The One, True, Correct Interpretation of Nietzsche (Aesthetic Materialism V)
On Nietzsche's Perspectivism
"There are no facts, only interpretations."
This is has become the Nietzsche quote, even more than "God is dead," which has become a bit passe (and of course Nietzsche didn't come up with that one). Liquefactionists, especially, tend to love this quote. "There are no facts, only interpretations" would seem to be the rallying cry of what is sometimes called postmodernism, if such a thing as a postmodernist rallying cry could exist. Perhaps postmodernism could be renamed The Great Unrallying. Postmodernism is the name we give for what happened when the wind gave out from modernism's sails: the doldrums. [For more on this, see here.]
It's an understandable sentiment, and there is a strange kind of dignity to it. Similarly and perhaps relatedly, William S. Burroughs used to complain about most Americans being Christians or similarly religious in one way or another, and then most of the rest of us being rationalists, a word he pronounced with a certain particular scorn. He clearly saw rationalists as just as bad or even worse than religious people, since rationalist culture derived from religious culture, and amounted to the same thing: "Do-Rights". I can certainly understand the contempt for rationalists, even if I do not share it. Burroughs, of course, was fond of slogans like "Exterminate all rational thought!" and "Nothing is true, all is permitted" - a line that he borrowed from the semi-legendary Hassan I Sabbah. But even Burroughs made "Factualists" the anarchist fourth party of Interzone, and if they are aren't the heroes, exactly, then at least they're clearly the party about which he has the fewest directly negative things to say.
In large part because of this rather dubious quote, Nietzsche has been made the standard-bearer of "existentialism" and "moral relativism" and "nihilism" and "postmodernism" and a thousand other movements and/or social ills. He is even presented as the thinker who went further in this direction (in these directions?) than any other thinker was willing to go, so that representatives of other traditions merely whisper his name and shudder.
But hold on. I don't think Nietzsche was an existentialist, or a relativist, or a nihilist, or a postmodernist, or many of the other things of which he is accused. He has become this figure in the popular consciousness, because people need to take all of their own doubts and fears and guilty pleasures and displace them on to someone else: "I didn't think that! He was the one who said it, I'm just repeating it."
Nietzsche never called himself an existentialist, or a relativist, or a nihilist, or a postmodernist, but he did use an intriguing term - "perspectivist" - that is all too often used interchangeably with the words in the above list, as though it meant the same thing, which it most certainly does not. The confusion comes in when people see the little suffix "-ism" coming after the quite familiar word "perspective," and by comparison with words like "Falangism" and "Posadism" and "Presbyterianism," they think that perspectivism must be some kind of ideology or doctrine. Well. There is such a thing as ventriloquism, but there are no articles of faith for ventriloquists. For now I'll resist joking about the movement of somnambulism. The point being: like ventriloquism and somnambulism, perspectivism is not something that you believe in, or something that you are, but something that you do. And Nietzsche does it very, very well. But that does not mean that Nietzsche believes in perspectivism, any more than Jay Pharoah, the celebrity impressionist, believes in some doctrine called "impressionism".
Nietzsche tells us how he, in fact, did perspectivism:
Deeply mistrustful of the dogmas of epistemology, I loved to look now out of this window, now out of that; I guarded against settling down with any of these dogmas, considered them harmful - a n d finally: is it likely that a tool is able to criticize its own fitness?- What I noticed was rather that no epistemological skepticism or dogmatism had ever arisen free from ulterior motives - that it acquires a value of the second rank as soon as one has considered what it was that compelled the adoption of this point of view.
Fundamental insight: Kant as well as Hegel and Schopenhauer - the skeptical-epochistic attitude as well as the historicizing, as well as the pessimistic - have a moral origin. I saw no one who had ventured a critique of moral value feelings: and I soon turned my back on the meagre attempts made to arrive at a description of the origin of these feelings (as by the English and German Darwinists).
Note the sly self-reference, here - just like all of the thinkers he criticizes, he, too, started out, before his observations, with a moral origin to his thinking and feeling - "deeply mistrustful," he "guarded" against dogmas, because he already "considered them harmful" - this is obviously a prejudice, in the simple sense of pre-judging.
Note also that Nietzsche puts this in the past tense. Perspectivism is something that he did, before. It is not a statement of what he currently believes, or is.
