Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Preface to Nietzsche's "On the Genealogy of Morals" (A Reading)

A scene from Arnaud Desplechin's Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale, 2008), in which the family patriarch reads a passage from Nietzsche to his perpetually unhappy/unsatisfied daughter (the reading begins at 1.26). The citation is completely unexpected and all the more wonderful for being so, and there is a lovely coda that follows: Henri, the black sheep member of the family, sitting on a swing, his back to the camera, saying these words (but to whom?): "You don't know me. I'm not like that."

For those who might like to compare, here is an English translation of the first two paragraphs from Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals (1887): "We don't know ourselves, we knowledgeable people – we are personally ignorant about ourselves. And there's good reason for that. We've never tried to find out who we are. How could it ever happen that one day we'd discover our own selves? With justice it's been said that 'Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.' Our treasure lies where the beehives of our knowledge stand. We are always busy with our knowledge, as if we were born winged creatures – collectors of intellectual honey. In our hearts we are basically concerned with one thing, to 'bring something home.' As far as the rest of life is concerned, what people call 'experience' – which of us is serious enough for that? Who has enough time? In these matters, I fear, we've been 'missing the point.'

Our hearts have not even been engaged – nor, for that matter, have our ears! We've been much more like someone divinely distracted and self-absorbed into whose ear the clock has just pealed the twelve strokes of noon with all its force and who all at once wakes up and asks himself 'What exactly did that clock strike?' – so we rub ourselves behind the ears afterwards and ask, totally surprised and embarrassed, 'What have we really just experienced?' And more: 'Who are we really?' Then, as I've mentioned, we count – after the fact – all the twelve trembling strokes of the clock of our experience, our lives, our being – alas! in the process we keep losing the count. So we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not understand ourselves, we have to keep ourselves confused. For us this law holds for all eternity: 'Each man is furthest from himself.' Where we ourselves are concerned, we are not 'knowledgeable people.'"

It's a marvelous scene. It's a marvelous text.


1 comment:

  1. I always heard Nietzsche in my own voice when reading and it always sounded demanding or indicting. My grandfather used to instruct me on matters of life in Italian when I was little. This scene reminded me of this. There is a loving and compassionate strength behind these words that is rendered through this unique reading and I've rarely heard philosophy in this way. The words although beautiful in their own right become secondary-I'm taken back to a walk with my grandfather on a rainy Toronto evening. I may not have understood all that was said when I was young, but I'm certain I did not miss the point. When words and rain commingle and dissolve one another to produce that essential and rare human moment-our hearts have been engaged.