By David Birch
By David Birch
On his 2013 album Yeezus the Chicago rapper Kanye West claimed that he was a god. No one had made this observation before. Yes, he’d been called a ‘jackass’ by Barack Obama and, in a more British manner, a ‘cunt’ by Amy Winehouse, but never a god. Naturally, Kanye’s deific pretensions incurred accusations of narcissism and blasphemy. The offending song was unambiguously titled ‘I Am a God’ and its message was clear: I, Kanye West, am more than human.
He later explained that the song was born out of frustration. Desperate to be accepted by the fashion industry yet feeling rebuffed by his preferred labels, he was tipped over the edge at Paris Fashion Week when he was pointedly asked not to attend a number of events: ‘So the next day I went to the studio with Daft Punk and I wrote “I Am a God”, cause it’s like, yo, nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go. Man, I’m the No. 1 living and breathing rock star.’
Unsurprisingly, the god who emerges from the song’s lyrics seems more diva than divinity:
I am a god
I am a god
I am a god
I am god
Hurry up with my damn massage
Hurry up with my damn ménage
Get the Porsche out the damn garage
In a BBC interview following the album’s release, Kanye implied that his critics would have been more comfortable with the song if he’d described himself as a ‘nigger’, a ‘pimp’ or a ‘gangster’. These appellations, even if proclaimed with pride, ultimately denote a capitulation, an acceptance of the lowly place that society and the market have assigned one, spoken with the belief that nothing better is deserved. By refusing these terms Kanye was refusing to confine his self-expression to a lexical ghetto. But this wasn’t all he was doing.
To call yourself a god not only resists these terms, it negates them entirely. By declaring his divinity Kanye was implying that there is something limiting about being human. He did not react to his snub by proclaiming ‘I am Kanye West’, ‘I am a man’ or ‘I am human’. These statements do not convey the indefatigability of his will or his immunity to self-loathing and self-pity. ‘I am Kanye West’ is bureaucracy, ‘I am a man’ is desperate and ‘I am human’ is vapid.
What is synonymous with ‘I am unremorseful’, ‘I am unbounded’, ‘I am untiring’? In order to express his undying thirst to become who he is, Kanye was compelled to renounce his humanity. ‘I am a god’ is more than self-belief. He is not merely telling us that he’ll survive his self-doubt, that’ll he silence the voice that says ‘You do not belong here, you are not good enough’. He is telling us that he has no such voice, that he exists above and beyond the strictures of doubt and shame. Gods do not know how to despise themselves.
To say ‘I am a god’ is not a commitment to persevere but a declaration of unassailability. If you are unassailable, lacking all temptation to collapse or hide, it makes no sense to talk of persevering. If you are a god, without the need for self-scrutiny, you are beyond perseverance. Only those who worry they might fail in their endeavours question themselves, and gods do not question themselves since their endeavours are without end. If one’s endeavours are without end then judgment is eternally premature. Failure belongs to the finite.
Kanye’s belief in the essential weakness of humanity is shared by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Kanye, Nietzsche saw himself as an outside: he felt disconnected from his profession (his work was generally ignored), his nation (he spent much of his life outside of Germany, alternating between Switzerland and Italy) and his epoch (‘a weak age’). More provocatively, he felt disconnected from his species: ‘Disgust at mankind… has always been my greatest danger’ (Ecce Homo).
Nietzsche heard no power in the assertion, ‘I am human’. He thought that our human being was not a state to be celebrated or cherished but a state to be overcome. Humanity’s finest moment will be the day it destroys itself, the day it becomes something else entirely. The future belongs to this new creature, the ubermensch, or ‘overman’.
Reader, do you sympathise with this wish for a species-revolution? Do you see some defect in humanity? If there were a referendum on human nature, would you vote to leave? How would you even describe human nature? Are there words elastic enough to encompass us all? Do you see yourself in other people? In all people? Is there a common thread? A shared bond?
For Nietzsche our bond is our sickness, and our sickness is a state he called nihilism; in short, a hatred of life. Nietzsche believed that to be human was to belong to a species-wide endeavour to stunt growth, enervate power, deaden vitality, limit strength and poison joy; an endeavour impelled by so-called reactive attitudes, namely, envy and the urge to avenge ourselves against the strong and vigorous.
