Thoughts on someone buried outside a little church in a German village
[the altar in the church in which Nietzsche’s father was pastor]
It is the most banal of claims to hip, deep outsider-ness in any Western society to say “I’m really into Nietzsche.”
Anyone who has read anything in the massive stack of what you're supposed to be paying attention to if you're a rebel or a free thinker stumbles upon him at some point and goes “Well, that’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?”
Some few of those people even read a little bit of what the man himself wrote, though in my own anecdotal accounting of this in dealing with students I've had over the years who claim to have read him, most start in just the places least likely to yield insights to a novice to the topic. (It’s almost always right to Zarathustra).
I admit I establish nothing about the quality of my thought about him by saying I've been interested in Nietzsche for a long time. It is true, though.
I first discovered him as an undergraduate in some tidbits that were assigned by a professor in a political theory course. I don't even remember what the tidbits were now, but they were interesting enough to me to make me go check a couple of his books out of the library and spend time I would have spent on my assigned course reading if I had been a better student trying to wade through them.
Around that same time, I discovered Schopenhauer (though I had not yet read Nietzsche’s “Schopenhauer as Educator”). I read Schopenhauer much more intensively during that time of my life, in part just because he was easier to understand and in part because his black view of much in the world coincided with my own early 20s attitude.
It was really only later, during the time between completing my undergraduate education and returning to the university for graduate study, that I spent real time with Nietzsche. While I was working a third-shift job that required only about 30 minutes of concentrated work-related activity per night, I used the rest of my time there to sit in the small hours and make my way through On the Genealogy of Morality and The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. Both of them immediately struck me as profound books I had barely understood and with which I would need to spend much more time.
[“Ich lebe und ihr sollt auch leben/I live and you also shall live.”]
In the fall of 2000, only a few months after taking my first academic job, I was invited by a friend and colleague in Leipzig to give a paper at a conference there on the College de Sociologie, an intriguing group of 20th century French writers that included Georges Bataille, Roger Cailllois, and Michel Leiris. (I would later write a bit about them, and about the influence Nietzsche had on them and on a wider group of French intellectuals, in my first book). During a wine-soaked dinner after the conference, my friend suggested we go the next day to Nietzsche’s birthplace, a half hour away by car.
I took a few photos, some of which you can see here. As I stood in the little church, I thought about the son of an obscure pastor in a tiny village becoming a world historical thinker.
He is buried just outside the church. His father died while he was just a boy. Nietzsche’s young brother died less than a year after the father. The philosopher reported as a boy having a dream in which his father returned from the grave seeking a companion to accompany him and took the infant Ludwig.
Early in my academic career, I toyed with the idea of doing a book along the lines “Nietzsche as Social Theorist.” Something academic, that I could put on the list of things for my tenure case. I gave it up almost immediately because it became clear to me that I didn’t really care much about Nietzsche as a social theorist and I cared even less to try to fit my interest in him into the parameters of a scholarly monograph.
As the years have gone by, I’ve become ever more convinced that there is no room in a scholarly career for interacting with such a writer. Virtually everything he has to say is personal, existential, related to the question of how to live. How can one speak of such things in the context of today’s academic world, which seems oriented almost entirely to much less serious things? It is not of unimportance in my thinking on this that Nietzsche started as a professor and got out of that game as quickly as he could, and he never had much of a positive nature to say about people in my profession. Though here I am, still, among the professors, I find his thinking on the professional world I inhabit almost wholly impervious to criticism.
[An outer wall of the church]
I am now once more contemplating writing something about him. But it will certainly not be a scholarly text. I feel fairly confident at this point in saying that I have done what I am going to do in that realm. Other things will get the attention I have remaining in my writing life.
This other Nietzschean project has been gestating for a long time, now rising to conscious investigation and now retreating into the shadows of my mind depending on the state of my ever-changing spiritual condition over the past three decades.
I am instinctually drawn to oppositions, or what are presented as such, and incorrigibly motivated to find the ways in which seemingly opposed things attract one another, or even form a unity that eludes surface examination.
Nietzsche is the sworn enemy of Christianity.
It is the single thing all who have heard anything about him know. Partisans on both sides are certain of it, however unfamiliar they are with the writings they imagine prove it. (And it must be said that not a few of them can be made in just a few minutes of conversation to exhibit the most profound ignorance of that material and, on further prompting, a contemptuous disregard for the requirement to be so informed). It makes up a central part of their edifice of understanding intellectual history. I have heard it articulated passionately by self-proclaimed Nietzscheans and Christians alike, with the same certainty and the same disdain for the side of the purported opposition they do not occupy.
I am thinking my way through this, so I have no thesis to offer yet. But I believe this to be another of those oppositions that are too easy, that, once examined, start to cloud and to take on nuance and to become less tenable. Even those who accept the standard story and have actually read the man have to admit that there is complexity in his view.
Karl Jaspers, in his wonderful short study Nietzsche and Christianity, points to some of the most intriguing points of intersection. Even more than the Jaspers, Miguel de Unamuno’s The Tragic View of Life has profoundly informed my thinking on this set of questions.
Well beyond the books, though, or at least beyond those that are not written by Nietzsche himself, is the working out in my own life of some kind of solution to the same pressing predicament he faced. That all of us face.
Born to die, desperately seeking to deny that birthright.