Everything has Become Smaller! On Nietzsche’s Microaggressions


Nietzsche’s Zarathustra has a big problem with little people.  You could say that he literally has a microaggression.  After he has a profound revelation of who he is “Before Sunrise” while he gazes into the deep sky and “trembles with divine desires,” Zarathustra comes down from the heights to the valley below to learn if “man” has “become bigger or smaller.”    The contrast between Zarathustra who, as a result of his ecstatic visionary experience, has become very big and the little people is metaphysical.  Zarathustra’s disparaging comments about smallness are aggressive.   This aggressivity against small things has a root in his attitude toward “Judea” and “the slave revolt in morals.”     And through Zarathustra this aggressivity is figured in terms of what I’ll call a mircoagression against smallness and small people.  This microagression informs his satire as well. Through satire, Nietzsche looks to constantly belittle his enemies.  And  through Zarathustra’s repulsion, through which he takes measure of the smallness of the small people of the valley, Nietzsche creates a metaphorical figuration of this microagression.

In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche says that the opposition between “Rome and Judea” is necessary: “Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome – there has hitherto been no greater event than this struggle, this question, this deadly contradiction.  Rome felt the Jew to be something like anti-nature itself, its antipodal monstrosity as it were”(34).  He insists that Rome must despise the Judeans if nature and the body is to be affirmed against the decadent betrayal of the body.  The Judeans are, in the view of “Master Morality,” in the view of “Rome,” small.  Judea is Rome’s “monstrosity” and challenges its ideal of beauty which is “beyond good and evil” (good and evil being what makes the Judeans a “monstrosity”).   Nietzsche uses an aggressive kind of cynicism to associate them with “slave morality,” “weakness,” “degeneration,” and “sickness.”  He despises pity and emulates cruelty.

The problem and the ultimate question has to do with the meaning of pain. The small people internalize pain; the big inflict it (whether in words or in actions). Cruelty is necessary for Master Morality, for Rome, if it is to rise above the small people.  He needs to point out that man is like a “domesticated animal” because he has lost the capability of being cruel:

It seems to me that the delicacy and even more the tartuffery of tame domestic animals (which is to say modern men, which is to say us) resists a really vivid comprehension of the degree to which cruelty constituted the great festival pleasure of more primitive men and was indeed an ingredient of almost every one of their pleasures.  (66)

Nietzsche’s reflection on the relationship of “primitive people” to their cruelty waxes poetic and is a little disturbing.  He says Yes(!) to it:

And how naively, how innocently their thirst for cruelty manifested itself, how, as a matter of principle, they posited “disinterested malice” (or in Spinoza’s words, sympathia melevolens) as a normal quality of man – and thus as something to which the conscience says Yes! (66)

Nietzsche sees the “deification” or cruelty in the “entire history of higher culture”(66).    At the end of a litany of cruelties, Nietzsche points out how “no noble household was without creatures upon whom one could heedlessly vent one’s malice and jokes”(66).  Nietzsche’s words suggest that every “noble” household was involved with a kind of mircroaggression.  It would have a “creature” that it could belittle with “malice” and “jokes.”    To illustrate, Nietzsche then cites the Court of the Duchess scene in Cervantes’ Don Quixote where Quixote is cruelly laughed at, tricked, and humiliated.

Nietzsche affirms satire and cruelty in the same breath when he argues that inflicting and seeing people in pain is good. It informs the “mighty, human, all too human principle.”

To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle to which even the apes might subscribe; for it has been said that in devising bizarre cruelties they anticipate man and are, as it were, his “prelude.” Without cruelty there is no festival.  (67)

These last lines suggest that the “mighty” (the “big”) know that true joy goes hand-in-hand with cruelty: “Without cruelty there is no festival.”

When Zarathustra has his visionary experience, he, like his friend, the “sky,” realizes that he is big, free, and beyond good and evil.  He says Yes to this:

O SKY above me! O pure, deep sky! You abyss of light! Gazing into you, I tremble with divine desires….We have been friends from the beginning…We do not speak to one another, because we know to much….we smile our knowledge one to the another…..Together we learned everything; together we learned to mount above ourselves to ourselves and to smile uncloudedly…And what have I hated more than the passing clouds and that defiles you?…They take from you what he have in common – the vast and boundless declaration of Yes and Amen….For all thing are baptized at the fount of eternity and beyond good and evil…I set this freedom and cheerfulness above all things.  (186, Thus Spake Zarathustra)

But what he seems to hide, because there are no people where he has his vision, is that it is only in being cruel to others that one can be truly happy.   His “Yes saying” – which he discovers “before sunrise” – is made concrete through the cruelty down below.

