Monday, May 1, 2017

Ecce Homo: Part One

Ecce Homo is Nietzsche's most enigmatic and problematic work, and the student who reads it  must do so with caution.  Much of it self-evidently belongs to the time Nietzsche no longer had control over his fantasies;  on the other hand, much is not only rational but quite consonant with the outlook already familiar from the other post-Zarathustra works.

“The extreme claims concerning his own importance in the history of European civilization – 'One day my name will be associated with the recollection of something frightful – with a crisis such as there has never been on the earth before' (EH IV 1)  and so on – may be discounted as examples of the his letters and personal writings of 1888 and earlier; where he is writing not about himself but about other people, or reiterating his philosophy, Ecce Homo shows no trace of unbalance. There is no intellectual degradation: the mind is as sharp as ever and there is, above all, no decline in the stylistic control of language; on the contrary, the book is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in German.  Many passages are a non plus ultra of richness combined with economy...To find a just comparison one must go outside literature altogether: Ecce Homo is the Jupiter Symphony of German letters.” (Hollingdale, page 216)

Ecce Homo shows how a modern man can defend himself against those disintegrating forces which threaten his personality and his life.  Nietzsche, modern to the core, counsels psychological insight, for moral and social prescription only mislead spiritually becalmed men and women further.  He urges self-determination while simultaneously underscoring the chaos of existence: the individual must create himself though he is existentially worthless.”  (Chamberlain, page 159)

“Here for the first time were publicly exposed many of Nietzsche's physiological characteristics, hitherto known only to close friends and acquaintances: his unusually low pulse rate, his poor eyesight, which improved every time his 'vitality' increased, his never having suffered a fever – he quotes a doctor who, after examining him, remarked, 'No, it's not a question of your nerves, it's only I who am nervous' – and has discovery that sickness can be an 'energetic stimulus' to life.

“What distinguishes Ecce Homo above all else is its fresh, uninhibited tones, and the careless ease with which, in describing his personal experiences and his highly idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, Nietzsche managed to give them a universal, but also, alas, easily misunderstood significance.” (Cate, page 535)

“One of the charms of Ecce Homo - for despite its strident imperfections (glaringly apparent towards the end) this is a charming book – is its rambling character. It is a peripatetic monologue in which the author takes the reader on a guided tour through his past, paying little heed to strict chronology but much to matters of geography, climate, food and drink.” (Cate, page 538)

“If all of Ecce Homo had been on this superior level, this little book of pungent reminiscences would have been a masterpiece.  But of a sick genius this is probably asking too much.  And the sad truth of the matter is that, as the book progressed, Nietzsche's worst habit – for a habit it had become – became stridently apparent.  This was his self-infatuated, subterraneanly nourished by frustration at having so long been ignored by German readers who refused to recognize his philosophical significance.  His observations about the successive books he wrote, the reasons why he wrote them, the responses they elicited (all too briefly suggest) are full of fascinating insights and valuable information; but every now and then he yielded to his inner demon and indulged in exaggerations unworthy of a thinker who detested histrionic exhibitionism and histrionic ostentation.” (Cate, page 541)

"Ecce Homo has aged in the shadows, and its sorry life consists of neglect, misunderstanding, and disparagement. As far as I can tell, the last person to comprehend and gain merriment form its farraginous form was its author, Friedrich Nietzsche. Instead of laughing at this cheerfully cynical book, a legion of grave scholars has found it oddly distressing at best and pathetic madness at worst....I contend Ecce Homo is a satire. As a trained classicist, Nietzsche was familiar with this ancient genre, and he wrote a parody of autobiography to skewer not only not only the inherent pretensions of self-reflection and unvarnished truth, but the larger historical pretensions of philosophy to procure timeless wisdom....What is the value of a life lived painfully? Could prolonged suffering be overcome and transformed, or would his authorial output always stand in spite of it? Ecce Homo became Nietzsche's last effort to transform enduring pain into something valuable, and to unify and communicate the essence of his philosophical corpus as he saw it.” (More, pp. 2-3)

Ecce Homo is Nietzsche's most unique major work.  It was written at a time when, if Nietzsche was not already going insane, his sanity was wavering.  As we shall see in a future post, he was exhibiting symptoms of megalomania when this work was written.  So a great deal of controversy surrounds the work.  Does it exhibit raving madness?  Is it cleverly insightful?  Is it brilliant poetic prose...or a megalomaniac's attempt at comedy?  There is less consensus about Ecce Homo than with any of Nietzsche's other published works. Despite some merits, Julian Young sees it as a “flawed work.”

“A weapon in his 'war against the present' which Nietzsche regarded as even more potent than The Antichrist was, in the order of composition, his last work, Ecce Homo.  Begun on his birthday, October 15th, he regarded it as, in principle, finished by November 4, though he continued to make alterations up until January 6, 1889. 

