Lo! I show you the Last Man.
“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” – so asks the Last Man, and blinks.
The earth has become small, and on it hops the Last Man, who makes everything small. His species is ineradicable as the flea; the Last Man lives longest.
“We have discovered happiness” – say the Last Men, and they blink.
They have left the regions where it is hard to live; for they need warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him; for one needs warmth. One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.
Turning ill and being distrustful, they consider sinful: they walk warily. He is a fool who still stumbles over stones or men!
A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end for a pleasant death.
One still works, for work is a pastime. But one is careful lest the pastime should hurt one.
“Formerly all the world was insane,” – say the subtlest of them, and they blink . . .
They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled – otherwise it upsets their stomachs.
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
January 11, 2007 was a busy day for launches: President Bush officially announced a plan to launch 20,000 additional soldiers into Iraq; presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani unveiled a “plan,” aimed at jumpstarting his coffers, to slash taxes on corporations and capital gains; and Mitt Romney launched his first run for president, activating anti-Romney ad campaigns from a slew of anti-abortion advocacy groups. Also that day, Foreign Affairs editor James Hoge launched his first missive of the year in an ultimately futile campaign to convince his fellow thought leaders that the American power elite had preoccupied itself with all the wrong launches, solemnly closing his New York Sun op-ed on the threat of the Iranian nuclear proliferation: “In the year ahead, no more important crisis faces America.”
In hindsight of course it is clear that the day’s most historically significant launch was that of the website ICanHasCheezburger.com, though it would be months before the establishment took notice. Launched from a Seattle basement by the Seoul-born Northwestern journalism school graduate Ben Huh, the site tapped into a vast trove of public angst over another emerging crisis: the dawn of the Nietzschean Last Cat.
In her definitive 2004 study of Nietzsche’s cat-related writings, the Middlebury philosophy professor Martha Kendal Woodruff distills the Nietzschean interpretation of the essence of cat to three salient and self-reinforcing character traits: lust, dishonesty, and a playful, teasing quality that masks a bottomless capacity for cruelty. Whereas the dog “pays back goodwill with submission,” Nietzsche explained, “the cat enjoys itself thereby and has a lusty feeling for power.” Cats—“dainty, sneaking lust-cats”—are scattered both literally and figuratively throughout the Nietzsche canon; at their most benign, “silent girl kittens”—MadchenKatzen—simply “purr [but] cannot love” and indulge in the feline flattery of the aptly nicknamed “Schmeichelkatzen.” While perhaps not as sinister as the beautiful cat woman (“Katze weib”), who “conceals the tiger’s claw under the glove,” katzen are, Nietzsche makes more than clear, not to be trusted.
This duplicitous-at-best, sociopathic-at-worst creature of Nietzsche’s vivid imagination lives on in modern mainstream media cat coverage, most recently in the furor over a University of Georgia study of sixty pet cats whose owners permit them to wander outdoors over the course of a week outfitted with miniature cameras affixed to their collars. The more hyperbolic headlines proclaimed that cats had been “exposed” as “cold blooded murderers” and “virtual killing machines”—detracting somewhat from the weirder finding that such “killing sprees” were attempted by only 26 of the cats in the study. More straitlaced publications fixated on the apparently surprising revelation that four of the cats “perhaps most hurtfully” had been caught “cheating on the owners” by entering strange homes for food.
But the lolcat meme told a decidedly different tale. In stark contrast to the sneaking, cheating lust katzen, the lolcat’s defining feature was its comprehensive lack of guile. His face was a bit too fat and indisputably cute, and told readers that he desired nothing more than a nap, a cheezburger and freedom from discomfort. Just as the last man knew nothing of stars beyond the inconvenience of being forced to move south in myopic pursuit of gentler climes, the typical lolcat awaking from a nap expresses dismay that “the sun has moved.” Its literal lust has been obliterated via the wonders of laparoscopic surgery, its wanderlust by fear of cars and heights and feral cousins.
