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On the Edge

Nietzsche: A Critical Life

by Ronald Hayman
Oxford University Press, 424 pp., $19.95

All philosophers and their doctrines belong to the history of culture but most thinkers of importance in the history of culture are not philosophers. I am stipulating a fairly strict notion of philosopher, according to which Descartes is a philosopher but Montaigne and Pascal are not, Peirce and William James are philosophers, Emerson is not, John Stuart Mill is a philosopher, Carlyle is not. We can certainly understand “philosopher” in a broader sense than this; but there is a plain difference, worth paying attention to, between the work of a thinker whose credit rests upon the force of his argument rather than upon the truth of his conclusions, and one whose structures of language, even where they are argumentative, are evaluated by the use of other than logical criteria. It seems odd to ask, though perhaps it didn’t seem odd to contemporaries, if Carlyle is “right” in what he has to say in Sartor Resartus, whereas we are quite certain this is the proper question to ask about most of what Mill writes.

Nietzsche is hard to place. Two distinguished modern philosophers, Jaspers and Heidegger, have written books about him. The late Hannah Arendt devoted much attention to him in her expanded Gifford Lectures, Thinking and Willing. When fifteen or twenty years ago a new wave of theologians sawed off the bough on which they were perched by proclaiming in chorus the death of God, they got the idea from Nietzsche.

Now, the Nietzschean writings provide wonderful material for that rococo theorizing about rhetoric, grammar, and philosophy associated with the work of Derrida.1 We find in Nietzsche, according to Derrida, “l’affirmation d’un monde de signes sans faute, sans vérité, sans origine, offert à une interprétation active” (to mix translation with commentary, for a straight translation wouldn’t be informative: Nietzsche maintains that the world of language is a world within which questions of truth, of real meaning, don’t arise, even the concepts of “error” or “origin” are not needed for the task of active interpretation, for we are not concerned when we are faced with a literary text with questions about a real meaning or a correct interpretation or a true representation).

We can certainly understand Nietzsche’s place in the history of deconstructionism; and Nietzsche’s own writings, especially the aphoristic sections, are in their conjunctions susceptible of an indefinite variety of interpretations, so that in connection with them it looks as though the principle of responsibility to a text may be discarded. Quite certainly this thought would not have pleased Nietzsche, for he thought himself engaged in forming the European mind and telling his readers what they were to expect in the future.

After carefully reading Mr. Hayman’s Life, looking again at Zarathustra and (especially) Beyond Good and Evil—the latter is marvelous to read—and thinking about what Walter Kaufmann, R.J. Hollingdale, Arthur C. Danto, and Hayman himself have to say about the body of Nietzsche’s work, I conclude that Nietzsche is among the philosophers and not the sages, with Kant and Hume and Mill and Peirce, rather than with Carlyle and Emerson. His intentions were on the whole, though with painful lapses before the enterprise was swallowed up in madness, philosophical. He was provoked into philosophizing by Schopenhauer (almost the only thing he has in common with Wittgenstein), in whose pages he found a first grim sketch of his own mind. “I was looking into a mirror that reflected the world, life and my own mind with hideous magnificence.”

From this beginning, that is, from a philosophical starting point that was determined more by affinity of temper than by intellectual perplexity or by the cogency of an encountered argument, he advanced in a spirit of intellectual irresponsibility and with immense self-indulgence to the dreadful moment when he thinks himself to be many great men and even a god. When I speak of irresponsibility and self-indulgence I don’t refer to any commonplace weaknesses but to the necessary consequences of philosophical positions he embraced, grappled to himself, from very early in his career.

Nietzsche was a philologist by training and profession but, like any other cultivated central European of that period, he was widely read in classical and modern philosophy. His concern with language led him to think about problems of a kind that are today central in philosophy in the English-speaking world. Many paragraphs or fragments within his work strike us as parts of an analysis that belongs to the middle of the twentieth century rather than to the late decades of the nineteenth. I think this is sometimes misleading; indeed, it has, I believe, seriously misled Mr. Hayman. But here and there the resemblances are striking, not so much in the conclusions, where—and this is rare in Nietzsche—we are able to speak of conclusions, as in the flavor of the argument and in the relationship between language and thought that is or seems to be suggested.

