Angry Nerds

How Nietzsche gets misunderstood by Jared Loughner types.

See Slate’s complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and the arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.

Friedrich Nietzsche. Click image to expand.
Friedrich Nietzsche

If we never discovered that Jared Lee Loughner honed his murderous outlook while sitting alone in his bedroom, reading Nietzsche and thinking about nihilism, that would have been real news. Instead of real news, though, we’ve gotten a dreary iteration of a cultural cliché. The New York Times and other media are saying the addled and alienated young man arrested for trying to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords, and for the murders of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green and five other people, took himself to be a Nietzschean. Of course he did.

I suppose we could start plucking out incendiary quotations from Nietzsche’s works and assess how much blame to lay on his head for Loughner’s alleged crimes and the crimes of other young men with similar philosophical interests, but such a project would tend toward philistinism or obscurity. Better, I think, to leave aside the indictment and treat the nexus of Nietzsche and troubled young manhood as Nietzsche himself would have—that is, anthropologically.

The attraction of Nietzsche to socially maladjusted young men is obvious, but it isn’t exactly simple. It is built from several interlocking pieces. Nietzsche mocks convention and propriety (and mocks difficult writers you’d prefer not to bother with anyway). He’s funny and (deceptively) easy to read, especially compared to his antecedents in German philosophy, who are also his flabby and lumbering targets: Schopenhauer, Hegel, and, especially, Kant. If your social world fails to appreciate your singularity and tells you that you’re a loser, reading Nietzsche can steel you in your secret conviction that, no, I’m a genius, or at least very special, and everyone else is the loser. Like you, Nietzsche was misunderstood in his day, ignored or derided by other scholars. Like you, Nietzsche seems to find everything around him lame, either stodgy and moralistic or sick with democratic vulgarity. Nietzsche seems to believe in aristocracy, which is taboo these days, which might be why no one recognizes you as the higher sort of guy you suspect yourself to be. And crucially, if you’re a horny and poetic young man whose dream girl is ever present before your eyes but just out of reach, Nietzsche frames his project of resistance and overcoming as not just romantic but erotic.

If you’re a thoughtful and unhappy young man, in other words, why wouldn’t you want to read someone who seems to reflect both your alienation and your uncontainable desire back to you as masculine bravery and strength? Indeed, there’s something in every book you’re likely to pick up—some enticement of form or content or both—that addresses your horniness/alienation and flatters you in the pretense that, though you have no formal training and are actually kind of a crappy and distracted reader, you are doing philosophy.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s first work, it’s the celebration of anarchic and sexually with-it Dionysus over boring Apollo, who’s like the Greek god of algebra or something. In Zarathustra, it’s the beckoning first-person narration, a crazy novel or memoir kind of thing, a heroic story of Zarathustra “going under,” gathering spiritual strength in hermetic solitude that reminds you of your own bedroom, and then “rising” to “shine” upon a people who don’t even understand or deserve him. In The Genealogy of Morals it’s Nietzsche examining the real history of that Bible stuff your lame pastor barks at you in church (which you understand as saying two main things: no sex, no touching yourself) and proving that morality originates not in God but in the will to power—ancient priests seizing power over ancient masters by guilt-tripping them about the suffering of slaves. (Christianity is just “slave morality.” So much for that dilemma.) In Ecce Homo it’s those excellent chapter headings (“Why I Am So Clever,” “Why I Write Such Good Books”). And in Beyond Good and Evil it is, well, the awesome title of the book itself, and that hilarious opening line (“Supposing truth is a woman—what then?”), and that first chapter where he mocks all those philosophers you don’t have to read anymore, now that Nietzsche has told you how lame they are.

