essa Samateh 2020. Essa’s Instagram page is crise60
West later explained that the song was born out of frustration. Desperate to become a success in the fashion industry, yet feeling rebuffed by the labels he wanted to work with, he was tipped over the edge at Paris Fashion Week when he was pointedly asked not to attend a series of events: “So the next day I went to the studio with Daft Punk and I wrote ‘I Am a God’, ‘cause it’s like, yo, nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go. Man, I’m the number one living and breathing rock star.” Unsurprisingly, the god who emerges from the song’s lyrics seems closer to a diva than a divinity:
“I am a god
Hurry up with my damn massage
Hurry up with my damn ménage
Get the Porsche out the damn garage”
In a BBC interview following the album’s release, West implied that his critics would have been more comfortable with the song if he’d described himself as a ‘n—’, a ‘pimp’, or a ‘gangster’. These latter appellations, even if proclaimed with pride, ultimately denote an acceptance of the lowly and limiting identities that WASP society and the market have assigned to black people. By not using these terms, West was refusing to confine his self-expression to a lexical ghetto. But this wasn’t all he was doing: to call yourself a god not only resists these terms, it negates them entirely. He did not react to his snub by proclaiming “I am Kanye West”; “I am a man”; or “I am human”. Those statements do not convey the indefatigability of his will, or his immunity to self-loathing and self-pity. “I am Kanye West” is bureaucracy; “I am a man” is desperate; and “I am human” is vapid. By declaring his divinity, West was implying that there is something limiting about being human. In order to express his undying thirst to become who he is, West was compelled to renounce his humanity. ‘I am a god’ is more than self-belief. He is not merely telling us that he’ll survive his self-doubt, that he’ll silence the voice that says “You do not belong here, you are not good enough”. He’s telling us that he has no such voice, that he exists above and beyond the strictures of doubt and shame. Gods do not know how to despise themselves. To say ‘I am a god’ is not a commitment to persevere but a declaration of unassailability. If you are unassailable, lacking all temptation to collapse or hide, then it makes no sense to talk of persevering. Without self-scrutiny there is no self-doubt, and only those who worry they might fail in their endeavours question themselves. And gods do not reflect, they do not question themselves, since their endeavours are without end. If one’s endeavours are without end, then judgment is eternally premature. Failure belongs to the finite.
West’s implication that there is something deficient about mere humanity places him well in the company of Friedrich Nietzsche. Both see themselves as outsiders. Nietzsche felt disconnected from his profession (his work was generally ignored), his nation (he spent much of his life outside of Germany, alternating between Switzerland and Italy) and his epoch (‘a weak age’). But more provocatively, Nietzsche felt disconnected from his species: “Disgust at mankind… has always been my greatest danger” (Ecce Homo, 1888). Like West, he heard no power in the assertion, ‘I am human’. He thought that being human was a state to be overcome; humanity’s finest moment will be the day it becomes something else entirely, something better. The future belongs to this new creature, the Übermensch or ‘overman’ (‘superman’).
Do you, reader, sympathise with Nietzsche’s wish for a species revolution? Do you see some fundamental defect in humanity? If there were a referendum on human nature, would you vote to leave? How would you even describe human nature? Are there words elastic enough to encompass us all? Is there a common thread? A shared bond?
For Nietzsche, our bond is our sickness, and our sickness is a state he called nihilism. In short, a hatred of life. Nietzsche believed that to be human was to belong to a species-wide endeavour to stunt growth, enervate power, deaden vitality, limit strength, and poison joy; an endeavour impelled by so-called ‘reactive’ attitudes such as envy and the urge to avenge ourselves against the strong and vigorous. And although for Nietzsche there have been great ages – history is punctuated by glorious deviations from the norm – sooner or later the overwhelming weight of nihilism drags us back into the gutter. Greek culture was corrupted by the philosophers; Roman values by the morality of Judaism; Christ’s teachings by St Paul; and Napoleonic aristocracy by democratic ideals. This nihilism ensures that, contra Darwin, the strong and vital will always be defeated by the weak and envious.
