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Nietzsche’s Loneliness

[1]2,831 words

Dr. Gary Van Cott, the only true colleague I had in 13 years of graduate school, once said that New York City made me a structuralist.

I used to sit in my 21st floor midtown apartment and watch the ant-like people rush to and fro below; with cars, bikes, and trucks stopping and starting, ebbing and flowing with mechanical precision; no one free to do anything but what the culture programed.

It was a brilliant assessment, and one that contained its own share of critique. Gary, I found out later, was just a brilliant version of everyone else I knew: championing “agency” (as free will is now known) while doing and witnessing nothing that took any more will than living safe and sound in a bourgeois cocoon and raging with contempt (well-concealed in his case) at all the bad people like me who want more than this for our people.

Looking out my window just now, albeit in a much less grand environment, I suddenly realized that in New York the assumption that each of those ants had sacrificed something, most definitely comfort, to be there, had, at that moment, kept me from being filled with pity or an overabundance of contempt; for I too was being moved (and made hard) by the same mechanical forces. Now, however, I live somewhere that exists only for two reasons: for humans to work and to die in as comfortable a manner as possible. Thus, watching them drive by in their dirty pollution spewing cars moves me very close to contempt and I wonder how life can be so devalued that we willingly act this way.

It’s funny that I had this realization as I was looking up from a letter Peter Gast wrote about Friedrich Nietzsche. Maybe less funny than I care to admit, as a quick perusal of any of Nietzsche’s letters will inform the reader how desperately lonely and devoid of brotherhood he was. The only time I have ever written letters of the type Nietzsche exchanged with his unworthy contemporaries was when I became estranged from my dear aforementioned colleague; and every time I read Nietzsche’s letters I cannot help but think of him. This Gast letter, though, is different from those exchanged between Nietzsche and others. It is a general recollection of his first impressions of the great man. The Birth of Tragedy [2] had given Gast these impressions, and as an academic who could rebuild the Coliseum with the amount of ignorance promoted by my betters about Nietzsche, I’d like to share what Mr. Gast said:

No one had ever peered into the depths of the Greek character with such perceptiveness; here was a mind speaking with interpretative force the like of which we had never seen before. The most secret impulses of culture seemed to unveil themselves before us. When Nietzsche had the Apollonian and Dionysian forces finally destroyed by utilitarian rationalism (as expressed by Socrates), we suspected why a sprouting and blossoming of great art is almost impossible under the domination of our culture of knowledge and reason. Joyously we saw, therefore, how Nietzsche turns against this culture:–The Birth of Tragedy is a mighty protest of artistic and heroic man against the will-weakening, instinct-destroying consequences of our current culture. As one sees, already in this book Nietzsche is the great revaluator. From the very first, he saw types of human vital energy, measured by which modern mankind seems very philistine. Our culture destroys nature in man; where culture should intensify human nature by discipline. Only the most highly potentialized man can give highest value to the world, as Goethe and Nietzsche wish it; the debilitated person devalues it.[1]

How many liberal scholars will admit to jumping through hoops and tightening screws with maggots in order to deny this basic fact of Nietzsche’s work and turn him instead into a postmodern democratic feminist multiculturalist? It is certainly without irony that one’s position on Nietzsche is capable of telling all who need to know about one’s position on every aspect of contemporary culture, knowledge, and politics. For nowhere within the American academy will Gast’s learned reading of Nietzsche be taken as true or valuable.

And yet, in the New Right (both European and North American), Gast’s quick summation of Nietzsche’s earliest published work would be so perfectly accepted that it practically forms part of the air we radical non-liberal thinkers breathe. This divide can be easily bridged, however, if people just read Nietzsche instead of what some democratic feminist multiculturalist says about him. For there is absolutely no mistaking Nietzsche’s intentions or great politics; these must instead be completely denied to arrive at the French/American postmodern Nietzsche. Gast continues:

Schopenhauer as Educator [3]’ had won us over completely and became our standard in the highest questions of culture. For while our contemporaries understood culture to mean approximately Bentham’s ideal of a maximum of general comfort (the ideal of Strauss and all socialists since More), Nietzsche suddenly appeared among them like a lawgiver out of thunderclouds teaching that the goal and summit of culture is to produce genius. This was the explicit statement of something that important predecessors surely had suspected but never stated. The entire play of forces of culture would be changed if many people really accepted this doctrine.[2]

 Gast was, by virtue of his extraordinary proximity to most of what Nietzsche published – he was official proofreader and “copier” of every Nietzsche text except the first three Untimely Meditations [3] – perhaps the only person contemporary to Nietzsche that was qualified and worthy to comment on his ideas. When others comment we get largely what we find today, i.e. liberals or Christians so taken aback by Nietzsche’s words that any engagement becomes either an attempt to reconcile Nietzsche with the tenants of weakness and mediocrity that they unthinkingly champion, or ad hominem attacks that supposedly taint the great man by linking him with fascism. But when Gast discusses Nietzsche and his words, we are filled with the same intense raising of the hair and tingling of the spine that we ourselves experience when reading any of his works. Thus, it is no coincidence that Gast mentions “Schopenhauer as Educator,” perhaps the greatest polemic ever pinned against the mediocre humans being produced by modernity. Everything Nietzsche came to say about “the last man” is contained therein.

