Drowning Baldwin’s Burning House in Nietzsche’s Wave


Let us imagine a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their fellows, and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is the image of the human condition. 
– Blaise Pascal, Pensée 199

How much more comforting to say that they die for a reason; that they die precisely because they lack reason; that lacking reason they cannot take responsibility or be self-reliant; that, being unable to take responsibility, they can never be morally accountable; that without accountability they are not reliable; that, lacking all this, they are, in fact something both less and more than human; that they are the face of inhuman face of the world’s chaos. While, we, the possessors of reason, are capable of responsibility, are able to promise in good faith, and are the self-reliant possessors of autonomy. How much more comforting, not to mention flattering, to say that by our reason and own efforts, we are exempt from the chaos of life and death. That there is chaos we do not deny, but being responsible and self-reliant we demand the means to defend ourselves from this chaos, and only the means, never help, for that would be to admit the moral failing of needing another’s care, of not being self-reliant. For that, we would deserve to die; but, no, so long as we are responsible we will always possess the means to defeat plague, famine, and death; all we need are the weapons to meet chaos.

But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin intimidates them.

 – James Baldwin, “The Fire Next Time”


Imagine life as a series of rooms. As we enter each room, the door we entered through locks behind us. On the other side of each room are two doors, one marked desire, the other reason. Some of the rooms we pass through are amusing, others are boring, some are dreams, others are nightmares, their succession inexplicable. As we make our progress, we bear the memory of all the rooms we passed through previously, but because the door behind us is locked we cannot go back, only forward. All we can do is make a choice, a judgement, between the door marked reason or the door marked desire without knowing where either will lead. We cannot will otherwise without believing that we can pass back through a door that is forever locked by the passage of time or choosing that which is neither reasonable nor desirable, an option which, in fact, is not available.

What seems desirable or reasonable, as well as the tendency to choose the door marked desire or the door marked reason, depends on individual experience and judgement of the present room and the memory of all the other rooms we passed through before. As such I am be responsible for choosing lamb over an alternative, but I am not responsible for desiring lamb or for what my reason dictates. As Nietzsche says: 

“Do you know nothing of an intellectual conscience? A conscience behind your ‘conscience’? Your judgement, ‘that is right’, has a prehistory in your drives, inclinations, aversions, experiences, and what you have failed to experience; you have to ask, ‘how did it emerge there?’ and then also, ‘what is really impelling me to listen to it?’” 

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Gay Science, 335

I may very well identify as a liberal and believe it to be right, but I do not choose to my liberalism any more someone else chooses their conservatism. There is no point in pride or shame in such things as they are the unaccountable. In any case, my present awareness, choices, judgements and memory may or may not serve in the room I will soon enter, even if they are the only guide I can have. The only goal or value I, or anyone else, can consistently hold is to pass through this present room to the next.

This memory of passing through random rooms and our awareness of the present room is consciousness. The self is an attempt to find a constant in the random succession of rooms and find in consciousness an explanation for, an attitude towards, and a judgement of chaos. Yet having been produced by chaos, the self cannot have any but an illusory coherence. Nor can it exist independently of chaos in order that it might judge what is good or bad, right or wrong, reasonable or desirable. The self, like free will, is but a comforting fiction, an explanation of me-in-chaos, that makes living with chaos possible.

