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Learning to Dance

06 Oct

Nietzsche: “There are sufficient idiotic friends and corrupters of woman among the learned asses of the male sex who advise woman to defeminize herself … and to imitate all the stupidities with which ‘man’ … is sick. Almost everywhere her nerves are being shattered … and she is being rendered more and more hysterical with every day that passes and more and more incapable of her first and last profession, which is to bear strong children. There is a desire to make her in general more ‘cultivated’ and, as they say, to make the ‘weak sex’ strong through culture: as if history did not teach in the most emphatic manner possible that making human beings ‘cultivated’ and making them weaker – that is to say, enfeebling, fragmenting, contaminating, the force of the will, have always gone hand in hand.”

The rise of human culture is the story of how a primate animal nature was gradually trained into a well-behaved and proper civilian – or maybe we’reĀ  not quite there yet. At any rate, an evolutionary perspective regards human civilization as a long series of negotiations with our instinctual intelligence – our impulsive tendencies around selfishness, sex and aggression. I’ve already noted how Nietzsche speaks against the general opinion that sees this cultivation of our animal passions – in a word, culture – as the proper end-point of human evolution. Instead he regards it as a staging area or transition space between our (animal) past and our (spiritual) future.

Of course, our animal past is still with us, as body; and our spiritual future is already present, as soul – and both are under the tyranny of that control freak called ego. This dynamic tension in human experience between body and soul, animal and spiritual, where we’ve been and where we might be going on this long arc of evolution, is the seedbed of magic, metaphor and mythology. Whereas the religious aspiration of ego – as revealed in tribal orthodoxy – is commonly to leave the body behind and live forever as a soul in paradise, the reality of our experience is this tension and its inescapable ambiguity. Our primary task as humans is not to become escape artists, but amphibians.

The thought and writings of Nietzsche spring directly out of his creative imagination, from that part of the mind the psychologist Carl Jung later called our collective unconscious. The images that emerge from this mental underground represent our earliest and most basic impressions of reality; Jung named them archetypes (or “first forms”).

All of this is important for understanding Nietzsche’s references to “man” and “woman” throughout his writings. As a creative philosopher, he was not so much commenting on individual men and women of his day – though he did some of that as well. Man and Woman for him are archetypes, first forms or basic patterns in the evolution of our species. They are present in each human individual as propensities in our development, expressing in powers and qualities that are more or less masculine and feminine.

For Nietzsche, Woman is part of a cluster of associations including Nature, Animal, Body and Time; Man is included in the cluster of Culture, Person, Ego and Space. Think of a ‘T’ where the ascending energy of the first cluster is capped and splayed out horizontally into the second cluster. We could add further polarities, like passion and reason, feeling and thinking, instinct and conscience, organismic and mechanistic. These terms are not intended to be seen as mutually exclusive opposites, but instead as complementary and creative counterparts in a higher dance of sort. Only as we identify exclusively with one or the other, do they become antagonistic and competitive.

We should remember that culture for Nietzsche is not the end-point of human evolution. The “cultivation” of our animal passions in the obedient morality of tribal life involves too much denial, repression and condemnation of our most important drives – “making them weaker” on their way to becoming more domesticated. Archetypally, Man has made too much an end-game of harnessing and controlling the powers of Woman. As the personal Ego caps off and flattens out the creative life of our animal Body, the intended channel of our higher progress as a species is blocked. Man-against-Woman is an endless conflict and waste of energy. According to Nietzsche’s vision, if we can’t get past this battlefront it will also be our tragic demise.

What’s beyond this point? If it’s not Man holding down Woman, Ego managing Body, Personal values overriding and repressing Animal drives, the rational mind over the passionate heart, then what is the frontier of the human spirit that patiently – but not indefinitely – awaits our foreground squabbling and wrangling over opposites?

Just as in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism, Man and Woman are reconciled only as we are able to shift focus to a point “above” the apparent conflict. This does not mean that the opposition is neutralized in an agreeable blend of powers – this, too, would represent a tragic end for Nietzsche. Rather, Man (Chinese yang) and Woman (yin) must be comprehended as necessary counterforces of a dynamic interplay (swirling together as in the yang-yin symbol). The “T” must break through and transcend the intersection of either/or.

This is the domain of Soul – not apart from and outside the perpetual struggle of Ego and Body, Man and Woman, but inside-and-beyond it. Each must contribute its (his or her) primary power to the dance, if the dance is to continue. And we will only break through and ascend to authentic life as we are able to keep dancing.

 

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