Reading Nietzsche: On Fires, Literal and Figurative

In June of 1871, Nietzsche wrote a letter to his friend Carl von Gersdorff, in which he mentions the Paris Commune (still no direct mention of Marx, though, frustratingly). He appears torn, if only temporarily, between the horror he experienced upon learning that the revolutionaries burned or otherwise damaged several historic buildings (including the Louvre) in their “fight against culture,” and the resigned acceptance that, in the final analysis, the communists were following the advice that would come to dominate Nietzsche’s own principles: the re-valuation of all values—the breaking of moral convention (“He who creates must by definition destroy,” to paraphrase lazily).

He writes:

I know what it means, the fight against culture. When I heard of the fires in Paris, I felt for several days annihilated and was overwhelmed by fears and doubts; the entire scholarly, scientific, philosophical, and artistic existence seemed an absurdity, if a single day could wipe out the most glorious works of art, even whole periods of art; I clung with earnest conviction to the metaphysical value of art, which cannot exist for the sake of poor human beings but which has higher missions to fulfill. But even when the pain was at its worst, I could not cast a stone against those blasphemers, who were to me only carriers of the general guilt, which gives much food for thought.

This tension between glorifying cultural achievement (which, more than military achievement, is what Nietzsche is mostly writing about when, for instance, he extols the “German spirit”) and the rupture of the status-quo must’ve caused him much vexation, for he seemingly had no problem with Rome burning (“The whole Roman empire was nothing compared to Athens,” he once wrote, to again lazily quote). He was no friend of socialism either, or at least in the idea of grand ideological projects of any kind. One wonders what he would’ve thought if he had worked in a factory instead of at his sinecure in somewhat high society, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Wagner and reading Greek tragedies—in Greek.

He was, however, pressed into service as an orderly, but found the whole experience to be somewhat of a fraternal romp: good old fashioned Saxon fun. That Nietzsche would later come to both deny the genius of Wagner, that once-great mensch, and the very authority of the Reich to which all art was supposed to honor (“The stronger the State, the fainter is humanity,” and “Deutschland Deutschland über alles, this is the end of German philosophy,” he wrote) surely points to the importance of this earlier personal conundrum.

I am reminded of the burning of the Governor’s Mansion here in Austin five years ago, which most deemed unthinkable, considering Sam Houston himself resided there (and burned Lincoln’s letter in the fireplace there). Yes, it’s a symbol of oppression, if not of decadent absurdity, but it’s historic. Does that give it value that trumps its current function? It should be noted that although no suspects were ever brought to justice—or, to my knowledge, even identified—most news outlets described the perpetrator(s) as anarchists. That alone is unintentionally elucidating—pun intended.

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