Sunday, December 16, 2007

Nietzsche and Me

We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex. – Hugh Hefner

Just for the record, I always found Hefner’s use of the editorial “we” somewhat jarring. The above sounds more like an invitation to group sex (with a single female participant) than a one-on-one dialog.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Friedrich Nietzsche was a hard luck guy, no doubt about it. He was, for a time, an intimate of Richard and Cosima Wagner, then broke with them, in part because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism. His enormous output of philosophical work in the mid 1880s was greeted with what can most kindly be described as cool indifference by the intellectual community of Europe, and he suffered a complete mental breakdown in 1889, living another 11 years in full psychotic fugue. Suggestions as to the cause range from syphilis to brain cancer. If he had syphilis he probably contracted it from his time as a medical orderly during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, his physical contacts with women somewhere between few and non-existent. In any case, Nietzsche certainly had some neurological complaint, as he frequently suffered from blinding headaches, yet continued to work in snatches punctuated by near total collapse, a situation that gives insight into what Nietzsche was getting at when he glorified the will.

After his collapse, his sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, took over his affairs. She and her husband were anti-Semites, fairly virulent ones, though it’s difficult at this distance for a non-historian to gauge whether “virulent” meant merely “average.” In any case, her editing of Nietzsche’s notebooks and publication as The Will to Power began the distortion of his legacy. Being appropriated by the Nazis as a forebear sealed his fate for the first half of the 20th Century. It didn’t help that Leopold and Loeb cited him as an inspiration. Very bad English translations can apparently be as pernicious as listening to Black Sabbath records played backwards.

And the first English translations of Nietzsche were very bad. I’ve read a few of them, and whoo boy. Nietzsche was a poet as well as a philosopher, and he wrote with wit and irony. Subtract those, and, well, you might as well think that Jonathan Swift really was in favor of cannibalism. It surely didn’t help that his most famous work, Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), was also his most poetic and allegorical. Even most native German speakers didn’t know what to make of it.

Then there was the unfortunate fate of the word “Übermensch” first translated as “Superman.” “Strange visitor from another planet” wasn’t what Nietzsche had in mind, but there you are. Proto-Nazi or comic book inspiration, those were what the poor fellow had been reduced to.

Then, in the 1950s, one German-born, American academic philosopher, Walter Kaufman, set out to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s reputation. It didn’t hurt that he taught at Princeton, and that he was a brilliant translator and a poet in his own right. First with books about Nietzsche, linking him to the existentialist tradition (a decided step up from Nazis and comic books), then with superb translations of Nietzsche’s own works, by the mid-1960s, Nietzsche the philosopher was respectable again. Indeed, he was more than respectable; he was hip.

Okay, there are various reasons why one might be embarrassed at having had a youthful fling with Ayn Rand, albeit in the Platonic sense, except that Rand despised Plato, and the phrase “in the Aristotelian sense,” doesn’t really, uh, make sense in this context. Nevertheless, I was young, open to new ideas (or new ones to me, anyway), and besides, among other things, she introduced me the Nietzsche. Not that this was her intention (or that she had even the vaguest notion of my very existence); indeed, she was attempting to warn me off.

In “Rolls Rex, King of Cars” my erstwhile collaborator Sharon Farber’s first story about a young girl named Billy Jean, she has Billy Jean’s hippie mother tell her not to go snooping around the farm next door, so the first thing that BJ does when left alone is make a bee line for the farm next door. I myself wasn’t quite that forthright. What happened was that I once found myself in a conversation with someone, comparing Rand and Nietzsche, and I realized that I hadn’t actually read the guy. If I kept that up, I figured that sooner or later, someone was going to think I was a nitwit, and I do not like being thought a nitwit. I especially don’t like it if the someone thinking I’m a nitwit is me.

(Since then I’ve learned that most intellectual discussions involve someone faking it at some point or another, basing their opinions on a book review, or a panel discussion, or the Cliff Notes version in one way or another. Furthermore, it is the height of impoliteness to point this out. Live and learn).

