Posts Tagged 'nietzsche'

Wanted: The bold and the beautiful

By Harry Van Versendaal

It was a splendid ride in cynical, and often surreal, territory. Speaking to ruling PASOK’s parliamentary group on Thursday, an embattled Prime Minister George Papandreou proudly said that no other government ever brought so much money to the country, ridiculously glossing over the fact that the cash in question is in fact foreign loans at mammoth interest rates.

Truth, Nietzsche quipped, is a mobile army of metaphors –- a statement that’s perfectly suited to Greek politicians. Animated by slogans, dazzled by fantasies, our politicians keep stumbling through the shambles, oblivious to facts. Painfully exposing his divorce from reality, Papandreou later went on to suggest that he was willing to step aside and allow an emergency government to be formed, provided that his socialist deputies publicly show their support for him first in a vote of confidence. Prove that you trust me, and then you are free to get on without me.

It was yet another absurdity in a loaded day that started with Papandreou backpedalling from his earlier explosive plan to put a European rescue deal to a popular vote. He first contradicted himself by saying that the government never intended to hold a referendum on euro membership; then he said a plebiscite was no longer needed anyway after it had forced New Democracy to come off the fence on the debt deal.

This unprecedented mix of arrogance and incompetence that undid the nation, pushing it to the brink of disorderly default and eurozone exit, has most probably rendered PASOK unelectable for the next decade. More important, it has left the entire political system seriously damaged.

In what was perhaps the most telling development of the day, conservative opposition leader Antonis Samaras called for an interim government made up of non-political figures –- an unintended admission that Greece’s politicians are part of the problem, and not the solution.

He is not alone in that. A plethora of commentators have over the past few days called for an interim administration of high-profile technocrats who will take responsibility of the debt-choked country’s fiscal and national security issues. It’s a reasonable demand, and every sober-minded person would naturally want such a task force to succeed. But what would success mean for Greece’s political system?

Speaking to a dumbfounded Jon Snow on Britain’s Channel 4 earlier the other night, a delirious Communist Party MP Liana Kanelli pledged a good fight against the brutal austerity measures imposed on the Greek people, saying “we are bold and beautiful” — a cheesy reference to the 1990s international and domestic soap opera hit.

The fact is that, much like the American sitcoms of the time, a great deal is happening but nothing has really happened. Regardless of what happens on Friday, it seems fair to say that unlike the tormented souls in ”The Bold and the Beautiful,” our political stars have proved themselves to be neither one nor the other.


Spoiled by the gods

Photo by Harry van Versendaal

By Harry van Versendaal

What does not kill you can make you stronger, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. Or, at least, a little bit richer.

Last week, Ukraine announced that the area around the Chernobyl power plant, the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, will be officially opened to tourists. The former Soviet republic’s emergency situations ministry, the Guardian reported, is planning to offer visitor tours inside the 30-mile no-go zone set up after reactor number four of the powerhouse exploded on April 26 , 1986, sending a radiation cloud over much of Europe – and swarms of panicked consumers here in Greece to the local supermarkets as tons of Dutch-made tinned milk flew off the shelves in just a few hours.

Perhaps Ukraine’s toxic theme park might have a lesson or two to offer us about how to turn disaster into opportunity. Sure, Greece is not some deserted wasteland quite just yet, but it has long been in the “accident-waiting-to-happen category.” A mammoth 110-billion-euro bailout package signed with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund earlier this year was generally seen as a last gasp effort to prevent this once-proud eurozone member from defaulting – a lot like patching up a nuclear plant’s cracked sarcophagus. Will the patches hold? No one knows for sure.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the nation has all but hit rock bottom. It is, therefore, all the more surprising that so many of us still refuse to change the way we do things. The crisis, the biggest since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, has presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to break with the rigidities, habits and babble of the past. But very few people have seen the crisis as an opportunity, or better, the opportunity behind the crisis.

Our gods are dead, as Nietzsche would have it. But, as the late German philosopher would also say, zero-hour moments like this are not necessarily a cause for despair, but, instead the first step for a reevaluation of our old values. Sadly, no inner readjustment appears to be in the cards here as we still look to the same old gods for succor: populism, nepotism and self-interest.

