60 in 60: #17 – Nietzsche’s Why I Am So Wise (Penguin’s Great Ideas)

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)

Memorable Line
“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.”

The Skinny
Outrageously iconoclastic ideas about religion and morality, including the infamous theory of the “superman.”

Relevance? Argument?
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…


  1. Transfiguring Roar says

    ‘Why I am so wise': When I first saw that that was the title of this particular penguin book, I suspected that it would be a poor showing of Nietzsche, whom for me has proven to be the most stimulating and interesting of the few philosophers that I have read.

    “Why I am So Clever,” “Why I Write Such Good Books,” and “Why I am a Destiny,” are all taken from his book Ecce Homo, which simply isn’t the best place to start. My recommendation to you, Jeff, is that when you do get around to tackling his works, take them on in chronological order. His earlier books are written in aphorisms and the clarity of his thought, and the skill with which he writes, is staggering.

    Also, in your report it didn’t seem all that clear to me that Nietzsche’s particular philosophical passion/problem was presented directly to us, your readers, and possibly to yourself when reading this book. Nietzsche tackled the problem of Nihilism. Destruction, an ultimate end, pointlessness, ill health, ennui, and all its other incarnations…

    Early on Nietzsche was himself a nihilist, a fan of Schopenhauer’s work, but turned away from Schopenhauer and began his own work, more nihilism, but more extreme. In his book ‘The Gay Science’ he took nihilism as far as I have ever seen it taken, as far as it can go. For me he simply demolished human meaning. But something interesting happened in that book… He continually broke down ideas to nothing or to destructive things. What he was left with wasn’t destruction or nothingness. Shortly after he theorized that everything was a Will to Power. That existence is flux, a continual exchange. And going from there, he tried to overhaul Christian morality, which he revealed as weak, nihilistic and having an immoral base from which it was created, to creating a set of new ‘morals’ to make people stronger, nobler, and ultimately to make people more satisfied and fulfilled by life.

    He ‘lost the plot’ (went crazy…) before completing his life’s work, and no one has managed to complete his work.

    As for your question: Kurt Cobain said of using heroin that it is like lighting yourself on fire then jumping/skydiving from an airplane. Well, reading ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ was like lighting my head on fire and watching a comedy.

    I’ve not yet read all his books, but I have to admit I have found reading Nietzsche inspirational more than anything else (due to the evolution of his thought), and it has changed me, as some close to me will agree, for the better.

  2. Transfiguring Roar says

    Perfect timing there, mate.

    I wonder how old Hitler was when he became enamored with phrases such as ‘blonde beast’.

  3. jeff vandermeer says

    Serious about what? I am absolutely sure every 16-year-old reads N. And I am just as sure many of them enjoyed the heck out of what I read–angst-ridden, pompous, etc. I am interested to check out a different text.

  4. Transfiguring Roar says

    Sorry, Jeff, do you mean in the penguin book? Whining? Sorry, mate, not with ya, it’s bedtime for me.

  5. jeff vandermeer says

    That’s fine–obviously N means a lot to you. But the N in this selection was often amusing for reasons the author did not intend. I will happily seek out other texts. I think you would agree that the beauty of this kind of stuff is that we can agree to disagree.

    I can say I am not surprised from this text that N went nuts.

    But I am still waiting to hear back from James…

  6. says

    Trans–yeah, in the text, for me–the delivery system for the ideas. I’m definitely going to seek out other work, though, and I appreciate your comment above, since it’s useful for readers to see what’s probably the more accepted view…granted, you’ve seen more of it.

    On a lighter note–it’s almost 2009! And we’re all still alive!

  7. spencer says

    For some reason Nietzsche and Thomas Ligotti have always seemed kind of similar to me in the kind of crackpot way you describe above. Reading Ligotti is like listening to a mad, derelict philosopher lecture you – in a rambling, repetitive, despairing fashion – on his nihilist beliefs. He alternately makes you laugh (he makes me laugh, at any rate) or bores you when he’s not genuinely creeping you out with his imagery.

