Nietzsche and the Evil Eye: A Bequeathal of Sorts

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Stumbling across Alan Dundes “The Evil Eye: A Casebook” early in my undergrad, just when I was starting to read Nietzsche, certainly helped to further my interest in the relationship between folklore and psychology.

As a belief, the evil eye has proven to be incredibly durable and widespread, extending, to the best of my knowledge, from India to Scotland, and across thousands of years, well into Greco-Roman times and beyond. Roughly, it is the belief that a person who possesses the evil eye, or who develops it out of envy and covetousness can cause a great deal of harm to the object of their attention. To combat this, many cultures have developed eye-like jewelry and charms to “catch” the gaze of the eye before it can do any harm.

Nietzsche, as a philologist, must have come across references to it in his readings of classical authors, or even during his travels to Italy. In any event, the number of references made to the evil eye, or an envious eye, in his writings are legion, and few commentators that I am aware of have explored this trend in any detail. I suspect though, that much can be learned about the structure and history of his psychological notion of ressentiment by comparing it to his encounter with this body of folklore.

Yet while I believe this to be the case, I do not think that I will be the one who proves it. I’ve two books on Nietzsche somewhere within me, and hopefully no more, as I’ve seen what happens to scholars who spend their entire careers on one, and only one, historical figure, and I am too wedded to diversity to find that path appealing.

That said, I think that someone should do it.

Below are just a few of the references in Nietzsche to an evil eye that I could cobble together:

“You go above and beyond them: but the higher you climb, the smaller you appear to the eye of envy. And he who flies is hated most of all.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

“And many a one who cannot see the sublime in man calls it virtue that he can see his baseness all-too-closely: thus he calls his evil eye virtue.” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not with us, my brothers: here there are states./ A state? What is that? Well! open now your ears to me, for now I will speak to you about the death of peoples. / State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” / It is a lie! It was creators who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. / Destroyers are they who lay snares for the many, and call it state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them. / Where there are still peoples, the state is not understood, and is hated as the evil eye, and as sin against laws and customs. / This sign I give to you: every people speaks its own language of good and evil, which its neighbor does not understand. It has created its own language of laws and customs. / But the state lies in all the tongues of good and evil; and whatever it says it lies; and whatever it has it has stolen. (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

The teachers of the purpose of existence.— Whether I contemplate men with benevolence or with an evil eye, I always find them concerned with a single task, all of them and every one of them in particular: to do what is good for the preservation of the human race. Not from any feeling of love for the race, but merely because nothing in them is older, stronger, more inexorable and unconquerable than this instinct—because this instinct constitutes the essence of our species, our herd. It is easy enough to divide our neighbors quickly, with the usual myopia, from a mere five paces away, into useful and harmful, good and evil men; but in any large-scale accounting, when we reflect on the whole a little longer, we become suspicious of this neat division and finally abandon it. Even the most harmful man may really be the most useful when it comes to the preservation of the species; for he nurtures either in himself or in others, through his effects, instincts without which humanity would long have become feeble or rotten. Hatred, the mischievous delight in the misfortune of others, the lust to rob and dominate, and whatever else is called evil belongs to the most amazing economy of the preservation of the species. To be sure, this economy is not afraid of high prices, of squandering, and it is on the whole extremely foolish:—still it is proven that it has preserved our race so far. (The Gay Science)

Another mode of convalescence (in certain situations even more to my liking) is sounding out idols. There are more idols than realities in the world: that is my “evil eye” upon this world; that is also my “evil ear.” Finally to pose questions with a hammer, and sometimes to hear as a reply that famous hollow sound that can only come from bloated entrails — what a delight for one who has ears even behind his ears, for me, an old psychologist and pied piper before whom just that which would remain silent must finally speak out. (Twilight of the Idols)

7 Moral for psychologists. — Not to go in for backstairs psychology. Never to observe in order to observe! That gives a false perspective, leads to squinting and something forced and exaggerated. Experience as the wish to experience does not succeed. One must not eye oneself while having an experience; else the eye becomes “an evil eye.” A born psychologist guards instinctively against seeing in order to see; the same is true of the born painter. He never works “from nature”; he leaves it to his instinct, to his camera obscura, to sift through and express the “case,” “nature,” that which is “experienced.” He is conscious only of what is general, of the conclusion, the result: he does not know arbitrary abstractions from an individual case. What happens when one proceeds differently? For example, if, in the manner of the Parisian novelists, one goes in for backstairs psychology and deals in gossip, wholesale and retail? Then one lies in wait for reality, as it were, and every evening one brings home a handful of curiosities. But note what finally comes of all this: a heap of splotches, a mosaic at best, but in any case something added together, something restless, a mess of screaming colors. The worst in this respect is accomplished by the Goncourts; they do not put three sentences together without really hurting the eye, the psychologist’s eye. Nature, estimated artistically, is no model. It exaggerates, it distorts, it leaves gaps. Nature is chance. To study “from nature” seems to me to be a bad sign: it betrays submission, weakness, fatalism; this lying in the dust before petit faits [little facts] is unworthy of a whole artist. To see what is — that is the mark of another kind of spirit, the anti-artistic, the factual. One must know who one is. (Twilight of the Idols)

24 L’art pour l’art. […] One question remains: art also makes apparent much that is ugly, hard, and questionable in life; does it not thereby spoil life for us? And indeed there have been philosophers who attributed this sense to it: “liberation from the will” was what Schopenhauer taught as the overall end of art; and with admiration he found the great utility of tragedy in its “evoking resignation.” But this, as I have already suggested, is the pessimist’s perspective and “evil eye.” We must appeal to the artists themselves. What does the tragic artist communicate of himself? Is it not precisely the state without fear in the face of the fearful and questionable that he is showing? This state itself is a great desideratum, whoever knows it, honors it with the greatest honors. He communicates it — must communicate it, provided he is an artist, a genius of communication. Courage and freedom of feeling before a powerful enemy, before a sublime calamity, before a problem that arouses dread — this triumphant state is what the tragic artist chooses, what he glorifies. Before tragedy, what is warlike in our soul celebrates its Saturnalia; whoever is used to suffering, whoever seeks out suffering, the heroic man praises his own being through tragedy — to him alone the tragedian presents this drink of sweetest cruelty. (Twilight of the Idols)

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For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evil_eye

The Evil Eye: A Casebook. 1992. Ed. Alan Dundes. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

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