“In the Preface, Nietzsche writes that 'Since I plan shortly to have to confront humanity with the heaviest demand that has ever been made on it, it seems indispensable to say who I am'.  The reference, here, is to the immanent appearance of the master work and its urgent demand that we 'revalue all values'. Since he anticipated the masterwork being even more 'black and squid-like' than Beyond Good and Evil, he felt it imperative first to abolish the notion that its author was a sadistic misanthrope, a 'pathological' case.  The idea that he is a 'bogey man' or 'moral monster', he says in the Preface, someone who 'strives to abolish all decent feelings', is completely mistaken. By presenting a human, even intimate, portrait of himself as someone with a normal human background, who has had to struggle every step of the way with ill health, and who has himself been infected with the decadence he criticizes, he wants to show, I think, that the fundamental impulse of his work is 'not hardness but the opposite, a true humanity which strives to prevent needless disaster'.” (Young, pp. 518 – 519)

“Given that Nietzsche's collapse came right on the heels of Ecce Homo, the question inevitably arises as to whether, or to what extent, the work is infected by the approaching madness.  What sharpens the question is the fact that the work contains what look to be manifest delusions: that he was descended from Polish aristocracy, that even in childhood he never took the Christian God seriously, that the influence of Schopenhauer on The Birth of Tragedy was minimal, that he never had any enemies, that his greatness is obvious to everyone he meets, and many more.” (page 519)

“The claim to descent through his father from Polish nobility, to be sure, allows him to find nothing redeeming about the Germans, allows almost every page to drip – in the end it has to be said, tediously – with bile against these 'vulgar' 'cattle' who have perpetuated all the cultural crimes of the last four hundred years.  But given that he is supposed to be a picture of psychic health, he ought to be free of ressentiment and should not, therefore, have had any bile to spit in the first place.  Ressentiment is, it should be noted, exactly the right word here.  For, far too obviously, the bitterness that is read, as he thinks, 'by nothing but choice Vienna, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Paris, and New York, everywhere except in Europe's flatland, Germany, betrays the fact that the readers who really matter to him are none other than his fellow Germans – who, however, either ignore him or dismiss him as a madman.

“What, moreover, has to be recognized is that a great deal of the hyperbole has a megalomaniac character which is directly continuous with themes in the letters he wrote as he was unmistakably losing his mind. The claim, for instance, that 'wherever I go, here in Turin, for example, every face grows more cheerful and benevolent at the sight of me...the old market woman take great pains to select together for me their sweetest grapes' appears several times in the so-called 'crazy letters', as does the claim to be God: the idea he is related to his mother and sister is Ecce Homo claims, in a passage Elizabeth managed for many years to suppress, a 'blasphemy against my divinity'.

Ecce Homo is, then, a flawed work. Other signs of Nietzsche's failing powers are repetition, wandering organization, self-questioning at disproportionate and self-indulgent length, and, when he comes to review his earlier works, a lack of sense of their relative importance: whereas the Genealogy receives less than a page, The Wagner Case receives six. For all this, however, Nietzsche still being, for the most part, Nietzsche, it remains a book full of interesting and sublime moments.” (page 519 – 520)

“Without rejecting the importance of role models, Ecce Homo expands on the techniques of self-discovery in an interesting way:

“'That one becomes what one is presupposes that one does not have the remotest idea what one is.  From this point of view even life's mistakes have their own meaning and value, the occasional side roads and wrong turns, the delays, the...seriousness wasted on tasks that lie beyond the task.'

“To, as it were, discover who one is by discovering who one is not, one must keep the 'surface of of all the great imperatives' and 'big words', otherwise one will 'understand oneself too early'; one's self-definition will run down worn, all-too-worn, paths.  To become a 'higher' type, something new and unique, one must preserve a kind of passivity while, 'in the mean time, the organizing, governing idea' that is the 'meaning' of one's life 'keeps growing deep inside'.  Soon it 'starts commanding and slowly leads back from out of the side roads and wrong turns'. In a word, 'self-seeking' is, through a process of trial and probably lots of error, a matter of finding rather than creating oneself, rather as the sculptor 'finds' rather than creates the figure 'slumbering' in the marble.

“The idea of allowing one's 'self' and 'destiny' to emerge through one's mistakes provides the narrative structure of the work, a narrative that centers, inevitably, on Wagner. The 'most affectionate and profound' relation of his life, Nietzsche says, was with Richard Wagner.  'None of my other personal relationships amounts to much, but I would not give up my Tribschen days for anything'.  But then came the Bayreuth festival:

“'Where was I?  I did not recognize anything.  I hardly recognized Wagner.  I sifted through memories in vain. Tribschen – a distant Isle of the Blessed: not a shadow of similarity.  The incomparable days when we laid the cornerstone [of the opera house – notice Nietzsche still endorses the original enterprise a small society of people who belong there...What had happened?

