Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger

Chris Palazzolo considers a neato affirmation……

Friedrich Nietzsche as an artillerist in the Royal Prussian Army circa 1870
Friedrich Nietzsche as an artillerist in the Royal Prussian Army circa 1870

“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” is one of those neato affirmations that still seems to crop up often enough in popular culture as to indicate that it hasn’t gone the way of “grant me the wisdom…” and other clichés that most people would be embarrassed to use now. I wouldn’t say I hear it as regularly as every three or six months or anything as definite as that, but it does surprise me how often I do hear it. The latest example of it is in the Woody Allen movie Magic in the Moonlight. Allen can always blame his characters for any lapses of judgement in his scripts, and to be fair the movie is set in the 1920s when the phrase may still have had the quality of novelty about it, but I think it’s telling that it’s the one thing that pretty much spoiled the movie for me.

Let’s look quickly at what it signifies in contemporary pop culture. Whether as an affirmation posted on Facebook, or the title of a Kelly Clarkson song, or a line in any number of hip hop songs, it asserts unconquerable resilience in the face of terrible odds, a defiant bring-it-on to the world, or a variation on the old ‘school of hard knocks.’ It comes from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, and is a stand alone maxim which indicates that in its formulation Nietzsche was aiming for an absence of ambiguity, a direct truth encapsulated in a single phrase unencumbered by the shadings and inflections of surrounding sentences. An absolute truth – “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” the simplicity of which is explained by another one of his maxims, “an arrow, a straight line, a goal;” – he points the arrow, fires it, hits the target. Truth is revealed, simple, bracing, like a blast of alpine air on the face of the climber in a Casper David Friedrich painting. The problem is the phrase does not stand up to any serious examination and is in fact one of the emptiest in all western philosophy.

The Nietzsche of popular culture is a right-wing polemicist railing against the decadence of modernity (democracy, labour rights, women’s rights, and the feminisation of culture) sapping the vitality of a once healthy, youthful and warlike Europe, a bit like a late nineteenth century Andrew Bolt, which is ironic because Nietzsche was a beneficiary of one of the first state pensions in Europe (the staatsozialismus of the Deutsches Kaiserreich which Marx and Engels scoffed at). His major works on aesthetics and morality, psychology and phenomenology are generally left to the universities. But while it’s true to say that among his many hates, Nietzsche hated systematisers above all, it’s impossible for me to take a phrase like “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” in isolation from the central concepts of his philosophy.

The full phrase is: “From the military school of life – what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Nietzsche of course had experience in this ‘military school,’ he was an ambulance orderly in the Franco-Prussian war. He would have witnessed terrible wounds during his service; young men with arms and legs blown off, blind and deafened from shelling, insane with shock, being treated in field hospitals without penicillin or the pain-killers that we now take for granted. And yet out of that experience came this statement –“what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Exactly what does he mean by ‘stronger’? How is a poor young soldier, screaming for his mummy, both his arms gone and his testicles blown off, that private Nietzsche may have dragged out of a muddy bomb crater, ‘stronger’?

Strength is a theme that runs through all of Nietzsche’s work. The strength of growth and expansion, impelled by will to this or that object of desire. Great nations harness this innocent and egotistical will-to-power in order to stratify their societies, turn all their energies to breeding and generating the best in their cultures and races. In other words, strength is an aristocratic ‘privilege’ of action, where the best are the freest and the healthiest and can expand their willpower to serving traditions that surpass individual livespans. Against this aristocratic principle of will-to-power and the source of Europe’s modern decline, is the phenomenon of ressentiment. This is the slave instinct of Christianity (and its ancient precursers, platonism and socratic dialectic) become will-to-power to overthrow the best and install democracy and morality to eradicate all exceptions. Ressentiment is the corrupting of formerly healthy instincts by the paralysis of enslavement; outward impelling instincts, blocked by conditions of slavery, round back on themselves, layering and layering like sediments of frustrated will until, after centuries, they begin to ‘spiritualise’ producing their own ‘traditions’ like metaphysics which slander and poison all that is healthy, wilful and aristocratic.

The young soldier that private Nietzsche rescued is still alive, so according to the maxim he is ‘stronger’. But how is he stronger? Physically he is an invalid; he can’t do anything, he can’t play sport, he can’t have sex, he is, quite literally, ‘enslaved’ in his ruined body for the rest of his life. How can he be stronger, in properly Nietzschean terms? The simple answer is, he can’t be. The maxim fails, not only as a universal truth of resilience, but even for the narrower truths of military life. The only kind of strength feasible for this young man is ‘spiritual,’ the strength of weakness, the agnus dei, which is exactly the kind of thing that Nietzsche despised. Following properly the lesson of the military school, the phrase “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” leads us to the most denatured realms of Christian abnegation.

Jacques Derrida in his book Spectres of Marx, condemns Marx for the sentence “let the dead bury the dead” from one of Marx’s journalistic polemics. The meaning of the line is a revolutionary exhortation: the movement of revolution stops for no one, the living seize the future, leave the dead to bury themselves. Derrida regards this as an inhuman thing to say; the dead have never buried anyone, he says. The dead only rot and breed maggots; only the living can bury the dead. Derrida’s point is that this throwaway line by Marx licenced many of the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century. Nietzsche’s silly maxim no.8 from Twilight of the Idols does not carry any of this kind of responsibility, but I think it is time we consigned it to the rubbish bin of embarrassing lapses before it licences more defiant narcissism. Menschliches, allzummenschliches.

– Chris Palazzolo


Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and manager of one of the last video shops in the world – Network Video, Roleystone.

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