Nietzsche on Sexuality

18 September 2010


One might suppose that Nietzsche ought to be the last author that we would read for any insight into sexuality, as his own sexual experience was remarkably limited, and may have consisted of only a few visits to a student brothel in his youth. But it is a mere fallacy implicit in the instinctive positivism and empiricism of contemporary industrialized civilization that it is quantity rather than quality of experience that counts.

One could as well hold that it would have been impossible for Emily Dickinson to have any better insight into the human condition than the average man-in-the-street because of her self-imposed isolation and asceticism, which meant that she had much less experience of the human condition, in simple quantitative terms, than the average person. But it was what Emily Dickinson made of her experience, and not what experience imposed upon her, that made her poetry great — a revelatory insight into the human condition.

It is this sense of what we can make of our experience that I was trying to get at when, a few days ago, I wrote on Twitter:

The active and fertile mind must sip only sparingly at the sweetness of life, for a full draught would overwhelm any sensitive soul.

Just so the active and fertile minds of Nietzsche and Emily Dickinson worked on very limited material, and neither sought to sate themselves upon the world. Which brings us to Nietzsche on sexuality. In his still challenging and influential book Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Nietzsche wrote:

The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit. (section 75)

I believe that this is true. I also believe that the corollary is true, namely, that the ultimate pinnacle of man’s spirit reaches deep into the degree and kind of a man’s sexuality. Or, if you prefer, that the degree and kind of a man’s spirit is expressed in the ultimate pinnacle of sexuality.

This is no small matter. From a biological point of view, anything that we do other than reproduce is epiphenomenal to life, and our sexual instincts are a concrete and personal embodiment of this will to live that projects itself onto future generations, willing that they should live also. If, then, there is a unity of that which we have believed to be most bestial in our character and that which we have heretofore believed to be ideal and edifying, this tells us something about who and what we are. We are not divided between a bestial element and a celestial element; we are one and whole.

The unity of body, mind, and spirit is a perennial theme of western thought, just as the fragmentation of body, mind and spirit is the perennial lot of western man. We always seek to recover this unity, and we always fail in the attempt. Both making the attempt and failing in the attempt define a large part of western civilization. And Nietzsche has, in the above quote, given the unity of body, mind, and spirit a particularly beautiful expression, which suggests a particularly beautiful form of failure.

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