Though there have been great ages – history is punctuated by glorious deviations from the norm – sooner or later the overwhelming weight of nihilism drags us back into the gutter: Greek culture was corrupted by the philosophers, Roman values by the Jews, Christ’s teachings by St Paul and Napoleonic aristocracy by democratic ideals. Nihilism is a black hole in human history, a dark mass that inexorably pulls all ages into its void, ensuring that, contra Darwin, the strong (the vital) will always be defeated by the weak (the envious).
To overcome this inevitability, Nietzsche proposed we overcome humanity. Humanity is not an endpoint but a transition, a rope between the beasts and the ubermensch. Whereas humans are the animal for whom life is too much, the ubermensch is the animal that says Yes to life, to the whole of life.
Yes to pleasure. Yes to pain. Yes to the past. Yes to the future. Yes to chaos. Yes to death. Yes to war. Yes to the body. Yes to the earth. Yes to longing. Yes to hardship. Yes to struggle. Yes to beauty. Yes to change. Yes to now. Yes to eternity.
These creatures of tomorrow will neither contain nor inhibit the plenitude of existence. Unlike human life, the life of the ubermensch is not characterised by what it says No to. Its life is constituted by affirmation. It lives bravely, laughs heartily, dancing and singing while it destroys and creates, showing us, a scathing herd of envious onlookers, the true complexion of health.
Though ubermensch is sometimes translated as ‘superman’, it would be a mistake to think that Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ bears any relation to comic book heroes. Where Nietzsche talks of the ubermensch in terms of its power, he is not referring to Marvel-esque superpowers. Superpowers are powers to help, powers that reflect and enshrine the helpless rabble’s servile dependence and manifold limitations. The so-called strength of superheroes constitutes our weakness and our weakness their strength. The hero-victim dynamic is one of pity, but ‘Pity makes suffering contagious’ (The Antichrist). Unlike the ubermensch, superheroes cannot overcome humanity as they are locked into this defining dynamic, their pity infects them with human suffering.
The ubermensch is far removed from flapping capes and weeping maidens, devoid of humility, averse to pity, uninterested in duty. When picturing the ubermensch do not think of an awe-inspiring vigilante, think instead of the naked Dionysus trailed by a merry band of drunken maenads and lascivious satyrs. Just as no one would pray to Kanye’s god, no one would ever think to project a distress call into the sky to beckon the ubermensch’s help. It is not our saviour.
‘I am a god’ is what philosophers of language would call a performative utterance. Performative utterances, rather than using language to describe something about the world, use language to enact something. When the groom says ‘I do’, he is not describing the fact that he does, he is actually doing the doing. Performative utterances are those in which the saying of them constitutes the truth of what they say. When Kanye says ‘I am a god’, he is opposing nihilistic human traits of modesty and self-disgust and thereby becoming, if not a god, at least not-quite-human.
Since death is stasis and life is flux, for language to serve life rather than death, it must effect change and dissolve essence. When Nietzsche’s ubermensch or Kanye’s god speak, they breach the bounds of popular wisdom and common sense: ‘I am not a man, I am dynamite’ (Ecce Homo), Nietzsche said explosively. Whereas the boaster uses language reactively – to build fortresses against his envy of other people – the ubermensch makes language a performance of active becoming. Its words are soaring wings, not peacock feathers; it does not weigh itself down.
The ubermensch is possessed of an ability to transmute heaviness into lightness. Yes, the ubermensch is committed to affirming the overflowing abundance of life, which means confronting all that is painful and wretched in life. And we may ask: Is this not a terrible cross to bear? Do we not imagine the ubermensch to walk with heavy feet, to look upon the world with tired eyes, to sigh the deepest the sighs? No. The ubermensch spurns the dignity of sorrow. It laughs, dances and plays. It takes its cross and waltzes with it. Life’s abysses reverberate with its laughter.