Take the education sector, traditionally a test site for political experimentation by socialist and conservative governments alike, which is once again being shoved into surreal territory. Only this time it’s the fingers of the academics that hover over the self-destruct button. A government campaign to overhaul the administration of the country’s higher education system is going nowhere as university rectors have rejected every single proposal put forward by the Education Ministry. Rectors said they will not accept any new measures unless these also guarantee a free flow of funds and full independence for the recipients of the cash, i.e. themselves. Rectors, in other words, demand that the state has no say over where its own money goes. The rectors – yes, the nation’s intellectual elite, not some bunch of heavily indoctrinated Communist Party activists – went even further by warning that if the state decides to put its proposals into law, they will refuse to implement them. Adhering to the law, we are told, is a matter of personal preference.

So, before signing a financial memorandum, the Greek government should perhaps have first signed an educational memorandum obliging us to modify the anachronisms that have reduced state schools and universities to a pathetic mess. That does not mean to say that the measures requested by Greece’s lenders – a daunting mix of tax hikes and wage cuts – are not painful, and even brutal at times. In fact, the innocent are the first to suffer as too many babies are being thrown out with the bath water. Like modern-day Stakhanovites, we are told to work harder, for less. But even so, it’s hard to see how we can trim spending and raise enough money to fix the situation, when we have failed to pocket the money that was offered to us in the first place. Last month Greece received a final written warning from the European Commission – the last step before legal action – over hundreds of illegal landfills that are still in operation across the country. Despite the looming fines and an offer by the European Union to fund the construction of new sanitary landfills, Greece has so far failed to deliver. Last week, the dump saga took an ugly turn as angry residents of Keratea, southeast of the capital, clashed with riot police in a bid to halt plans for a landfill. Keratea and Grammatiko, northeast of Athens, were designated some 10 years ago as the sites where Attica’s new landfills would be built, but the projects have been stalled by legal wrangles and local protests. As a result, Greece is in serious risk of losing the European funds. One would hope that our ostrich-like bureaucrats would, at least, be able to dig a hole in the ground.

The list is endless. This deleterious mix of incompetence, corruption and malgovernance has left nothing unaffected: the judiciary, military, police, church, media, soccer and this miserable excuse for a city – everything is bankrupt. Nietzsche liked to describe truth as “a mobile army of metaphors.” This is something our homegrown bureaucrats know all too well. For years, they have used myth to sustain their mojo, cynically clawing their way up the greasy pole of politics. They were not alone in this. It took a huge army of cheerleaders that eagerly blocked streets, waved cheap plastic flags and packed public squares and smoke-filled conference halls, basking in the glow of the like-minded. Now the party is over. But some are still dancing to the tune of yesteryear.

Disappointed in the sun

Photo by Todd Kesselman

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard to be philosophical about the situation in Greece these days, but if Simon Critchley is right that “philosophy begins in disappointment,” then maybe we should give it a chance.

The 50-year-old philosopher was born in Britain and is an exponent of so-called “continental” philosophy – a bit of a rarity in the Anglo-Saxon world, which is famously allergic to the esoteric and nonanalytical explorations of their continental peers. Author of, among others, “Very Little… Almost Nothing,” “On Humour,” and “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” Critchley currently teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York and is the man behind “The Stone,” the New York Times’ extremely popular philosophy forum. “How to Stop Living and Start Worrying,” a collection of interviews with Critchley, was recently released by Polity Press.

Recently, Critchley visited Athens to give a brief lecture on violence at the industrial premises of EDW, a brand-new multidisciplinary venue in the up-and-coming Kerameikos district. He talked to Kathimerini English Edition about politics, violence and, one of his “top 5 philosophers,” Friedrich Nietzsche.

You visited Greece in the midst of a major economic, social and political crisis. Does philosophy have anything to offer to someone who has lost their job or house?

