This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
Why I Am So Wise
by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
“Seeing that I must shortly approach mankind with the heaviest demand that has ever been made upon it, it seems indispensable to me to say who I am.”
Outrageously iconoclastic ideas about religion and morality, including the infamous theory of the “superman.”
I did not expect to find Nietzsche funny, having encountered him in quotation only, but I did find him funny–at times hilarious, if in a bombastic way. I don’t know how else to take in a sentence like “This excellent man, who with the whole impetuous artlessness of a Prussian junker had waded into the Wagnerian swamp (- and into the swamp of Duhring in addition!), was during those three days as if transported by a storm-wind of freedom, like one suddenly raised to his own heights and given wings…I kept telling him it was the result of the fine air up here…” The sense of performance and ridiculous zeal can hardly be read any other way–as if Nietzsche insisted on sending himself up before anyone else had the chance.
Look at me, for I am brilliant!: “He who knows how to breathe the air of my writings knows that it is an air of the heights, a robust air. One has to be made for it, otherwise there is no small danger one will catch cold. The ice is near, the solitude is terrible.” Or, is Nietzsche being self-deprecating? Either way, the substance here is cloaked in much that’s performance–like costume clothing with a hidden pocket that contains a serious manifesto.
Still, there’s a lot of ego or grandstanding to wade through here. Perhaps it’s a compliment, then, to say that once you adjust to the tone, Old Dirty Bastard Nietzsche can seem almost endearing. His memories of his father’s death in “Why I Am So Wise” have an almost sentimental quality–“delicate, loveable, and morbid, like a being destined to pay this world only a passing visit”–even as he self-declares as a Decadent (and later reverses course in this particular–that he is not a Decadent in terms of pursuing a life of ill-health). The chest beating (or its ironic counterpart) continues with such chuckle-inducing statements as “My blood flows slowly. No one has ever been able to diagnose fever in me. A doctor who treated me for some time as a nervous case [I'll bet!-JV] said at last, ‘No! There is nothing wrong with your nerves, it is only I who am nervous.'”
Finally, after much prancing and personal pratfalls, we come to something solid, Nietzsche’s views on fatalism and its usefulness–that being reduced to something close to death through physical condition or attitude can be a kind of survival technique: “Vexation, morbid susceptibility, incapacity for revenge, the desire, the thirst for revenge, poison-brewing in any sense–for one who is exhausted this is certainly the most disadvantageous kind of reaction.” Notwithstanding a certain contradiction in the statement, I did begin to understand Nietzsche in this section by re-imagining him as a Decadent, something I hadn’t thought of before, having initially ignored his own self-identification.
In that context, his obsession with the state of his health, the semi-serious bombast, the hopped-up energy of the prose, begin to make more sense. (At least, this is what I keep telling myself.) A kind of Decadent satirist, I thought, even recognizing that this could be a monumental misreading.
His thoughts on figurative war are interesting, in that by counseling offensives only against causes that are victorious, only causes where he would “stand alone,” and only causes where he can avoid personal attacks, he conjures up a sense of what is honorable and moral.
As I continued on into “Why I am So Clever,” “Why I Write Such Good Books,” and “Why I am a Destiny,” though, my ability to fight off feelings of ennui at the author’s approach began to fade. You have to do a lot of work to get to those nuggets, those secret pockets of substance. You have to wade through a lot of self-detail that began to take on a quality similar to encountering someone at a cocktail party who responds to direct statements with long, convoluted anecdotes about their childhood. It’s possible the details are what’s important, that Nietzsche is setting out parables like some kind of five-dimensional Aesop, but the thought occurred to me that perhaps he was just a raving lunatic who had managed by simple force of will to impress his “brilliance” upon the ages. Or that in this instance Penguin had failed in their selection–that there was some essential other text I required to make this verbiage less spittle-tinged. (I fully expect enlightenment upon reading the comments on this post.)
The last, short section of this book is entitled “Twilight of the Idols” and consists of “Maxims and Arrows” and “The Four Great Errors.” The punningly titled “Maxims” consists of statements like “Idleness is the beginning of psychology. What? could psychology be–a vice?” and “Even the bravest of us rarely has the courage for what he really knows…” The “Errors” section finds Nietzsche tired of his own rhetoric, so exhausted that he settles down into reasonable advice such as “There is no more dangerous error than that of mistaking the consequence for the cause.”
I think in this short reaction–I would hesitate to call this particular piece an “essay”–I have been describing the bathwater rather than the baby, but is that my fault or Nietzsche’s? (Regardless, I will revisit this madman crackpot at my leisure.)
Nietzsche seems a bit like the long-lost genius of a high school friend (with the black eyeliner, the dark darling of all the girls) that you encounter one day as you walk by a bus stop at a strip mall, on the way to your car. He’s shivering in an overcoat on a sunny day, his hair is unkempt, his fingernails are ragged, he’s got a couple of Goth tattoos and a tattered notebook with little bits of text scribbled around strange doodles of stars and cathedrals. As you pass, he mutters, “I do not refute ideals. I merely draw on gloves in their presence!” Says it again in Russian, then in French. And you say, “Hi, Fred, great to see you again,” and hurry on, hurry on.
Question for Readers
Do you ever read philosophers for the entertaining quality of their insanity?
Next up, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own…