Whereas the nihilist seeks to alchemise all that is good and light into all that is evil and heavy – rebranding acts of power as acts of sin – the ubermensch performs the opposite feat. Like a dancer, the ubermensch transforms gravity from a force of leaden oppression to the very syntax of movement: ‘I would only believe in a God who knew how to dance’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
We hear these transmutational abilities when Kanye says:
I am a god
So hurry up with my damn massage
In a French-ass restaurant
Hurry up with my damn croissants
I am a god
To declare your divinity and demand a croissant in the same breath is ridiculous. Kanye is teasing us, making sure that when we sing along with him, we cannot be gods without also becoming buffoons. To say the heaviest things in the lightest ways elevates the song to the level of play. Kanye is refusing to collapse under the weight of his own earnestness. He is enacting the freedom to say what he wants, to make the music he wants, to be dumb, if he wants. As he says earlier in the song:
Soon as they like you make ’em unlike you
Like Nietzsche, Kanye believes that ‘the free man is a warrior’ (Twilight of the Idols). Once you become preoccupied with pleasing or pleasuring other people, the warrior instincts in you are suppressed and freedom dies. Just as Nietzsche counsels us to be wary of our pity for other people, so too must we be wary of other people’s admiration for us. Admiration conscripts us into serving others as their guides, but the ubermensch is ‘a law only for my own; I am not a law for all’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). The ubermensch is engaged in the destruction of morality and idols, not the creation of new ones. Being beloved precludes the exercise of those instincts that delight in war, the very instincts that constitute our freedom: ‘One has renounced the great life when one has renounced war’ (Twilight of the Idols).
With the final line of the song (sung by Justin Vernon) Kanye says:
Ain’t no way I’m giving up, I’m a god
The warrior instincts of Kanye’s god mean that he lives a life free of regret. If you do not cower at the obstacles before you or the desires within you, it is impossible to turn back and curse the past. We do not principally regret our actions but our reactions. We regret what we say No to, not what we say Yes to, to the lives we don’t lead, the ones we pass up, not the lives we actively pursue.
Nietzsche, too, sees the ubermensch living such a life:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you… Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.’ (The Gay Science)
Nietzsche describes the ability to affirm the eternal return of all things as the highest formula of affirmation, an affirmation of life that marks the destruction of nihilism and the birth of the ubermensch. It is an unequivocal Yes to life.
Within this eternally revolving world there is no ultimate purpose to life, no end-point, no transcendent beyond. Life has no meaning beyond itself. The passing seconds take us closer to nothing but their own return. There is no precipice, no void, no salvation. When we look forward we turn back. We are enclosed on all sides by life. To affirm the eternal return of life is to ‘redeem the past and transform every “It was” into “I wanted it thus!”’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). It is to have attained what Nietzsche called amor fati, the love of one’s fate, wanting nothing to be other than it is, or was, or will be. Like Kanye’s god, the ubermensch does not moan or acquiesce. It is without disappointment, only doing that which it would willingly do forever.
And yet, despite the similarities between Kanye’s god and Nietzshce’s ubermensch, these three lines must give us pause:
I am a god
Even though I’m a man of God
My whole life in the hands of God
Nietzsche believed that ‘life itself is the will to power’ (Beyond Good and Evil). Above all else a living being wants to release its strength. We are not, as Darwin thought, primarily driven by a will to survive. To define life as the opposition to death offers no clear idea of what life actually is. It suggests that life isn’t actually anything. It makes nonsense of the phrase ‘run for your life’ for running from death is all that life is. Nietzsche, on the contrary, wants to characterise life as a thing in itself, as a thing that cannot be understood simply in its relation to death.
Life is the will to power. It is the will to grow, expand and dominate, and it exists either actively or reactively. The active will to power creates its own values, it makes the world in its own image, it confidently seeks to destroy all that impedes it. The reactive will to power is not the source of its own values, it has no confidence in itself. It exercises its power by denying the values of the active. Lacking the strength to say Yes, it asserts itself by saying No. Whereas the active will to power delights in destruction, the reactive will to power is dependent on the values it opposes and can only deny. If it were to destroy these values, it would instantaneously destroy itself. Those enslaved to their reactive attitudes are both too weak to create and too weak to destroy.
The reactive will to power is the source of nihilism. It judges all the healthy forces of life as evil. It hates the strong, it hates affirmation. The reactive life is the life that hates itself. What evidence is there for the reactive will to power? What forms does it take? To answer these questions we should consult Nietzsche’s nose.
Nietzsche said that his genius was in his nostrils, by which he meant that he had a talent for sensing the rotting hearts within radiant bodies, a knack for finding the corpse beneath the floorboards. As he went sniffing through the culture he retched with disgust upon encountering Christianity and its core virtues of compassion, self-sacrifice and equality. The foul stench of the reactive will to power was overwhelming and it was emanating from God.
