Nietzsche and Me

I spent about two hours total of my afternoon reading “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” by Friedrich Nietzsche. Because I’m addressing the issue of language use and its ties to religion in dystopias, my office mate Tim recommended this essay to me on Thursday. On Friday, as I was reading a research guide to theorists with application to dystopia, I found another mention of this essay. So I read it.

Nietzsche is seen as a precursor to postmodernism, and that’s abundantly clear in this essay. He believes that man constructs a conceptual framework that is far removed from the original idea that it seeks to represent. Over time, this framework is presented as truth, and so man equates the concept with the truth. We tend to follow this method because of the natural laws of the universe. We can all agree to perceive that red is red, a tree is a tree. Thus, when society agrees that a concept or metaphor is true, man believes it to be so. Moreover, man constructs truth only in relation to himself, not to the universe as a whole because his perception is only one of myriad perceptions within the universe. The entire construction of concepts is a deception, but man has no qualms with deception so long as he is not being injured by the deception. Man hates a lie only because of the harsh consequences accompanying that lie.

Nietzsche goes a lot more in-depth, obviously, and he also goes on to discuss how science replaces language as the creator of the conceptual framework. But as I’m reading and attempting to grasp his ideology, I’m recognizing truth within his argument. Yes, we do construct truth that is based on our own experiences and perceptions. I cannot create a concept of a tree based on a bird’s perception. I can’t create a concept of a tree based on my brother’s perception.

My worldview, however, is vastly different than Nietzsche’s. I do not believe that God is dead (and we have killed him). Instead, I see, within humanity’s creation of a conceptual framework, the results of the Fall. Perhaps in Eden, Adam and Eve had the exact same perception of God and nature and truth and reality. But with original sin came difficulty and confusion. God may not be the author of confusion, but humanity is, and in seeking to control the universe in which we live (through the creation of metaphor and concept), humanity seeks to wrestle control away from God.

Yet the nature of God is not totally absent from this creation of metaphor and concept. Nietzsche argues that we create metaphor following the pattern of the creation of nature. As a Christian, I have to believe that we create because God created, and because we are created in His image, we, too, must create as a reflection of His nature. We fall short, however. We miss the mark; we get it wrong. Thus, we are left with metaphors and concepts that can only reflect the original idea, not innovate.

Maybe this post makes sense, or maybe it doesn’t. Right now, my brain is full of Nietzsche’s ideas, so my own argument might be convoluted as a direct result. But as I’m researching and reading and pondering the nature of British dystopian fiction, I’m learning about myself as a scholar and a Christian. My faith in a God of truth and light is strengthened when I am confronted by a world of lies and darkness.

In Mumford & Son’s “After the Storm,” Marcus sings, “You must know life to see decay.” Huxley and Orwell and the others created worlds in which darkness and chaos reign. And I certainly believe that our society, like the natural world, is moving toward entropy, becoming less ordered and more chaotic–this is a result of the Fall, after all. More and more I understand that I cannot store up my treasures on earth, for society is fallible and oppressive. But the ability to recognize truth within the darkness, and to sense the nature of God in philosophy that directly opposes even the presence of God, is a marvelous thing. I love that I can read Nietzsche and attempt to understand his philosophy and see truth in his perception of the world while simultaneously believing in and worshiping a God whose kingdom does not engage with chaos and deception.

“O brave new world that has such people in it”

Mustapha Mond checked him. “But [God] manifests himself in different ways to different men. In premodern times he manifested himself as the being that’s described in these books. Now . . . ”

“How does he manifest himself now?” asked the Savage.

“Well, he manifests himself as an absence; as though he weren’t there at all.”

“That’s your fault.”

“Call it the fault of civilization. God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness. You must make your choice.”

-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

This morning, I finished reading, for the first time ever, Brave New World. Because the novel is such a pivotal text for dystopian literature, I knew I needed to be very familiar with the story. In fact, in reading this book, particular the last few chapters (including the above quote), I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t adjust my theories about dystopian literature to include the overwhelming absence and perversion of religious ideology in dystopian settings. After reading Brave New World (as well as P.D. James’ The Children of Men and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale earlier in the summer), I just don’t think I can ignore the fact that writers of dystopian fiction, in some way, must inevitably deal with religious identity in these futuristic societies.

Finishing Brave New World almost made me sick. When I read of Huxley’s fictional society shoving God out of every aspect of civilization–hiding Bibles in safes, removing the word “God” and the cross and the person of Jesus from the collective consciousness of its people–and when that society managed to finally abolish the very last remnant of Christianity in the form of a boy named John, I was enraged. I haven’t felt so much tension at the finish of a book in a long time (maybe since reading V for Vendetta, even).

Tension can be good, though. Tension involves wrestling with ideas and strengthening one’s faith. I guess I never imagined that writing my thesis on such a dark topic would be easy, but I certainly didn’t imagine that just reading a novel would so strongly affect my mood this early on. I’ll be immersed in this topic until April. I’m just beginning this road to the end.

Once more, though, I’m reminded of why I can choose to study such texts. I serve a loving God whose Kingdom is not of this world. Even if I face a future society from which God is utterly removed, I know Truth and the Author of Truth. The brave new world that I can anticipate is certainly not an earthly world, and it is certainly a place where Huxley’s dystopian civilization with never reign.