In an early, autobiographical essay, written for school, Friedrich Nietzsche recalled that he found Naumburg overly busy—dusty and indifferent as well as bewilderingly various—after the close, quiet, neighborly life of Röcken, the tiny country village in Saxony where he was born. Naumburg would shrink as his own mind woke and widened, of course, but the boy could not immediately realize in what sleepy surroundings he would endure his early dreams. A decidedly Pietist community, peopled in large part by pensioners with their defensive pretentions, Naumburg over the years had lost its economic position to Leipzig, its cultural eminence to Dresden, its political boldness to repeated disappointment (even the intellectual center of the Pietist movement had shifted to Halle), and was now so reluctant to grow or change that its thirteen thousand seemed to increase significantly when the three Nietzsches arrived.

Nietzsche’s mother, having lost her husband and an infant close together, and somewhat at a loss herself, accepted the life of a widowed Frau Pastor with a readiness to turn from any risk unusual in one still an attractive twenty-three; although, outside her husband’s house-hold, which continued to include his mother and two sisters, she had little chance to obtain a decent livelihood. Pastor Nietzsche, who suffered from Socratic fits of abstraction and debilitating glooms, was as devoted a royalist as he was a Lutheran, recognizing, according to doctrine, the descent of divinity from God to kings. He was outraged and humiliated by the revolution of 1848, when the namesake of his son, Frederick Wilhelm IV, bowed to the demands of an upstart rabble and, as a sign of submission, put on their rebellion’s cockade. The pastor’s brain softened, as they described such things then, and he died blind, in madness and despair, the next year, at the age of thirty-six.

In death, Nietzsche’s father became what he only might have been in life: the simple good man, loved by all who knew him, whose shoes his son’s small feet would grow to fill, and whose virtuous path those feet would faithfully follow. At the age of four, his future with his father was complete, but his future with his father’s eulogistic figure had just begun. Peter Bergmann reports that in the alley behind his new home Nietzsche more than once heard, as though in a play he had yet to read, his father’s ghostly warning voice.1 Of what did it warn him? Of disobedience, no doubt, although it would be more romantic to imagine that it warned him of his fate. “You are the image of your father,” his grandaunt wrote upon the occasion of his confirmation, willing the resemblance, for at sixteen he was already beginning to doubt his vocation and smudge the family likeness. Nevertheless, Nietzsche would return to Naumburg with his own madness forty years later, and there, nursed by his mother as his father had been, he would affright visitors with the hoarse howls of his increasingly ravenous and unkempt death.

So, safely keeping to her husband’s orbit, and wearing his village pieties like a medal round her neck, Nietzsche’s mother took her son and daughter, Elisabeth, from Röcken to nearby Naumburg, where the survivors, rejoining the two spinster aunts, squeezed into the grandmother’s gaunt back rooms, submitting to her regimen and rule as well, while inadvertently completing the circle of skirts which was later to account, in many minds, for the philosopher’s misogyny, and soothe if not excuse its sting.2

Like many of Nietzsche’s aversions, this one would be misunderstood. In his day, women not only carried the venereal consequences that would later infect him (as historical suspicion has it), they bore much of the culture onward the way they bore babies: and, as the philosopher would diagnose and define their case, they had a community of ailments to show for their service. Among them the passive emotions flourished: resentment drove the buggy in which religious solace rode; misdirected energy was relieved by flashes of torpidity; female intelligence and talent went into the management of the male and the making of coquettes, shrews, major-domo mothers, humorless saints and drones. It was common knowledge that their masters—those self-designated kings of creation—could be led by the nose, if not by the penis, to whatever place it was wished to put them, and into whatever project it was desired their powers should be employed. Nietzsche clearly preferred unconventional and emancipated women like Cosima Wagner, Malwida von Meysenburg, and Lou Salomé. “Go to women?” he wrote, “then take the whip,” but in that famous joky photo of himself and Paul Reé, pulling a cart like a pair of oxen, it is Lou’s hand that holds the knotted rope.

The ultimate issue is an ancient one which Nietzsche’s hyperbolic rhetoric inflates but whose enlargement reveals a fatal equivocation. We are carried in the womb like pooches on a cushion, but after that the encounters of our wishes with the world are often as painful and damaging as the collision of cars. Sometimes we find it simpler to alter the world, bend it to our will (in which case we aspire to be masters of it, and call our knowledge of it “power”); however, we may find it advisable to alter ourselves, to redefine, redirect, or set aside our desires (in which case we shall seem to submit like slaves). What is critical is how correctly (and courageously) we understand our powers, and whether we are willing to generalize our condition and make a habit of our responses.


If we are Stoics, we shall feel we can command nothing of the world and at best but a bit of ourselves. Tamburlaine may, for a while at least, have larger visions, more confident and grander aims. Frequently, unable to take matters into our own hands, like subtle Figaros, we manipulate the hands where matters do rest, managing ordinary men by means of bribery, blackmail, seduction, denial, and nagging; kings and queens by flattery, scheming, treachery, and petition; and the gods through priests, sacrifices, and by prayer. Our characters congeal around our choices, and our moralities make the best of it. So some of us grow up small boys, arrogant and imperious, inclined to throw tantrums when our wills are thwarted; others of us feast on renunciation, fattening our spirits until they poke from our bodies as our bones do; still others go about kowtowing to circumstances, crying that “what will be, will be,” like the reassuring chirp of birds; or we sing instead the song the sirens sang, make an art of our passivity, prepare our bodies to be as drawn on as banks, and open our legs there like a purse.