When Zarathustra comes down below, after this epiphany of greatness, we learn that he wanted to “learn what had happened to men while he had been away: whether they were bigger or smaller”(187).     The first thing he sees is a “row of new houses” and finds them worthy of ridicule.  These houses are likened to bodies, and their makers to small, “childish,” souls.  He belittles these houses and their makers: “Did a silly child perhaps take them out of its toy-box? If only another child would put them back into its box!”(187).

His microagressions grow after seeing this first monstrous sight.  He doesn’t like to stoop down when he goes into them (187).   The bodily metaphor suggests that to live amongst the small people, to visit their houses, he has to reduce his greatness.  And he longs to leave these spaces which distort his “natural” power and physiognomy:

“Oh When shall I return to my home, where I shall no longer have to stoop- shall no longer have to stoop before small men!”  And Zarathustra signed and gazed into the distance.  (187)

What makes these people small?  Virtue, answers Zarathrustra.

Apparently, he tolerates them and liens them to tiny bothersome animals: “Here I am like a cockerel in a strange farmyard, who is pecked at even by the hens; but…I am polite toward them, as towards every small vexation”(188).   They bother him by trying to draw him into virtue and the “small happiness” that comes with being good: “I go among this people and keep my eyes open: they have become smaller and are becoming even smaller: and their doctrine of happiness and virtue is their cause”(189).  Everything they do, including virtue, is modest.  And this contrasts to the greatness that Zarathustra finds in saying Yes.

He notes that “some of them will” but most of them are “willed.”  What makes the people small can be found in their creedo: “I serve, you serve, we serve’(189).  Their honesty in striving to be servants, for Zarathustra, is a sign of weakness and smallness.  They are “frank, honest, and kind to one another, as grains of sand are frank, honest, and kind to grains of sand”(189).   This happiness in service is, for Zarathustra, “cowardice”(190). They turn man into a “domestic animal”(190).  And as we saw above, this is the figuration that Nietzsche uses to describe the person who negates cruelty.   The small man forgets what the animal taught him when he is “frank, honest, and kind.” By taking to the ethos of service he leaves the possibility of bigness and his primal roots in wild animality and joy behind.

When Zarathustra addresses the small people, he declares that what makes him fundamentally different from them is that he embraces and declares his rejection of God: “Yes! I am Zarathursta the Godless!”   He then proceeds to let loose his final microagressions and tells them that he would “crack them” (destroy them) if he weren’t so disgusted by their way of life: “These teachers of submission! Wherever there is anything small and sick and scabby, there they crawl like lice; and only my disgust stops me from cracking them”(190).   Nietzsche then warns them that he need not do anything and makes a veiled threat of violence.  By pursuing goodness, by the life of service, they will become so small that they will disappear from the earth:

You will become smaller and smaller, you small people! You will crumble away, you comfortable people! You will perish- through your many small virtues, through your many small omissions, through your many small submissions. (191)

His final microagression is a prophesy that “their hour is coming.”  When it strikes, the strong will overcome the weak; Rome will overcome Judea; cruelty will overcome kindness.  Both Zarathustra and his author, Nietzsche, exalt in this moment when the small will disappear from the earth.  When that happens, he will exalt in his cruel laughter.  But before that happens, Nietzsche suggests we can bring the messianic age of cruelty on by way of crushing the small and mocking them without end.

What Neitzsche neglects to think through, however, is the fact that, in the face of this microagression and power, another body of comedy exists.    And instead of prompting the disappearance of the small it promotes the growth of comic smallness.  But that didn’t happen in Germany, it took root in America, grew, and spread throughout Europe.   It was another kind of comedy that, as the German Jewish film critic Siegfried Kracauer would call the comedy of chance and contingency in contrast to the  comedy of fate and myth.  It was, as he points out, the comedy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (who the Nazis called the “little yid”).    They are, as Hannah Arendt said of the schlemiel, “the suspect” (who we all know is innocent) on the run.   He escapes on the seat of his pants.

Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) – who he portays as a small guy who acts like he is big – is endearing in its celebration of everydayness and frankness; it flies in the face of Zarathustra and his microagressions.  The irony is that smallness, in America, can be pretty big.  And when we realize that “everything has become smaller” we don’t shirk like Zarathustra; we smile.  In these comedies cruelty does not trump love.  We realize, unlike Nietzsche, that we don’t need “cruelty” to have a “festival.”




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