Nietzsche & God cartoon © Deimante Judickaite 2020
To overcome this eventuality, Nietzsche proposed we overcome humanity. Humanity is not an endpoint, but a transition – a rope between the beasts and the Übermensch. Whereas humans are the animal for whom life is too much, the Übermensch is the animal that says ‘Yes’ to life – to the whole of life: Yes to pleasure. Yes to pain. Yes to the past. Yes to the future. Yes to chaos. Yes to death. Yes to war. Yes to the body. Yes to the earth. Yes to longing. Yes to hardship. Yes to struggle. Yes to beauty. Yes to change. Yes to now. Yes to eternity. The life of the Übermensch is constituted by affirmation. They live bravely, laugh heartily, dancing and singing while they destroy and create, showing us, a scathing herd of envious onlookers, the true complexion of health.
Although Übermensch is sometimes translated ‘superman’, it would be a mistake to think that Nietzsche’s superman bears any relation to a comic book hero. When Nietzsche talks of the Übermensch in terms of power, he is not referring to Superman’s powers. Superman uses his powers to help. He therefore reflects and enshrines the helpless rabble’s servile dependence and manifold limitations. The hero-victim dynamic is one of pity; but to Nietzsche, “Pity makes suffering contagious” (The Antichrist, 1888). Unlike the Übermensch, superheroes cannot overcome humanity, as they are locked into this defining dynamic: their pity infects them with human suffering. The Übermensch is far removed from flapping capes and weeping maidens, devoid of humility, averse to pity, uninterested in duty. When picturing the Übermensch, do not think of an awe-inspiring caped vigilante – think instead of a naked Dionysus trailed by a merry band of drunken maenads and lascivious satyrs. And just as no one would think to direct their prayers to Kanye West, nor would we project a distress call into the sky to beckon the help of the Übermensch. Nietzsche’s superman is not our saviour.
Saying “I am a god” is what philosophers of language would call a performative utterance. Rather than using language to describe something about the world, performative utterances use language to enact something. This means that the truth of a performative utterance is constituted by the utterance itself. When the groom says “I do”, he is not describing the fact that he does; he is actually doing the doing precisely in the saying. When West says “I am a god”, he is thereby opposing nihilistic human traits of modesty and self-disgust, and thereby becoming, if not a god, at least not quite human. When Nietzsche’s Übermensch or West’s god speak, they breach the bounds of popular wisdom and common sense: “I am not a man, I am dynamite”, Nietzsche said explosively (Ecce Homo, 1888). Whereas the mere boaster uses language reactively, to build fortresses against his envy of other people, the Übermensch makes language a performance of active becoming. Their words are soaring wings, not peacock feathers.
The Übermensch is committed to affirming the overflowing abundance of life, which means confronting all that is painful and wretched. And we may ask, is this not a terrible cross to bear? Do we not imagine the Übermensch to walk with heavy feet, to look upon the world with tired eyes, to sigh the deepest of sighs? No. The Übermensch is possessed of an ability to transmute heaviness into lightness. They spurn the dignity of sorrow. They laugh, dance and play. They take their cross and waltz with it. Life’s abysses reverberate with their laughter. Whereas the nihilist seeks to alchemise all that is good and light into what is evil and heavy, rebranding acts of power as acts of sin, the Übermensch performs the opposite feat. Like a dancer, they transform gravity from a force of leaden oppression to the very syntax of movement: “I would only believe in a God who knew how to dance” Nietzsche has his prophet Zarathustra say in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-5). Compare this to when West raps:
“I am a god
So hurry up with my damn massage
In a French-ass restaurant
Hurry up with my damn croissants
I am a god”
To declare your divinity and demand a croissant in the same breath is ridiculous; but West is teasing us, making sure that when we sing along with him we cannot become gods without also becoming buffoons. To say the heaviest things in the lightest ways elevates song to the level of play. West is refusing to collapse under the weight of earnestness. He is enacting the freedom to say what he wants, to make the music he wants – to be dumb, if he wants. As he says earlier in the song: “Soon as they like you, make’em unlike you.” Like Nietzsche, West believes that “the free man is a warrior” (Twilight of the Idols, 1888). Once you become preoccupied with pleasing or pleasuring other people, the warrior instincts in you are suppressed, and freedom dies.
