Friedrich Nietzsche was profoundly influenced by Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking work, “On The Origin of Species. The radical synthesis of scientific literature, which had levied a heavy blow on the common Western views on creation, anchored the philosopher’s life work. Darwin’s composition would later be considered foundational to the field of evolutionary biology, but it was the late nineteenth century German philosopher who turned his theory into an ontological atom bomb.
For Nietzsche, this rabble-rousing perspective of the created order offered a new interpretation that hinged on the idea that man’s nature is fluid; abandoning the Aristotelian view of an inherited static character, he advanced the idea of each individual’s capacity to “evolve” into a new type of meta-human and thus shed the so-called slave morality which had long ordered mankind’s social experience.
To suggest Nietzsche’s works have impacted the way we live, and more importantly experience reality would be to tragically underestimate his legacy. We saw his concept of the “Ubermensch” metastasize into early eugenicist movements that climaxed in the greatest of horrors born of modern history in the Holocaust, but if one should expect such ends to promote the abandonment of a theory as subjective as fluid humanity then he would be dreadfully wrong. With technological advancement giving us dominion over nature in rather startling ways; the so called malleable trailblazer who creates his own vastly superior morals is infinitely more intoxicating and seemingly more achievable.
This is among the reflections I have as I obsessively pour through the latest John Prine album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.”
His name alone reminds the listener of a near forgotten time when the proper imperfections of sound would effectively immortalize an artist’s work. Prine is this type of perfectly imperfect musician who entered the scene before technology allowed the music industry to polish its artists into mundanity. He belts out a Bob Dylanesque vocal with a twangy finish, creating songs that highlight the wordplay of a country western Koan capitalized by acoustic guitars.
The offering which best reflects our Nietzschean moment is one of a few songs on the album exclusively written by Prine. It is called “The Lonesome Friends of Science,” and it plays like a lament to a technocratic society where we appear to live ever on the precipice of disaster. As a good 21st Century citizen, Prine “lives down deep inside my head where long ago I made my bed.” One must look no further than the inexhaustible barrage of apocalyptic headlines in the twenty-four-hour news cycle to conclude that sustained perception of disaster is the tradition of society ordered around the cult of science and progress.
In other words, society ordered in such a manner is no society at all; rather it is a conglomeration of individuals with no ties that bind. We are a nation of people with no collective values — except that small flickering box that rests in hand occasionally sending out generic sounds and vibrations to alert others of our occupation of a common space — no noble myths, and no agreed upon sources of cultural pride.
Prine’s juxtaposition of the increasingly unstable balance between our exterior and interior life in the song accentuate this point. Well into his golden years, he has likely experienced the crescendo of the unanchored technological man, and now reflectively questions if we even have the right to unmercifully manipulate our surroundings — thus ourselves — in the pursuit of perfect unhindered autonomy. This is the trade off that comes with near godlike powers and a willingness to wield them without proper reflection.
It may also be said the realm of art and, by extension, the humanities in which Prine has made a career offers the reflective framework upon which man asks such questions. This framework is constructed in the passing on of stories, ritual, and song that happens in communal endeavors which were once a pillar of western culture.
Built upon the idea that we are fixed creatures and requiring redemption, this dimension of life is necessarily crowded out by those lonesome friends of science for its dreaded reminders of our limitations, these forgotten cultural habits tell us of our fundamental need for more meaningful connection to our outer world than what they can offer.
Prine prophetically reminds us that while the technological man is wrapped up in the endless cycle of predicting catastrophe and manipulating the universe there is another path, and it is here — we are told — that Pluto is still a planet and weather updates come from the family dog. The song plays as an emphatic rejection of the Nietzschean anti-culture which clarifies our current moment.
The structure of the ever-fluid super man, who’s only limitations are those which he imposes on himself, advanced by Nietzsche and influenced by Darwinian evolution, provided the backdrop for the gods of progress to unreflectively impose their will on nature. But as Prine keenly observes in his latest offering, as intoxicating as such dominion over the created order may be, it is ultimately a position of loneliness and dread. The supposed “ubermensch” who breaks the shackles of traditional morality to reinvent himself according to his own subjective values, a proposition which has become horrifyingly optional in our technological age, finds that in the end it is an isolating feat.
Our ancestors recognized the necessity of society to be ordered around the family, extending outward into communities, and at least considered the impact of any so-called progress on this basic cell. Reflection of such magnitude, for post-modern man — drunk on his own fairy tales of a supposed moral superiority — is a dirty word. For John Prine, such a man can keep his isolation and disaster, his home is where his mail comes and his family lives.
Those lonesome friends of science can keep their progress.