Reading Nietzsche: the Memoirs/Nothing Nazi About Nietzsche

Here’s a review of a new Nietzsche biography, The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche. The review (astutely titled “Nothing Nazi About Nietzsche”) wastes no time mentioning the damage Nietzsche’s sister did to his (Nietzsche’s) reputation:

Rabidly anti-Semitic (in later years she would support Hitler), Elisabeth rewrote and restructured Nietzsche’s unpublished manuscripts so as to make this anti-racist internationalist read like a Nazi before the fact. Worse, says Blue, most of Nietzsche’s biographers have written books bent out of shape by their unthinking acceptance of Elisabeth’s ‘statements and stories as uncontroversial facts’. Hence The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche, a volume which ‘aspires to be the biography that Nietzsche himself might have composed if he had possessed the inclination and the time’.

Yet Nietzsche did write autobiographies at various points throughout his life, and they all apparently feature his mother:

‘Autobiography’ was what Nietzsche wrote ‘in order to see who he was’. On the evidence adduced here, what he was was a mummy’s boy. As late as her son’s undergraduate days, Franziska Nietzsche was still lecturing him on what coat and trousers to wear in the rain. And whenever a more metaphysical storm broke, mum was always Nietzsche’s first port of call.

And while the review is not exactly a rave one, it does laud what I’m intending to do here, i.e. actually read Nietzsche’s work:

But does Blue offer as radically new a portrait of Nietzsche as he claims? On the whole, I’m afraid, no. In essence, what this book does is translate into biographical terms the more analytical findings of Walter Kaufmann’s still groundbreaking study Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Prior to the publication of that book in 1950, it was a critical commonplace that Nietzsche was a crazed Teutonic supremacist whose poetic ranting was of no philosophical worth. Kaufmann went back to the original texts to show how, far from being a proto-dictator, Nietzsche (who once called himself the ‘last anti-political German’) was in fact a proto-existentialist — a rationalist moralist who believed that the only thing worth conquering was the self.

“A rationalist moralist who believed that the only thing worth conquering was the self.” What an elegant description!

I haven’t read Nietzsche in months (too busy with Infinite Jest and, now, The Goldfinch). If nothing else, this review has reminded me to continue this project. After all, I didn’t really set an end date, and Nietzsche, in my experience, is best processed by periods of long reflection and brisk walks. In fact, I can think of no better way to celebrate the end of another work day by bringing my anthology down to the bar and revisiting the father of (modern) existentialism—during timeouts of the basketball game, of course.


The Ethics of Water

Here’s an unintentionally useful essay on the origin of morality: Where Do Morals Come From?

It’s got everything from game theory to nihilism to erudite, ivory-tower ontology. It even mentions Nietzsche—if only to refute him. The conclusion:

We are all anthropologists now. What are we to do? Stay home? Go native? Be hybrid? Keane does not venture an answer to these questions.

However we answer these questions for ourselves, we cannot escape the phenomenological tension between the first-, second-, and third-person perspectives on ethical life. Some will seek refuge in the first person. They will seek to be “true to themselves,” to “listen to their inner voice,” and they will respond to challenges with a mix of apology and indignation. Others will immerse themselves in the second person. They will value loyalty to the “tribe,” and respond to “outsiders” with a mix of indifference and hostility. Still others—intellectuals, mostly—will take shelter in the third person. They will place a high value on toleration and acceptance, and they will respond to challenges with a phlegmatic aloofness. The problem is that none of us can stand still in any perspective for very long. The affordances of our minds and our languages, and the demands of social cooperation and interaction, will not permit it for long. We cannot escape ethical life. Nor can we find peace in it, either.

What is an ethical life: this life we can neither escape nor rest in? The best attempt at an answer that I can recall comes from Derrick Jensen, who wrote that morality should be based on water: whatever leads to more potable water for future generations of humans and non-humans is “good.” That answer is simple (and as was written above the blackboard in my World Cultures class in high school: “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, ready, and wrong,” or something like that). But so, too, are all the other just-as-wrong answers, and at least it doesn’t require page upon page of postmodern, snake-eating-its-own-tail “reasoning.”


“When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” Revisited

The first poem I posted on Coming Soon: A Vast Desert was John Milton’s “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent.” You can read the poem and my initial commentary here (this was March 2013).

Then, I thought the poem was about being human in both an indifferent universe in general and specifically in a society set up inhumanely: “Or, as a friend once wrote in a letter to me about not following our natural inclinations to be outside, seek sunlight, eat real food, and so on—in short, to put ourselves into cubicles: Why are we constantly at odds with ourselves?”

