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(17) Ash’ar

Nietzsche, The Gay Science: “Guilt.—Although the most intelligent judges of the witches, and even the witches themselves, were convinced of the guilt of witchcraft, the guilt, nevertheless, was not there. So it is with all guilt.” When Nietzsche gets like this he annoys me; it reminds me of his contemporary, Oscar Wilde—he’s just being clever, he’s just found a witty barb for a Victorian drawing-room. Guilt is real; it’s not an invention—it can’t be turned off automatically, as with all human emotions it has a biological basis; and I think anyone who has introspected, even slightly, knows this is so. What Nietzsche says here is just not true—he is too cute.

That’s not to say there aren’t people who feel hardly any guilt—or people who feel guilt over minor things; or even that you can’t increase the levels of guilt people experience through social conditions. Yet that is not the same as to say there is no guilt at all—that it was constructed historically. When people say there is a left-wing Nietzsche, it is aphorisms such as this one to which they refer. You could reformulate it, in academic jargon, as follows: “Just as with gender, guilt itself is a historical construction—it came about with the Judeo-Christian era and we have now passed beyond it. In modernity, nobody is guilty. Innocence-guilt is a duality, as with gender, we have transcended.” This is Foucault’s Nietzsche—Nietzsche who sees the world as very malleable; and if it’s malleable, why not manipulate it to produce equality?

I doubt Nietzsche really believed his aphorism; it doesn’t feel like he did, not in its very structure—it feels like one of his self-conscious provocations, just like an outrageous Wildean aphorism; both men would say only the superficial has depth—yet Wilde, the more superficial man, was shallow. For Nietzsche the provocation and self-contradiction were the dance—yet even dancers have to rest. Guilt is real; and so, contra Nietzsche, are witches.


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