Any observant childhood will confirm the fact that there is scarcely a crime that does not wear some virtue’s face, or a virtue that isn’t inwardly a villain. Nor is there a familiar moral quality we haven’t long found the cliché’s contempt for. In Nietzsche’s case, as he grew up in Naumburg, these were principally, and most immediately, obedience, piety, chastity, modesty, neatness, industry, sacrifice, and service. Later, mercy, pity, and sympathy would be added. Bullied by benevolence, the young are routinely made victims of virtue, and it does not take them long to realize, as they are forced to internalize their obligations, what other interests these serve: that frugality is stinginess in lucky circumstances, for instance, that honesty is a kind of spiritual disarmament at the same time it purveys unpleasantness, or that a disdain for frivolity is a form of fear. The traits that gain the medal for goodness do not make their owners lively or attractive persons. It is wit and energy, quickness and sensitivity, responsiveness and enthusiasm, skill and daring, we warm to—signs of vitality, in short—not to the dozens of “do nots,” however wholesomely embodied, which the authorities have thought up for their profit.

We don’t become Stoics because reality is good and relentlessly rational (if that is where we end up), but because we feel powerless to effect events, and are willing to be apt in our place like a knickknack on a shelf, to cover ourselves, like our eventual grave, with dust. Our early sense of the injustice of justice will soon be driven off with kicks and curses, like a stray, to be replaced by a blindfolded figure holding scales. Another scenario has us advising one reddened cheek to offer the other, since such a gesture calms the palm, decreasing the slaps of our masters; and we celebrate humility and obedience for the same wise reasons of weakness. Thus—and inevitably—the strong promote programs of exercise for themselves while recommending rest to all others, the cerebral study chess and pretend its bloodless board is one of battle, while wimps practice patience, servility, and patriotism. Nietzsche bit our values as if they were suspicious coins and left in each of them the indent of his teeth, because, for him, only the hard, not the soft, was genuine.

If one is sixteen or seventeen, a passage like this from Human, All Too Human3 will read like a testament of truth; or, perhaps one should say, it ought to:

What fetters the fastest? What bonds are all but unbreakable? In the case of men of a high and select kind they will be their duties: that reverence proper to youth, that reserve and delicacy before all that is honoured and revered from of old, that gratitude for the soil out of which they have grown, for the hand which led them, for the holy place where they learned to worship—their supreme moments themselves will fetter them the fastest, lay upon them the most enduring obligation. The great liberation comes for those who are thus fettered suddenly, like the shock of an earthquake: the youthful soul is all at once convulsed, torn loose, torn away—it itself does not know what is happening. A drive and impulse rules and masters it like a command; a will and desire awakens to go off, anywhere, at any cost; a vehement dangerous curiosity for an undiscovered world flames and flickers in all its senses. “Better to die than to go on living here“—thus responds the imperious voice and temptation: and this “here,” this “at home” is everything it had hitherto loved! A sudden terror and suspicion of what it loved, a lightning-bolt of contempt for what it called “duty,” a rebellious, arbitrary, volcanically erupting desire for travel, strange places, estrangements, coldness, soberness, frost, a hatred of love, perhaps a desecrating blow and glance backwards to where it formerly loved and worshipped, perhaps a hot blush of shame at what it has just done and at the same time an exultation that it has done it, a drunken, inwardly exultant shudder which betrays that a victory has been won—a victory? over what? over whom? an enigmatic, question-packed, questionable victory, but the first victory nonetheless: such bad and painful things are part of the history of the great liberation.

In Nietzsche’s case, disillusionment (of which he became the magician in chief) seems to have been a gradual, even a gentle process, despite “the shock of recognition” just described. He is sent to Pforta, a fine school near Naumburg, where he is a successful student; his mother watches his progress with a wary but deferential eye, and his sister dotes. Adolescent ambitions, inflated dreams, a not unmerited conceit, continue into middle age. His ideas will undergo a radical change, but the metamorphosis of his emotions will be incomplete. Nietzsche offers his worship, his belief, with a youthful—though, later, a suspicious—ease, only to withdraw his injured soul as if his body had been burned. He will idolize anything: a field of endeavor, a period of history, ideas and individuals, and each with equal ardency, only to see them come up short when measured, not only against his own unscalable heights of expectation, but against the far more agreeable standards they set for themselves and claim to meet.


Nietzsche is headed for the clergy, of course, but he applies the critical methods of research, then freshly popular at his school in the study of the classics, to traditional biblical texts (much as an early hero of his, David Strauss, had done in his revisionist Life of Jesus), and with predictably catastrophic results, too, because secular techniques will secularize their object, just as the cabbalistic methods of the deconstructionists allow their hermeneutical suspect to answer any question; but his disaster had its own thrill, like Samson bringing down the temple, because Nietzsche now had the inside dope, the lowdown on those high ideals, and could wear his intellectual superiority as a medal. It became difficult, in Nietzsche’s eyes, for a social form or a system of ideas to escape its origins, however hard it struggled, and this allegedly scientific, etymological method gave God’s Word a natural source, an all too human mouth.


Although every philosopher has a home town, time of life, and troubles, and no one is so naive as to imagine these may not intrude upon, deflect, or aim the work, philosophical ideas and their development are traditionally not supposed to stand or fall upon the character of their source or the environment of their birth, even though a knowledge of both may help us understand the philosopher’s point of view. Nevertheless, Nietzsche (like Socrates) will not allow us to untie talk from its tongue like a necktie from its neck, however formal and objective its pattern and appeal, to enable someone to sport what another has thought and said. Philosophical positions should not pop up like billboards along the highway (PLOTINUS IS THE ONE! PLATO HAS THE FORMS!), as if an ad had been sent from an agency on high, or even if it pretends to be a pronouncement of Reason itself. Nietzsche wishes to persuade us, to be sure, but not to think what he has thought or write what he has written; rather he wants us to do what he has done (an attitude shared, apparently, by the later Wittgenstein). He wants us to become an exceptional kind of self, so that our speech may have an exceptional sort of source. It is a quintessentially romantic attitude.