Just as Nietzsche counsels us to be wary of our pity for other people, so too must we be wary of other people’s admiration for us. Admiration conscripts us into serving others as their guides, but the Übermensch is “a law only for my own; I am not a law for all” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). The Übermensch is engaged in the destruction of idols, including morality, not the creation of new ones. Being admired precludes the exercise of those instincts that delight in war – the very instincts that for Nietzsche constitute our freedom: “One has renounced the great life when one has renounced war” (Twilight of the Idols). With the final line of the song West writes: “Ain’t no way I’m giving up, I’m a god”: the warrior instincts of West as a god mean that his is a life unblighted by regret.
If you do not cower at the obstacles before you or the desires within you, it is impossible to turn back and curse the past. We do not principally regret our actions, but our reactions. We regret what we say No to, not what we say Yes to – to the lives we don’t lead, the ones we pass up, not the lives we actively pursue. Nietzsche, too, sees the Übermensch living in such a way. He describes the ability to affirm the eternal return of all things, the endless repetition of life, as the highest formula of affirmation; an affirmation of life that marks the destruction of nihilism and the birth of the Übermensch. It is an unequivocal Yes to life. Within this eternally revolving world there is no ultimate purpose, no end-point, no transcendent beyond. Life has no meaning beyond itself. The passing seconds take us closer to nothing but their own return. There is no precipice, no void, no salvation. We are enclosed on all sides. To affirm the eternal return of life is to “redeem the past and transform every ‘It was’ into ‘I wanted it thus!”’ (Zarathustra). Wanting life nothing to be other than it is, or was, or will be is to have attained what Nietzsche called amor fati, the love of one’s fate. Like West’s god, the Übermensch does not moan or acquiesce. They are devoid of disappointment, only doing that which they would willingly do forever.
I Am Not God
Yet despite the similarities between West’s god and Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the following three lines also show their profound differences:
“I am a god
Even though I’m a man of God
My whole life in the hands of God”
Rather than seeing life as a kind of submission to the embracing care of a higher being, Nietzsche believed that ‘life itself is the will to power’ (Beyond Good and Evil, 1886). We are not, as Darwin thought, primarily driven by a will to survive. To define life as the opposition to death offers no clear idea of what life itself is. On the contrary, Nietzsche wants to characterise life as something that cannot be understood simply in its relation to death. It is more than the mere flight from its absence. It is, for Nietzsche, the will to grow, expand, and dominate.
Life exists either actively or reactively. The active will to power creates its own values; it remakes the world in its own image and confidently seeks to destroy all that impedes it. The reactive will to power is not the source of its own values; it has no confidence in itself. It exercises its power by denying the values of the active. Lacking the strength to say ‘Yes’, it asserts itself by saying ‘No’. The reactive will to power is dependent on the values it opposes. If it were to destroy these values, it would instantaneously destroy itself. Those enslaved to their reactive attitudes are both too weak to create, and too weak to destroy.
