17 December 2009

Reckoning as a Possible Solution for Revenge

This paper will examine the concept of ‘reckoning’ that Heidegger discusses in section 26 of the fourth volume of the Nietzsche lectures. To do this, I will turn to the chapter titled ‘Of Redemption’ from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra,[1] and a scene from the film Tombstone.[2] It is my intent to use the scene from Tombstone as a way of understanding what Heidegger means by the term reckoning, and to suggest that Heidegger’s reckoning might be useful as a solution to the spirit of revenge for Nietzsche. Before going into an analysis of the scene from the film, I will examine the concept of revenge found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Revenge, in the words of Zarathustra, is described as this: the will’s antipathy towards time and time’s ‘It was’. Zarathustra goes on to say, “The spirit of revenge: my friends, that, up to now, has been mankind’s chief concern; and where there was suffering, there was always supposed to be punishment. ‘Punishment’ is what revenge calls itself” (162). Revenge is important to us because it introduces a fundamental problem that the will encounters, namely time.[3] The will, in so far as it is understood as the will to power, is confronted with the un-alterability of the past. This is a problem for the will power, because the will to power is, for Nietzsche, a limitless creative force. The will to power is limitless in the sense that if the world is a constant becoming then the future is unformed, ready to be created through the will to power. However, the will takes

on the spirit of revenge, and seeks to turn the present and the future into a punishment; a punishment administered to the will itself, because of its own inability to alter the past. The finality of the past controls and exerts influence over every subsequent moment, restraining the will to power. The will to power is limited by the past, and the will to power takes revenge on itself thereby destroying its creative force in the present and the future.

What does it mean for the will to power to take revenge upon itself? I take it to mean that when people realize they cannot undo the past, they suffer; they suffer in the sense that, as a creative being, there are things that cannot be affected by their creativity. If what it means to live is to create, then to confront that which is not amenable to a creative force is to suffer to the greatest extent. Zarathustra says this: “…because there is suffering in the willer himself, since he cannot will backwards — therefore willing itself and life was supposed to be — punishment!” (162). In other words, because of the will’s inability to will backwards, the willer suffers and seeks to punish itself for its inability. The willer punishes himself by subverting his will through a weakened use of the will to power, where power no longer enhances power, instead power is used to enhance some other thing. To be revengeful is this: to disdain the past and its un-alterability, to be powerless to the past, and turn the disdain of the past on oneself as a punishment for one’s powerlessness.

Nietzsche shows that time is a problem for the will to power, but he goes on to speak more of the creative will and poses some questions that point towards a possible solution to the problem of time. If the past is a character in a play, and it only has one line to give, Nietzsche gives it the line: It was. The creative will, in order to confront and overcome the finality of the past, responds in kind: But I willed it thus! (163). This is given as a possibility in the chapter ‘Of Redemption’, but only as a possibility. The idea that the will can respond to the past in such way is given as a possibility of a way of redemption for the will. That is, the will, through such a response, would appropriate its creative power for itself, see the past as amenable to its creative power, and cease to take revenge on itself in the present/or the future. Surely, the idea that the past can be subjected to the will sounds, irrational, if not silly. The past, is the past, is the past; the past cannot be changed, altered, or created anew.

But before dismissing Nietzsche’s idea we should at least attempt to make sense of the questions that he poses through the character of Zarathustra: “But has it [the will] ever spoken thus? And when will this take place? Has the will yet been unharnessed from its own folly? Has the will yet become its own redeemer and bringer of joy? Has it unlearned the spirit of revenge…the will that is the will to power must will something higher than any reconciliation—but how shall that happen? Who has taught it to will backwards?” (163). Is it possible to amend the past? That is, is it possible to replace the spirit of revenge with something else? Is there a mode, through which the will can say, against all odds, ‘But I will it thus!’? I will now turn to the film Tombstone as a possible example of how the will is able to unlearn the spirit of revenge, and how Nietzsche’s revenge might be replaced by Heidegger’s reckoning, thus exploring how to make the past amenable to the will to power.

“No, make no mistake. It’s not revenge he’s after, it’s a reckoning.” — Doc Holliday

Doc Holliday makes this remark in response to the assumption that Wyatt Earp is out to revenge the death of his younger brother, and the attempted murder of his older brother in the film Tombstone. In the film, after the murderous violence takes place, Wyatt Earp and his survived older brother decide to leave town, and leave behind their quarrel with a gang called ‘The Cowboys’. However, Wyatt Earp does not leave town, instead he stays behind with a group of deputized friends and commences to killing every remaining member of The Cowboys. After a gunfight in which Wyatt Earp kills the leader of the The Cowboys, ‘Curly Bill’ Brocious, deputized friend Sherman McMasters remarks, “If they were my brothers, I’d want revenge too.” This is what leads to Doc Holliday’s corrective statement, that Wyatt Earp is not after revenge, he is participating in a reckoning.