Most of his arguments appear in the form of parables, and much of his evidence is obtained from his profound understanding of himself as a psychological subject. It is not characteristic of philosophers to be so personal or concrete. In the passage I just quoted, we have only to measure our own rough awakening with the one it describes in order to accept or reject the account in general terms—hardly a decisive method of demonstrations, yet, after all, something. David Hume, that renowned empiricist, looked into himself, by my count, only once, and failed to find an impression he could call “David.” The remainder of his evidence derives, as is so often the case with Hume, not from the sensations he esteems, but from the shortcomings of his forerunners—or forestumblers, as they always turn out to be. Nietzsche is neither genially sloppy in the gentlemanly English and amateur manner nor ponderously solemn and cloudy in the professorial German style. Is he, in fact, a philosopher at all? Perhaps he is a Kulturkritik.

Some of the sophists peeved Plato, there is no doubt about it. Envy and malice and petty spite are not unknown among philosophers. They have aimed many a low blow at one another, made snide remarks, and written splendidly caustic pages. F.H. Bradley and George Santayana were two of our better mudslingers. But their sense of disgust or superiority (Bradley’s toward Mill, for instance) is not a functional part of their philosophy. Having exposed the shallowness of Mill’s mind by traditional philosophical arguments (presumably), Bradley then paddles the puddle.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, is anger and outrage: he wants to hear idols break; he wants to cry out, as Amos did, that “God spits upon your sacrifices!” People are to wake up to the pain of their oppression, the shame of their exploitation; they are to understand the campaigns of hypocrisy being waged against them; they are to stop following false prophets, and listen to Zarathustra. Passion, not thought alone, inks his pages. Dismay, exasperation, anger, outrage, disgust, humiliation, disappointment: they fuel his philosophy, and it is little without them. Exhilaration, joy, exuberance, excess: they feed it too. How he hates being duped, being lied to. Especially by himself. How he loves life when his headaches will let him.

So to write about Nietzsche, as is naturally and normally done, in a scholarly sobersided manner, analytically, striving for cool clarity and academic understanding, or unhistorically, as if ideas were blossoms that never saw stems, is already to deny him his claims, and fall foul of his criticisms.4 To write about him in the Germanized French fashion, now popular, or to Heideggerize him, is to tarnish his gleam and cover his confusions with confusion. The very pomposities he punctured now surround him with an atmosphere of self-serving artifice.5 “Big books are big sins,” David Farrell Krell writes, “but big books about Nietzsche are a far more pernicious affair: they are breaches of good taste.”6 On the other hand, to adopt his style, to mimic his manias—who would dare? how could that be done? and would it not mean an unhealthy (certainly un-Nietzschean) submission?

Although not a gifted linguist, Nietzsche’s advance across his chosen field of classical studies was exceptionally rapid, and he was offered a professorship at the University of Basel even before he had received his degree—an unheard-of honor, and one that consoled his mother for the loss of her son, the pastor. In short, the scholarly road was open, and Nietzsche could have been swallowed and digested by the system as easily as bread-and-raisin pudding. But he had discovered Schopenhauer, and soon Wagner, and the classical world was more real to him than the god of Bach, the god of his father. Nietzsche’s musical compositions were rarely esteemed, but he hammered away at the piano impressively, and could lose himself in a crowd of notes, becoming as noble and energetic and poetic as they were, sweeping forward like the force of the will itself through the pure space of the spirit.

Wagner’s pagan use of the pagan gods, his nationalism and the notion that one is best fed through one’s roots, his over-whelming oceanic style and totalitarian dream of an encompassing art, above all his depiction of even godlike life as a contest, sometimes between primitive forces, sometimes at the more sophisticated level of song itself: all these appealed mightily to Nietzsche, especially when they were as palpably embodied as they were in the composer, or so solidly set forth in the composer’s roosterlike sense of himself, where no barnyard was big enough, no walk that wide. They appealed for reasons that never reached reason, really, but, as Nietzsche himself suspected, expressed the longing that ran the length of his character—the length of his life—and essentially shaped his philosophical disposition.

The single substance of which the world was made might have been Matter; it might have been Mind; it might have been Energy or Spirit or some biological drive to survive; but, for Schopenhauer, it was Will (believed to be Will, I think, in a reductive mood, because things were felt to be willful—whimsical, stubborn, oppressive); and when everything is Will, Will—to be Will—had to will its own enemy, an opposite with identical features, as if the right arm were to be pitted against the left. And each of us is nothing but a bit of that big Will willing its quarreling twin. Our wills build their own houses and call them bodies, just as the world’s body, at level after level, is such an objectification. Life is not suffering, exactly, although suffering is an almost inescapable consequence. In a word, life is “struggle.” In a Greek word, it was agon, the term Nietzsche would use to push aside Plato’s logos, and since words were at war too: why not?

The most immediate of Nietzsche’s antagonists was his own body, which must have seemed an open rebellion of bones and organs, a mean and rowdy mob of ailments, altering with mood and clime, diet and exercise, capriciously coming and going in ways he could never control or reach an understanding of, although there was always the fear that his father’s madness was his mentor and his father’s death his present enemy. In Schopenhauer’s scheme, which Nietzsche for so long embraced, this vigorously weak self was a materialization of his own will, a self which constantly had to be overcome; but what sort of self, he had to wonder, would waylay itself like a bandit on the road?

