Memory and the Will-to-Power

From his very earliest writings Nietzsche was fascinated by both the power and the problems of memory. It is the only faculty by which we can come to a meaningful portrait of ourselves and yet it is manifestly unreliable. Nietzsche’s view of memory is a particular application of the general problem we outlined above concerning the opacity and pervasive becoming of subjective states within acts of introspection. But the shortcomings of introspection will be exacerbated by the distance that passes between an introspective state and the memory of that state. If immediate consciousness of pain is a problematic indicator of the mental state, then how much less reliable as an indicator of reality is my recollection that “losing my father at a young age felt like ‘x’” or “Christmas morning meant ‘y’ when I was five”?

Memory also presents a new problem for Nietzsche’s attempts at selfdescription. In Beyond Good and Evil he writes, “‘I did that,’ says memory. ‘I couldn’t have done that,’ says my pride, and stands its ground. Finally, memory gives in.”[1] Some drive-based mental states like the feelings of pride, regret, guilt, vanity, and nostalgia are intrinsically backward-looking. They bring to mind certain facets of our pasts in accordance with what they require to fulfill their individuated power aims. A drive to pride will call forth particularly self-actuating episodes, while a drive toward regret will make our consciousness attend to a tragic event for whose outcome we were particularly blameworthy. Two historiographical consequences must be understood to follow. First the writing of an autobiography from introspection is hardly a positivistically conceived objective report of what actually did happen, hardly a clear mirror of the past as it affected one’s self. It is instead the expression of a particular dynamic conglomeration of momentarily dominant wills-to-power that we symbolize with the word ‘memory.’ Second, the object of a historiographical study is understood as meaningful insofar and only insofar as it finds expression within the wills- to-power-constituted perspectives of particular audiences. Those memories require a typologically sympathetic intersubjective framework to be confirmed as ‘objective’ insofar as they cohere with other memories of the allegedly same set of events, with - as Nietzsche himself claimed in his earliest writings - ‘traditions.’ The genealogically reflective autobiographer thus recognizes that her judgment is no clear mirror of the self, but an act of interpretive representation formed within her own perspective and intended to find an audience whose perspectives lead them to ‘suppose’ what has already happened. Her mimetic expression will not count as ‘true’ in the sense that it corresponds to the world as it really is, but will be meaningful within a given perspective insofar as it accords with that perspective’s multiplicity of drives and affects whose common character is their Will- to-Power: “the primordial fact of all history [Ur-Faktum aller Geschichte].”[2] The autobiographer considers herself and thereby her judgment as constituted by a multiplicity of drives and affects whose common character is their Will-to-Power and also interprets herself as a temporal dynamic of descents and emergences which become manifest or fade away through a process of competing drives and affects whose common character is their Will-to-Power.[3] The character of the various particular descents and emergences is Will-to-Power and the interpretation of them as such by the historian is itself an expression of Will-to-Power.

Again the problem of relativism emerges. Memory-based accounts like ‘standpoint history’ or the so-called ‘new-cultural history’ have become a dominant trend in postmodern historiography over the past thirty years. Consistent with their denial of a single universal interpretation of events, they epitomize memory as any mode of historiography that gives a voice to the ‘other,’ the repressed and suppressed elements of the human past. In doing so they work consciously against the demands for institutionally sanctioned evidence since, they believe, such evidence only further entrenches existing power inequities. In the view of many traditional historians, however, memory studies also threaten the methodological rigor of the field due to their disregard of verifiability conditions. Perhaps the positivist ideals of description, objectivity, and explanation could never be realized; but their meticulousness, their demand for evidence, and their efforts to attain intersubjective interpretive agreement should not be abandoned because of that. With their reliance on private memories which cannot be confirmed objectively or intersubjectively, cultural historians have, according to Frank Ankersmit, ‘de-disciplinized the discipline.’70

Is Nietzsche similarly guilty? After all, if Nietzsche is right that not just his but all memories are barred from conventional historiographical objectivity because of a thoroughgoing psychological distortion due to their character as power-drives, then it follows that diaries, letters, and supposedly disinterested testimonies about a person’s developmental history each bear the same flaw.71 All forms of testimony would themselves be as psychologically distorted as the autobiographer’s judgments about their own life, making every account of the past that relies upon the memory of observed events as inherently unreliable as the first-order memory. Thus, because all knowing is only a perspectival knowing, any knowledge derived from memories would have to be considered subjective expressions of a power-will rather than an objective description of the self.

