Dying To Be Heard: From Nietzsche to The Office
On the differences and the surprising similarities between David Brent and Nietzsche.
A man, at the end of the day and perhaps – as he so plainly fears – at the end of his own day, is sprawled on his back across a hotel bed. This is not the relaxed recline of rest but the collapse of exhaustion. A half-empty tumbler of cheap whiskey threatens to tip from his lazy grasp. His eyes are half shut, which expresses the burden of unrest that weighs on his mind and his body. As he speaks to the camera – we see him through our television screens – the dead-serious subject and miserable tone of his lament are at odds with the ridiculousness of this man.
This is, after all, a person we have watched perpetuate stereotypes with the racism of the well-intentioned (he has described “mixed race” people as “his favourite kind”), attempt to inspire others with self-serving, ego-propping speeches about his own questionable skills, and accidentally give an employee a black eye while showing off with a football (“You headbutt a girl on telly,” he complains, “and you’re labelled a prat”). This is David Brent, star of the mockumentary sitcom The Office, drunk in a hotel room and insisting on his genius to the camera, to the viewers, to himself, to no one.
Let’s leave Brent here for a moment and travel from England at the start of the twenty-first century to Germany towards the end of the nineteenth. Here, we find another tragic figure, though he has none of the comic shading to cast relief on his suffering or hope of freedom from it. We find this man in a forlorn state, hunched (in pain as much as in concentration) over a desk in a desolate room, pen in hand, filling pages with the dreams of genius, as he waits for his latest medicines to bring some calm to the unrest in his mind and his stomach. Although he frequently writes in a near-manic state of inspiration for up to ten hours, he is growing blind and so any more than an hour or two of work makes his eyes burn and water; his writing literally brings him to tears.
In addition to his physical agony, he is sensitive to the degradations of loneliness. His work alienates everyone he knows and no publisher will print his books. He takes to publishing his work at his own expense, intending to send the books to friends. In the end, he only finds seven people to give them to, and he is reduced to begging them to respond in any way at all. He would be overjoyed to receive even the harshest criticism for his work, because that would require serious engagement with it. Instead, the world is silent. He screams into a void and gets nothing back. He laments:
“[It] is terrible not to hear a responsive word, to hear nothing, absolutely nothing, to be surrounded by silence, to be a thousand times more isolated than heretofore.”
He dies early in barely noticed insanity. His works are largely ignored, except for their misappropriation into Nazi ideology, an association that keeps his work and his name – Friedrich Nietzsche – disregarded longer still.
There is an episode of the quintessentially British television show Doctor Who in which Vincent Van Gogh, convinced of his own eternal anonymity and lack of value, is brought to his future, our present, to secretly listen to an art curator singing Van Gogh’s praise. If only poor, abused Nietzsche might have seen how influential and even revered his work has become in the twenty-first century. If only he’d seen that even our comedy is given depth by an engagement with – or even an unconscious influence from – his own work. If only.
In the twenty-first century and in England again, we find the paper company that is the setting for The Office, where Brent and his employees manifest what it is to be “human, all too human” (as in Nietzsche’s phrasing). This office is populated by Nietzsche’s “last men”, people like the character of Gareth who works full-time to buy cars and clothes with which to fill the emptiness of his meaningless life. Many of these office workers could be described (at least on the surface, before the sharp writing of these episodes reveals their humanity) as Nietzsche describes the people of a town he once visited:
“... awkward and artificial souls reign there, who work as constantly and necessarily at the measures of prudence as the beaver at his dam.”
It is from within this social milieu, from the masses of “ordinary people”, that David Brent wishes to rise. “I’ve got things to say,” he complains at one point to his talent agent. He clenches his jaw like a fist, as if to contain years of disappointment that has rotted into resentment towards the world. He hisses through his teeth, “I’ve got things to say if people would listen, but they won’t.”
Here is where Brent overlaps with Nietzsche, as both overlap with countless others throughout history, a few remembered though most forgotten, if ever known: such figures are (to borrow from Stefan Zweig in his biography of Nietzsche) “daunted by a morbid anxiety lest [they] should fail to achieve success before [they] die”. Both Brent and Nietzsche were convinced of their own greatness and value, that they were worth hearing out. Nietzsche described his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra as “the greatest gift ever bestowed upon men”, which seems hyperbolic though a reasonable nod towards its importance. More ridiculously, Brent compares himself and his mission in life with Jesus spreading the word across the world that he is the Son of God.