Anyway I got some of the Kaufman books and I read Nietzsche. And here’s the interesting thing: I found that, even when I disagreed with old Friedrich, he was still damned interesting to read. Stimulating. Informative. Manna for the budding intellectual, as it were.

Then I went to RPI, and in my freshman year, I assumed the editorship of the student magazine, Perspective. The two guys who had started it were seniors, and they were soon to be out of there anyway. They had a budget from the Student Union, so, hey, cool. I hadn’t made contact with science fiction fandom yet, so I didn’t know about all the folks making do with mimeograph and corflu; I had several hundred dollars to spend on full photo-offset printing, and I learned the most basic skill for getting people to do unpaid work (nagging). I managed to get two issues out, one my freshman year and the other my sophomore year and that was pretty much it for Perspective, but I had quite a bit of fun doing it.

Nietzsche was pretty much the patron saint of Perspective. Rich, one of the outgoing editors, had an article/essay in my first issue titled “Science and Tragedy.” At least, that was his title; I had to yank an illo at the last moment and for layout purposes, I changed the title to “Science and Apollo; Art and Dionysius.” That had been, more-or-less, nearly as I could tell, what he was driving at, a parallel between Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and what C. P. Snow called “The Two Cultures,” except that Rich never mentioned Snow. He was, however, really pissed about my changing his title, which is entirely fair, and entirely my bad. I shouldn’t have done it, and my only excuse is that, if you appoint a freshman as editor of your magazine, you should expect some screwups.

There was also a guy named Greg who had written a pseudononymous critical letter about Perspective, as well as a couple of things for the school literary magazine, The Gorgon. I penetrated his pseudonym through the clever technique of getting drunk with one of his fraternity brothers. By “clever” I mean “totally accidental.” So I met with Greg one afternoon and had a nice chat, and son of a gun, yet another Nietzschean. These guys were just thick on the ground back then; I told you Nietzsche was hip.


A Few Aphorisms from Nietzsche. Note: Don’t expect any of that “whatever does not kill me is a rope stretched across an abyss that looks back at you when you’re hunting monsters because God is dead” stuff. Better you should read The Nietzsche Family Circus.


Discovering that one is loved in return really ought to disenchant the lover with the beloved. "What? This person is low enough to love even me? Or stupid enough? Or -- or ---"

Sometimes in the course of conversation the sound of our own voice disconcerts us and misleads us into making assertions which in no way correspond to our opinions.

A sure means of irritating people and putting evil thoughts into their heads is to keep them waiting a long time.

There is an innocence in admiration; it is found in those to whom it has never occurred that they, too, might be admired some day.

Never to speak about oneself is a very noble piece of hypocrisy.

Talking much about oneself can also be a means to conceal oneself.

The advantage of a bad memory is that one can enjoy the same good things for the first time several times.

Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the best even of their blunders.

Half-knowledge is more victorious than whole knowledge: it understands things as being more simple than they are and this renders its opinions more easily intelligible and more convincing.

Man is very well defended against himself, against being reconnoitered and besieged by himself, he is usually able to perceive of himself only his outer walls. The actual fortress is inaccessible, even invisible to him, unless his friends and enemies play the traitor and conduct him in by a secret path.

An injustice we have perpetrated is much harder to bear than an injustice perpetrated against us...

When our head feels too weak to answer the objections of our opponent our heart answers by casting suspicion on the motives behind his objections.

It is more comfortable to follow one's conscience than one's reason: for it offers an excuse and alleviation if what we undertake miscarries--which is why there are always so many conscientious people and so few reasonable ones.

One has to repay good and ill -- but why precisely to the person who has done us good or ill?


black dog barking said...

Sometimes in the course of conversation the sound of our own voice disconcerts us and misleads us into making assertions which in no way correspond to our opinions.

Observation of innocent conversational gamesmanship or VOICE OF INNER PSYCHOTIC??!!! Man or SUPERMAN??!!!

James Killus said...

I think I'd be voting for the innocent conversational gamesmanship option, although I might question the "innocent" part, as might our boy Freddie.