Absolutely. I take no pleasure in people losing their jobs and homes. But the fact is that people and in particular their governments in Greece and all across the European Union and elsewhere were living a lie, a kind of dream. It is sometimes extremely painful to wake up. The wisdom of ancient Greek philosophical traditions is essential here. Diogenes the Cynic threw away his cup when he saw someone drinking with their hands. Pleasure for Epicurus was a barley cake and a beaker of water. “Give me a pot of cheese,” he said, “and I will dine like a king.”

Do you see liberal democracy as a successful project? What are its main failures? Are there any alternatives?

I am not a very good liberal and the wrong person to ask about the success or otherwise of liberal democracy. It’s main current failure is the massive disconnection between the political class and those who that class are meant to represent. My alternative would be small-scale federalism based on direct democracy, or as close to that as possible.

What do you think of the EU project?

Not that much. It has prevented a war between France and Germany for the past 60 years, but I remain skeptical of its political ambitions. I agree with Paul Krugman that Greece’s entry into the euro effectively undermined national sovereignty.

You have lived in the United States for seven years now. How does it compare to Europe?

I don’t really live in the US. I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan. I love this city because it is a city of foreigners where everyone is a visitor, a metic and no one is a native. I can’t speak about the US as a whole.

You have said that philosophy begins in disappointment. What is the meaning of that phrase? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Would you argue for a Nietzschean-style re-evaluation of values, as it were?

I remain very close to Nietzsche, in particular on the question of pessimism and optimism. For Nietzsche, rightly I think, there was something deeply nihilistic about the naive scientific belief in progress. Ancient Greek tragedy, by contrast, is an affirmation of life that succeeds by staring the worst in the face without flinching. Philosophy might begin with disappointment, but it doesn’t end there. It culminates in ethical commitment and political resistance, in my view.

On violence

In your Athens talk, you discussed violence. Most people in the audience seemed to suggest that the world we live in is a more violent world, compared to the past. Do you agree?

The world is a dark and violent place. Is it more violent that in the past? it is very hard to tell and it is also unclear what is often meant by violence. There is physical violence, of course, but also what we might call the “soft” violence of language itself and the violence of what often passes for peace.

You also said violence is never justified, but it is sometimes necessary. Can you explain further?

My view, but this is part of a much longer argument that comes out of a personal commitment to the ethics and politics of nonviolence, is that violence is sometimes necessary, but never justified. As a character in Jean-Luc Godard’s movie “Notre musique” puts it, “To kill a human being to defend an idea is not to defend an idea, it is to kill a human being.”

Left-wing discourse in Greece likes to justify physical violence as a rightful response to systemic violence, as it were. Do we risk losing the meaning of violence here?

Like I said, violence is sometimes necessary. But I am not one of those people who supports virile, heroic acts of political violence. But it is always important to remember that violence is a phenomenon with a history and that history is one of the cycles of violence and counter-violence that seems to catch subjects in a repetitive loop. My hope is that this loop can be broken.

Uttering the d-word

By Harry van Versendaal

Irvin Yalom has seen many people lie on his couch all these years to rid themselves of unwanted painful feelings and fantasies. None of the symptoms have been more pervasive and at the same time neglected, the psychiatrist-turned-author now says, than the terror of death: people’s fear that their own personal world will disappear forever in a black hole of nothingness. Yalom, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Standford University who was catapulted to fame in Greece with his best-seller “When Nietzche Wept,” explains to Athens Plus how staring down at one’s personal death can result in a richer and more fulfilling life. Yalom’s latest book on the issue, “Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death,” has been published in Greek by Agra.

Why is your book titled “Staring at the Sun”?

It’s an aphorism by Francois de la Rochefoucauld, a French writer, posted under the title of the book. I call it “Staring at the Sun” just to point out how we’ve always been taught not to stare straight at the sun or death. But I think the idea of being afraid to even think about this thing and keeping it all kind of repressed is sometimes a bad idea, and staring death down, learning from death is another thing entirely. It can be enriching to your life.

I read your books as being about man’s search for meaning in a god-less, meaning-less universe. Is that so?

They are partially about that because I do work with meaning. I think of meaning as being one of great ultimate concerns, and dealing with mortality is different one… This book is more about death, but you can’t separate them. Meaning is in there. In this book, I am focusing primarily on people who are terrified of death.

