Written for Operation Werewolf by Joshua Buckley
“Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred.”
—Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics
A few weeks ago, I compressed the vertebrae in my neck and pinched a nerve. It’s not the first time I’ve done this. The last time, I fought too hard to get out of a choke in jiu-jitsu class and turned my head further than it was designed to go. This time, I’m not even sure what happened—it just crept up on me, as injuries often do. The upside is that—despite some tingling in my fingers and elbow—there’s not a lot of pain. The downside is that I’ve lost a tremendous amount of strength in my right tricep and chest. I expect that this will eventually resolve itself as the nerve works its way free (although in a small percentage of cases it apparently doesn’t), and I’ve been seeing my chiropractor in the hopes that he can help. But obviously, whatever progress I was making in the gym has ground to a screeching halt. I’m still lifting—this hasn’t affected my ability to do squats, or most bodyweight exercises—but it’s frustrating. Like most of us, I have a specific set of goals that I’m working to achieve, and this feels like a significant setback.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t that big a deal. I’ve injured myself many times before, and I’m sure I’ll re-injure myself many times in the future. As one of my old jiu-jitsu teachers liked to say: “If you don’t train injured, you’ll never train.” But as I spend a lot of time mulling over how training relates to other aspects of life, this latest injury has forced me to think about how the goals that we set for ourselves can also trip us up, at least when everything doesn’t go according to plan. And
the truth—the cold, hard truth—is that ultimately, all of our goals will end in frustration. Age will rob us of our physical abilities, our mental acuity, our friends, and our family. Not only will we die, but we will very likely be forgotten. One day, the sun will burn out and the universe itself will simply pull apart, leaving nothing but cold, dead stars in its wake. This may sound extreme (I started off talking about a pinched nerve, after all), but that’s where all of our goals will get us, and there’s not a whole lot that we can do to change it.
So why should we care about anything? Why should we keep scratching and clawing to leave some mark on this doomed world, and to try to become something more than the eating-sleeping-consuming animals that we are? Why have goals in the first place?
For me at least, part of the answer is that we are here now, and there is very likely a reason that we are here, even if we don’t know exactly what it is. (For Heidegger, the most fundamental question is always: “Why is there something, rather than nothing?”) In fact, we very likely cannot know the answer to questions about the ultimate meaning of things. What we do know is the circumstances of our own particular existence, and with that knowledge at hand, we can begin to formulate ideas about what it is that we must do. Consider Aristotle’s idea that our own essence is something that we carry within us, but which must be worked out deliberately. As Alisdair MacIntyre explains it, what Aristotle is basically saying is that man is a functional concept, like a watch or a sword. A “good watch” is a watch that tells time correctly and a “good sword” is one that cuts quickly and cleanly. By the same token, a good man is a man who has actualized (or who is working to actualize) the potentials he was born with as a man. Of course, these potentials won’t be the same for everyone—Aristotle was no egalitarian. But all of us can benefit from making it our life’s work to cultivate our excellences.
In Norse mythology, and in paganism generally, the gods are also embroiled in the struggle to actualize their own highest potentials—which of course surpass anything we might be able to imagine. In this way, they serve as both allies and exemplars for humankind. Unlike the god of monotheism, the pagan gods are neither omniscient nor all-powerful. Like Odin, who sacrifices “himself to himself” in order to surpass himself, the gods must fight for wisdom and strength. On a mythic level, the ongoing battle against the thurses represents this as a war between the forces of consciousness and order and the forces of unconsciousness and dissolution. But there is another way that the gods of paganism are unlike the god of Christianity. They are mortal. As recounted in the Poetic Edda, most of the gods will die during the battle of Ragnarök, where they will fall fighting terrible enemies like the wolf Fenrir and the serpent Jörmungandr. Just like their human counterparts, all of their projects of self-realization and self-overcoming will end in defeat. Although some scholars have suggested that the Ragnarök story may have been influenced by Christian eschatology, I think a stronger case can be made that the tragic conclusion of the Edda is an essential part of its structure.
But how tragic is it, really? And can we really count the gods’ final act in the cosmic battle of Ragnarök as a failure?
The reason that the gods will fall in defeat is that there is ultimately a power even more overwhelming than the powers that they themselves possess: fate. We need not overcomplicate things by imagining this as something akin to predestination. In the broadest possible sense, acknowledging our own fate just means accepting the fact that we will die (I have discussed some of the implications of confronting our own death in an earlier essay). The fact that the gods will also die is significant not because it reduces all of their other actions to futility, but because it allows them to actualize what might be their highest potential of all: heroism. The Christian god is incapable of heroism because he is immortal, and therefore immune to risk. There is nothing heroic about fighting when you know that you cannot lose. On the contrary, fighting valiantly in spite of the fact that you are doomed to defeat is the very essence of heroism. This is not unlike what Nietzsche has in mind when he describes the Eternal Return. The rather unsettling notion that history repeats itself in a never-ending loop renders all of the Superman’s efforts at self-overcoming pointless. Yet for Nietzsche, the idea that the Superman does not give up in spite of this pointlessness is the ultimate affirmation of his heroic nature. Like the gods of paganism, the Nietzschean Superman requires that his efforts to actualize himself must end in perpetual frustration. Paradoxically, this is what enables him to reach his greatest potential, and to seize a higher victory from the jaws of every defeat.
Most of us will never be heroes in the way that Odysseus, or Achilles, or Sigurd are heroes—although some of us might get the chance. As the world around us continues to unravel, it seems more and more likely that heroes of this type will be needed. But regardless of what will happen in the future (and predictions that purport to tell us are worse than useless), it is our task to cultivate a heroic ethos now, even if the only war we ever fight is the war against our own lower selves. This means accepting the tragic dimension of life, and persevering with grim determination in the face of all adversity. It means that the Operation will not stop for pinched nerves or pulled muscles, broken ribs or busted teeth. Nor will it stop for any of the much more serious challenges that life will inevitably place in our paths. All of the roadblocks that thwart our individual goals only throw the larger goal into sharper relief, and make that goal possible. We will become who we are. And we will be heroes.