  8. jeff vandermeer says

    okay, then I am not nuts. I like the comparison, although Ligotti seems more controlled. gives me a useful “in” to n’s other work.

  9. says

    In 1899, as Friedrich Nietzsche lay feverish in his Turin sick bed, waiting for Overbeck to arrive and transport him back to the psychiatric clinic in Basel, a synchronous perspiration manifested itself on the Shroud of Turin, glowing like mild cumin. A chill-boned Farley Granger experienced déjà vu in the space-time continuum, 1948, during the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope while draping a tablecloth over the trunk that he and John Dall used to conceal their murder victim’s body. Whether or not an image appeared on this tablecloth is still in dispute, but just as Overbeck arrived at Nietzsche’s room, a fat, bald man with a droopy face, wearing a futuristic black suit and reeking of cumin, exited the room and walked past Overbeck, never to be seen again.

  10. says

    You might want to start elsewhere with Nietzsche, perhaps Birth of Tragedy or Untimely Meditations or even just some of the aphorisms in Human, all too Human. I’ve read a lot of philosophy (i have some sort of illness) and Nietzsche stands apart. Even if you only take his methodological insights and deny his core claims, he’s astonishing.

    It might also be helpful to remember when you’re reading a historically great author, it’s not he who is on trial, it’s you. I have a space in my heart for irreverence but your judgments seem hasty.

  11. says

    Wow. How about this, Mike: No one is on trial, and no book written does not undergo re-evaluation. This is not about me against a book or a book against me. I think I am touching a nerve more because N holds a special place in some people’s hearts. I can only report my reaction to this book as it exists on the page *for me*. I more than welcome disagreement, but not disrespect.

  12. says

    And to demonstrate how much I respect those divergent opinions, I have already ordered a couple of N’s books. That said, and having just seen John Adams the miniseries, I think it is very important to humanize these authors. I find it personally fascinating to develop a portrait of them from their prose, whether it is correct or not. But that N went mad seemed like a real possibility from this text.

  13. says

    No worries. I saw your comment on your blog, too, and understand where you’re coming from–I just don’t agree that there’s an implied “on trial” aspect to this; I want to get as much out of this experience as possible (which includes going back and reading in more depth), but what I wanted to get across about N is that his approach in this selection got in the way of me being able to appreciate what he was trying to say. This is why Spencer’s response hits a nerve–it’s very close to my reaction.

    There is, of course, an implied “respect” thing, which is different, but I thought the last bit wasn’t irreverent so much as *true*, and passed as much judgment on the hypothetical guy bypassing the old friend. If you had the ghost of every dead decadent stand in a row and then have the ones who were “normal” and not slightly deranged step forward…well, you certainly wouldn’t be able to field a hockey team.

    But I think the other implied element is–if I fail to like something or agree with it, it’s (1) because of my personal taste and likes/dislikes, (2) the nature of the assignment–reading a book a day, and (3) the accumulated weight of doing (2). I’m sure N can withstand a little teasing, though, don’t you?

  14. says

    Mike: As I noted on another thread upstream–another thought occurred to me just now. Nietzsche’s style is so different from the works I read just before his book that it’s possible that created a kind of dissonance–making his style seem somewhat more heightened than it actually is… And that would reflect an unforeseen danger for me to be aware of in reading these books day by day, in the order established by Penguin. Regardless of whether that’s true, it’s something I’ll keep in mind as I move forward. Cheers, Jeff

  15. spencer says

    Re: Ligotti. Yes, he’s more controlled and rational, and he doesn’t have the same arrogance that Nietzsche projects, at least to my view. I’ve always viewed N’s philosophy as basically the same as Ayn Rand’s (or, rather, Rand’s is a reflection of Nietzsche), i.e., selfishness, arrogance, and greed elevated to the level of virtues – which is ironic, considering how their denigration of the weak and exultation of the powerful actually appeals to the powerless and disaffected (especially young people) and their wish-fulfillment fantasies. I’ve noticed that both writers are the subject of cults, and there is an overlap between the audiences…although I do think N is worth reading for some of his interesting ideas, unlike Rand. Ligotti, by contrast, has the nihilism (though he doesn’t describe himself that way) without the rest of N’s philosophical baggage and pompousness.