Perspective #1: Nor was Nietzsche the first perspectivist. Hegel, for instance, was a master perspectivist. He set the standard, long before Nietzsche came along.
Perspective #2: Nonsense! Hegel is the last philosopher of an absolute system, and Nietzsche is the first representative of a fragmented, relativistic age!
Perspective #1: Your account fails to comprehend either thinker in their complexity and utterly ignores the contribution of other philosophers of the era (Schlegel, Novalis, Schleiermacher...). Hegel certainly did do perspectivism - he perspectivized - he presented a series of "shapes of consciousness" (Gestalten des Bewusstseins) -
Perspective #2: [interrupting] Yes but for the purpose of systematically overcoming them!
Perspective #1: More accurately, the immanent critique of these shapes of consciousness means that each of these shapes overcomes itself.
Perspective #2: Even so, the series of shapes of consciousness leads up to Absolute Knowledge.
Perspective #1: But human knowledge is the negative, and absolute knowledge purely negative - the cumulative progress of the self-overcoming of all these shapes of consciousness. Hegel denies that there is a reality in-itself beyond or behind the world of phenomena.
Perspective #2: Only for objective spirit. But this does not apply to speculative reason, where the Begriff itself becomes the reality beyond the phenomenal world.
But enough about Hegel. Let's leave these two perspectives to battle it out with each other (to grind corn, as it were). Perhaps, in some interpretations, perspectivism is at least as old as Socrates trying on various definitions of words, each with a certain characteristic irony, even questioning the world of forms itself in the Parmenides. And when Nietzsche writes that "It is our needs that interpret the world; our drives and their For and Against. Every drive is a kind of lust to rule; each one has its perspective that it would like to compel all the other drives to accept as a norm," not only is he, obviously, the predecessor of Freud and Adler. He's also recapitulating Plato's image in the Republic which depicts the desires of the human soul as a hydra-like beast with many heads, including a lion head and a human head that are struggling to control the rest of the appetites (Book IX, 588). Perhaps, at some level, perspectivism was a skill of which even the Pleistocene human was capable....
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Back to that annoying Nietzsche 'quote': "There are no facts, only interpretations" - well, first of all, that's not what he said. Not exactly. The passage in question reads like this:
Against positivism, which halts at phenomena- "There are only facts"- I would say: No, facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact "in itself": perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing. "Everything is subjective," you say; but even this is interpretation. The "subject" is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is. - Finally, is it necessary to posit an interpreter behind the interpretation? Even this is invention, hypothesis.
In so far as the word "knowledge" has any meaning, the world is knowable; but it is interpretable otherwise, it has no meaning behind it, but countless meanings.- "Perspectivism."
A few things to point out on this quote - first, "There are no facts, only interpretations" is usually taken to be an advocacy for boundless subjectivity. But that is precisely what Nietzsche is arguing against. His central point is that the subject is not something given, but something added and invented and projected behind what "there is". He offers perspectivism as an alternative to subjectivism. Contrary to the usual stereotypes of the positivist scientist who is interested only in objective facts, compared with the artist or poet who flits about in subjective truths, Nietzsche associates positivism with an artificial and unnecessary subjectivism.
Next: "We cannot establish any fact 'in itself'." Well, here, he says no more than what Hegel already did - at least, according to the interpretation of Hegel that I have designated "Perspective #1". This might be called a Nietzschean variation of the critique of Sense-Certainty. Let's be precise, here: Nietzsche's criticism of empiricism is that it halts at phenomena - not that phenomena don't exist, but that mere positivism fails to dig beneath the (existing) phenomena, to see how they are formed, how they are motivated. Thus, for Nietzsche, uncritical positivism remains naive and open to fairly easy manipulation - especially including self-manipulation.
