Flow and Flux, Identity, Jouissance

Christopher J Munson Jr

“When one takes away the hump from the humpback one takes away his spirit.”                      

(On Redemption, TSZ)

We would not call the hunchback a hunchback if he did not possess a hump causing him to hunch his back. Let us see what happens if we remove his hump. After surgically removing his hump we must revise his name. TheOnceHunchbackedNotAHunchbackAnymore, seems an adequate fit. But we can call him we like, except for The Hunchback. We cannot call him a hunchback anymore because we removed the hump that forced him to hunch his back! Despite being the same person, we removed a crucial aspect to the hunchback’s identity and therefore must recognize him for his changed identity.  

Throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche circles around the themes of flow, flux, and identity. Through his elaborate metaphors, he hints that one’s identity is composed of the relationship between the subject and the object. This relationship is not merely a flow, but a battlefield. The battle between freedom and necessity for recognition ravages the existentially aware individual. Constituted in flux, this flow is ever changing suggesting that an individual’s identity is wholly transitory, comprised of summations of different constituents. A reflection on ideas presented by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I suggest that the identity, trapped in a transitory environment, is comprised of endless battles, fragmented across ones being, vying for a concrete image that is paradoxically impossible to pin down due to a flow’s changing nature. Furthermore, I suggest that a pleasant and ultimately fulfilling approach to this chaotic struggle rests in the notion of jouissance (ZHo͞oēˈsäns).

Our identity must be constructed, cherished, and validated. Important as the conscious becomes aware of its awareness, our identity represents a perception of ourselves. This process births the perception of values; “good and evil, and rich and poor, and high and low, and all the names of values—arms shall they be and clattering signs that life must overcome itself again and again.” (On The Tarantulas, TSZ)

Both lines of the battlefield take up arms in the fight over identity. The identification of values provides the power each side requires. Looking at good and evil or rich and poor, Nietzsche identifies as some of the names of values, we see that these warring values represent polar opposites. The two sides battle back and forth, attempting to gain ground and prove itself the more dominate value. The act of observing, the awareness of awareness, forces an individual to reevaluate themselves as they form an identity. The act of observation is important, for without it, one exists in a drunken joy, as Nietzsche explains…

“Drunken joy it is for the sufferer to look away from his suffering and to lose himself. Drunken joy and loss of self the world once seemed to me. This world, eternally imperfect, the image of an eternal contradiction, an imperfect image—a drunken joy for its imperfect creator: thus the world once appeared to me.” (On the Afterworldy, TSZ)

He describes the way one who looks away from their life as deciding to forgo the battle for identity. I believe this is drunken because they become complacent, ecstatic, but numb, to reality. 

The flow represents the power of the identity. What would a river be without banks to contain it? The river’s immense power erodes. The erosion carves a path for the river, or the outline for of identity. I call the banks opposing values and the flow of the river the identity. For those who do not look away, a force within the river erodes the earth and channels the river’s immense power. Throughout TSZ, Zarathustra flows between society and solitude. He uses his solitude to develop his values and cherish in his identity but returns to society to check on his progress. After one of his journeys, he reaches land and does “not proceeded straight to his mountains and his cave. But he undertook many ways and questions and found out this and that; so that he said of himself, joking “Behold a river that flows, winding and twisting, back to its source!” (On Virtue That Makes Small, TSZ). Zarathustra intentionally elongates his journey, so he may reflect on himself and compare his changes to the way he once knew things. The river, as he describes, loops back to its source marking a circle. His search of knowledge returns him to his beginnings suggesting that he knew what he was searching for the entire time. Regardless of his gut feelings, his river must journey so that he may be sure of his direction carving an identity. 

The identity twists and zags and loops. Certain banks remain fortified while others yield along the river’s power. Flux, the change of flow, proves a powerful force that ultimately gives the river its carving force. The river (the identity) fights against the power of time. This flux marks the change in the flow of the river. As the river flows, it meets barriers of differing powers.  The river rises and falls and twists and bends and reacts to everything firm. Zarathustra says on everything that is firm…

“Everything should be in flux? After all, planks and railings are over the river. Whatever is over the river is firm; all the values of things, the bridges, the concepts, all ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – all that is firm” (On Old and New Tablets 8, TSZ).

Zarathustra pokes fun at all that is firm. The bridges (values), while firm in construction, reside next to a powerful river with an unpredictable nature. The river’s flux, the change in its flow, is of course unpredictable for the river cannot react to until it reaches the barrier, barriers randomly constructed. Zarathustra says on flux…

“O my brothers, is not everything in flux now? Have not all railings and bridges fallen into the water? Who could still cling to “good” and “evil?” (On Old and New Tablets 8, TSZ).

The bridges and banks representing good and evil, values, show the nature of the imposed values (barriers) the river passes. Upon collision, the river will interact with these barriers. These interactions change the flow of the river, thus flux in action. Upon clearing a barrier, the river flows faster as a bridge, a bank, or a dam no longer impedes its ferocity. 

While the river bends and snakes and fights, there exists no part of the river that is not reliant on the other parts. Jorge Luis Borges describes the interconnectivity of planes and lines, “lines consist of an infinite number of points; planes an infinite number of lines; volumes an infinite number of planes” (The Book of Sand, Borges). The river exists in a similar manner. No individual aspect of the river composes the river in its entirety; yet the river also requires each drop of water for it to flow. The river (identity) must be tenuously constructed in time. 