Aristotle’s ethics is an ethics of health, a program of biological fulfillment and perfection of function, which aims to end in a man with more soul than most—with, that is to say, more actuality, more form, more mind—the species at a particular peak. In Nietzsche’s ethics (which in some ways resembles it) the hunt for health is metaphorical, like the military figures which parade through his prose as though they were troops in review. The health it affirms has been previously despaired of, and the higher, super-, overman is not a peak but a cloud. Nietzsche’s belligerent images have been discounted by some philosphers as another unfortunate case of misplaced poetry, but their metaphorical function does not make them any less important, any less meant. They identify the dream, a dream they wish were a reality. “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war,” the song sings—just a figure of speech—but soon the cross that’s going on before is going off like a gun or a cannon.

Of course, the superman doesn’t wear blue underwear: he is an artist, a saint of the lonely soul, a poet of new possibilities, a godlike creator; but never suppose that Nietzsche didn’t wish that superior spirit wore jack boots and could kick in some teeth. Nietzsche’s fury is the fury of a disappointed—indeed, rejected—lover of Man, not the shrug of one who has always known Man was no bargain and not worth a baseball player’s spit; his fury is not confined to his sickroom by design; and when he compares his books to bombs, he neither wishes them to explode harmlessly like handfuls of tossed confetti, nor merely to alter, suddenly, the placid state of someone’s mind. He bloody well wants a boom!

How he envies Richard Wagner—the successful pariah.

Nietzsche is forced to relinquish his professorship in Basel for reasons of health, but he has other reasons. His book The Birth of Tragedy has not been happily received by its field: his critics see that its scholarship is unsound; that its case is based on special pleading; and for them that is its originality.7 His students have drifted away, and disillusion—that old shade—has darkened his view of the academic life. Indeed, pursued by a clamoring throng of symptoms, he moves from hotel and inn to lodger’s little room or gracious spa, as if his pain could be left behind like an overlooked sock. He suffers frequent chills and fevers, horrible headaches, cough, diarrhea, vomiting, faintness, cramp, catarrh, sleeplessness, the discomfort of hemorrhoids and shingles, anxieties which lodge themselves like sand in his eyes, so that his eyes burn and run until they burn and run blind. He is cupped and leached and blistered. He is put on diets of soup and tea. He takes long walks in the company of his thoughts, and dictates to his alter ego. Occasionally a friend or a woman hired for the purpose will write things down for him, but the method is awkward, and his amanuenses often have annoying habits. They jiggle their knees.

Nietzsche’s so-called aphoristic style is partly due to the conditions of composition, the manner of life forced upon him. His thought proceeds in disconnected snippets formed between distractions, or, when there is a blessed period of painless weather, in big bursts like a fragmentation grenade. Nietzsche is terse at length, and grandiosely gnomic; going on and on is natural to him. That is how Zarathustra was compiled, and Human, All Too Human, by adding one more book to the book, and then another; but a volume of a thousand and one aphorisms is as odd as one of a thousand and one epiphanies. Actually, he characteristically composes in biblical chapters, full of parables and fables, and in sentences which almost line themselves up to be numbered, as Wittgenstein’s do in his Tractatus, though, I suppose, for quite contrary reasons.8

As his heroes fail him, the way he felt Strauss and Wagner did, by selling out, and his profession seems imprisoned in cautious, regimental scholarship; as his quarrels with his mother and his sister, because of their differing beliefs, grew more frequent and acrimonious; when his friends drift away, no longer able to bear the company of his misery, and his few enthusiastic readers, too, no longer approach him; then the habits of the solitary become even more pronounced: he writes out loud as one talks to one’s self, filling the void with his voice (Zarathustra reads as if monologued to a crowd of imaginary millions). He decides to say “yes,” to reject Schopenhauer, at the point in his life when pessimism seems confirmed, to continue against the grain when it fills the whole field of existence. So he writes, though he can’t read, can’t see, his own hand. He writes when his head can scarcely hear his shouts, praising his isolation, using it to see as only an insider—outside—can see. Otherwise, he is in bed with a migraine or a troubled stomach, wearily riding a train, escaping skies which the clouds cross too rapidly, or ducking a persistent drizzle, an enveloping fug. He endures cold winters in stoveless corners, shrouded in sweaters, but he can barely survive enervating heat, dust, windlessness, or anywhere the sun’s glare will pitilessly strike his sensitive eyes.

Hyperbole is his de trope (I succumb to the temptation to say), and Alexander a Nehamas’s recent book, Nietzsche: Life as Literature,9 demonstrates its excellence immediately with its shrewd discussion of Nietzsche’s multiple styles and his joint use of aphorism and hyperbole. Not only does the hyperbole call out like a barker at a carnival, and even promise to reveal enticing secrets to the unsuspecting (as the sideshow may), it provokes the opposition which Nietzsche needs, because his texts, like Schopenhauer’s Will, are written into their own teeth. This expansive, inflating figure, used in conjunction with a constricting form like the aphorism, finds its scope defined and its boundaries drawn. An aphorism holds hyperbole like a balloon in its tiny fist. I would add that hyperbole, by pushing against all limits, is experimental, revealing unexpected attractions in ideas that nobody would ask to dance, uncovering hidden weaknesses in proposals that would seem to stand well enough if not pushed. “Go to women? Take the whip!” is an exchange suspicious of itself. Exaggeration undermines. The overblown busts. It is the correct rhetoric, all right, for an outcry in a rented room, a shout through the heart.