And if we read further, Nietzsche goes on to write: "We set up a word at the point at which our ignorance begins, at which we can see no further, e.g., the word 'I,' the word 'do,' the word 'suffer': -these are perhaps the horizon of our knowledge, but not 'truths.'" Again - this could be read as merely expressing that the search for a self-positing fundamental concept that would stand as a foundation to German Idealism - for instance, what Fichte had attempted with the "I", or what others might seek in action, or praxis ("do"), and so on - had ended in failure. Here, too, he would be in good company with Hegel, and other post-Romantic philosophers. Admittedly, there is an ambiguity here: does Nietzsche merely mean that these particular answers ("I", "do", "suffer", etc.) turn out not to be truths? (I'll call that the minimal interpretation.) Or does he mean that nothing that stood as the beginning, the horizon of our knowledge, could possibly be a truth? Or that it is impossible that there could be any truths at all? (I'll call that the maximal interpretation.) But how could he know, for a fact, what is impossible?
It's fascinating how "...[F]acts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations" has been transformed, in the popular retelling. When people quote Nietzsche as saying, "There are no facts, only interpretations," they leave out what is perhaps the most interesting part of the clause, the "There is not." "Facts is precisely what there is not." How are we to take this "there is not"? As a fact? Not only is Nietzsche asserting that "there is not" something - which, of course, sounds suspiciously like a fact - but he's asserting this "precisely"! ...as though he were telling us (or rather telling "positivism") that he has done the research, gathered all the evidence that the positivists had neglected to collect, gone out and counted up all of the facts and, having searched the entire universe, could now confidently report that there are exactly zero of them. The whole thing is dripping with irony. Omitting the "there is not" from the quote - though it may render the sentence snappier and more quotable, as well as more grammatically standard - ruins the humor.
* * *
Should we even believe that this quote, in fact, comes from Nietzsche at all? The passage quoted comes from "The Will to Power," a book compiled long after Friedrich Nietzsche's death, mostly by his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who cut-up bits and pieces of her brother's unpublished notes and scribblings and pasted them together (perhaps, it has been alleged, inserting her own thoughts which she made up out of whole cloth) to form a new book. The whole thing has a scattered, disorganized feel to it, shoehorned into a kind of organization in an obviously imposed, ham-handed way. Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche was married to Bernhard Förster, the deranged anti-Semite who came up with a half-baked plan, as ludicrous as it was despicable, to set up a "pure Aryan" colony in Paraguay - a plan whose utter failure ended in Bernhard Förster turning to alcohol, morphine, and finally suicide by strychnine. In later life, Elizabeth joined the Nazi party and rubbed elbows with Adolph Hitler - and then tried to reframe her brother's work as somehow bestowing some kind of validity and legitimacy to that hateful regime. Friedrich Nietzsche himself, as is well known, was a philo-Semite, expressing his admiration for Jews both on the individual level and as a people many times, and expressed nothing but the greatest contempt for the German nationalism of his time - most especially in its anti-Semitic variation. Most scholars, therefore, have come to interpret Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche's interpretation of her brother's work as a dangerous and worthless falsification and thus treat this book, "The Will to Power" with the utmost suspicion, as they should.
Even if we regard the quotation as authentically Friedrich Nietzsche's own work, so what? Is it fair to hold an author's unpublished work to the same kind of critical standard to which we hold their more polished material? How would you like the contents of your private diary displayed for the world to see? Could you stand behind any and every stray thought you have jotted down? I have to say I would be pretty embarrassed if some of my half-assed ramblings were held up to public scrutiny. It's bad enough that people can see this blog.
But. I don't want to give the impression that "The Will to Power" is some sort of forbidden text. My problem with reducing Nietzsche to the rather lame statement that "There are no facts, only interpretations" is not so much that people are reading "The Will to Power", but that they are reading "The Will to Power" badly.
They take the quote completely out of context, both from other passages in this (sloppily edited together) book, and from Nietzsche's entire oeuvre, so that this quote appears to be Nietzsche's own perspective, his definitive, final word. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If it is to be taken as anything more than a brief and witty retort to the positivists, in mimicry of the arrogant yet forlorn tone of their own style (and I am not sure that it should), then in my opinion the passage cited should be understood as a kind of experiment - the type of thing one might scribble quietly in one's journal, for fun. Nietzsche is, in effect, saying: imagine we thought of things this way - what would follow from that? And, if this leads us to a dead end, then what does that imply? What is most important to understand about this passage is its lightness. Nietzsche does not believe that "There are no facts, only interpretations" any more than Descartes believed that an omnipotent demon was deceiving him about the universe. It is simply a meditation, a thought experiment, a plot device, so to speak, which allows him to explicate his actual thoughts. More precisely, it is a moment in the development of mind, or spirit - one moment among others, one that develops from other moments and leads to others still. A crucially important moment, no doubt about that, a necessary moment, perhaps, but a mere moment nonetheless.