A mere mention of the words ‘revenge’ and ‘reckoning’ in a film, could just be a coincidence, and not have anything to do with Nietzsche or Heidegger. This may be correct, but the film can offer us some insight into what Nietzsche and Heidegger are talking about through a Nietzschean/Heideggerian interpretation of the film. First, I will interpret how Nietzsche’s revenge is at work in the film. Second, I will give an analysis of Heidegger’s reckoning. Third, I will interpret how Heidegger’s reckoning is at work in the film. Next, I will suggest that Heidegger’s reckoning is an answer to Zarathustra’s questions about revenge. Finally, I will consider some objections to reckoning as a solution to the problem of the un-alterability of the past for the will.

Wyatt Earp is confronted by the past: his brother, Morgan, has been murdered by The Cowboys. Morgan is dead and there is nothing Wyatt can do to change that fact. Wyatt and his older brother, Virgil, appear to be resigned to the murder of their brother as they pack up their things and head out of town. Although leaving town is a ruse (Wyatt planned on staying behind), the ruse is nevertheless an example of Nietzsche’s spirit of revenge. The film portrays Wyatt as recognizing the finality of the past and his inability to change it. On his way out of town Wyatt pauses in front of Curly Bill to say, “I want you to know, it’s over.” This is as if to say: there is nothing that can be done to change the past, now, or ever. In this light we can see Wyatt as suffering not the human emotions of pain and anguish from losing his brother, but suffering as willer who cannot will backwards. This is an effective way of understanding the character of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, who is portrayed as especially strong-willed in the rest of the film. It is not his feelings that are suffering: it is his will.

As Wyatt suffers from his inability to will into the past, he takes revenge on himself. The revenge is played out in the film through his resignation towards Morgan’s death that leads to his departure from town. Again, even though he does not actually leave town, it is in planning to leave town that Morgan’s death casts a shadow from the past into the future. If Wyatt were to leave town, he would be punishing himself by living in accord with how his brother died, and never confronting the past that altered his life such that he left the town he happened to call home. The revenge is the will itself willing the present and the future according to the past event, a past event that appears to be unalterable. Here we have a small window through the film to see Wyatt portrayed as suffering from the spirit of revenge, but I think it is a promising way of thinking about Nietzsche’s problem of time for the will. However, Wyatt did not leave town.

To reckon something, for Heidegger, is the process through which everything that is evaluated and valued as conditioning itself has the character of value (177). Heidegger is involved in a round about way of suggesting how reckoning and the will to power have an essential affinity. Heidegger takes us down many paths to get there, e.g. an analysis of the history of philosophy, etymology of words, and an exegesis of Nietzsche. I will give you the short version of some ideas found in section 26.

Basically, Being is traditionally conceived as a set of necessary conditions that a subject must reckon in advance based on a relation to beings through metaphysics (174). The history of metaphysics can be viewed from Plato to Descartes, from Kant to Nietzsche, as Being having been interpreted as a condition of possibility. It is with Nietzsche that we arrive at evaluative thought. That is, Nietzsche claims that ‘Value’ is another way of saying the condition of possibility, and hence Being, as a condition of possibility, is a value (176). Heidegger then explains that in valuing, one is estimating, i.e. assessing and comparing. Heidegger describes estimating as estimating distances, human relationships, numerical accounts, etc. There is also an essential kind of estimating, which is reckoning, whereby it can reveal a fundamental kind of behavior: reckoning as a particular kind of estimating, is the condition of the possibility of beings; that is, of Being (177). Heidegger takes Nietzsche’s concept of value, or valuing, and hones it down into reckoning. He does this by linking the process of valuing to estimating, argues that essential estimating is reckoning, and then suggests that reckoning and will to power have an essential affinity. Heidegger writes that the “will to power is the essence of willing” and then cites Nietzsche from a passage in the Grossoktavausgabe: “In every willing there is estimating” (XIII, note 395). Heidegger seems to have shown reckoning as a particular way of exercising the will to power, in terms of understanding Being as something that is evaluated and valued as conditioning, yet has the character of value itself. Now we will turn back to Wyatt Earp.

Wyatt does not get on a train and leave town. Instead he and four other men begin a systematic killing of all remaining members of The Cowboys. When Doc Holliday declared that Wyatt’s actions were a reckoning, he did not simply mean that a score was being settled. He meant that Wyatt was willing backwards. No, Wyatt cannot raise his brother Morgan from the dead and make him breath again; but Wyatt can exert his will into the past, such that his present and his future can be created anew. In this sense, the past event of Morgan’s death does not incapacitate Wyatt’s will, and there is no need for Wyatt to exact revenge upon himself. If Wyatt is engaged in a process of reckoning, what does that mean, other than saying he is not seeking revenge?

Morgan’s death, a past event, can be understood as a condition for the possibility of future events. This seems to make sense, that the finality of a past event bears some grounding for future events, e.g. why is the little girl crying, because she fell down. The fact that she fell down is a condition for her crying. If this is true in the case of Morgan’s death, that it is a condition for possible future events, we will try to understand Wyatt as reckoning with that condition.

Wyatt is engaged in a process that evaluates his brother’s death and realizes that even though he values his brother’s death as a condition of the possibility of future events, including as a condition on himself as creative willer, he realizes that the past event of his brothers death, as a condition, has value. But as something that has value, it is presupposed that there is an evaluator to give the condition value. Wyatt determines that he will give the past event of his brother’s death value. By recognizing that even a condition, something that sets the stage for some subsequent thing, has a value itself, Wyatt realizes that the condition is amenable to his will.

