To Lose Oneself
An Introduction of Sorts
On the first day of my class on Marx, in the brief intermission separating the first and last ninety minutes of our discussion, I found myself shivering. “Go ahead and shut the window now,” my professor would say. Suddenly I wasn’t so cold anymore. “That’s a tradition in Germany,” he would add, “they like to open the windows for a few minutes in the winter and get really cold. Supposedly it’s good for your health.”
We had been going over course methodology that day, which up until that point had meant reading and re-reading one of Nietzsche’s aphorisms:
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Those moralists who command man first and above all to gain control of himself thereby afflict him with a peculiar disease, namely, a constant irritability at all natural stirrings and inclinations as if it were a kind of itch. Whatever may henceforth push, pull, beckon, impel him from within or without will always strike this irritable one as endangering his self-control: no longer may he entrust himself to any instinct or free wing-beat; instead he stands there rigidly with a defensive posture, armed against himself, with sharp and suspicious eyes, the eternal guardian of his fortress. Indeed, he can become great this way! But how insufferable he has become to others; how impoverished and cut off from the most beautiful fortuities of the soul! And indeed from all further instruction! For one must be able at times to lose oneself if one wants to learn something from things that we ourselves are not.
“For one must be able to lose himself,” my professor would read over and over, pacing up and down the classroom, “if one wants to learn something.” Then he would return to his chair and ask us to focus on that final sentence and see what we came up with. After some discussion, we concluded that maybe what Nietzsche meant was that to truly learn something from a new idea, we had to stop being “myself evaluating the idea” and instead become the idea itself. Try it on for a while. See how it feels.
For the remainder of the course my professor would give us a passage from Marx and tell us to try it on for a while. He taught us how to take apart a text, to find a few paragraphs to really dive into and ask questions of. To listen to the text as if it were music.
After we had tried on Nietzsche for a while, we were left with a single question. How, when reading, can we hope to lose ourselves? How can we hope to learn something from what we ourselves are not? “The technique . . . is quite a simple one,” says Freud:
As we shall see, it rejects the use of any special expedient (even that of taking notes). It consists simply in not directing one’s notice to anything in particular and in maintaining the same ‘evenly-suspended attention’ (as I have called it) in the face of all that one hears. . . . For as soon as anyone deliberately concentrates his attention to a certain degree, he begins to select from the material before him; one point will be fixed in his mind with particular clearness and some other will be correspondingly disregarded, and in making this selection he will be following his expectations or inclinations. This, however, is precisely what must not be done. In making the selection, if he follows his expectations he is in danger of never finding anything but what he already knows.
My professor began to pace again. “He is in danger of never finding anything but what he already knows.”
We practiced this method of reading for that entire spring. We tried on new ideas. We became the ideas themselves. We listened to them as if they were music. We did our best to maintain an evenly-suspended attention. In brief, we lost ourselves.
I don’t really know what I plan to write here. Probably some history, and perhaps some more personal essays. But I hope that when I do take to writing something, I can leave myself behind for a moment. I hope that you can do the same in reading whatever I’ve decided to put here. And I hope that we can hold ourselves to that, because I want us all to learn something new.
The Gay Science, Aphorism 305
The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works (1958), p. 111-112.