For Nietzsche, the history of humanity is the history of the development of, on the one hand, master morality, which values the strong, the beautiful, the rich, the noble, the cruel, the powerful, the healthy, the energetic, the enthusiastic, the popular, the famous, the mythic, the heroic, etc., and on the other hand the slave morality, which has been, since time immemorial, engaging in a sustained revolution in morals against the master morality. Nietzsche, it should be pointed out, had the greatest respect for this slave morality, which bestowed upon humanity a "depth" that the pure master morality lacked. It is often thought, quite erroneously, that Nietzsche thought that the master morality was "good" and that the slave morality is "bad," and wanted humanity to go back to the good old master morality. This is wrong on many counts. One might say that Nietzsche sought the synthesis of the two moralities, or better still that Nietzsche sought something transcendentally beyond either the slave morality or the master morality, perhaps preserving their contradiction in a higher form: something like "a Roman Caesar with the mind of Christ."
The revolution in morals precipitated by the slave morality has taken many forms throughout history, but central to its movement has been the ascetic ideal and its vicissitudes. At first, askesis meant athleticism. But soon, the accent was on self-discipline and self-denial and finally self-overcoming. The cruelty of the master morality was turned profoundly inward. A pivotal moment came with Socrates, and his Pythian oraculation to "know thyself", whereby the beautiful Athenian youths were corrupted from mere physical training to a relentless introspective questioning. Another turn of the wheel came when the rebel Jesus inverted all the virtues of the master morality, telling his followers and slaves "blessed are the poor," "blessed are the meek," "blessed are the persecuted," and most shockingly and bewilderingly, blessed are the "poor in spirit". It turned again with the French revolution, where the downtrodden rose up against their oppressors, chopped off their heads, declared "Liberty! Equality! Brotherhood!" and proclaimed a republic of virtue. Then they came to view one another with suspicion as a potential new nobility - new "betters" - and so they quickly turned on each other, chopping each others' heads off, killing and raping in the streets, playing grisly games with heads and corpses and so on. Democracy was an expression of the egalitarian impulse that grew out of the ascetic ideal of the slave morality. In Nietzsche's own time, the revolution in morals had gone further, producing socialism, communism, anarchism, fatalism, and nationalism, especially anti-Semitic nationalism, which he regarded as the most vile and disgusting iteration of the slave morality, born of beer-guzzling mutterers' unthought ressentiment toward the genius of the Jewish people.
But the ultimate zenith of the slave morality's millennia-long twisting ascent was none of these political movements. It was nothing so loud as protest or war. Rather, it was something very quiet, something that could only be detected by those with ears to hear: a kind of nearly-silent creeping assault on our deepest values, at their very foundations. For Nietzsche, at least some part of humanity had always been capable of facing nihilism. Nihilism had been there, hiding in the ascetic ideal, from the very beginning; it was there in Platonic philosophy, it was there in Christianity (which Nietzsche dismissed as "Platonism for the masses"), it was there in democracy and socialism and anarchism and nationalism. But the nihilism that faced humanity now was higher and deeper than any of its previous forms, even if (or precisely because) it was more difficult to see.
Nietzsche's philosophy was an untimely philosophy, a philosophy for "the day after tomorrow" (after the tomorrows of all of the believers in progress of every sort had realized their goals, and come to recognize the emptiness of these goals). He had nothing but contempt for his present, what he referred to with a despairing "nowadays". In Beyond Good and Evil, Section 16, he writes, "Whoever ventures to answer these metaphysical questions at once by an appeal to a sort of intuitive perception, like the person who says, 'I think, and know that this, at least, is true, actual, and certain'—will encounter a smile and two question marks from a philosopher nowadays. 'Sir,' the philosopher will perhaps give him to understand, 'It is probable that you are not mistaken; but why insist on the truth?' Many may see Nietzsche's portrayal here of "a philosopher nowadays" as a self-portrait, and perhaps this is even partially true. But if so, I believe Nietzsche intended this as self-criticism, seeing in himself the most dangerous - and, in a strange way, because the most dangerous, also the most hopeful - tendency among philosophers. Such philosophers, who are nothing but living question marks, constitute the ultimate victory of the slave morality, when the worm has dug its way fully into the heart of humankind. They are the first of the "last men," those who say that they have invented happiness, and blink thereby. Why do they blink? Because their happiness demands that they close their eyes to the world. Their happiness has superseded truth - to the extent that the truth does not serve their happiness, they happily dispose of it. Such is the way of the nowadays philosopher.