Nietzsche’s chronic illness, his quick-silver intellect, his scornful attitude, his agon, yield him a very privileged point of view: a perspective on perspectives. One of his most remarkable qualities is his ability to see others as he sees himself, and to see himself, first, as one in a mine does the ore in the earth, and then as one who breathes the dust of the roads, and then as one asway in a lofty balloon. Nietzsche praises Dionysius because Nietzsche is Apollo. He says “yes” because all the ordinary evidence favors “no.” And from the immediate weakness of his own upbringing—narrow, dogmatic, handed down—he draws his strength—an outlook that is original, wide, and free. (Not so free as not to be tethered, but tied, now, to a new tree.) Having dumped the gods, the elemental oppositions, which the early Greeks employed to understand the world, become checkers in his daily game. We could arrange their names in a dozen ways: forgetfulness and memory, participation and detachment, action and reflection, solitude and society, harmony and discord, sickness and health, etcetera—man and beast. And game it is. His is the only philosophy that grins.

The concepts that engage most of Nietzsche’s commentators—the “will to power,” for instance, “eternal recurrence,” and “the superman”—function almost like lids, because they stop up a tendency in his thought and keep it from continuing. The genie, having worked its magic, is lured back into the bottle. Nietzsche is not a philosopher of subjects and predicates; he is a philosopher of verbs. He is not a grammarian, looking for laws, but an innovator and revolutionary who suspects syntax of many serious metaphysical sins. As a philosopher of flow he reduces objects to the sum of their effects, denies the distinction between agency and action, and sullies every Kantian purity with his suspicions. Like a number of other philosophers, whom he is not often believed to resemble, such as Hegel and Dewey, he hates fine lines and sharp distinctions; he habitually confuses psychology and logic; he has a smeary mind.

Since nature has no destination, the random rules. Free will is an illusion, not because the threads of fate are spun and cut by nodding, dotty, or malicious gods, but because chance holds in its hands every absence of reins. Action, without a cause that can be counted as a reason and serve as an excuse, is as whimsically willy-nilly as any turn of the cards. Society invents both cause and agent in order to assign responsibility and indulge its vengeance.

The argument for eternal recurrence, probably taken from Heine, can wear, for a time at least, a reasonable face: if the universe is made up of a finite number of indestructible elements randomly combined during an infinite space of time, then every event, and every combination of events, will certainly recur like ticks and tocks, yet more often than any watch can clock. However, since Nietzsche denies the existence of elements in the ordinary sense, this argument is not of much use to him, although he employs it anyway. It is not clear what returns so eternally—in what degree of generality or in what detail—but what is clear is that the river you can’t step into twice will circulate its water—its fish and its flotsam—will use and reuse its bottom and its banks—so that what passed once, and was celebrated for that fact (“everything once,” Rilke wrote, “just once, once and no more”), whatever comes, will be back, not just twice or thrice, but thrillions of times, like a tireless loop-the-loop.

Since what goes round comes round for no reason, Nietzsche treats every state of life as a culmination, an end, as if all the points our wildest arrows struck were, precisely, the bull’s-eyes aimed at. This is not easy, for he also knows that through-out all change the world will remain full of fools. His “yes” (which could have been a “no” to an endless wheel of meaningless suffering) has been called aesthetic, since he is treating life the way one must treat—for instance—Finnegans Wake or coitus un-interruptus.

The privileged point of view of the superman, similarly, tames what threatened to be a relativism run wild; and the same Nietzsche who marks down systems of philosophy from realities to fictions, who treats truth as an invention of predatory organizations, and regards goods and evil as advertising gimmicks, dismissing free will like a faithless servant, nevertheless hires the misleading phrase “will to power” for its rhetorical effect, follows his own truth like a fanatic, invoking it constantly both in books and letters,10 as well as urging fortitude, optimism, energy, honesty, and the like on all we hapless victims of circumstance, while condemning hypocrisy, willful ignorance, and every sort of cultural self-serving, with the severity of a hanging judge.

Eternal recurrence and the will to power are not the only conundrums in Nietzsche (I do think most of them are best answered with a pun), and Alexander Nehamas attacks them boldly, head on. He has a good philosopher’s handicaps, however, because Nietzsche’s ideas are principally literary, and function fairly well at that level; but the ambiguities of his concepts, as we scoot across them, increase with the weight on the skate, and the depth of its cut; so that, over and over again, we can see the commentator’s argument move away from the meanings of Nietzsche’s texts the way a chemical analysis of pigments must carry us past the painting they constitute. One need not always agree with the manner in which Nehamas unties Nietzsche’s tangles, or with how he harmonizes what are apparently conflicting passages, or puts up tidy fences around patches of fog, to appreciate the relative clarity of his approach and the undoubted brilliance of his results. 11 What Nehamas has done is to advance a hypothesis concerning the controlling center of Nietzsche’s thought, which, if accepted, would make marvelous sense of a great portion of what Nietzsche has written. Nehamas tries to show that his construction can be safely inhabited:

Nietzsche wants to warn others against dogmatism without taking a dogmatic stand himself. His unparalleled solution to this problem is to try consciously to fashion a literary character out of himself and a literary work out of his life. In what follows we shall examine his solution. We shall ask what is involved in the creation out of one’s own self of a literary character whose views are exclusively philosophical; what philosophical views about the world and life make this project possible; and whether the effort of turning life into literature escapes the problem of dogmatism and the necessity of turning nature against something that is also nature.12

The belief that Nietzsche was willing to exchange life for language should be attractive for a number of reasons, not least of which is the habit writers have, so helpless before the big bad world, of doing just that. It is their version of Faust’s pact. Caught in an ailing body, a body increasingly confined to a chair or bed, with a dim-eyed view from a rented room, even the painful scrawls which Nietzsche was increasingly obliged to attempt must have seemed to him shows of strength, and those features of language he felt he could control, and was healthy, alive, and at home in, a remedy for his skeptical isolation, even as he shaped, in his final work, those desperate outcries claiming greatness for himself. Ecce Homo. Look in on me—upon the triumphant madness of my mind!