Despite their having shared an initiation into philosophical perplexity through the reading of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are in the end as far apart, almost, as it is possible to be. Wittgenstein always took the view, as much at the time of the Tractatus as in his last work, that the natural languages in their ordinary use are perfectly in order; all the forms of philosophical skepticism and agnosticism in the tradition of the Cartesians and the empiricists spring, not from the character of our language but from a failure to attend to its character. Philosophical theses that go against “common sense,” e.g., the thesis that it is merely probable that others have sensations like mine or that there are no absolutely certain factual statements, are not false but without sense; they spring not from an application to experience of the logic of our language but from a failure to understand this logic.

Nietzsche, on the contrary, thought, as Danto puts it, that philosophy “has been not so much a deviation from ordinary usage as a projection of the grammatical structure of ordinary language onto the neutral screen of reality.”2 The human mind is necessarily bogged down in the syntactical and semantic features of the natural languages; and since linguistic categories represent the consciousness of the masses, the “herd,” Nietzsche is able to bring together his epistemological doctrine and his contempt for the slaves who always compose the majority of the race. Faith in human language and in the possibility that truth can be established and stated is thus for Nietzsche a part of that slave morality, the work of Judaism and Christianity, which ravages our culture like a disease, to be cured only by the application of a fierce, hard purge prescribed by those aristocratic spirits who are the forerunners of the Übermensch, the Superman.

When, therefore, he writes: “I am afraid we shall not get rid of God until we get rid of grammar,” he is announcing a program as well as making a diagnosis. Of course, it is a program that can’t be realized, for it is another Nietzschean doctrine that the error that necessarily attaches to all human thought is biologically useful; the race wouldn’t have survived without its incurable propensity to believe what is false. The outlook is bleak. No wonder Nietzsche already as a young man found the northern mythology a source of pleasure and excitement.

That twilight of the gods, as the sun goes black, the earth sinks into the sea and whirlpools of fire uproot the all-nourishing cosmic tree, flames licking the heavens—it is the greatest idea human genius ever produced, unsurpassed in the literature of any period, infinitely bold and formidable, but melting into magic harmonies.

This is the Nietzsche who will be captivated by Wagner and Cosima, by their detestable outlook on life as well as by the music, until, with Parsifal, he finds that Wagner falls away from aristocratic morality into the morality of the slaves, portraying this morality in its most vulgar form, that of the Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation. Nietzsche’s attitude to Catholicism is curiously connected with his notions of purity and pollution. When his friend Romundt decided to become a Catholic, Nietzsche wrote to Rohde: “I sometimes feel it is the most evil thing anyone could do to me…. Our good, clean, Protestant atmosphere!… Does the wretch want to turn his back on all these liberating influences? Is he still in his right mind or should he be treated with cold baths?” Of course, Protestantism too propagated the slave morality of pity and compassion; but no doubt what he liked about German Christianity in the Lutheran tradition was its relative freedom from asceticism and its benevolence toward the use of violence by the godly Prince.

Nietzsche’s view of language as necessarily a source of error is, of course, self-destructive, for there is then no language in which Nietzsche can tell us how things are. According to him all other philosophies consist of fictions and refer to fictitious entities and processes—substances, qualities, essences, causal connections—and yet, and here he doesn’t condemn them, such fictions have enabled us to bear the harsh burdens of life and may have ensured our survival as a species. (This is like Hume without the irony.) Arthur Danto puts it well:

To put it sophomorically but no less vexingly, was it his intention, in saying that nothing is true, to say something true? If he succeeded, then of course he failed, for if it is true that nothing is true, something is true after all. If it is false, then something again is true. If, again, what he says is as arbitrary as he has said, critically, that all of philosophy is, why should we accept him if we are to reject the others?3

Nietzsche’s irresponsibility, philosophically, lies in his playing with the philosophical counters and then, when the moment of victory or defeat comes, scattering all the counters on the floor and claiming either to have won, really, or to have given up the game because all the others are cheats; when the latter explanation is challenged he replies: Everyone cheats in this game; and if to this one replies with a query about what would count as a victory if no one cheated, he changes the topic of conversation.