And, also in Beyond Good and Evil, it’s the aphorisms—a section entitled “Epigrams and Interludes” comprising over a hundred one- and two-sentence masterworks of moral paradox and counterintuition, calculated outrage and elegant eye-poking. Nietzsche is aphoristic even when he’s being systematic, and when he’s being aphoristic, his writing is simply unmatched in its beauty and mayhem, its uncanny mix of compression and infinite suggestion. And for a young guy who’s intellectually hungry but doesn’t much enjoy reading, finding this section of philosophy-bits in the middle of this famous book is like a homecoming. You don’t even have to know what these epigrams mean to enjoy them. You just feel manly and brave in entertaining them at all, not flinching but laughing when Nietzsche says: “One is best punished for ones virtues.” (You even get to work out some of your girl-troubles by lingering over Nietzsche’s several jabs at women.)

Of course, Nietzsche scholars will tell you not to run too far with these little wisecracks. You need to understand them in the context of his larger body of work, in which he often circles back to themes, again and again, revising and even contradicting his earlier writings. You have to understand the aphorisms as part of a vast poetic project of self-creation or becoming in which nothing is truly settled. Nietzsche himself predicted he would be misread, acquire misguided disciples, and so he has.

Loughner’s favorite book, according to news reports, fits with these troubled-guy tendencies and their associated pitfalls. It’s not Beyond Good and Evil, but rather The Will to Power, the notorious compilation of Nietzsche’s working notes (which Nietzsche’s sister peddled, wrongly, as his great systematic work). The observations are longer-form in The Will to Power, but, like the “Epigrams and Interludes,” they are too-easily separated from Nietzsche’s other work. They have a tidy thematic organization that is largely his sister’s. This scheme is helpful to the scholar who knows his other books. It’s also helpful to the troubled young man obsessed with one thing in particular. In Loughner’s case, this one thing was apparently nihilism, which happens to be the first topic in The Will to Power.

That Loughner was reading Nietzsche on nihilism fits so perfectly into a template for such tragedies that it’s easy to miss the gaping confusion in news stories about the shooting. These stories echo claims by some acquaintances that Loughner was a nihilist, and by others that he was “obsessed with nihilism,” as if these are the same thing. But Loughner didn’t see himself as a nihilist. He saw himself as fighting nihilism. This is evident in his fixation in his YouTube videos on the idea that words have no meaning, or have somehow lost their meaning in a process of nihilistic decline—a fixation that seems to lie at the basis of his tragic grudge against Gabrielle Giffords.

Nietzsche, oddly, has suffered a similar fate. Because of his assault on religion and rationalist metaphysics, and because of the hints of anarchy in his assorted visions of the future (e.g., “the transvaluation of all values”), he’s taken as the West’s über-nihilist. But he saw himself as the scourge of European nihilism, and possibly also its remedy. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a disease, which grows from, in Alexander Nehamas’ words, “the assumption that if some single standard is not good for everyone and all time, then no standard is good for anyone at any time.” It presents itself as mindless hedonism and flaccid spirit, but also as fanaticism.

So does that make Nietzsche and Jared Lee Loughner philosophical brethren after all, joined in the same fanatical fight against nihilism? In a word, no, and Loughner’s pathological fixation on the meaning of words is the giveaway. One way of looking at Nietzsche’s project is that he set out to teach himself and his readers to love the world in its imperfection and multiplicity, for itself. This is behind his assaults on religion, liberal idealism, and utilitarian systems of social organization. He saw these as different ways of effacing or annihilating the world as it is. It is behind his infamous doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence—in which he embraces the “most abysmal thought,” that the given world, and not the idealizing stories we tell of it, is all there is, and he will affirm this reality even if it recurs eternally.

Jared Loughner’s despair that everything is unreal and words have no meaning amounts to hatred of the world (a mania of moralism and narcissism) for its failure to resemble the words we apply to it. Faced with a choice between real people and some stupid abstraction about words, themselves mere abstractions, Loughner killed the people to defend the abstraction. This, then, really is a kind of nihilism, only not the kind that people think Nietzsche was guilty of. It’s the kind of nihilism that Nietzsche was trying to warn us about, and help us overcome.

Thanks to Cris Campbell of the University of Colorado for some key insights and background on Nietzsche and nihilism.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.