The nausea of philosophy

At a Nietzsche conference in Oxford last year, I heard an inspiring paper presented by Dr Gudrun von Tevenar. She gave an eerily penetrating and dark profile of the feeling of ‘ekel’ as a kind of lost instinct. In translation, this is something like nausea and disgust, but apparently, in the German, it has a more shocking gravity and meaning which doesn’t resonate in the English translation. The use of this nauseating-disgust (ekel) at all things ugly and unclean allows for a turning away, to avoid contact. However, ekel is more of an instinctive judgment mechanism than a psycho-physical problem. This reaction, according to Nietzsche, was the original form of moral judgement for physical, ethical and mental health. Much in the same way dogs sniff each other in a mode of semi-formal etiquette. It is a close examination which still keeps the other at a distance.

For Nietzsche, intellectual ekel is needed if we are to learn to stretch distances between that which is clean and unclean, a free-spirit from the herd and the strong from the weak. After 2000 years of slave morality we have been taught to lose this ordering mechanism, this visceral affection that acts as a barometer for what is ‘good’.Nietzsche wants to affirm life but only through relearning what it means to live and seeking out the affirming while condemning that which is against life. Nietzsche advises we need to relearn to judge the wholesomeness of people much like we judge the wholesomeness of fruit. For Nietzsche ‘the “entrails” of every soul are physiologically perceived by him… ‘smelled’.

Once this has be re-learned, Nietzsche wrote that redemption from ekel comes from keeping a distance, where one must drink from the well not poisoned by the unclean and try to keep good company and solitude. However, withdrawal from others by escaping it in a kind of ascetic purity is not affirming life. Tevnar made a final comment about Zarathustra going back down to the people once he had overcome the ekel that had previously hounded him, once he had laughed a powerful laugh of affirmation, the fearless laugh of someone who dances over the abyss, the ‘laughter of height’ and not of the herd.

To philosophize is to turn towards the ekel that causes the pulse to quicken, for ground to become figure and to be estranged within the world again. As Heidegger said, it is easy for one to occupy oneself with ‘philosophy’, hence he favoured the term ‘thinking’, as a pre-philosophical move against the Platonic representational lichtung [clearing]. I have too readily engaged myself in ‘philosophy’ and not ‘thinking’ and thus need to begin again to examine the world not through the distant and stoic mind of the ‘philosopher’ who stands by and watches the world go by, but to face the ekel of a non-representational world. Ekel is not Sartrean nausea or Heideggerian angst, but a non-representational manner of approaching objects afresh each time. Zarathustra’s affirmative laughter is the non-categorical behaviour that dissolves those habitual responses that guide us to endlessly repeat the same elemental abstractions to the detriment of our lived experiences. Ekel is an instinct to to let the anxiety of change and change open new worlds.


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