Overweening Generalist

Monday, August 1, 2011

Thoughts On Nietzsche

I think Plato and Nietzsche are the two best writers of philosophy in the entire Western tradition. Yes, Plato thought writing harmed memory and was a debased form of speech, and took us further from those Eternal Verities in some Perfect Dimension...that's what's so funny about him!

Also: how could the dude who wrote The Symposium be the same guy who wrote The Laws AND Timaeus? Does anyone have a good explanation for such radical shifts in perspective within one body of writing?

But I wanted to write about Fred N.

- Reading Fred's rough life, I understand more about writing oneself out of the doldrums and into a heightened, almost drugged euphoric state. In this he isn't the only one, but he spotlighted this aspect of writing for me. There is a letter Vico (1668-1744) wrote to a friend, in which Vico was in a massive creative rush, heroic and exalted. It is easy to suppose a problem with mania there, but then look at most of the "geniuses."

- I was searching for something about McLuhan the other day, and in Marchand's biography there was a passage in which Neil Postman - a main architect of Media Ecology - addressed McLuhan's method of "probing," and asking question after question as part of these probes. Probes are not foremost about trying to get a "right" or even "good" answer; they are more about actuating thought about an idea we probably would not have pondered without the probe. And Postman said McLuhan's probes were similar to Nietzsche's style, and I think that's right. Nietzsche, in the 1870s or thereabouts, suddenly asks, "What if women are right?"

- One of my favorite lines is something like: "There are gods but there is no God - and this alone is divine." I have often picked up my Nietzsche books and randomly read in them, often not noting which book, but only seeking his voice for a few minutes. His tones, even in translations, are unmistakeable.

- I see Fred N. as the first postmodernist, because of his very clear takes on language and abstractions. At the same time, there are clearly paleomodernist ideas galore in N, and then there's the pre-Socratic stuff that's...a knockout, really. And again: one never really knows when or to what extent, he is putting us on. He obviously saw the role of philosopher as Public Nuisance...One professor I heard said many undergrads read Fred and see him as some hulking madman, muscular and threatening. But of course, Fred was always sick. He was fragile. He was socially awkward, partly due to genes, partly due to his family's uptight religiosity. He dressed like a dandy...

- And yet: he is Immortal. (And I assert, still often read poorly.) Fred Is Not Dead!

- Robert Anton Wilson wrote one of my favorite pieces on Fred, and it's here.

                         Fred, circa 1864. "Maybe if I philosophized with a hammer...?"

Hitler tried to use Fred as philosophical ballast for his Nazi Party. And I've seen - and read - plenty of writers (especially of Jewish heritage) who tar Fred with this. And I do not hold it against Jews or anyone else if they finger Fred as precursor to Holocaust. I do think it's a mistake, though. I think Fred would've been horrified at the Nazis. (See his letter to his sister, Christmas, 1887, and other writings from around the same time.)

I see Fred N's milieu and sure, he writes a lot about the Greeks - and especially Socrates and Plato - and all the Dionysian stuff, which I love. But I think the philology-trained Nietzsche saw the eminence of Hegel and was reacting to him: how to be original in Hegel's shadow? And Fred carried it off masterfully!

But here's the thing: the older I get the more strongly I feel that Nietzsche is one of those great philosophers of whom it is a huge mistake to read with an intent towards your own life and the social-political world outside; I see Fred N. as an almost ideal - speaking for myself here - thinker for one's private life. I think his idea that we must transcend ourselves is crucial, and is about how some of us seek to not be a copy of anyone else; we want to realize that spark of the infinite within us. We want to be private ironists, to borrow rather liberally from Rorty. We can also have our public lives, and we care about cruelty and liberty and egalitarian ideas. We still care about democratic ideas.

But our private lives of self-creation, of developing our own vocabularies, are where Nietzsche comes in. Let some other Great Thinkers inform us in our political lives.
I tend toward the interpretation - my main way of unpacking - Nietzsche's "God is dead," thing along the lines of something like "As of the second half of the 19th century, we can see that people want to be Believers in God, but it's a choice, and only one among many. They do not 'believe' in the way people in the 12th century believed. Most people go to church because it's like eating broccoli when you don't really like broccoli: you eat it because it's supposed to be 'good for you.' And church is a nifty way to compare clothes with your fellow parishioners. It's also a good way to establish business contacts. And besides, we want the kids to have some sort of tradition. Finally: you never know. What if there really is a 'God'? Then accepting Jesus as our savior and going to church on Sunday for two hours is good fire insurance."

Furthermore, I don't read Nietzsche here as saying that God was dead for everyone; I assume he knew there were naive true believers out there. And Kierkegaardian ones, too.
Because I often write here in a manner far too frivolous; I feel compelled to add some gravity, and once again, I invoke the Good Professor Carlin, this time on Nietzsche's (probably?) second most-quoted line: "Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger." Professor? Take it away!

"Here's more bullshit middlebrow philosophy: 'That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger.' I've got something a little more realistic: 'That which doesn't kill me still may sever my spinal cord, crush my rib cage, cave in my skull, and leave me helpless and paralyzed, soaking in a puddle of my own waste.' Put that on your T-shirt, touchy-feely, New Age asshole!" - Napalm and Silly Putty, p.78

[For those of you who never met Professor Carlin: he was a hulking, muscular, threatening behemoth of a man, the very picture certain neo-Nazi types have of the ubermensch. The above passage is clearly a critique of latter-20th century consumerist readings of Fred. Prof. Carlin died a couple years ago, and I'm told it was with great dignity.]


ARW23 said...

Nietzsche got under my skin by questioning me as a reader. His "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" really shook me first time I read it and now it travels with me wherever I go. I experience Nietzsche as a very powerful and poetic philosopher. Brilliant thinker! On a personal note, one of the easiest philosophers to connect with.

And I agree with you: "Fred is not dead". God is dead but not Fred.

michael said...

Ah! Apparently, just as you were addressing "God is dead," I added a brief bit on that. I hope you like it, ARW23.

You and the four other people who still read this blog...

ARW23 said...

I like broccoli but I do not like church.

I go to church for architectural experience (I like baroque churches), or to listen to some organ music (I like the acoustics), or to cool off on a hot summer day when there is no air conditioning around.

"Whatever you believe imprisons you." - RAW, "Illuminati Papers"

michael said...

Okay, but what about Marxism and Darwininism. What about Freudianism and surrealism? What about feminism? Anarchism? Buddhism? Shirley Chisholm?

alexis said...

I support your thesis

michael said...

@alexis: Thanks, alexis. My thesis - and I guess I had one - needs support, what with all that sagging around the edges.

michael said...

I see, on 21 September, some curious individual arrived at my blog by typing - probably into Google search - "where does Nietzsche say whatever does not kill us makes us stronger?"

I case anyone else wonders: see Twilight of the Idols, under the section "Maxims and Arrows," number 8, which in my Walter Kaufmann translation reads:

"Out of life's school of war: What does not destroy me makes me stronger."