Now, think what kind of value Morgan’s death would have had if Wyatt had left town. It would have a value as a condition, but it would have a value lacking Wyatt’s valuation. In fact, if Wyatt had left town, whatever value Morgan’s death did have would be the unchangeable nature of the past that Wyatt would disdain and punish himself with. Instead, Wyatt unlearns the spirit of revenge and chooses to reckon with the past, to exert his will backwards, to evaluate Morgan’s death, and give it value through slaughtering the remaining Cowboys.[4] When Doc Holliday says this is a reckoning, he is gesturing toward the fact that Wyatt Earp is not a man filled with bloodlust or justice, he is not a man filled with the contrived notions of good and evil: Wyatt Earp is a man struggling to reach into the past to change the meaning of his brother’s death. Wyatt Earp is using his creative forces to their utmost extent, enhancing his creative power with power, challenging time and saying to the past: But I will it thus!

In the section ‘Of Redemption’ Nietzsche gives us the problem of time for the will. If we can view the past as a condition for the possibility of the future, we can readily apply Heidegger’s conception of reckoning as a way out of the problem. Just to be clear, a restatement of the problem for Nietzsche: the past places limits on the will to power, which is supposed to be an unlimited creative force. This is an apparent contradiction; either the will to power is limited or it is not. Zarathustra says that maybe it is possible for the will to overcome the past, but it is not clear how or when that will happen. But the possibility is mentioned as unlearning the spirit of revenge. If the spirit of revenge is the will punishing itself for its lack of power over the past, it seems that the spirit of revenge can be unlearned by understanding the past as something valued as a condition, and as having value itself. The key here is understanding that a condition can have value, can be evaluated, and can be reckoned with. It may be true that I cannot change past events such that someone I love does not die, but I am not powerless to the past, in that I can give the past the value I am capable of giving it. In that sense, by giving conditions of possible future events value, I am exerting the will to power into the past, and preserving the will to power as a creative force for the present and the future. The past is then no longer something to disdain, but something to reckon with.

There are two points I would like to raise as objections to the claims I have made. The first is a large-scale objection that goes something like this: Heidegger is making Nietzsche out to be a metaphysician (which he clearly is not), and thus something like the concept ‘reckoning’ could never be applied to Nietzsche’s thought. That is, reckoning is a particular way of trying to come to terms with Being for Heidegger, and has nothing to do with what Nietzsche is trying to do. An objection like this, or a variation of it, seems to me unfair. I am not comfortable labeling Nietzsche a metaphysician, but I think Heidegger has made some great insights into Nietzsche’s thought. Not only that, co-opting one of Heidegger’s ideas does not mean that we have to necessarily bring along the other ideas that it is a part of.

The other objection is simpler, but harder to respond to. Nietzsche says this through Zarathustra: “The will cannot will backwards; that it cannot break time and time’s desire — that is the will’s most lonely affliction” (161). I have claimed in this paper that it is possible for the will to will backwards via the concept of reckoning. There is an obvious problem here. I see myself as having three responses to the problem: A) the will cannot will backwards and I am wrong about reckoning as a possible solution, or B) one can assume Zarathustra to be speaking from the point of view of someone who understands the past as a condition without value, and therefore as a kind of un-conditioned condition. That is, Zarathustra himself suffers from the un-alterability of time, and has yet to unlearn the spirit of revenge. The point is, that Zarathustra does go on to pose questions that make it seem as if it is possible to one day unlearn the spirit of revenge, and hence have no antipathy toward the past despite the fact that from Zarathustra’s perspective it is true that the will cannot will backwards. Or C) that this contradiction has to be solved, that the will to power is a limitless creative force, and reckoning seems like a reasonable way of thinking through the problem. I would have to go with the third response, as I think it cuts to the core of the problem. There is a contradiction; Nietzsche thinks the will to power does not have any creative limits, so that phrase is inserted there to get us to think hard about the problem.

As far as reckoning goes, the line from Tombstone is a nice tool to use in helping us think through what it would mean to will backwards, to reckon with the past, and to extend the will to power as a creative force into the past to preserve our creative powers into the future. And to think through time and the events that happen in the past as conditions for the possibility of future events, conditions valued as conditions and having value, yet malleable to our will: this what it means to reckon, this is what it mean to unlearn the spirit of revenge.

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book For Everyone and No One. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961.

[2] Tombstone. Dir. George P. Cosmatos. Perf. Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, and Bill Paxton. DVD. Cinergi Pictures, 1993.

[3] This paper will assume some working knowledge of Nietzschean and Heideggerian terms, so as not to get bogged down in explaining what every term means, e.g. ‘the will’, ‘will to power’, ‘valuing’, ‘estimating’, ‘Being’, ‘being’, etc.

[4] Of course it is important to remember that value, here, is in a non-moral sense. The fact that Wyatt Earp gives value to his brother’s death via bloody violence does not take away from the giving of value.

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