In other words: the nowadays philosopher is the philosopher of relativism, of "There are no facts, only interpretations." This relativism is the ultimate expression of nihilism, the nihilism that had been lurking in more or less disguised forms over the course of the history of western civilization, and this revelation, this rending of the veil, only reveals that civilization to have been rotting from within from the very beginning. Nietzsche, the philosopher of the day-after-tomorrow, had nothing but contempt for the nowadays philosopher, and for his relativism, and especially for "There are no facts, only interpretations."
The nowadays philosopher's egalitarianism is a deeper egalitarianism than that of the Christians, or the democrats, or the socialists, or the anarchists, because at least all of these retained some insistence on their truths, their perspectives, some fingernail dug in somewhere. That is to say: the Platonist and the Christian and the democrat and the socialist and the anarchist all may renounce the world, each in their own way, but not completely. There remains some tiny attachment to the real, however distorted. The nowadays philosopher has completely let go - first into nothingness, and then, when that could not be maintained, into an unbounded multiplicity. The nowadays philosopher is so egalitarian that all perspectives are equally valid for him. The perspective of nothingness is equal to the perspective of totality. The perspective of emptiness is perfectly commensurable to the perspective of fullness. The perspective of cruelty is just as good as the perspective of love. The perspective of order is just as valid as the perspective of chaos. The ultimate iteration of the slave morality has renounced itself and its world so fully into an aimless and boundless egalitarianism that it does not even fight for its own perspective, its own skepticism, even its own renunciation. Of course, this cannot last. It undoes itself.
Yes, Nietzsche was, himself, the philosopher of the question mark. But more importantly, he was the philosopher of what is beyond this question mark - not questioning, but a great Affirmation.
"There are no facts"... Yes, Nietzsche might accept this, provisionally, immediately adding - nonetheless, there are truths.
"There are only interpretations." ...Yes, Nietzsche might say, immediately adding - nonetheless, some interpretations are better than others.
To interpret the famous Nietzsche quote as simply positively advocating a free-for-all, an egalitarian relativism in which any opinion is just as good as any other, obviously ignores that there is an entire section of the same book entitled "Order of Rank". But more importantly, such an interpretation is simply boring. It is flat, unimaginative, obvious, and overly literal. It is not what Harold Bloom would call a "strong reading," one that exercises the will of the reader to read the text in a new way, and yet with the greatest vigor and rigor and precision - a reading which winds up making the text deeper, fuller, more challenging and dangerous than it was before. Instead, this is a weak reading, which makes the text safer, happier, more docile, thinner, more colorless, lifeless, and dull. After all, wouldn't such a reading make "There are no facts, only interpretations" essentially assert nothing at all, so that it became more or less synonymous with "Whatever you say"?
"There are no facts, only interpretations" is a perspective, a moment in the development of consciousness, and as such, there is a certain "truth" to it - a simpering truth, a wheedling truth, an accommodating truth, an evasive truth, a truth that above all wants to avoid conflict, and skirts around any issues that might make the conflict clear. (Contrarily, material truths make the conflict clear.) In two words, "There are no facts, only interpretations" is a weak truth. It is a human truth - all-too-human. It is human truth at its most vulnerable, a vogelfrei truth, wandering about in the open, ready to be snatched up by the next con man or cult leader. Iceberg Slim might say that it is a trick truth.
Yes, "There are no facts, only interpretations" is a moment. But there are other moments. In particular, there is another perspective, another moment, another tune, which goes something like this:
There are facts because I say so.
This is the song of taking responsibility for the truth - better yet, claiming the truth - asserting the truth - seizing the truth. This means refusing to withdraw into comfortable, prevaricating analysis and skepticism, but taking the truth as yours - owning the truth.