The reactive will to power is the source of nihilism. It hates the strong, it hates affirmation. It judges all the healthy forces of life as evil. The reactive life is life that hates itself. What evidence is there for the reactive will? And what forms does it take? To answer these questions, we should consult Nietzsche’s nose. Nietzsche said that his genius was in his nostrils – by which he meant that he had a talent for sensing the rotting hearts within radiant bodies, a knack for finding the corpse beneath the floorboards. As he went sniffing through history he heaved with disgust upon encountering Christianity and its virtues of compassion, self-sacrifice, and equality. Nietzsche thought that Christian ethics is the very antithesis of the concept of life. Christianity believes that we are forlorn sinners in need of salvation, too weak to survive without constant care, too lost to cope without universal laws and subsequent judgment, each of us awaiting the ultimate solution to the problem of existence – eternal peace in a heavenly hereafter. To Nietzsche these ideas constitute a total devaluation of our terrestrial lives. But Nietzsche wants to emphasise that this story is still in the service of the will to power. To him Christianity is a concerted effort on the part of the weak to subjugate the strong and suppress the healthy. Unable to create its own values, the reactive will to power parasitically exerts itself by negating life-affirming values. Whereas the active will to power creates a Yes-saying ‘master morality’, in which good is contrasted with bad, the ‘slave morality’ of the reactive will to power contrasts good with evil. Slave morality turns master morality on its head. All that was formerly regarded as bad – timidity, feebleness, deference – becomes good; and all that was regarded as good – strength, power, vitality – becomes evil. Christianity makes life worth living for the weak. It recasts the reactive lives of the weak – ruled over, dependent, passive – as the pinnacle of human achievement. The Christian concept of God is the highest weapon of the reactive values: Nietzsche called it ‘the deification of nothingness’ (The Antichrist).
We can see, then, the profound rift that opens up between Nietzsche’s Übermensch and West’s god when the latter claims to simultaneously be a ‘man of God’. As Nietzsche listens to West say those lines, this is what he hears:
“I am a god
Even though I’m diseased with God
My whole life just a void of God”
This makes the song a microcosm of Nietzschean history: dazzling flashes of powerful affirmation inevitably nullified by reactive attitudes. West seems to be in two minds, caught between two poles. If he is a man of God, then why does he not pray? Why does he not call upon the divinity of the ‘most high’ instead of invoking his own divinity?
Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity may help us here. West’s predicament is not a predicament of survival but one of frustrated creativity. West performs a song instead of offering a prayer, because the God to whom he would pray has no interest in the fulfilment of his ambitions in the fashion industry. Since God is a reactive hatred of strength, it makes no sense to appeal to him in the pursuit of active power. God saves rather than invigorates life. He assists and aids, he does not empower. West wants to thrive and flourish and conquer. Since this is not God’s remit, West has deified himself in order to find a god who will abet his endeavours. West’s schizoid song is symptomatic of an artist split between a Dionysian spirit of creativity and our enduring Christian culture.
The solution is clear: drown God, murder Him, and bind ourselves to the sinking corpse. By killing God we stand a chance of destroying ourselves. Unlike West, the Übermensch is not a man of God but a ‘conqueror of God’; an anti-nihilist and therefore an anti-Christ. To be an anti-Christ is to be destructively opposed to what Nietzsche asserts to be Christianity’s litany of hatred; a putative hatred of pride, courage, freedom, desire, beauty, self-affirmation.
The Übermensch is both the means and the product of a revaluation of all values: a rejection of all that has been regarded as good – all that derives from reactive vengeful attitudes – such as pity and selflessness; and a fresh adoption of all that has been regarded as evil – all that is active and affirmative – such as lust and selfishness. Nietzsche wants to overturn the dichotomy of the divine and the human by annihilating it completely. To become more than human means forgetting our concerns with human essence and divine attributes. It means climbing down from reactive states of being, and submerging ourselves in the active processes of life, becoming creatures of power and instinct, creatures of life itself. The sorry spectacle of humans clawing after transcendence is an abhorrence to him. Nietzsche would rather tread the Earth than touch the Sun: “I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth” (Zarathustra).
© David Birch 2020
David Birch’s new book, Pandora’s Book: 401 Philosophical Questions to Help You Lose Your Mind (with answers), will be published early next year.