Home > Emerson R. W., Film, Nietzsche F., Philosophy, Tarkovsky A. > Ineffable virtue, gift-giving virtue

Ineffable virtue, gift-giving virtue

In my post yesterday on Nietzsche’s ineffable virtue, I ended by raising the issue of how we can make sense of Nietzsche’s writing books at all if virtue cannot be named. After all, the reason the virtue cannot be named is that purity and communication are incompatible goals. In that post, I offered a few solutions to the problem. I think, however, that there is a larger issue, one that lies at the heart of Nietzsche’s philosophy. How is an individualistic philosophy like Nietzsche’s, one that privileges purity over communication, possible, given that humans are ineluctably social animals?

This is really a deep problem for Nietzsche, though not at all one of which he was unaware. In fact, I think consideration of this problem might help to make sense of a great many features of his philosophy, including why it is so essential to move beyond good and evil. In this post I want to explore this issue, not just from the perspective of Nietzsche exegesis, but with a view toward understanding his sort of individualism more generally. As such, I’ll also draw a good bit on the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson. And I will discuss Andrei Tarkovsky as well, because I can. Ultimately, we will see that such individualism needs its own vision about how social interactions should be organized.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra gives several descriptions of his highest virtue. In the previous post, I focused on his conception of the highest virtue as ineffable, private. Exclusive emphasis on that conception leads to the tension between virtue and sociality that I raised above. To resolve this tension we need to look at another, explicitly social conception of the highest virtue, which Zarathustra presents in his speech “On the Bestowing Virtue”. (I am using the Del Caro translation, part of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy.)

There, Zarathustra speaks, “Uncommon is the highest virtue and useless, it is gleaming and mild in its luster: a bestowing virtue is the highest virtue” (56). This virtue is uncommon—indeed unique, given its ineffability—useless (more on this later) and bestowing. What is a bestowing virtue? Zarathustra goes on: “This is your thirst: to become sacrifices and gifts yourselves, and therefore you thirst to amass all riches in your soul” (56). To possess a bestowing virtue is to make a sacrifice and gift of oneself. So the question becomes: what is a gift?

We have already seen that a gift, for Nietzsche, is uncommon and useless. Here I want to bring Emerson and Tarkovsky into play, for both of them have thoughts about gift giving that are congenial to the Nietzschean picture, and can help to expand our conception of gift giving. Emerson, in his second series of essays, wrote a very short piece entitled “Gifts”. (I am using the Library of America edition of his Essays & Lectures.) In this essay, Emerson bemoans gifts of rings and jewels, which are not gifts, but mere “apologies for gifts” (536). He continues: “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me” (536). Furthermore, all gift giving ought to be reciprocal: “The gift, to be true, must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him” (537). And this, Emerson thinks, speaks to “the fitness of beautiful, not useful things for gifts” (537).

Emerson and Nietzsche, then, converge on several points. A gift is a form of sacrifice, and it is beautiful, not useful. It should flow out of oneself, not out of social obligation or a view to what the other person wants or needs. A gift, then, is something quite removed from the domain of prudence.

This view of gifts is also that of Andrei Tarkovsky, in his film The Sacrifice. Early in the film, Otto the postman gives a gift to Alexander: a map of the world from several centuries ago. If you wish to find your way around in the world, it is quite useless, but it is beautiful and uncommon, and the sort of thing that only a man of Otto’s interests and eccentricities is likely to have to give as a gift. Furthermore, the gift is a sacrifice—Otto explicitly says that every gift is a sacrifice.

While I think my previous post on the relation between Nietzsche and Tarkovsky must be judged a failure on the whole, I think a few points I made are worth remembering. One issue people have in interpreting the film is the apparent injustice of Alexander’s sacrifice: surely he is wrong his son, at the very least. And what does his stopping speaking and giving up contact with his son have to do with averting nuclear warfare? Part of what drives these questions is a failure to appreciate the character of gift giving and self-sacrifice, of making a gift of oneself (to God, in this case). It is precisely the uselessness and imprudence of the gift that makes it appropriate and beautiful—and if you cannot see the beauty of Alexander’s sacrifice, I do not believe you watched the film very well. Recall Emerson: “The only gift is a portion of thyself.” That is precisely why it is his voice and his son that Alexander must sacrifice.