I still think the question of existence is central to our understanding of alienation, in that we seek so many things and will “post o’er Land and Ocean without rest” to get them, but among those things we don’t usually include simple happiness, or quiet contentment, or the freedom of boredom. We seek to use our talents in order to impress others, to be validated externally (and constantly)—and all the while we find ourselves less happy, less connected (see: previous post about the downsides of the internet (there are few upsides)). Why wake up every day and do it all over again, is the key question: to be or not to be, as Shakespeare (and then Nietzsche, and then Camus) asked. Can’t life’s purpose just be happiness?

Reading Infinite Jest (I’m about 1/3 of the way through, thankyouverymuch) has brought this question off the back burner, which itself strikes me as silly because what’s more important than asking why we should get up every day and do X over and over when A.) we can at any time choose to “eliminate our own map” as D.F.W. puts it, and B.) even the longest life, chosen, is but a half-wink in geological time, i.e. meaningless at a certain not-even-infinite scale? Some say it’s a gift; others say it’s a test. But both of those scenarios require explanatory magic tricks. Nietzsche (and then Camus) thought it was a blank canvas, our life, and that human-assigned meaning was not only adequate but actually superior to naïve or desperate overtures to the capricious but binding blueprints laid down by some sky-parent; all the better to create an existence, knowing full-well one can end it at any time, if nothing else than as a middle finger to cosmic serfdom, but also perhaps as the only avenue to worldly, real joy. Camus: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Reading Nietzsche: Reading Camus

“He said of himself that he was the first complete nihilist in Europe,” Camus wrote about Nietzsche in The Rebel, adding: “Not by choice, but by condition, and because he was too great to refuse the heritage of his time.” Camus explains:

The “can one live as rebel?” became with him “can one live believing in nothing?” His reply is affirmative. Yes, if one creates a system out of absence of faith, if one accepts the final consequences of nihilism, and if, on emerging into the desert and putting one’s confidence in what is going to come, one feels, with the same primitive instinct, both pain and joy.

That quote could easily, and eloquently, be the “about” section of this blog. Here’s an equally eloquent summary, again from The Rebel:

From the moment that man submits God to moral judgment, he kills Him in his own heart. And then what is the basis of morality? God is denied in the name of justice, but can the idea of justice be understood without the idea of God? At this point are we not in the realm of absurdity? Absurdity is the concept that Nietzsche meets face to face. In order to be able to dismiss it, he pushes it to extremes: morality is the ultimate aspect of God, which must be destroyed before reconstruction can begin. Then God no longer exists and is no longer responsible for our exiatence; man must resolve to act, in order to exist.

The first sentence of that section brings up a point I hadn’t previously considered: that even attempting to know god’s intentions—and then to scrutinize them and apply them to future action—necessarily negates god as a supreme anything. What kind of diety with any power to speak of needs to be, well, spoken of—let alone endlessly discussed?

Reading Nietzsche: Anti-Education

Here’s a review in The Guardian of a newly published series of Nietzsche lectures called Anti-Education. The lectures themselves and the resulting analysis are surely useful, but in the brief biography the author uses to set up the piece, there is perhaps the most concise summary of the anti-education about Nietzsche himself I’ve ever read:

Until his death in 1900 Nietzsche remained a mute invalid under the guardianship of his sister Elisabeth, a repulsive individual with whom he quarrelled bitterly when she married an antisemitic high school teacher, Bernhard Förster, and accompanied him to found an “Aryan” colony, Nueva Germania, in Paraguay. Following the failure of the fly-blown settlement and the suicide of her husband, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche continued promoting racist ideas by seizing control of her helpless brother’s writings, establishing a Nietzsche Archive and methodically deleting passages in which he lambasted the “race swindle”. For this service she was duly rewarded. On the basis of a highly selective biography and a heavily redacted compilation of Nietzsche’s writings that she published under the title The Will to Power, she was several times nominated by admiring German academics for the Nobel prize in literature. When she died in 1935, Hitler attended her funeral.

It would be fantastic if, some day, people would stop mentioning The Will to Power in the same breath as Nietzsche altogether, but I’m of course pessimistic about such an outcome. That he never wrote the work—and that it’s antithetical to his project—never seems to stop people from citing it, and then proclaiming to understand what he meant, having never read it or any other of Nietzsche’s writings. “You have to take power by any means necessary,” is usually the philosophy, if we can call it that, that most assume from the title and related connotations.

Anyway, on to the lectures. Here’s another concise summary:

There is more than a little truth in Nietzsche’s indictment. But to reach this nugget, you will have to wade through pages of Romantic gibberish about the aristocracy of the spirit and the privileges of genius, which foreshadow the absurd figure of the Übermensch that he concocted in his later work as a redeemer for modern times. But when he observed that education was increasingly being shaped by external forces, Nietzsche was on to something important. A shift of the sort that was under way in 19th-century Germany began in the UK with the regime of monitoring and assessing research that was imposed in the late 1980s. Until that time universities had been autonomous institutions. Now they have to justify themselves as somehow increasing national output – a requirement that denies that intellectual life has value as an end in itself and assumes everything of importance can be measured.