Nietzsche, of course, is a classicist, and trained in linguistics. Words are the Orphic wind eggs of his world. Then, just as the power of a line, a scene, a character, an image, or a symbol in a literary work (I am not speaking now of their psychological impact upon a reader) can be best measured by the extent to which each modifies remaining meanings (such a range and reaching out of influence being one definition of the will to power); and just as the significance of a sign depends upon its differentiating functions (according to Saussure); so does an agent disappear into the enactment of its actions, and all things, like the words which name them, find their definitions dissolving within a complex and sometimes farreaching system of relations.

Although Nietzsche is aware that “classics” are created by institutions interested in furthering their society’s cultural aims, aesthetic characteristics are the only ones that seem to survive Nietzsche’s critique of conventional values. Wagner may disappoint, but music does not, nor do the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare. Not every hero has fallen, clay-footed, from his pedestal by the time Nietzsche comes to write Beyond Good and Evil. Beethoven, Stendhal, Heine, Schopenhauer, and Balzac remain, with the sole figure of Napoleon left to represent the political, but only because Nietzsche deems him an artist, not an emperor or a corporal (as if, alas! that excused this small man’s enormities).13 Indeed, during Nietzsche’s lifetime, the bitter abandonment by the best of the bourgeois—their artists—of the class that had brought them into being, and the subsequent flight of these artists from politics, morality, and religion into the exclusivity of their crafts, was considerable, if not complete. If Nietzsche is the philosophical organ of modernism, then that organ functions in a body that grew up like a town around it.

Finally (an element, I think, Nehamas does not sufficiently stress), Nietzsche’s quince-eyed look at the history of ideas resulted in the denial to philosophical explanations of the reality they claimed to describe, and returned them to the language they were made of. Upon that return they became fictions. In a sense, The Birth of Tragedy is the birth of Nietzsche too, because it contains his major metaphysical discovery: that within the material realm of nature, the consciousness which has inexplicably arisen exhibits two fundamentally opposed tendencies—one toward the experiencing self, the other toward the experienced thing. The book also displays the liberated skepticism of his mind and the traditional character of his emotions. Many of his present admirers hold Nietzsche’s philosophical biology against him, yet without it, and his dream of the Greeks, you do not have Nietzsche.

It is with rueful longing, sometimes, that the naturalist in us undertakes to describe the life our longing calls “the idyll of the animal.” We ponder the spider as it spins, and end in admiration for its patience, its persistence, the instinctive geometries of its web, even its ruthless indifference—a callousness it cannot be blamed for; or we track the lion to and from its lair, or watch the tiger in the tense alertness of its stalk; and we envy how organized the insects and animals are, how—to us—they seem always to express the essential; they know nothing, we think, of distraction, guilt, excess, anxiety, delusion, pride, shame (Nietzsche’s example is a herd of grazing cows, unmolested by memory or foreboding, the present passing from one ruminating stomach to another as it life, when processed, delivered only milk14 ); and how lucky these creatures are, we imagine in such moments, because each of them possesses the superior efficiencies of its species; they fit without their measure being taken; whereas we perceive a painful inexactitude in our forms and functions; the fit is the tantrum we throw when we fail to find our station; and so we say we have great gifts instead, really contriving an excuse, since we have these gifts because we need them, because basically we are a handful of opposed thumbs: we don’t know how to live.

Our knowledge, as philosophers tell us, may be our glory, but our curse is a weakling’s dependence on it, as if, instead of the wheel, we had invented the crutch. Or rather, it is as if the crutch had invented us.

We have a hunch that our liver is as full of silent life as a mollusk, that our heart and lungs close and open automatically the way an eye blinks; we are also aware that hunger is as recurrent as history, that the sexual urge comes round again like the wheel of a fast car; so that the instinctive creature is there somewhere inside us where we both love and fear it (we can only hang on to life, Nietzsche said, like someone clinging to the back of a tiger); but unlike the bedbug which can bite with its first breath, we require a babyhood to bellow and whine and wheedle our way through, during which time we are handed by society the habits we hadn’t; and we are told by the same unimpeachable source that such and such traits, this or that ambition (comprising the character of an emperor or housewife, for instance, the ideals of an officer or priest), are as inborn as our bosoms or the shapes of our noses—God-given, not man-made. We are instructed as well that the manners we shall be asked to adopt will be as natural as dueling or monogamy; that our pilgrimage to Mecca is as required as the one that sends birds flying south; or that our kowtows are as tied to our species as the fawning of the spaniel: bits of behavior that may be initially hidden, but that only need, like a deb, to be brought out.

So the sundering we sense, between nature and culture, lies not like a canyon outside us but splits our being at its most intimate depths the way mind breaks off from body. It is still another version of that bitter bifurcation long ago decreed: our expulsion from Eden. It differs from the apparently similar Cartesian crease across things in the fact that the two halves of us once were one; that we did not always stand askance like molasses and madness—logically at odds—but grew apart over the years like those husbands and wives who draw themselves into distant corners of contemplation. “Even the observant animals are aware,” Rilke wrote, “that we’re not very happily home, here, in this our interpreted world.”

In The Birth of Tragedy, Dionysius, the god of the grape, stands for a kind of metaphysical conviviality. Under his influence, we lose our sense of separateness, because our consciousness and its objects merge. Experience is no longer a movie. We become lost in life, moving as the sea moves. Guilt gone, shame gone, we are free to do—and be—without reproach, as animals are. Knowledge, for the Dionysian, is based upon the principle that only like knows like (that you have to be one to know one), and it hires out none of the tasks of life, but performs each of them as someone rounded to the world would: jack of all trades, jill of every skill.

