Hello friendly people, I realized a lot of my essays started as blog posts that got too big for me to put on here. In fact, I started a blog post yesterday with this same opening, and it turned into a three thousand word essay about how my career has been defined by the ten-year diversity boom in publishing, and about my curiosity over what the end of the boom would mean for me (probably professional ruin, mixed with aesthetic freedom). I’m sending it around now, so let’s see what happens.
I’m trying to make a short attempt every day at something else–something beyond any of my current projects. Just free-writing. I also want to expand beyond political punditry and social commentary, because the time for that, I think, is ending. Feels like the sword of a terrible consensus is about to be wielded against the left. But I don’t have a crystal ball, so what do I know.
In the last ten days I’ve read a lot of Nietzsche: Geneology of Morals, Twilight of the Idols, and The Case of Wagner. Right now I am halfway through Thus Spake Zarathustra and I hope to read Ecce Homo and Birth of Tragedy before I am done. I might read Beyond Good and Evil too but according to my records I’ve read it TWICE already, and I don’t remember a word of it.
Nietzsche is an incredible writer. In its parable-like sections, as when Zarathustra picks up and buries a tight-rope walker, his novel is as good as any fiction I’ve read. Underappreciated is that his style changes quite a bit between works. Geneology and the Wagner essay are long essays, relatively serious and focused. Twilight of the Idols is witty and tongue-in-cheek, much more personal (he’d have been a dynamite blogger or tweeter), while Zarathustra is poetic and figurative. I’ve pasted SO MANY of his passages into my little quotationary. It’s been a lot to think about. He’s complex, but not incoherent. For instance, he is a critic of priestly-ascetic societies, those ruled by religious authorities, and in that context, he regularly uses Jewish people as an example. He comes off quite anti-Semitic. But if you read further, it’s clear he doesn’t see any way for most people to live besides in a priestly-aescetic society. By governing and managing peoples’ sublimated will to power, the priests make life bearable for the masses. He’s equally a critic of fascist societies, and he has a long passage in Zarathustra that’s a critique of what would become fascist ideology:
Somewhere there are still peoples and herds, but not where we live, my brothers: here there are states. State? What is that? Well then, open your ears to me, for now I shall speak to you about the death of peoples.
State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” That is a lie! It was creators who created peoples and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life.
It is annihilators who set traps for the many and call them “state”: they hang a sword and a hundred appetites over them.
Where there is still a people, it does not understand the state and hates it as the evil eye and the sin against customs and rights.
State I call it where all drink poison, the good and the wicked; state, where all lose themselves, the good and the wicked; state, where the slow suicide of all is called “life.”
The outlook in Zarathustra is very different from the outlook in others of his works. Zarathustra is quieter, more humane, and leavened with humor. In Zarathustra there is a clear divide between the people, who have his sympathy, and those who attempt to manipulate the people to their own detriment (manipulating people for their own benefit is fine). For instance, early in the book there is a passage where he comes across a sage who is preaching that everything in life is about trying to attain good sleep, but you can only get good sleep by not trying to sleep well:
“Thus passes the day of the virtuous. And when night comes I guard well against calling sleep. For sleep, who is the master of the virtues, does not want to be called. Instead, I think about what I have done and thought during the day. Chewing the cud, I ask myself, patient as a cow, Well, what were your ten overcomings? and what were your ten reconciliations and the ten truths and the ten laughters with which your heart edified itself? Weighing such matters and rocked by forty thoughts, I am suddenly overcome by sleep, the uncalled, the master of the virtues. Sleep knocks at my eyes: they become heavy. Sleep touches my mouth: it stays open. Verily, on soft soles he comes to me, the dearest of thieves, and steals my thoughts: stupid I stand, like this chair here. But n Iiot for long do I stand like this: soon I lie.
When Zarathustra heard the sage speak thus he laughed in his heart, for an insight had come to him. And thus he spoke to his heart:
“This sage with his forty thoughts is a fool; but I believe that he knows well how to sleep. Happy is he that even lives near this sage! Such sleep is contagious—contagious even through a thick wall. There is magic even in his chair; and it is not in vain that the youths sit before this preacher of virtue. His wisdom is: to wake in order to sleep well. And verily, if life had no sense and I had to choose nonsense, then I too should consider this the most sensible nonsense.
“Now I understand clearly what was once sought above all when teachers of virtue were sought. Good sleep was sought, and opiate virtues for it. For all these much praised sages who were teachers of virtue, wisdom was the sleep without dreams: they knew no better meaning of life.