Different people seem to fear different things about death…

Well, some people fear death because they haven’t lived life. They haven’t lived their life completely. That’s when I used the quote from Kazantzakis, you know Zorba’s idea that you have to leave death nothing but a burned out castle.” Other people fear death because they worry of what it will do to their children. Some people might fear death because they fear of the afterlife, something that Epicurus told us not to do. Some people fear death because they really want to hear the end of the story. It varies tremendously among individuals.

You have said that to deny death is to deny our human nature. How is that?

Well, we can deny death. There are many different belief systems that deny the presence of death. We can also do it on a very individual notion by having it out of our mind and believing that we are so special that we’re going to get larger and larger and more famous and more powerful all our lives and never think of the decline in life. Some people have a mid-life crisis, sometime quite late in life when they suddenly realize that – my god – they are going to perish just like everyone else. Or we can also deny death through lots of thought experiments or religious systems which promise immortal life.

What is your problem with religion? Is it that religion is a lie or that it is naive, in the sense that it prevents you from living your life to the full?

I won’t agree with either of those, because no one is going to read my book if I do that. It’s too controversial. And I do have to have respect for people’s religious beliefs – people who I see. But I think that the people who are religious fundamentalists and take religion too much into their lives in a sense may not be seeing human nature and the human condition as it really is and may be denying mortality and not facing to the existential facts of life.

Is your book of any use to a believer?

I sure hope so. I’ve had a lot of people write me who are believers. The point is there are all kinds of different sort of believers. If you have a fairly closed mind then I think the book may be unsettling to you. if you can believe in what the basic message of the scriptures is, which is to love others as you love yourself, then I think it can be very useful.

What do you think of the wave of the so-called new atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens?

I pretty much agree with everything they say. I think Hitchens perhaps is far more abrasive than he needs to be because he is preaching to the converted.

Do we pick books that merely cement our convictions?

I think many people do that. That’s why I think it’s so important to have a more open mind. It is quite surprising when you think about America and all of these statistics that you see about the huge percentage of people who believe in heaven and god and all that and yet take a look at the sales figures of Dawkins or Hitchens.

You seem to draw a lot on Nietzsche…

This book is written from the standpoint of someone who is a secular humanist. There is nothing in this book that probably Nietzsche would not agree with.

You seem to have a lot to say about Nietzsche’s life-affirming philosophy. But he wasn’t a particularly happy character himself, was he?

No, he wasn’t. But he was not a despairing person. And despite a life of tremendous illness – he was a very sick man – he had enormous persistence. He managed to overcome it in his spirit and in his philosophy as well. That’s what I like about Nietzsche compared to Schopenhauer who is much more life negating.

You have in the past quoted psychoanalyst Alan Wheelis’s story about a man who envies his dog because it has a purpose in life – fetching a stick thrown by his master. But it seems to me that the dog is happy because it doesn’t know – it is ignorant. Is it perhaps better not to know?

Alan Wheelis I think appreciated that. But at the same time because he was quite a despairing individual he sometimes longed for the kind of simplistic mind of the dog who doesn’t have to think about himself. For whom the burden of too much self-awareness is lifted. And I can’t tell you how many people, how many patients I’ve seen who wished they could believe in religion and have all these problems solved to them… so some people don’t have the knack for it or otherwise they are blessed or cursed with self-awareness.

The unbearable lightness of being…

Yes exactly.

You have said that therapists tend to avoid the issue of death. Why do they do that?

Well, it’s not built into any of the major theoretical systems. And I am trying to change that. It’s not built into it from the very beginning with Freud. Freud really has no place for death. He turns it into something else, into abandonment or into castration. But he feels that death is not important in the unconscious because we have no unconscious experience of death. It’s convoluted acrobatic kind of system on his part – I think he made a great error in that.

The second reason is much more personal. I think therapists aren’t dealing with their own death very much. Sometimes they don’t want to the patient about that, because they’re not quite sure they can deal with it themselves. They have actually nothing to offer to the patient. I write this book in order to try and correct that.

(This interview was first published in Athens Plus in July 2008)

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