This position, however, need not embroil Nietzsche in the kind of historiographical relativism embraced by postmodern ‘standpoint’ historiography. In the previous chapter’s examination of the historiography of moral values we showed how the relativist objection to Nietzsche’s Genealogy does not take sufficient consideration of the anti-realist character of his perspectival explanations. Here it is the same. Even without an external referential measure against which to adjudicate the veracity of his autobiographical account, Nietzsche does hold that his autobiography is inherently convincing. As we saw, the conditions for communicating an anti-realist perspectival explanation in a meaningful way involves the coordination of its expression with other minimally similar perspectives so that it is presumed objective in Nietzsche’s sense and therefore stands as convincing to those perspectives. If Ecce homo is just such an anti-realist perspectival explanation of himself, then we should accordingly expect Nietzsche to make two claims. First, that his autobiography is the expression of drives rather than an attempt to present a positivistically objective account of himself. Second, that his autobiography’s superiority rests in the fact that it is the product of healthy drives as opposed to degenerate ones, and that this entails an intrinsic preferability of his perspective account over potential rivals. He begins his work by doing both:

On these consummate days, when everything is ripe and the grapes are not the only things that are turning brown, I have just seen my life bathed in sunshine: I looked backwards, I looked out, I have never seen so many things that were so good, all at the same time. It is not for nothing that I buried my forty-fourth year today, I had the right to bury it - what was alive in it is saved, is immortal [. ..] How could I not be grateful to my whole life? And thus [so], I will tell myself the story of my life.[4]

I read his German ‘so’ conclusively rather than sequentially; he can tell his history only because he can gratefully affirm it. What gives Nietzsche the “right” to tell his history is not that he is more ‘fact-grubbing’ than anyone else, but that his own psychological constitution is so aligned as to be in the state of health necessary to judge and then express the character of his own life.[5] This is entirely in keeping with the way he evaluates judgment generally. “The strength of conceptions does not, therefore, depend upon their degree of truth, but on their [...] character as conditions of life [Lebensbedingung].”74 Here, through the perspective of his ‘great health,’ he satisfies the criterion of being a judge worthy of the judgments he makes. The story Nietzsche tells about himself follows necessarily and inextricably from his own set of psychological distortions, just as it does from every historian’s. Nietzsche thinks his are ‘better,’ for lack of a more suitable word, insofar as they proceed from a healthy set of distortions. “When I measure myself by what I can do [...] I have better claims to the word great than any other mortal. [...] My privilege is to have the highest taste for the symbols [Zeichen] for the more healthy instincts.”75 Adjudication is not a matter of subjective preference or taste, but a consistent measure of an interpretation against the objective criterion of health. Insofar as Nietzsche has a ‘healthy’ interpretation of his own life, one for which he can be eternally grateful and affirm its recurrence for all eternity, he believes his is an inherently preferable account.

If this is an adequate formulation of Nietzsche’s ideal of historical objectivity, then the misunderstanding about Ecce homo we outlined earlier in the chapter can be ameliorated. Those scholars who dismiss Nietzsche’s self-description as mere postmodern narration do so on the grounds that Nietzsche falsified the history of himself in order to love his fate. This left Nietzsche with a historical description that was not ‘true’ in the correspon- dential sense, but with a fictive narrative whose value was merely literary. That evaluation, again, presumed a meta-historical framework that Nietzsche himself rejected: assumptions that objectivity means ‘subject- free’ and that true description entails adequate correspondence with the world. Because Nietzsche takes ‘health’ as an objective measure to distinguish competing interpretations of the same event - an objective measure “without a drop of empirical truth” - he stands the previous complaint of descriptive relativism on its head. If what we have said is correct, then amor fati was not taken as a result of his autobiography at all, but the necessary condition of the ‘higher’ objectivity needed to write it in the first place. That is, if historical perspectives can only be judged as to whether they follow from a ‘healthy’ perspective, then Nietzsche’s own amor fati is precisely the necessary condition upon which he can express a healthy, ‘yes-saying’ autobiography. “I created my philosophy” - and, I contend, not only his philosophy but his autobiography as well - “from out of my will to health,

to life.”[6]

Of course health is a highly problematic notion for Nietzsche, one that resists easy definition partly because of its historical character. Just as there are no absolutes when it comes to good and evil because they are relational values tied to the kinds of life in which they are expressed in a particular historical moment, so too is health a dynamically multi-valuational symbol. “For there is no health as such, and all attempts to define it this way have failed miserably.”[7] If we recall that “only things with no history can be defined,” then we have an intimation as to why this is so. Health is a value and values have histories; their meanings are affixed over time through a series of over-writings and counter-interpretations each of which is the expression of a will within a given perspective. “Deciding what health is even for your body” accordingly requires recognition of the historical conditions in which it grows, accordingly “depends on your goal, your horizon, your powers, your impulses, your mistakes and above all on the ideals and phantasms of your soul. Thus there are innumerable healths of the body [Gesundheiten des Leibes].”78

  • [1] JGB 68; KSA 5, 86. Compare Margreiter (2002), 140—154.
  • [2] JGB 259; KSA 5, 208. 2 Cf. NFsummer 1886—spring 1887, 6(26]; KSA 12, 244.
  • [3] 70 See Ankersmit (2001), 151—154. 71 Cf. Danto (2007), 33. See also E. Nagel (1959), 204.
  • [4] EH “Inhalt”; KSA 6, 263.
  • [5] EH “Inhalt”; KSA 6, 263. 74 FW110; KSA 3, 469. 7S EH “klug,” 10; KSA 6, 296.
  • [6] EH “weise,” 2; KSA 6, 267. See also the accompanying letter to his publisher, C. G. Naumann.Nietzsche was able to compose EH so quickly because, “I was happily inspired these past few weeksby an unbelievable sense of well-being that has been unique in my life.” Nietzsche to Naumann,November 6, 1888; KSB 8, 463ff.
  • [7] FW120; KSA 3, 477. 78 FW120; KSA 3, 477.
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