It is so exhilarating to read that it is exhausting; one reads while pacing the floor glancing to the heavens for help. And, even though the essay, which borrows heavily from Nietzsche’s crushing lectures “On the Future of our Educational Institutions [4],” addresses the very nature of academia and its role in producing the philistines totally devoid of any and all value beside being slaves to capitalist consumption that now pass even for educated humans, I’ve yet to meet ONE anthropologist that knows of its existence. It could be no other way, unfortunately, because we are the philistines Nietzsche hated the most: bourgeois, civil servant, destroyers of greatness, and champions of degeneration. Reading the endless parade of ethnographies on human failures and highly explicable “inexplicable persistent inequality” in the latest Princeton University Press catalog fills me with such despair that I fear for civilization and myself. Peruse any issue of Anthropology Today and one is nauseated by the extraordinary intolerance of strength and ascending human and civilizational forces therein. Nietzsche understood all too well the consequences of our celebration of weakness, mediocrity, degeneration, and victimization. In an early notebook entry he critiqued History’s role in the destruction of nobility. It is an idea to which I return as often as I can:

“History must speak only of the great and unique, of the model to be emulated.”[3]

Perhaps the thrill and emotional affect that I get from reading Nietzsche is mostly due to my life having been overly ascetic. Reading just shouldn’t be so energizing, at least not according to Nietzsche. Then again, he knew he was up to something monumental and unique, writing in a “physical style” that answered to his days of ill-or-superabundant health.[4] It is this style, as much as his promotion of action over words that makes Nietzsche more clearly understandable while one is being harsh to oneself.

I recently spent a day searching for quotes and contexts for the Nietzschean element of my next paper. What is it about reading Nietzsche that so singularly inspires the pathos (great feeling) of distance he so loved? Maybe it is because no one else demanded that his wisdom so thoroughly separate initiates from the uninitiated. Questions put to me of conversion and “ethical transformation” often go inadequately answered, because for me Nietzsche is really the nec plus ultra: I read Nietzsche and it made such perfect sense that my thinking was unalterably transvalued. If I hadn’t been in Rome, cleaning streets with fascists and writing a dissertation, I would not have finished the Ph.D. Nietzsche made it superfluous.

Needing to explain the relationship between bodily and conceptual vitality I began with The Anti-Christ [5], Ecce Homo [6], and Twilight of the Idols [7], then moved to the mighty Zarathustra [8], and ended with On the Genealogy of Morality [9] and Christopher Middleton’s Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche [10].

I moved with great agility through Nietzsche’s published works. It could be that my passion and enthusiasm for Nietzsche is maintained by the fact that my system for using his words does not include a proper cataloging technique, forcing me to rummage for footnotes every few days. I do keep a sort of “best of” list, but even that is not foolproof: I recently searched for two weeks to footnote a quote that is near the top of that list. It was only with the letters that I allowed my curiosity to best my will to write. For the letters, while shedding a sort of subdued candlelight on the content of the published works, are invaluable sources on the context of their publication. More often than not, this context is equal parts elation, frustration, joy, sorrow, vitality, and misery – but consistently mixed with one overriding sensation: utter loneliness. To juxtapose this Nietzsche with the energy and ferocity of his works is more often than not devastating.

The quick perusal of letters from the period of Zarathustra’s creation was, predictably, both elating and crushing. In a humorous letter to Carl von Gersdorff, Nietzsche describes book four of Zarathustra – originally a “private” publication given only to those few whom Nietzsche assumed worthy – as a perfect summation of his published works, in that, as at 40 he had yet to earn a single penny, the “paying public” was thus completely unworthy of his Zarathustra. Giving away something so extraordinary, the most important gift to mankind in its history, he said elsewhere, was for him a source of pride. It was yet another moment of Nietzschean transvaluation of modern values: in this case, the economic valuation of ideas. He concluded the letter by telling von Gersdorff “there are a hundred reasons for being courageous in this life.”[5] The choice of words is telling, as elsewhere Nietzsche tells Georg Brandes “what a man believes to be true or not yet so, seems to me to depend on courage, on the strength of his courage.”[6]