Apollo, on the other hand, floats on top of the flux, casts concepts over chaos like nets—such nets as magically create their own fish. Like many modern artists who felt that their consciousness had become corrupted by certain of society’s “civilizing” lies, and who wanted, consequently, to resee the world, philosophers like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Bergson attacked the tendency of the mind to divide the continuous into discrete parts, to capture change in classificatory pens like cattle in a stockyard, and to replace experience with the ideas that described it. They deplored responding to notions not to things—or, rather, fabricating things right and left: first filling the mind with thoughts, and then the world with their objects, like the most industrious middle-class manufacturer, miraculously making ice cubes out of what might really be steam.

Only an Apollonian could have invented Dionysius, because the Dionysian is too deep in the wallow ever to wonder.

In his personal life, this division represents Nietzsche’s natural longing for an active role, his unconsummated desire for community, his loathing of the lonely sick man’s obsessive introspection. Growing up, Nietzsche had joined the kinds of clubs that boys create in order to define themselves, and as a student at the University of Leipzig he had organized a philosophical society. The promise of comradeship and shared ideals lured him into a fraternity for a time, where he earned his saber scar, and the military briefly held out a similar hope. His almost familial intimacy with Paul Rée and Lou Salomé was broken up by his sister’s equally familial jealousy, while both his and Wagner’s demons were too demanding for his discipleship to be sustained. The Apollonian hides in the self-reflective mazes of the mind, turning the commonplace and fairly innocent observation that “everyone has their own point of view.” into an almost inescapable and vicious parochialism, whereas the Dionysian abandons the point to become the view. At the level of rhetoric, the Apollonian disposes schemes and tropes like a general while the Dionysian regards every format as concealing unscrupulous interests and threatens to overrun them all, so that to be carried away into absurdity is almost an obligation. At the level of concept, the Apollonian will distinguish even in a fog the low-lying from the high, pea soup from gruel, whereas the Dionysian will treat every cut as a wound which needs immediate suturing.

As far as art is concerned, the modernist’s tendency toward parody and self reference, for instance, is Apollonian, while its revolutionary extremism and love of excess is Dionysian. Any attack on things (such as nonobjective painting is perceived to be) will meet with the grape god’s approval, not because objects, as such, are deplorable, but because the very fact of their definition is. Finally, at the level of ordinary life, and biologically speaking, the duality describes a consciousness fatally turned against itself, and continuously engaged in civil war.

Man makes himself, covering the creature within (if “within” is the right word) with culture’s various costumes. He surrounds himself with himself, so that even the wilderness is soon a plant in his garden which requires tending to stay wild. By minding his manners. Man reaches the level of the all too human, only to become, as he does in some cases, a Western European or a Mandarin, finally squeezing himself—fat foot for a thin shoe—into some petite subspecies like the French.

Nietzsche’s complaint about civilization is not Freud’s, or, again, Rousseau’s. It has another emphasis. Pent-up instinct does not threaten the peaceful orders of society like a boiler about to burst from the pressures of its libidinous steam, for there is little peaceful, and nothing rational, in these designs, only expressions of hypocritical dominance, coerced subservience, unmerited glorification, and a systematic corruption of consciousness. Civilization is not worth repairing. On the other hand, recovering the savage’s natural nobility is impossible. The phrase “noble savage” is an oxymoron. Nobility is a concept of culture. The question is whether man might not advance himself beyond his present miserable condition of interior and exterior tyranny into one less founded on lies, one less illusory, more satisfying and fulfilling. There is no Aristotelian seed, no primal potency, no indwelling great-souled aristocrat in infant form, struggling to emerge in him; but perhaps an implantation might be tried.

Nietzsche’s thinking sometimes appears utopian; however, its only U is the U-turn it takes. One cannot expect societies to improve themselves. They are fatally caught in their own coils. Only the individual who frees himself from each and every one of them, who stands apart, as though—in Nietzsche’s imagery—on the peak of a mountain, has the opportunity to become exemplary. Unlike Moses, when Zarathustra descends from his heights, he brings no tablets of the Law, but only his shining self. In this sense, Nietzsche’s attitude is antipolitical, unideal, and anarchistic to a Kantian degree: it recommends the rule of one over one.

What does a person have to believe, then, to believe in this essentially beliefless and desystematized system? One must believe that around the world, and throughout time, a very large number of comprehensive outlooks (including their corresponding cultural practices, of course) have been held—honored, loved, obeyed—by collections of people from less to large. One has to regard many, if not all, of these cultures as opposing one another in practice and contradicting one another in principle, either entirely or at some significant point. One would have to conclude, consequently, that only a few such practices could be correct, only a few such principles true, while most—if not all, again—must be wrong or false. Although a logical law is being invoked here, and no philosophical names are being taken, it remains the case that nearly every value system and significant outlook on reality is not only threatened with falsehood, as it were, abstractly, but is false on its face—is risibly absurd, painfully silly, woefully confused, criminally corrupting.

Nevertheless, these numerous hilarities (and they need only to be held up to view as Bouvard and Pécuchet do in Flaubert’s magnificent annihilation, to provoke the profoundest and saddest laughter) have not prevented great civilizations from espousing them; from, in fact, being shaped by them and helped to their heights, whether Greek or Persian, Hebrew or Roman, Aztec or Mayan, Chinese or Yankee. In short, reality, whatever it is beyond our representations, does not compel anyone to a particular form of existence, or a particular set of values, the way it forces ants into hills, bees into hives, or baboons into their colonies. There is certainly no natural morality, in that sense, no right way of life.

