Drawing the Arrow, Some Reflections on our Historicity
--F. Nietzsche "On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life"
In this lovely passage, which is one of my favorite in all of philosophy, Nietzsche draws the line between the human and the animal in terms of the capacities of melancholy and boredom, linking them with remembering and forgetting. The human is the animal capable of leaving the moment--becoming melancholy, perhaps or bored, perhaps. This capacity of leaving the moment is closely tied to memory, of course, memory being the act of traveling with the mind, breaking the thrall of the moment and entering that dreamy realm of history, yesterday, and today.
When we run, we enter into the animal state--this is one of its allures. It allows us to escape our history and future with their attendant anxieties and enter into the protective thrall of the moment. Racing, particularly, is like this. Perhaps the reason we are able to find extra power in the race situation is that we have become animal for a short time. All of our capacities and powers are released into the present moment, and we are able to accomplish things that simply aren't possible in normal human consciousness--which always has some part of it reaching out of the moment in anticipation or memory.
When we train, however, we do so as humans. We place ourselves in a present that has a past and a future. John L. Parker described it as making yourself into an arrow in Again to Carthage. Animals race--they run down their quarry, they play together, dogs chase a frisbee or their owners. But animals don't train. Training requires a different order of intelligence because it requires memory--and out of that memory, imagination of a possible future. We make ourselves into an arrow that connects, or attempt to connect, the two.
Nietzsche worried that the confusion into which we are thrown by the vast and plural histories that fund our present would no longer allow us to imagine a future for ourselves. We wouldn't be able to intelligently draw an arrow from our multiple and divergent cultural memories to an imagined future. Perhaps this is a problem that plagues our current political process--we either regress to an overly simple view of America with a too-clearly-imagined-future or struggle to define a future because of over-sensitivity to all of the future's possibilities.
This is the disadvantage of memory: it imposes a burden upon you. It makes you draw an arrow. We remember, for example, being young and powerful and we dream of returning to that state. But is this an arrow that is possible to draw? Or is it simply melancholic nostalgia for a past that cannot be recreated. If the past is too powerful, too good, it can make us reject the future and create a melancholic temperament that mourns the loss of that idyllic past.
Of course this very burden of awareness of the past is also an advantage for humanity. It gives us a task, makes the future possible. These ghosts of memory can spur us to try to recreate them in the future. We remember our best races and wonder what it would feel like to run even faster. We think back on our failures and imagine what might have been--and work to bring what might have been into actuality.
|The arrow upwards can be equally thrilling or demoralizing.|
This idea that we are all arrows pointing from the stories we tell ourselves about who we were towards the stories we tell ourselves about who we might be, this relation to the past and future, is what philosophers call our "historicity." We are, fundamentally, historical beings--this is Nietzsche's point.
Perhaps Nietzsche's most important contribution to philosophy was to look at history not as a series of facts about what happens, but as a collection of stories that creates an arrow that points towards possible futures. Nietzsche urged in all of his work the idea that as human beings it was essential to intelligently recreate these stories on behalf of our lives. In other words, Nietzsche understood the truth of history in terms of its effect on our ability to draw an arrow to a possible future arising out of that history.
This is a remarkable idea. But I think it is one that runners can understand well if they reflect on their own training. We all have goals for the future based on our pasts. Our training is oriented by these arrows. But sometimes the stories we tell ourselves about our running history can limit our future development. After each race, we place that race into the narrative of our lives as a runner. We connect it to other events in a way that makes sense. We historicize it. The question that Nietzsche poses to us is how thoughtfully do we historicize these events? Do the stories we tell about our racing limit us in certain ways? What futures do they create for us? And what futures do these stories prevent?
By giving us these sorts of questions, Nietzsche allows us to make a critical inquiry into who we are as runners. This is something that animals don't do. It takes a lot of energy, and it is not always a productive enterprise. It has its advantages (the possibility of new goals) and disadvantages (melancholy and rumination). People will say that you think too much.
But, Nietzsche reminds us, this sort of engagement with the past--this wondering--is what makes us human. Perhaps if we give ourselves to it completely, we can find in certain moments the animal in the human, the joy in reflection. In these moments, we philosophize with neither melancholy nor boredom, but with something like the thrall of the reflective moment. It's in these rare moments that we find the unique power of human consciousness--the possibility that we can make ourselves anew.
Isn't this the possibility that drives our running and indeed our lives?