Thursday, December 31, 2009

"The Little, Humble Truths"

After Sorrento, Nietzsche slowly made his way, traveling largely third-class, back to the Alps. “’It is my kind of nature.’ His impending return to Basel and to teaching evoked ambivalent responses in him. On the other hand, the very thought of returning to Basel was repulsive to him; he wanted now to dedicate himself to his philosophy and his writing. On the other hand, he realized that it was his philosophy that was killing him, and so his teaching obligations appeared to be his salvation. ‘My altogether problematic broodings and scribblings have until now only made me ill; as long as I was an actual scholar, I was also healthy. But then came the nerve-racking music and metaphysical philosophy, cares concerning myriad things that don’t mean anything to me. So, I want to become a teacher again: if I cannot survive it, then I want to perish practicing my craft.’

“Yet something had changed once and for all. Philology now seemed to be a layer of moss smothering plants he genuinely wanted to thrive – his burgeoning thoughts – even if the cost of removing the moss and cultivating those thoughts, as his doctors warned him, would be chronic migraine and eventual blindness.” (The Good European, pp. 101-102)

“On the 1st September he set up house again in Basel with Elizabeth, Gast making a third as “secretary and friend’, and tried to resume his academic career; but by the end of the year he was forced to relinquish his duties as teacher at the High School and concentrate entirely on his lectures.” (Hollingdale, page 110) Even these lectures were curtailed thanks to the efforts of Burckhardt and Overbeck, both alarmed at the state of his health, managing the politics of Nietzsche’s workload with the University’s administration.

In October, Fritz saw two specialists in Frankfurt regarding his headaches and eyes. “Particularly dire was the stern prescription, underlined to stress it capital importance: an absolute avoidance of reading and writing for years to come. Blue-lensed spectacles were recommended…and, in general, the patient should avoid ‘every form of extreme physical and intellectual exertion’.” (Cate, page 246) It was nothing less than the death sentence to his being. Nietzsche wanted desperately to write, no matter how much he attempted to throw himself back into professional scholarship. He was forced to rely on his sister for readings and Peter Gast for dictating almost every word he wanted written.

Despite all this, “By December 3, 1877, the title and contents of Human, All Too Human were ready for the printer. It was the book in which his metaphysical questions would be subordinated to psychological ones; or, better, the book in which Nietzsche’s penchant for investigating the family tree of metaphysics and morals would finally blossom.” (The Good European, page 102)

“The Christmas season, with all it conjured up in memories of happier, bygone times along with the approaching death of another year, had long been a painful time for Nietzsche. That of 1877 was no exception. He was nagged by the guilty realization that he had funked the marriage issue – as ‘Aunt Malwida’ had gently scolded him in a letter written in August.” (Cate, page 248)

“Although Nietzsche was convinced that deep thinking is necessarily slow, solitary thinking, it is no exaggeration to say that Human, All Too Human was a book ‘written against the clock’ by a man in his early thirties who was never able to forget that his father had died of ‘softening of the brain’ at the age of thirty-six. It was also the product of a man whose imaginative faculties, abetted by an extraordinary retentive memory, never stopped churning out new ideas. In Sorrento it had become a source of amusement for Malwida von Meysenbug, Paul Ree, and Albert Brenner: in the garden near their villa there was a certain tree under whose lofty foliage Fritz liked to tarry; it soon came to be known as the Gedankenbaum (thought-tree) because every time he stood under it for a minute or two Nietzsche was visited by a new, illuminating inspiration.” (Cate, page 253)

Human, All Too Human (HH) was something most of Nietzsche’s few admirers did not expect. It was written in 638 aphorisms which did not necessarily flow linearly. The work ended with "an epilogue" poem entitled Among Friends. The construction of his arguments was highly fragmented and tinged throughout with poetic phrasing. Many thought he had been overly influenced by Paul Ree due to the work’s rational starkness. Some of his closest friends thought the work failed to contain any “free thinking” at all (the subtitle for HH was A Book for Free Spirits). For others, the work was too radical in its apparent conclusions (its criticism of Christianity and its sexism toward women, for example). Still others found the aphoristic style confusing, the lines of reasoning shallow and disjointed.

Nevertheless, this work served as the foundation for a new system of thought very different from Fritz’s days of “channeling” Schopenhauer or his Wagnerian advocacy. It pushed the limits of acceptability by calling the dialectic basis of western culture into question. “The world, clearly, was neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, and it was high time to stop using such shallow, shopworn terms which, even when applied to human affairs, were often quite unjustified.