The only way moral, as opposed to merely causal, responsibility can exist is by positing free will and saying that humanity is autonomous from the chaos that surrounds it. But if the existence of free will and moral responsibility are to be believed, it becomes necessary to make the world reflect the belief: there must be rewards for the exercising of free will and punishments for when it is not exercised; there must either be people who possess and exercise it alongside others who possess it but do not exercise it, or there must be people who possess it and others who do not possess it, which amounts to the same thing because free will does not exist. This belief in the autonomous man, self-reliant, and morally responsible because a possessor of free will, is Baldwin’s “burning house” of “The Fire Next Time”: a false definition of humanity which flatters and comforts humanity with the imaginary possession of free will and which says that those without it or unable to exercise it are less than human. The lie, in fact, is not that they are less that human, but that humans possess free will and are capable of moral responsibility; that the possessors of free will are more than human, which is not true. And why should we not have believed this lie? After all, of the course of two millennia Caesar was believed to be a God and kings divinely ordained. The spread of mystical power would seem to be a logical and necessary step in democracies. This fire can only be extinguished when we stop confusing reason, desire, judgement, and choice, taken individually or together, as free will and as evidence for individual autonomy; to extinguish the fire it is necessary to recognize the individual human animal as it is rather than as an image with which to flatter or comfort ourselves; that individual humans with all their love and hatred are as unaccountable, in all senses of the word, as Nietzsche’s wave of Gay Science 310; that because this love and hatred is as inevitable as the wave, humanity is also as capable of lighting up one city as much as destroying another; but also that collectively humanity can choose, even will, illumination over destruction, love over hatred, because in conversation the urge to love and the urge to hate, what illuminates and what destroys, is revealed and can be scrutinized as neither right nor wrong, but as an inevitable fact of life. 

Will and wave.— How greedily this wave approaches, as if it were after something! How it crawls with terrifying haste into the inmost nooks of this laybrinthine cliff! It seems that it is trying to anticipate someone; it seems that something of value, high value, must be hidden there.—And now it comes back, a little more slowly but still quite white with excitement; is it disappointed? Has it found what it looked for? Does it pretend to be disappointed?—But already another wave is approaching, still more greedily and savagely than the first, and its soul, too, seems to be full of secrets and the lust to dig up treasures. Thus live waves—thus live we who will—more I shall not say. So? You mistrust me? You are angry with me, you beautiful monsters? Are you afraid that I might give away your whole secret? Well, be angry with me, arch your dangerous green bodies as high as you can, raise a wall between me and the sun—as you are doing now! Truly, even now nothing remains of the world but green twilight and green lightning. Carry on as you like, roaring with overweening pleasure and malice—or dive again, pouring your emeralds down into the deepest depths, and throw your infinite white mane of foam and spray over them: Everything suits me, for everything suits you so well, and I am so well-disposed toward you for everything; how could I think of betraying you? For—mark my word!—I know you and your secret, I know your kind! You and I—are we not of one kind?—You and I—do we not have one secret?

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Gay Science, 310

James Baldwin’s “Burning House”, from “The Fire Next Time”

Behind what we think of as the Russian menace lies what we do not wish to face, and what white Americans do not face when they regard a Negro reality – the fact that life is tragic. Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of the trouble, the human trouble, is that we sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact of we have. It seems to me that one ought rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. And this is also why the presence of the Negro in this country can bring about its destruction. But white Americans do not believe in death, and this is why the darkness of my skin intimidates them … It is the responsibility of free men to trust and celebrate what is constant – birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so – and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change. I speak of change not on the surface but in the depths – change in the sense of renewal. But renewal becomes impossible if one supposes things to be constant that are not – safety, for example, or money, or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can be betrayed, and the entire hope – the entire possibility – of freedom disappears. And by destruction I mean precisely the abdication by Americans of any effort really to be free. The Negro can precipitate this abdication because white Americans have never, in all their long history, been able to look on him as a man like themselves … White Americans have thought of it as their shame, and have envied those more civilized and elegant European nations that were untroubled by the presence of black men on their shores. This is because white Americans have supposed “Europe” and “civilization” to be synonyms – which they are not – and have been distrustful of other standards and sources of vitality, especially those produced by America itself, and have attempted to behave in all matters as if what is east for Europe is east for them. What is comes to is that if, we who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves, with the truly white nations, to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are, we might bring new life to the Western achievements, and transform them. The price of this transformation is the unconditional freedom of the Negro; it is not too much to say that he, who has so long been rejected, must now be embraced, and at no matter what psychic or social risk. He is the key figure in his country, and the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as his. And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way. Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Gay Science 335 can be read here.

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