290. Every deep thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood. The latter perhaps wounds his vanity; but the former wounds his heart, his sympathy, which always says: “Ah, why would you also have as hard a time of it as I have?”
~Beyond Good and Evil (trans. Helen Zimmern) from the European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) the Modern Library, NY. ed. Monroe Beardsley: p. 849
If I had to make a guess where the concept (which I still can neither nail down, nor wish to by giving it a definite origin and limit its applications) of trying-to-be-misunderstood originates, my guess would be that the language of it at least sounds Nietzschian at first pass. But then, what do I know? or so what?
Nietzsche put his finger on the psychology of introspective thinking. There’s a strong tendency for me to not only believe that certain thoughts are ‘mine’ but further, to guard them as if they were. Perhaps we should wonder why intellectual property is so closely guarded in Western societies. It’s because we thinkers also want to have some say concerning how our ideas are appropriated – and sometimes with good reason!
But I’ll move past this thought to consider why any deep thinker would prefer being misunderstood to understanding. Nietzsche here asserts that the psychological impulse rejects another’s claim to understand because a solitary thinker resists the assertion that her experience is common. How can anyone else have suffered as I have suffered; this is worth far more to me for I have waited here in the damp cold for enlightenment, but what have you done? Why should you be paid for the whole day’s work when I arrived before the dawn – when I have not rested! That she is indignant is easy to grasp in theory, but her tears have been her own and we must not claim them.
So too the friend who has consoled another in hard moments should know better than to utter those ill-fated words I’ve been there. Pain has its own language and few are permitted to speak it. The rest of us may sit with him until he should speak, but entrance to this club is bought dearly should we wish to offer our own experience. While the suffering of the thinker – the travails of her exile – may not amount to the same, it is for her to decide; not us.
Another word on the psychology of being understood (though I hope it will be readily seen that the right to claim understanding is not to be taken up lightly – even if it is not entirely the mourner’s or the thinker’s (I’m tempted to write tinkerer here to show better what I mean for that better approximates the task of the deep thinker) to decide who can speak): We’re talking about power. After all, we’re drawing from Nietzsche – how could we avoid power talk?
Understanding is about the right to speak – if we understand her, there’s not much left for her to explain. But if we’re dealing with a deep thinker, not enough can be explained. It is not that we are unable to offer feedback, it’s that she ought to retain some right to answer. Otherwise we deny the Will to Power for which she toils. She approximates, scrapes not only for language with which to construct but also to best communicate her thoughts, and at last presents it. It may be premature even to assert that she understands her project in full. Instead she misunderstands well – she has developed a point from which to approximate and communicate her vision, she has a unique misunderstanding. We may reply to her from our own vantage points, but we should hesitate before we too quickly assert that we understand her.
- Update: my friend, Jess L, responded with an interesting bit of language that might, I think, be offered instead of the dubious ‘I understand’ – ‘I dig’