In the same week’s worth of letters, Nietzsche gives Carl Fuchs a magisterial lesson on the relation between poetic meter and morality. The development of modern metrical theory, Nietzsche explains, is based on a fundamental error: the assumption that Greek and modern poetic meter correspond in form and function. These can instead be distinguished by the basis of the rhythmic pattern. While the Greeks used what Nietzsche calls a “quantitative” rhythmic pattern based solely on word accents and syllables, the moderns use an “emotional” rhythmic pattern that collects strong and weak beats. Thus, “the German poets who thought they were imitating classical meters, quite innocently made our kind of rhythmic sense seem to be the only one and the ‘perennial’ one – the rhythmic pattern per se – somewhat as we are likely to regard our humane and sympathetic morality as the morality and to project it into older, fundamentally different moralities”[7] One can safely assume that Nietzsche is touching briefly upon the discontinuity between Classical and Modern that Ted Sallis identifies in Spengler and Yockey; a break based on distinguishing features in mathematics and technology, and “differences in the perception of space and time, exhibited particularly in music.”[8]

It is frightening the depth of Nietzsche’s intellect and pathos of classical sensibility. One has numerous moments a day, walking in his paths, in which there is nothing to do but gaze at the sky, lost in reverence. I call these “Zarathustra moments.”

Then, because one must embrace even the tragedy and filth of life so as to avoid nihilism and decadence, one reads a letter written in despair of having lost another friend to incomprehension. One such letter Nietzsche penned to Erwin Rohde in February 1884, at the moment that Zarathustra’s third book was finished. He brags to Rohde, as he was prone to do, that Zarathustra “brought the German language to a state of perfection,” but only after a greeting that tells us how little praise Nietzsche expected in return:

How is it possible that we have so little in common and live as in different worlds. And yet once –

And that is how it is, friend, with all the people I love: everything is over, it is the past, forbearance; we still meet, we talk, so as not to be silent; we still exchange letters, so as not to be silent. But the look in the eyes tells the truth: and this look tells me (I hear it often enough!) “Friend Nietzsche, you are completely alone now!”[9]

It is incorrect to assume that moments in Nietzsche’s published works precisely reflect these feelings of despair and loneliness, for he consistently maintained that his brightest, most cheerful work was often written in his darkest, most painful periods. For example, Zarathustra’s first book, perhaps the most joyful thing Nietzsche ever wrote, was written in poor health and in the shadow of the Lou Salomé affair. This was the context for the second-most ill-used Nietzsche “quote” by vulgar ignorant moderns: mind-splitting headaches, unending nausea, and blindness, which did not stop Nietzsche from writing. That same quote was better put elsewhere. While I am once again struggling to find the source, I know the words by heart: pain can be a wonderful stimulus to life, assuming one is strong enough for it. In sweat soaked beds Nietzsche was still able to surmise beauty, nobility, and grandeur. The Anti-Christ indeed, but still crucified and betrayed by those who once loved him.

Resentment, anger at one’s position, estrangement from greatness and beauty, and vulgar instincts: these are among the characteristics of modern man to which Zarathustra said NO. Because he saw himself surrounded by these traits of modern man, especially at the most personal level, Nietzsche understood that solitude was “given, not chosen,” and that his loneliness, while giving him “indescribable sadness,” was “transfigured by [his] consciousness that there is greatness in it.”[10] One sees in his letters (and published works), a will to systematically estrange himself from the “good and just tellers of lies” who had so desperately wanted him to be just another Christian philological bookkeeper.[11] One sees the familiar disgust of bourgeois sentimentality put to use against friends who are incapable of understanding a friendship based in honoring greatness and fearlessness.

And yet, he rarely uses rancor to create the necessary distance between himself and this well-read rabble. In essence, he didn’t have to resort to vulgarity because his life and truths were entirely intolerable for all but the most premature of eyes and ears. In the end, he just left his former friends and colleagues alone, no longer desperate to be read or even knowingly critiqued. He felt it was to their benefit (and his credit) that he no longer pestered them to follow his “way out” for, as he quoted Der Bund, “Nietzsche is the first man to find a way out, but it is such a terrifying way that one is really frightened to see him walking the lonely and until now untrodden path.”[12]


[1] Sander L. Gilman, Conversations with Nietzsche: A Life in the Words of His Contemporaries [11], trans. David J. Parent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 54–55.

[2] Gilman, p. 56.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Writings from the Early Notebooks [12], ed. Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehamas. Trans. Ladislaus Löb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 95.

[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Christopher Middleton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), p. 206.

[5] Nietzsche, p. 236.

[6] Nietzsche, p. 279.

[7] Nietzsche, p. 234.

[8] Ted Sallis, “The Overman High Culture and the Future of the West,” in North American New Right, Volume 1 2012, ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2012), p. 55.

[9] Nietzsche, p. 220.

[10] Nietzsche, pp. 254–55.

[11] Nietzsche, p. 325.

[12] Nietzsche, p. 257.