If this were the whole of Nietzsche he would long have ceased to interest people. There is much more to him than this, even if we reject the doctrine of the eternal recurrence of everything as without sense (more especially if we are exhorted by him to take the steady contemplation of it as a morally bracing task, for this exhortation too will eternally recur), and the doctrine of the Superman as crazy or obnoxious. In H.G. Wells’s Kipps young Walshingham, the fraudulent solicitor who embezzled Kipps’s fortune, “had been reading Nietzsche, and he thought in all probability he was the Non-Moral Overman referred to by that writer.” No doubt this is immensely to vulgarize Nietzsche, but it has the aptness and illustrative vigor of a caricature. The doctrine of the Will to Power is also a dark business and the theory of morality, with its argument that the “masters” go beyond the miserable categories of good and evil with which the slaves protect their base egoisms, is unintelligible as an argument and pernicious as a gospel.

Mr. Hayman’s account of Nietzsche’s life is brilliant in its portrayal and affects the reader almost to the point where he is inclined to cry out: Hold, enough! The pain and nausea that fed his literary genius are so constant, so unremitting, that one is inclined to be relieved when the final fit of madness from which he will not recover comes upon him. It isn’t clear and presumably can never be clear whether the physical ills—nausea, atrocious headaches, vomiting—he endured throughout his working life were consequences of syphilis or not. If his condition was syphilitic, it may have been hereditary, and this prompts the curious thought that his final madness mimics the madness of young Alving in Ghosts, who also aspires to godhead in demanding he be given the sun; it may, however, have been a consequence of some indiscretion of his student life—in his manhood he led, so far as can be determined, a continent life, despite his devotion to Wagner’s Cosima, a devotion that out-lived the friendship, and despite his involvement in the black comedy of the relation between himself, Lou Salomé (that femme fatale seeking geniuses to devour), and Paul Rée. (Hayman’s Life has a wonderful photograph of Lou armed with a whip and driving before her Rée and Nietzsche, who are pulling a little cart; the pose is said to have been suggested by Nietzsche.)

The family situation, the schooldays at Pforta, his life as a student, his brief military career, the infatuation with the Wagners, his appointment to the Basel Chair, the crucial friendships with Rohde, Burckhardt, Rée, Overbeck, and others, the continual search for some place in Europe in which he would feel physically and spiritually at ease, his hypochondria (he had strange beliefs about the connection between his health and electricity in the atmosphere), his growing conviction that physical suffering is a necessary part of his vocation as a thinker and in fact nourishes his work, the vicissitudes of his literary career in which he seems to be addressing the incurably deaf, the growing paranoia and delusions of grandeur, the collapse into madness, all these are movingly described. As Hayman shows it to us, the life is, despite all the absurdities, heroic, and it gives us something of the tragic catharsis.

As a critical life, Hayman’s book has some weaknesses. I have already said that I think Hayman is mistaken in the parallel he wants to establish with Wittgenstein. This mistake is connected, I suspect, with his initial agreement with Nietzsche: “Nietzsche saw that we can have no objective knowledge about the facts which determine our condition, that all our perception and cerebration can only be speculative, interpretative.” As it stands, this is surely false or without sense. We know many of the facts that determine our condition, even though there are philosophical techniques for inducing in us perplexities about their analysis. As to our perception and cerebration being always interpretative—“cerebration” is a strange substitution here for “thinking”: that thinking is the equivalent of cerebrating really is interpretative—this is to stipulate a strange sense of interpretation, for here interpretation is of what is unknown, and if this is so there can be no criteria for distinguishing between good and bad interpretations. But the force of what Hayman writes depends upon our oscillating between the ordinary sense of interpretation and the stipulated sense; and the stipulated sense—that interpretation is always interpretation of an unknown x—seems vacuous. It is like interpreting a text we are never able to look at; but this isn’t a conceivable activity.

Hayman’s mistake about Wittgenstein is to suppose that what Wittgenstein said about the language of philosophers is said about the natural languages in their extra-philosophical use. Wittgenstein may not invariably be consistent about this, but it is without question his intention to give us a critique of philosophical uses of language and to vindicate the power of the natural languages to elucidate “the facts which determine our condition.” It is a pity that Hayman doesn’t seem to have used Danto’s Nietzsche as Philosopher, which came out in 1965, the same year as Hollingdale’s Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy, which is included in the bibliography. Another notable absentee from the bibliography is Jaspers’s book on Nietzsche.