Great stuff! If I was giving someone a reading list, I’d definitely say to read Geneology of Morals and then Zarathustra and you’d basically get the gist of it, no?
He’s much closer to being a psychologist than what I’d consider a philosopher. Indeed, he frequently calls himself a psychologist, as in this passage from Twilight:
L’art pour l’art. The fight against purpose in art is always a fight against the moralizing tendency in art, against its subordination to morality. L’art pour l’art means, “The devil take morality!” But even this hostility still betrays the overpowering force of the prejudice. When the purpose of moral preaching and of improving man has been excluded from art, it still does not follow by any means that art is altogether purposeless, aimless, senseless—in short, l’art pour l’art, a worm chewing its own tail. “Rather no purpose at all than a moral purpose!”—that is the talk of mere passion. A psychologist, on the other hand, asks: what does all art do? does it not praise? glorify? choose? prefer? With all this it strengthens or weakens certain valuations. Is this merely a “moreover”? an accident? something in which the artist’s instinct had no share? Or is it not the very presupposition of the artist’s ability? Does his basic instinct aim at art, or rather at the sense of art, at life? at a desirability of life? Art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l’art pour l’art?
Generally when faced with a question, he brings it back to, what is the purpose of this thing for human beings today on Earth. This means most metaphysical questions are meaningless to him. In fact, he seems to have inspired both phenomenology and Freudian psychology with his insistence that what is apparent is much more real than all the psychological essences people search for underneath the apparent:
Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage—whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body.
There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom. And who knows why your body needs precisely your best wisdom?
Your self laughs at your ego and at its bold leaps. “What are these leaps and flights of thought to me?” it says to itself. “A detour to my end. I am the leading strings of the ego and the prompter of its concepts.”
The self says to the ego, “Feel pain here!” Then the ego suffers and thinks how it might suffer no more—and that is why it is made to think.
The self says to the ego, “Feel pleasure here!” Then the ego is pleased and thinks how it might often be pleased again—and that is why it is made to think.
I could go on and on. The fun of quoting Nietzsche is that he’s very readable, even in short passages, so there’s no need to distill him down into a sentence or two. What a genius.
At this point I should probably talk about his misogyny. Unlike his anti-Semitism, the misogyny is untempered by respect. His most famous quote about women is: “Everything about woman is a riddle, and everything about woman has one solution: that is pregnancy. Man is for woman a means: the end is always the child.”
But isn’t it kind of tedious to dwell upon that? Of course that’s the outlook of his philosophy! His philosophy is essentially liberal: it’s about individual humans as atomized, self-actualizing people, who achieve greatness by remaking reality. Pregnancy and motherhood stand very much outside that paradigm. You cannot be free and self-actualizing when you’re caring for a child. You need to subsume your aims in the kid’s aims. Of course it’s possible to freely choose motherhood and freely assume the virtues of motherhood–to choose to embrace your fetters–but if you don’t freely embrace those things, then tough–if you have a baby then you’re a mother, and if you don’t take care of it, you’re a monster, and not even Nietzsche can get around that. Motherhood is the essential ground for human psychology: without motherhood, there could be no Nietzscheanism. But his philosophy doesn’t account for the inherent sense of constraint engendered by motherhood. So the only possible solution is to dehumanize women and put them outside his philosophical bounds. For Nietzsche to not be misogynist would be impossible. And his misogyny serves to us as a useful warning, a tip-off as to the limits of this kind of worldview. It can be mined for insight, but not adopted wholesale.
Nietzsche doesn’t really want anyone to adopt it wholesale though. All he seems to want is for his ideas to be respected, and they’re certainly worthy of our respect.
I know the bare outlines of his life, but I also got a biography written by his most famous translator, Walter Kaufmann, the man who rehabilitated and denazified Nietszche. Other translators exist, but all the passages here are from Kaufmann translations. I’ve been reading two editions, both assembled by Kaufmann:
- The Basic Writings of Nietzsche contains Birth of Tragedy, Beyond Good and Evil, Geneology of Morals, Ecce Homo and selections from some of his aphoristic works (he also wrote a bunch of books that are just disconnected aphorisms)
- The Portable Nietzsche has Thus Spake Zarathustra, Twilight of the Idols, Case Against Wagner, and The Antichrist.
A bit bizarre that the books are divided up in that way, but together they form a great set.
Subscribe if you want to receive my posts as a newsletter