The identity’s existence is a battle between the past and the future. Zarathustra says, “’I am of today and before,’ he said, then ‘but there is something in me that is of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the time to come’” (On Poets, TSZ). Zarathustra often describes a deeper source of power which he adequately coins the will to power. This part of identity looks not into tomorrow or the day after but the future as a whole that he will never reach but nevertheless he looks forward to. This gives the flux of the river its power, no matter the bridge or bank imposed on it, to continue flowing. He proposes the past as a different obstacle. Since the river cannot change what it has carved into the terrain it ought not look back. For all beautiful bends and tremendous waterfalls, the river possesses equally ugly bends, wimpy waterfalls, and loops. Zarathustra presents…

“the will’s gnashing of teeth and most secret melancholy. Powerless against what has been done, he is an angry spectator of all that is past. The will cannot will backwards; and that he cannot break time and time’s covetousness, that is the will’s loneliest melancholy” (On Redemption, TSZ).

Since the river cannot change the bridges it spared or destroyed or the bends it carved into the environment, it must find peace with its sources. This realization, or melancholy, tears away at the individual because they know the only path that exists is forward since the river’s path has already been carved. As shown, the battle between the past constituting the present and the future presenting untold flux, proves violent yet beautiful. 

The journey of the river, as suggested, is not entirely peaceful and not entirely violent. Littered with many scars and fragments, the battlefield (terrain) of man’s identity (river) fights on signifies his struggles. Zarathustra tells us this of man… 

“I find man in ruins and scattered as over a battlefield or a butcher-field. And when my eyes flee from the now to the past, they are always find the same: fragments and limbs and dreadful accidents—but no human beings” (On Redemption, TSZ).

These fragments and limbs mark the difficulty in the attempts the identity undertakes to separate itself as an individual. The fragments scattered about are simply the remnants of bridges and banks the river flowed against. These entities become part of the river and therefore represent an important aspect of the river, just as important as the constituents that summed the river prior to the river’s battles. Zarathustra’s statement that he does not find human beings suggests that he does not see an individual within the identity. Rather, he sees a series of bridges and banks and marks of past encounters that encompass man’s identity. This battlefield, undoubtedly difficult to navigate, presents challenges of varying difficulties for those attempting to carve an identity. So how does an individual build a transitory identity that breaks bridges and carves into banks while remaining confident that its source remains untainted? Taming the melancholy of the past and the anxiety of the future lies within the relationship the summation of flux and one’s awareness of it.

The relationship must be playful yet rigid, strong yet forgiving, ambitious yet humble; the French word jouissance introduces a method that I believe helps ‘resolve’ the difficulty in developing a transitory identity. The idea of jouissance represents the relationship within a dance. Rather than developing concrete ideals, one who exemplifies jouissance uses one awareness to playfully bounce among values and barriers. This dance keeps the individual strong enough to elect one’s values yet relatable enough not to become an outcast. He balances the need for freedom of expression with the necessity for inclusion amongst others. Zarathustra explains…

“A new pride my ego taught me, and this I teach men: no longer to bury one’s head in the sand of heavenly things, but to bear it freely, an earthly head, which creates a meaning for the earth” (On The Afterworldy, TSZ).

His iconoclastic attitude toward Christian morals, extended toward any outwardly imposed values, shows he belives in man creating its own values. Zarathustra values the identity for discerning for itself. Finally, the result of embracing jouissance drives a playful dance that creates meaning. Akin to the skier who dances with the mountain, man enjoys the journey by risking and recovering. Due to its abstract nature, one only learns a dance by practicing the dance. Undoubtedly, one will trip and fall or exhaust oneself too quickly, but that is the nature of the dance. This nature roots itself in chance. “A little wisdom is possible indeed; but this blessed certainty I found in all things: that they would rather dance on the feet of Chance” (Before Sunrise, TSZ). Based on taking chances, the dance attempts to situate itself between surprise and expectation, regret and acceptance, enjoyment and challenge. 

Throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche circles around the theme of flow and identity. Identity as a transitory battlefield constructed by the fragmented past and aspiring future reveals a difficult journey the identity undertakes by forming a relationship with itself. The fleeting nature of the moment proves difficult as an individual must avoid poisoning the source of his river. The river of identity flows besides, through, and around, concrete structures carving its path into its environment. The flow meets varying resistances which changes it power. The unpredictability of future barriers constitutes the flux of the flow. The simultaneous nature of these difficulties in grasping the transitory identity proves difficult for many. Nietzsche’s repetitive and contradictory nature leaves the reader pining for meaning. I suggest that a good flow in this battlefield embraces the idea of jouissance, a dance. Based on chance and spontaneity, this dance exemplifies a playful and effective way for dispelling the crises that erupt from the impossibility of capturing the transitory identity.  While not an equation, I believe that practicing this dance leads to the love of life for what it is; “true, we love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving. There is always some madness in love. But there is always some reason in madness” (On Reading And Writing, TSZ).

Works Cited

Attali, Jacques, et al. Noise: the Political Economy of Music. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Borges, Jorge Luis, et al. The Book of Sand = El Libro De Arena. Nawakum Press, 2013.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, and Walter Kaufmann. The Portable Nietzsche. Viking Press, 1960.

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