The Greek sophists had already seen that if virtue alters like the weather does from Athens to Sparta, then the truly fortunate are those who control the currents, and can make it rain in the mountains and snow on the plain. Nor are constitutions, traditions, and legislative assemblies the only forces, or priests and politicians the sole controllers. Weak of body and of intermittent mind, Nietzsche is nursed first by his sister and then by his mother, each of whom enjoys the pleasures of such powers, and has her plans. Nietzsche is buried beneath the misreadings of his texts, and his message is made to mean whatever his sister or the sophists say it means. Nietzsche has a biography that grows longer even in the grave. And he knew that at least the vehemence of his opinions would lie there beside him, just as the final madness of his mind (like that same exasperation with mediocrity—a mediocrity so smugly maintained, so corruptly continued—that threatened the sanity of Flaubert’s) was symbolically suited to dismay his final days. So if we follow his lifeline like hounds, or at a more gentlemanly distance like the owners of the dogs, we are not merely hunting an ad hominem.

Resisting the temptation to concentrate on specific causes, Peter Bergmann’s book places Nietzsche generally, though quite solidly, within the political environment of his times in order to examine the alternations of his attitudes toward Realpolitik, the unification of Germany, Bismarck’s overlordship, and so on, with a particular eye on Nietzsche’s antipolitical position, and what it meant.15 The aim of his historical and biographical material is explanation, not exposure. With respect to the expository line I have been taking, the problem might be put this way:

At one time, in Western Europe, when Church and State were still important rivals, the cultural life of the people (its aspirations, moral norms, even the functions of its arts) was in the keeping of the Church, and remained in the realm of the sacred. The State progressively secularized or politicized cultural institutions, and Nietzsche foresaw the terrible dangers inherent in this development and opposed it. But he stood on the side of the Church without a church to stand beside. In the United States (that forerunner of every future) the separation of the two powers (desirable as the divorce is) has permitted commercial interests to take over culture and determine values, successfully invading and subverting both politics and religion. It is what capitalism has come to signify. Politics and religion (as well as art) are simply business by other means.

Having rejected Christian dogma, and seen the Church’s dominance pass to an even more resolutely vulgar and military-minded State—feeling helpless, certainly, before the dismaying cultural forces then at work—Nietzsche lets his shadow fall upon the only world where he is strong. He ultimately adopts a stoic posture, despite his denunciation of similar strategies of “self-discipline”; he conceals his inwardly aimed adjustments to society beneath a helmet of hyperbole and metaphorically aggressive shield slapping. The aesthetic impulse emerges most genuinely from the medium of its expertise, so that when Nietzsche works out upon himself, the self he shapes is cast first, like a shade, upon a sheet. It is a beguiling form, but one his fingers fashion.

In an exceedingly interesting, and often touching, collection of memories about Nietzsche,16 Ida Overbeck, the wife of one of his oldest friends, writes that

I always believed that Nietzsche, despite all opposition to Christianity, was not an enemy of religion, however aloof from it he stood, and that he was himself even capable of producing religious effects. The superman as a substitute for God and the doctrine of return as substitute for immortality, however, seemed not to be very tenable idealistic fantasies.

Just as activities that seem quite different from one another (such as adding a bar bill or rolling the dice to see who will pay it) can turn out, on inspection, to have the same form (as does, of course, climbling a ladder and advancing through the company, or polishing the silver and going to confession), so may convictions that appear quite opposite and antagonistic result in indistinguishable attitudes. Predestination (the faith of his father) and chance (the floozy he courted) have an affective affinity for one another, as does the view (he also went with) that reality is made up of the meaningless movements of matter, caroms that occasionally throw off an inconsequential spray of sparks we call consciousness. “Inconsequential” because each movement of matter renders agents impotent before affairs, so that we are tigers’ riders, corks bobbing on an indifferent swell, or characters captured in an already written book.

The importance of these doctrines, as far as the individual is concerned, is that they protect, enhance, and justify an attitude. They express a philosophical disposition; they don’t merely, in some circumstances, seem reasonable or appropriate, or momentarily to be working in one’s favor, although they may certainly possess such advantages. Rather they reflect an indigenous state of character and mind: of melancholia, impulsiveness, helplessness, paranoia, megalomania, anality, and so on. For the masters in any society, profit and power are the principal payoffs of ideals, whereas their value for the individual is often in the known, the comfortable, the consoling, the secure. Honesty, in a philosopher, means that he will deceive himself first. The discipline’s professed allegiance to rigor and clarity has never prevented philosophers from performing their awkward dance of jargon, their rituals of obfuscation. The truth holds nobody back.

The superman is not a replacement for God. The superman is one of the elect. Eternal recurrence is thought to justify the fall of the littlest sparrow; and every evil in the world, in so far as they are a part of a work of art, only adds to the interest of the drama, like the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands. In addition to the many affective affinities between Nietzsche’s ideas and his father’s pastoral ones, there are formal affinities too—between the rhetoric of the prophet Zarathustra, for instance, and that of the prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.17

The two Nietzsches—critic and castigator, affirmer and celebrant—usually have different admirers. During his sad last wild days, according to a report in Gilman’s collection of reminiscences, he was given to brooding, and was largely unreceptive to his surroundings—playing with dolls and other toys.

When states of excitement came over him, his mother best knows how to calm him down. She caresses him, speaks to him in a friendly tone, and when he wants to scream she fills his mouth with small slices of apple or easily digestible delicacies, which he then chews and swallows while growling dully to himself.18

I think I prefer Nietzsche without the bits of apple in his mouth.

This Issue

February 4, 1988