And where Zarathustra defined the letzte mensch as the man so despicable he is incapable of despising himself, the salient quality of die letzte katzen is that he is incapable of despising his master. Indeed, the lol/letzte cat would willingly submit himself to any number of utterly demeaning poses and getups, most famously the lulz-rich “breading,” in which the owner positions a slice of soft bread with a hole in the middle around its face, to indicate his pet’s inclusion in a “meme” mocking the genetic impurity of modern “inbred” housecats. And soon enough the cat photo memesphere begat the rise of the Kitler, an exotic lolcat subspecies with its own exclusive domain at CatsThatLookLikeHitler.com. In stark contrast to breading, which was theoretically open to any cat dumb or gluttonous enough to let someone stick a piece of bread over his face, entry to the ranks of the Kitlers was incumbent upon very specific physical specifications, as the site’s mission statement explained with a joking nod toward the traditional Nietzschean stereotype about cats:
Most cats possess that typically feline facial expression that implies a secret longing for world domination. All cats want to rule the world, that’s part of the nature of the species, but to be a genuine Kitler there has to be some other similarity when compared to that ever popular German/Austrian dictator.
* * *
An endlessly invoked refrain among Nietzsche fans holds that Hitler never actually really read Nietzsche. Sure, he was an early donor to the guy’s archives and close friend of Nietzsche’s doting sister Elizabeth, and the Nazis distributed various Nietzchean tracts in bulk to everyone from soldiers to bureaucrats to youth troupes; sure the New York Times in 1935 reported Nietzsche to be “of all the great figures in Germany’s intellectual history, [the] one with whom the young Nazi is best acquainted and with whose ideas he finds himself most in accord,” and all right, he did at the very least trust the idea of Nietzsche enough to send Benito Mussolini Nietzsche’s collected works in 1943 . . . But Nietzsche’s Nazi fanbase is generally credited entirely to the megalomaniacal posthumous ghostwriting efforts of his doting white supremacist sister Elizabeth. “It was [Elizabeth] who created the most destructive myth of all: Nietzsche as the godfather of fascism,” Nietzsche scholar Christian Niemeyer sniped in response to the latest round of revelations about the sister’s “criminally scandalous” manipulations, revealed in a 2010 book.
What precisely we are meant to believe perished as a result of this “myth” is not entirely clear, however, which leads directly into the second most popular argument absolving Nietzsche of Nazism: He didn’t believe in anything! Well, he especially didn’t believe in God, but he also mocked meaning, truth, facts, feelings, history, systems of thought, systems of government, democracy and socialism. It was precisely that vacuum of meaning that made Nietzschean thought such an ideal vehicle for Hitler’s nihilistic crusade, as the surreal battlefield encounter of a US Army lieutenant with a German sergeant (who turned out to be a philosophy professor) described in a 1943 Associated Press dispatch illustrates:
‘This is very strange . . . Two professional men like ourselves here in the mud and the war. It is no place for a man who thinks, and yet there is no reality except in thought. Perhaps you don’t agree?’
Lindsey Grimly mentioned the reality of bullets.
Sergeant Professor Badt then began to expand on his theories of war in relation to reality. He proved indubitably that for the Germans neither this war nor any war could have any meaning. He interrupted himself only to remind Lindsey that he and all Americans there were his prisoners. ‘Also,’ he said, ‘I notice you are not wounded, but that is not important either.’