The absurdity and humour of Brent’s self-comparison to Jesus rest in precisely the point at which Brent and Nietzsche deviate – Nietzsche may have been exaggerating his genius somewhat, but the greatness was there; Brent is inventing his out of nothing. This is why the scene I described at the top of this essay – with Brent drinking alone in a cheap hotel room – is perhaps the darkest of the entire series. When he holds up his whiskey and cigar to the camera and says, “This is fairly typical,” he means it as a brag but it comes off as a sad confession. His evening “treat” seems less a celebration of a life well lived than the necessary analgesic against a life squandered. Here, the belly-laugh comedy is stripped away, and even the cringe-humour typical of the show loses its comedy and becomes, in its nakedness, painful to watch.
We know Brent isn’t the great genius he thinks he is, and we know this because we have watched him, over two seasons of the show, squander opportunities to grow by wasting time self-aggrandising. Even if the whole world took notice of him, he wouldn’t amaze and impress – but in this sombre moment in his story, when the facade cracks and reveals the vulnerable child inside this broken man, we no longer scorn him, we pity him. We see his humanity.
We know with hindsight that Nietzsche was a remarkable thinker, and we can be confident that Brent is not. We are afforded the ability to assess each life with relatively clear eyes because we are at a remove, given the objectivity of distance. Neither Nietzsche nor Brent could know, from within their situations, whether they were what they believed they were or whether the world would ever take notice. How, then, can each of us know what kind of legacy, if any, we will leave?
Many of us (and I include here myself) wish to be great, whether or not we believe we currently are. We wish to do great things to change the world and wish to leave a legacy that, ideally, we will establish before we die, so that death need not mean the oblivion of our life’s meaning. Equally, many of us (me too, again) have met people like David Brent – people on the far side of mid-life, obsessed with past achievements, bitter about present failures, and assured of their own entitlement to recognition from the world. For some, this is often a father figure, a man so sure that he has been cheated in life that his resentment prevents him from moving on. And we who see these people become determined not to be like them.
The uptight father who refuses to “get with the times”; the cynical reactionary certain that modernity can make no improvements on the past; the sad, old drunk at the bar, reliving his glory days by telling the same story to anyone who will listen; these are common figures of ridicule, ghosts of future selves we want to avoid becoming. They are ridiculous, we tell ourselves, because they cannot see what we see so clearly about them. But do we see them clearly? Do we see them at all?
Would you recognise the genius in Nietzsche if he were alive today? The perpetually ill pseudo-hermit who spends most of his time alone in a low-rent room scribbling what he calls his “prophecies”, emerging only to insist to anyone around that he is a form of divinity – this man would be the largest of targets for social derision. He would be the ghost at the feast not invited back, the figure we cross the street to avoid. And we would miss out on what he had to offer.
The tragedy of Nietzsche’s life, it seems to me, is not that he died early or of sickness – death comes to us all, and a life lived well can numb its sting whenever and however it strikes – or that his work was misread by Nazis and racists. The tragedy is that, for far too long, no one paid real, close attention to what he offered the world. No one truly listened. And this is what any of us want, from the David Brent types beating their chests to the Nietzschean figures yelling into the void: we desperately want to be heard, to be seen.
In this truth, we might find an answer to the questions of how we avoid becoming disillusioned spectres and how we recognise the truly profound: pay attention. Really listen when people tell you they have something to say. More often than you might have otherwise assumed, some of these people will have insights and innovations that you will believe in, that you will want to give a speakerphone to, so that the world might hear them, without having to wait for their authors to die before the ideas can have their time. When you find people worth hearing, listen closely, and then help bring them to the world.
You will stand a far better chance at communicating great ideas and stories to others if you don’t focus only, self-servingly, on your own ideas and stories; multiply your voice with the voices of others. And you may find greater fulfilment through living in service to others, instead of living for your own success. Worry less about being Nietzsche, the lone genius worth hearing, and more about not being part of the world that didn’t hear him.
As for the David Brents of the world, maybe they have nothing to say – but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be heard. Listening – truly listening with attention and care – can be one of the kindest things we can do for other people. If you wish to be heard, don’t wait for your turn to speak; cultivate the practice of listening, and eventually, it will be reciprocated. Who knows – maybe after all that listening, you might have something worth saying.
• The Office, dir. & written by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant (2001 – 2003)
• The Struggle With the Daemon: Hölderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche, Stefan Zweig (1925)