  16. says

    Come to think of it, a criticism about a “hasty judgment” isn’t very fair given the nature of your project. With Nietzsche there’s definitely more than meets the eye. I’m not sure how comprehensible he is without some historical and philosophical context.

  17. jeff vandermeer says

    Like I said, Mike, no worries. I will definitely read a complete N book after the 60 in 60 is over.

  18. says

    My view-

    Rand – dime store Nietzschean
    Camus – a real Nietzschean (Camus on Nietzsche)

    Here’s a intro to Nietzsche from a Nietzsche scholar – pdf. Secondary literature might be helpful. Huenemann has a few more papers on Nietzsche freely available here.

  19. says

    It’s been almost a decade since I read Beyond Good and Evil and Thus Spake Zarathustra, and I readily admit that I don’t think I “got” Nietzsche then. I always meant to go back and read more, but there was something about his work that didn’t work for me; perhaps I’m not nihilistic enough for it.

    As for crazed philosophers…well, there’s Jacques Derrida. Of Grammatology convinced that there was indeed a book whose ideas I never will grasp entirely.

  20. jeff vandermeer says

    Larry–one job of a writer is to internalize everything of the world that comes his or her world, and retain what seems to make sense. So if I waffle abour N it is because I learn nothing if I dismiss the comments posted here. My gut tells me I may have the same opinion of N even when I have a chance to re-read him. But in the meantime I would prefer to seem wishy washy, even weak, than to be definitive based on a one day version of an abridgment. If my gut is right, there will come a day when no comment in the world will budge me.

    A writer, to grow, must be a ridiculous combination of arrogance and humility.

  21. says

    True, I can agree with what you’re saying there, but I was thinking about how there are certain things that I know at this moment in time that are “above me.” I like to know my limits before I push them further. I rarely have definitive anythings anymore, probably because I like to think there is more to learn, things that would wipe away any certainties, positive and negative alike, that I might have.

    Then again, I just watched Vandy win its first bowl game since my parents were in elementary school. There goes one of the few almost-certainties in my life!

  22. Transfiguring Roar says

    “Trans–yeah, in the text, for me–the delivery system for the ideas. I’m definitely going to seek out other work, though, and I appreciate your comment above, since it’s useful for readers to see what’s probably the more accepted view…granted, you’ve seen more of it.”

    No worries in regards to my first post (actually it’s nice to be able to make a small, semi-useful post on your blog, ahahaha).

    As for how I feel about Nietzsche’s work, it’s only equally as important to me as Dostojevski, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger, and possibly slightly less important than Camus. At the end of the day none of them are right, but Camus at least let’s me get on with my life without taking this shit too seriously. ;)

  23. says

    I read all of Nietzsches work when I was in highschool and found it amazing. Re-reading it 8 years later I found that much if what I saw in the man and his writing was no longer there. That doesn’t mean I disagree with his philosophy. Or perhaps one must say what I believe his philosophy to be, as Nietzsche was so piss poor at representing himself. His writing most resembles the bible in that you can go to it to justify just about any belief!

    In the end I found his nihilism refreshing in that it strips away all the false reason for why we do things and puts the responsibilty for who we are solely on ourselves, without ignoring that the world shapes us as much as we shape it.

  24. says

    Charlie Huenemann self-published a short, insightful philosophical biography of Nietzsche (with a one act play in the middle) that is an excellent introduction to his work. Understanding Nz’s illness (covered well in this book) also sheds some light on some of Nz’s later works and helps sort out the insanity that was coming on from Nz’s more clearheaded philosophy. Also, I don’t think Nz was ultimately a nihilist.

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