“What had happened was that Wagner had been 'translated into German', had allowed himself to be captured by the Wagnerians and in the process become Reichsdeutsch, and anti-Semite German chauvinist.” (page 521)

“Wagnerian decadence, the impulse to world-denial, is, Nietzsche emphasizes, 'in' rather then 'outside' his nature. Becoming ,what one is' is more a matter of ordering the inner world than of resisting alien influences.

“Under the guiding spirit of Voltaire, Neitzsche continues, he made, in Human, All-Too-Human, the turn from Wagnerian romanticism to Enlightenment thinking....Shortly after, through the fortunate intervention of sickness and fading eyesight, he had to give up the bookwormish life of philology – another wrong turning – and began writing his own philosophy. 

“And that, essentially, is that: the end of Ecce Homo's, in fact, rather meager narrative.  Since the rest of Nietzsche's life was writing books, all that remains is to review the books.  With the turn away from Wagner, the turn away from decadent, life-denying romanticism and towards health and life-affirmation, Nietzsche had essentially become 'what he was'.  But exactly what was that?  Who did he become?” (page 522)

“To adapt and grow, we know, a people must 'give birth to a star', to a 'free spirit': in my language, a 'random mutation'. Ecce Homo identifies 'superman' as just another name for this bearer of the future: the superman 'is a superman specifically when compared to the good - he stands 'super', above, their morality. Nietzsche adds, recalling the Genealogy's point that most free spirits will be 'martyred' by the forces of social conservatism, that 'the good and just would call [Zarathustra's]...superman a devil.'

“What will a 'superman' propose in the way of cultural reform?  In a nutshell, 'the imminent return of the Greek spirit'.  Community will be once more created, gathered together, an preserved by the authentic collection of art work, 'the supreme art in the affirmation of life, tragedy, will be reborn'.  And this takes us back, yet again, to Wagner, to a Wagner purified of cheap showmanship, anti-Semitism, German chauvinism, romanticism, Christianity and life-denial: 'the idea of Bayreuth [will have] transformed itself into...that great noon...who knows? The vision of the festival that I will live to see someday'.

“If, however, we are to abandon the Christian worldview what are we to do about that most problematic of all life's features, its finitude, to which, it has to be admitted, Christianity provided a solution?  The answer, again, is 'Dionysus': entering into the 'psychology of the tragic poet' in which 'over and above all fear and pity one is oneself the eternal joy of becoming', 'the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustibility through the sacrifice of its highest types'. To become fully healthy, to enter the Dionysian state, is to be able to rejoice, inter alia, over the eventual 'sacrifice' of one's own, everyday self. Through transcending the illusion of individuality, through realizing one's identity with the totality of existence, one not merely overcomes death but achieves a positive 'affirmation of [in particular, one's own] passing away'.” (pp. 522-523)

Walter Kaufmann called Ecce Homo “one of the treasures of world literature.”  But, he also qualified his praise.  “Of Nietzsche's last works, none has proven harder to understand than Ecce Homo.  The self-portrait is not naturalistic; hence, it is widely felt, it is clearly insane and to be disregarded.  This prevalent view is doubly false.  The lack of naturalism is not proof of insanity but a triumph of style – of a piece with the best paintings of that time.  And even if what might be interpreted as signs of madness do occasionally flicker in a passage, that does not mean that the portrait can therefore be ignored.  In both respects Nietzsche should be compared with Van Gogh.

Ecce Homo does not fit any ordinary conception of philosophers.  It is not only remote from the world of professional or donnish philosophy, from tomes and articles, footnotes and jargon – in brief, from the modern image.  It is equally far from the popular notion of the wise man: serene, past passion, temperate, and Apollinian.  But this is plainly part of Nietzsche's point: to offer a new image – a philosopher who is not an Alexandrian academician, nor an Apollinian sage, but Dionysian.” (from Kaufmann's introduction)

With Ecce Homo Nietzsche achieves his final victory of stylistic prose.  His ramblings and advocacy are more effective than reasoned substance.  In some respects, it is as if he were writing for himself alone.  The author and the audience have melded into a passionate farewell to his “great task”, farewell to critique and psychological insights, farewell to higher culture, farewell to making himself clear. Instead, we say hello to the philosophy made manifest, the Logos made spirit, the ridiculous made sublime.  The Birth of Tragedy reasserted the importance of Dionysus.  In this final work, Nietzsche becomes Dionysus and serves as an example for the rest of us to love all fate, become a free spirit, and relax into the weight of eternal return. 

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