But long before the Nazis, the Austro-German oligarchy identified in Nietzsche and nihilism generally the ideal foundation for a broader project to squelch the spread of Marxism and re-route the popular sentiments behind its widespread appeal toward other preoccupations: romantic poetry and art; physical fitness and getting “back-to-nature”; deep pondering of unknowable things; hating Jews. That this project, which is richly chronicled in the historian Peter Pulzer’s The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany & Austria, took root well before Nietzsche’s 1900 death is no doubt the reason he took great pains in life to distance himself from anti-Semites and nationalism generally. Yet even Zarathustra conceded that human nature would always seek some sort of preoccupation; the last man keeps himself busy. Likewise, Marx observed that modern technology would no doubt render humans a bit more despicable: “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.” Nietzsche preoccupied himself by expanding the tongue-in-cheek asides and “to be sure” graphs of socialist theory into hysterical fantasies and popular cultural neuroses. And almost as a direct result of his sworn contempt for systems, Nietzschean philosophy paved the way for the emerging systemization of the modes by which the powerful induce the public to project their reality-based fears, resentments and grievances onto mythological creatures like Jews, bolsheviks, evildoers and cats.
Nietzsche never owned a cat or any other pet. He synthesized the feline character in his writing just as he did that of the woman; from afar, and sometimes with assistance from Elizabeth, who shit-talked to death his only meaningful (so to speak) relationship with a woman outside his family, the beautiful and wise Russian philosopher Lou Salome. Prodigious talent and ambition rendered his nihilism more sophisticated, and readable, than it had probably been before him, but it was still nihilism, and not by definition immediately useful. Still, even at the height of Hitler’s power in the early forties—when one typical New York Times trend story excerpted sermons from rabbis at eight synagogues one Saturday specifically denouncing Nietzsche’s ideas, and a German soldier’s estranged American wife wrote a creepy series in the Chicago Tribune on the Nietzsche-driven deterioration of their relationship—the guy never seemed to want for staunch high-placed defenders. No foreign dispatch mentioning his influence in the fascist Axis seemed unmet by a lengthy indignant letter or three from American scholars protective of the Nietzsche brand. To this day I do not know if anyone has ever been persecuted for bowing down before the altar of nothing.
Hence his enduring appeal. When I worked at Jezebel Nietzsche was the most frequently cited public intellectual in submissions to the regular feature “Crap Email from a Dude” after his disciple Ayn Rand. My most recent ex-boyfriend was inexplicably a most devout Nietzschean; the reality of bullets has sadly never in his 47 years had a chance to puncture this. A newly released biography of a famous American I skimmed over the summer contained extensive collegiate Nietzschiana, including multiple citations in excerpts from his letters to a single girlfriend:
I can’t mobilize my thoughts right now, so I paraphrase Nietzsche—something to the effect that perfection, ripeness, does not care for the future, progeny. A perfection, a ripeness, of a moment, or housed in an individual.
And a few months later, wiser:
I don’t distinguish between struggling with the world and struggling with myself. . . . I enter a pact with other people, other forces in the world, that their problems are mine and mine theirs, and the contradictions within us are between us and to be found in the movement of the sea, or the tears of a child or the New York Post sports page. The minute others imprint my senses, they become me and I must deal with them or else close part of myself or make myself and the world smaller, lukewarm. And the helpful part of this is to populate both my nightmares and my visions, and gives me the necessary illusion that my struggles are the struggles of the first man, the river is the original river, and that my brief interludes outside the limits of the human construct are still connected to what’s going on within.
Before Elizabeth forced her brother to cut off contact with Salome, the girl observed that Nietzsche had the tendency to “will” himself sick for the purposes of “self-overcoming” his ailments in a painful process he seemed to deem necessary to his work. His whole life was a series of self-directed self-fulfilling prophecies that ultimately drove him mad. The brooding young disciple of this self-obsessed madman excerpted above is Barack Obama. Never before had the White House been inhabited by such an indisputably superfluous man.
“Formerly all the world was insane,” the superfluous president and his pointless contemporaries invariably say of social security and public transportation, corporate regulation and welfare, food stamps and subsidized health insurance and even the stars. Then they break for a strenuous workout, like the properly primitive “first man” Obama imagines himself to be, only with state-of-the-art calorie counters and private steam rooms. After 900 or so, they can has cheezburger too.