Nietzsche discovered that the Christian concept of God is the very antithesis of the concept of life. It encodes the belief that we are forlorn sinners in need of salvation, too weak to survive without constant surveillance and care, too lost to cope without universal laws and judgment, each of us awaiting the ultimate solution to the problem of existence: eternal peace in a heavenly hereafter.
The Christian understanding of life is an expression of the bitterest rancour. It is a total devaluation of our earthly lives. But Nietzsche wants to emphasise that its story is still in the service of the will to power. Christian belief is a concerted effort on the part of the weak to subjugate the strong and suppress the healthy. Unable to create its own values, the reactive will to power parasitically exerts itself by negating life-affirming values. Whereas the active will to power creates a Yes-saying ‘master morality’ in which good is contrasted with bad, the ‘slave morality’ of the reactive will to power contrasts good with evil. Slave morality turns master morality on its head. All that was regarded as bad – timidity, feebleness, deference – becomes good, and all that was regarded as good – strength, power, vitality – becomes evil.
Christianity makes life worth living for the weak. It recasts the reactive lives of the weak – ruled over, dependent, passive – as the apotheosis of human achievement. Christianity is not a heartfelt system of belief but an arsenal of concepts designed to defeat the strong. The concept of God is the highest weapon of the reactive values; Nietzsche called it ‘the deification of nothingness’ (The Antichrist). The cloying surfaces of God’s nature overlay the bitter substance of our reactive attitudes. Crack the veneer of love, compassion and forgiveness, and the envy, vengefulness and hatred ooze toxically out
We can see, then, the profound rift that opens up between Nietzsche’s ubermensch and Kanye’s god when the latter claims to be a ‘man of God’. As Nietzsche listens to Kanye say those lines, this is what he hears:
I am a god
Even though I’m diseased with God
My whole life just a void of God
This is a microcosm of human history: dazzling flashes of powerful affirmation inevitably nullified by reactive attitudes. Kanye seems to be in two minds, caught between two poles. If he is a man of God, then why does he not sing a supplication to God? Why does he not pray? Why does he not call upon the divinity of the ‘most high’ instead of invoking his own?
Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity may help us here. Kanye performs a song instead of offering a prayer because the God he would pray to has no interest in the fulfilment of his creative endeavours. Since God is a reactive hatred of strength, it makes no sense to appeal to him in the pursuit of active power. God saves rather than invigorates life. He assists and aids, he does not empower. Kanye’s fashion-industry predicament is not a predicament of survival but one of frustrated creativity. He wants to thrive and flourish and conquer. Since this is not God’s remit, Kanye has deified himself in order to find a god who will abet his endeavours. The pagan urge to glorify power cannot be satisfied by the predominant God of our culture, which is a God of survival and forbearance, of an oppressed people (genealogically, the Jews) desperate to endure. Kanye’s schizoid song is symptomatic of an artist split between a Dionysian spirit of creativity and a lingering Christian culture.
The solution is clear: kill God, murder Him, and then drown ourselves with the weight of His body. By killing God we stand a chance of destroying our humanity. Unlike Kanye, the ubermensch is not a man of God but a ‘conqueror of God’, an anti-nihilist and therefore an anti-Christ (On the Genealogy of Morality). To be an anti-Christ is to be destructively opposed to Christianity’s litany of hatred; its hatred of pride, courage, freedom, lust, beauty, self-affirmation.
The ubermensch is both the product and process of a revaluation of all values: a rejection of all that is regarded as good, all that derives from reactive vengeful attitudes, such as pity and selflessness, and a fresh adoption of all that is regarded as evil, all that is active and affirmative, such as lust and selfishness. These new values will share nothing with the cadaverous virtues of Christianity. They will nourish life’s opulence and deepen the rufescent flush of our cheeks. Every No will become a new Yes.
Nietzsche wants to overturn the dichotomy of the divine and the human by annihilating it completely. To become more than human means forgetting our abiding concerns with human essence and divine attributes. It means climbing down from these reactive states of being and submerging ourselves in the active processes of life, becoming creatures of power and instinct, creatures of life itself. The sorry spectacle of humans clawing after transcendence is an abhorrence. Nietzsche would rather tread the earth – ‘I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful of the earth’ (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) – than touch the sun.