“No illusion could be greater, Nietzsche went on (section 29), than to believe that the more Man elevates himself above the rest of the animal world, to the point of considering himself a genius of the species, the closer he comes to grasping the real ‘essence’ of things. Essentially deceptive the phenomenal world may be – this had been one of Heraclitus’ profoundest observations – but it is one that is full of meaning, of which art and religious are precious blooms, a world that is ‘deep, wonderful, carrying happiness and unhappiness in its bosom.’” (Cate, page 256)

Immediately following the initial publication, Fritz’s health seemed to improve. “In the middle of June 1878 Elizabeth returned to Naumberg, and Nietzsche rented a house on the edge of town so he would be compelled to walk to work and so, he thought, get some strengthening exercise. During the winter semester 1878-79 he seemed to have recovered somewhat, but at Easter he felt the need of a ‘cure’ at Geneva.”(Hollingdale, page 110)

Nietzsche continued a rather mundane professorship at Basel, punctuated by attacks of illness, as the initial bewilderment toward HH was established. Very few of his friends accepted it with enthusiasm. Nietzsche felt the work was incomplete and expanded it in 1880 with 408 aphorisms entitled Assorted Opinions and Maxims and 350 more aphorisms collected as The Wanderer and His Shadow, printed as volume two but constituting, in fact, a published whole completing HTH (the last aphorism in first volume is subtitled The Wanderer).

He often worked only for fifteen minutes at a time to avoid straining his pitiful eyesight. Peter Gast, who wrote down much of the first volume from Fritz’s dictation, was not able to assist Fritz with the supplemental material for HH, though he did manage to edit the final manuscript. Nietzsche was very anxious awaiting Gast’s proof of the text, the anxiety affecting his delicate and worsening health. “From early February of 1879 on, his violent headaches were accompanied by a cramp which forced him to keep his right eye closed for hours at a time. The steady deterioration of his health made it more and more difficult for him to complete his weekly quota of five lectures and one seminar hour.” (Cate, page 274)

“Now he began to pay the price for nearly a decade’s neglect of his health. (I)nstead of resting he worked; instead of behaving cautiously in every period of improvement he acted each time as if he were finally cured; instead of allowing the recuperative powers of his body time to act to swallowed medicines. He enjoyed walking and swimming and therefore allowed himself to believe that walking and swimming were good for him. In short, he did everything calculated to aggravate the disease, and in April 1879 it got the better of him: for several weeks he was in a constant state of collapse, racked by attack after attack of the most agonizing headaches, his eyes almost useless from pain and his stomach in continual revolt. In a panic, Overbeck wired to Elizabeth that her brother was in urgent need of assistance, and when she arrived she found him half-dead with pain and exhaustion. On the 2nd May he asked to be relieved of his duties at the university for good: he was finished teaching. On the 14th June he was retired on a pension and left Basel with Elizabeth.” (Hollingdale, page 110)

The most amazing fact about this tragic period of illness in Nietzsche’s life, and perhaps in part contributing to it, is that he completed a major work of philosophy which broke with his approach in The Birth of Tragedy. A work that had both passionate supporters and critics but mostly left its readership (of which there were only a few hundred) truly nonplused. A work addressing the needs to reorder our perspective in order to bring about “higher culture” in spite of traditional human limitations of being able to fathom “the truth”. He did not yet understand completely what this “higher culture” was but he felt it was killing him to try to discover it. Yet, with a romantic sense of heroism, Fritz chose to pursue what seemed to him to be “the truth”. He freely risked further illness and, perhaps as he feared, even death in order to truly understand the universe existentially without traditional crutches of art, religion, science and even metaphysics itself. With only hard facts acquired by purging our most fundamental hopes and fears.

What is the basis for humanity morally? We are far more psychological than rational creatures, so why favor the enlightenment’s elevation of the significance of the rational mind to a position of respected “height”? What does that say about the Late-Romantic interpretation of reality? How did Christianity come to corrupt the pristine expression of Greek knowledge and understanding in the western world? Nietzsche took these points of departure as certainties that need not even be debated.

Nietzsche managed to complete the work only through the constant help of Gast, Overbeck, Burckhardt, and his sister, Elizabeth. Without them HH might never have been finished. This is the birth of a new direction in Nietzsche’s thought, one he would not abandon until his insanity took him ten years later. The book begins with the premise that the entire foundation for western culture is based upon “errors”.

“It is the sign of a higher culture to esteem more highly the little, humble truths, those discovered by a strict method, rather than the gladdening and dazzling errors that originate in metaphysical and artistic ages and men. At first, one has scorn on his lips for humble truths, as if they could offer no match for the others: they stand so modest, simple, sober, even apparently discouraging, while the other truths are so beautiful, splendid, enchanting, or even enrapturing. But truths that are hard won, certain, enduring, and therefore still of consequence for all further knowledge are the higher; to keep to them is manly, and shows bravery, simplicity, restraint. Eventually, not only the individual, but all mankind will be elevated to this manliness, when men finally grow accustomed to the greater esteem for durable, lasting knowledge and have lost all belief in inspiration and a seemingly miraculous communication of truths.” (HH, section 3)