Of the Masochist
Had Nietzsche lived during the COVID-19 pandemic, he may have included another character in his work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra: the Masochist. The Masochist shares many commonalities with those Zarathustra encounters in his travels, the most significant being an incapacity to affirm life.
Who is the Masochist?
The Masochist simultaneously lives in near-paralyzing fear of contracting the coronavirus and embraces the changes that the pandemic has forced on them wholeheartedly. Out of their fear comes subconscious joy, for they have found a path toward virtue. “Alas, how ill the word ‘virtue’ sounds in their mouths! And when they say ‘I am just,’ it always sounds like: ‘I am revenged!’” (“Thus Spoke” 119). Ah, sweet sweet revenge. The Masochist, therefore, goes beyond CDC guidelines, creating a rationale for out-precautioning the precautionaries. They agonize over which test to get and when, which masks are most protective, which sanitary wipes to buy. They pour their soul into this work, and it’s 100% worth it. Above all else, the Masochist finds any excuse to say no, to cut themselves off from the world, preferring to read about it from the safety of their homes. They wouldn’t dare go to the supermarket — the Times says cases are rising! Better to Instacart, they say, and let some eager Joe Six-pack expose themselves for minimum wage. Yes indeed, you know the Masochist. The one banging pots and pans for the healthcare workers, looking out at their neighbors from a perfectly safe distance, unknowingly sad for the day this custom dies out. They do not want “normal.” They do not truly care about the efficacy of Pfizer vs. Moderna, despite reading article after article on the subject. After all, “masks and social distancing won’t be going anywhere soon!” they say.
Curious to find out what has become of men, it is written that Zarathustra descends from the mountains. What does he find?: “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 the cause” (“Thus Spoke” 189). How Zarathustra would goggle at the Masochist of today. How small their virtue makes them. In the Masochist, Zarathustra would likely recognize many traits he had come across before. The Masochist is, in a sense, one of the many despisers of the body, one who can no longer create beyond themselves. However, unlike the conventional despiser, the Masochist acts out a deep desire to protect their body from affliction. It is ironically out of this obsession with their own health that they embark on such a deeply unhealthy mission. To interact, laugh, share a conversation, dance even, are all too risky. Their self-preservation takes precedence over their daily bodily needs.
They are also like the Preachers of Death: “Muffled in deep depression, and longing for the little accidents that bring about death: thus they wait and clench their teeth” (“Thus Spoke” 72). In the Masochist, we find a similar longing, albeit a more complex one. The longing of the Masochist is not for death but rather for a life so deeply deprived of life that it would be as if they had died. A capitalist slave to productivity, the Masochist runs from death (the most unproductive human condition) and will always pick a deprived life over death. They live, hollowed out by fear, loving only their own ability to control and solemnly waiting for others, the less careful ones, to slip up.
Let us note that only a few subtle differences separate the Masochist from the sublime men that Zarathustra encounters as well. The sublime man, Zarathustra says, is “hung with ugly truths, the booty of his hunt, and rich in torn clothes; many thorns, too, hung on him — but I saw no rose” (“Thus Spoke” 139). A collector of truths and thorns. So too is the Masochist, whose home is filled with a stockpile of masks and whose mind overflows with COVID-facts. Such a life leaves scars on the body like torn clothes. But for all these scars what is the Masochist’s prize?
To the Masochist the world has never before seemed so sinister, so filled with uncertainty. While the rest of us shrug on, doing the best we can to integrate the external forces that constrain our lives, the Masochist cannot. The Masochist deals in absolutes, in COVID-truths, and therefore, “as of yet he has not learned of laughter and beauty” (“Thus Spoke” 139).
How would Zarathustra confront the Masochist?
Likely with the same scorn he shows to most people: “Loving and perishing: these have gone together from eternity. Will to love: that means to be willing to die, too. Thus I speak to you cowards!” (“Thus Spoke” 145). If one wants to love, to find love, one must be ready to die. But the Masochist will never make this sacrifice and is resigned to perpetual cowardice.
What is so obvious to Nietzsche is somehow so foreign to the Masochist. To Nietzsche, the world is fundamentally “chaotic, conflictual, excessive, open-ended… no longer ordered rationally” (Grosz 93). To think that the coronavirus brought chaos to an otherwise orderly world is what makes the Masochist so naive. Implicit in the Masochist’s conception of the world is a level of privilege that previously sheltered them from seeing what now has been laid bare before their eyes. Privilege has meant that they have never felt unable to control their environment, and so losing control becomes maddening.
Faced with Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return, how would the Masochist respond? Would this reactionary, this self-starver of human interaction, be able to take on the weight of this moment returning to them an infinite amount of times? Or would they look back with regret, at having squandered a year, and in that year eternity itself? How many months have passed since they allowed themselves to feel true joy? How much has been forgotten about the range of the human experience? Undoubtedly, the Masochist would be crushed by having to live their hollow life over and over again. Yes, “the question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon [their] actions as the greatest weight.” (“Gay Science” 341).
The Masochist is, therefore, the ultimate oppositional force to affirming life and the ultimate negation of amor fati. While Nietzsche advocates for an unconditional love toward the body and toward corporeal needs, the Masochist clings to austerity. The best we can do for the Masochist is try to lead by example. They must recultivate within themselves an ability to love and appreciate life, despite its dangers. Of course, this is made difficult by the fact that the Masochist thinks themselves to be the star example of how to respond to the pandemic. They truly believe that their actions are virtuous, morally superior, and that no one else has a grasp on what is really happening. But we must try, for their sake, to remind them of the world that waits for them outside, of the life that will always be worth living.
Grosz, Elizabeth. “Nietzsche and Amor Fati.” The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism, Columbia University Press, New York, 2017, pp. 92–129. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/gros18162.8.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Gay Science. Vintage Books, 1974.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a Book for All and None. Penguin Books, 2003.