This is the first moment of the adventure known as aesthetic materialism: the choice to affirm the truth, not out of a passive acceptance of what is and what must be, not out of fatalism, and not yet precisely out of "science," but out of an active artistic aesthetic preference, a matter of taste. It means relishing the spice of such a bold and reckless declaration, precisely because, unlike "There are no facts, only interpretations," such a stance includes the possibility of real danger. It is a gamble with real stakes, a laughing duel, a high noon.
What distinguishes "There are no facts, only interpretations" from "There are facts because I say so" is that the latter exhibits the will, honestly and forthrightly, declares the will, invokes the will, indeed, the will-to-power, whereas the former disguises the will-to-power, decorates it in finery and cleverness and self-reference and a bit of feigned despair - though for the perceptive, it is just as motivated by the will-to-power as any other moment in the drama.
I have entitled this essay "The One, True, Correct Interpretation of Nietzsche" not because it is the only possible interpretation of Nietzsche - but, to the contrary, precisely because it is such a tendentious or idiosyncratic reading. You can say that I'm being "ironic" if you like, but I really mean it. It is a true irony, which is, ironically, true. There are many other interpretations possible, and indeed, my reading runs against the current of Nietzsche scholarship. Moreover, there is no inner necessity to this reading - it is purely contingent and even arbitrary. ("As one judge said to another, 'Be just, and if you can't be just, be arbitrary.'" - William S. Burroughs) Nor is it ultimately based on an especially close reading of Nietzsche, with some kind of drop-dead, conversation-ending textual evidence. To some essential degree, it is based merely on my say-so. But above all it is an ecstatic experience of reading that I have been blessed to enjoy, and which you can share - the liberating, delightful punchline that explodes the entire shaggy dog story of Nietzsche's thought.
Moreover, I believe that Nietzsche intended for his reader to have this experience, but also chose not to speak or write of it directly, merely hinting at it, more through what is left unwritten than that which is written, so that the reader could have the opportunity to come to this conclusion on her own. (In the preface to The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche writes: "Certainly one quality which nowadays has been best forgotten—and that is why it will take some time yet for my writings to become readable—is essential in order to practice reading as an art—a quality for the exercise of which it is necessary to be a cow, and under no circumstances a modern man!—rumination.") Maybe Nietzsche knew that this experience cannot be had directly through reading - that it is in some sense transcendent, beyond the written page, unspeakable, ineffable, beyond language - that one must have it on one's own, in some ways against the reading. One cannot be told to have a will. One must fight for it. And it is the living-through of the experience that is important, rather than the meaningful content of that experience. Perhaps it even spoils the experience to give it away. Indeed, so convinced am I that this was Nietzsche's intention that in some ways I feel bad for giving away the secret of Nietzsche. This was supposed to be a surprise.
Then again, maybe not. Maybe this was never Nietzsche's intention. Well, it doesn't really matter what his intention was. What matters is that I have chosen to read Nietzsche this way. I have decided to be surprised.
The incantation, "There are facts because I say so" means saying, these are my facts. But that doesn't mean keeping them to yourself, hoarding them. Quite the opposite: it means giving them away, abundantly, and insisting, and making sure that everyone else have them, too - forcing others to accept your truth.
But how can you force other people to accept your truth? Is it good enough to force people to say that they accept your truth? No. After all, they could be lying. They could pretend to believe you, when, deep down, they really don't. No. They must believe you in truth - that is, they must accept your truth, in your truth. But how can you make people truly believe? Physical force won't do, nor intimidation, nor even moralizing, since making beliefs morally repugnant only causes people to pretend not to have them. No, you have to convince them.
And so the "because I say so" becomes insufficient. It lacks force. It seems arbitrary, capricious, even whimsical, and thus resembles "There are no facts, only interpretations" all too closely. In order to defeat or at least conquer any other supposed claimants to the truth, one must turn to presenting evidence. In such a situation, "There are facts because I say so" will inevitably become "There are facts because you see." "There are facts because I say so" turns out to be just as unstable and momentary as "There are no facts, only interpretations." Like "There are no facts, only interpretations," "There are facts because I say so," and even "There are facts because you see" are all possible moments in the development of consciousness, not even necessarily in that order, as it moves relentlessly outward toward the expanse of a completely unknown future.
"There are cruel truths."
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