Reading Nietzsche: On the Writing Process

Due to his deteriorating mental condition near the end of his life, Nietzsche never did what a lot of writers do in their twilight: offer insight into their writing process and thoughts on their own work. That is, I thought Nietzsche never did that, until I read this passage from Beyond Good and Evil:

Alas, and yet what are you, my written and painted thoughts! It is not long ago that you were still so many-coloured, young and malicious, so full of thorns and hidden spices you made me sneeze and laugh—and now? You have already taken off your novelty and some of you, I fear, are on the point of becoming truths: they already look so immortal, so pathetically righteous, so boring! And has it ever been otherwise? For what things do we write and paint, we mandarins with Chinese brushes, we immortalizers of things which let themselves be written, what alone are we capable of painting? Alas, only that which is about to wither and is beginning to lose its fragrance! Alas, only storms departing exhausted and feelings grown old and yellow! Alas, only birds strayed and grown—in our hand! We immortalize that which cannot live and fly much longer, weary and mellow things alone! And it is only your afternoon, my written and painted thoughts, for which alone I have the colours, many colours perhaps, many many-couloured tendernesses and fifty yellows and browns and greens and reds: —but no one will divine from these how you looked in your morning, you sudden sparks and wonders of my solitude, you my old beloved—wicked thoughts!

While, in his usual fashion, Nietzsche relishes in linguistic acrobatics in lieu of straightforwardness, even when supposedly offering some kind of introspective illumination, he still manages with this passage to give us a look into the writer’s mind, if only briefly. And he does so in a strange way: by writing a letter to his own words, as if once on the page, they not only existed outside of his mind but could change on their own, and could, presumably, communicate ideas not entirely Nietzsche’s (how prophetic!).

I must admit, it’s downright comforting to realize that even Nietzsche, who could write about paint drying and make it interesting (if not controversial), bemoaned the challenge of putting thoughts to paper while keeping their initial dynamism. Even Nietzsche apparently found it hard at times to translate the flickerings of brilliance that we all experience—either while drifting off to sleep or while pausing to look out the window during work, or while driving down an almost abandoned street in the middle of a stark night—into a coherent, let alone captivating, text.

Nietzsche also must’ve been frustrated by that all-too-human process of self-editing, whereby we always ask ourselves what so-and-so would say (for me it’s my 10th-grade English teacher), whether the thing we’re writing is any good at all, or if that em dash should really be a colon or vice versa. It’s always a good idea to read your own writing, but this net that we cast can also sometimes catch some flashes of beauty, truth, or real meaning, and perhaps there might be something lost in the process. Even before we get to the computer or find some paper to write on, the initial thought we had is turned over in our minds: is shaped, refined, and constrained.

Of course, this passage only makes me more intrigued about what Nietzsche didn’t write, or edited out, considering what eventually did end up on the page set the bar for all philosophy (in the West, at least) ever since. Luckily, there’s stoo so much of his writing which I haven’t read yet, so it’s back to the book! …

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