Perhaps the best thing said about Nietzsche was said by Philip Rieff, that Nietzsche “did truth the honor of going mad.”4 He placed himself in a situation of utter desperation, that of living always on the edge of a precipice, and he believed that devotion to a truth he paradoxically asserted to be unobtainable demanded of him that he should be, as it were, a perpetually suffering piece of human pulp enduring the chaos and senselessness of whatever it is that life is immersed in. In this situation he uttered many absurdities, and some things we, who know the history of the world after Nietzsche, find it hard to forgive or forget. No other philosopher has lived the paradoxes of skepticism with this intensity. This is not a skepticism of the study, to be cured by the diversions of social life, as with Hume, but something that seems to belong to the suppressed hysteria of so much thought in the German nineteenth century. The German pathos, the disposition to prostrate oneself before the antinomian great man, is shared even by Max Weber.

Nietzsche’s strength showed itself in his savage irony and in his command of a certain kind of aesthetic problem. We can imagine what he would have been able to say about, for example, that combination of born-again Christianity with belief in the innocence of the pursuit of riches and in the lawfulness of warfare without limits so common in the United States. How good he is on a certain kind of aesthetic problem may be illustrated from a passage in Beyond Good and Evil.

The “good old days” are gone, in Mozart they sang themselves out—how fortunate are we that his rococo still speaks to us, that his “good company,” his tender enthusiasm, his child-like delight in chinoiserie and ornament, his politeness of the heart, his longing for the graceful, the enamoured, the dancing, the tearful, his faith in the south may still appeal to some residue in us! Alas, some day it will all be gone—but who can doubt that understanding and taste for Beethoven will be gone first!—for Beethoven was only the closing cadence of a transition of style and stylistic breach and not, as Mozart was, the closing cadence of a great centuries-old European taste. Beethoven is the intermediary between an old mellow soul that is constantly crumbling and a future over-young soul that is constantly arriving; upon his music there lies that twilight of eternal loss and eternal extravagant hope—the same light in which Europe lay bathed when it dreamed with Rousseau, when it danced around the Revolution’s Tree of Liberty and finally almost worshipped Napoleon.

After a fine analysis of German romantic music, he goes on:

But as for Schumann, who took things seriously and was also taken seriously from the first…: do we not now think it a piece of good fortune, a relief, a liberation that this Schumann-romanticism has been overcome? Schumann, fleeing into the “Saxon Switzerland” of his soul, his nature half Werther, half Jean Paul, not at all like Beethoven, not at all Byronic!…Schumann, with his taste which was fundamentally a petty taste (that is to say a dangerous inclination, doubly dangerous among Germans, for quiet lyricism and drunkenness of feeling), continually going aside, shyly withdrawing and retiring, a noble effeminate delighting in nothing but anonymous weal and woe, a kind of girl and noli me tangere from the first: this Schumann was already a merely German event in music, no longer a European event, as Beethoven was, as to an even greater extent Mozart had been—in him German music was threatened with its greatest danger, that of losing the voice for the soul of Europe and sinking into a merely national affair….5

Many years ago Max Picard, the Swiss philosopher, said to me of the music of Schumann that it had les lèvres trop rougies. I suspect now, what I was then too ignorant to know, that he was drawing upon Nietzsche’s insight.


No Sage February 19, 1981

  1. 1

    For an interesting comment on the work of Derrida and some of its consequences in American academic life, see Denis Donoghue, “Deconstructing Deconstruction,” The New York Review of Books, June 12, 1980, pp. 37ff.

  2. 2

    Arthur C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher (Morningside Edition: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 122. This strikes me as the best treatment in English of Nietzsche’s philosophical work.

  3. 3

    Danto, p. 230.

  4. 4

    Philip Rieff, Fellow Teachers (Harper and Row, 1973), p. 7.

  5. 5

    Beyond Good and Evil, translated, with an Introduction and Commentary, by R.J. Hollingdale (Penguin Books, 1973), pp. 157-159. This is a fine edition and a vigorous translation.

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