The only exception I’ll take with this analysis is that ubermensch—literally over-man—was perhaps not invoked as some sort of messiah figure, but was instead intended to be internalized by each and every one of us—or at least those with the courage to be open and vulnerable; we all have the capacity to rise above (overcome, better said) the temptation to simply follow orders, to muddle through a banal existence in a cold, indifferent universe, to take whatever meaning is handed to us by demagogues and “poison-mixers” (what he called people who preached of other, heavenly worlds). That’s perhaps just my reading of his use of the term, but I say that having a hard time believing that someone who makes their own meaning, usually through the destruction of conventional wisdom, would just sit around waiting for anybody. But moving on…

The author of the article ties in more recent trends in academia, notably the protests about making campuses “safe spaces” and the like, as if to say Nietzsche would disapprove vehemently, given that he would frown on any attempt to put a lid on free expression, anywhere. I’m not so sure this is true; he might applaud students’ efforts to not simply take the history that has been handed to them. And if they’re attempting to destroy old values in the place of new ones—which inherently calls all values into question—then he might support such a cause—or at least not publicly denounce it. I hesitate to add my own comment to the campus debates, mostly because I’m not on campus anymore, and the interest of the corporate media to sensationalize and polarize every, little, event—or statement, or tweet—makes discerning the facts of any case almost impossible. Furthermore, since schools are, at heart, socialization machines for the dominant culture at best (or is it worst? since otherwise they’re simply warehouses, but at least there’s a chance of a fruit or vegetable somewhere), then I tend to disagree with almost all of their policies anyway.

News from Nowhere

Why do people dream of utopias?

Terry Eagelton thinks it’s more rhetorical than utilitarian—and either way you can’t win if you’re on the Left:

Radicals thus find themselves under fire from opposite directions. If they refuse to debate what kind of cultural policies might flourish under socialism, for example, they are being shifty; if they hand you a thick bunch of documents on the question, they are guilty of blue-printing. Perhaps it is impossible to draw a line between being too agnostic about the future and being too assured about it.

As I begin to write that I’m not particularly fond of utopian theorizing (techno-topianism being my least favorite variety), I glance over to the shelf and realize that I have almost all the books mentioned in Eagelton’s article, including Utopia, News from Nowhere, almost all of Marx’s writing, and even an anthology of utopias in literature. Woops.

One could also argue that Nietzschean individualism, too, is a kind of utopia of the person, but Nietzsche is so anti-purity-cult that it’s hard to put him in the category of starry-eyed optimists (discounting Zarathustra, which surrenders coherent points to wild, fantastical visions and impossible—if not undesirable—dreams of ruling the world from a lonely mountaintop). In fact, if you take seriously the claim that everything that can happen has already happened infinite times in every possible variation, and thus will happen again infinitely more, then it’s difficult to join with any kind of genuine intention any large-scale project, be it a cultural institution or a nation-state. And it’s hard to build a utopia without an army.

Reading Nietzsche: On the myth of statist history

Hegel: “What happens to a people and occurs within it has its essential significance in its relation to the state; the mere particularities of the individuals are most remote from this subject matter of history.” But the state is always only a means for the preservation of many individuals: how could it be the aim? The hope is that with the preservation of so many blanks one may also protect a few in whom humanity culminates. Otherwise it makes no sense at all to preserve so many wretched human beings. The history of the state is the history of the egoism of the masses and of the blind desire to exist; this striving is justified to some extent only in the geniuses, inasmuch as they can thus exist. Individual and collective egoisms struggling against each other—an atomic whirl of egoisms—who would look for aims here?

Through the genius something does result from this atomic whirl after all, and now one forms a milder opinion concerning the senselessness of this procedure—as if a blind hunter fired hundreds of times in vain and finally, by sheer accident, hit a bird. A result at last, he says to himself, and goes on firing.


One may read the “wretched human beings” line and become alarmed, but the point here is not that human beings are categorically wretched, but rather that the State makes so many of them that way, through the inherent logic of totalitarian control (or even the attempt at such), be it through doctrinal caste or capitalist competition. Thus, “achievements” of the State are completed not because of, but in spite of the governmental apparatus. Accidents of history tend to only accentuate the “positive” aspects of hierarchy based on resources (e.g. Golden Age Athens) while glossing over the much more numerous negatives. Would we have the Golden Gate Bridge if it weren’t for the Industrial Revolution? No. But that assumes we need the bridge in the first place, and also that all the other requisites and consequences of industrialization make the bridge worth the price.


“All political and economic arrangements are not worth it, that precisely the most gifted spirits should be permitted, or even obliged, to manage them: such a waste of spirit is really worse than an extremity. These are and remain fields of work for the lesser heads, and other than lesser heads should not be at the service of this workshop: it were better to let the machine go to pieces again.”  – Friedrich Nietzsche