It’s the end of semester and I have been binge watching BBC2’s, The Fall. I also have a mountain of assessment which means I have collected a stack of new books. I just finished John Armstrong’s Life Lessons from Nietzsche that has provided a refreshing take from the gnarly pessimist in The Fall. If you’re familiar with this Northern Irish psychological thriller, then you’re aware that Friedrich Nietzsche’s place in it is unquestionable. And if you haven’t seen the series, don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers.
Erotic romantic, Jamie Dornan (50 Shades of Grey) plays the psychotic protagonist, Paul Spector and he is not your average madman. He is – obviously – handsome, intelligent and a bereavement counsellor when he isn’t a malevolent serial killer. The show’s creator, Allan Cubitt has deliberately riddled Nietzschean sentiments and quotes throughout the series. But why is the Nietzschean übermensch reminiscent of a brutal murderer?
“One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Spector, via Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
Cubitt has expressed his fascination with the BTK (bind, torture, kill) strangler, Dennis Rader who inspired the character. And perhaps even more appropriate is the Moors murders duo, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Cubitt is well aware of this as Spector quotes Brady’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s great self-contempt.
“Once a man has achieved, in a praiseworthy sense, contempt for himself, he simultaneously achieves contempt for all man-made laws and moralities, and becomes truly free to do as he wills.”
– Spector, via Brady (The Gates of Janus)
The show has been criticized as the most repulsive drama ever broadcast and hailed as the most feminist show on television for its harrowing depiction of violence against women. Former X-Files star, Gillian Anderson plays Detective Superintendent, Stella Gibson. In Cubitt’s response to the criticism, he writes that it was a deliberate decision to have a female detective confront male violence against women.
There is a great deal of Nietzschean philosophy and ‘nihilism’ to explore in The Fall. But what do we mean by this bleak description? Nietzsche best describes nihilism in his posthumous work, The Will to Power.
“What does nihilism mean? That the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ Finds no answer”
– Nietzsche (The Will to Power)
It is easy to enjoy Nietzsche’s writing anecdotally as much of his work is written in an aphoristic style. However, this is a danger to readers that are looking to absorb some short existential lessons. Nietzsche’s ‘nihilism’ should be understood on the contrary to Spector’s twisted interpretation; it is rather an overcoming of nihilism. This is also known as the affirmation of life. Perhaps it is unwise to utilise Martin Heidegger as an academic aid for clarity, but he is able to clearly outline Nietzsche’s statement as a process of devaluation in which the highest values (i.e. “cosmological values”) become valueless. You can consider these values as rules or principles; for example, religion becomes a predominant focus available for reassessment in Nietzsche’s thought. Nihilism should not be associated with sheer meaninglessness – or that we can bind, torture and kill who we please – rather it refers to a process on how the human being can reshape values. This is a task for Nietzsche’s übermensch and without religion, it doesn’t make this person some kind of serial killer. In fact, they are the ultimate Yes-sayer. The übermensch says yes to life.
However, this affirmation of life is so radical that it demands a willingness to love fate. In Nietzschean terms, this concept is called amor fati; the overwhelming ability to love what life throws at us. And unfortunately, Nietzsche wants to take the bad with the good. And this includes the Spector-esque ability to consider suffering as a desire. This is indeed a hard pill to swallow and one that Cubitt inevitably picks up on. Spector takes this concept to the test with his young accomplice.
“There’s suffering all around us. Why not take some pleasure from it?”
One can appreciate Nietzsche’s gallant sense of pain in The Gay Science. He writes, “the heroic human beings, the great pain-bringers of humanity, those few or rare ones who need the same apology as pain itself – and truly, they should not be denied this.” An apology to pain itself may indicate a revaluation of values, but he doesn’t stop there. Additionally, the heroic human being will “not hide their nausea at this type of happiness.” Within this interpretation of happiness lies a precondition of the horrendous. This happiness is synonymous with suffering. Like Spector, Nietzsche wholeheartedly accepts suffering as necessary to happiness. Although, the fundamental difference is that Nietzsche in no way endorses harming one another.
The idea of reinterpreting suffering as a prerequisite of happiness is hardly plausible. It’s not hard to see how suffering as a desirable value remains unconvincing. It has left readers puzzled with disdain that has inspired murderous Spector-type interpretations. And so Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati for the Yes-sayer requires further clarification. The Fall provides a devastating and sadly realistic narrative of the plight of women who become victims to a violent man. And Nietzsche’s misogyny is no secret. Commentators within philosophy and gender studies have provided countless responses and feminist interpretations to his work. Cubitt has done a great job to create a relevant drama with stories that need to be discussed. Although, Nietzsche as an inspiration for a serial killer is an interpretation that extends far beyond his philosophy and only into the disturbed minds of crazed lunatics.
Perhaps we can briefly return to Armstrong’s chapter, On Visiting the Pyramids. He provides an alternative account of Nietzsche and explores how society can value grand adventures that we take for granted in the 21st century. As Armstrong summarises, “Nietzsche is asking us to regard our lives as more precious.” Perhaps the ability to stop, reflect upon the exquisite and consider meaning within our brief, precious existence is somewhat of a contemporary revaluation of values in modernity. And this may be another interpretation, but far from the alternative Nietzsche in The Fall.