Lee's Reviews > Untimely Meditations

Untimely Meditations by Friedrich Nietzsche
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's review
Aug 13, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: philosophy
Recommended for: dad, jordan
Read in January, 2005

In Nietzsche’s On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life describes a modern mnemonic Uebermaass, an excess of history in fixedly watchful humans, people who have forgotten how to forget, while a happily oblivious and digesting beast sleeps near at hand. The work warrants at least one lengthy quote.

"All acting requires forgetting, as not only light but darkness is required for life by all organisms. A man who wanted to feel everything historically would resemble someone forced to refrain from sleeping, or an animal expected to live only from ruminating and ever repeated ruminating. For this reason, it is possible to live almost without remembering, indeed, to live happily, as the beast demonstrates; however, it is generally completely impossible to live without forgetting. Or, to explain myself more clearly concerning my thesis: There is a degree of insomnia, of rumination, of the historical sense, through which living comes to harm and finally is destroyed, whether it is a person or a people or a culture."

Here Nietzsche’s insomniac “rumination” refers here to both a mind’s pre-processing of memories as well as a mouth’s pre-processing of food. I say pre-processing because here both memory and food are only fully processed in a healthy creature once they slip past volition into oblivion, past the ruminating mind or the masticating mandibles and into the involuntary actions of an unconscious alimentary canal. Individual memories and cultural histories must be forgotten as cud must be finally swallowed, both discarded into a body of digestive muscles and membranes in a pre-defecation, a passing through that prefigures a passing from. Only there, swallowed or forgotten, can food or memories serve life in their incorporation or excretion. Only then can memories and histories in the hermetic sense of restorative sleep “dispense to [the body] the matter which it needs,” in the way that nutrients of food are divvied out by a body that doesn’t “know” anything, but still seems to know what its doing since its track record is written in the present in which we live.

But here in Nietzsche’s passage an insomniac mind’s prescient remembering, and a ruminating mouth’s unceasing re-masticating, fail to relinquish their respective memories and food, which through time or as time accrue in the head or mouth of a “person or a people or a culture.” There is no “forgetting” opposed to remembering like all correspondences in nature that vacillate between opposites—between eating and defecating, remembering and forgetting, waking and sleeping.

The resultant accretion from this one-sidedness (waking without sleeping, remembering without forgetting) leads to a process-exhaustion. Nietzsche thought much on this economy of sensory and historical input and its neurasthenic effects. He, like Thomson, suffered much from horrible bouts of hypochondria, indigestion, and insomnia throughout his life, and he repeatedly knits such suffering into metaphors of cultural critique. Later in life he would describe a tangle of modern accoutrements that, we can imagine he imagined, caused his own personal as well as his culture’s indigestion, complaining how “accumulation of disparate impression greater than ever – the cosmopolitanism of foods, literatures, newspapers, forms, tastes, even landscapes,” relentlessly speed towards us until these “impressions wipe each other out” and a “weakening of digestive force results.” Nietzsche’s Uebermaass thus consists of the same modern cultural baggage that Beard and Weir-Mitchell claimed caused the neurasthenic insomnia of so many of Thomson’s and Nietzsche’s contemporaries.

Silke-Maria Weineck calls such Nietzschean indigestion a variation on the common nineteenth century theme of decadence in which “sensory overload produces numbness.” Here, she says, “there's too much to act on, and hence no action.”

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