Among these three poets we can thus see a shared vision of gift giving as a form of self-sacrifice, useless and beautiful. One way my prior analysis of Tarkovsky’s film went wrong was that I subsumed it too much under Kierkegaardian concepts, particularly that of a teleological suspension of the ethical. What was right in this, however, is the fact that acts of giving and self-sacrifice, of the sort Nietzsche, Emerson, and Tarkovsky conceive, are not captured by ethical categories. Ethics can be considered to have a positive role in society, that of making people useful to one another, as well as a negative role, that of preventing people from harming one another. Different ethical systems vary in which they emphasize, but broadly speaking they center around these aims—particularly the non-theistic ethics of today.

In this way, ethics is like an extension of manners and etiquette. It is a lubricant for society. As Emerson describes it in his essay “Manners” (517):

Manners aim to facilitate life, to get rid of impediments, and bring the man pure to energize. They aid our dealing and conversation, as a railway aids travelling, by getting rid of all avoidable obstructions of the road, and leaving nothing to be conquered but pure space.

Here manners (and by extension, ethics) are conceived as something primarily useful, and thus quite unlike gifts in the sense I’ve been considering. Moreover, as Emerson bemoaned time and again, these social rules create obligations, obligations that draw the poet away from himself. Just consider our usual etiquette of favors: I do you a favor, now you owe me one, and I now have a certain power over you. Gift giving, however, cannot create obligations in this way, because gift-giving, for Emerson, is always already reciprocal. Again: “The gift, to be true, must the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him” (537, emphasis added).

Gift giving is a form of sacrifice: there is no expectation of reciprocation, of receiving anything in return. It is a sort of inner compulsion, driven by a virtue that wishes to bestow itself. It is not practical, and it cannot create social obligations. Thus gift giving is a practice that is situated beyond good and evil, where morality is seen as a form of mutual backscratching (which is how Nietzsche saw it).

Nietzsche’s amoralism, them, is not simply nihilistic destruction, but is an attempt to replace one form of social interaction, the semi-contractual form of ethical interaction, with social interaction as a form of gift giving. “You compel all things to and into yourselves, so that they may gush back from your well as the gifts of your love” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 56).

Sociality is thus not totally lost for Nietzsche, but it can still be a lonely prospect for the individualist, as Nietzsche’s life bears out. This loneliness occurs because of the necessarily reciprocal nature of giving gifts. I can only be said to receive your gift and your sacrifice if I also have a gift and sacrifice for you. One of the learning processes Zarathustra must go through over the course of Thus Spoke Zarathustra is learning to find an audience. Initially he tries to address public crowds, and meets only with mockery. His sacrifice is there, but there is no one to receive it. As the book progresses, he must learn to find his friends—those who can receive his gift, and who bring gifts of their own.

Interestingly, Nietzsche considered Thus Spoke Zarathustra to be his gift to the world, and it is worthwhile to reflect on its enigmatic subtitle in this context. (What I will say will of course not exhaust the meaning of that subtitle.) The book is “A Book for All and None”. As a book, it is written in a public language and is thus accessible to all (in principle, of course not in practice). But it must be received as a gift—in that sense it can only be received by someone who can reciprocate, who has a gift and sacrifice of his own. But to do that, one must have a highest virtue of one’s own, a virtue that is not Zarathustra’s. To be able to reciprocate, then, one must reject, must turn away from Zarathustra’s teaching. “Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 59). So it is a book for none—only by rejecting it can it be received.

Nietzschean sociality is thus based on friendship, but not a friendship based on mutual benefit. Rather, it is a friendship based on spontaneous, internally compelled gift giving and self-sacrifice. It is lonely, for friends are hard to find—harder even than disciples. The flip side is that a few friends suffice, and the resulting interactions are beautiful in all their uselessness. I’ll let Emerson have the final word, from “Manners” (522):

We should meet each morning, as from foreign countries, and spending the day together, should depart at night, as into foreign countries. In all things I would have the island of a man inviolate. Let us sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus. No degree of affection need invade this religion.

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